Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Closer To Some Greater Design

Some things in life just become more beautiful the longer you gaze at them. Recently I spent about a week in Santa Fe, getting away from it all and trying just to breathe easy for a few days. The place where I was staying has a view of the flatness out onto the horizon where you can see a few of the other properties nearby yet at the same time it feels strangely isolated, as if there isn’t anyone else around for miles. And I found myself staring repeatedly at that view, particularly as the sun would recede further into the horizon painting everything with a golden hue that made it feel like I was being washed with a purity I could only partly understand. I suppose Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has that effect on me. A movie that reaches down into my soul with this feeling of absolute beauty and determination of remaining an individual in what the world is becoming mixed with sheer hopelessness, a feeling of giving up since everything is pre-destined into a bad end anyway is something I can’t shake. It’s not my favorite western and truthfully if I made up a list I don’t even know how high it would rank. Would it even make my top five? My top ten? And yet there may not be another film in this genre that I feel so protective of, a piece of pure visual poetry that I respond to in a way that is difficult for me to fully express. As some already know, PAT GARRETT is a difficult movie to consider partly because there has never really been a definitive version of it. The 106 minute theatrical cut released in 1973 was severely damaged by MGM during struggles Peckinpah had with studio chief James Aubrey (who committed similar acts of creative atrocity on other films including Blake Edwards’ THE CAREY TREATMENT), battles that there was no way the director could win. Although the framing device was lost this version isn’t exactly a ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA-level desecration—Peckinpah’s editors were successful in making sure that at least a few grace notes were allowed to linger but no one would call it representative of what the director was trying to achieve. The 122 minute “director’s cut” screened for years has likewise been considered never completely finished and is also missing some crucial footage while a 115 minute special edition prepared by Peckinpah scholars several years ago was an attempt to rectify some of these issues (both of these last two versions were released on DVD packaged together). Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, who am I to say, but since Peckinpah left us back in 1984 at age 59 a definitive PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID will never be seen, at least not in this world. Not only because the director isn’t around to do it but also because of whatever was going on with the various figures involved during filming, editing and within the director’s head as well. So PAT GARRETT will, in a sense, always be unfinished. Considering what the movie is, maybe that makes sense. Nothing about it is supposed to be satisfying anyway. It’s about the emptiness in life that comes from that feeling. It haunts me. New Mexico, 1881: Pat Garrett (James Coburn) seeks out his friend William Bonney (Kris Kristofferson), more famously known as Billy the Kid, to tell him that he’s been made Sherriff and when he takes over the job he’s going to be forced to make Billy leave. Billy doesn’t really respond to this one way or the other leading to his capture by Pat several days later. Billy is sentenced to be hung for a past crime but circumstances allow him to escape, killing his captors in the process and soon Garrett is sent off by New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) to either capture Billy or kill him. Garrett, knowing he has to, hating that he does, sets off after Billy who doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to get away from him. Within all their thematic complexities certain Peckinpah films could almost be boiled down to one word or thought. Each of these films have probably been called the director’s most personal film at one time or another and in a sense they all are. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is majesty. THE WILD BUNCH is triumph. JUNIOR BONNER is affection. THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is sweetness. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, as I’ve observed before, is desolation, a ferocious scream by a drunk as he gets right in your face wondering what the fuck you’re looking at. Another film where by all accounts Peckinpah was drinking heavily during its production, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is despair, that same drunk just sitting down in a chair in the corner with no hope, just giving up, no desire to ever try anything else beyond shooting at your own reflection in the mirror. It’s an ugly film in all its sorrow—there’s no glory to any of the shootouts whatsoever starting with the opening sequence of Billy and others shooting the heads off chickens that have been buried in the sand. Everyone in the movie is trapped in a similar way as if they don’t know how to get out of it—the most pathetic killings Billy carries off playing as dirty as he does are only exacerbated by how the ones who are gunned down try to cheat their way out of the inevitable. Billy himself just seems to linger around the landscape after he’s escaped, figuring he’ll go to Mexico but never seeming all that defiant about it, still looking forward to someday giving California a try. Having made the decision that he no longer wants to spend time figuring what comes next Pat Garrett knows he’s trapped in the course he’s set for himself in life but no matter what he can’t escape the self-loathing that builds within him from selling out to the Governor and the Santa Fe Ring by becoming Sheriff, instead just choosing to reach for the nearest bottle and…just…sit there. It’s a world populated by men who have settled in to their meager lives aware of what little men they are, as if content to simply blend into the land around them or just shrink down into their bottles of booze. Pat Garrett is trying to change his course, make it a life where he doesn’t need to wonder what comes next and all it ever does is eat him up from the inside. Many familiar faces turn up throughout the film from the likes of L.Q. Jones, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Elam’s unforgettable moment when he says, “At least I’ll be remembered,” Chill Wills giving the most unforgettable description of a prostitute you’ve ever heard and even Charles Martin Smith right around the time of AMERICAN GRAFFITI (plus Elisha Cook Jr. and Dub Taylor, though