The Wild Bunch (1969) dir. Sam Peckinpah


Let me begin by enthusiastically recommending that you go out and attend some part of the Somerville Theatre’s 70mm showcase continuing through till Sunday September 25 (and featuring a handful of 35mm Technicolor prints).  High resolution projection is a rare and continually disappearing experience.  For many of the selected pictures it is the optimal, intended presentation of the material.  Though physical copies of removable media inevitably endure wear and degenerate, the sheer vibrancy and scope of the vision, as well as the deep resonance of magnetic tape soundtrack, are quite stunning.  To clarify, I am far from a retro-fetishizing cine-luddite and hardly view digital imageryas  the death knell of artistic expression.  I do, however, find that 70mm often offers a more authentically visceral environment than even the most savvy or refined 3D spectacle.  I implore you to dramatically reinvigorate or recall out of home entertainment.  It would be a damn shame to have only ever experienced the Star Gate sequence (the abstract space/time warp of split-screen fluorescent brilliance) from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on a TV or computer screen.  That film plays Friday night at 7PM.  Take the full trip, please.

As for The Wild Bunch (1969) there aren’t many westerns that don’t benefit from panoramic landscapes and palpable, gritty close-ups.  In this much, the film is firmly of it’s distinctly American genealogy.  The inner motivations and crises of the bunch and they’re pursuers push the film to its revisionist reputation.  Director Sam Peckinpah was unreserved about allegory for American involvement in Vietnam.  At the time this was all but unavoidable and would have hardly needed his acknowledgment.  Themes of honor, betrayal, outsourced violence, and a deathward obsession to maintain dignity in a fight the heart’s gone out of are still pretty hard to miss.  Or if that’s not on the nose enough, there’s the prologue-like scene of a scorpion beset by hundreds of ants weakening and immobilizing the larger predator.  This conflict is later decimated by fire from the sky delivered by giggling children, casually engaged and entirely unthreatened.  Much of the struggle is with the perceived erosion of a man’s code, his loyalty, his compromised morality.  The pithy Dylan axiom that “to live outside the law you must be honest” is tested and reconsidered a few times.

Peckinpah has an interesting place in American film which remains uncertain.  It is well that he is maybe best remembered for this work, which fortuitously combines his forceful style and penchant for sensational violence with a rugged ensemble cast and such an evocative genre for his two-fisted philosophizing.  He seems at least somewhat at home amongst other blunt or brutish American directors who fashion themselves as much cowboys as artists.  William Friedkin, Brian DePalma, or Oliver Stone come to mind.  Too old or young to quite gel with the New Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s, but undeniably connected to it.  These filmmakers also adhere more traditionally to direct narratives and archetypes than did Scorsese, Polanski, or Coppola.  Certainly the stated case for DePalma, but applicable more generally they enact the stern, controlling certainty of Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawkes.  Like Jean-Pierre Melville’s relation to the French New Wave, the tough guy, cowboy director’s commentary always includes a bit of the conservative, reactionary, or patriotically nostalgic.  Certainly Taxi Driver (1976) and Chinatown (1974) have strong elements of this ‘silent-majority’ ideation, but ultimately capsize it’s frailty.  Peckinpah is more ambivalent.  For the time and for the scope of his vision he is keenly compelling.  Violence is brutal and indiscriminate and final.  Then some of the same old powers just pack up for new lands.  Or are they finally withdrawing from the tainted environment?  The Wild Bunch ends without glory and hardly any honor or even closure.  It somewhat defeatedly walks off.  As Vietnam war commentary, this is wearily prescient.

The revisionist western became a sub-genre with its own set of themes and concerns.  While it largely subverts or interrogates established tropes and critiques platitudes of an earlier generation it is not entirely cynical.  Frontier mythology with its fiercely independent embodiments of morality and wickedness is a potent source of American reverie.  The form lends itself naturally to speculative reconsiderations of American evolution and ideology.  America, in theory and in practice.  The precious politician’s vision set against the common man’s experience.  Shocking and disturbing images of violence overseas and at home.  The widening gulf between official obligation and any discernible progress.  So where are we now?  Is that you, John Wayne?

The Wild Bunch
dir. Sam Peckinpah
155 min.

Screens Monday, 9/19, 8:20PM @ Somerville Theatre
Part of the ongoing series: 70mm and Widescreen Festival

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