Monday, June 27, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #16: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, dir. Sam Peckinpah)

John: “You’re a loser.”
Bennie: “Nobody loses all the time!”
This movie isn’t for everyone. It’s a grimy, violent allegory detailing the journey of a desperate man at the end of his rope, an alcoholic named Bennie (a brilliant performance by Warren Oates), looking for a way out of the life he’s found himself in by doing the dirty work of a faceless syndicate that stands to make a million dollars if someone delivers them the head of one Alfredo Garcia, who seems to have impregnated and then broken the heart of a millionaire rancher’s daughter. Of course Bennie doesn’t know this and only gets 10 grand for his work, but that’s enough for him – at first. There’s a lot of machismo on display, a lot of slow motion (and regular motion) gunplay, a lot of heavy drinking; there are hardly any likable characters, their sadness is palpable in nearly every scene, and there’s the decapitated head of the title – in short, there are a lot of reasons not to like the movie, and I haven’t even begun to enumerate them all. But it’s also a hugely compelling film – for my money it’s probably Sam Peckinpah’s best, even better than the more renowned (and equally grim and violent) The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs – and once Bennie’s quest of escape slowly turns into something else (a search for some kind of redemption perhaps?), it’s like an unstoppable roll downhill with no brakes that’s sure to end in disaster.
Oh, the allegory part? Director Peckinpah had, by this time in his career, acquired a reputation for being a “difficult” director, fighting constantly with the studios he worked for over putting his visions onscreen. He was an alcoholic and drank regularly on set and off. He’d waste time and money getting exactly what he wanted without communicating that clearly to others. And when he was done shooting the studios as often as not took his finished products and re-edited them without his consent to fit some perceived version of a commercial product that Peckinpah’s films rarely if ever were. Without too much of a stretch you can see Bennie as Peckinpah, expending every bit of his life and energy to deliver a product to an organization who could not care less that the product has (or had, anyway) a real life of its own and ties to real people; they’re only interested in the money that said product could generate. Who cares if someone gets hurt along the way? Warren Oates is said to have modeled Bennie’s mannerisms after Peckinpah himself: blustering, aggressive, and yelling one moment, tender, reflective and thoughtful the next, but clearly always working with a sense of purpose and a goal in mind, even when that goal is simply to finish something to prove that he can do it and that he’s not the loser he’s accused of being.
When we first see Bennie, he's playing a crappy sing-along version of "Guantanamera" in a shitty bar for tourists in a small Mexican town, then bluffing his way past a couple bounty hunters searching for Alfredo Garcia. He never takes his sunglasses off so they can't read his eyes (he rarely does throughout the film, even when he’s asleep) as he feigns ignorance of Garcia, only to turn around and go find his on-and-off girlfriend and Garcia’s former flame Elita (played by Isela Vega in one of the finest, most well-rounded and warmest female performances in any Peckinpah film) to start tracking Garcia down himself. They head off together to find him and perhaps escape to a new life only to find that Garcia is already dead, which might make their work easier. Or harder, as it turns out.
The first half of the film is dedicated to Bennie learning about the bounty and going after Garcia. Once he’s acquired the head in question the second act comes in and all the violence and seediness that’s been bubbling under the surface of the first half begins to erupt, which it does with increasing severity for the rest of the film. The first half feels like a chance for Elita and Bennie to maybe make better lives for themselves – even if it’s literally at the expense of another person. The second half finds Bennie forgetting about escape and merely seeking some kind of proof that he’s worthwhile, that nobody loses all the time. "Here's the merchandise you bought." says Bennie with deep irony and anger as he brings the head to the rancher at the moment Garcia’s own son's christening is being celebrated. It’s not hard to envision Peckinpah turning in his final cut of the film to studio heads with the same contempt. Once, Peckinpah was asked if he would ever make a ''pure Peckinpah'' and he replied, ''I did Alfredo Garcia and I did it exactly the way I wanted to. Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film.''
- Patrick Brown

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