Saturday, December 19, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

"It feels like times have changed."

Everything augered well: a director coming fresh from his biggest commercial success to date, returning to the western genre of his first five movies; a script by a young but brilliant writer (Rudy Wurlitzer) seemingly attuned to the zeitgeist; a story based around one of the best known and most mythical histories of the Old West; a cast of genre stalwarts including Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong and Jason Robards, headed up by screen legend James Coburn and folk hero Kris Kristofferson; and a soundtrack by heir apparent to Kristofferson Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter debuting in a supporting role. What could go wrong?

James Aubrey, that's what. Aubrey was the president of MGM and a hatchet man. He culled, curtailed and compromised MGM's film production, slashing budgets and fucking over filmmakers, and funnelled the money into the corporation's hotel/casino interests. Of all the producers Peckinpah battled with over the years, it is Aubrey who can properly be reckoned his nemesis. Their antagony was evident from the outset. Budget and shooting schedule were set way under what Peckinpah deemed necessary. The services of an engineer Peckinpah wanted on location (to ensure the cameras didn't suffer from the inclement weather conditions in Mexico) was denied. Consquently a damaged flange went undetected, rendering a week's worth of footage out of focus. Aubrey forbade reshoots. Peckinpah re-shot every bit of compromised footage on the QT.

Essentially, 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' played out the way 'Major Dundee' had: Peckinpah rebelled against the studio while on location, going overbudget (by more than $1.5 million) and overschedule, only for the suits to take their revenge when he returned from location shooting. Every one of Peckinpah's films (except for 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia') suffered from post-production interference, but this usually happened once he'd turned in his preferred cut. 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' arguably has the distinction of being the one Peckinpah film for which a director's cut never really existed in the first place. With Aubrey dead set on muscling Peckinpah out and stripping 'Pat Garrett' down to an hour and a half of shoot outs and fuck anything resembling character development or narrative coherence, Peckinpah found himself bartering scenes while editing was still in progress, offering to make cuts here and there in order to safeguard, for example, the raft sequence.

A fine cut was produced for which two preview screenings were permitted. Since Peckinpah was not present at its erstwhile screening for the suits, and since so many compromises had been made already, it's dubious as to whether this can be considered Peckinpah's final cut. Aubrey wanted the length reducing and shanghaied the editing team into working to this end behind Peckinpah's back, threatening that non-compliance would result in his turning it over to less experienced editors whose only remit would be to hack it down to 90 minutes. What happened next is the stuff of legend. Remembering that a work print had been left in a screening room, Garth Craven and Sergio Ortega, assisted by Peckinpah's driver Chalo Gonzalez, gained entrance to said location under the cover of night, Mysteriously, the print wasn't there next morning. It was soon realised the print didn't have any sound. Funnily enough, another disappearance occurred.

The Aubrey-approved cut-to-ribbons 96 minute cut of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' was released in July 1973 to muted reviews and average box office. In October of the same year, MGM ceased film distribution and sold its entire back catalogue to United Artists, an event which precipitated Aubrey's resignation. "Mr Aubrey is no longer employed," Peckinpah mused shortly afterwards; "so maybe I have done something good for the world." A pyrrhic victory, maybe, but the fact still remains: James Aubrey was unemployed and Sam Peckinpah went on to make another five films.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, 1909. Ageing Sheriff Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is in dispute with landowner John Poe (John Beck) over a lease agreement. Garrett and Beck's association goes back to 1881 when Garrett tracked down his former friend and partner in crime Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), but they've come to a parting of the ways. With Garrett old and embittered and publically critical of the Santa Fe Ring, Beck and his business partners consider him a liability - an embarrassing throwback to the old days - and are planning to assassinate him. In his last few moments alive, Garrett relives those infamous days and the terrible denouement that made him a sheriff and the Kid a legend.

I've kept the synopsis short for two reasons: (i) 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' is a simple story in the way that 'The Wild Bunch' is simple, ie. narratively (Peckinpah collaborator Gordon Carroll summarised the plot as "a man who doesn't want to run ... pursued by a man who doesn't want to catch him"); and (ii) this article's waltzing towards the 1,000 word mark and I haven't even started analysing the film yet.

