Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Macho Imperative: The Enigma of Straw Dogs

Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs (1971).

In Sam Peckinpah's beautifully spacious and thematically rich western Ride the High Country (1962), two aging former lawmen Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), both old friends, are hired to guard a gold shipment as it is delivered down from a mountain mining camp to a town below. During the trip, the men reminisce about their many years together as friends and contemplate how the times are changing (and not for the better). While Gil considers stealing the gold as one last stab at glory, he looks to Steve and inquires, "Is that what you want, Steve?" Without a moment to reflect, Steve replies, "All I want is to enter my house justified." That moral conflict with its Biblical sense of justice and retribution would come to define much of Peckinpah's work in the coming years, such as in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), where he continually sought that elusive house to feel justified in. By the time he made Straw Dogs in 1971, however, that home became much more literal and the conflict much less complex.

Mathematician David Summer (Dustin Hoffman) is an American pacifist who decides to abandon his country during the anti-Vietnam War college demonstrations with his British-born wife Amy (Susan George). They return to her hometown of Wakely (which is a fictional village in Cornwall). From the moment they arrive, tensions mount between the couple due to David's taking refuge in his intellectual pursuits while his wife becomes more sexually polymorphous and draws the attention of the locals – including her former boyfriend, Charlie (Del Henney) and his buddies. As they repair David and Amy’s roof, they continually sneak looks at Amy in her braless sweaters until they concoct a way to get at her. Knowing that David is no match for their macho prowess, they take him out hunting while Charlie steals back to the house. As he tries to start up with Amy, she balks at his advances leading him to eventually rape her. (A large part of the controversy was caused by Peckinpah's treating the rape ambiguously as if somewhere deep down she desired Charlie’s assault because she was angry with her asexual husband. But the larger controversy came right after when one of Charlie’s buddies showed up and sodomized Amy and terrorized her. American censors shortened the scene thus clouding Peckinpah’s intent not to ‘glamourize’ the assault.)

When David returns home, Amy refuses to tell him about the rape but she can’t get the horrific images out of her head. One night, as they drive home from a town social, their car strikes Niles (David Warner), the local simpleton, who has accidentally murdered a young girl flirting with him. David and Amy provide shelter for Niles until they can get help, but Charlie and his clan want Niles delivered to their style of justice. As which point, David points out that this is his home and he then proceeds to defend it violently, dispatching each malcontent more viciously than the last. When Amy finally (at the urging of her struggling husband) fires the final bullets into the home invader, David discovers his manhood and wins the new respect of his wife. The basic story in Straw Dogs (based on Gordon Williams’ novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm) is pure revenge fantasy, where the worm turns, and the audience can cheer on the bloodlust invoked in our need for David to dispense with the human trash. (In the Vietnam years, it was common in movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish to exploit moral indignation as a means to justify vigilante justice.) At the time, Peckinpah claimed to be after more than simple blood lust, or exploiting moral indignation. And given the years of heated debate over the picture, it’s clear that despite the territorial imperative invoked in the story, Straw Dogs has more conflicting motives driving the movie.

Susan George in Straw Dogs (1971).
The late film critic Robin Wood once smartly described Straw Dogs as being about a man who was determined to “defend a home that doesn’t really exist.” (When David is driving Niles back to the village after the carnage, Niles tells him, “I don’t know my way home.” David answers, as the movie concludes, “That’s okay, I don’t either.”) Wood went on to say that “the film is a reminder that the violence is not in the action but in them.” By ‘them,’ Wood was referring to those he called the “moralistic critics” who attacked the film, perhaps like Pauline Kael who famously called Straw Dogs “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.” While fascist is a word that continues to get thrown around rather sloppily even today, Kael was referring specifically to the sexual fascism inherent in the material. What she saw was the macho imperative. Kael abhorred the idea of violence making a man out of the pacifist; she hated that Peckinpah held David up to ridicule until he finally proved that – deep down – his animal cunning made him once again sexually appealing to his wife. She also despised the fact that a major artist (whose work she generally loved) had done nothing more than present a view of violence and rape no more sophisticated than what was commonly voiced in bars by male drunks.

