Sep 6, 2017


As someone that regards his previous features Heute nacht oder nie (1972) aka Tonight or Never, La Paloma (1974), and Schatten der Engel (1976) aka Shadow of Angels as some of my all-time favorite films, it is only natural that I have eagerly anticipated seeing Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid’s fourth feature Violanta (1978) about as much as a 40-year-old virgin craves to get his first proper whiff of a fresh warm twat. Although I have always feared that I might not ever get the chance to see the film since, not unlike most of Schmid’s early films, it has never been released in any home media format aside from a hard-to-find foreign VHS sans subtitles, luckily I managed to find an admittedly rather poor quality print that some German guy generously created English subs for. After recently having the luxury of watching the film, I can safely say that, like Schmid’s previous three features, it is unequivocally an unsung masterpiece that is in desperate need of being rediscovered by cinephiles lest it suffer the cinematically tragic fate of being regulated to the celluloid ash heap of cinema history. A somewhat morbid and melancholic yet beauteous and poetic melodrama that includes an eclectic all-star European arthouse cast including Lucia Bosé, Maria Schneider, Lou Castel, Gérard Depardieu, and Ingrid Caven, Violanta is certainly a singular work that can really only described as Schmid-esque as it is just too idiosyncratic and unmistakably a work of the director to be described as anything else. In fact, in terms of themes and its period setting, I can only really superficially compare it to John Huston’s swansong The Dead (1987), although Schmid’s film is indubitably a more intricate, quixotic, nuanced, aesthetically enterprising, and all-around superior work and I say that as someone that is appreciates both films and filmmakers.  Personally, I would go so far as to describe Schmid's film as a marvelously moribund The Dead for the lethally lovelorn and spiritually necrotic, as a pathos-driven cinematic work that gives nil hope for the hopeless and basks in brutalizing the emotionally brutalized so as to remind the viewer to forget about love lest they risk living perennially like a dead soul among ghosts and phantoms of their past.

 Adapted from the German-language novel Die Richterin (1885) aka The Judge by Swiss wordsmith Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Schmid’s film is set in an enigmatic rural realm that might be described as darkly romantic were it not for the seemingly eternal plague of cross-generational lovelorn misery and crippling regret that consumes the locals as a deceptively melodramatically merciless cinematic work where the viewer is offered nil catharsis and is instead forced to embrace a complete capitulation of the heart and soul. Set during the eighteenth-century in a small Swiss village that borders Italy where Schmid himself spent a major part of his youth, the film is preternaturally supernatural in the sense that ghosts and phantoms freely intermingle with humans that seem even more haunted than their undead compatriots. Notably, virtually all of these ghosts are connected to the terminally unhappy eponymous heroine, who is still haunted by those important individuals from her past that she either loved or loathed and thus can never completely forget. An effortlessly and charming and elegant yet hopelessly morose matriarch that runs a sort of soft dictatorship in her village as a so-called ‘judge,’ the titular protagonist has many skeletons in her closet that she is ultimately reminded of in a phantasmagorical fashion when her estranged son-in-law returns to the village after a virtual lifetime of exile to take part in the wedding of a beautiful young half-sister that he has never even met in a scenario that eventually evolves into incest. Indeed, although featuring beautiful mountain landscapes, truly festive folk clothing and celebrations, and stunningly exotic women of various ages, Violanta is about as merry as a third world autopsy and as heartwarming as a cold rusted dagger to the chest. 

 Not unlike the venomously vengeful lovesick bourgeois bitch played by Maria Casarès in Robert Bresson’s early classic Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) aka The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, the eponymous middle-aged beauty of Schmid's flick wears a mask of great respectability and moral superiority but that there is a sort of subtle fiery foreboding in her eyes that betrays her prestigious place in society as the beloved queen bitch of her village. Like virtually all of Schmid’s great female leads, Violanta is an irreparably damaged diva and she longs for death, so it is only natural that the dead dominate her story and bring back painful memories of murder and heartbreak.  Despite her own serious mistakes in life, Violanta believes it is up to her and her only to tell other people what to do with their lives, so naturally she gets somewhat petrified when her estranged stepson arrives at the village and begins lusting over her engaged daughter.  Featuring Maria Schneider at her most shockingly innocent and virginal, Gérard Depardieu as the sleaziest of psychopathic brutes, Lou Castel as a pathetically impotent dropout, and Lucia Bosé as the most self-assured yet deeply internally tortured of manipulative matriarchs, Violanta is not really a political film but it can certainly be seen as a sort of hyper hermetic allegory for the decline of Europa as a film set in a decidedly dejecting gynocentric realm where bitter women reign, young men are completely emasculated and/or borderline asexual, and old men are virtually nonexistent as most of the men were curiously killed off long ago. In that sense, it is intriguing that the film is set at a sort of crossroads of Europe where the Mediterranean world meets the Germanic world, or as Schmid once explained to Rudolph Jula, “One of the reasons I did the movie was because it meant coming back to the place where I grew up. And it was an opportunity to define some of my so-called cultural identity – which is an in-between position. The place is in the Alps, at a point where rivers run south and north, and it’s on the border between the Latinate and the Germanic world. It’s always been well-travelled country: our roads go back to the Romans, the Etruscans. All the traffic between northern and southern Europe used to cross these mountains. There are also three languages spoken within a very small area: Italian, German and Romansh, a language that goes back to the vulgar Latin spoken in the time of the Roman Empire.” 

 Violanta begins with the ultimately life-changing reading of a letter by a young man living in exile in Venice named ‘Silver’ (Lou Castel) to his dreaded stepmother Donna Violanta (Lucia Bosé), who is the so-called ‘judge’ and benevolent dictator of the small Swiss village that he was seemingly forced to flee from after the quite dubious death of his padre.  Somewhat curiously, Violanta—a woman that seems to fear the mere presence of her stepson, as if he reminds her of seem deep dark secret and/or crime that she committed—wants Silver to come out of exile to attend of the wedding of his half-sister Laura (Maria Schneider), who he has never met but deeply longs for, hence his bizarre disinterest in voluptuous Venetian beauties.  Laura is Violanta's sole child, as well as Silver's sole sibling, albeit they naturally have different mothers. Silver deeply resents Violanta because he blames her for his own biological mother going crazy as a result of his father divorcing her for the titular heroine. Indeed, the woman that Silver deeply loathes is now in complete control of the beloved hometown that his mother was originally supposed to take control of. On top of everything else, Silver’s half-sis is the one that is set to eventually takeover the village that his long dead father once ruled over. As the film eventually reveals near the end, Silver would have even more good reason to deeply detest Violanta if he knew what his conspiring stepmother did to his belated father. What is for sure is that Silver rightly hates Violanta and has no problem admitting as such, though he seems to lack the drive and self-esteem to do anything about it.  Not surprisingly, Silver certainly does entertain the idea of destroying Laura’s wedding by falling in love with her. In the end, it is only Violanta that is destroyed, though it is clearly something she longs for as if she has been dreaming of it her entire life. 

 Throughout the film, Violanta is curiously followed by a morose and painfully vulnerable yet absolutely ravishing, pale moon-faced and redheaded beauty named ‘Alma’ (Ingrid Caven), who has such an innately forsaken demeanor that it seem as if the Devil himself gave her a weekend pass out of hell just to attend the wedding as some form of inordinately cruel punishment. Completely consumed with guilt as a result of supposedly killing her husband and still hopelessly heartbroken that the man she actually loved was killed, Alma is incessantly rebuked by her friend for living in the past.  As revealed in a brief scene shortly after she is first introduced to the viewer, locals believe that Alma acts strange because she was the victim of a harvest moon, but Violanta certainly knows better. As Alma emotionally confesses to Violanta, she believes “now the moment has arrived” and “The payment is due” in regard to the fact she poisoned her husband after their wedding, or as she further explains while clearly burdened with an almost grotesque sense of guilt, “...but no one except me knows about that. I never said anything because of my son. His life would have been a living hell if he had known . . . that his mother is a murderess.” As she later explains to Silver in a haunted cave, Alma is Violanta’s ‘shadow’ (in fact, it can be argued she is the heroine’s sort of Jungian ‘shadow aspect’), as she candidly expresses all the pain, guilt, and lovesickness that has also plagued the titular heroine for so many years. Indeed, when she notices that Alma has committed suicide by hanging herself during Laura’s wedding party, Violanta decides it is time to end her own life and does so by drinking poisoned wine. Notably, Violanta’s one-true-love ‘Adrian’ (Raúl Gimenez) was very knowledgeable about poisons and taught her enough about the subject to poison both her husband ‘Simon’ (François Simon) and eventually herself. While Violanta stoically states to Alma, “Memories are of no use. As are confessions,” it is ultimately the eponymous heroine’s miserable memories and confession to her daughter that give her the strength she needs to finally commit self-slaughter.

