Friday, June 29, 2012

Savage Friday: Straw Dogs (1971)


Last week, we started enunciating some of the themes that form the bedrock foundation of the “Savage Cinema” as I’ve been calling the sub-genre.  In short, what we found -- with several helpful and insightful reader comments along the way -- is a thesis that suggests a meditation on violence itself stands at the crux of this form. 

It isn’t so much that violence is featured on-screen, but that the application of said violence is the core issue of a savage film’s philosophical argument or debate. When people descend to violence in these films, there’s often something lost or re-considered in the fall, as we detected in Deliverance (1972).  

In other words, there’s usually some didactic or pro-social purpose for the extreme, taboo-violating violence in the Savage Cinema.

Today, we continue our study of the Savage Cinema with Sam Peckinpah’s incendiary 1971 film Straw Dogs, a brutal, edgy work of art that the late film critic Pauline Kael once termed “fascist.”  The film remains overtly controversial today -- even more so than the recent remake -- for its depiction of rape, traditional sex roles, the mob mentality, and character components that stereotypically imply manhood.

The last third of the film is a brutal, sustained, sharply-edited siege on a rural cottage.  In general, the siege (Night of the Living Dead [1968] Assault on Precinct 13 [1976]) is one of my all-time favorite horror movie scenarios, and here the siege pits a drunken mob of bullies and rapists against an analytical, geeky mathematician.

Guess who wins: brute strength or relentless smarts?

That central character dynamic and the final, unimpeachable action sequence represent two reasons I cherish Straw Dogs.  I also appreciate the film’s carefully constructed but oft misunderstood stance on violence.

As I see it, Straw Dogs concerns the idea that fighting for a belief is sometimes necessary…but never pretty or easy.  Violence doesn’t make for “heroes,” but rather affirms the necessity of civilization and laws in the first place.

I'll have an answer, or I'll have blood! 

American mathematician David Sumner (Hoffman) and his wife Amy (George) rent a cottage in a remote English village where she was raised.  There, David works on a grant to study “possible structures” inside stars. 

When the greenhouse roof needs fixing, David hires Charlie Venner (Del Henney), Amy’s old boyfriend, to do the work…along with a rowdy group of locals.

While Charlie and his boys work at a snail’s pace on the roof repairs, they also gawk at Amy, and try to run David off a country road.  Then, the family cat turns up hanged in the master bedroom closet, and Amy begs David to confront the men. 

Possessing an analytical and calculating mind, David is slow to point fingers or hurl accusations.  Instead, he continues to collate data, and ingratiates himself with Charlie and the men.  Amy thinks David is a coward pure and simple, and comes to despise him.

When David goes out on a hunting trip with Charlie’s boys, Charlie sneaks back to the cottage and rapes Amy. She protests his sexual aggression, but her protests turn to terror when the other men also show up, and want in on the action.  David arrives home, but Amy doesn’t tell him what’s happened.

Soon after the gang rape, Henry Niles (David Warner) – a local simpleton – accidentally murders a girl named Janice (Sally Thomsett).  When David accidentally hits Henry with his car, he brings the injured man back to the cottage and tends to his wounds. 

But before long a lynch mob led by Charlie Venner shows up at David’s door, demanding he hand Niles over. 

Realizing that they intend to kill him, David decides to protect his home…over Amy’s objections.

I don't know my way home.

Writing of Straw Dogs, Pauline Kael wrote: “The subject of Straw Dogs is machismo.  It has been the obsession behind most of Peckinpah’s films; now it is out in the open…The setting, music, and the people are deliberately disquieting…the goal of the movie is to demonstrate that David enjoys the killing, and achieves his manhood in that self-recognition.” (New Yorker, January 29, 1972, pages 80–85).

I suggest this is a faulty reading of the film. Late in Straw Dogs, there are two instances wherein it is established visually -- and rather definitively -- that David is sickened by violence. 

In the first instance, he is out hunting, and shoots a bird.  After he pulls the trigger, the bird falls from the sky, and we see David’s saddened reaction as he approaches the animal.  He’s clearly sickened by what he’s done. 

In the second scene, David battles the diabolical Ratman in his house. David beats him with a fireplace poker, and when the act is done, he looks as though he wants to vomit.  Again, David doesn’t enjoy killing.

Instead, David’s manhood is actually asserted in another way, as I hope this review will demonstrate.

