Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[originally published in The Austin Chronicle, October 22, 1999]

Nowadays, most movies look factory-made, mechanically repeating cast, storyline, or F/X from the last big blockbuster. They touch us skin-deep, ask nothing of us but box-office, kill time and vanish. In contrast, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is like getting accosted by a wild-eyed Ancient Mariner, a colorful dreg who draws you willy-nilly into his tragi-comic tale about an albatross, love, and death. The grizzled fellow’s story literally rubs your nose in the stink and sweat of Mexico, Sam Peckinpah’s earthiest haven from the Dream Factory. Playing Head‘s anti-hero Benny is anti-star Warren Oates, five-foot-three sleazebag, he of sheepish gaze and shit-eating grin. Suffering through an ever more hallucinatory journey, this latter-day Bogey pursues Peckinpavian Treasure of the Sierra Madre: a rotting head. Not politely stowed off screen, not tricked out in horror-movie makeup, but an inescapably flesh-and-blood thing that oozes, draws moscas, thunks off a car seat — and grossest insult, this revolting memento mori is flung right into our collective face!

Peckinpah means for his Head, his movie, to be hard to take. Every frame, cut, dissolve, line of dialogue, performance is chosen, sewn together to weave a seamless, searing pattern, its style inextricable from its substance. This black-humored parable exposes cruel conception and labor, the ugly agony of an outlaw artist’s desperation to make movies in spite of heartless moneymen in Muzak’d executive suites — and his own self-crucifying sins. Pulling critics and consumers down into the bloody muck of his artworld getting born, Peckinpah revels in images of himself as whore, martyr, vengeful creator.

Sam Peckinpah  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia_full2
Warren Oates as Benny

Spinning off a surrogate self in Benny—who sports the director’s eternal shades, his heartbreaking, sometimes killer smile—Sam propels his con artist from grave to grail. After his first “death” in the earth with Ileta, Benny spends the rest of the movie in quest of moral/aesthetic apotheosis, the proper place to lay down his narrative burden—his “movie”—and truly die, justified. Head isn’t a pretty picture, but its pilgrimage through wombs and tombs, sacred “holes” where aspirations are born and broken, leads to Benny’s last of several baptisms, this one in blood.

In the context of this uncompromising allegory, Alfredo’s decomposing, once-handsome skull conjures Peckinpah’s “decapitated” body of work, from Major Dundee through Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Sam experienced the cutting of his films as mortal assaults on his own body and honor: “I know about graves,” Benny babbles to the dead man’s vengeful family on his way back to El Jefe, the headman who instigates Alfredo’s mutilation. In the sublimely elegiac Pat Garrett, Peckinpah cast himself as a coffinmaker who offers ironic comment—”So you finally figured it out”—to Garrett as the lawman moves toward the execution of Billy the Kid, a mirror of his better self. Peckinpah spiritually (and after his heart went bad, bodily) climbed out of a grave every time he brought in a movie: Figuratively armoring up in Benny’s grufty white suit (color for penitente, saint, or knight), he powered his brokedown psyche into one more stab at figuring out the way into high country.

As with Cable Hogue, that endearing capitalist musical about another mythic lowlife, love duets and “bad blood” ballads landmark Benny’s progress south of the border. Detractors call Sam misogynist because every woman in Head seems a whore, casualty of machismo; such critics miss Peckinpah’s connection between sex and art for sale. They can’t hear this film’s sustaining music, emanating from the sweet, pagan wisdom and grace of Isela Vega’s Ileta, muse-lover-earth goddess. Unlike Benny, she “knows the way—I’ve been here before,” and she dies for his greed—and his second chance. Head celebrates El Jefe’s iconographic, impotent wife, mother of the brave young woman whose rounded, gravid form, at the film’s beginning and end, echoes so naturally the curve of the limb she rests against, the slow movement of the river before her. The crack of her shattered arm galvanized Head‘s blasphemous quest; her ruthless judgment—”Kill him!”—rescues a newborn (now fathered by Benny as much as Garcia) from her father’s perverting embrace, redeems Ileta’s sacrifice and the humanity of all the lesser whores degraded by El Jefe’s hirelings.

Peckinpah fires Head‘s last shot, a freeze-framed, smoking gun barrel, straight at an audience often avid for his faces of death, but blind to the whole form of his gift. But that’s not the film’s last portrait of the artist: the penultimate frame behind the end credits reprises the idyllic framing of El Jefe’s pregnant daughter as she contemplates the stream’s serene flow. Then, the final image, also a repeat: looking down into the filthy bag at Alfredo’s decomposed head, a hitman cracks wise at beat-up, half-crazy Benny: “You’ve sure got a nose for shit!” Somewhere between innocence and corruption, Sam Peckinpah’s imagination quickened again and again—and delivered.

© 1999 Kathleen Murphy