12/11/13

IN CONVERSATION: "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1973

Great movies inspire great conversation, and this segment has been an ongoing attempt to combine the dialogue of those still-in-progress, post-screening conversations (in some cases the most enjoyable part of the experience), with perspectives rooted in the traditions of film studies and criticism.  For this installment of IN CONVERSATION I change partners for a turn to exchange readings with my friend Keith Nainby, a writer and scholar whose resonant voice on everything from high art to pop dreck verges on gleeful bombast, but always lands with assured and illuminating accuracy. Our conversation here careens through critical takes on The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, comparisons to Kurosawa and the Coens, occasional distaste and utter reverence:  


Jason Hedrick:  Keith, it's great to finally be taking a long, close look at a Western on ECSTATIC, especially because I know we share a love of the genre, as well as a particular affinity for Sam Peckinpah films.  Without entirely unpacking our history, it should be said that we first met as grad students where we gradually discovered our common interests in film while taking performance courses and making theater.  Somewhere along the way we came to the realization that we both grew up suffering through televised westerns chosen by fathers with control of the clicker, only later realizing that many of those films--from Ford to Hawks to Leone--would reveal themselves to us as some of the most intriguing and artistically competent films of all time, regardless of genre.  In a sense, we were going through our own personal version of the French New Wave, famously the first critics to awaken to the auteurist pleasures of films like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) and John Ford's The Searchers (1956).  Also, it seems appropriate that we augment our too-few-and-far-between conversations about film, Westerns, Peckinpah, etc. now, since these days you're writing in much closer proximity to Sam's neck o' the woods, not far from the Sierra peak of "Peckinpah Mountain." Of course, so much has already been unpacked, examined, revered, and reviled when it comes to Peckinpah, but with the recent publication of "Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah," a good portion of which delves into the rocky journey of the film we've landed on here, it seems that the larger conversation about Peckinpah is far from over.


Also, one aspect that might make this conversation unique is that we're coming to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid with a bit fresher eyes than some other Peckinpah films--I'm thinking Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969) in particular--which will hopefully lead us to some fresh perspectives on this illusive film, Peckinpah's final Western.  I know you're coming to the film anew, and I've certainly seen it more infrequently than those earlier Peckinpah films, or even his follow-ups to The Wild Bunch (the films that immediately precede the production of PG+BK), the dusty and comedic The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the brutal and harrowing Straw Dogs (1971), and his two films with Steve McQueen, the rodeo tale Junior Bonner (1972) and the car chase flick The Getaway (1972). Though Peckinpah cut his teeth as a director on TV westerns like The Rifleman and The Westerner, I think we agree that it's the diversity of material mixed with the consistent recurrence of thematic interests and visual aplomb that makes his late 60's/early-to-mid 70's work the most interesting place to settle when considering what's at the heart of this mutual Peckinpah preoccupation.  We're headed for the far reaches of that period, where the quality of Peckinpah's work unfortunately began to be compromised by his increasing alcoholism and drug use.  Though his legendary intake has been romanticized by some, it's hard to imagine that anyone who truly loves his films feels anything other than regret, and possibly anger, when it comes to the damage that Peckinpah's addictions had on his films, particularly in the years after Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Though I feel Junior Bonner and The Getaway are somewhat lesser works in comparison to Ride the High CountryThe Wild Bunch, and Cable Hogue, it's clear that PG+BK is a return to the kind of ambition that Peckinpah had with those earlier westerns, while also sadly marking a turning point in Peckinpah's ability to keep a project of that scope together.  With that said, I would still call it a great, essential Western.  And, in many ways I prefer it to anything else Peckinpah made, including The Wild Bunch.


The Wild Bunch

But preferences aside, one of the reasons I'm glad we decided to focus on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (and maybe one of the reasons I like it so much) is because it is imperfect, possibly incomplete, and in some assessments non-existent as a finished product.  In "Peckinpah Today" the case is made for and against the 2005 "Special Edition" of the film, which seems to have taken artistic liberties with the act of film restoration that cross some ethical boundaries (I'm not sure which version you've recently seen, but I prefer the 1988 Turner "Preview" version, which I'll be working off of here...which isn't to say that we can't address pieces of the film missing from that version:  the theatrical credit sequence; Pat and Mrs. Garrett at home, etc).  Whatever the case may be, it seems by all accounts that Peckinpah stood by the theatrical release, though there has been some speculation about the "finality" of it.  Stephen Prince states the case of the film bluntly in his recent essay:  
"Peckinpah's involvement in the late stages of the film was erratic, and then he was fired.  The unfinished nature of the film presents a formidable obstacle to efforts to reconstruct it in a manner that is true to Peckinpah's unrealized intentions.  Those intentions cannot now be known in a definitive way."
But, once past those issues of restoration, I am most interested in assessing with you the tremendous craftsmanship, uniqueness and sheer beauty of (what we have of) the film itself.  Of course, I think we must consider the way this film is situated in the cannon of the Western genre, particularly since Peckinpah had given us the The Wild Bunch only four years earlier, which seemed to put a bloody end to the Western (at least until Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven in the early 90's).  We also have the question of negotiating Peckinpah's personal philosophies as they emerge through his work, as they always and un-apologetically did, whether it be in relation to his spiritual themes, his notions of Justice, or his oft noted sexism, all of which are stitched into the fabric of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.



So, maybe we should begin with a semi-wide scope of questioning (crane in slowly, perhaps?) and begin to talk about the "world" of Peckinpah's West, and the arc of his Western films.  As I suggested before, it seems everything after The Wild Bunch has to be assessed in the wake of its influence, not to mention the way in which it most likely changed filmic violence for good across all genres.  How has your recent viewing of the film affected your retrospective view of Peckinpah, or the Western genre on the whole?  Likewise, how does the film resonate with you in relation to your modern experience of the cinema?  Are there any Peckinpah's left, or only imitators?

Keith Nainby:  A couple of direct replies, Jason, before we hone in on more specific issues in later exchanges:

How has your recent viewing of the film affected your retrospective view of Peckinpah, or the Western genre on the whole?  
As someone who knows Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch much better, as you mentioned, I find that watching Patt Garrett and Billy the Kid helps me better understand Peckinpah's position on the West as a cultural text. He definitely longs, yearns for something he can't quite get back or can't quite find; that's clear in all three films, but in PG+BK most of all. The experience of the film is like one long, desperate, unsuccessful search--not merely in the literal sense of Garrett only-sort-of-halfheartedly hunting The Kid, but even more interestingly and intensely in the film's narrative and visual arcs.


