Saturday, May 30, 2009
FLASHBACK 1974: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA
Actually, this is a Flashback 2006 when I wrote this meditation on my favorite film for the Australian 'zine BETTIE PAGINATED.
I know I wrote recently about this epic SAM PECKINPAH film, starring the underrated, Humphrey Bogart-non-handsome leading man WARREN OATES and the alluring ISELA VEGA, but I've got Oates on the brain because I just interviewed Susan Compo for an article coming out in the Post on Thursday. Compo is the author of the new Warren Oates biography, WARREN OATES: A WILD LIFE, which she's signing at Brentwood's Diesel on Sunday, June 7 at 3 PM.
Next week I'll post my list of essential Oates performances. Meanwhile, here's the article that I believe ran in BP # 30:
Why BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is the Greatest Movie Ever Made in the History of Cinema and Will Remain So for Several Millennia To Come
By Michael Aushenker, special to BP
“Boy! How many guys have given up a woman for some head?” It’s a funny line by a funny guy -- a friend since childhood, animated TV writer Benny Coma (“POOCHINI”). That quip really cuts to the heart of the film that I had brought over for us to watch…a film I’ve seen dozens of times…only the greatest film ever made.
Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA bombed upon its 1974 theatrical release. Most of the movie-literate cognoscenti dismissed this venture as “Bloody” Sam’s folly – a self-indulgent orgy of violence. Only occasionally did a critic hail ALFREDO as a disturbing masterpiece. Oddly enough, pussyfoot film critic Roger Ebert was one of ALFREDO’s most ardent supporters (guess I side with the fat one for once).
Quick recap: Set in dusty ‘70’s Mexico, ALFREDO revolves around Warren Oates as down-on-his-luck Tijuana-stuck gringo Bennie - a man with no way out who drags his (wiser) reformed-whore girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega), on a cross-Mexico road trip to go for a one-time big score: collect on a $10,000 bounty put on the head of a stranger named Alfredo Garcia. Thanks to Elita, who happens to be Garcia’s ex-paramour, Bennie holds two aces up his sleeve in the form of data that his rival mercenaries do not possess: 1) Garcia is already dead. 2) Elita knows where Garcia is buried. Of course, Elita wants no part of this doomed venture. She just wants to put the ugliness of her bordello youth behind her and settle down with Bennie for a simple kind of life. “Bullshit, baby,” Bennie snarls. Bennie has convinced himself that only redeeming Alfredo’s head for a quick payday will lead to his salvation and create the right circumstances to allow him and Elita to live happily ever after. Then the unforeseen happens: thanks to Bennie’s misguided resoluteness, the story takes a cruel, heartbreaking twist mid-film, and Bennie, left toting Alfredo’s head in a sack, is reborn as a dead man walking – a zombie, if you will - on a picaresque mission to deliver Alfredo’s head as the entree…with a gratuitous side order of bullets.
Now for more info on the plot, you can go to IMDB.com or, better yet, rent the damn thing, brother. But – ha, ha! - if you’ve already seen ALFREDO, you didn’t need the preceding paragraph, did you? That’s because ALFREDO has no doubt seared a permanent stain into your cerebrum. For those of you in the know, my critique is encripted in code to you, because you will understand what I’m talking about.
Cinematically, Peckinpah struck gold more than once: RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, MAJOR DUNDEE, THE WILD BUNCH, PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID and STRAW DOGS are all well-directed, well-acted gems of varying degrees of brilliance. But it was truly ALFREDO GARCIA, a genre-defying beast, that shines the brightest, showcasing the charismatic Oates in a tour de force performance that rubbished all skeptics as to whether the beloved character actor was leading man material. From the moment Bennie appears onscreen, singing “Guantanamera” in that tequila-soaked TJ bar (“Sing it, brothers!”), Oates’s mix of machismo and vulnerability is riveting, revealing an actor with a DNA that leads back to Bogart – the unglamorous, unremarkable-looking bloke as relatable as the next door neighbor secretly banging your two-timing wife. Oates delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that quickens and deepens as his journey wears on. There’s nothing glamorous or physically transcendent about Vega, either. Yet, as the curvy Elita, an almost-plain woman who wears little makeup, she may be the sexiest woman ever projected on a big screen. Elita’s worldy charms and unselfconscious personality elevates her modest, senorita-next-puerta appearance into a curvy, sexy bombshell. As Bennie falls in love with Elita, so do we, and so when the turning point of the movie comes where she dies and the film flips into revenge fantasy mode, we feel her loss profoundly. Bennie spends the second half of the film haunted by her memory. He stares at her picture, hears her singing in his head, shakes his head: “Yep…yep…yep…” He laughs until he cries. I nearly go through the same range of emotions watching anguished Bennie writhe. Let me tell you, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather, brother. Heartbreaking stuff. Heartbreaking in a way that makes official weepies such as “TITANIC” or “LOVE STORY” seem about as emotionally-investing as a Verizon Wireless advert.
