Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: SIFFtings I

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy scope out opening-week films

Prince of Tears (Yonfan, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2009; 122 mins.)

Who knew that about the same time (the early 1950s) McCarthyism was peaking in the United States, a parallel reign of terror was sweeping the supposedly free island of Formosa. The official bugaboo in both cases was Communism. McCarthy wrecked careers, but on Formosa suspicion of collaboration with the Red Chinese across the Taiwan Strait could get you imprisoned or executed — sometimes right on the spot.

Prince of Tears aims to illuminate this period by way of something very like a fairy tale, centered on a family torn asunder by historical forces and personal pathology. Sounds worthy and interesting. Unfortunately, writer-director Yonfan looks to be the anti–Hou Hsiao-hsien; unlike that Taiwanese master, he has no interest in ambiguity and no talent for the kind of patient, non-manipulative observation that allows connections and truths to be discovered out of the corner of one’s eye (or not at all). Everything is simpleminded — and no, “fairy tale” doesn’t have to mean simpleminded — as amped up and brainless as the surges of flagrantly heightened color that occasionally inflame the pretty landscape. Oh yeah, Yonfan’s an art director, too. —RTJ

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Truly Golden Oldies

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Hand me a film festival catalogue and the first thing I’m going to look for is the archival stuff.

It’s not just that the odds (and classical discipline) favor an older movie being better than a new one. A lot of worthy films have never received their just due, or have dropped out of circulation. Some have been given up as lost: no prints or negative known to survive.

Still, miracles happen. Some “lost” films have been sitting in the studio vaults all along, in mislabeled cans. Or a print may turn up in a Mittel-European or South American archive, its title translated into something unrecognizable. And sometimes people — whose grandfather used to be a projectionist, say — find the darnedest things sitting forgotten in the attic.

Festival screenings are often the best opportunities we’ll ever have to catch up with such movies. They also offer the chance to watch restorations of movies we’ve seen, but seen only in cut or bashed-up or dupe prints, or via improperly formatted TV or home-video presentations. And don’t shortchange the privilege of encountering them on the big, communal screen they were intended for.

In a spirit of “celebrating the landmark films that continue to shape our cinematic future,” SIFF 2010 is presenting nine vintage feature films, two documentary looks into movie history and three silent pictures with live musical accompaniment.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Cross Of Iron: On getting past the blood

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 25, 1977]

Hugging the wall of a trench, Steyner’s platoon looks up at a Russian tank clattering over their heads. They are the last Germans at this easternmost point on the Russian front, a rear guard where no rear guard was meant to be, deliberately stranded and now quite surrounded. They break for the nearby factory, spray the snipers out of the convoluted ductwork, but find no refuge there. The snout of another tank gun smashes through the wall, the machine following, climbing over brick and mortar and dead Germans and Russians. There is a tunnel. The platoon runs along it. In the eyehole of light behind them, the tank appears. The snout becomes an eye, and the eye a mouth, roaring after them. But only the tunnel remains to be destroyed. The platoon has risen out of a hole into sunlight, silence, and a field of the thickest, greenest grass this side of paradise.

Cross of Iron
Cross of Iron

People talk a lot about the violence in Sam Peckinpah’s films. Most of what they say has to do with drawing facile connections between bloodlust and macho sexuality, or tut-tutting over fascist mindsets, or announcing forthrightly that violence never settled anything and only begets more violence. This record is available at any number of reviewing stands and is suitable for playing at all the best parties.

The problem with these approaches to Peckinpah’s violence is that they all seek to ignore the man’s art, to seal it safely off behind a barrier of trendy labels and categories—somebody else’s categories. In so doing, ironically, they overlook how truly violent and anarchic his movies are. For Peckinpah’s violence involves much more than an abundance of blood-spurting corpses and protracted death falls. It rages against the very structures of experience, explodes the linear reliability of perception and narrative, blows up the known world and then shudders as the chaos starts resolving back into the same old patterns.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“Ah know you. You’re the guy in the hole.”
—Gold Hat to Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Toward the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just before his self-shattering execution of Kris Kristofferson’s Billy, James Coburn as Pat Garrett stops to exchange a few words with a coffinmaker, mysteriously at work in the gathering dusk. Addressed as Will, this artisan declines the offer of a comradely drink, then leans over his handiwork and says, “So you finally figured it out?” The speaker is Sam Peckinpah, and he seems to have something more in mind than Garrett’s determining that his quarry can be found within the adobe walls of Fort Sumner.