Narratively: Am I watching a Western-themed "chase" film, of the kind Peckinpah often made (The Getaway, Convoy)? Is the film a character study, and if so, of whom? Garrett seems the only viable answer, but his character is perhaps the most hollow in the whole film--he's only filled in by others' references to his past, and by his weird responses to others' behavior (that bizarre torture scene in the saloon!). It's the other characters, especially The Kid, Alias, and minor characters like those played by Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong, that we actually get to "study" through their dramatic engagement of one another. 

Visually: There is no clear rhythm established by Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in terms of cinematography, mise–en–scene, etc. Ride the High Country features elegant crane shots emphasizing the horses' movement and Scott and McCrea's height, contrasted with grimy, claustrophobic set pieces in Hartley's house, in Coarsegold, in the brothel; it's easy to read the visual argument here, as the horse riding scenes are not "open" but, instead, as claustrophobic as the set pieces, leaving motion and restlessness visually contrasted, amid the rhyming claustrophobia, with pacing in place and with fearfully settling for less. In The Wild Bunch, every scene is tightly packed again, but this time it's not motion and closeness that are emphasized, but confrontation and barely concealed tension. Even in "calm" scenes like when the Bunch discovers they have iron instead of gold or when they hang out in Angel's village, characters are consistently staged in unstable triangles, arrayed in ways that demand that each of them face multiple possibilities and make a choice. It's very much like Kurosawa, actually, this whole film, which is perhaps why I like it so much. But in PG+BK, there's no rhythm, no clear visual argument: Close–ups are woven in with boring 2-shots (more than in most Peckinpah films), and medium shots are chaotic in terms of their visual elements. The most obvious example of this is all the scenes in which The Kid holds court with his sycophants, at a place that appears to be a corral of some sort; who is actually present and who is absent? Who is looking at whom, and why? I am not suggesting this is all accident or the result of thoughtlessness on Peckinpah's part; I believe, instead, that the chaotic, unfocused nature of the visual language of the film chimes deliberately with the narrative turmoil and with Peckinpah's whole approach to the West in this film.

The Wild Bunch

Which is: That our belatedness in relation to the West, our rapidly accelerating loss of wilderness and frontier, makes us search ever more hungrily for pastoral balance, pastoral balance that will keep eluding us. This is what I think he came to in this third piece of his "Great Western" trilogy. In Ride the High Country, he explores the Western film and its iconography (Scott and McCrea, the damsel in distress, the devout farmer, the lawless town living according to its own codes), making them more complex and human, and in the process finding them exhausted but still honorable, still culturally rich. In The Wild Bunch, he explores the telos of the rugged individual, the death wish (passed incredibly elegantly, all in visual language and acting choices, from Angel to Dutch to Pike), the death wish at the heart of the impulse to "tame the land," finding that we cannot have built the modern society that ironically has no place for the Bunch. But by PG+BK, he laments the emptiness, the failure, inherent in trying to establish a relationship with the land, with the law, and with linear heroic narratives of any kind. I'll keep working this idea out in future responses, but that's my answer to your question above.
Likewise, how does the film resonate with you in relation to your modern experience of the cinema?  Are there any Peckinpah's left, or only imitators? 
As I'll keep exploring in other responses (I have something to say about Straw Dogs and violence that I will write soon), the "history of violence" element of Peckinpah is pretty much down to two threads that I see: imitations that utterly fail to understand what the role of violence really is, in all its genuine irony and impotence, in Peckinpah's films (torture porn being only the most recent and pathetic example), and Coen Brothers, who actually get it and treat violence as Peckinpah did. His relationship to the Western as a cinematic text is impossible in the contemporary world, I think, partly because of his chronological matching with the other "mature" Western directors (Penn, Mann, Leone) who came along when the genre needed artists who could make it relevant to the 1960s (which they did), and partly because Peckinpah himself ended the conversation by highlighting the Western as exhausted, yet still adored, text in PG+BK. Eastwood, who you know I love, is very much a post-Peckinpah director; I can't imagine him making High Plains Drifter (1973), Pale Rider (1985) or Unforgiven (1992) without Peckinpah's influence, and I don't think any of those three "great Eastwood Westerns" really reveal anything new--they're just well done and cool.

No Country For Old Men
Unforgiven
All of which brings me to my question for you: When you say you like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid more even than The Wild Bunch, despite its shortcomings, what's one way into an answer to why? What hits home for you so much with this film, and how do you see it in relation to the previous two of what I'm claiming is a trilogy?

JH:  It has to do with the confluence of elements that is unique to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and the way in which that connects with my personal experience of the films.  Also, I'll toss up one very specific reason:  Emilio Estevez.  Back in the 80's I enjoyed Young Guns as much as the next high school kid, but once it became clear to me that "Billy the Kid" had been used as a sort of cultural touchstone throughout nearly every era of cinema--from the WWII patriotism of Audie Murphy in the early 50's to the anti-establishment, biker/hippie portrayal by Kristoferson to the "You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Party" Kid Estevez--I began to see 80's cinema in a much different light, and to resent that I grew up in the era of Estevez and the "Brat Pack" experiencing a popularity of such magnitude that it would bleed into the Western genre. It was only later that I discovered how artistically bankrupt movies had become in the 80's, and how every other period of film history would prove so much richer, including the decades to follow.

In particular, Keith, you and I grew up in the worst era for Westerns (Do I have to even list the drek that is the 80's and 90's Western?  Aside from the aforementioned Eastwood pics, the arc of the genre throughout that period seems to begin as little more than kitsch, and end as a joke, a mere set piece, from Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado to Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West, and all the Young Guns and Bad Girls that came in between).  I think the appreciation and excitement of discovery we bring to the films of Peckinpah, Boetticher, Mann, Ford, Hawks, etc. is intensified through our particular generational lens, our eyes starved for action, not to mention hindered by the consistently poor parade of mis-en-scene that occupied our youth.  The same sort of regret and melancholy for the loss of an era emanates from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  It's a film brimming with a sense of loss.  It's a tremendous, mournful wail of a film; a ballad that echoes both the lies and beauty of Legend:  Pat, Billy, and Hollywood.



