Eyes opening up

Flip Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" into the VCR after dozing through Stanley Kubrick's valedictory and it registers like the shock pads on failed hearts in medical shows -- suddenly, you can feel again.

Published July 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The reputations of Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah got yoked together in 1972, when "A Clockwork Orange" and "Straw Dogs" opened in quick succession and provoked furious debates over movie violence. I didn't feel the need to downgrade Kubrick in order to elevate my personal favorite, Peckinpah. From the mid-'50s to the late '60s -- let's say from "The Killing" to "2001" -- Kubrick had an unprecedented run of dazzling accomplishments. No matter how anemic or nutty his movies became, or how embarrassing he could be when he outsmarted himself, Kubrick came to symbolize artistic independence. As much as any of his films, it was his stubborn integrity that movie people celebrated when he died in March at age 70. Peckinpah, a volatile talent and personality, never learned Kubrick's skill at marshaling his clout and doing the films he dreamed of. He struggled to make commercial assignments his own and took to calling himself a whore. When he died at age 59 in 1984, the film establishment didn't mourn.

But to me, Peckinpah is the most viscerally eloquent director who ever lived. No mere "Bloody Sam," he was the master of capturing character and emotion in action -- multifaceted character, booby-trapped emotion. That's why James Dickey wanted him for "Deliverance," and Joan Didion wanted him for "Play It as It Lays." His instinctual brilliance gave his great films an unfathomable power. You can watch his 1969 masterpiece, "The Wild Bunch," repeatedly without getting to the bottom of it. When you do, you not only know Peckinpah better, but also yourself.

At the time of "A Clockwork Orange" and "Straw Dogs," Kubrick was seen as an artist-intellectual, conducting a moral inquiry into human nature. Peckinpah was pictured as his antithesis, a gifted Neanderthal whose machismo led him to create heroes who proved themselves through rites of violence. One British critic praised Kubrick at Peckinpah's expense precisely because Kubrick treated his characters as "lab animals," maintaining the distance necessary for an artistic rendering of violence.

Actually, in "A Clockwork Orange," Kubrick's plan to be formally innovative and also to deliver a statement drained away all the juice and humanity from the story; the result was at best a pretentious pop art fresco, at worst "Free Will for Dummies." On the other hand, in "Straw Dogs," Peckinpah became so immersed in mood, atmosphere and feeling that the film went beyond being a fable about violence. It's more about sex and marriage than it is about gore or masculine prowess.

In fact, what drew me to it recently wasn't thinking of "A Clockwork Orange" but of "Eyes Wide Shut." "Straw Dogs" is also about a superficially happy couple at the brink of marital catastrophe. In "Straw Dogs," too, the wife (Susan George) is an erotic magnet, the husband (Dustin Hoffman) a complaisant bozo with a professional detachment toward life (he's an "astromathematician," not a doctor). In Peckinpah's taut, miniaturized epic, as in Kubrick's attenuated, sprawling one, a civilized man picks his way through a psychological battlefield -- the barbaric underside of picturesque Cornwall, England, not the heights of Manhattan decadence -- before he can gain an understanding of himself. The pivotal scene in "Straw Dogs" is not an orgy, like in "Eyes Wide Shut," but a terrifying orgiastic rape. And it, too, caused a rating controversy -- catalyzing a trim (for an R rating) that severely compromised the scene's meaning and impact.

No critics' groups raised a stink over the cutting of Peckinpah's film the way they have over Warner Brothers' use of digitalized figures to block the rutting couples in "Eyes Wide Shut." For even then, at the height of his celebrity, Peckinpah was too disreputable, his extremes seen as excesses or indulgences. But flip "Straw Dogs" into the VCR after dozing through Kubrick's valedictory and it registers like the shock pads on failed hearts in medical shows -- suddenly, you can feel again. What William S. Pechter wrote of "Straw Dogs" in 1972, vis ` vis "A Clockwork Orange" also applies to it vis ` vis "Eyes Wide Shut": "Peckinpah's film is no less stylized than Kubrick's -- it's just that the style of 'Straw Dogs' isn't effete and preening. Kubrick coldly lectures us that we're living in a hell of our own making. Peckinpah writhes in the flames with us, burning."

By the time "Straw Dogs" opened, Peckinpah's most characteristic movies -- not just "The Wild Bunch," but also "Ride the High Country" (1962) and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970) -- had instilled a reverence in me that has not been shaken. But I idealized Peckinpah more and appreciated him less than I do now. I recognized that "Straw Dogs" marked new growth for the director. I saw that the movies it deserved to be compared to were Ingmar Bergman's "Shame" and "The Passion of Anna": similarly harrowing tales of unformed intellectuals set down in primitive surroundings. But I undervalued "Straw Dogs" because I disdained its combination of vitality and despair; I was looking for the mad romantic transcendence of the self-immolating warriors in "The Wild Bunch." I wasn't prepared for a film about the limits (and perhaps the impossibility) of love.

"Straw Dogs" takes place when David Sumner (Hoffman), an American academic with grant money, and his stunning wife, Amy (George), are moving into her late father's place outside a rural town in Cornwall. Sumner has been paying a couple of local slackers to roof a garage and rid it of rats; he ends up hiring Amy's ex-boyfriend and his cousin as well, in hopes they'll finish the job.

