To say that everyone now makes films like Sam Peckinpah is to state the obvious. To say that Sam Peckinpah is the most significant filmmaker of the sound era is to commit a heresy. This is appropriate. Peckinpah was a heretical filmmaker. This is the key to his significance.
Since the silent era, cinema has consisted of little more than a perfection of techniques; indeed, the most fascinating aspect of cinema as an art is how quickly its language was constituted. By the death of Sergei Eisenstein, it is possible to say that the hieroglyphic script of the medium had already been brought to complete realization. Since then, despite the pretensions of Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol or the legion of facile amateurs who claim the name of “avant garde”, no significant changes in the syntax of film have taken place. Even Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), despite its obvious brilliance and its vaunted reputation, is merely a self-conscious theatricalization of already existing innovations. It is a variation on a theme. There is nothing in it that had not been done before. The same cannot be said of the films of Sam Peckinpah.
Sam Peckinpah is the only filmmaker of the sound era who has fundamentally altered the language of cinema. It is more than likely, even inevitable, that, as the decades pass and his contemporaries enter obscurity, he will remain the most terrifying presence in modern film.
Peckinpah’s significance remains, at the moment, oppressed by the attention paid his subject matter. It is important, therefore, to speak the truth at the outset. Peckinpah’s subject is not violence, but death. More accurately, it is the re-æstheticization of cinematic death. Before Peckinpah, cinematic death was one thing. After Peckinpah, it was another. Even Eisenstein could not make such an extraordinary claim. So total has been Peckinpah’s triumph that it now passes completely unnoticed. Cinematic death has become Peckinpavian death. There is no difference.
Death is the only true subject of art. The rest is elaborate artifice. Cinema itself is a dead thing, an inanimate object with the illusion of life. The viewer is the only means of its resurrection. As such, death is essential to cinema. So we may assert that all cinema is now Peckinpavian cinema.
To understand this, one is permitted, indeed required, to look beyond his immediate heirs. A filmmaker’s true influence can only be measured by the extent to which his æsthetic has become banality, the extent to which it has permeated the fabric of the medium. Ironically, this is generally commensurate with the extent to which he has been forgotten. It is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of the master’s heirs have never seen a single one of his films. His anonymity has become synonymous with his ubiquity.
The man himself seems to have been a rare animal, an artist who is readily understood. There is nothing inscrutable about him. There is nothing inscrutable about his films. He and they are ecstatically, essentially immediate. His vices were obvious and public: drug abuse, alcoholism, possible paranoid schizophrenia, a tendency towards sentiment matched only by his capacity to abuse his intimates, a melancholic temperament punctuated by fits of irrational rage. The question of autobiography is no question at all. Peckinpah’s films, as only genre films can be, are unrelentingly personal. They are saturated with the author’s personality. Legend holds that some of the most memorable lines spoken in his films were habitual utterances of the man himself. It is established that the central characters of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) are conscious doppelgangers. In the latter, as Marcello Mastroianni did in 8½ (1963), the quintessential work of cinematic autobiography, Warren Oates went so far as to don the clothes and sunglasses of his director to play the lead role. One wonders if the compulsion went even further. Are the likes of the murderous coward in Straw Dogs (1971) and the tortured but determined Pat Garrett (James Coburn) also lurking in the psyche of their creator?
Peckinpah’s impulses are not esoteric. Thanatos rules his world, in all its bastard glory. Every one of his masterpieces ends in some kind of death — usually wilful, violent, absurd and fruitlessly noble. Eventually, even his camera began to assume his image. Alfredo Garcia, in particular, seems to be shot through an alcoholic haze. In an age of self-revelation, no director has displayed himself in such an unselfconscious and naked fashion. But this is deep nudity, and cannot be taken lightly.
This nakedness is not confined to the derogatory and the scandalous. Never mentioned in the blizzard of clichés that dominates the critical discourse on the master is his remarkable sentimentality. The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are essentially masculine romances, The Getaway (1972) and Alfredo Garcia are tragic love stories, and Ride the High Country (1962) ends in one of the most elaborately emotional death scenes in the history of cinema. Too much concentration on the psychopathologies of an artist can annihilate comprehension of his work. Peckinpah remains a victim of this unfortunate phenomenon. The paradoxical but essential combination of the violent and the sentimental remains his untouched essence, his essential nakedness. To exalt the one without the other is to erase the man himself. One cannot understand the entirety of a life as an expression of the self-destructive urge. To do so robs us of tragedy. It is easy to read Peckinpah’s statement that the end of a film is the end of a life as an expression of unbalanced obsession. Sadness is the far more likely explanation.