 As depicted in rather ghostly flashback scenes, Violanta was forced to marry her belated hubby Simon after her sleazy brother ‘Fortunat’ (Gérard Depardieu)—a boorish psychopath that seemed to love lurking around seedy bars—literally gambled her away during a drunken game of cards. On top forcing her to marry a greedy old fart against her will, Fortunat also murdered Violanta’s lover Adrian while they were lovingly embraced in a strikingly sick act of tragic poetic violence that seems to have turned the heroine into the cold conspiring bitch that she is today. When Adrian’s ghost randomly appears the night before her daughter's wedding, Violanta does not declare her love to him but instead immediately attacks him, stating, “I assumed that you had found peace. How meaningless! A dead man dreaming about life at night. That’s not possible, Adrian,” but he replies, “One needs a lot of time in order to die. Look out the window! You can see nothing but tormented shadows.” In fact, Violanta—a woman that prides herself on her own personal independence and capacity to rule—is such a cold and irrational cunt that she blames Adrian, as opposed to her demented brother Fortunat, for being murdered and causing the horrific premature end of their lurid love affair, stating, “But you were a coward, just like the other men. My brother intimidated you like he did with them. My God, how much I loved you! I wanted to runaway with you. No matter where. Far away from the valley. But you were afraid of me.” Of course, Violanta’s callous words reveal that she is nothing short of an emotionally erratic misandrist, so it should be no surprise that she established her own mountain matriarchy where most men merely act as meek servants. In fact, Violanta also strategically setup her daughter Laura’s marriage to a groveling beta-bitch named David (Luciano Simioni) specifically because he is “sensitive” and quite unlike her dead husband and deadly dipsomaniac brother.  Indeed, denied true love herself, Violanta has no problem denying her daughter the same thing.  Of course, unlike her arrogant old fart husband Simon, David is at least a young pansy pushover that little Laura can boss around.  A seasoned ice queen that has not gotten over the death of her true love, Violanta now looks at men as a means to an end and nothing more.

 While it does not seem like they are particularly bothered by the taboo of incest as demonstrated by the fact that they make out (and possibly make love) in the countryside not long after meeting for the very first time, Silver and Laura are not actually half-siblings, or so the latter eventually learns upon eavesdropping on her mother.  Indeed, as revealed towards the end of the film, Laura is not the daughter of Violanta’s dead husband Simon, but her murdered true love Adrian.  Indeed, when Violanta encounters the ghost of her dead husband, she hatefully boasts, “You weren’t as lucky as you thought when you gambled for me. You didn’t win me. You won my hate” and then reveals that she poisoned him and that Laura is actually “Adrian’s child” and not his. Unfortunately, Laura witnesses this conversation, though she cannot see the ghost that her mother is ostensibly speaking to. Notably, Laura does not seem particularly disturbed by the revelation that Silver is not her biological half-sibling and that Simon is not her real father, as if she is fully aware of her mother's deep treachery and lies.  Of course, by cuckolding Simon and murdering him before she could find out her dirty little secret, Violanta was able to secure a great future for her daughter. Despite her great airs of calm sophistication and happiness, Violanta has been more or less metaphysically dead ever since the death of her great love Adrian and she has simply dedicated her life since then to providing a secure future for her daughter, so it only seems natural that she commits suicide right after Laura gets married as her motherly mission has been accomplished and thus she has no other reason to live. Naturally, it is only fittingly that she kills herself the same exact way that she murdered her husband by consuming poison after her daughter’s wedding in what ultimately seems to be a somewhat morbid form of penance. On the other hand, Violanta does not all seem to regret committing mariticide and her suicide seems to be more influenced by a virtual lifetime of heartsickness than homicidal guilt. As for Laura and her ‘brother’ Silver, one can only guess, but it seems that their (pseudo)incestuous affair concluded before it even really began, which is arguably the real tragedy of the film.  In the end, Laura seems to have no problem with settling for matrimonial mediocrity over the ostensible half-brother that she clearly loves, though one suspects that she will eventually grow to be just as cold and bitter as her emotionally barren progenitor.

 Notably, as opposed to being a sort of stereotypical quasi-Freudian celluloid turd where sex and romance is depicted in a pathological or psychoanalytic fashion (incidentally, Freud was somewhat obsessed with Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's source novella and referenced it in his early writings and lectures as an example of a ‘pathological,’ as opposed to psychological, work), Violanta depicts the world of love as a sort of forsaken realm plagued by tragic romantic destiny, or as auteur Daniel Schmid once explained himself in an interview, “Yes, there’s a certain fatalism about the story. And I love legends, they’re what remain at the very end, and no one cares about the real truth. Everyone’s fate is predetermined from the beginning, as if they were under a spell. There are no genuine couples, only impossible ones. And the main characters live with people from the past, the dead are sometimes more present than the living.” In fact, not unlike many of Schmid’s greatest cinematic works, the film has an undeniably timeless quality and might be best described as an aberrant anti-fairytale as directed by a sort of strangely cynical ‘romantic pessimistic’ that is just as dubious of love and its nuances and intricacies as he is obscenely obsessed with it. Of course, being a gay man, Schmid (who curiously cast his “first great love” Raúl Gimenez as the titular’s heroine’s dead lover) had a somewhat warped and arguably ressentiment-driven view of heterosexual love, as if it was something he deeply longed for but knew he could never really have.

One also cannot forget that Schmid strongly identified with women and lived vicariously through them via his filmic heroines, so it should be no surprise that he personally exhibited some of the less flattering character traits associated with women, namely a talent for covert emotional and psychological manipulation. Indeed, as Schmid’s longtime cinematographer Renato Berta explained in the documentary Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense (2010) co-directed by Pascal Hofmann and Benny Jaberg in regard to the filmmaker’s somewhat Fassbinder-esque tendencies, “There’d be conflicts where I’d ask myself: ‘What will happen now? This will be dramatic!’ He had a fierce, awful, on-set argument with Ingrid Caven. It was very severe. He kicked the make-up table so that it fell over. ‘You’re a whore!’ And that was really how he was: A sort of subconscious manipulator. He was always playing games and if you couldn’t distance yourself at times you’d find yourself . . . in situations that seemed totally complicated, and you’d think, there’s no way out. Then he himself would show you the way out. At least, at times. In this regard, then, he had an elegance that few possess.”  Indeed, the way Berta describes Schmid makes it seem as if the eponymous heroine of Violanta is a vaugely autobiographical character of sorts, at least in the psychological sense.

 Also in the doc Daniel Schmid - Le chat qui pense, Teutonic avant-garde maestro Werner Schroeter explained in regard to his longtime friend and fellow ‘queen’ Schmid, “Daniel saw a diva in everyone. He even tried to sell his aunt as an odd diva. Daniel was a diva ddict. They were hidden everywhere, and you only had to bring this out in order to draw forth this artificiality and create a diva’s pseudo-immortality.” Undoubtedly, out of all of Schmid’s films, Violanta features the director’s most fully realized and unforgettable diva in the form of Italian Neorealist legend Lucia Bosé who rules over an exceedingly feminine realm of not only the night, moon, nature, and the maternal, but also masks, sophistry, underhandedness, formlessness, and the daemonic.  In short, the film is deliciously demonically Delphic in its innate femininity to the point of expressing the gynocentric as something that is gorgeously grotesque in a sick and tragic sort of way.  Depicting a sort of quasi-mystical and matriarchal pastoral mono no aware microcosm where the acceptance of lovelorn misery by the heroine highlights both the innate emotional strength and callousness associated with the so-called fairer sex, the film ultimately reveals Schmid’s strange respect for the perennial enigma that is femininity. Surely, Schmid’s film revealed that Italian sage Julius Evola was right when he wrote in Eros and the Mysteries of Love: The Metaphysics of Sex (1958) in regard to the devilishly dichotomous traits of the female sex, “A Persian legend indicates the ingredients of which a woman is composed as ‘the hardness of a diamond, the sweetness of honey, the cruelty of a tiger, the warm brightness of a fire, and the coolness of snow.’ These ambivalences, the same as those met with in the archetype of the Divine Woman, lie at the basis of another set of traits in feminine psychology: the coexistence of a disposition toward pity and a disposition toward a special cruelty. Lombroso and Ferrero observed some time ago how woman is simultaneously more pitying and yet more cruel than man, for her capacity for a loving protection and compassion is often accompanied by a lack of feeling, ruthlessness, and destructive violence that, once let loose, take a far greater hold on her than they do a man; history bears witness to this in collective forms when rebellions and lynching have taken place.” Indeed, when Violanta hatefully rebukes the ghost of her great love that died in her arms, one cannot help but reminded of Evola’s words, “Women, wrote Martin, are ruthless about the evil they do to men they love.”  After all, even in death, the heroine cannot forgive her beloved for being brutally murdered at the hands of her own brother simply because he loved her too much.