There's probably another 1,000 words that can be written about the opening credits sequence. Events in Las Cruces, 1909 (Poe's betrayal of Garrett) and Fort Sumner, 1881 (Garrett's reunion with the Kid a week before he takes the post of sheriff, ie. just prior to his betrayal of Billy) are intercut. When Garrett rides into Fort Sumner, he finds the Kid and his minions amusing themselves shooting the heads off a bunch of chickens buried up to their necks in the dirt. At Las Cruces, Poe's henchman mumbles something about checking a harness, instead pulling a rifle from a saddle roll; another gunman crawls through the sagebrush, ready to take up his position. The shots that follow cut between target practice and cold-blooded murder. Billy's men blast the heads of chickens; Poe's open fire on Garrett. Timeframes overlap. So does the soundtrack. "Damn near perfect," one of Billy's acolytes declares, apropos of a summarily despatched chicken ... but the words echo as Garrett takes a shot and slumps to the ground. Peckinpah's use of editing ramps up the emotional impact of the sequence: a potshot Billy takes at a chicken seems to travel through time and strike Garrett; purposefully aimed coups de grace by Poe's men result in the heads being blasted off helpless fowl.

Peckinpah's signature freeze frames are used as bluntly and brilliant as in 'The Wild Bunch'. As Garrett struggles to rise from the dusty ground only to sink back defeatedly, Peckinpah isolates the moment. He uses this image to accompany the film's title. He arrives at his "directed by" credit in equally iconoclastic fashion. The 1909 prologue documenting Garrett's death throes gives out the 1881 Fort Sumner sequence, and a very much alive - and younger (though still notably middle-aged) Garrett comes riding into town. Billy the gang don't notice him, so busy are they decimating the local feathered populace. Hopping off his horse, he hefts his rifle and, while Billy's still aiming, sights on a chicken and blows its head off. Billy's boys go diving for cover, panic written on their faces. Billy turns round, slowly and wryly, and greets his old friend with a grin. Some spiky banter ensues (it's clear some of the Kid's hangers-on aren't too happy to see Garrett), then the two of them head off to the bar for a couple of shots of whisky and the business at hand:

Garrett: Times are changin', Billy. You want it straight?
Billy: If that's what you're here for.
Garrett: The electorate want you gone. Out of the country.
Billy: Well, are they tellin' me or are they askin' me?.
Garrett: I'm askin' you. But in five days I'm makin' you, when I take over as sheriff of the county.

Peckinpah's directed by credit appears at this point, in a freeze frame that enforces the pause between "I'm makin' you" and "when I take over as sheriff". It might not be as quotable as "if they move, kill 'em" in 'The Wild Bunch', but by God it gives the line some weight!

The dynamic has thus been established: Garrett and the Kid are equally protagonist and antagonist. Neither are exactly heroes, though Peckinpah both empathisizes with the weight of world-weary experience that seems to be etched into every line on Garrett's face, and appreciates the self-aggrandizing behaviour of Billy (particularly in his escape from the Lincoln County jail). Neither are entirely villains, either, even though Billy is a notorious outlaw who refuses to change his ways, and Garrett is a former outlaw who commits the greater sin (certainly in the grand scheme of Peckinpah's aesthetics) of not remaining true to himself and trying to change with the times.

Oh yes, Garrett is the first (and last) of Peckinpah's western protagonists to break with the tradition of Steve Judd, Pike Bishop and co. and Cable Hogue. This is perhaps the most significant element of the dynamic/antagonism between Garrett and Billy - it's summed up during their conversation just after the opening credits:

Billy: Sheriff Pat Garrett. Sold out to the Santa Fe Ring. How does it feel.
Garrett: It feels like times have changed.
Billy: Times maybe, but not me.

Which makes it pretty clear that, since neither Garrett or the Kid are entirely good guy or bad guy, the real villain of the piece is the changing times. Or rather the men who are responsible for changing them. The men responsible for political corruption, financial chicanery, corporate conspiracy and the fencing off of frontier territory, the free and open spaces partitioned, owned, leased and jealously guarded. Men like high-living politico Governor Wallace (Jason Robards), eminence grices Holland and Norris (the power behind Wallace's throne), grasping landowner John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) and toadying parvenu on the make Poe. If 'The Wild Bunch' and 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' depict technology as the instrument of change, then 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' looks back to 'Ride the High Country' ("the days of the forty-niners are past and the days of the steady businessman have arrived") - only here the steady businessman has been replaced by the rapacious businessman, the dollar-obsessed businessman, the businessman who rapes the land and values human life lower than his profit margin. Corruption and bribery are rife. At an interview with Wallace, the Governor offers Garrett an incentive towards Billy's expedited apprehension:

Wallace: We're offering a reward of one thousand dollars for the Kid's capture. You can have five hundred now.
Garrett: Well, I aim to bring the Kid in. But until I do, you'd better take your five hundred dollars and shove it up your ass and set fire to it.