Young Guns

Today, with the system of movie marketing so sharply honed (a system that really kicked into high gear in the years following Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid's release), we commonly hear tag lines like:  "This movie is the last word in (INSERT GENRE HERE)!"  Of course, that rarely carries any weight...unless we're talking about Peckinpah.  PG+BK seems to have truly been a death knell whose reverberations were felt for a long time to come.  Of course, the sad story of the post-PG+BK Western I weave is one with some fairly happy conclusions, as the resurgence of Westerns over the past decade has been fairly reassuring (to build on your evocation of the Coen's, you can check out my write up on their adaptation of Charles Portis' True Grit here, where I get into the return of what Andre Bazin called the "superwestern').  Though The Wild Bunch may be the pinnacle of Bazin's "superwestern," and certainly superior in all the ways you pointed out, it was not the "last word" that PG+BK was.  The Wild Bunch is absolutely the more important film in a broad critical scope, and more succinct in terms of its craftsmanship, themes, and overall entertainment value.  But my personal experience with The Wild Bunch has tired me out a bit, as I've screened the opening sequence, if not the whole film, in Film Appreciation courses, unpacked its relevance to the history of cinematic violence, the Viet Nam war, Eisenstein, The Great Train Robbery, and on and on.  Through much of this many younger students refused to come to it on any serious terms (the same when I would screen Leone), which not only echoes our youthful response to Westerns, but is also an indicator of just how well that marketing machine devised under our noses has come to increasingly dominate our movie-going sensibilities. 

I love Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in that it takes on a specific historical figure, but Peckinpah seems to embrace the simulacra of the Kid more fervently than any attempt at historical accuracy.  Kristoferson is a bit miscast, perfectly so.  The music is anachronistic, yet couldn't play better.  Even the date of Garret's death in the opening credits is historically inaccurate, of by a year (or so I've read). It's become second nature to call PG+BK a "revisionist" Western, but it seems to me way ahead of its time in its particularly subversive attack on such an established historical, Western icon; to say it's a "revision" is an understatement.  And yet, there's a deep truth to it's gradual pacing that many filmmakers would be afraid to explore; maybe even Peckinpah prior to this production.  I feel Peckinpah reaching for something entirely new here, and it's this risky creative process of pitting himself against an indestructible legend, in a period where he knows he cannot turn back, that I find most exhilarating.  


Peckinpah had already shown us his mastery of the Cinemascope lens in previous films, but it's when he's is forced to evolve in terms of storytelling and cinematography (particularly, beginning with Straw Dogs) that he begins to really fascinate me.  His personality and his journey through the transforming film industry of this period leaves him in such an exposed place with PG+BK, so much so that he pushes his way into the film before it's all over, his verbal slaying of Coburn's Garret, perhaps the most meta-cinematic and biographically raw moment of his entire filmography, foreshadowing the "mirror murder" to come.  We'll see this same kind of mirror play in Peckinpah's next film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1975), a film that similarly exposes the emotional turmoil of this famously troubled director through the exposed-nerve performance of Warren Oates.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Your observation that the film is narratively unsure of how it stands as either a "chase" film or a "character study" seems to me just the balance Peckinpah is trying to achieve here.  Of course, he has balanced those elements effortlessly in prior films, but one of my favorite aspects of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid is the way in which he attempts to allow a depth of character to reside in nearly every character, no matter how peripheral, which I imagine is a rightly honored aspect of Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay.  This wide expanse of narrative ground even stretches into the territory of characters who only exist in the stories of others; these tales are scattered liberally throughout PG+BK.  Taken as a character study, the object of that study is rather diffuse, and the character relationships, as well as the spatial journey of the film, are not easily mapped.  These tangential narratives are stories of the dead, names often only briefly mentioned in the film, but mentioned all the same, and alive for a moment in the eyes and memories of those who tell the stories.  The list is substantial, including the brief tales of Sam Dedrick, C.B. Denning, John Jones, U.S. Christmas, Olin Carrol, John Horrell, Jace Summer, Toddy Sparks.  Of course, by the time we get to the scene of Billy's final lodging, where Old Pete (Paul Fix) tells the story of how Toddy put a rattlesnake in Jace's blanket for stealing his horse, and then mournfully notes that they "buried Jace in a thunderstorm in the summer of '71," the journey of the film itself has left that many more names in the dust.  I think you're right that the film draws a unique attention to the more minor characters, and it's worth mentioning a few of those characters/actors, many of them significant Peckinpah regulars:  Black Harris (L.Q. Jones), Alamosa Bill Kermit (Jack Elam), Holly (Richard Bright), Charlie (Charles Martin Smith), and two that you already mentioned, Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens), and (perhaps my favorite character in the film) Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong).  The dialogue of Ollinger (an extension of Armstrong's equally powerful portrayal of Joshua Knudsen, the grieving widower, domineering father, and religious zealot of Ride the High Country) holds for me one of the keys to understanding the overall narrative design of the film:  "Boy, I'm going to lay you out like a crazy woman's quilt!"  At first viewing, I was simply amazed at how much detail was put into making Ollinger's buck-sixty murder in the streets match the inspired descriptiveness of that line.  Upon further viewing I began to read the structure of the film through that image.  Peckinpah is not only showing in PG+BK that the violence of desperation, both in the old West and today, is an embrace of a sort of chaos, but I think he also attempts to do that kind of violence to the narrative and pacing of the film, struggling toward a new Western form whose character is uncompromisingly bleak, fragmented, and laid out like a crazy woman's quilt.



Yet, to counter an earlier point you were making about the film's unclear rhythm, when you lay out Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid scene by scene, it can be understood as a fairly ordered back and forth between the hunter and the hunted, with an editing rhythm that does pick up in a somewhat traditional manner once the two come into closer proximity of one another.  But the film behaves in an anarchic manner from within this template throughout, always taking time to indulge in the tale of a misadventure ("Remember them sisters?"), or settle into a threatening space of tense silences, as with the saloon scene you mentioned, which features another truly memorable minor character, the despicable barkeep Lemuel (Chill Wills).  Even in its finale the film refuses to behave by typical genre rules, the ending of Garrett already revealed, and the fate of the Kid, of course, sealed tightly within the harsh, inescapable frames of Peckinpah's New Mexico.  I think the visual elements, though at times a bit clumsy (the two awkwardly close scenes of Billy and Alias saying farewell at Fort Sumner, Dylan oddly rolling in and and out of frame, comes to mind), are orchestrated with a sense of rhythm, tempered by a sort of structural lawlessness, perhaps both intentional and unintentional. 

