A Glorious High

Sam Peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah

When I asked Pauline Kael if she'd like to contribute around 750 words on Sam Peckinpah, she responded by telling me that she didn't feel she could write something that substantial. She explained that she was 80 years old and suffering from Parkinson's disease, so we settled on short answers to a few questions. The following is the result.
-- Charlie Sotelo

Charlie Sotelo: How has your view of Sam and his films changed in the past 15 years?

Pauline Kael: I feel the same almost inordinate love of his films, but the turmoil has gone out of the atmosphere surrounding them. When he was making movies it felt, for some of us, as if we were watching an ongoing street accident. We felt helpless; he was determined to be doomed. Toward the end, on a Saturday morning before the screening of a restored Wild Bunch, he drank straight booze for breakfast and, grinning like an imp, snapped the heart device that was on the surface of his chest.

From moments like that, you might expect him to have been a swaggering showoff, but he had a reverse swagger. He backed into battles. It was his quiet that attracted attention; he was the model of the hard-luck passive/aggressive. I once saw Sam on television, and his cracked, whispering voice was barely audible. You had to lean forward to the TV set to try to hear what he was saying -- which was minimal.

He had often a corps of people surrounding him -- his supporting cast, actors who got upset about the things that upset him, and about his illnesses, which were legendary. He wasn't ever just one of the people at a gathering. When he was in a group, the conversation was about the struggle that engaged him. I don't think we talked much about other people's movies. I don't think he was especially interested, but then very few directors are.

He was usually in such an ironic, despairing state that he made it very hard to make fun of him. Still, I wish there had been a camera to record the scene when he was working on Liberace's TV program and showed up for work in blue jeans, and Liberace insisted that he wear a business suit. He got fired for his refusal. I envision Liberace in his rage shaking his sequins and his wattles and Peckinpah, perfectly groomed for his role as the rebel, the outlaw. He loved dressing in frontier drag.

What's missing now in the general view of Peckinpah is the exhaustion brought on by his squabbling. He exhausted even his own supporters. But, lord, he was clever and he was demonically intuitive, and he had such self-dramatizing brio. He liked the hopelessness of it all; the role he played was the loser. And though the competition is keen, he's perhaps the greatest martyr/ham in Hollywood history.

There's a tendency among some young film enthusiasts to view him as an icon of artistic integrity. I don't think they want to understand the role he played in baiting the executives. He needed their hatred to stir up his own. He didn't want to settle fights or to compromise or even, maybe, to win. He wanted to draw a line and humiliate the executives. He simply wasn't a reasonable person. He made it impossible for the executives to keep their dignity.

Here are excerpts from a letter he wrote me dated December 14, 1976. It was about the making of Cross of Iron, but it might have been about almost any of his productions:

"It is now at the uncomfortable hour of 9 a.m. and I am driving across the Serpentine on my way to Elstree Studios. This is a collection of aging bungalows and mildewed cutting rooms that contains 500,000 feet of Cross of Iron film.

"Elstree Studios is known as the garden spot of London suburbia, and contains one john (handheld), and a cold water tap, ice, rain and snow and a three year old edition of Punch.

"At the present time I am suffering from fallen arches, fifteen different varieties of skin rash, styes, boils, walking pneumonia, ulcers and acute depression, plus tremendous, unbelievable assortments of haemmorrhoids (in full metrocolor) that has so far baffled London. I am almost ready to leave for Mexico to take my private chile cure. But I must not forget instant receding gums, falling arches, sagging face, loss of hair and terminal sinusitis. Generally I am in the shape that attends most people beginning their third month as a teetotaller.

"If God had not meant man to drink he would not have invented the grape or the process known as distillation. Actually I feel very well, (that is a lie). I enjoy living a life of sobriety and piety and do not look forward to the 17th of this month when my liver will give me the okay to begin again my needed ways of self-destruction. But I have found that being sober constantly is somewhat of a let down, as I have been waking up without a hangover (the one I have been nursing so carefully for 20 odd years). I feel like I have lost an old friend, but he is just one of many that I have lost on this film.

"I do not like Germany nor German producers. In particular Wolfgang Hartwig, whom we call in terms of gentle endearment "Asshole'. (Sentimental fools that we are). He is, good old A-H, a mini-Nazi with delusions of being David Selznick, Sam Spiegel, and Herman Goering wrapped up into 5 ft of pure stupidity, and how he ever managed to con people into this picture I do not know. I also don't know how we ever finished it, but it looks like it will shortly be released somewhere --

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael

"I don't know what kind of picture we have made but it was a decent and reasonably sober attempt to examine relationships of the common soldier no matter what his insignia. I don't know if I have succeeded. In any case, we have learned a great deal again about how not to make films.