not in some versions) but this cavalcade of personalities never feel like it’s being done in order to tweak or subvert their screen presence, instead in all their grime to provide them with more humanity than they ever have before in the dialogue all through the screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (the man who wrote TWO-LANE BLACKTOP which by total coincidence I also watched out there in Santa Fe. Something must have put me in the mood), carves into the very soul of these people through what they say and sometimes just in how they say nothing but a quiet acknowledgement before letting the other one pass. Peckinpah clearly loves every single one of these faces he’s putting in his movie, no matter how small the parts are. And what feels like elements of some of his earlier films are placed into this context whether the children playing on the rope set to hang Billy right out of the kids in THE WILD BUNCH (here with the addition of the American flag flapping in the breeze nearby), or R.G. Armstrong’s strict Christian father of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY reborn here as one of Billy’s tormentors as he’s waiting for the hangman’s noose with those sixteen thin dimes in his shotgun shouting fire and brimstone long after everyone just wants him to shut up, taken to its furthest extreme. Focusing on these moments and others--the framing of Armstrong seated with his shotgun, the glances among the Santa Fe Trail as Garrett sits down with them on that rainy New Mexico night, or just Coburn sitting on that bench outside the house where this all comes to an end--are much of what the film is, providing a cumulative effect of reality into myth, myth back into what needs to have happened for the world to continue. I wouldn’t blame someone for expecting a WILD BUNCH mid-movie heist here pulled off by Billy and his pals while they’re on the run from Garrett—each time I watch it I think I’m a little surprised when it moves into the final section that there hasn’t been more in the way of ‘plot’. “Let’s go!” is the recurring order barked out by William Holden to his crew in THE WILD BUNCH but there is no “Let’s go!” in PAT GARRETT, a movie that instead gives us one lead who instead of running just kind of lingers in the wild chasing after turkeys with his gang (Billy, they don’t like you to be so free…) while the one chasing him just broods, wandering about and sitting down with a bottle trying to put off the inevitable. When Billy hears that Pat is finally coming he doesn’t do much more than say, “Yeah, I reckon.” Within its own drunken haze the film itself almost feels like it possesses as much self-hatred as Garrett does, as if brooding about all its own failures until someone dares to suggest as much. Billy wanders about, speaking of going down to Mexico but when he changes his mind it never feels like his heart was all that in it anyway, building to a climax where we know the inevitable event that is coming and the way Peckinpah stages every single moment in the final section it’s as if the entire world is about to come to an end, that after this night the calendar will reset itself to A.B. (After Bill) with nothing ever able to rectify this act as Bob Dylan’s Alias lingers on the outskirts as a spectral vision, one who a hundred years later is going to write songs about all this based on what he observed. The trims done for the special edition seem well-considered and reasonably explained on the disc’s audio commentaries but I find myself missing some of what’s been removed anyway. Supposedly this version was seen as a way to tighten up sections that were supposedly allowed to linger too long yet while watching the director’s cut alone late at night in Santa Fe (I was sober at the time—should that be allowed with PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID?) I found myself thinking that if any film should be allowed to slowly drift through certain scenes a little longer than necessary maybe this would be the one because that feeling seems almost essential to allow the movie to seep into the viewer, absorbing the feeling of drunken emptiness in this landscape as stark and as desolate as anything. When compared with the two longer cuts the shorter theatrical version, at least for me, doesn’t seem like a desecration so much as an unfortunate abbreviation--the broad strokes are there but a certain richness to the arc is missing and it just feels incomplete. Still, I wish that it had been included on the DVD since it is, after all, the theatrical version of the film and therefore part of its history. But I’ll watch any version of this film anyway since PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is defiant, as defiant as Billy standing there arms held up in a cross-like way as the Bob Dylan score plays. With such vivid characterizations by actors who sometimes only appear briefly it feels like we’re only witnessing one part of a greater story of the old west or maybe Peckinpah has etched them so vividly even the smallest roles seem like they deserve their own film. While the episodic nature of the film doesn’t always feel ideal in terms of the pacing it still feels completely appropriate for what it needs to be. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado have barely been introduced before we see them bid farewell to each other in one of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema history with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” on the soundtrack (the director’s cut omits the lyrics here, which makes it feel like a rough draft of the sequence, lacking the soul it ultimately achieves) and moments like this allow the film to achieve an undeniable power few others come anywhere near even before it reaches the climactic meeting. I’ve never seen Tarantino mention PAT GARRETT in interviews but it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t an influence—not just in its episodic fashion and brief, meaty roles for recognizable faces but also in its themes of loyalty and friendship between men. It’s hard to imagine him ever using “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” for his own purposes considering its perfection here but since LETHAL WEAPON 2 already pilfered it long ago maybe that’s never been an issue. Even the most complete cut isn’t without a certain abruptness within a few sequences particularly when Billy discovers Emilio Fernandez’s Paco and his wife being brutalized by some of John Chisum’s men, a scene which plays like the director was barely present on the day it was filmed. And the late stretch of Pat Garrett cavorting with prostitutes feels either handled incorrectly or maybe out of another film altogether, wrong for the elegiac tone where the women, notably Garrett’s own wife (itself a scene restored to the film in the most recent version) are left by the wayside, essentially ignored. And yet as the movie makes its spiral downward I feel like I almost understand the way the scene dives headfirst into its debauchery, into trying to do whatever he can to delay what he’s allowing the world to force him to do. It just feels slightly off. The way the film is flawed feels almost as much a part of its being as sorting through the different cuts (I’d go with the 1988 cut while adding the “Knockin’” lyrics, the scene with Garrett’s wife, the theatrical version of the opening credits and maybe a few other changes. But it’s not up to me). It almost seems coded to allow you to read any number of things into it in terms of how it relates to westerns, to your own life, to Sam Peckinpah’s own life, to whatever alcoholic haze he was swirling through at the time. The director himself makes an onscreen appearance as a coffin maker—building a child’s coffin, no less, imagery that also appeared in ALFREDO GARCIA—who, after turning down Garrett’s offer of his flask, seems to be totally aware of everything that’s going on. Of course he does. There are a few different endings—the theatrical lamely has a freeze frame of Pat and Billy smiling in happier times. One takes us back to the framing device in a way that as it plays out feels a little arbitrary. The final one simply has Pat ride off, a young boy throwing stones at him. Pat doesn’t do anything about it. He just moves on. He knows there’s nothing left. The young don’t want the victors to come back like Shane. They want them to go away, hating that they’ve robbed the world of innocence for their own reward. Same as it ever was, I suppose. And it is a problematic film—I know ‘flawed masterpiece’ is a term that’s been bandied about. But sometimes those flawed films are the ones that seem the most alive, the most beautiful and the more I watch a film like this the more I want to dig into what it is. PAT GARRETT almost feels like it doesn’t even have an ending. Maybe none of our lives have any sort of ending until all we have left is looking back and wondering just where we first went wrong. The friendship of Pat and Billy has to be taken as a given but it’s hard not to imagine Coburn and Kristofferson playing these parts in more of a romp during their glory days as outlaws together and it almost feels like more of the sadness that we don’t get to see that part of the story. Coburn is extraordinary, steely resolve forever there in those eyes with not a trace of the toothy Derk Flint grin Derek that I love so much, carrying all that self-loathing with him through every gesture as it weighs on him more and more. Kristofferson is a little more of a symbol as things ultimately play out but even if this has nothing at all to do with the real Billy the Kid his charisma is absolutely there. There’s never any doubt as he plays it that no one, except for Garrett of course, ever has a chance against William Bonney. Jason Robards etches out a fully-fleshed out portrayal of Governor Wallace in just one scene, a handful of lines, really, and along with the actors I’ve already mentioned are brief, vivid portrayals by Matt Clark, Richard Jaeckel, John Beck, Richard Bright, Rita Coolidge, Gene Evans of Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW and Barry Sullivan as John Chisum. As the enigmatically named Alias (“Alias anything you please,” he answers when someone asks, “Alias what?”) Bob Dylan is more of a spectre than anything and however much he’s around I never remember much that he does beyond an offhand thumbs up he gives Billy and that endless scene of reading off all those labels. Of course, he’s in almost the entire film anyway through his score which helps elevate this myth even more, along with elevating the sadness of it all. I listen to the album often and, like the film itself, it stays with me deep down into the pit of my soul. Just a few days after I returned from New Mexico I discovered that a charming little row of cabana-like apartments in my neighborhood was torn down. I actually know one of the people who lived there but the reason it’s on my mind is because the place is actually on the route of the regular walk I’ll often take several times a day—hey, it’s something to do when I’m avoiding writing. It was part of a nice little end of a quiet street. Now it’s all ripped up with bulldozers preparing to build some kind of big apartment building on the property and it’s about as ugly a sight as I can imagine. So people have been kicked out of their homes and my walk has been screwed with. But the ones in charge will do what they do. Charming buildings get torn down and replaced by something sprawling, 35mm gets tossed away for digital, good things get trashed all in the name of money and power. In its portrayal of hunting down someone free at any cost PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID as directed by Peckinpah is not so much an epitaph for the western but an epitaph for what America meant to its director at the time when the dreams of the sixties were turning to dust—Coburn’s own lead performance in THE CAREY TREATMENT, another troubled MGM production around this time, might go with this film in that sense and toss in Kris Kristofferson’s earlier lead performance in CISCO PIKE as well (it also makes me want to revisit YOUNG GUNS II, which I guess tells this story again and even features James Coburn as John Chisum). And the epitaph that is PAT GARRETT still means something even now—several days later I ran into that woman who, talking about it, speculated on how all those charming cabana-like apartments will soon be razed in favor of giant ugly apartment buildings, with those up in the hills looking down on all the people living in those crowded apartments below. I worry that she isn’t wrong. It’s just one of many things I’ll think about on those days when I feel like listening to nothing but the Bob Dylan soundtrack, particularly the fateful sorrow heard on ‘Final Theme’ as the album calls it, over and over. I know others who feel this way, others who have responded to this film’s sorrow and messiness, letting it get down into their system. In his excellent memoir “Lucking Out” James Wolcott recalls almost getting fired from his job at the Village Voice when he called in sick to see the film on opening day. It’s hard not to respect that. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID may be a howl of sorrow but within that is a true beauty of every gesture, of the fear of what’s coming next and the question of how you can live with yourself in the world when it happens, a world where when you’re trying to grab onto a winning hand what you want and what you get may always be two different things.

