Saturday, December 12, 2009

Straw Dogs

"Jesus, I got 'em all."

Because of his public falling out with Warner Brothers over cuts to 'The Wild Bunch' and their dismissive release of 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue', Peckinpah lost out on the chance to direct 'Deliverance' even though James Dickey, whose novel it was based on, urged them that Peckinpah was the perfect director for the project.

Undaunted, Peckinpah set about finding a similar property. Gordon M. William's novel 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm' was potboiler about the clash between an educated outsider and the tight-knit (and possibly inbred) residents of an off-the-beaten-track Cornish village. Reuniting with producer Daniel Melnick, who had taken a chance on him to direct 'Noon Wine' when he was otherwise unemployable, Peckinpah began work on his first film outside the western genre. His first film, also, to be set (and shot) outside America. Made at roughly the same time as Stanley Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange', both were the work of American directors tapping into a particularly British psychology of tribalism and violence. Both became bywords for movie violence. Both resulted in bans on home video, Kubrick's at the behest of its director, Peckinpah's thanks to the censors.

The production was shut down briefly while Peckinpah recovered from a bout of pneumonia contracted while he and Ken Hutchison ended a drunken evening serenading a storm off Land's End. During his recuperation, Dustin Hoffman petitioned Melnick to fire Peckinpah and replace him with Peter Yates. Melnick, Gawd bless 'im, had none of it and Peckinpah finished the movie.

American academic David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) moves to the small, isolated village his wife Amy (Susan George) came from. The locals treat him with amused contempt, scoring his inability to cope with a right-hand drive car or use a manual gearbox. David witnesses the volatile behaviour of Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) and the ineffectuality of local magistrate Major Scott (T.P. McKenna), as well as the villagers' antipathy towards simple-minded Henry Niles (David Warner). The Sumners' marriage is failing, differences in age, attitude and cultural background emphasising their essential incompatability. Relations are further strained by Amy's reacquaintance with old boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney), and the flirtatious attentions paid to David by Hedden's sexually precocious underage daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett). Sumner rashly engages Venner, Riddaway (Donald Webster), Cawsey (Jim Norton) and Scutt (Ken Hutchison) to renovate Trencher's Farm. Their mockery of him takes on an increasingly darker edge. Sumner's attempts to ingratiate with him backfire when he's lured away from the farmhouse and Venner pays a call on Amy. Initially, frustrated by her husband's behaviour and still attracted to Venner, she responds to him; when she hesitates, he uses force. Scutt makes an appearance, shotgun trained on Venner, and forces Venner's compliance in a second rape. Later, when Amy experiences flashbacks to the attack while she and David attend a church social, she insists on leaving the fete. Driving home in heavy fog, David accidentally runs into Niles. Taking the injured man home, he is unaware that earlier in the evening, goaded by Janice, Niles accidentally killed her. Tom Hedden, drunk and vengeful, recruits Venner, Cawsey and Scutt and lays siege to Trencher's Farm in order to get at Niles. David is forced to make a stand.

Okay, let's shoot the elephant in the room. Let's spend a couple of paragraphs talking about the rape scene, get it out of the way, then we can discuss the rest of the film like sensible adults. I'd like that. I'd like that because so few people do discuss 'Straw Dogs' sensibly. There's been increased discussion of 'Straw Dogs' on the internet over the last year or so since it was announced that Rod Lurie is helming a remake (an egregious prospect). This quote from The Guardian online pretty much typifies the kind of knee-jerk moral-majority ballyhoo that is still being spouted about 'Straw Dogs' nearly forty years down the line: "The main area of contention [is] a scene in which Hoffman's wife, played by Susan George, appears to be enjoying sexual abuse by one of the builders working on their house." Note the avoidance of Amy's previous romantic involvement and still-potent emotional/sexual connection with Venner. Note the oversimplification. It's insulting, really. We're all adults here; we know rape is bad. Rape is perhaps the most heinous of crimes, worse arguably than murder. Consider how many films - from 'Last House on the Left' to 'The Accused' - feature rape scenes. Consider how many films reduce rape to a generic plot device: male antagonist assaults woman, male protagonist avenges her. Less frequent, and curiously more likely to be tainted as exploitation, there's the rape/revenge subgenre where the victim becomes vigilante: 'I Spit on Your Grave', for instance, or 'Ms 45'. The commonality? The abuser as stranger; the act itself as a clearly delineated example of sexualised violence; vengeance specifically exacted before the closing credits.

