Posts Tagged ‘violence’

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The Scorpion and the Ants – A Meditation on The Wild Bunch

04/25/2012

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a profound deconstruction of cinematic violence.  Sequences of impressionistic violence are punctuated by zooms, quick-cuts, slow-motion, POV shots, and 180 line breaks.  He uses the sort of techniques that can only exist in film.  His edit gives you the impression of violence, and has been borrowed by films like Hard Boiled, Bad Boys 2, and The Passion of the Christ.  It is what Alfred Hitchcock would call “pure cinema.”

The film’s opening title sequence is a montage of men in soldiers’ uniforms marching into town.  Along the way, they pass some children who are watching a scorpion fight what looks to be a million little ants.  It is a classic example of a superior power overwhelmed by a larger number of opponents.  The scene goes on in an all-too-regular sort of way.  We see the soldiers bump into an old lady, but politely pick up her things and walk her across the street.  It doesn’t take a cineast to see that something bad is about to happen.

Our first clue really is in the titles themselves.  They splash onto the screen with a noise and aggression that is unfounded in the relative calmness of the scene.  And sure enough, when they walk inside that railroad office, they get mean.  On the adjacent rooftops is a gang of bounty hunters, who have set an ambush for the robbers.  The only thing stopping them from cutting down the mock-soldiers is a parade of Church people, walking through the street after a morning service.  But when the ambushers are spotted, there is a blitzkrieg.

The following ten minutes are a nauseating compilation of violence.  The geography is confusing.  There appears to be no relation between shots of men firing weapons and shots of people dying.  To quote an old Monty Python film, “Let’s not worry about who killed who . . .”  After all, we are only a few minutes into the film, we don’t even know who to root for yet.  It is the sensory experience that matters, not the narrative experience, at least not yet.

The sequence is edited in such a way that prevents us from ever feeling comfortable.  Peckinpah clearly understood how quickly audiences adjust to what’s onscreen.  As long as there is some consistency, audiences will relax.  But Peckinpah used precise inconsistency to throw off this comfort.  This meant relying on many different film techniques, especially ones that are never intercut.

Slow-motion photography does not cut well with zoom-pans.  But that’s the point.  It hurts to watch.  A zoom-in is intercut with a zoom-out that is intercut with a stationary shot of a woman being trampled by a horse.  This aggressive editing is specifically designed to present you with the simultaneous awe and disgust of the violence onscreen.  Even the prolonged length of the scene is designed to rob you of your standard sense of relief.

Some commentators have mentioned that the extensive violence seems out-of-keeping with the film’s story, which does not necessitate such extended sequences.  But it is squarely within the director’s purpose to extend and exaggerate the experience, to de-sanitize it.  The film is about violent men living violent lives that end violently.  The content is tied directly to this theme.  These characters choose this way of life.  They see something in it that we do not.

The film never really tells us what they enjoy about shooting each other to pieces, but I imagine it has something to do with the camaraderie they share.  There is a strong theme of loyalty that runs deep through the film, and counter to that is the theme of betrayal.  Our main character is Pike Bishop, the leader of the Wild Bunch.  He has a number of flashbacks to those he’s betrayed.  By his words, we see that he is either in deep regret of those instances, or he is a hypocrite who keeps the others around for his own protection.  Judging from the final scene, I’m inclined to say it’s the former.

The third act of the film concerns the group’s decision to abandon one of their own to the torturous intentions of a corrupt Mexican general.  At first they leave him.  Then they try and buy him back, to no avail.  Finally, after attempting (and failing) to relax with some prostitutes, they turn back with guns raised – ready to for the bloodbath to end them all.

There is tremendous significance to Pike’s decision here, and it speaks volumes about his character.  After the first heist turns out to be a bust, Pike laments that he wanted one final score before he retired from his criminal ways.  His friend rebukes him and reminds him that for men like them, there is no other life.  Thus, at the end of the film, Pike is faced with the decision to either accept a ton of gold and leave his friend to be killed, or abandon the money and finally step up to show the loyalty he always prized, but never demonstrated.