The chimera of realism has polluted the discussion of his work. Realism asserts the impossible. There is no realism in cinema. All cinema is fantasia. The significance of Peckinpah is not that he made cinema more realistic but that he changed the nature of its artifice. Cinema is merely an evocation of immanence, a shadow of the real. Peckinpah succeeded, where all others have failed, in deforming its contours. Whether this is to the good is an irrelevant question. Cinema will never have need of the real. It does have need of Sam Peckinpah.
Phantasmagoria is the essence of Peckinpah’s cinema. It creates its own, distended time – a singular, torrential æsthetic. His films are architectures of calculated frenzy. There is no chaos in his artistry. No other director has submitted himself so completely to the discipline of montage.
The comparison to ballet, however, to dance, is inappropriate. Dance is the movement of limbs. As such, it is literal and inherently immediate. It flows into itself. It contains no divisions. Cinema is juxtaposed, displaced, staccato, vertiginous, disconnected. Critical reaction to Peckinpah, and to his art, will remain trivial so long as it continues to insist on a desperate relativisation of cinema. Peckinpah could not be contained in any other medium. His æsthetics are the æsthetics of cinema. His heresy is cinematic heresy. The insistence of the critical establishment on turning cinema into some other, more acceptable, art form is both unique and unfortunate. It is no great surprise that Peckinpah’s most vocal advocates have always been other filmmakers. Cinema is not words. It is not movement. It is not sound. It is montage. Or, rather, montage is the unique aspect of cinema. Peckinpah can be grasped only through the totality of his montage. His impact can be understood only through the extent to which all montage has become his montage. It is said that The Wild Bunch contains more cuts than any sound film ever made. Even in this pure, quantitative realm, Peckinpah anticipated the extent of his influence. It points us, moreover, to Peckinpah’s true talent: the total exploitation of the tools available. This concentration of forces is the origin of poetry. The Wild Bunch is a tone poem written in adrenaline.
Peckinpah’s importance lies in his heresy, in the exploding of the barrier between the eye and the camera. Before Peckinpah, the camera turned away from what we cannot. After Peckinpah, the camera became ruthless, unrelenting, violating, destructive. Like most heresies, Peckinpah’s heresy springs from a return to first principles. The camera has never wanted to look away. Only the eye behind it has been unable to watch. Peckinpah insisted on continuing to see. In Peckinpah, the act of filming at last becomes one with the act of seeing. He confronted his audience with an æsthetics of total apprehension — not only to watch, but to stare.
Peckinpah’s career consists of a single, sustained, transgressive act. By itself, this means nothing. Transgression can be as cheap as conformity. In fact, in our age of rebellion-as-æsthetic, rather than æsthetic-as-rebellion, it almost always is. Peckinpah represents the one genuine transgression of an era in which transgression became conformity. His films do not shock, they disturb. They do not merely disturb our sensibilities, our tastes, our perceptions, they distress cinema itself.
– Pike Bishop and Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates) in The Wild Bunch
The issue of violence in Peckinpah is not one of quantity. The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs contain only two scenes, respectively, of the truly phantasmagoric, eroticised violence for which the master is famous. Pat Garrett and Alfredo Garcia contain even less. It is a tribute to the capacities of the master that his films are locked into the collective memory as saturated in blood. This is inaccurate, but understandable. Peckinpah’s work is saturated by violence by means of the absence of violence. His films are progressions towards apocalypse. They are redolent with apprehension and terror. Violence is omnipresent in Peckinpah only as an evocation. The momentary explicit swells into this vacuum, until each interaction, each juxtaposition, each cut, holds the promise of death. Peckinpah is the long awaited transmutation of death into montage. His cinema subsumes death — thus the illusion.
Peckinpah’s worlds are precipice worlds; they totter on the verge of collapse. A succession of momentary fissures threatens the precarious balance. They gather in force. They become unstoppable. By the end of Peckinpah’s masterpieces, the knot has slipped. For a brief moment, chaos holds dominion over all. The aftermath is its return to the natural state of indifferent inertia.
The board upon which Peckinpah sets his pieces in motion is a contested border, a no-man’s-land between the human and the inanimate. The Western personifies Peckinpah even when he ventures beyond it because it is the purest rendering of this dichotomous contention: the frontier state, the point where the tectonic motions of the savage against the ominously civilized strain in a state of uneasy ceasefire.