Reviewing the movie for Film Quarterly, William Johnson suggested another interpretation of Straw Dogs: On the one hand, he does not equate violence with heroism…On the other hand Peckinpah does not equate violence with villainy by implying that it could and should have been avoided.  Peckinpah is not concerned with putting labels of right or wrong on the violent actions and reactions in the film.  Here, as in his earlier films, he is focusing on the tension between the individual and the disintegrating forces of society.” (Film Quarterly, 1972, pages 61–64).

The disintegrating forces of society” is one elegant way of describing the failure of law enforcement, organized religion, parents, and other societal elements to raise men of decency and compassion, and to protect the common good.  In the film, the constable, the bartender, the local reverend and other forces continually fail to “check” the mob as it grows ever more unruly.  As a consequence, many of the locals live in a constant state of fear and anxiety.

David finally acts violently because an angry mob comes to his door and will not leave unless he accepts the mob’s dominance.  Mob rule is little better than the law of the jungle, and David has the intellect to understand that fact. So he does something about it.

Straw Dogs is a film I’ve watched several times, and each time I come away from a viewing with the sense that two distinct brands of violence are practiced in the film.

One kind of violence is invasive and selfish.  It involves burglary, rape, home invasion, and attempted murder.  These crimes are broached out of aggression, anger and the desire to take something, to steal something of value. 

Wrapped up in this violence are feelings such as fear, jealousy, rage, inferiority and the need for control.  The men in the village fear “the other,” and that’s how they see David.  He is merely “the American” and they “take care of their own,” as they say.  Charlie and the mob thus believe David has “no business” interfering in their brand of justice, and no business marrying Amy, either.

The second brand of violence featured in the film is quite different.  It is the violence that a desperate man resorts to not out of self-defense, but out of the recognition that if he is to remain civilized – that is, to live in a civilized society – it is up to him to defend the weak from an angry mob.

Encoded in David’s use of violence is the all-important quality of empathy.   He realizes that since he hurt Henry (in a car accident), he has a responsibility and duty to take care of him until he can get him to a hospital.

So in a very real way, Straw Dogs isn’t about a man’s breaking point as the tag-line for the remake suggests; but rather about a man’s personal rallying point: that individual place where he realizes he’s not immune or separate from a world of violence, but will certainly be complicit in it if he doesn’t stand up to defend himself, his home, and his ward.

I should probably add, lest I be said to incite violence myself, that Straw Dogs doesn’t concern abstract concepts such as ideological tyranny or freedom in the face of a Supreme Court decision you happen to disagree with.  It’s not about standing your ground when you think, maybe, perhaps, you could possibly be in danger.  The film isn’t a justification of violence in those senses.

Rather, it’s about the idea that if a mob shows up at your door to kill someone, you have the right and responsibility as a civilized person to prevent that act.   

And where Ed in Deliverance could not live with the violence he saw on the river, David Sumner in Straw Dogs reaches a new summit of understanding about himself.  He learns he has the capacity to commit to something.  This is important self-knowledge.  He left America during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War because he did not want to commit to a fight.  Here, he a fight comes to him, and he commits to it.  

Amy’s self-discovery is less self-affirming.  She finds that her family/town-of-origin issues are deeper than she imagined, and that though she has adopted the forms and symbols of the counter-culture (going bra-less, for instance), she has not been able to actually change her parochial mind-set or belief system. 

When push comes to shove, she falls back in with the herd she once sought to escape.  When she feels endangered, Amy turns to a physically-strong man, Charlie, rather than intellectually-strong man, her own husband, for protection.  She stills buy into the myth that to be a man is to be a bully, a physically-aggressive, violent bully. Amy can’t escape the beliefs she grew up with, even though she fancies herself “liberated” and “modern.”

Ultimately, Straw Dogs makes a case that David – despite all of his character flaws – is superior to Amy because, for all his flaws, he finally demonstrates the aforementioned quality of empathy. When David takes care of Niles, the village idiot, he notes that the locals must be worried about the missing Janice.  “I know how I’d feel if I had a daughter missing,” he says with a sense of mercy and fairness.  But it is also important to him that Niles – a simpleton – is not murdered in a fit of drunken mob violence.

David tells Amy that the mob will “beat” Niles to death, and her response is “I don’t care,” which reveals that Amy is the real coward here, not David.  His response is that he “does care” and that he is not going to hand over someone to be killed.   .