Now consider the reality. According to a study by Abbey, BeShears, Clinton-Sherrod and McAuslan published in Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2004 (quoted on Wikipedia), focussing on perpetrator types, 12.2% of rapes were committed by the victim's ex-boyfriend, 7.2% by a husband, 21.6% by a partner or steady date, 10.1% by a casual date, 10.1% by a close friend, 27.3% by a casual friend or acquaintance, and only 2% accounted for by strangers. Amy is assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. As the scene begins, she is still attracted to him. An hour's worth of acutely observed psychological character study has pinpointed the strains and failings of her marriage to David and established all the ways in which the feral, unapologetically masculine Venner is different. Amy wants him ... but doesn't. Is sexually excited by him ... but is wracked with guilt. Goes with the moment ... then tries to stop it. In other words, she's a realistically depicted, emotionally vulnerable, conflicted, confused human being. Who quickly finds herself in above her depth. When Venner's attentions become more aggressive, she tries to calm him ("easy, easy," she murmurs). Desire gives way to doubt and then to fear. Susan George's performance is fearless and a masterclass in emotionalism; it's all in her eyes. I can't understand how anyone can watch the scene and come to the conclusion that Amy "likes it". Yes, there are moments when she seems responsive, when she reaches up to touch his face, when she moves reactively beneath him - these are the actions of someone conflicted by the fact that her attacker is someone she was once emotionally involved with, someone trying to use that previous closeness to calm and mollify him, to make the experience less vicious, less brutal than it already is - but there is still the fear, the uncertainty, the anguish on her face. And there is no ambiguity about Amy as unwilling victim when Scutt appears on the scene. None whatsoever.

'Straw Dogs' is not a rape/revenge movie. David exits the film - and his marriage - without ever knowing what Venner and Scutt did to Amy. The violence at the end of the film is about something else entirely.

Ah yes, the violence. The other reason 'Straw Dogs' continues to have a certain reputation. One that its distributors seemed determined to promote from the outset. The poster for 'Straw Dogs', while iconic, made unsubtle use of the tagline "the knock at the door meant the birth of one man and the death of seven others". Besides epitomising the type of macho hyperbole that provides ammunition for Peckinpah's critics, it's also somewhat innumerate. Only five people are killed during the siege and not all of them (as the tagline implies) by David. Make no mistake about it, the climactic scene - involving shotgun, knife, poker, broken glass, a man trap and, when everything to hand has been exhausted, hand-to-hand fighting - is violent. But it's also punctuated by moments of inspired comedy (unable temporarily to gain ingress to the farmhouse, Scutt and Cawsey find a couple of children's tricycles in an outhouse and go pedalling around manically, tooting the horns) and its most chilling aspect is not David's sudden and clinically effective deployment of violence against his aggressors, but his icily emotionless treatment of both his wife and Niles.

Amy encourages David to "give them Niles". He refuses, stating "I will not permit violence against this house". Venner, from outside, implores Amy to let them in ("let us have Niles; I won't let them hurt you") and she acquiesces ... until, that is, David slams the door closed again and gives her a Venner-like slapping around, threatening to break her arm if she doesn't get in line. Shortly afterwards, with the attack on the farmhouse renewed - bricks through the windows are followed by a handful of rats, thrown in by Cawsey - Niles panics and inadvertently flails at Amy. In the film's opening sequence, David sees Niles's brother slap the simpleton's face when his interaction with the village children gives cause for concern; he is shocked by the incident. Now, he does something that had previously left him aghast - and does it coldly and without hesitation. David crosses a line and becomes what he is standing up against. This is what 'Straw Dogs' is really about.

"There are eighteen different places in the film, if you look at it, where [David] could have stopped the whole thing," Peckinpah observed. "But he didn't. He let it go on." Indeed, much of the two-hour running time is given over to a study of a troubled marriage (David and Amy's rapidly fracturing relationship juxtaposed with the Hammond brothers style dynamic between Venner, Riddaway, Scutt and Cawsey) rooted in David's standard operating procedure of running away or backing down, an SOP that has its beginnings in his departure from America (the locals quiz David at one point on the social unrest - campus riots, race riots, Vietnam - Stateside, asking "Did you see any of it? Were you involved?") and relocation to the supposedly quieter and more civilised climes of rural England. He finds there a different kind of social upheaval, a different kind of threat. He finds insularity, parochialism and possibly inbreeding (a scene between Janice and her brother as they spy on David and Amy making love suggests they're a little closer than siblings ought to be). He finds distrust of the outsider. He meets with contempt and provocation.