No doubt, I would be lying if I did not admit that Violanta made me seriously ponder the dark enigma of covert female psychological violence and the countless wars, wrecked nations, ruined lives, and destroyed love affairs that have occurred throughout history as a result of some conspiring bitch getting an itch to tell some monstrous lie.  Indeed, as demonstrated by everything from Shakespeare to popular TV shows like Game Of Thrones, such craven feminine behavior is a timeless theme of Western culture, yet few individual men want to admit to themselves that women are capable of such things, hence why women like the titular heroine of Schmid's film are able to so easily getaway with them. Of course, as Otto Weininger once wrote, “No men who really think deeply about women retain a high opinion of them; men either despise women or they have never thought seriously about them.”  After all, even Schmid, who loved women and their idiosyncrasies, could not help but portray their most loathsome traits.  Undoubtedly, the difference between Schmid and the average heterosexual man is that the belated filmmaker admired women for many of the same reasons that straight men simply cannot stomach them aside from only a strictly sexual basis.

Despite is unequivocal worship of dark feminine traits, Schmid was by no means some sort of degenerate feminist leftist cuck, at least not in any typical sense.  Indeed, as Schmid stated during a contentious press release for his first feature Tonight or Never—a film that subtly satires the mindless stupidity of the German 68er-Bewegung student movement of the late-1960s—in regard to his disgust with Occidental decadence and the decline of Europa in general, “I live in a decadent era. That is my private belief. I believe that I live in a late chapter of Western history. I have no conception of how things might continue.”  In fact, Schmid's early films were oftentimes, rather absurdly, labelled “fascist” by certain left-wing film critics, or as the auteur explained himself when asked by Rudolph Jula if he was reproached for being a supposed bourgeois artist, “Yes, to the point of being accused of celebrating bourgeois cultural fascism.  That was a term being hurled at everyone at the time.  Everyone was a fascist, apart from oneself of course.  But all these words have lost their meaning today, like communism.”  Of course, to these commie critics' very minor credit, Schmid was clearly a serious artist with a deep respect for European high kultur who was not afraid to direct films based on novels written by fascist authors like Hécate (1982) or to make ostensibly racially insensitive films like Shadow of Angels featuring a character simply named “The Rich Jew.”  As far as fascistic melodrama is concerned, Schmid's films make a classic Veit Harlan flick like Opfergang (1944) seem like a quirky romantic-comedy by comparison in terms of sheer tragic sorrow and abject despair.

Undoubtedly, Violanta is arguably the most immaculate cinematic example of what Douglas Sirk—an auteur that Schmid considered such a great hero and artistic influence that he paid tribute to with the fairly worthwhile documentary Mirage de la vie (1983) aka Imitation of Life—when he described the “impossible situation” of melodrama.  Completely denying the viewer any sense of catharsis while ensnaring them in his own deep dark abyss of rather cryptically expressed sexual and emotional desires, Schmid managed to assemble a film that is among the darkest and most foreboding of cinema history when it comes to the metaphysics of sex and the perils of true love.  Indeed, to watch Violanta is to be temporarily forsaken by Schmid's hopelessly haunted Hades-like homo soul.  Personally, I cannot think of another film where a somnambulist-like redheaded Fräulein inspires romantic fantasies of suicide and where an incestuous brother-sister romance seems like the most natural relationship in the world, but then again I am a sucker for Schmid  and the sort of ominously yet soothingly oneiric cinematic majesty that his films offer.

-Ty E

Aug 21, 2017

Thieves Like Us

As a relatively subversive and iconoclastic ‘anti-Hollywood Hollywood’ auteur that sometimes took a relatively ‘nonchalant’ approach to the filmmaking process and was not afraid to completely rework and rewrite screenplays, come up with random endings on the spot while shooting (e.g. California Split), and allowed actors to improvise, Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville) certainly performed a grand yet considerably underappreciated artistically ironic feat with Thieves Like Us (1974), which happens to be both one of his greatest yet most conventional films. Indeed, aside from being a rare Altman film that is fairly faithful to its source material, the flick was made in the wake of the culturally revolutionary success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) when countless other filmmaker also attempted to capitalize off the prestige of the Great Depression era crime-drama as demonstrated by works including (but certainly not limited to) Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970), Martin Scorsese’s Corman-produced hack exploitation piece Boxcar Bertha (1972), and John Milius’ underrated directorial debut Dillinger (1973). While I rather like both Bonnie and Clyde and Milius’ somewhat exploitative Dillinger biopic, I have no qualms about admitting that I think Thieves Like Us is easily the greatest and most timeless of the films associated with this neo-retro counterculture subgenre and I say that as someone that would rather fuck Faye Dunaway’s half-rotten corpse than even so much as kiss Shelley Duvall’s fairly thin lips. Of course, the mostly unattractive cast of Altman’s film is one of the many things that makes it so great as a cinematic work that never falls into the ‘romantic myth’ that makes Bonnie and Clyde seem sometimes so phony, superficially propagandistic, and just plain insipidly Hollywood-esque. Adapted from relatively forgotten writer Edward Anderson’s 1937 crime novel of the same name, Altman’s film does a noble job recreating the atmosphere and cultural landscape of the decidedly destitute Great Depression era South to the point where it features no traditional score and instead cleverly relies on diegetic music and radio broadcasts to emphasize a pre-TV world when radio was still king. Naturally, as someone born in 1925, Altman had the distinguished advantage of remembering such a world when entire families had not yet collectively succumbed to the soft narcotizing lobotomy that is the idiotic box, which is quite apparent while watching the film. Thankfully, the film also does not feature contrived antiheroes like the Bogart-loving frog of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) aka Breathless that parrot the behavior of Hollywood movie stars, as it is set in a demystified world where even motion pictures do not even seem to exist (even though they did). In short, there is no glamour or crime fetishism in Altman’s stark yet strangely beauteous vision of the serenely scenic wasteland that was the 1930s American South. 

 Undoubtedly, the famous quote from John Huston’s classic film The Asphalt Jungle (1950) that “crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor” has arguably never been better expressed in a film than in Thieves Like Us where all-too-human flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities are depicted in a soundly sensitively expressed fashion to the point where the viewer cannot help but deeply sympathize with a goofy young hillbilly fugitive that once killed a man during a botched robbery. Adapted from the same name novel that acted as the source of Nicholas Ray’s classic They Live by Night (1949)—a film that Altman somewhat dubiously claimed to have never seen (in fact, Altman claimed that he began preproduction on his film before even realizing that Ray had already adapted the same novel)—the film even manages to be more tender and humanistic than its Hollywood Golden Age predecessor. Indeed, virtually every single character in the film, especially the lead and his lover, is a hapless loser with very bad luck to the point where the viewer can only assume they will meet a very tragic end.  Although featuring a glaringly mismatched trio of cross-generational fugitive bank robbers whose rather brazen behavior ultimately leads to their somewhat predictable demise, the film is first and foremost an almost shockingly touching love story about two goofy virginal misfit hicks that happen to fall in love at the most inconvenient of times in what is ultimately a decidedly doomed romance that should last a lifetime but only lasts what seems like a couple months. In terms of the sheer awkwardness of their short-lived romance, leads Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall bring a refreshingly singular chemistry that, despite their occasional petty verbal bickering, is pure of spirit and in stark contrast to the bloody violence that the film contains. As much as I appreciate Farley Granger as an actor, his portrayal of lead antihero ‘Bowie’ in Ray’s They Live by Night seems somewhat shallow and one-dimensional compared to fittingly gawky Carradine’s iconic performance in Altman’s film. Additionally, quite unlike Duvall, Cathy O'Donnell is just too effortlessly entrancing to portray a silly hick chick with a name like ‘Keechie.’ 