Simplistic critics insist upon a misinterpretation. Peckinpah’s world is Rousseauvian. It is not Hobbesian. Apocalypse is not the work of nature but the consummation of the labors of man. Violence is a product of human interaction.
The natural state of nature is indifference. Nature possesses no will, and is thus inherently innocent. Man’s nature is will — the will to contention. Nature is terrifying because it is undirected power. Man is terrifying because he is power. And the method of directed power is death — death wielded as a weapon of struggle. Its object is other men. This nihilism, the nihilism of the human, and not the natural, is the wasteland upon which Peckinpah’s heroes seek their dusty transcendence — seek, it may be said, to be justified in an unjustifiable world.
Humanity is a cyclical, escalating pattern. Murders and violations multiply, codes are transgressed, honor is denounced, forces concentrate and tremble, death becomes the means, and, at last, the center cannot hold. It is here, most spectacularly in The Wild Bunch and most quietly in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, that the world explodes — a bang and a whimper.
Peckinpah’s reputation resides in these moments of explosion. This is natural. Peckinpah was the first director to æstheticize apocalypse, to make it beautiful. To give it grace. To some this is a crime against morality. It may simply be a failing inherent in his talent. Peckinpah was too brilliant a filmmaker to make anything truly ugly. But it is not immoral. Apocalypse in Peckinpah is a moral apocalypse. It is the divine judgment of an unknown god, the inevitable outcome of man’s demiurgic powers. Man annihilates man. Man annihilates his creation. And the calm of the wasteland returns. There is a righteousness at work here, or at least a divine irony, a jester in the machine. What else can be said of a judgment that consumes together the righteous and the profane? The debased General Mapache (Emilio Fernández) receives what he deserves, but so does Pike Bishop, and so do women and children. Man’s vengeance upon himself is as indiscriminate as his sins. Creation is demiurgical. So is apocalypse. Man is the demiurge.
The charge of misanthropy is only half justified. Peckinpah condemns man, but it is uncertain that he judges him. Misanthropy is a visceral reaction, but it is also an ideological position. Peckinpah is not interested in writs for the prosecution. This is sheer reportage. This is a man looking through the lens. A tragic creature is glimpsed, trapped in the labyrinth of creation and apocalypse. Honor is given its due. Dishonor is given an equal measure. Such pretensions prove irrelevant to the inevitable. Things fall apart.
It is suitably ironic that the moment of collapse is simultaneously the moment in which Peckinpah’s cinema becomes most careful and considered, even delicate. No other filmmaker has made architecture out of destruction with greater skill and caution. The Wild Bunch was edited with the greatest care, then completely dismantled and built again. Chaos requires the most fastidious attention. Pages of dialogue pass by with only a few cuts, but death is granted the most lavish attentions of the master. This is an erotics born of the minutiæ of catastrophe. Even in his non-violent films, Peckinpavian death is monumental, architectural, epic. No life is permitted to exit his world without the most ostentatious rites. Each deceased is the subject of an oration, an epitaph written in montage.
Montage subsumes Peckinpah. As such, it subsumes catastrophe. Until Peckinpah, cinema turned away from death. After Peckinpah, death and cinema were united. Cinema, however, is something like immortality. Perhaps Peckinpah made death into cinema in order to transcend them both. It remains to be seen if he succeeded.
“I’m askin’ you. But in five days I’m makin’ you.”
– Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
I have stated that violence is the result of human interaction. This is not entirely accurate. Violence is the result of interactions between men. It is men who stand in indiscriminate and absurd judgment of other men and of themselves. In a godless world, wielding death is the closest that men come to the power of the divine. This is a Promethean hubris. It unleashes the forces of catastrophe.
Peckinpah has stood accused of nihilism. This is a confusion of the object and the object depicted. Peckinpah is not a nihilist. He is a moralist bearing witness, a man of faith betrayed by the fact of his birth. Peckinpah was more a creature of the 19th century than the 20th. His artistry is a lamentation on this essential tragedy.
Nihilism is embodied in human relationships. The world does not exist in a state of nature. It exists in the state of negotiations between men. Violence is the language of this negotiation. It can be conducted only through the discourse of brutality. No artist of the 20th century, Hemingway included, ever perceived masculinity as so inherently tragic.
