Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stuffed Animals


The news last week that a remake of Sam Peckinpah's powerful film Straw Dogs (1971) was in release infuriated me so much that I decided to revisit the original, if only in memory. "Why not rewrite The Sun Also Rises while you're at it?" I thought. The same people who say they revere certain classic films, while engaged in remaking them, are showing a funny kind of reverence. It shows just how little they take film seriously. Remake a piece of skilled trash like Psycho, as Gus Van Sant did, by all means. Or simply admit that you're only doing it for the money and because you can't come up with an original idea of your own. The truly sad part is that a majority of people aren't likely to seek out the original, simply because the remake just isn't compelling enough. Score one for the philistines.

I noticed from the preview that the remake is set in good old Hicksville, USA rather than the English village in the original. This perhaps gives the story an unfortunate Deliverance-like bias against red state rednecks ("Squeal like a pig!"), small towns and farmers. It would certainly give the new film an unintended political slant. But Peckinpah was trying to tell us what he thought about men and women. He wasn't giving us a travel advisory. I never had the feeling that he was making a general statement about English people, even if the censors may have taken it that way.

In Peckinpah's film, the hero, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a pacifist university mathematician who has come to a small English village (called Wakely, but the film was shot in St Buryan, Cornwall) for some peace and quiet while he works on a new theorem. With him is his newlywed wife (Susan George) who is a native of the village. Hoffman hires some local men to help renovate parts of his old farmhouse. Unbeknownst to Hoffman, his wife and one of the men are former lovers. The film becomes a contest of wills, with Peckinpah imposing a quite primitive view of men and women. (Peckinpah had been reading books by Robert Ardrey on human behavior when he wrote the script.)

The hired hands devise a scheme in which they take Hoffman out hunting while his wife's former boyfriend reclaims her in the film's most objectionable scene. Peckinpah depicts how the wife shows pleasure as she is being raped. The scene caused an uproar precisely because it was presented so powerfully. Pauline Kael called the film a "fascist work of art" - supposedly because it tries to impose its own lurid views of human sexuality on the viewer.

I remember the telling moment when a clash of cultures takes place in a single image: Hoffman kills a bird but comes close to tears when he sees it lying dead before him. The symbolism was made all the more moving by Hoffman's unexpected access of emotion, while cross-cutting shows us his wife being brutalized back at his farm.

The trailer for the remake shows how much of the original was retained: the bear trap, the pots of hot oil, Hoffman beating one of the men with a poker like he's teeing off at St Andrews while mad bagpipe music blares from his stereo.

Dustin Hoffman was excellent as the timid hero, whom Peckinpah helps discover the animal within. Susan George, like many another daughter of Albion, had imperfect teeth that made her seem all the sexier. But one of the best elements of Peckinpah's film was the extraordinary music of Jerry Fielding (he won an Oscar for it - but big deal). He had worked with Peckinpah since his days on the television show The Rifleman and wrote excellent scores for many of his films, including The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. John Simon noted that his music for Straw Dogs was influenced by Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks Concerto". I found it worthy of Stravinsky himself.

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