 Admittedly, my initial interest in originally seeing Thieves Like Us was my love of the film’s title and how it inspired by both the classic New Order song of the same name and multinational synth-driven post-punk band of the same name. As absurdly shallow as that sounds, I knew I could count on both bands due to their cinephiliac tendencies (after all, Thieves Like Us tend to pillage great European cult films to make their ‘official’ music videos). After recently re-watching the film, I am pretty much convinced that it is Altman’s most immaculately directed and just downright all-around flawless flick, even if it is also one of his least sophisticated and artistically ambitious. Undoubtedly, the film owes a great deal of its foreboding pastoral pulchritude to French cinematographer Jean Bofferty (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, Alain Resnais’ Je t'aime, je t'aime), who Altman hired specifically due to his foreign background and lack of prejudice in terms of shooting in the ‘dreaded’ American South. Not unlike Dutch master cinematographer Robby Müller with films like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986), Bofferty demonstrates a keen appreciation for exotic rural American landscape that is simply nonexistent in most Hollywood films set in similar locations. Indeed, compared to the emphasis on the scenery in Thieves Like Us, Altman’s Nashville (1975)—a film that was also penned by Joan Tewkesbury—seems like it could have been filmed on a cheap Hollywood sound stage. Not unlike Stanley Kubrick’s underrated 18th-century epic Barry Lyndon (1975), Altman’s film rings quite true in terms of the era it depicts and never succumbs to unintentional kitsch or camp like so many Hollywood period pieces. Indeed, you might not exactly find the world depicted in Altman’s film to be terribly romantic in the superficial Bonnie and Clyde-esque sort of fashion, but you will be glad you experienced what is ultimately a pleasantly devastating depiction of that particular zeitgeist. 

 Beginning on a forebodingly rainy day in Mississippi with a slight sense of gleeful doom and gloom in the air, Thieves Like Us introduces two members of the eponymous trio with a fittingly anticlimactic prison escape that involves the characters carjacking a rather rotund and equally dimwitted pothead after a fairly mellow day of extra leisurely prisonside fishing. The youngest yet seemingly most intelligent and seemingly sane of the group, infectiously goofy yet incessantly glowering 23-year-old protagonist Bowie A. Bowers (Keith Carradine) was originally in prison for killing a store clerk during a botched robbery that ruined his entire life. Luckily for him (or rather unluckily as the film eventually reveals), Bowie has teamed up with two veteran middle-aged bank robbers named T-Dub ‘Three-toed’ Masefield (Bert Remsen) and Elmo ‘Chicamaw’ Mobley (John Schuck). While T-Dub is an almost disturbingly jolly unrepentant pervert with a fetish for underage female relatives and Chicamaw is an angry drunk and shameless slob, the only vice that Bowers really seems to suffer from is youth and the tragic naivety that oftentimes accompanies it. Although the only member of the gang that was actually convicted of murder, Bowie cannot really seem to stomach death and violence and thus naturally becomes disgusted when Chicamaw proves to be a rather trigger-happy gent when it comes to confronting cops and elderly bank clerks. In fact, Bowie is such a sensitive sweetheart with a hillbilly heart of gold that he spends his first night out of prison as a fugitive befriending a stray dog and sleeping with the yellow beast under a train track in a scene that really underscores that he is a lovable loner that the audience cannot help but happily root for.

 The day after the gang's less than great escape from prison, Bowie arrives at the home of an alcoholic gas station owner named Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt) where he first meets the girl he will fall in love with. The teenage daughter of Dee and ‘second cousin’ of Chicamaw, Keechie (Shelley Duvall) is anything but a charming cutie but, like the protagonist, she is a goofy and gawky redneck dork and thus they make for quite the ideal couple. Indeed, Bowie and Keechie become in many ways the ‘perfect couple,’ but unfortunately fate intervenes and puts a swift brutal end to the heterodoxically heartwarming romance.  At first, Bowie is too shy and inexperienced to properly flirt with Keechie and instead grills her about whether or not she has a ‘fella.’  Notably, Bowie is so obviously infatuated with Keechie that he seems sincerely shocked when she denies having a beau.  Luckily for Bowie, he not only eventually becomes Keechie's fella, but also her first fella as she is a naive virgin that seems like she spent way too much time in a Southern Baptist Sunday school.

 When Bowie rhetorically asks the stray dog at the beginning of the film, “You belong to someone? You’re just a thief like me,” he probably reveals more about himself verbally than at any other time in the film, so it is only tragically fitting that when he decides that he wants to “belong” to Keechie and quit being a thief that he is literally shot down in a most gruesome fashion as if the gods where punishing him for overcoming some sort of ugly archetype that he was never really meant to be.  Had he had a more privileged upbringing, Bowie might have grown up to become a community college professor or accountant, but instead he reluctantly embraced a world of crime. Unlike his psychopathic goofballs partners T-Dub and Chicamaw, who do not really seem to understand him in any innate or meaningful way, Bowie actually seems to have the capacity to go straight and lead a relatively normal life. In fact, he seems to desperately long to become thoroughly domesticated and eventually start a family, especially after falling in love with Keechie, but being a fugitive makes it an impossible task. In fact, when Bowie is injured in a car accident, Chicamaw makes their situation seemingly infinitely worse by murdering two cops in cold blood so that they can flee the scene before being recognized as fugitive bank robbers. Somewhat ironically, it is also this same car wreck that leads to Bowie falling in love, as Keechie nurses him back to health when he is injured and eventually joins him in bed where the two new lovebirds demonstrate their keen attraction towards one another by making love no less than two times that night.  Indeed, before they even kiss, Keechie demonstrates with the great sensitivity that she treats Bowie's wounds that she loves him.

 While Bowie parts ways with his partners after the car accident and buys a secluded cabin for him and Keechie to live in, he is counting on one more big bank robbery score so that he and his beloved can flee the United States to start a new life in Mexico. While the bank robbery goes relatively smoothly aside from Chicamaw impulsively murdering a bank clerk, T-Dub is subsequently killed by the cops while waiting in a parked for his wife outside a seedy motel that he just bought.  Additionally, Chicamaw is caught and imprisoned, thus leaving Bowie to fend for himself in a world where he has next to nil friends. Unfortunately, Bowie makes the ultimately fatal mistake of hiding out at a small cabin owned by T-Dub’s supremely cunty sister-in-law ‘Mattie’ (Louise Fletcher), who has a fiercely frigid demeanor as if she has not had a good fuck in well over a decade. Angered by the fact that T-Dub married her underage daughter Lula and holding a perversely petty grudge against the protagonist because he once dared to positively compare her to his mother, Mattie ultimately betrays Bowie and even has him setup to be brutally murdered by the Texas Rangers even though she knows that Keechie is pregnant with his unborn child. Indeed, after an successful attempt to spring Chickamaw from prison, only to kick his partner out of the car and force him to fend for himself in prison garb in the middle of the country when he becomes extremely belligerent, Bowie comes home to an ambush that involves about a dozen Texas Rangers unloading hundreds of bullets on him when he unwittingly enters cabin where he believes his beloved Keechie is waiting for him.  Indeed, Bowie becomes the completely unsuspecting victim of an extra deadly trap as a result of a bitter blonde bitch wanting to get even with him over some imaginary wrong.

 In the end in a scene that is set at least a couple months after Bowie’s brutal murder, Keechie is depicted sitting at a train station as she waits for a ride to Fort Worth, Texas. Notably, Keechie states to a woman (played by the film’s screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury) sitting beside her in regard to her pregnancy, “I think it’ll be a boy. Well, I hope it is. But if it is, he sure will not be named after his daddy, God rest his soul. He crossed me up once too often, lying. He doesn’t deserve to have no baby named after him.” Aside from speaking fairly coldly and harshly about her dead one-true-love, Keechie lies to the woman and claims that Bowie was a victim of “consumption” and then consumes another Coke, thus revealing her abject embarrassment in regard to the ultra-violent extermination of her beloved. Notably, in a scene earlier in the film where he unwittingly foretells his own legacy, Bowie remarks to Keechie, “Chicamaw was telling me about that lawyer friend of his in Mexico. Hawkins. He didn’t believe much in that heaven or hell stuff. Said the only way a man lived on was through his children.” Indeed, Bowie may be dead, but his infamous legacy and his great love for Keechie lives on in via his unborn child, even if the mother of said unborn child seems to be attempting to erase his memory.  Of course, Bowie's words can also be seen as a sort of warning against the ungodly crime against nature known as miscegenation, as a half-breed that looks and acts nothing like you does not carry on your legacy and might as well be the spawn of a stranger.  Racial purity aside, Bowie and his buddies are indubitably authentic examples of the ‘white negro’ archetype and not the phony sort that Hebraic proto-hipster Norman Mailer romanticized about.