The fascism she spoke of later became the actual subject of Elvis Costello’s third album, Armed Forces in 1979 (an album he originally wanted to name Emotional Fascism), a record that critic Greil Marcus described as being about “[t]he secret, unspeakable realities of political life, realities we seem to successfully deflect or ignore, [that] rise up to force a redefinition of relationships between men and women, the essential stuff of ordinary life, on these unspeakable terms.” Perhaps that redefinition was what Peckinpah was also after in Straw Dogs but the purview was too narrow. If we had been allowed to accept the peaceful David and then get taken into the horror of what he was forced to do, Straw Dogs might have gotten at those ambiguous elements Peckinpah claimed were there. If Amy had not been this Lolita-like tease continually taunting the yokels, the rape scene might have had the intended terror of intimate invasion, of unspeakable violation. The violent conclusion might not have had such an inevitability had we understood exactly why this was a home David was dedicated to defending. Although Dustin Hoffman once said that he made the movie “because I was interested in [the] repressed violence in liberals,” that would have been clearer if the game hadn’t been rigged to make David’s violence the only response possible to the onslaught in Straw Dogs.

And yet, Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs remains a powerfully irresolvable work because you can feel the director reaching for a complexity that the story can’t possibly contain. Even the rape is not exploited for its prurient fascination like it often is in action films, to tease the audience’s excitement and then to incite their lust for vengeance. (It instead had the dramatic tension of debased eroticism.) But if Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs still has the power to incite debate and heated discussion, Rod Lurie’s new remake is pretty much forgotten upon first viewing. As critic Martin Morrow wrote recently in Toronto’s weekly paper, The Grid, by way of paraphrasing Pauline Kael, “Rod Lurie’s pointless remake retains that fascist outlook, but it’s no work of art.” It’s not even a work of substance.

Although Lurie borrows the bare bones of the original movie, it carries none of the meat of the conflicting obsessions that drove Peckinpah’s version. Lurie is far too rational and sane so he distances himself from the teeming violence in the material. As a result, the movie isn’t driven by obsession, or even fear. This Straw Dogs could have been directed by the pacifist David. Lurie relocates the story to the American South and turns David (James Marsden) into a Hollywood screenwriter and Amy (Kate Bosworth) into an actress who worked on some television shows he wrote. But from the moment David starts playing classical music and competing with the Southern country rock that the local boys are playing, we end up laughing at the picture’s obvious snobbery. Amy’s former beau Charlie (well played by Alexander Skarsgard from True Blood) turns out to be a quietly patronizing version of Southern noblesse oblige where chivalry becomes a mask for misogyny. However the rest of the locals come off like a Northern liberal’s paranoid cartoon of redneck’s gone wild. (James Woods, as ‘the coach,’ hoots and hollers and e-haws so much he must think he’s back in Ghosts of Mississippi.)

James Marsden & Kate Bosworth in Straw Dogs (2011).
Although the couple’s marriage carries many of the same tensions as in the first picture, Lurie doesn’t give us a clue as to what drew them together. Kate Bosworth also can’t get a bead on Amy, because Lurie keeps altering her character. One minute she’s teasing the rednecks, the next she’s invoking positions out of Gloria Steinem. James Marsden also looks embarrassingly uncomfortable playing possum to the good ol’ boys. Unlike Dustin Hoffman, who could effectively draw on his nasal harmlessness until the trap gets sprung, Marsden’s performance becomes horribly mannered as if we’re watching a grown man trying to be a helpless boy. When he eventually resorts to violence, it comes across as unintentionally funny because he doesn’t seem overtaken by forces he didn’t know he possessed. He seems rather to be fulfilling what the screenplay had been denying him – a backbone – since the beginning of the movie.

But what’s truly perplexing is why Rod Lurie even wanted to remake Straw Dogs. The material is still controversial and yet Lurie skirts the controversy (even in the rape scene which lacks the primal terror of the original because, being politically correct, he denies the characters the chemistry to make it shocking). Without the emotional force of the original, Lurie’s Straw Dogs is simply a cut-and-paste revenge picture made by a man who conceives it as if he never felt vengeance in his very bones. He falls back instead on clumsy and obvious metaphors (e.g. David is writing about the battle of Stalingrad so naturally his defense of the house mirrors his project) and the final stroke of violence is so badly staged that the audience collapses into laughter. (It’s the funniest exit for a villain in a bad movie since Billy Zane got shot in the mouth with a flare gun to conclude Dead Calm.) If Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was cured in the ambivalence over the Vietnam War, Lurie invokes Iraq as some passing reference to give his picture political cache.

The true tragedy of Sam Peckinpah is that he never did get to enter his home justified. His battles with studios and producers, plus the war with his own demons, prevented him from having the kind of career his talent deserved. Straw Dogs became a distillation of the demons that gnawed at him. Rod Lurie, on the other hand, is so out of his element he wouldn’t know a demon if he met one.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins October 3rd (6:30pm until 9pm). Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  

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