The effect of this apparition and query is disorienting, to say the least. Scarcely the artist off paring his nails in the wings, Peckinpah, instigator of this and so many other desperate quests for self-definition, materializes in the midst of mythic action as if to ascertain the degree of enlightenment his own imaginative creation has achieved. He even provides his principal player with a last rueful cue for action: “Ya better get it over with. ”

That’s all one hears in the theatrical release prints of the film: this dark, broody, heartbreakingly beautiful movie was to become, at the hands of MGM president James Aubrey, one of the most mangled works in Peckinpah’s much-mangled oeuvre. For whatever reason, network-TV prints of the picture include some reinstated scenes and parts of scenes (while lacking, of course, much of the R-rated material on Panavision view in theaters). On TV, the two foregoing remarks form part of a longer speech. Over the child’s coffin he is working on, the grizzled framer of death-as-apotheosis announces his own projected itinerary even as his latest stellar surrogate approaches the end of his particular road: “Know what I’m gonna do? Put everything I own right here [in the coffin], bury it, and leave the territory.” And then: “When are you gonna learn you can’t trust anybody—not even yourself, Garrett?”

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Review: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid vies with The Ballad of Cable Hogue as Sam Peckinpah’s most personal film. Not that Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, or even that compromised early project The Deadly Companions could have been made by any other man. But those films at least flirt with conventional notions of how movies are built, notions derived from viewing other men’s work. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is thoroughly perverse in conception and realization—and in its refusal (several people have remarked it independently) to get out of one’s skull the day after one has seen it, and the day after that. It is not my intention, here, to do much more than to record my astonishment, admiration, and awe, and (since it has been graced by a particularly contemptible, willfully misrepresentative review in the local evening paper) to urge anyone who cares for movies to see the picture at the earliest opportunity. M-G-M hasn’t so much released the film as set it outside the company vault and wait to see whether some passerby notices; it opened locally at two drive-ins and a plaza twin in Bellevue. Impatient moviegoers are warned: aside from the generally known fact that Sheriff Pat Garrett was somehow involved in the death of William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, the viewer has nothing to go on but his faith in the eventual emergence of a narrative; characters appear, seem to be known to the other characters, are not pointedly introduced or given time to develop the sort of identity we normally expect from a motion picture inhabitant, and may in fact die before we’re clear on who they were or why they appeared in the first place (though often we learn much more about them later, from the effect their absence has). Violence-baiters are also admonished: this is possibly Peckinpah’s bloodiest film, certainly the most carcass-strewn since The Wild Bunch; virtually every sequence is built around a killing, usually more than one.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“If I cannot rouse heaven,” says the Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, “I intend to raising hell.” It’s the hell-raising in the cinema of Sam Peckinpah that has most claimed the attention of both the director’s adverse critics and the contingent of the audience Pauline Kael has termed “the thugs”; heaven has rarely entered the discussion. Yet when Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) states, in Ride the High Country, “All I want is to enter my house justified,” the spiritual authenticity is unmistakable. And it doesn’t spring from institutionalized virtue, even if the rhetoric sounds vaguely churchified. (Peckinpah borrowed the line from his father.) Elsewhere in Ride the High Country, Judd trades Biblical quotations with a pathological fire-and-brimstone type (R.G. Armstrong), each of them footnoting chapter and verse; but the last word belongs to Judd’s partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who cuts across their dialogue to compliment Fire-and-Brimstone’s daughter, “Miss Knudsen, you cook a lovely ham hock,” then glances at Judd: “Appetite, Chapter One.”

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of the most joyously earthy movies ever made. It’s also quite heavenly. That both qualities are valid in the film traces from their inextricability. And the inextricability has a lot to do with Cable Hogue‘s being a very funny movie.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Sam Peckinpah, Television

Short Notice: “The Marshal”

[Originally published as a “Short Notice” in Film Quarterly, Summer 1974]

“The Marshal” (episode No. 6211 of The Rifleman TV series). I recently had the extraordinary experience of showing Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to a University of Washington film class and then going home to discover an ancestor of sorts on television. Knowing that Peckinpah had worked on The Rifleman, among other shows, and noticing that Warren Oates and James Drury were listed in the cast of that evening’s rerun, I tuned in. The episode indeed proved to be a Peckinpah: teleplay, direction, and a co-credit for story. A crucial installment in the development of the series, it introduced regular-to-be Paul Fix as Micah Torrance, a once-renowned lawman who had managed to live long enough to take off his badge—but only by losing his nerve and taking to the bottle. Torrance comes to the attention of Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and the town marshal, played by R.G. Armstrong (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett), and McCain sets about rehabilitating him by putting him to work on his ranch. About that time, Oates and brother Robert J. Wilke appear, hot on Torrance’s trail and determined to repay him for shooting them up in the line of duty some years previous. Drury, who played the least depraved of the Hammond boys in Ride the High Country, rides into town with them but pretends to only a loose affiliation; he affects a mellifluous manner and mocks their illiteracy—they are clearly akin to such “damn drygulchin’ Southern trash” as the Hammonds and the Strother Martin–L.Q. Jones types in later Peckinpah—while targeting Marshal Armstrong’s niece for seduction. If Drury’s motivation is ever declared, I missed it; but at any rate he has soon shot and killed Armstrong, then enticed McCain into town with the news that Oates and Wilke did it. There is a concluding fight, McCain falls wounded after downing Wilke, and Torrance—effectively if not actually one-armed like James Coburn’s Sam Potts in Major Dundee—manages to do for the others with a shotgun. The episode ends with McCain recuperating and Micah Torrance sporting the marshal’s badge he will wear throughout the rest of the series.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah: Introduction to Film Comment Midsection (1981)