Undoubtedly, Baltimore sage H.L. Mencken—a German-American not unlike Altman that seemed to detest WASP lumpenproles—might as well have been describing his opinion of the protagonists of Thieves Like Us when he wrote in his autobiography Happy Day (1940) that, “. . . a great many anthropoid blacks from the South have come to town since the city dole began to rise above what they could hope to earn at home, and soon or late some effort may be made to chase them back. But if that time ever comes the uprising will probably be led, not by native Baltimoreans, but by the Anglo-Saxon baboons from the West Virginia mountains who have flocked in for the same reason, and are now competing with the blacks for the poorer sort of jobs.”  Of course, Altman's film demonstrates that the auteur had slightly more empathy for hicks and hillbillies, especially when once considers that Mencken once wrote, “It requires a conscious effort for me to pump up any genuine sympathy for the downtrodden, and in the end I usually conclude that they have their own follies and incapacities to thank for their trouble.”

 In terms of its depiction of ‘coup de foudre,’ especially of a less idealized and more realistic sort, Thieves Like Us really has no contemporaries and makes the lawless love affair between the improbably attractive titular antiheros portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde seem as emotionally and erotically counterfeit as a feminist fuck flick featuring a bunch of sub-attractive girls with blue hair and tacky tattoos. The film also has the distinction of being, aside from Dušan Makavejev’s The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), the world’s longest (anti)Coke commercial as a surprisingly iconic flick set in a world where the sickeningly sugary beverage seems to have replaced water and where ads for the soda have taken the place of political sloganeering (indeed, in Altman's film the Coca-Cola logo is to the 1930s U.S. what the swastika was to German during the same era). Admittedly, I certainly had the irrational desire to drink a Coke and then rob a bank after seeing the film.

 Of course, one of the most brilliant aspects of the film is its seamlessly interweaving of relatively lighthearted and touching subjects like youthful innocence and virginal awkwardness with senseless brutality and death as is especially personified by tragic antihero Bowie, who just never had a chance in terms of accomplishing the relatively small goal of starting a family and living a normal life. Notably, even Altman—a somewhat cynical auteur that always preferred to depict a harsh reality over some sort of feel-good banality—found the ending of Edward Anderson’s source novel where Keechie also dies to be such a downer that he opted to change it, or as he explained to David Thompson in Altman on Altman (2006), “In the novel, she dies in the shoot-out at the cabin. The only change I made was that I had her live and put that little coda in the railway station, saying that she survived and went off, pregnant, into the world. It just seemed to me that to kill them both was too brutal of an ending, and I wanted the sense that something from these people continued on.” 

 While antihero Bowie surely dies a brutal senseless death in the end via covert firing squad, there is certainly something morbidly romantic about it in the sense that the character more or less perished at a true highpoint of his life as a young man that had just fallen in love and impregnated his beloved not long after losing virginity, so it should be no surprise that the film briefly alludes to Romeo and Juliet.  Indeed, while he never gets to experience the joys that come with being a father or grandfather, he is spared the pain of growing old, seeing loved ones die, and experiencing the sort of degenerative poor health that accompanies old age. In a sense, Bowie realizes George Bernard Shaw's goal, “The greatest thing in life is to die young but delay it as long as possible,” as he lives just long enough to spread his seed and sire an heir in between running an infamous, albeit only semi-successful, bank robbing operation. Indeed, science demonstrates that the point of life is to reproduce and in that sense Bowie’s life finds true meaning in the end, thus making Thieves Like Us one of Altman’s least nihilistic films. Indeed, compared to Altman’s previous classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) where the eponymous dies a rather lonely death alone in the cold bitter snow while his literal whore lover is somewhere else staring into space while high on morphine, the film is a strangely joyous celebration of life and love, albeit set it in a quasi-apocalyptic era of abject misery and poverty. 

 Although I find many of her opinions on film to be patently absurd and reveal that she was a pretty big Americentric philistine for a highly celebrated NYC Jewish intellectual, Pauline Kael—Altman’s greatest and most shameless fan-girl—wrote a fairly insightful review of the film in the February 4, 1974 issue of The New Yorker where she argued, “In other Altman films, there is always something that people can complain about; they ask, ‘What’s that there for?’ In THIEVES LIKE US, there’s nothing to stumble over. It’s a serenely simple film—contained and complete.” In fact, the laid back pace and tone of the film was intentional, or as Altman once explained himself to David Thompson, “I don’t know if you can do this kind of stuff today, taking your time and being so leisurely about it. I don’t know if you could really do it then. But THIEVES had the pace that I think was exactly what it required. If I shot it today, I don’t think I’d have the courage to do it.” Undoubtedly, Kael pays her greatest compliment to the film at the very end of her review where she somewhat soundly argues in regard to the true distinctly American cultural prowess of the film, “For the last two years now, friends of mine have been shouting that Altman must do THE WILD PALMS or AS I LAY DYING; they’ve been convinced that he is the man to bring Faulkner to the screen. Maybe he knew it all along, and maybe he was smart enough to know that he could do it best by using someone else’s material for his text […] But THIEVES LIKE US is HIS Faulkner novel.” Of course, the great irony is that, despite the filmmaker’s incessant stupid and stereotypical anti-American remarks during his relatively long life as a hopeless generic liberal democrat type, Altman is responsible for creating one of the most timeless pieces of hearty and organic celluloid Americana.  Indeed, while the film surely benefited from its foreign frog cinematographer, Thieves Like Us could have only been directed by an authentic American just as cinematic works as diverse as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997) could have only been been directed by yanks (even if the latter film is largely inspired by a sort of anti-Europid post-Yiddish psychosis).

Commercially speaking, Altman's film was, not surprisingly, an abject failure, though apparently it was at least partly the result of the studio’s lack of promotion, or as star John Schuck once stated, “THIEVES was a picture that was so non-mainstream that the studio had no idea how to promote it. They treated it like a bank-robbery movie, which it isn’t, of course […] But it was released and went in a few weeks.” Apparently, Altman was rather protective of his film to the point of shouting down talkative audience members during screenings, or as screenwriter and sometimes filmmaker Buck Henry (Heaven Can Wait, First Family) revealed with the following somewhat humorous anecdote, “I met Bob in Cannes. He and Kathryn said, ‘Come to a screening of THIEVES.’ We went to the screening and he went nuts because people were still milling around and talking when the film started. He stood up and yelled, ‘Goddammit, you fucking people. Will you sit down!’ Scared the hell out of them—they did.”

Notably, out of all the books that I have read about Altman featuring remarks from his friends and associates, Buck Henry's handful of remarks in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009) by Mitchell Zuckoff proved to be some of the most unflattering. Indeed, it seems that Henry thought Altman was somewhat of a phony megalomaniac that hypocritically vomited leftist platitudes while ruling as a virtual Dionysian god under his own filmmaking dictatorship, or as quite kosher The Graduate screenwriter explained, “In the back of my head I was always aware that he could turn on a dime if someone said something that really irritated him or had an opinion that didn't make him laugh. I think he had very strict rules of behavior—I would imagine having something to do with his childhood. His rage against the establishment was one or two parts bullshit. Everybody kissed Bob's ass. They realized that he was an important filmmaker—regarded as that around the world. He liked the feeling of being really angry.”  If Henry is to believed, it seems that Altman modeled the mean-spirited and belligerent dipsomaniac character Chicamaw played by Schuck after himself.  Undoubtedly the least sympathetic of the three titular bank robbers, Chicamaw is a loathsome fat pig and unrepentant copkiller whose aberrant actions ultimately inspire the police to be more proactive in their murderous manhunt.  Of course, Altman became a filmmaker instead of a career criminal and it can probably be argued that his negative personal qualities almost certainly benefited him as a cinematic artist, hence a Hollywood film as gloriously morally ambiguous as Thieves Like Us.

Arguably the most understatedly romantic film crime flick ever made, Thieves Like Us is a real shocker in that it actually dares to trade-in the ‘romantic myth’ of glamorous Depression Era gangsterdom for the inordinate wholesomeness of unspoiled young love in a hopeless world where organic beauty and sensitivity are seen as dire vulnerabilities that one just cannot afford to have.  Of course, Altman's heartening depiction of young love seems all the more unlikely when one considers he was a lifelong lady's man that was married no less than three times and was known to be both emotionally and physically abusive with women, especially when he was drunk.  In short, Altman was the complete opposite of the film's terminally romantically shy antihero Bowie, thus demonstrating the filmmaker's artistic integrity as man that was willing to give a certain degree of touching humanity to a virginal bank-robber that he had seemingly nothing in common with.  Of course, Altman also deserves respect for making a romantic leading lady out of someone as hypnotically homely and anti-voluptuous as Shelley Duvall (in fact, Altman accentuates her particularly preternatural face in a scene where she stares meekly into a distorted mirror).