Right from the start, this movie is about primal matters: Everything gets eroticized from the moment George's Amy leggily strides into view in a miniskirt, her braless chest bobbing in the breeze. She perfectly embodies the kind of woman who knows that her beauty is her power, especially in a hamlet where most of the girls seem to have married out, and the only local fixtures, apart from the farm workers and craftsmen, are the minister, the sheriff and the bartender.

The 20-year-old George isn't just a phenomenal object of lust here -- she's also a superb actress. She and Hoffman are marvelous and excruciating together -- opposites who attract and repulse. He has a hooded glance that contrasts with her wide-eyed exuberance, and he's as measured and manipulative as she is cocky and spontaneous. He doesn't seem to grasp what a mismatch they are, and how vulnerable it makes the both of them, individually and as a couple. Amy insists that all the workmen, and especially the former boyfriend, covet her. David's response is to act high-handed, like a cerebral version of the "man of the house," snubbing inquiries about his profession as if no one could possibly comprehend science and tossing money around as if it will buy him safety. Of course, he antagonizes everyone (including, deliberately, the genteel folk) and makes himself small in Amy's eyes.

David and Amy connect only fleetingly, in playful sex and games -- which, true to the film's gnarly complications, look like heaven to a nubile neighbor girl who spies on them. Everything in this movie is dramatized, beautifully, yet nothing is explained; David's jibes at Amy's immaturity, her taunts at his cowardice, can't be taken at face value, but as symptoms of each other's insecurities. Their needling grows dangerous when Amy parades topless in front of the workers, who siphon off their raging jealousy and malice for David by trying to guide him into a car wreck. The Sumners' pastorale closes with a squelch when someone hangs Amy's cat in their closet, which Amy sees as a test for David from her former boyfriend and his pals: "They want to show you they can get into your bedroom." Amy doesn't know for sure who killed the cat -- and the movie is full of people who are innocent of what they're accused of, guilty of worse things, or guilty with extenuating circumstances. But Amy knows how scary her ex-beau and his mates can be, while David persists in trying to understand them as a man among men. He accepts an invitation to go bird hunting with them -- not realizing it's a way to strand him in the countryside and leave Amy alone in the house.

Rather than proof of Peckinpah's machismo, the double rape that ensues is a stunning demonstration of his empathy. In the uncut film (available since 1998 on a wide-screen video from Anchor Bay) it's a horrific assault and an emotional crucible. The first rapist, her ex-boyfriend, rouses feelings and needs she can't control; it's neither a blow against feminism nor a denial of rape as violence that she eventually succumbs to him. The swift, surgical flashbacks to David making love to her evokes her sad confusion; the comic-pathetic cutaways to David shooting a bird out on the moor evokes his.

As if to ensure that the sequence can't be misread as an apologia for rape, Peckinpah introduces a second rapist and puts across Amy's agony as he sodomizes her -- an act blunted when censors snipped the scene after the second man appears. The element of torture was lost in the reediting. But no film has ever conveyed the scarring of rape as unsettlingly as Peckinpah does when David and Amy (too shamed to speak of the crime, too unsure of her husband's response) attend a church social the next night. Images of rape leap into Amy's mind as they pass the roofing-and-ratting crew gorging on the free ice cream and cake and sit down to watch the fatuous preacher's feeble magic trick and an amateur diva doing "Rigoletto." (David's intuitive protectiveness toward her at the social provides the film with a single blessed gentle moment.)

Even the siege that clinched the film's notoriety begins with a sexual cataclysm: The same young girl who has been peeping in on David and Amy, looking for safe sex in a rough town, tries to seduce the village simpleton, Henry Niles (David Warner). Like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men," he panics when he fears they may be caught -- and unintentionally kills her. She happens to be part of the same clan that has already violated David's house. When David and Amy swipe Henry with their car, David insists on bringing him home -- and harboring him when the girl's alcohol-fueled dad and his posse, who know she walked off with Henry but not that he killed her, start acting like a lynch mob.

Peckinpah sets up the final conflict so that it's not a rite of manhood but an eruption of frustrated energy on all sides; it's more akin to the explosive climax of "Taxi Driver" than it is to a Western showdown. Peckinpah knows alienation isn't solely an urban phenomenon; when the riled-up gang's patriarch clumsily murders the sheriff, triggering the last confrontation, even the more intelligent of the attackers feel -- well, that's it, we're all goners, accomplices to a drunk who killed the sheriff. Law to them is incomprehensible, to be avoided at all costs; at this point, the only thing that will cheer them up is someone else's funeral. They underestimate David, who fights them with everything at his disposal, from wire to boiling oil to a poker. But this pinnacle of horror is more a test of marriage than of manhood -- early in the sequence, Amy threatens to let the bloody thugs in. When not gaping at a burst foot or the closing teeth of a man-trap, you're studying Amy's and David's faces to see where the two of them are now.

The movie's obvious strengths derive from Peckinpah's artistry -- he captures a place so that lowering weather gets under your skin and muddy trails under your toenails, and he edits for a quickening heartbeat, setting images in your mind in small vignettes (like Henry's brother slapping him) that later echo profoundly in the midst of frenzy. But its enduring potency comes from its torrent of mixed and charged emotions. "Eyes Wide Shut" -- and the cooked-up debates surrounding it -- are only about sex in the head. Peckinpah gives you sex as a kick in the groin, a jolt to the brain and a shot to the heart.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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