2 comments:

Esoth said...

Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" is endlessly interesting, for its flaws as much for its stunning visual poetry. In some respects, it is a counterpoint to Peckinpah's earlier and equally flawed "Major Dundee" which also has a lot going for it, but never quite achieved coherence or dramatic sweep. The two films were made less than a decade apart, which is startling to note when you consider how far Peckinpah had come in that relatively short space of time, how far beyond conventional narrative and mores he had drifted.

In "Dundee" SP was trying for the first time to master the wider scale of epic cinema. He had already successfully made the transition from small screen to big screen theatrical releases in his masterful if smaller-scaled "Ride the High Country". But in "Dundee" there is this sense of SP broadening the scope of his ambition out to panoramic scale, and not quite pulling it off. He was trying to say something different, in "Dundee", within the frame of the sweeping western epic. By "Garrett" he had possessed and embodied the form entirely and was on some kind of odd, spiritual walkabout within it. He had already reinvented and very nearly perfected the post-modern western with "The Wild Bunch", which remains a surprisingly moving and unassailable statement of his principles. But If SP's late career was marred generally by excesses, rancor and decline, it also revealed the director as a major artist rather than merely a brilliant and bloody-minded craftsman.

Coburn appeared in "Dundee" as well, hampered by an awkward prop and uncertain accent. His performance in "Garrett" ranks, for me, with the greatest in all of cinema and it almost hurts to contrast his Garrett against Heston's Dundee. Coburn's vocal performance and his measured physical movement in "Garrett" were sublime to the extent that his character commands that stage peopled by so many of the great western players. Garrett's gaze is mostly locked in some far off distance, as if the present and proximate were too depleted to endure. There is this sense of people and events moving before Garrett for a long time before he can shake himself and drag himself up to engage. Everything is muted and played out and moves in a surreal stillness.

And has there ever been a lead whose appearance is so consistently greeted with derision and bile? With the exception of Billy and the Governor, everyone who meets Garrett reacts to him with contempt so deep that it overcomes their fear of him, as they each, in turn, offer him some variant Lemuel's "I wouldn't give a sweet jerk in hell if the Kid did lay you out." Garrett mostly tolerates this as part of the sad bargain he's made to keep on in this world. In the end, even pride and glory pales and fades in contest with the imperative to just hang on and muddle through.

There are fleeting moments in the film of unexplainable beauty and life, often in incongruous settings. When Garrett and his men roust Billy and his 2 companions one early morning, after the 2 are shot through and Billy is offering himself for the cross, Garrett sidles down and sideways from the top of the hill, grinning and smoking and the soundtrack swells and the hairs on the back of your neck rise. There's another moment, just before the end, when Garrett is crossing the darkened yard to finally settle with Billy that is chilling in some indefinable way. Artistry beyond the conscious.

Fiddlin' Bill said...

I'd love to know why Bob Dylan is in this movie, other than because he wrote "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." When I first saw the film I thought there must be some undercurrent, subliminal story going on, since there were actually two great singer-songwriters in the movie--was this really about them somehow? Probably not, particularly once I knew more about Kristofferson's career arc--but again--what's the deal with Dylan?