Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sam Peckinpah: Watching People Die

The final shootout in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch has been marvelled at for forty years. Peckinpah's singular use of slow-motion - invariably involving an explosion, a gunshot, or a falling body - was considerably abetted by his stunt-coordination. It isn't simply the manner in which Peckinpah's violence is shot, but how it is staged that gives it an extraordinarily vivid quality.

In few other films does the moment of violent death appear as balletic and simultaneously as brutally realistic. His capturing of the physical effects of bullets tearing into flesh, and often from more than one direction, is unparalleled. The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde were singled out for attack because of this. It may not have been the first nauseating argument about film violence, but it was the most intense.

Because most of the violence in films is cartoon violence - inconceivable and therefore harmless - the argument has been blunted in forty years. But because Peckinpah, unlike his contemporaries, was an artist, his interest in the representation of violence is clearly derived from an ultimate interest in truth.

So conceiving a shootout in which four men oppose possibly hundreds was not, for Peckinpah, merely an exercise in romantic heroism. Stanley Kauffmann called it the closest realization of Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. However else these four might have met their ends is inconceivable. They were at the end of their tethers as outlaws, but more importantly, they recognized a distinction in the cause for which they would die. That they chose friendship and loyalty was Peckinpah's ultimate irony. The same men who used the participants of a temperance march as cover for their getaway in the film's first sequence (another of Peckinpah's jokes) would choose a suicidal rescue of a friend from a corrupt Mexican "general" as their last act.

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