While attempting to relax with the Prostitute at the end, Pike is distracted by a crying baby.  He looks back and forth between the young woman and the child; they represent the family he might one day have, if only he abandons his friend, as he has several others before, he could settle down with his gold and grow old.  But here, at the end of his life, he chooses loyalty, and this choice gets him killed.

Like the scorpion at the beginning of the film, being eaten slowly by ants, Pike seems near invincible.  The final death toll is colossal, and is punctuated by frequent cut-aways to children and women, some of whom become collateral damage.  The children at the beginning of the film controlled the violence with the scorpion, even to the point of laying burning grass on top of it.  But in the real violence, the children have the least control.  If the fire on the scorpion symbolizes all-encompassing gunfire, then we may consider that perhaps the children symbolize The Wild Bunch.  They take joy in violence they control, but are vulnerable to violence that they do not.

So is Pike’s loyalty really to his friend?  Or is it to the violent lifestyle that he knows he can never leave?  Either way, he and his pals recognize that the two in this case will be synonymous.  And to show loyalty will mean a violent certainty.  But at least it is, if anything, certain.

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Dramatic Tone in The Searchers

04/05/2012

John Ford’s The Searchers has gone down in history as one of the most definitive dramatic westerns.  And yet, by today’s standard, parts of it feel remarkably camp and silly.  The heart of the film is rough, dark, and disturbing.  So much so that Ford resorts to broad comic relief in order to offset the depressing effects for his audience.  Movie-going audiences in the 1950’s would simply not have been ready for the thematic darkness that this film offers.

Comic relief has been a traditional means of supporting the audience’s willing projection into the character.  We escape from our world into the west with Mr. John Wayne.  Should that escapism become too disturbing, we will disconnect, and escape back into reality.

In the case of The Searchers, sequences of intense racism and bigotry are played against slapstick.  The comedy is the emotional reverse of the drama.  A modern audience will find that the broad comedy throws them out of the story, but we can tell how intense those darker scenes would have felt to the 50’s audience based on how incredibly broad the comedy is.  After only sixty years of cinema, audiences were simply not accustomed to taking in such subject matter.

For a few decades, the Hays Code was a stark censorship of film that prevented overt portrayals of violence and sexuality.  It protected audience’s sensibilities from cultural “indecencies.”  Thus, in The Searchers, director John Ford had to come up with a way to tell this darker story, subverting the traditional western heroics, without offending this code.  The most obvious way to do this was to soften the blow through comedy.

John Ford plays Ethan, a racist outlaw who seeks to find his kidnapped niece in order to kill her.  Her white purity has been soiled by a forced marriage to Comanche Chief Scar.  His only companion is Martin, a 1/8th Indian boy adopted into the family.  Ethan treats him poorly because of this small racial defect. And yet, he is never framed this way for the audience.  Instead is presented primarily as the vessel for comic relief.

When romantic drama starts to heat up, a bucket of water is poured over Martin’s head.  As the hunt goes on, Martin accidentally marries an Indian woman.  When Ethan returns home after a few years on the hunt, Martin gets into a fight with another comic relief character over the right to marry the village hot chick.  But what people really remember are the moments in between, of harsh racism and bigotry.

John Ford has described The Searchers as a “psychological epic.”  It traverses the landscape of the mind.  As Ethan’s outer journey discovers the darkness of man, so his inner journey uncovers his own darkness for the world to see.  His conflict culminates with him scalping the Comanche war chief, Scar.  From it, he is hardly redeemed.

At the end of the film, Ethan returns home with his niece.  The family opens up to her and welcomes her inside.  But Ethan himself does not enter.  He stands on the porch neither expecting an invitation, nor receiving one.  He would no more welcome himself into that household than he would be welcomed.  Instead, the door closes on him as he turns to face the sunset.  No community will last that is able to abide a bigot.

These tonal shifts represent a tremendous social commentary for the 1950’s.  Audiences were used to western heroes that they could root for.  John Wayne traditionally played the sort of hero that would defend women and children to the death.  This whole examination of racist psychology is a subversion of that heroic ideal.  A subversion that is so grading the normal viewer, that it must be contrasted with slapstick and other cheap laughs.  But a bucket of water on someone’s head is not sufficient to erase the image of John Wayne threatening to kill a young girl.