Of course, all tragedy is born of the longing for transcendence. Peckinpah’s men are tragically masculine because masculinity is in constant rebellion against the gods. Masculinity is Promethean. Loyalty, comradeship, responsibility, justice and compassion compete to replace violence as the language of masculine discourse. They fail. Or they succeed only by wielding death against themselves. The accusation of misanthropy is not complete if it dismisses this tragedy. Peckinpah presents us a masculinity doomed to carry out an infinite conversation in the language of murder. Against this, however, he set the dignity he perceived in rebellion. That all of his revolts are futile is testimony to the Sisyphean nature of his tragedy. Peckinpah’s insistence on forcing us to watch the butcher’s bill in full can only stem from the anguish of so epic and personal a catastrophe.
This is not to suggest that Peckinpavian masculinity is an inherent corruption. Masculinity exists in a world. That is to say, it exists impurely. Its corruption is perceivable only through its virtues. Murder destroys a life, but it means nothing if it does not also assassinate strength, honor, honesty, loyalty, self-reliance, brotherhood. Struggle is not man against nature, nor man against his bestial self, but silence against the discourse of murder.
Violence is the pitiless idiom born of the tragedy of other people, of multitude. A man alone can be peaceful. With another man, perhaps two, he can be friends. More than this, and we have a massacre in the making. The prevalence of massacre is the result of the impossibility of solitude. In this sense, Peckinpah condemns civilization, especially masculine civilization. But he is also resigned. Masculinity cannot be escaped. He has nothing but contempt for those who try.
This is the position of a man resigned to existence — a paradox, no doubt, considering the master’s famously self-destructive personality, and his characters’ penchant for the proverbial blaze of glory. But even suicidal cataclysm is a resignation of sorts. It is a final transcendence through resignation. Unable to replace the negotiation with silence, his characters destroy it. Their frenzies of wanton brutality are the slaughter of the world by its own rules, the turning of the sword against its master. The act of dying, and killing, in the name of, annihilates those who would die and kill as if bullets were words and corpses mere punctuation. Names, after all, are silent.
There is, perhaps, something like the trace of God lurking in these shadows. Peckinpah’s world is godless, but his characters are not. They sacrifice their lives in the name of the transcendent. Not one of Peckinpah’s heroes surrenders his existence for material gain, or in the name of a shallow vengeance. They die destroying the corruption that is other people. They are atheists doing the Lord’s work.
This is a philosophy, if we are permitted to go so far, with terrible ramifications. Peckinpah will be perpetually controversial because his position is impossible to accept. No one who subscribes to it can truly go on living. Peckinpah’s penchant for drink and drugs, his tendency to shoot mirrors — the destruction of the image of his own image — and his wanton abuse of himself and others constitute the behavior of a man who has reached conclusions which preclude his own existence. He lasted as long as was necessary to commit it to film, and then disappeared. But he did so staring off towards the high mountains, waiting for death, alone. There is solitude in the knowledge that man can transcend the corruption of his existence only by sacrificing himself in futile revolt.
Contrary to his critic’s pretensions, this is not a rejection of the world or a rejection of man. It is not misanthropic. Peckinpah does not despise humanity. He despises human interaction. An interaction whose language is sin. And like all true believers, Peckinpah and his heroes hate sin. Eden was destroyed by conversation. Peckinpah’s heroes seek silence, and rise up against the tyranny of words.
“You’re a coward.”
– Amy Sumner (Susan George) in Straw Dogs
The ubiquity of rape remains Peckinpah’s most flagrant blasphemy in the eyes of his critics. His five masterpieces all involve some form of attempted or explicit sexual violation. In Ride the High Country it is only implied. In Straw Dogs it is excruciatingly explicit and disturbingly ambiguous. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia it is bizarre, inscrutable and unconsummated. But it is undeniably, persistently there. This brutalization of women by characters and camera has aroused adjectives like misogynist, sadist and fascist. They permeate even generous discussions of Peckinpah’s work.
Like most adjectives, these too are useless. They rest on a mistaken assumption: that is, the assumption that rape in Peckinpah is about women. Rape in Peckinpah is very much about men. In fact, it is entirely about men. Women are its collateral damage.