Undoubtedly, James Joyce's famous phrase, “sentimentality is unearned emotion” certainly does not pertain to Thieves Like Us as it is a cinematic work that forces the viewer to submit to the good, bad, and ugly of human existence and it ultimately ends on an almost crushingly unsentimental note that reminds one of the singular coldness of the so-called fairer sex.  Surely, if you do not let yourself be completely consumed by the film's characters and their hermetic world of crime and relatively wholesome carnality, you will get little out of it as the flick was certainly not directed by a carny showman that gets a kick out of leading armies of philistines by their noses with cheap visual gimmicks and kitschy melodrama, hence its relative lack of popularity among the masses.  Surely, if there is any film that demonstrates in a sort of metapolitical fashion that Mencken—a truly American Nietzschean that was also no fan of FDR's so-called New Deal—was right when he wrote, “Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven,” it is indubitably Altman's tender yet tough tribute to one of America's least flattering eras. To mention Mencken one more time, I think it is safe to say that he might as well have been talking about Thieves Like Us and Altman's oeuvre in general when he wrote, “Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.”

-Ty E

Aug 2, 2017

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Over the years, I have compiled of mental list of must-see films that I procrastinate watching because I want to be in the right mood and setting to appreciate such a supposed masterpiece and do not want to somehow ruin what can be an aesthetically transcendent experience. Indeed, I still haven’t seen a number of Ingmar Bergman’s films, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal (1982), Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy, and countless other films that I probably should have watched many years ago. After recently finally watching Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) aka Tráiganme la cabeza de Alfredo García directed by absolutely singular Hollywood maverick Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch), I can only say that I am pissed at myself for waiting about a decade too long to watch what is one of the most pleasantly venomously visceral and inexplicably cathartic yet senselessly tragic films that I have ever seen.  In fact, I think it is now my favorite Peckinpah flick and I say that as one of the rare individuals that prefers Straw Dogs (1971) to his supposed magnum opus The Wild Bunch (1969). Sometimes feeling like a paradoxically immaculate exploitation flick on steroids as directed by a refreshingly unpretentious cinematic master possessed by the perennially bitter spirit of Ambrose Bierce, the film is notable for being the only work directed by Peckinpah that is a true ‘director’s cut’ as it was released exactly the way he intended it to be and it certainly shows as a deliciously unpleasant movie that is dripping with spiritual morbidity, latent misanthropy, and a foredoomed sort of tenderness that only the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) director was capable of.  Indeed, fuck Peckinpah's somewhat minor celebrated westerns like Ride the High Country (1962) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is forever!

Featuring a hard-drinking and self-destructive war veteran antihero that is always conspicuously hiding his thoroughly inebriated bloodshot eyes behind sunglasses and who has a fetish for fiery yet sensual Latinas, the film is also, for better or worse (I go with the latter), Peckinpah’s most autobiographical and auteur-driven work. Made at the beginning of the late period of the filmmaker’s career after the failure of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is, in the best sort of way, the sort of film you would expect from a terribly talented yet troubled man that once pathetically confessed, “I can't direct when I'm sober.” The sad, slightly pitiful, sometimes melancholic and ultimately hopelessly tragic yet endlessly enthralling and perversely passionate tale of a hapless gringo bartender that gets him and his beloved pussy-peddler mestizo lover sucked into the highly dangerous Mexican criminal underworld upon learning about the large bounty placed upon the literal head of a dead male-whore that made the mistake of impregnating his crime boss’s special little girl, the film is also a rather fittingly love letter to Peckinpah’s virtual second home of Mexico. Indeed, despite the film’s dark and morbid content, it also manages to reveal Peckinpah’s more sensitive side, namely his love of Mexico and the Mexican people and especially his love of young nubile Mexican women. After all, the love of Peckinpah’s love was Mexican actress Begoña Palacios (1965–1984), who he married no less than three times and had a daughter with. Like the protagonist’s lover in the film, Palacios was perennially passionately devoted to Peckinpah who, not unlike the character in the film, had a hard time adequately (and sanely) expressing his emotions to his brown-skinned beloved. Of course, much like Peckinpah, the film's antihero—a painfully conspicuous stand-in for the alcoholic auteur—does not realize what he has until it is too late and he has lost it, especially where love is concerned. 

 A film that has managed to have entries in both 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2003) edited by Steven Schneider and The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) (1978) by Zionist turd Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is certainly the sort of shockingly unflinching, venomously vexatious, and unrepentantly ‘politically incorrect’ cinematic work that divides viewers. Indeed, I certainly cannot imagine a true blue optimist coming away from watching the film without feeling like they have suffered some sort of major metaphysical trauma that causes them to question the very meaning of life.  For pessimists, the film offers a virtual playground of human stupidity, absurdism, and senseless tragedy in poetic celluloid form.  In fact, the film even concludes with a close-up of a smoking gun barrel pointed directly at the audience, as if to remind the viewer in a humorously obnoxious fashion that life is all about pain, death, and destruction and that no one escapes death.  Set in a wicked and wayward world devoid of heroes where only the meanest and morally bankrupt of motherfuckers thrive and survive, Peckinpah’s flick is in many ways the ‘antihero film par excellence’ where an underdog pays the ultimate price for playing a very naughty game in a uniquely underhanded fashion that involves the decaying dismembered head of a Mexican chap that had cuckolded him only a couple weeks before.  A compulsively cynical and somewhat morally dubious dude that is willing to risk his life if he sees a special opportunity to get rich quick, the antihero attempts to cheat in a deadly game with Mexico’s criminal elite that involves him procuring the head of a man that only he knows is already dead for a $1 million bounty. Unfortunately, the protagonist unwittingly pays the ultimate cost for his singularly sleazy efforts, which eventually results in him losing every single thing that he truly values, namely what is left of his personal integrity and the inordinately sweet and loving Latina love of his life. 

 Vaguely (anti)Orphic in its daunting depiction of an antihero that loses his lover and intentionally enters a sort of figurative hell south of the border, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is unquestionably an action film that totally transcends genre as a work that might also be described as being simultaneously a black tragicomedy, cowboy-less neo-western, Mexican gangster flick, necro-buddy movie, artsploitation revenge-thriller, and ultra-violent dark romance. In short, the film is a subversive work of cinematic art of the totally true grit oriented sort as directed by a man that was not afraid to be a man, especially in the unflattering sense of the word. More reluctantly neurotic and self-denigrating than self-pitying, the film is also, somewhat surprisingly, more drenched in grief and gloom than it is blood and gut, though it is by no means a tame film as far as delightfully deranged ultra-violence is concerned. Featuring singularly darkly humorous scenarios like a gay hit man knocking out a hooker that dares to hit on him and a protagonist that uses vodka to clean his genitals after a long hard night of dirty interracial sex, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a hopelessly humanistic film in the sense that Peckinpah dares to reveal the most unflattering aspects of human vulnerability, moral fragility, and suffering, but one should not expect anything less from an auteur that owned up to the fact that he was a self-destructive fuck-up and dipsomaniac that was incapable of living a stable life and maintaining a healthy romantic relationship. 

Undoubtedly, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia does for the action genre what Werner Schroeter’s Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran did for European high-camp in terms of being a rare film where virtually every single shot resembles a painting in terms of its seemingly immaculate composition. Indeed, despite technically being a genre film and featuring about as much sleazy content as a gleefully morally bankrupt 1970s Italian exploitation film, the aesthetic integrity of film deserves to be compared to the greatest and most hypnotic tableaux vivants of Visconti, which says a lot since most of the film is set in the Mexican countryside and inside dilapidated buildings that are not even fit for rabid barnyard animals. Once rightly described by belated pop film critic Roger Ebert as “some kind of bizarre masterpiece,” the film provides the hallucinatory experience of hard drugs with the timeless tragic nuance of Shakespeare, albeit in a manner that can be easily consumed by the most inebriated of sub-literate white lumpenproles and mestizo farmers. 

 At the very beginning of the film, the viewer is exposed to the misleadingly splendorous and serene image of a beautiful pregnant teenager as she basks in the sunlight beside a placid lake with swans in a scenario that resembles a sort of ethereal Mexican pastoral heaven. Before the viewer knows it, the young girl is brought before a sort of family kangaroo court where her crime boss father ‘El Jefe’ (played by Mexican actor and auteur Emilio Fernández, who is best known for directing the Palme d'Or award winning feature María Candelaria (1944)) demands to known who impregnated her while a virtual army of people that include her family members, Catholic nuns, and gangsters watch on in abject anticipation. When the teenager, who clearly loves the lucky mensch that knocked her up, refuses to comply, El Jefe has her top ripped off in a quasi-incestuous that eventually morally degenerates into minor torture. When the tormented topless teen can no longer take the physical and emotional pain of being tortured in front of a bunch of people, she finally reveals that her father’s protégé “Alfredo Garcia” is the sperm donor of her unborn child. Although El Jefe somberly states of Garcia that, “He was like a son to me,” he desperately lusts for revenge and immediately offers a bounty for her daughter’s baby-daddy of $1 million, thus leading to many of his henchmen immediately vacating the premises so that they can go hunting for the poor miserable fool that idiotically got his all-powerful cutthroat boss’s teenage daughter pregnant.  While El Jefe will sort of get his revenge in the end in a somewhat expected way, so will his lovelorn daughter in what ultimately proves to be one fucked up Mexican family drama.