"I am looking forward to getting my ass out of Europe and back into the good old USA, and particularly to New Mexico and CONVOY. I think it's a great subject and a great song, and I liked the people that I worked with at EMI. They were the one bit of sanity in an absolute madhouse. I feel particularly upset about this madhouse because I put in nearly half of my salary to pay for the technicians and staff to come over from the U.S. I see no sign of ever getting the money back for that, but I know that without their help the picture would have never been made at all.

"I will again be involved in suits, trials, etc., with Rapid Film representatives, so that should enliven my declining years --

"PS: It's the 17th and beast is loose again."

Earlier that year, on another project, he had given the name Chicken Little to his (American) producer. He had sent me copies of some of their correspondence. It included this exchange:

"Chicken Little: I have no idea why you singled me out as an adversary --

"Peckinpah: My problem is, I do not suffer fools graciously and detest petty thievery and incompetence. Other than that, I found you charming, and on occasion, mildly entertaining."

It's as if each time he went to work he was determined never to work in the industry again. He wound up in business with producers whose reputations had sunk even lower than his own.

CS: Generally, people view Sam in pretty superficial terms as either a bad boy or a violent director. What other things do you wish they knew about Sam?

PK: He was trim and handsome, and, like many directors, he started as an actor. I thought his roots were as much in the Huntingtonn Park Civic Theatre, where he did his early work, as in the old west. He was, though, the son and grandson and brother of judges, and he had a judge's acuteness. He was scarily quick to judge people. He was over-alert, over-observant, which fed his paranoia. Did he judge himself? I don't know, and I don't think the people who loved his work judged him either. They were too worried about him.

It seems to me that for those who write about his work the martyrdom has sometimes served as blinders. I was there when Peckinpah told the producer that he was walking out on the editing of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. As I see it, the film has no motor impulse, no drive. It's a woozy, druggy piece of work. But it is now widely regarded as a mutilated masterpiece. I saw it assembled before Sam left the editing; he may have left it partly because it was too shapeless for him to attempt to pull it together. It's very likely that on this film, as on several others, his imagination was distracted by his financial embroilments. Usually elegies come at the end of a career; Peckinpah's elegies were followed by confusion -- sometimes within the same film.

CS: What was Sam's most potent strength as a director?

PK: That mystery known as a film sense. His was rich and voluptuous. It fused his movies. A true film sense is rare, and he knew he had it; he depended on it the way a scoundrel depends on his charm. It didn't let him down very often, but it did, I think, in his lighter moods, such as passages in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, because he likes the characters too much -- he basks in his affection. They haven't earned all this affection, and the results are muted and sentimental.

His Ride the High Country, on the other hand, feels pure. It doesn't have the anger and contempt that muddle his later work yet give it its unholy power. I don't think he ever treated a woman as sensitively again as he did Mariette Hartley in Ride the High Country -- she was the young bride who was expected to service other men in the groom's family. Her terror when she discovers what's expected of her is a terror that Peckinpah responds to with great delicacy. As viewers we feel as if we're under her skin. I doubt if any feminist filmmaker has matched this scene. But the only other woman character in his movies who really stands out is the slut played by Susan George in Straw Dogs. He had changed by then in his personal behavior too. With me, for instance, he had always been courteous and convivial and he still was when we were alone. But later, when there were other people around, and he was making a show of his drunkenness, he would lunge at me lewdly. He readily played the bad boy. The idea was to embarrass me for having brains and tits.

Right before the audience's eyes, he grew into Sam Peckinpah. His love-hate for moviemaking is right up there on the screen in the later pictures; it swamps the stories. Yet it can also bring something ecstatic to his Western elegies.

I remember his talking to me, when he was planning The Wild Bunch, saying that he was going to make a picture so ferocious that it would rub people's noses in the ugliness of violence. They would never want to see anything violent again. But when the picture came out and there were insensitive people who cheered the bloodshed, he seemed delighted, he acted vindicated.

The phenomenon of moviegoers responding crudely is not surprising. Some people loved what they regarded as warm family values in The Godfather movies -- they wanted to be part of that life, though Coppola's work was far more clearcut in its horror of killing than The Wild Bunch was. If the director is ambivalent, as Kubrick was in the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence of A Clockwork Orange, the bullies out there will be gratified. The question is: is Kubrick secretly in cahoots with them? And the question comes up with Peckinpah, because he romanticizes his bunch of killers. Peckinpah made a deeply cynical movie, yet, confusingly, it's a great one. I'm not sure what The Wild Bunch says to us, except that filmmaking can be a glorious high. end story

Peckinpah, the program book accompanying this film series, is on sale for $5 in the Alamo Drafthouse lobby at each Thursday screening. The program book is also on sale at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) for $10; all proceeds go directly to the Austin Film Society. For mail orders, add a $3 shipping charge; call 322-0145 to order.

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