And then there's Dylan's music.  This is where I have to hand it off to you, since I know your knowledge and appreciation of Dylan far surpasses mine.  Also, I see that among your distinguished writing is a piece titled "Free, Stuck, Tangled: Bob Dylan, the 'Self' and the Performer's Critical Perspective," which I haven't read yet, but am hoping the research involved will find its way into our ongoing discussion.  All I want to say for now about Dylan in relation to this film is that I think the musical contribution works superbly here and was certainly risky, particularly since Peckinpah had established such great work with Jerry Fielding in previous films.  Furthermore, taken on its own, "Billy" is one of my very favorite pieces of Dylan music, a sentiment I carried well before I ever saw the film.  Once one realizes how elegantly the music compliments the tone and pace of the film, itself more of a loosely strummed ballad in contrast to the air-tight Potempkin-esque symphony that The Wild Bunch emulates in its most excessive moments, it's hard to imagine one without the other.  Also, it seems that Dylan's music, as well as his presence as "Alias," marks the film with a unique "present-ness," a constant reminder of Peckinpah operating within the context of the shifting counterculture, which had embraced Sam to an extent, but even more so now that Dylan was on board.  How do you begin to read Dylan's role in this film, both as a musician and an actor? 


KN  As for Bob Dylan: The name “Alias” and the line “Alias whoever you like” that he delivers in the film have taken on a huge role in Dylan criticism. Two authors, Scobie and Day, lean on this “alias” trope to describe how Dylan uses ambiguities of identity in his writing. They describe how he complicates any notion of a direct, simple correspondence among his personal perspectives, the characters in his songs, and the voices of the singing narrators. Plenty of other people writing about Dylan make parallel arguments; the point is, a big part of Dylan’s enormous star image (even back in 1973/4) involved a reputation for telling each of his stories in a distinctive, particular voice—while, paradoxically, always blurring identities (of narrators, of characters) just enough to make the stories weird, ironic and widely relevant. Something we might say about Peckinpah as well, and about PGBK in particular.




As for Aliases: The film is titled so simply, just the names of the two key figures, nothing else. This is a reminder that the story doesn’t need any introduction; not only are these mythic figures of a nostalgic West, but we are hailed as viewers who already know these guys and their famous relationship to each other. In this sense, we might be thought to start in the middle of the story, in that way that has become commonplace in every action film in the last twenty years. But not so fast! This is why the frame is so important, and why versions of the film that omit the frame don’t work nearly as well: We know before the film begins that Pat killed Billy, that he always kills Billy and will kill him again while we watch. But what we don’t know yet is how this story will place us in relation to these characters, and the frame turns the “sure, this is a movie about Billy the Kid getting killed” identification on its head, showing us the killing of Garrett first. Why? I think it’s about telescoping, about distancing us from the scene from the outset so that we can be undermined in our efforts to easily name what we’re going to see. Billy is supposed to be who’s killed, but it’s the guy whose name appears first in the title who gets it right away, in the first 90 seconds (take that, Shyamalan and Willis!). Pat’s supposed to be the law at this late stage of his life, taking down a devil–may–care outlaw, but he’s going to wear that black hat throughout the film and he’s going to take real delight in being cruel to people, while Billy only torments one guy for a moment, the biggest jackass in the film, R. G. Armstrong, showing feeling for every other death he causes.

Maybe most importantly, Peckinpah (especially in 1973/4) is supposed to be the director who glorifies, revels in and nihilistically rub our noses in violence, but the bizarre juxtaposition of the ambushes of Garrett and the roosters and the Peckinpah–style slow motion action heighten our compassion for the person and for the animals—using violence to do it. “Alias whoever you like” indeed. The continuation of the rooster scene amplifies this telescoping effect in two ways: First, Garrett, the man who was just shot to death in the interstitial shots that were woven through the opening of this same rooster scene, walks into the continuation of the scene, coming up behind an unsuspecting Kid. Sure, the date titles onscreen keep us mentally organized enough to account for this as an earlier time in history, but the titles don’t fully eliminate the eerie effect of this entrance by a younger and more vibrant Garrett, denaturalizing any “concrete” point of view on the characters and reminding us that we are being told a story from a very particular point of view—a story outside simple history. Second, Garrett literally telescopes the action in the scene, using his rifle to get a much longer reach on these pathetic roosters, pulling the action back and opening up the space. So both time and space have been collapsed and pulled back, like an accordion, in these opening paired scenes. Who the hell would possibly think that this was unnecessary to the film? Some versions actually opened with Garrett warning the Kid in their conversation at the little table—what a terrible waste.

As for Voices: The accordion–like opening and closing of space that happens between firing pistols and firing rifles (reminds me of Yojimbo and Fistful for sure) doesn’t stop—it’s at the heart of the capture of the Kid in the next scene, too. But the bullets aren’t the only thing that shapes that space: The voices, yelling down to the cabin and back up to the posse, structure this scene even more than the weaponry. This is the first of many scenes in which voices are hugely significant. First of all, just in the casting Peckinpah has access to an incredible array of voices: Most obvious are Dylan, perhaps the most famous English–speaking voice in the late 20th century (either him or James Earl Jones) and Kristofferson, two men who each earned many millions of dollars using their voices. But then there’s R. G. Armstrong and Slim Pickens, two very distinctive voices Peckinpah used often, and Coburn. Writing about PGBK and thinking about voices has had the impact of making me much more aware and appreciative of Coburn’s absolutely wonderful voice; though I’ve seen many of his films and would have been able to recognize his voice right away from merely hearing it, I wasn’t tuned in before to just how terrific it is—a voice like coffee and flint at the same time, and perhaps better here than in any other film. Well past the capture of the Kid, voices are organizing factors in many key scenes and, in organizing them, make these scenes and this film really, really strange—voices coalescing into a quite strange and quite particular voice speaking this famous story in a distinctive way. There’s the scene in jail when Armstrong taunts Billy, who almost never makes eye contact with him—a dance of contesting voices, literally at the level of how the action between them is shaped by their voices and figuratively at the level of Armstrong being the voice of religiosity and Billy being the voice of the hedonistic trickster. This reaches a culmination when Billy escapes, first dancing with the guy he shoots on the stairs, trying to use his own voice to persuade the frightened guy to silence himself if he wants to stay alive, then finishing the contest with Armstrong, Billy’s voice pinning Armstrong in place, Armstrong’s excruciatingly softened reply as he realizes he’s dead, and Billy’s final parting “shot” a vocal one about dimes. Garrett is so dependent on his voice for his authority that he hardly makes eye contact with anyone, dominating people like the barber, his wife, the deputized old coot in the bar, and the saloon keeper near Fort Sumner just by wielding his voice.