 Unfortunately for the film’s gringo protagonist Bennie (Warren Oates)—a retired U.S. Army officer turned perennially drunk bartender that seems set on wasting away in a third world hellhole—he eventually learns of the bounty when two homo hit men show up at his bar in Mexico City and begin asking about the whereabouts of the seemingly elusive Alfredo Garcia. Indeed, when suavely dressed cocksucker career criminals Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Johnny Quill (Gig Young) show up at his bar and begin waving around money and asking about Garcia, born loser Bennie immediately begins scheming and lies to the two unconventionally intimidating killers by claiming that he does not know the man. As it turns out, Garcia cuckolded Bennie only a couple weeks before by banging his beloved Hispanic hooker girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega).  When Bennie talks to Elita and learns that Garcia is already dead as a result of stereotypically dying in a drunken car crash, he believes he has a ‘sure thing’ and will be able to easily collect the bounty without having to actually commit a murder.  Needless to say, Bennie has no qualms about defiling Alfredo's corpse.  Unfortunately for him, Bennie’s lazy amoral scheme will eventually lead him on a suicidal path of no return involving violent deaths and grisly (self)destruction. After talking to Sappensly and Quill’s pompous German boss ‘Max’ (played by Helmut Dantine, who also acted as the film’s executive producer), they agree to pay him $10,000 for the head of Alfredo Garcia, though they also threaten to kill him if he fucks up. In fact, one of Max’s associates—a very Jewy four-eyed fellow that reeks of NYC style arrogance—even dares to call Bennie “a loser,” but he calmly retorts, “Nobody loses all the time.” Somewhat ironically, while Bennie eventually does obtain the head, he ultimately loses everything else in the process. While Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia might be a true underdog tale, said underdog goes down and brings virtually everyone else with him.

 As far as the timeless ‘whore with a heart of gold’ archetype is concerned, Elita—a pleasant little pussy-peddler who is quite proud of her naked body as demonstrated by the fact that she is always flaunting it, including in front of potential rapists—is arguably the most sympathetic, lovable, and believable ‘sporting girl’ in cinema history and I say that as someone that is a great fan of Giulietta Masina’s tragic lovelorn streetwalker in Federico Fellini’s early classic Le notti di Cabiria (1957) aka Nights of Cabiria. Indeed, Elita’s flagrantly expressed love for booze-loving burnout Bennie is largely responsible for humanizing him as he would be a mostly despicable character otherwise, hence why it is so devastatingly heartbreaking when the protagonist’s absurd get-rich-quick scheme ultimately leads to her obscenely senseless premature demise. In fact, while Peckinpah has oftentimes been criticized for being a supposed misogynist, it is ultimately the main two female characters, Elita and El Jefe’s teenage daughter, that are the strongest and most sympathetic characters in the entire film as two inordinately selfless women that are willing to sacrifice everything for the love of their man. Undoubtedly, the darkest and most emotionally wounding irony of the film is that Bennie unwittingly assigns his lover Elita’s death for a scheme that she was very vocally against from the very beginning, thus highlighting her virtually suicidal loyalty.  Indeed, it is almost as if Elita has a sort of noble savage sixth sense that helps her foresee serious danger that bumbling buffoon Bennie lacks. Intending to get married and more or less ‘retire’ together upon collecting the bounty, the money naturally ultimately becomes pointless once Elita is killed, which indubitably explains why Bennie eventually decides to go on a suicidal killing spree in end in an act that is probably best described as a form of stupendously sick broken-hearted penance of the murderously mournful sort. 

 After spending a vodka-fueled picnic together where the lovers demonstrate their love for one another and agree on getting married soon in an inordinately sweet and tender Peckinpah love scene that really underscores the auteur's surprising emotional range as a filmmaker, Elita makes the mistake of talking Bennie into camping out in the dangerous Mexican countryside under the stars.  Not surprisingly considering the setting and director, the romantic scene in the picture perfect pastoral setting degenerates from classic romance into attempted rape and brutal vengeful murder. Unfortunately, two inhumane hippie bikers (one played by musician-turned-actor Kris Kristofferson and the other by Donnie Fritts) crash their campsite and almost immediately demand at gunpoint that they be able to take turns raping Elita, who, somewhat disturbingly, is quite the trooper in terms of embracing her ugly fate. Indeed, when Bennie violently threatens the armed bikers, Elita replies, “Oh, no, you won’t, Benny. I’ve been here before, you don’t know the way,” as if she has been in a similar situation many times before. A totally tough hot tamale that even manages play sexual assault by her own rules, Elita takes the biker played by Kristofferson aside, takes off her shirt, proudly puffs out her bare tits, and even violently slaps the would-be-rapist in the face in a manner that seems to turn-on that degenerate bikeboy bastard. Rather curiously, Elita even seems to enjoy it when the biker begins passionately kissing her, but that does not last long as Bennie manages to catch the bikers off guard and then ruthlessly kills them both, but not before declaring “Hey! You’re dirt!” to the dirty hippie that is defiling his beloved. Of course, had not Elita played it so cool in the situation and neglected to act like a stereotypical hysterical women, both she and Bennie would have probably been killed immediately, thus demonstrating that the heroine is more of a natural survivor than her somewhat insecure gringo lover. Undoubtedly, before she is killed, Elita acts as Bennie’s virtual guardian angel, so it is no surprise that he goes in full self-combustion mode after her tragic death.   Indeed, Elita may be a cheap Mexican whore, but she has a certain penetrating purity of spirit that her cynical and somewhat jaded lover just completely lacks.

 Notably, it is only after the unsavory incident with the bikers—an episode that clearly internally wounds the antihero's manhood—that Bennie finally dares to come completely clean and admits to Elita his intention of digging up her ex-lover Alfredo’s assumedly somewhat rotten corpse and decapitating the head. While Elita is completely against the plan and describes it as an act of desecration, Bennie cynically describes Alfredo as their “saint” and then absurdly argues like some sort of cynical redneck pseudo-philosopher, “Listen, the church cuts off the feet, fingers, any other goddamn thing from the saints, don’t they? Well, what the hell, Alfredo’s our saint. He’s a saint of our money. And I’m gonna borrow a piece of him.” At this point, Elita, who cannot believe that her beau wants to actually decapitate the head of her rotting ex-beau, almost considers breaking up with Bennie, but she cannot bear to betray her beloved and instead reluctantly guides him to Alfredo’s small hometown village. Somewhat disturbingly, the lovers witness a rather joyous funeral for a small child at the same exact graveyard that Alfredo is buried out. Undoubtedly, the dead child in the small wooden coffin is eerily symbolic of the child that Bennie and Elita will never have together, as the latter will soon be dead.

When Bennie finally goes to do the dirty deed and begins digging up freshly Alfredo’s freshly buried grave, Elita simply cannot watch and walks away. Unfortunately, Bennie will never see her alive again, as he is soon knocked out cold with a shovel by an unseen assailant and later wakes up buried underneath the ground next to Elita’s lifeless corpse. Upon digging himself out of the shallow grave, Bennie tries in vain to revive Elita’s corpse, only to absurdly accuse her of wanting to be with Alfredo when she fails to wakeup from her perennial slumber. Of course, upon emerging from the ground, Bennie—a pathetic man that has just lost the one person in the entire world that truly loved and cared him—is virtually reborn and proceeds to degenerate into a quasi-nihilistic killer whose best friend becomes a decapitated Mexican head. Indeed, not long after Elita is killed, Bennie manages to catch up with the malevolent mestizos that murdered his lover and stole Alfredo’s head. Upon unleashing a storm of bullets on both the men and killing them in cold blood, the antihero states with a sort of morbid sadistic glee that, “it feels so damn good.” After that, Alfredo’s head becomes Bennie’s best friend and closet confidant. While Alfredo’s family eventually attempts to take the head back at gunpoint, Sappensly and Quill randomly show up and begin exterminating the poor unwitting peasants with a machine-gun, though the latter is eventually killed by one of Garcia’s relatives. When Bennie demonstrates his lack of tact by asking Sappensly “do I get paid?” while the highly homicidal homo hit man is caressing the still warm corpse of his gay lover, the seemingly psychopathic cocksucker gets a little bit irked and naturally attempts to kill the protagonist. Luckily, Bennie manages to kill Sappensly before the sod can get a shot in. 