The Peckinpavian depiction of rape enrages because it appears to be ambiguous. The immediate collaboration of the victims in Straw Dogs and especially Alfredo Garcia suggests to some the hypothesis of rape which is not rape. It is the hypothesis of women who request, consent to and enjoy violation. They perceive in Peckinpah an incarnation of the demonic force in masculinity, the demonic force represented by the man who believes that when a woman says “no” she really means “please.” As usual, politics misses the point. Rape in Peckinpah is born of his indictment of masculinity. What appears to be collaboration is a woman’s attempt to engage in the negotiation between men, a discourse forced upon her, a discourse whose language is that of violation. The misunderstanding is logical. Peckinpah is looking at men, and looking at women, through the lens of masculinity. The negotiation between women, and whether it too can rely only on violation, does not interest him. In this sense, he is only myopic. But it is not mere myopia. It is a concentration of forces, an assault on blunted sensibilities, an escape from the labyrinth of deconstructing nothing in the attempt to deconstruct everything.
Peckinpavian masculinity is mute except for violence. Without violence it cannot speak. In this, it is simultaneously dangerous and powerful. Women can become dangerous and powerful only when they enter into the terms of interaction between men. This too is myopic. Man and woman must speak the same language as man and man. Peckinpah, undoubtedly, asserts masculinity as the defining factor. But this, given his assessment of masculinity’s capacity for discourse, can hardly be counted as an endorsement.
Women are raped, Peckinpah asserts, because they can be. Their violation is a weapon in the masculine struggle. An essential point: Peckinpah’s men also violate each other. They simply use bullets to do so. This does not minimize the terrors of sexual violence. The horrendous nature of the act is the root of its effectiveness as a weapon. The profundity of the damage it causes is the source of its importance to the catastrophic struggle. Men, asserts Peckinpah, do not hold back from rape because nothing holds them back. The nihilism of masculine interaction has no boundaries. Everything is permitted. For Peckinpah to have excised rape from his world would have given masculinity a nobility of which it is undeserving. It would have demarcated borders where none exist. It would have turned his tragedies into lies.
The women in Peckinpah’s films are victims. There is no argument against this assertion. But they are victims not of their femininity but of masculinity. Masculinity violates; femininity does not. It is not a coincidence that Peckinpah’s women are the only characters capable of standing apart from the world, bewildered at its obvious unworthiness to exist. In this distance we find an identification. Peckinpah does not ennoble women. Peckinpah ennobles only the dying. Peckinpah makes women his eyes. Women are the camera bearing witness.
To propose a feminine essence to Peckinpah’s cinema is absurd at first glance. It is certainly heretical. Nevertheless, it is the privilege of women to pronounce sentence on life, and to serve as the condemned artisans of the human race. They are doomed to be creators, usurped by the Guignol of masculinity. Women in Peckinpah are often glimpsed, spoken of, remembered, desired, traumatized and violated, but they are never truly a part of the masculine, the masculine whose lifeblood is apocalypse. They harbor the only truly rational reaction to the chaos around them: shock, terror, dismay and despair. Peckinpah’s men dance a ballet that ends in death. Peckinpah’s women choose life. It is a tragic choice, because it is meaningless, because masculinity is deaf to everything beyond its own catastrophic discourse. In this, especially in this, one senses that Peckinpah stands with the female. He makes the same choice: to live in memory, in dismay, in horror, and in desperation. His femininity is the femininity of the witness, of the artist, of the eye behind the camera.
“We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.”
– Don Jose (Chano Urueta) in The Wild Bunch
The raw material of Peckinpah’s tragedy is memory, and not dreams; that is to say, despair and not hope.
Memory pervades Peckinpah. And this memory is an imagined memory. It is an Edenic memory. It is myth and not fact. It prints the legend. Peckinpah asserts the legitimacy, the superiority, of imagined memory. Peckinpah lived this myth, this legend, early in his life as a memory. One can imagine it embodied in his grandfather, Denver: lawyer, judge, congressman, a hardscrabble man, a Westerner. Peckinpah spent his childhood and adolescence with ranch-hands and almost-cowboys — men, in other words, who wore the costumes of memory.
This memory is intimately tied to space. This memory is space. That space is the West. The West is the architecture of Peckinpah’s films. It is nature as monument, nature as architecture. In Peckinpah, it is a constructed landscape. It is artificial, haunted, festering with the decaying bones of dead spirits; a tragic landscape. Peckinpah was born into the essential truth that there is no greater sadness than the passage of time, and no greater tragedy than forgetting — even forgetting a myth; perhaps forgetting a myth most of all.