The death of L. Q. Jones is another scene in which, like Billy’s capture, most action involves people calling to one another unseen (an operatic scene in this respect, one that culminates in the initial deployment of what would become Dylan’s most famous ballad, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”). Garrett finally has to draw his pistol rather than just command with his voice when he tortures Alias and the two twits in the saloon—but even then, voice is what makes the scene extraordinary, as the voice of the world’s single most famous solo songwriter (John and Paul not being fully disentangled yet as voices or, especially, as writers, only a few years after their breakup) is forced to read out the names of the cans on the saloon shelf in a monotone that pervades the rest of the scene. Again, why? I am just beginning to make sense of this truly astonishing scene, but one possible reading is that the incommensurate use of the mighty Dylan, the reducing of his voice to a debased monotone, is a way of roughing up this film about a myth, this film that retells, ballad–style, a story we have valorized and turned into nostalgia over and over, in simple repetition. If Bob Dylan, “Alias whoever you like,” has about 50% of his speech in his first film role devoted to a submissive muttering about the most cheap and mundane of all foods (“beans … beans … beans”), then there is no sacred Western cow, no Robin Hood or reformed sheriff being rendered heroic here, no easy answer in history to the crises of the Nixon era. 

JH:  Your reading of the film in terms of voices opens up the picture in some new ways for me, while also being intertwined with what I was trying to articulate about the diffuse narrative voices that weave their way through this story like old vines.  I hadn't considered the weight of Dylan's voice in quite the way you frame it, but I certainly began to look more closely at the way in which Dylan is crucial to the film.  There's an entire reading, I imagine, that could take very seriously the idea of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as an allegory for Dylan's career, marked most significantly by his strains of "La La LaLaLa" set to the image of a Christ-posed Billy as he surrenders to Garrett. 




But, where do the mirrors end here?  Once you begin to unpack it, it begins to feel like the finale of Lady From Shanghai (or Enter the Dragon for Bruce Lee fans).  As you say, the film begins with this tactic of "resurrecting" Garrett, which cues us to that Brechtian distancing that simultaneously has us thinking about the cinematic Pat and Billy, the historical Pat and Billy, Peckinpah, and, sure, Nixon. Peckinpah was very aware of Brecht's techniques, and longed to conjure the same sort of collision between an emotional and intellectual response in audiences that he had experienced in live productions of Brecht.  He also understood just how difficult an aspiration this was, particulary in a realm controlled by studio executives, his eternal nemesis.  While The Wild Bunch was one of the most indelible, irreversible acts of Brechtian historification in all of cinema history, one that Peckinpah had intended to cause some serious change in our cultural relationship to violence, it was also seen by Peckinpah himself to have been a failure in that particular sense.  So, there's a way in which audiences are reading PG+BK in relation to Peckinpah's previous work that is unique.  At this point of refraction, I don't think one can stress enough the violence of Straw Dogs that came between The Wild Bunch and PG+BK.  Still unnerving in a way that all the green-tinted, carbon copy shockers of today fail to understand, the rape scene in Straw Dogs is truly the scene where we see Sam reaching beyond his attempts in The Wild Bunch, almost desperately, with all of his craft still very much at hand, and perhaps failing again in terms of his Brechtian ambitions.


Straw Dogs
By the time the light of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid reaches screens there is a notable difference in Sam's technique, one that seems even more pronounced as "meta-cinema" and avant-garde in its approach, and seems to me to have been sustained in much of his later work, particularly Alfredo Garcia and Cross of Iron.  Taken as a work of meta-cinema, Peckinpah is subtle in crafting his reflective surfaces within PG+BK.  It may be an odd comparison, but it reminds me of seeing Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers recently and noting how much more carefully the elements of pastiche operate in comparison to something like the overt, cut-and-paste quality of Tarantino's Django Unchained.  I'm not saying one is better than the other because of this difference (I think they're both pretty amazing), just that there's a marked difference in technique, one that may characterize a similar difference between Peckinpah and a post-modern director like Leone.  And, speaking of the Italian West, Django Unchained may be one of the few recent films to come close to igniting audiences through violence in the same risky and relevant way that Peckinpah sparked in the late 60's/early 70's.

Once again, it's laid out like a crazy woman's quilt.  Pat Garrtt and Billy the Kid creates numerous points of contemplation and reflection that resemble the most radiant of poetic symbolism.  And most poetically, they are about Sam.  We know that Sam's voice emerges through various characters throughout his films, both male and female, but the way in which Pat and Billy divide a characterization of his own struggle, which then splinters and bounces off Dylan--both artists trying to speak honestly about their struggles with the modern world, with the law, the media and the war; both at odds with their status as "voices" of a generation--then, after refracting through a variety of scoundrels, lawmen and politicians (not to make any arbitrary distinctions), manifests in the aforementioned appearance by Peckinpah himself is evidence of tremendous craft.




I guess all of this speaks to the unique way in which Peckinpah's filmography transcends a summation that chalks it all up to a "hit-and-miss" career.  Although it's been said many times, the films are about the man behind them in a way that really makes all of the work interesting in relation to the meta-tale of Peckinpah they're consistently narrating.  Peckinpah's radical and precise work as an adapter of literature and screenplays should also be mentioned here.  Always masterful at weaving in his consistent thematic concerns of justice and spirituality in a way that both served his preoccupations and elevated the source material, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid seems unique to me in terms of the history and mythology it translates and the way in which it combines multiple social and personal commentaries through them.  



In Ride the High Country Joel McRea as Steve Judd puts forth a line that echoes throughout Peckinpah's work:  "All I want is to enter my house justified."  This idea of the Justified man is not only resonant throughout Peckinpah's work, but much of Western film history.  For me, this thematic concern reverberates off of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid most resonantly, as we see Garrett approach his home, but never see him enter (another reason why Paul Seydor's "Special Edition" often misses the mark: in his version we follow Garrett into the house to have a rather redundant scene with Garrett's wife).  It's significant that Peckinpah never allows us to see Garrett actually enter, but rather leaves that symbol of the white picket fence for us to re-encounter toward the end of the film, making the journey to kill the Kid his ultimate Home, unjustified.  I think we have to address the way in which his traditional themes play out (or don't play out, or play out differently) in this film.  Every other scene seems to hold a jumping off point for exploring larger contexts of politics or religion, or both (as with the Jason Robards scene where Governor Wallace ponders the "greater design" while Garrett tends to the brandy and the servant's tits).  You've talked about how Peckinpah is concerned with that search for "pastoral balance" and uses PG+BK as a lament for the loss of the West, but can we begin to speak to some of the other major Peckinpah themes, maybe even take them in some new or current directions?  