 After procuring fresh ice for Alfredo’s head and even giving said head a shower later on at his apartment, Bennie symbolically packs the rotten dome piece inside Elita’s picnic basket and then visits Max and his goons at their lavish hotel headquarters to ostensibly get paid for the bounty. When a discernibly angry Bennie dares to question Max about what he wants the head for, the sly kraut criminal retorts, “No question, Benny . . . The ten thousand answers it all.” With nothing left to lose and completely angry with both himself and the career criminals that hired him, Bennie proceeds to describe how the picnic basket that is carrying the head “belonged to a very special lady” and then abruptly proceeds to shoot and kill every single man in the room. Luckily, Bennie manages to grab El Jefe’s business card off of Max's corpse, thus giving him the information he needs to collect the full bounty.  Instead of a mere $10,000, Bennie seeks to gain $1 million by personally delivering the head to the man that put out the bounty, but unfortunately for the gangster leader the antihero no longer has any use for money.  Looking to avenge his dead lover and place the blame at the supposed source of all his largely self-induced troubles, Bennie decides to pay El Jefe at his lavish estate and give Alfredo’s head to him personally.  Needless to say, Bennie sparks a massacre that he himself will never emerge from.

Quite fittingly, if not sickly, Bennie arrives at the house during the baptism of El Jefe’s grandson, who also happens to be Alfredo's son. Indeed, the same day that the bastard baby boy is baptized, his father’s head is delivered to his grandfather. Needless to say, lovesick lunatic Bennie—a man that has lost everything, not least of all the love of his life and what was left of his personal dignity—is quite dissatisfied when El Jefe simply hands over a briefcase with $1 million and dispassionately remarks, “Take it and go. I have everything that I want. I have my grandson. So go. Don’t forget to take that [Alfredo’s head] and throw it to the pigs.” In fact, Bennie becomes deeply infuriated, yells, “Sixteen people are dead because of him . . . and you. And me. And one of ‘em was a damn good friend of mine!,” and then begins shooting El Jefe’s henchmen. In a nice little twist, Bennie also murders El Jefe at the request of his daughter, who has still not gotten over the fact that her father put a literal price on her lover's head. In the end, Bennie says to El Jefe’s daughter, “You take care of the boy . . . and I’ll take care of the father” and then attempts to escape from the gangster’s well guarded estate by driving his car through the well-guarded front gate, but he is ultimately struck down with seemingly thousands of bandito bullets in what proves to be a fitting quasi-suicidal melodramatic conclusion to one miserable wasted life in a wicked romance film where a forsaken loser avenges the murder of his lover the best way he can. 

 I think it is safe to say Peckinpah would agree with Robert Bresson's personal cinematic philosophy that, to quote the French master auteur, “I'd rather people feel a film before understanding. I'd rather feelings arise before intellect.” After all, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia—an inordinately visceral film that increasingly pokes and prods at the soul of the viewer in a manner that might be seen by some as a sort of metaphysical torture—disgusted many reviewers when it was originally released and I would not be surprised if the average contemporary ‘normie’ viewer would have a hard time explaining the film’s antihero Bennie true motivations, especially in the end when he chooses death over driving away with a small fortune. Of course, one could easily argue that Peckinpah and his film are example of what Poe described when he wrote about “the human thirst for self-torture,” but the auteur seemed to be more conscious of his psychological defects than most, thus making it all the more tragic that he died the way he did. Indeed, in a 1974 interview with Joe Gelmis of Newsday, Peckinpah would even go so far as to confess during a somewhat depressing moment of self-illumination, “I’m the greatest stupid romantic in the world . . . really stupid. I’m an outsider and I think being an outsider is a lonely, losing job. I would love to be married and live in a split-level house, I love all that shit, but I don’t do it. I get into many problems, I drink too much, and I get into too many fights. Next year, I’ll be fifty years old and I’ve got to quit. Three knuckles have been broken; it’s gone, right there right there, and right there, you can see it. . . .”   Not unlike the antihero of his family, Peckinpah probably would have loved nothing more than to have spent the rest of his life living in a modest Mexican home with his Latina true love Begoña Palacios, but instead he became a slave to his own personal demons and more or less drank himself to death while trying in vain to reignite his stagnating filmmaking career.  Of course, to understand Peckinpah's film on a more innate and visceral level, one must be familiar with a certain degree of misery and desperation.  Luckily, instead of being marinated in moody melancholia like a Bergman flick, Peckinpah's film concludes with an exceedingly energetic and even transcendental form of self-destruction that feels strangely satisfying.  In that sense, one could argue that the film has a quasi-happy ending as the antihero's internal suffering comes to an end and he even manages to avenge a young Mexican teenage mother in the process, thus slightly redeeming himself in the end.

 While the increasingly erratic and self-destructive auteur made a number of films throughout his career depicting mad misfits and unhinged loners, none of these come close to the magisterial madness of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia where full-fledged self-annihilation becomes a poetic form of spiritual transcendence and the only logical answer to a life no longer worth living. In that sense, it should be no surprise that Peckinpah—a man that had already completely submitted to his dipsomaniacal demons—would never direct another masterpiece, though Cross of Iron (1977) is certainly a classic ‘antiwar’ film of sorts and arguably the best film ever directed by an American from the German perspective during WWII. Indeed, Peckinpah’s Steve McQueen vehicle The Getaway (1972)—another darkly romantic ‘action’ flick that is by no means a bad film—seems like prosaic pussy play compared to the whimsical unhingement, unrelenting spiritual ravenousness, and morbid moral decrepitude of the true renegade cinematic masterpiece that is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I surely cannot think of another film where an ultraviolent death in rural Mexico at the hands of a bunch of insufferably swarthy bloodthirsty banditos seems like a ‘noble’ and relatively morally redeeming prospect. After all, in the end, the antihero finally demonstrates that his ‘very special lady’ is worth more to him than all the money in the world, even though, quite tragically, he could not actually prove this to her when she was actually still alive. In other words, the film bleeds romantic regret in a perversely poetic fashion, as if Peckinpah was compelled by his haunted (sub)conscious to pay tribute and respect to all the wives and girlfriends that he left emotionally devastated due to his belligerent and explosively abusive behavior. While I have great respect for Peckinpah as a cinematic artist, his films almost always give me a feeling of great relief that I am nowhere near as hopelessly forsaken as the clearly internally wounded man that created them.

Notably, Peckinpah's deeply flawed swansong The Osterman Weekend (1973) features a deranged renegade CIA agent portrayed by belated British actor John Hurt that is morbidly obsessed with the absolutely heinous post-coital murder of his beloved platinum blonde wife portrayed by Danish model Merete Van Kamp. Indeed, not unlike the antihero of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Hurt's heartsick character goes on a virtual suicide mission that involves a lot of senseless death and destruction. Of course, both of these characters are indubitably quasi-cryptic expressions of Peckinpah's own heavy-hearted regret and vulnerability and reveal that the filmmaker was a haunted (ex)romantic that virtually suffered a pathological obsession in regard to his lost loves. Rather revealingly, when asked by Kathleen Carroll of The Daily News in 1974 about his intent with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah gave the less than flattering response, “The picture is about two things: it is about a love story, and it is about vengeance, a dish, as Machiavelli said, that is best served cold. . . .Somebody asked if I hit women, and I said, ‘Of course I do, I believe in equal rights for women. . . .’ If you study and live with something at all, you find that tenderness and violence sometimes go hand in hand.”  While I have never hit a woman and consider so-called sexual equality to be a sad joke at the expense of both genders, I can certainly understand the dichotomy of tenderness and violence when it comes to romance, as deep emotions are certainly stirred when it comes to true love, especially when at least one person in the relationship suffers from personal demons.  After all, there is no greater motivation for murder than some sort of unquenchable thirst for romantic revenge, but I digress.

If you ever wondered about the personal and psychological motivations behind spree-killings and/or violent suicides, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is one of the oh-so very few films that offers such daunting insights. Indeed, if you're a lovelorn man suffering from crushing grief and need some inspiration to go on a suicidal mass murder mission, Peckinpah's cinematic work is certainly the film to see as a sort of Titanic (1997) for romantically forsaken psychos and woebegone winos. Of course, more importantly, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a morbidly romantic masterpiece that contains the following timeless message: “¡Viva la Muerte!” 

-Ty E