This myth is specific myth and intimately bound to cinema itself. Peckinpah did not destroy John Ford; he succeeded him. He was the creator’s disillusioned heir. Not that Ford himself harbored as many illusions as his detractors pretend to claim. The air of a dying landscape, the poetry born of the ruthlessness of time, the mortality of myth: these were all Ford’s creations. The West, it must be remembered, had to die for the Western to be born.
It is here, in the West, in the forgetting of the West, in the memory of the West, in the myth of the West, and in the forgetting of the myth, that Peckinpah is a quintessentially American artist. America’s talent and tragedy is its capacity for forgetting. America becomes, collapses and becomes again. Its history is a series of forgotten catastrophes. Each catastrophe provides the raw material of the next edifice. In ancient times, palaces and temples would be dismantled and the raw stone used to build their more glorious replacements. This existence, a palimpsest existence, is American existence.
Peckinpah’s films are the palimpsest as lamentation: time set against time. Past set against future. Future set against present. Present set against catastrophe. His films take place in ruins not yet redeemed. His characters are ciphers from a mythic dream: remnants, the primordial excrement of a society in permanent reconfiguration.
These are elementary forces, the propulsive momentum of civilization. Civilization is a tragedy. Civilization is tragedy. This neither condemns nor affirms. It merely apprehends. And it is in keeping. Peckinpah seems to have enjoyed the sight of dying things. It is said that he was deeply moved by watching sunsets.
The tragic can be enjoyed only as one enjoys a bearable pain that reminds one of existence itself, the pain that bears witness to mortality. Mortality makes us tragic. And memory, too, is mortal. With the exception of man himself, nothing is as fragile as memory. Life is irreplaceable. Memory is irreplaceable. History and myth are irreplaceable. Civilization’s wanton disregard, its refusal to acknowledge the rarity of the intangible, is its original sin.
Peckinpah lived in a world of the intangible. It was the essence of his medium. Cinema barely exists. It is utterly barren of physical form. It is metal cases filled with rolls of plastic or it is the play of lights across a wall. There is no cinema but the cinema that is seen. It is an essentially cognitive art. The film nobody sees has no existence. As such, cinema is submission to tragedy. The film ends. The lights go up. We are forced to awake from our amniotic dream. We are left with the memory of images — images which serve only to remind us of their unreality. There is something terrible about cinema, as there is something terrible about life. It is a thing that cannot be touched. It tantalizes us. It refuses to be possessed. It is a thought, a revelation that escapes us. Peckinpah’s tragedy and cinema’s tragedy are one and the same. It is possible that no other filmmaker has ever merged so totally with his medium.
But Peckinpah’s tragedy is apocalyptic. Nothing remains of the world. His survivors are left to wander off into the landscape, becoming one with the inanimate. This is the only true peace. His men discover themselves among rocks, sand and desert. Among the architecture of the West that is the architecture of a constructed dream. Sage brush and solitary coyotes signal the only promise of return to an Edenic existence. Peckinpah’s survivors wander the wilderness, in search of a burning bush.
To survive is to escape back to the solitary. The fall from grace that is the curse of life amongst other people can be reversed only by the ascendance into solitude, into the encumbrance of loneliness. Humanity destroys and disillusions. Humanity drives men mad and draws forth the slaughter inside them. Amongst the cacophony of voices, the absurdity of existence becomes a howling scream. The silence of the wilderness is the only reprieve from the pain of being human.
But there is another choice, a Promethean choice. Foregoing solitude, men can enter the void together. It is an extraordinary assertion: we are all living under a death sentence, but we need not submit to it alone. It is here that Peckinpah’s revolt becomes transcendent. He denies the necessity of solitary death. Men can march, side by side, into nothingness. We must acknowledge: in this Peckinpah does indeed become an idolater of masculinity. But it is a transcendent masculinity, a masculinity beyond words, a silent masculinity. It is the power of brute force replaced by the power of grace. Its one tragedy is that it is impossible. This is the impossibility glimpsed on the face of Pat Garrett as he kills Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), and then blasts apart the mirror that holds his own image. This is the image of a man’s rage at the impossibility of grace, at the terrible realization that you can kill a man, but you cannot follow him. We are all doubles of each other, says the act, but there can be no communion. Peckinpah lived this tragedy and this rage. At the risk of repetition, I must repeat his habit of periodically shooting his own mirrors. Imagine the despair of a man who desires to slaughter his own reflection.
“All I want is to enter my house justified.”
– Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) in Ride the High Country
Justice and redemption are one in Peckinpah. Justification is merely another word for grace. He did, after all, come from a family of judges. But justification in Peckinpah is an auto-justification, and thus an auto-redemption. His men must justify themselves to themselves. The solitary man must contend for his own solitary redemption. It is in this sense that Peckinpah is most openly Christian, and it is a Christianity that is decidedly Protestant. No hierarchy stands between man and redemption. Only submission to the world can deny him his place in heaven. This near ascetic Protestantism is co-mingled with Peckinpah’s contempt for official religion. His preachers are, to a man, lecherous, drunken, hypocritical and sometimes violent. His individual fanatics are worse. R. G. Armstrong’s ferocious, hymn-spitting louts in Ride the High Country and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are men rendered bestial by their faith. Peckinpah dispatches them summarily and with no small measure of contempt.
Perhaps this is because Peckinpah demands a transcendence beyond faith. Each of his heroes is a Hamlet. They must resolve and then act. Their tragedy is their incapacity for resolution. In Peckinpah, the readiness is all. Like the Dane, his heroes transcend themselves through an act of righteous violence. They die justified, because they can justify themselves only through death in the name of justice.
This is a cold justice, a realization of elementary laws of righteous conduct. It is not a celebratory ecstasy of revelation. Justice is known but denied in order to live. To truly live justly, Peckinpah asserts, requires a blood sacrifice. He deals in vengeful Christs. Their passion sheds not only the martyr’s blood but his enemy’s as well. It is a sentiment, if I may contradict myself, perhaps more Greek than Christian. The Greeks’ obsession with honor, with immortal glory through heroic death, is unmistakably echoed by Peckinpah. In fact, it is more than echoed. The final image of The Wild Bunch is little more than a triumphal march into the Elysian Fields. Both Peckinpah and the Greeks understood the beauty inherent in the catastrophic. Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch, after all, out of affection for Aristotle’s concept of catharsis, a Greek word for a very Greek idea. Orestes’ revenge upon his father’s murderer and his adulterous mother is mere anticipation of Peckinpavian vengeance. And, as in Peckinpah, its price is madness and death. And it is not only Orestes who could easily walk amidst this calamitous architecture. Odysseus’ annihilation of his wife’s presumptuous suitors calls out for Peackinpah’s montage of catastrophe. One can almost feel the master’s glee at the bending of the bow. But one does not feel that Peckinpah would have much to bring to a crucifixion. Christ’s passion requires submission. None of Peckinpah’s characters is passive. Their very act of dying is undertaken with resolution. Action is their justification.
To be justified, however, requires something beyond the Greek. Justification in Peckinpah, as I have said, is internal justification. But its nature is monotheistic. There is nothing Socratic or Nietzschean about Peckinpavian redemption. It is not constructed, it is realized. His heroes are converts to a transcendent code. Again, we seem to detect the trace of God.
How far one can continue down this path is an open question. A world as studiously indifferent and amoral as Peckinpah’s would seem to negate any possibility of a transcendent order. In a sense, Peckinpah’s worlds are models of chaotic indifference. They are without form and void. He presents us a world that God has, perhaps, abandoned to its primordial state. But there is not the slightest trace of atheism in Peckinpah’s work. The chaos he describes is a chaos constructed by men, as though the world itself were enclosed in a Tower of Babel. His heroes are, perhaps, reluctant Crusaders. They choose, at last, to wield the sword of divine vengeance. Whether God exists or not is deemed an irrelevancy. All of Peckinpah’s heroes die for a cause, not for the cause, but to justify themselves.
This is Peckinpah at his most despairing. His justification comes only through a righteous death. A righteous life appears to be of little interest to him. Life itself appears to be of little interest to him. His characters who survive their cataclysm are left as bereft as they began. As David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) states at the end of Straw Dogs, he doesn’t know his way home. His murderous rampage has justified nothing. Contrary to his critics’ claims, Peckinpah does not see righteous violence as redemption. He sees a righteous death as redemption. This is the philosophy of an absolutist — a fundamentalist, one might say. It is the philosophy of a man who does not know his way home.
Nor do his heroes. Home is denied to them. Home represents everything they have forsaken. At the most, they catch a glimpse of it in passing. One thinks of the doomed Wild Bunch in the Mexican village that whispers to them of the Elysian paradise they will eventually enter. Or of Steve Judd gazing into the peaks of the high country, perhaps glimpsing a vision of the house he wants to enter, justified. The only true home for Peckinpah’s wanderers is the wilderness. The world beyond the human, the transcendent world, the world of peace overrun by the sin of civilization. The only redemption, the only justification, is the destruction of civilization in the name of the nomadic, the wanderer and the lost souls — in the name of those who belong to the wilderness, in the name of the heroic.