But David lets it go on. And when it goes on to a point where David is forced to take a stand, the result is the perhaps the most specifically anti-violent sequence in Peckinpah's ouevre. Whereas the deaths in 'The Wild Bunch' are perversely magnificent - motivated equally by loyalty and a refusal to change with the changing times - there is no such grandiosity in 'Straw Dogs'. No catharsis. David Sumner doesn't even get to write himself into legend a la Pike Bishop and co: unlike them, he is still alive come the end of the movie. But something in him has died.

Although there is nothing in the film to explain or contextualise it, 'Straw Dogs' takes its title from a passage in Lao Tzu's philosophical work 'The Book of 5,000 Characters' which states "Heaven and Earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad of people as straw dogs: the sage is ruthless and treats the people as straw dogs". There is something grimly pragmatic about such words. Something resonant and approaching the poetic, as well. Something that agitates the mind. The film is suitably named.


Jake said...

Excellent review. I thought I'd written about this myself, but it's probably just as well that I didn't. The only other Peckinpah films I've seen are The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and I actually saw this one first and wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I thought that the rape scene was, as you say, more true to life and complex than the, to me, far more egregious simplification of such crimes for the sake of cheap moralism (or, conversely, to fuel an exploitative, glorifying revenge tale). But I wasn't quite sure what to make of the climax.

Of course, when I decided to revisit it and hear the supposedly fantastic commentary, I found out that the Criterion version went out of print. Figures.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for your comment, Jake.

'Straw Dogs' was a difficult film to write about; even though the rape scene is more emotionally complex than is usually portrayed in films, and although 'Straw Dogs' is about so much more than that one scene, try as I might it seemed to dominate the review.

Franco Macabro said...

Okay, so I defenetly think this is my next Peckinpah. Thanks for that review, now I want to watch it right now!

Rape scenes are never easy to watch in a movie, I can imagine how hard they are to film as well. I havent seen this movie yet, but I wonder if the rape scenes is even more difficult then the one seen in Irreversible? Wow, that was torturous! So long. So real. So grueling to watch.

Still, films reflect society, and sad as it is, rape is something that happens, and needs to be addressed in films. If only to remind everyone how awful a thing it is.

Thanks for another awesome review Neil.

Troy Olson said...

Bravo, sir. I actually watched this film for the first time a few years back without knowing any of the critical debate over it (all I knew was that it was a supposedly extremely violent film). I came to similar conclusions you did and think that many more people would also come to that conclusion if the preconceptions about this film weren't already so set in stone.

Anyways, you have a simply fantastic reading of this film. The rape scene is as complex as you state it to be and I think you explain that scene and the mind of Peckinpah quite well. Speaking of which -- do you have any specific comments from Sam on THAT scene? Or Susan George? Just curious...

Neil Fulwood said...

The story behind the rape scene is as dramatic as the scene itself. In David Weddle's biography of Peckinpah, producer Daniel Melnick is quoted as saying "During the early part of the film ... Sam and Dustin and everyone were loving towards [Susan George]. Then, as the conflicts in the [onscreen] marriage progressed, they started behaving toward her in a mean way. She was totally manipulated."

Weddle also quotes Susan George at length in her recollections of the scene. Apparently, Peckinpah had begun to talk about the scene in such detail that George was worried his conception of it had developed beyond what was called for in the script. She took her concerns to Melnick, who advised her to talk to Peckinpah directly. When she did, saying that she'd prefer it if the requirements for the scene were put down specifically in writing, Peckinpah (a man used to his actors doing what he told them) casually reminded her that she'd signed to do the film knowing full well there was a rape scene. George (again quoted in Weddle's book) recalls that Peckinpah was doing his usual knife-throwing at his office door during the conversation. Her nerves worn down, she (understandably) stormed out of his office and walked off the film.

Melnick, aided by George's agent, managed to smooth the situation out and persuade George to meet with Peckinpah again. Apparently Peckinpah was frosty towards her but listened while she outlined her concerns that the scene might become too explicit, too violent. "Well, how do you propose to show me these emotions?" Peckinpah demanded. George responded that she could convey Amy's conflict, confused emotionalism mainly through her eyes and facial expressions; she asked Peckinpah to trust her and she would portray exactly what he wanted of the scene.

Peckinpah agreed, but with the caveat that "if, when we've done it your way, I'm not satisifed ... then we do some things my way". George agreed and, with the specifics of the scene agreed and put in writing, filming went ahead. The scene took a week to shoot. It took its toll on George, and Del Henney (playing Venner) described it as harrowing. Peckinpah refused to let George see any of the rushes, but as he left the screening room he saw George waiting for him. He walked over, held out his hand and said "You got it, kid."