KN: Jason, to get back to what I have been planning to write regarding Peckinpah, violence and Straw Dogs, I want to first take up your pointing us toward that oft–quoted, and indeed central, line in Ride the High Country: “All I want is to enter my house justified.” Houses, and attempts to return to “homes” both literal and metaphorical, pervade the director’s work. In this vein, I agree with what you write about the “Turner Preview Edition” being in some ways more preferable than the “Special Edition” of PGBK, as Garrett’s entering his house does lessen the tension created by permanent wandering throughout the film—a tension not resolved but, instead, heightened when his “purpose” is fulfilled and he kills The Kid. The Garrett character learns, at the moment of playing the executioner, what Peckinpah so often teaches us in his films: that violence and sacrifice are always partial choices rather than fulfillments; always anticlimaxes rather than narrative closures; and always leave us with more confusion than the confusions that led to violence in the first place. This is, as we have discussed already, why the concluding operatic gunfight in The Wild Bunch is so weakly misread, and so uselessly carried forward by orgiastic directors treating violence as “release” during the past 45 years—because that Wild Bunch gunfight is so drenched with loss, failure, unfulfilled promise. When ripped out of context and treated as an aesthetic text apart from the film, this gunfight loses its great dramatic force. While I don’t mean to offend your readers who may be of a more delicate nature, Jason, I’m going to make an analogy to “dramatic force” here to one of the most distinctive moments in our friendship—your utter slaying of me onstage at the Greylight Theatre when, as we sat on a couch and I expected you to deliver the line, “So, are you going to let her watch you masturbate?”, you instead substituted a widely used gesture with a well–placed fist and swinging forearm for the word “masturbate,” leaving me writhing, guffawing and unable to deliver my response line for about four minutes onstage, face–slapping be damned. Masturbation, I would argue, is overwhelmingly funny to us, and to me in that extraordinary moment onstage, not merely because of my shock/surprise at your playful engagement of the text, and not merely because we associate it with sexual shame and youthful embarrassment, but also because masturbation itself—even in its most fulfilling moments of surrender to onanistic ecstasy—is never the ultimate end we sought, never the “little death” Freud thought we seek in orgasm, but always a bit of a letdown. This is how I read the gunfight concluding The Wild Bunch, and I believe it’s very close to the feeling that overcomes Garrett after he kills The Kid. Yes, the film is homoerotic in this and many others ways, and yes, in this and many other ways Peckinpah links our violent impulses to our sexual ones; I think this reading, however, is well supported by the film.

Another clue/connection to this reading is what I consider an allusion by director Ang Lee at the conclusion of Brokeback Mountain, as Ennis holds Jack’s heavy shirt and, looking in the mirror hanging on the back of the wardrobe door, acknowledges his feelings directly for the first time in the film, sobbing as he coughs out, “Oh Jack, I swear.” The common framing of the lead actor in relation to his reflected image, in each film a flint–voiced, light–haired, mumbling grouch who has been refusing to admit what he truly wants to himself or to anyone else, is too similar and plays too parallel a role in these films’ narratives to be a mere coincidence, especially given Lee’s deep knowledge of film history. Regardless of Lee’s intentions, however, the chiming of these two mirror scenes clinches, for me, the homoerotic qualities in PGBK and the flaccid failure Garrett confronts as he comes to terms with having spent his bullets and having, thereby, lost his love for himself (and maybe for others) after killing The Kid. He has been restlessly searching for some connection, and at this moment all he finds is himself, yet not the self he wished to be.



And thus back to Straw Dogs and the violence in that film, also often misunderstood: Though I think Stephen Prince makes too little of the misogyny and infantilization of the Amy character in this film (I contend that this character is indeed a demeaning, and demeaned, treatment of a young adult woman), I agree with Prince in his central assessment of the film, his claim that her husband David is the true villain of the film. He is ambivalent toward his desire for power over others—an experienced hunter who is lured away from home to try hunting, a purported genius who relates to his neighbors and even to his American university homeland with misunderstanding and disdain, a newlywed living in his wife’s community who trivializes and insults her and everything she cares for. He is trapped, ineffectual not because he fails to be the “man’s man” that people accuse Peckinpah of worshipping but instead because he cannot commit himself to any specific stance on anything at all. Even his area of expertise, theoretical mathematics, is itself famous for being an uncommitted discipline too often abstracted from pragmatic applications, and the fact that Amy can toy with him simply by erasing a symbol here or there from his chalkboard suggests that his understanding of his area of expertise is itself shallow and uncommitted, fragile and tenuous. Trapped in his ambivalence, David finds himself “abused” by his neighbors, who (like every neighborhood ever, most likely) include some drunken, debauched knuckleheads willing to rape if they think they can get away with it. Incidentally, regarding the rape scene and its immediate aftermath specifically, I think Prince is closer to on target: I agree that Peckinpah strives here to encourage viewers to identify, and empathize, with Amy the survivor and with her pain and confusion. Yet this position, too, is cinematically ambiguous, undercut because she is, like David, a weak and petty person and because the camera only partially treats her as a protagonist rather than an object of the Mulveyian gaze. In this respect, the sense (as Prince would have it) that Peckinpah in Straw Dogs wants us to see Amy as emotionally abused by David, then abandoned by him, I’m not convinced the film is a success. But I do think the ambivalent ethical position the film takes regarding Amy is a kind of strength here, because it echoes the ambivalent ethical position David takes on every aspect of his life. He is obsessed with the safety and security, not only physical but intellectual and emotional, of his “house,” which he enters and becomes “king” by violently bullying yet refusing to commit, refusing to appear vulnerable. It’s as “unjustified” a way to enter a house as ever staged on film, certainly a counterpoint to your point, Jason, about Garrett’s narrative being weakened by the scene in his own home. 