One of the most curious aspects of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' - and I'm damned if I can work out whether it's a flaw or a masterstroke - is how determinedly Peckinpah keeps the Chisum/Wallace/Poe conspiracy offscreen. True, all three of them get at least one significant scene (Garrett's encounter with Wallace is thorny; with Chisum, cautious), but they remain backgrounded, shadows that creep around the edges of Garrett's pursuit of Billy. The depiction of Chisum in particular is borderline bland. It's as if Peckinpah is saying "yup, these are the villains, these are the guys hellbent on destroying the old ways, these are guys without souls who answer only to money and power and influence, but by Christ they're nobodies - they ain't really men".

Peckinpah has more time for Deputies Bell (Matt Clark) and Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong), the latter completing the triumvirate of fanatical religious types the actor specialised in (following on from Knudsen in 'Ride the High Country' and Dahlstrom in 'Major Dundee'. Both are in the way when Billy liberates himself from Lincoln Country jail. Kristofferson's characterisation of Billy melds ruefulness and cold determination when he comes up against Bell. It's a different story with Ollinger. The two men have already entered into a spirited disagreement over spiritual matters, Ollinger committed to making sure Billy "gets with god" ("I'll take you for a walk across Hell on a spiderweb") and Billy responding to Ollinger's pious "On your knees" with a pithy "Kiss my ass". Billy's summary dispatching of Ollinger burns with the visceral and iconic intensity that fuelled Peckinpah's reputation as "Bloody Sam".

Peckinpah has more time for Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) and Black Harris (L.Q. Jones), whose exchange of fire after Garrett co-opts the former to help in smoking out the latter results in Baker's agonisingly slow passing, stumbling down to the river, gut-shot, and sitting by the slowly flowing waters, the silvery play of light on the surface, as his breathing grows shallower and the life ebbs out of him. At the same time terrible and utterly beautiful, it's one of the greatest scenes Peckinpah ever shot. Likewise the narratively pointless but poetically eloquent scene where Garrett, in a playful throwback to the outshooting-Billy-at-Fort-Sumner scene, accidentally provokes an exchange of fire with a passing raftsman, only for both men to pause, reflect and lower their guns at the critical moment. Both of these scenes are redolent of Peckinpah the humanitarian, Peckinpah the poet, Peckinpah the wounded romantic, desperately aching for a time that's changed and bitterly regretful of the forces that changed it. They give the lie to the cliche of Peckinpah as a purveyor of violence for its own sake.

Peckinpah has more time for a coffin-maker named Will ... of whom more tomorrow. I've expended about 2,500 words already and I think that one short scene between Garrett and Will (who serves, variously, as conscience, ghost and alter ego) deserves an article of its own. For now, I'll just say that 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' - given its troubled production, its director's tendency to drinking to insensation on set, the disservices done to it in editing, and its rejection of propulsive/exciting/urgent pacing typical of a chase narrative - ought to be a complete mess. And certainly there's a wonky, woozy, slightly off-kilter feel to the film. Watching it is like being punch-drunk. But it's also multi-layered, a film that repays repeated viewings. A film that worms its way under your skin and disseminates its genius slowly and subconsciously.


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Samuel Wilson said...

Neil, Garrett has some great moments in it, and you cite many of them, but I still find it far less than the sum of its parts. I can't deny that it strikes a nerve in many viewers, but somehow it doesn't for me. Part of that is my perhaps-irrational aversion to the younger Kris Kristofferson, whom directors seemed to use iconically regardless of what I saw as his severe limitations as an actor. He also seemed to strike a nerve for people -- the same one Peckinpah was aiming for and I may just lack.

Neil Fulwood said...

I can appreciate your comments, Sam. 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' underwhelmed me on first viewing, mildly intrigued the second time, starting getting under my skin by the third go around, and now I unabashedly love it.

I will readily admit it's not without its flaws. Perhaps that's why I love it so much. It's the imperfections that bring out the world-weary poetry of the piece.

Yes, your comments about the younger Kristofferson are on the nail. Some of his line readings in 'PG&BTK' are just that - readings. He's certainly developed in the acting stakes as he's got older - his turn in John Sayles' 'Lone Star' is electrifying.

I would hazard a guess that Peckinpah used him for his fame and persona as a folk/country singer. I get a very clear sense during Billy's protracted escape from Lincoln County jail (singing a ribald ballad as he frees himself from his shackles and tools up from the jail's armory) that Peckinpah wanted to show where the legend came from, and that Billy the Kid to a certain degree played to the audience of his day (ie. the witnesses to his escapades) and created his own legend, much the same way that the idols of the contemporary age (musicians and/or actors) perpetuate their own image.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it ...