This is where I live,” he tells Amy.  “This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house.”  Here, the conscientious objector to the Vietnam War finds a cause for personal courage, a cause that matters to him. 

The question in terms of Straw Dogs and violence is: does the film advocate murder?  Does it advocate revenge and violence?  My answer is that it does not.   At the end of the film, David declares – with a crooked grin – that he doesn’t know his “way home.” 

This is the case not because he has been violent; but because he’s achieved self-knowledge that has changed 
everything.  Until he committed to a cause, he lived by the precept that he couldn’t commit to a cause.  His new self-awareness changes that.  

If one can look past the violence in the film, Straw Dogs can be seen as a battle in which civilization beats back brutality, and in which intelligence beats back animal behavior. Finally, for David Sumner, “there’s nowhere else to hide,” and so he must reckon with himself.  His self-discovery comes through committing to a cause, however, not through violence.

7 comments:

  1. JKM: Another great article, and one that will add to my enjoyment/understanding of the film next time I see it.

    Honestly, I think Straw Dogs is the most intellectually rigorous of Peckinpah’s films, his true potential “breakout” film.
    If he’d stayed on this track--a tougher row to hoe when it’s easier playing the drunk belligerent, I will confess--his later films might have had greater staying power...

    BTW, why exactly did David Warner go uncredited? It's not so unusual for that to happen (like Darren McGavin in The Natural), but Warner's part is essential to the film.

    Thanks,
    Ivan
    P.S. please drop by my new site:
    http://lernerinternational.blogspot.com/

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    1. Hi Ivan,

      I just signed up to follow your blog. It looks great. I already re-tweeted your very interesting piece regarding They Live as perfect Outer Limits episode. Very interesting stuff, my friend.

      I agree with you that Straw Dogs that is intellectually rigorous. I see different things in it each time I watch. In fact, I ran out of time writing this review (and am therefore not entirely happy with it...), but I had hoped to include some competing perspectives/interpretations of the film. There's certainly a lot to chew on.

      I don't know why Warner is uncredited here, but he's wonderful in the film.

      Thank you for an excellent comment.

      Best,
      John

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  2. Already told you how I feel about fish out of water scenarios. This one is so disturbing that I really have a hard time sitting through it. It makes me squirm like crazy (don't get me started on the dead cat). But I do so dig the climax. I cheer when Hoffman fights back, protecting his home, but most of all a man who cannot protect himself. And the final exchange between the two in the car? Damn, that is brilliant!

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    1. Hi David,

      Straw Dogs is disturbing for a lot of reasons, and I don't think the artists who remade the film totally understood all the reasons. That said, I don't hate the remake. I think it has some value, though not in the sense the original does.

      Amy's behavior in this Peckinpah version is disturbing. When her back is to the wall, she reverts to form (to family of origin, essentially), and chooses her rapist over her husband, because she favors physical force over intelligence.

      It's a comment on how, sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can't overcome prejudices we grow up with. That stuff sticks in your head and is hard to get out. Even if we consciously get it out, subconsciously it remains...

      The fish-out-of-water scenario here is especially terrifying, and I certainly sympathize with it. I live in the American south (where the remake was set...) and so I know how it feels to be out of place among other men. People here are by and large wonderful and welcoming, but occasionally there's also a good old boy's club mentality -- hunting, fishing, racing, and racism -- that looks down on anyone with a different perspective. This movie gets at the idea of wanting to belong to a group that you don't even necessarily like. I've felt that from time to time. Better to be with people you dislike than to be ostracized.

      Creepy stuff indeed.

      Excellent comment!

      best,
      John

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  3. This was Sam Peckinpah at his button pushing best. It's not an easy film to love, but damn, it puts its cards on the table, alright. For a filmmaker so steeped in the American and Mexican West, his transition into rural England seems so established and natural. It still amazes that, given many of his later projects would be taken over by the studio, he got this on film at all. Savage Cinema it is. Thanks, John.

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    1. Hi Michael,

      I like your formulation of Peckinpah at his "button pushing best." He's certainly testing the limits of decorum here, isn't he? I have grown to love this film after multiple viewings over many years, but still find its conclusions and commentary on the human condition extremely discomforting.

      Savage Cinema it is! Right on!

      Thanks for the comment, my friend.

      best,
      John

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  4. JKM: Thank you!
    And welcome aboard!
    --Ivan

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