Monday, September 13, 2004

Bloody Sam's Masterpiece

Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Movies, especially genre pieces, are rarely unique; so one has to look at Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as a magnificent achievement, if only for its extraordinary originality and the manner in which it achieves that originality without demolishing the genre in which it works. Unlike Sergio Leone, who signaled his love of the genre even as he deconstructed it; Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid seems to spontaneously erupt out of Peckinpah's unconcious. I don't think he ever made a film before or after which speaks so effortlessly and so beautifully in the voice of its author. The result is a Western which is not only unlike any other Western ever made, but completely unlike any other film ever made, including Peckinpah's own.

Firstly, this film moves in an entirely unique manner, avoiding the three-act structure of the conventional film in favor of a cyclical arc which inexorably propels the film towards its violent climax. The film, quite literally, ends where it begins, both chronologically and geographically. Secondly, the film's dialogue is simply extraordinary. Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (most probably in collaboration with Peckinpah) invents a patois which, for all intents and purposes, amounts to an artificial period dialect. The film essentially invents its own language. This, combined with John Coquillon's bleached-tan cinematography, creates a world so self contained that one begins to understand how its inexorable forces push against its characters, rendering them helpless before their fates.

This is also, without question, a masterpiece of acting on the part of James Coburn. His performance ranks with John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers as a towering pice of film acting. Coburn's Garrett is a weak-willed yet ferociously tough outlaw who is smart enough to realize that the outlaw's time is almost over; like Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch, he wants to start thinking beyond his guns, because those days are closing fast. Indeed, the darkness is closing on everyone in this film. Its characers seem to appear like memories, ciphers out of a dream. They are lost souls who history has abandoned, and are left only with their fading memories of the West when it, and they, were once young. Coburn captures Garrett's tragedy, the tragedy of a man who cannot avoid his fate and yet fights desperately to do just that, in a performance of marvelous economy and subtlety. He barely raises his voice until the film's final moments, and yet one can almost see the forces tearing him apart inside. There are a handful of moments where this humanity bursts through to the surface - when he watches, with a look of pity and compassion, as the gutshot Sheriff Baker wanders to the river to die, his weeping wife silently at his side; or when he almost shoots a perfect stranger on a riverboat and suddenly realizes the absurdity of what he is about to do; or, most especially, the split second look in his eyes the moment before he pulls the trigger and kills Billy the Kid, a look halfway between weeping and despair - and these moments are marked by Peckinpah's unrelenting camera as beautifully as John Ford's shattering closeups of Wayne's face, contorted by rage and sorrow, in The Searchers.

The rest of the cast, while not as magnificent as Coburn, nonetheless provide an extraordinary array of grotesque and tragic characters, simultaneously ugly and unforgettable. Kris Kristofferson's Billy is essentially a child, incapable of seeing or understanding the forces with which Garrett is reckoning. He too cannot escape them, yet he has no conciousness of his own doom. His purpose is to draw Garrett to him, yet he has no grasp of the fact that this means his destruction. Billy's tragedy is the opposite of Garrett's tragedy; where Garrett is doomed by the weight of the forces around him, Billy is doomed by his incapacity to comprehend them. He is utterly careless, nihilistic in the most literal sense. The only bond he feels is his friendship to Garrett, the friendship that ultimately seals his fate. For it is precisely bcause of this lightness of spirit that he cannot kill Garrett, and precisely because of the weight Garrett carries that he can kill Billy. Kristofferson, while his characterization is not nearly as deep as Coburn's, captures this childlike quality beautifully; while some may see his portrayal as shallow, this is precisely the point, it is Billy's lack of depth which renders him unable to comprehend the forces driving him towards his inevitable end.

The films' elegiac sense of inevitability is underlined by the presence of a myriad of aging Western actors: Chill Wills, the extraordinary Katy Juarado, and, most especially, Jack Elam, who turns in a shockingly moving performance as Alamosa Bill Kermit. It is simply astonishing to think that the man who played a monosyllabic thug in the opening scenes of Once Upon in a Time in the West has here been transformed into the sad, good-hearted old man doomed by merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Peckinpah's skill with actors is rarely mentioned, even by his supporters, but it must be noted that the performances in this film (many by non-actors) are, even in the smaller parts, universally moving and memorable; and he manages to get a heart-rending performance even out of the usually oafish likes of Slim Pickens (indeed, a performance so heart-rending it inspired Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door", a song which, ironically, is now far more legendary than the film which inspired it).

The Bob Dylan soundtrack, often cited by the film's detractors, is also quite unique. Like Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack to Shaft, the soundtrack does not enhance the film so much as add another dimension to it, acting less like accompaniment and more like a chorus keeping watch over the proceedings and signaling to us the complexities its characters cannot grasp. More than anything else in the film, Dylan's score provides the sense of tragedy and loss, the tear-jerking inevitability of the passage of time, which raises this film out of its genre origins into the realm of cinematic poetry. (Legend has it that when Dylan first played Peckinpah the film's signature theme "Billy", the icon of cinematic machismo - who had no idea who Dylan was - was reduced to tears, blubbering "goddamit, who is that boy? Sign him up!") The final theme, played as Garrett relentlessly circles Billy's lodging house in Old Fort Sumner, trying to avoid what he knows cannot be avoided, renders what might be a tedious scene utterly heart-breaking, and gives the gnomic character of a grizzled old prospector recalling a long-ago cattle drive a level of tragic resonance which would have been impossible without it (indeed, this is, in my opinion, by far the most moving scene in the entire picture). Dylan's score is unusual, but only in that the rest of the film is also unusual, and its very uniqueness is utterly in keeping with the spirit of the film itself.

A word has to be said here about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid's place in the history of the Western. It is, in my opinion, the oustanding masterpiece of the later Westerns; begun by John Ford himself in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and culminating in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven; an era in which the Western was looked at for the first time in a concious manner and its conventions were subverted and, ultimately, re-mythologized. This film must stand alongside Once Upon a Time in the West as one of the most extraordinary reimaginings of the Western ever put on film; but whereas Leone's film is an operatic fantasy, Peckinpah's film is a dusty folk song, an elegiac, late-evening ballad laced, perhaps, with a bit too much Mexican tequila but, nonetheless, suffused with that sense of sadness and loss that has marked all the great Westerns of its era. It is a film whose violence, dirtiness, and occasional sadism only underline its wounded heart, the heart of its director, who loved the Western and its conventions even as he blasted them to pieces in slow motion. Peckinpah might have occasionally reveled in blood, but there was method in his sadism, perhaps summed up in the line of one his characters, who only wanted to enter his house in the evening justified. None of the characters in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid can hope for such a consummation, but the same cannot be said of its creator. Whatever accolades may yet come Peckinpah's way, and he is long overdue for a reassessment, this film proves that every one of them is, unquestionably, justified.

This review refers to Peckinpah's original two-hour cut. The theatrical version, while watchable, lacks the sweep and tragedy of the original and is disjointed to the point of incomprehensibility. It ought to be avoided.


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Have you seen Jarmusch's "Dead Man"?

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