This negation of the civilized is an uneasy paradox. Art is the child of civilization, and cinema is the child of the modern, industrial civilization which Peckinpah despised above all. Electricity, plastic, mass production, the dreaded machines: these are essential to the existence of cinema. It is a medium that is fundamentally technological. Peckinpah’s negation of modernity is recorded in a medium that both defines and is defined by the modern. There is, perhaps, a dynamic tension in this paradox. Every great artist is at war with the world of which he is an inextricable part. There is dignity in the man willing to live out a paradox. It makes a kind of life; a difficult and torrential life; an extraordinary life; a justified life.
“Don’t make me out no saint, but don’t put me down too deep.”
– Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue
Cinema in the hands of an artist is little more than an elaborate epitaph. It preserves its moment and pervades its future. Cinema has no life, no history, no consciousness, no memory. It is perceived and does not perceive. In this, it is in kinship with the dead. Artists, however, are made by the desire for immortality. It is another paradox, the paradox which makes art inevitable. Creation itself is a Sisyphean labor. In a Sisyphean world, only love, in its inherent absurdity, come closer to approximating the essential nature of life.
A filmmaker must face this futility more intensely than most. When a film ceases to be seen, it ceases to exist. Without its audience, it has no form and no being. A book, a painting, a cathedral… these are all objects. They can be ascertained and apprehended perpetually. Cinema must be set in motion. It is closest, perhaps, to music. The tone must be struck in order to become real. But even music has its own autonomous existence. To the trained eye, notes on a manuscript page can evoke the proper sounds to the individual consciousness. A film, however, is a totality. It cannot be evoked or approximated. A screenplay is less than a symphony. It is less, even, than a sketch, a blueprint, or a signature scrawled on a napkin. Nothing can be as concrete as cinema projected.
If we are to write a suitable epitaph, we must state that Peckinpah projects himself into our era. We are beyond his time and before it. He sits like a merciless Buddha amongst his imitators. He can be ignored, but never escaped. Our cinema is his epitaph. We may take him, but we are advised not to take him lightly.
The measure of a filmmaker lies in what we see of him, not in what we remember of him. It lies in the intensity with which he continues to pervert his medium. In Peckinpah, therefore, we have an immeasurable legacy. He is remembered as an anomaly, when in fact he is ubiquitous. Remembered as scandalous, he has become normalcy.
There will be some who bemoan this impasse. Peckinpah was denounced in life, he will be denounced in death. How successful the denunciation will be is largely irrelevant. The gravity of his presence is reply enough. He has ceased to be a style and has become cinema itself; a cinema divested of its inhibitions, a cinema defined by the unrelenting gaze. Peckinpah is cinema liberated.
This liberation has come at a price — a price to the man himself and to the art he deformed but did not degrade. Film is no longer naïve. It is no longer capable of looking away. The stare of the camera now penetrates everything — even ourselves. We are permeated by images; tyrannized by them. With gathering intensity, we have begun to live in our dreams, in a series of fantasias of the real. There can be no denying the eventual destination. Cinema is becoming pornography. In this, it is becoming, at last, honest. But honesty is a chimera if it lacks æsthetic, and pornography, by its nature, has no æsthetic. If it does, it has nothing to do with cinema. It is functional, nothing more. And Peckinpah was anything but functional.
Peckinpah’s epitaph may be the annihilation of cinema through its liberation. In breaking the taboos of watching, he may have opened the door to the complete submission of cinema to nihilism. Nothing is now forbidden. Without the forbidden, nothing can be sacred. And art, even at its most brutal, requires the sacred. The cinematic æstheticization of death may lead to the death of cinematic æsthetics. But this remains uncertain. Film cannot be fully annihilated. Even in its lowest forms, two images must be joined, juxtaposed. Paradoxes must be created. The dynamic will force itself into being. Film must be cut. Montage is cinema, even cinema at its most wretched. In this, cinema retains the seed of its eventual resurrection, should it ever have need of one. Peckinpah set in motion a cinematic apocalypse, but he was also the foremost servant of the tools of its rebirth.
If we need not fear for cinema, then we need not fear for Sam Peckinpah. There is no doubt that we will continue to have need of him.
Originally published by Senses of Cinema.