My First Peckinpah!!!
An inspiration for one half of my fav. directors- Tarantino, Scorsese, Rodriguez and the likes.
Another quarter of my list, the french new wave, is inspired by another Sam- the cigar-chomping Fuller.
Both seemed to start with pure pulp- pychotic cowboys/pickpockets/prostitutes and end up with high art. From online reviews, all i could gather up were true all-american individuals who made a kind for cinema that was raw, savage yet truthful.
For a long time I could catch neither of them while at the same time being obsessed about them for the singular reason that perhaps the spark that they conveyed to Tarantino, Melville and co. could as if by the kind of magical telepathy that all arts know, be transferred to me and before i know it I have conjured the most devastatingly briliant story in my head.
That was not to be until this summer when i came across my first Fuller- Pickup on South Street. A movie that is thorough with the streets- the lingo, the mannerisms, the will to survive, to love, a comment or two on the general confusion regarding ‘commies’ etc. But no spark. Not even close. I had commited the cardinal mistake of building up my expectations to a point which the movie was never expected to fulfill.
So, it was to be that I left Peckinpah along with Fuller languishing at a pile of movies that I will never be able to enjoy only because I had unknowingly attatched excess baggage to it.
Today morning started on a good note. I was up by seven and by some arcane principle on which Indian sattelite channels swear by of attaching the best of thier movies at a time slot that normally translates quite plainly as ‘zzzzzzzzzzzz’… they were showing ‘Give me the head of Alfredo Garcia’.
‘Samuel David Peckinpah’
Naam toh suna hoga?
’Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ starts with Mexican cacique El Jefe asking, in true western tradition, for the titular head as a proof of the death of the gigolo who had impregnated his daughter, announcing a bounty of one million dollars. This announcement has assorted low-lives scramble to the Mexican desert in search for Garcia’s grave. Bennie, a sad-eyed wasted barkeep played by Peckinpah regular Warren Oates, gets wind of the money on offer from two bounty hunters who drop into his bar. The bounty hunters promise Bennie a sum of 10,000 dollars if he manages to secure the head for them.
Bennie is living a dead-end life, a gringo in Mexico, a crap job, lonely and with a drinking problem. When he learns that his girlfreind, a streetwalker named Elita used to be Alfredo Garcia’s girl- he is pained at the news but the hope and promise of a few dineros and a new life set him and Elita on a road trip to Garcia’s grave. It’s here that the movie begins to seem like a fever dream of sorts. Striking cinematography and visceral editing lend the highway and vast dead desert around them a nightmarish quality. It’s obvious that what Bennie and Elita share is thier misery and dread as to where the lives they’re leading will end.
The wretchedness of the human soul is brought out when the couple are ambushed and Elita is raped by highwaymen. Bennie tries to rebel but the submissive Elita convinces him that such is life and offers herself to the men. It is a wrenching scene and Peckinpah aims for the gut. It’s clear that the doomed couple are holding on to but a mirage of a happy ending. Later, when Bennie proposes marriage to Elita, she breaks down completely.
On reaching the grave, a conflicted Bennie has an arguement with Elita regarding the extraction of the head. They have an arguement. “There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it- or you or me” says Bennie.
They’re ambushed at the grave and Elita murdered. It’s here that Bennie slips into a world of existential dread. He weeps pitifully at her grave. The only person he had in this world is no more and Bennie is alone, angry and afraid. In his angst, he strikes up a friendship with the severed head of Garcia, even to the point of adddressing it loveingly as ‘Al’.
The scene where Bennie talks to the head is the obvious inspiration for the Tarantino-helmed section of ‘Sin City’ which had Clive Owen and a dead Benicio Del Toro in a car. But the stylistic excess of the scene washes over the themes and it comes off only as bizzare/hallucinatory- a freak sequence. In Peckinpah’s movie, it reveals the condition of the soul. The misery of Bennie, his insecurity, his dread, his anger, his loneliness, his confusion, his weakness, a man in a foriegn land that is raw and savage. Bennie is weak, a pawn in the hands of his employers and the fate with which Peckinpah’s nihilistic vision confounds him. Him talking to the head is a desperate urge to communicate, to connect, to save his sanity and hope.
None of the characters in the movie who come in contact with Alfredo’s head, whether they know of the story they are in or not, are doomed. As the movie proceeds, events only turn bleaker as does Bennie’s quest for Redemption. But in Peckinpah’s misogynist, nihilistic view not even the dead deserve redemption.
Critics have always complained of Peckinpah’s festish for blood and gore and ‘Bring me the head of alfredo garcia’ is drenched in violence but every bullet is accounted for. Bennie may shoot at already dead bodies but in his clumsy, inexperienced way it is only a way of making sure that they’re completely exterminated. When the bounty hunters shoot down a bunch of Mexican’s who have Bennie captive, Peckinpah identifies them as ‘family’ giving the shootout a tinge of tragedy, loss and humanity. Even Bennie’s desecration of Garcia’s head is not out of bloodlust but a way out of his miserable existance. Bennie is just making the best of whatever choice life offers a deadbeat like him. On reaching his motel he proceeds to clean the head with alcohol.
What Peckinpah does possess is a penchant for orchestrating violence. There’s a wisp of poetry to his camera and editing when guns enter the frame. Only, Takeshi Kitano seems to handle a shootout better than him.
As Bennie, widely regarded as the cinematic portrayl of Peckinpah himself, Oates is brilliant. His grimaces, his descent into confusion, his drunken speech, the sun-glasses, the cigarette dangling from his lip… Oates is Bennie. It’s the kind of role that will taint any Oates performance I’ll see for the rest of my life. A momentous performace, one of the greatest ever.
‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia’ is a true classic that deserves to rise amongst the narrow category of ‘cult’ that it has fallen in, probably on account of the cold critical and commercial reception on release in 74′. That Peckinpah disintegrated in a booze-fueled existance didn’t help either.
A real shame actually, given the absolute greatness that the film achieves. A dazzling movie that’ll stick around inside of you like some deep inner fear. A visceral, mad, truthful rave of a genius. As the movie ends, froven over a frame of the business end of a pistol it’s almost as if Peckinpah’s fatalism is turned onto his audience reminding them that life in itself implies death.
Note-to-self: Next time the waiter asks you what you want, say- BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. My favorite movie title. Period.
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