Straw Dogs
So back to ambivalence and violence, then, the heart of what it means for David to be “unjustified”: For me, the violence in Straw Dogs, though it is distinctly Peckinpahian because of its kinetic energy and operatic texture, is also quite a bit like violence in many Coen brothers films: the result of a lack of commitment, a lack of interest in the world and its people. The standout moments of onscreen, powerfully lasting images of violence to me in the Coens’ catalogue would include Abby killing Visser in Blood Simple; Tom killing Bernie in Miller’s Crossing; Gaer killing the cops, the couple driving past that murder, and Jean Lundegaard in Fargo; and my three favorite examples, (1) everything Anton does in No Country for Old Men, and (2) Harry unwittingly killing Chad and (3) Osborne quite wittingly hatcheting Ted in the head in the vastly underrated Burn After Reading. What all of these moments have in common, apart from what I have already described as the “sudden, stupid and anticlimactic” quality of Coens’ violence, is that each character on this list who commits a violent act has been brought to this moment, usually arbitrarily, because she or he has drifted through the narrative without taking any kind of stance on any of the events in the narrative. Sure, Osborne whines constantly about his superiority in Burn After Reading, and Tom has a haughty perspective on events as a voice–over narrator in Miller’s Crossing, but Osborne’s whining and Tom’s haughtiness are nothing if not aligned with the self–serving whining and haughtiness of David in Straw Dogs. And so as for Peckinpah’s “grand themes”: Peckinpah, in my view, is himself ambivalent about the status of the so–called “man’s man” who tames beast and landscape in the West, because he himself had never lived up to this ideal in his childhood and because his most “heroic” characters (Judd, Bishop) never quite live up to it either. But what Peckinpah has a total lack of respect for, yet will repeatedly ferret out and hold up for scorn in his films, is the uncommitted, waffling weasel (like David, like the Gorches, like the citizens of Coarsegold, even like Judd and Bishop at their worst moments) whose effort to avoid confrontation will inevitably lead to the dumbest, most wastefully violent confrontations. This is what Garrett must come to terms with as he confronts himself in that mirror.



This, too, is why an aspect of Peckinpah that you and I have discussed, Jason, is so vital a part of what makes his films (even his film violence and the incoherence of narratives like the one in PGBK) so very unlike nearly all other Westerns and action films: He finds so many people so very interesting. We’ve talked already about the bizarre scene in the saloon in which Garrett torments Alias and the others; but what makes this scene nothing at all like a James Bond “torment” scene in which a cartoonish villain toys with people like they might in the Adam West Batman films (sadly, the model most so–called “action” films follow, films and scenes not made any less cartoonish just because the bodies are high–def and sweaty and the gore is more intense), and what makes this scene much more like Tarantino, is that Peckinpah cares about these character’s weirdnesses. Yes, it’s Dylan reading “beans” monotonously, which is itself interesting; but he films the scene in ways that demonstrate that he cares about characters’ reactions to one another, not our responses to the threatening climate (the cutting makes this quite clear). All the scenes at the Fort, from the rooster shooting on forward, have the same quality, as does the scene near the start, with a young Charles Martin Smith, in which The Kid is first captured. Peckinpah finds these people tremendously interesting, and only by taking the time to get to know his own characters by filming their peculiar dramatic responses with commitment and curiosity can he arrive at insights about human choices—not only the “grand” choices of Judd or Bishop but the small, mean failures of David in Straw Dogs, of Cable Hogue in that film, of all the uncommitted weasels who he torments, like Garrett, not to get himself or his audience off, Eli Roth style (well, maybe Garrett gets off a little) but to learn more about the grim consequences of choosing not to choose. I’ve made the link between Peckinpah and Kurosawa already in this piece in discussing the mise–en–scene of The Wild Bunch, but this is perhaps an even more powerful connection between these brilliant cinema artists: My favorite Kurosawa quote was a response to being asked how a particular scene about to be filmed was intended by the director to resolve an issue of sort or another in the film, a question about what the scene about to be filmed would “mean” in the film; Kurosawa said, “If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t have to film it, would I?” Peckinpah doesn’t know what David’s unjustified entrance into his fancy Cornish manor means, any more than he knows why Garrett wants to torture a bunch of dimwits in a saloon or how he will deal with himself after he kills The Kid; but he trusts his actors and his camera enough to believe that if he films it, he will—like Kurosawa—know a little bit more. I cannot imagine a more compelling definition of what cinema is.

JH:  A statement to close on, for sure.  Still, I'll throw in one more: Andrew Sarris once wrote that Peckinpah was "too intellectual to tell a story," which may be the case, but all the better.  It seems that the most difficult task for Peckinpah with Pat Garret and Billy the Kid is not, in fact, how to tell the story, but rather how to sort it all out intellectually, both within the film itself and within the arc of his work.  I think we both acknowledge that it's a flawed film (we didn't even get to the problem of the Emilio Fernandez scenes, and actor so much more effectively used as Mapache in Wild Bunch), but it's ultimately that search for answers, for something not previously known by the filmmaker, that you mention that makes even flawed Peckinpah more interesting than the easy successes of many directors. Also, you're right to call out Peckinpah's flawed female representations, and aspect that is too often brushed aside by his more adoring critics.  Likewise, the parallel you draw between the queer themes of Lee's Brokeback Mountain and PG + BK also need to be recognized, especially when dealing with a director so singularly obsessed with themes and representaitons of masculinity.  It's a testament to the complexity of this great, troubled, mishapen-by-time piece of cinema that it's still such an evocative platform for these critiques, yet still maintains such mystery.  As we come to the end of our talk, it seems to me, like a great poem, to enjoy it's qualities as an intellectual exercise is to enjoy it most fully, and to unpack it with any sense of complete certainty would be a diservice to it's remarkable ambiguities.


Thanks for discussing this difficult and enduring film with me, Keith.  Here's to a new generation of film makers who are making (and re-making) movies with the same spirit of discovery.



COMING SOON: An under-appreciated Abel Ferrara film "In Conversation" with Nathaniel Drake Carlson.


Juliette Binoche in Mary




10/21/13

Keep Halloween Weird!

This year's quick entry to suggest a few films for those tired of the usual cinematic scares:

As with last year's reccomendations, these choices go best with an open mind and a healthy sugar-buzz. For a mild starter, I think we need to turn to the truly weird and artistically singular French purveyor of somewhat silly, soft-core vampire/torture/art films, Jean Rollin:

1.  Requiem for a Vampire, dir. Jean Rollin (1971)


Maybe more disoriented than frightened, you might then be perfectly primed to check out one of the most indelibly terrifying films ever made:

2.  Begotten, dir. E. Elias Merhige (1990)


And, if you make it through that, bring on the candy grab bag!  This recent horror omnibus has something for all tastes (even those with no taste):

3.  The ABC's of Death, featuring a different director for each letter of the alphabet, including Ti West, Yudai Yamaguchi, Angela Bettis, Noboru Iguchi, and Ben Wheatley (2012)



Happy Halloween!  Keep it Weird, and Stay Ecstatic! 