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

Where is Sam Peckinpah these days? Surrounded by family in Sausalito, or perhaps Mexico? Chumming it with the Montana Bloomsbury Group? Holed up in the cabin he built four or five miles from Warren Oates’ place, putting the final polish on the final draft of the screenplay that may become The Texan with Lee Marvin? All of the above are good bets, but I hope something like the last one is true, at least part of the time. There hasn’t been a new Sam Peckinpah movie in going-on-three-years, and that’s far too long to suit me.

Sam Peckinpah watches on
Sam Peckinpah with Steve McQueen

There are, to be sure, people it would suit right down to the ground if Peckinpah never made another film. Some of them are critics and columnists who have written him off as an irrelevance, a failed prodigy whose intransigent individuality ultimately proved unproductive (“out of step, out of place, and desperately out of time”). Some are feminists, Marxists, people who get so mad about movie violence that they want to break something, others who have taken aesthetic, political, or philosophical objection to Peckinpah’s work. And some, unfortunately, are people who have the power to decide who is or is not bankable—the kind of people whose company Peckinpah has had to avoid since acquiring a pacemaker a year or so back.

For all of these, and for an undeterminable but probably hefty portion of the potential movie audience, Sam Peckinpah and his films have less meaningfully operative reality than “Sam Peckinpah,” a pop socioaesthetic entity that can be bandied about as casually and as destructively as, say, “Walt Disney” or “John Wayne.” “Sam Peckinpah” is cinematic bloodbaths, brute machismo, violence and destruction lovingly prolonged by slow motion, women as sex objects (preferably for raping and punching out), and, for brevity and all-purpose inclusiveness, fascism. These form a template that can be applied to any forthcoming Peckinpah movie (by Peckinpah-baiters and, sadly, by some Peckinpah admirers, who figure bloodbaths, machismo, violence, rape, etc. are perfectly groovy): what comes through is only what’s allowed to come through. Even worse, “Sam Peckinpah” makes the actual experience of Sam Peckinpah movies superfluous. More than a few times, I’ve challenged users of the label only to learn that they’d never seen many, or any, of the films—just heard about “Sam Peckinpah” and bought the concept for conversational convenience. It sees them through most of the best parties.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Interviews, Sam Peckinpah, Westerns

“A privilege to work in films”: Sam Peckinpah among friends

Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Sam Peckinpah visited Seattle for several days in July, 1978, under the joint auspices of the Seattle Film Society and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On the evening of July 19 he appeared at the Seattle Concert Theatre to talk with an audience that had just seen, and warmly responded to, his comedy-western The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The following is a slightly edited transcript (from a tape made by Ray Pierre) of that dialogue. For fluency of reading we have kept the [Laughter] notations to a minimum, but the fact is that laughter punctuated the discussion with considerable frequency. -Ed.

[Questions, in italics, were mostly from members of the audience. Richard T. Jameson was moderator.]

Cable Hogue, even though Cable died at the end, was a very upbeat film, which is different from all the other [Peckinpah] films that I’ve seen. Was there a reason that in 1970 or ’69 you made a movie that does not—to me, at any rate—fit very easily with all the rest of your work?

I think it fits very well. I should mention one thing that seems to confuse people: I’ve made three, or maybe I could say four, films that were my own projects; the rest I have done because that was the job that was offered. I don’t really pick and choose. On Cable, Warren [Oates] had given me the property to read, I liked it, I bought it on time, I tried to get together with Van Heflin to make for around $700,000, could not do it. And Ken Hyman was the president of Warner Brothers at that time, loved The Wild Bunch, and I conned him into tying Cable Hogue into it because I wanted to make the film. And that’s it.

I have a question about The Wild Bunch. The first print that was shown in Seattle lasted about seven days. Then it was changed, another print was substituted. Some things were cut, deleted, mainly to conform with some criticisms that Time had about the movie. Who was responsible for the cuts?

Well, Time magazine was not responsible. It was … I was cutting Cable at the time. I got a call from [producer Phil] Feldman; he said they wanted to try it out in one theater—a shorter version. I said “Fine—in one theater.” Next thing I knew, it had been cut to pieces all over the country. So you can thank Mr. Feldman for doing it. And a man named Weintraub, who also was very active at Warner Brothers at the time.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasion is going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movie—more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studio—indeed, all those bastards—had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?

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