8/18/13

BOOK REVIEW "Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter and the Modern Horror Film" by Kendall R. Phillips

The following Book Review first appeared in issue 9.3 of the online Journal of Performance Studies "Liminalities" 
 Check out all of the excellent writing and video work archived at liminalities.net


One of the first major questions Phillips sets out to answer in Dark Directions is why anyone would want to write seriously about the work of the three horror icons at hand: zombie-flick pioneer George Romero; the creator of Freddy Krueger and the Scream films, Wes Craven; and the man behind both Mike Meyers and Snake Pliskin, John Carpenter. For me this effort needs no justification, but for readers who are coming to these directors anew or with some degree of skepticism there may be some convincing to do. Phillips begins by setting these directors, as well as his efforts as a writer, against the focus of Robert P. Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness, claiming that if you scratch beneath the surface of the filmmakers that usually dominate the conversations about the “Film School” generation—Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, etc.—you will eventually be confronted with the social relevance of three more genre-bound auteurs.

As he intends, Dark Directions is a worthy parallel text to Kolker’s, as well as a thorough and fair exploration of the filmographies at hand. Being a Horror scholar, Phillips is wary of veering into criticism that reinforces familiar cannons, while also working in a mode that honors the critical positioning of Andrew Sarris, maintaining focus on critical readings of the films themselves throughout his analysis. In this sense Dark Directions may be the kind of book that gets referenced in smaller portions by its readers, as one or another among this surprisingly diverse body of work becomes relevant for them, but would also function as a concisely considered completists journey through these decidedly hit-and-miss oeuvres.

Phillips re-groups the films in a way that shows their physiological and political impact in a new light.  With the recent Pop-Zombie spate of film and television releases--from AMC’s The Walking Dead to the upcoming adaptation of World War Z—the reconsideration here of Romero’s work that leads off the book provides a link in reading these films that, if not entirely new, at least connects to our desire to make sense of the current zombie invasion.  His reframing of Romero’s films as featuring either “Bodies as Contrast,” “Bodies as a Site of Struggle,” or “Mythic Bodies” seems particularly useful now as an entire field of Zombie Performance—in Film, Theater, and Political Activism—has developed its own history since the creation of the original Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Phillips considers the difference across films in how the “zombie” or other “unconstrained” bodies (as in 1973’s The Crazies) operate rhetorically, noting that in his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009), “Romero ends with parallel lines of living humans and zombies leaving the destruction of their old ways of life in search of some new direction.”  He goes on to argue that “the living dead do not so much stand for something—at least until Land of the Dead, where they do begin to take on a particular political valence—as stand against something.”  Though Phillips draws many parallels to the Reagan era in this book (which makes sense since all three produced a number of films during that period), the notion of zombies “standing against” evokes the number of public protests in recent years that employ zombie bodies:  rising for Greenpeace, the Occupy Movement; rising against the RNC, Bank of America, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the list goes on.

As an exploration of Wes Craven the book begins to feel less evocative, though no less well researched and thorough.  Phillips uses the framework of the Gothic to examine such seminal horror films as Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996), both of which have seen multiple sequels (though he mostly avoids the works not specifically helmed by Craven).  Perhaps my personal bias comes into play here, since I tend to lose interest in Craven shortly after his initial output, particularly Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  But, the Gothic framework reads less compellingly in the chapters on Gothic Form (covering everything from Freddy to the Eddie Murphy vehicle A Vampire in Brooklyn) and Gothic Technologies (including some rightfully forgotten flicks such as Deadly Friend and Shocker), and this may have something to do with the dip in quality of the films themselves.  Still, Phillips is exhaustive, even working Craven’s entry in the omnibus film Paris Je T’aime (2006) into the analysis.  Also, he is not oblivious to the varying quality of the work, not shying away from even the most forgettable of Craven’s filmography, such as his attempt at the werewolf genre in 2005’s Cursed, which Phillips manages to handle with insight, noting: “given the overwhelming gothic sensibility at work in his films, it is odd that Craven’s attempts to engage traditional, supernatural gothic storylines have proven disappointing.”

Perhaps the most revealing analysis comes from his section on Carpenter and the Snake Pliskin films, Escape From New York (1981) and Escape From L.A.(1996). Phillips charts the consequences of Reagan-era politics across these films, as well as what might be Carpenter’s most overt social commentary, the “Rowdy” Roddy Piper sci-fi film They Live (1988), wherein the wealthy and elite are cast as aliens among us.  For Phillips, New York “captures the early rhetoric of the Reagan campaign with a particular focus on Cold War histrionics and fears of internal corruption and crime.” They Live is a parody of 80’s politics in which “the optimistic economic rhetoric of Ronald Reagan becomes a specific target.”  And L.A., which takes us into the Clinton era, resonates with the complete transformation of a 1990’s media that “continued to emphasize image making in politics and the importance of the televisual and cinematic dimensions of the presidency.” 

The section on Carpenter is maybe the most successful due to the way in which Phillips also helps us appreciate the cinematic roots of his work, framing the overall critique through the idea of the “frontier.”  One possibly unexpected aspect of the book is how large a part the American Western plays into the final section:  “The vast majority of Carpenter’s work—while filled with aliens and vampires and futuristic outlaws—draws inspiration from the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford rather than older horror pictures.”  The way in which we begin to see the significance of this work in relation to a parallel genre that has increasingly carried the weight of social commentary is among the most revelatory critiques in Dark Directions.     

Dark Directions is not particularly risky in its analysis or exuberant in its style, but it is a valuable unpacking of three directors whose creations will continue to matter to the film-going/art-making/world-shaking consciousness.  In my experience, a good portion of young film students are awakened to the socio-political implications of film through genre works like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and They Live, which may not be the most dense texts, but do often open up the possibilities of critical film studies (for a generation that could stand to be more critical in regards to the current direction of the film industry).  Phillips understands clearly the scope of these filmographies and what they have to communicate about the drastic changes in film content and production since the earliest (and, arguably, the most enduring) of the films at hand, Night of the Living Dead.  What Dark Directions reveals in a more indirect way is the sad story of these directors late in their careers, mostly tied to the sequel-making machine the Industry has become, and in all cases rendered nearly ineffective in contrast to the indelible impression left by their early works.  Could Craven even make a film like Last House on the Left today?  Judging from the recent attempts to reconstitute the impact of these films (Snyder’s eviscerated Dawn of the Dead in 2004; the limp remake of Last House in 2009), the generation of film makers that Romero, Craven, and Carpenter have spawned is mostly ignorant of the kind of historical and cultural context that Dark Directions amply provides.