And so now I get to the controversial part of my essay where I explain why I think ALFREDO’S HEAD (as my pal, EL MUERTO creator Javier Hernandez, shorthanded it) is the best film ever made. Now I love KING KONG, CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, SUNSET BOULEVARD, ON THE WATERFRONT, VERTIGO, CHINATOWN, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and many other films that are so often touted as “the best movie ever made.” And yet…and yet I find myself disqualifying these masterworks in the derby for the ultimate motion picture crown because they lack one key ingredient: repeat viewing. A favorite film should hold up in multiple viewings. Watchability is key. After all, it is very unlikely that the film that you will embrace the most should get old by a second or third viewing. On the contrary, it should darken and deepen and more details should be discovered in additional screenings. How many of the above films can you really sit through again and again within a short period of time?
For my money, ALFREDO is supremely watchable. Freeze frame any shot of this wonderfully-composed, Mexico-colored, twin-triumph of direction and cinematography and you’ll stare at compositions and colors that pop like the finest art. Beautiful vistas, garish hotel interiors, big Chevy cars in Technicolor primary colors…it all adds up for some sweet optic candy. And ALFREDO, like the best of Hitchcock and Welles, is laden with enough layers and symbolism to fuel an entire semester at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Viewers are rewarded by repeated viewings, for there is no wasted film stock or meaningless detours (in terms of storytelling, anyway).
Take the hotel room scene close to the film’s turning point where Elita informs Bennie that there’s a church nearby. She urges for them to go. He grunts: “Yeah…later…” As Bennie turns his head, tears stream down Elita’s cheeks. Peckinpah cuts to the next scene – the graveyard scene – where Bennie, about to behead Garcia’s corpse, gets knocked over his head. Bennie and Elita’s relationship is now irreparably strained. They only share a few uncomfortable glances as Bennie hovers like a buzzard over Garcia’s grave. Elita walks away, turning her back on Bennie (forever, as it turns out). She can not live with Bennie’s decision. She knows that he has chosen the wrong road. Bennie is promptly ambushed before he can lay the machete across Garcia’s cold throat. When left-for-dead Bennie comes to, Elita turns up right next to him…dead. Only upon another viewing will you realize that the church exchange in the scene before turns out to be the last dialogue that these doomed lovers share. In shunning Elita’s plea, Bennie does not witness the effect of his words on Elita… but we do. She closes her eyes like a mourning angel. She knows that there will be no later. Elita, his moral conscience, his angel, his soul, has been fatally wounded by Bennie’s choice: he chooses greed over love. The dark side over light. Death over life. He just sells his own soul, brother. By the next scene, Bennie pays the piper when Elita’s killed, and it dawns on us that Bennie not only no longer has a reason to live, but he might as well be the undead. His bright, white suit grows increasingly sullied as he wears along; as if his very soul is decaying. But the most epic metaphor in the film is, of course, the head itself: an ugly, repulsive, fly-infested, decaying understudy for greed…and it’s no accident that every character, guileful or innocent, who comes into direct or indirect contact with this cursed trophy winds up dead by film’s end.
There’s another telling passage, toward the movie’s end, after Bennie learns that the motive behind the bounty of Alfredo’s head has been an empty folly. He receives the million dollars but it’s a hollow victory without Elita by his side. He dispatches El Jefe and his guards, then matter-of-factly tells the head-in-a-sack: “Come on, Al. We’re going home.” Indeed, Bennie’s hyper aware that he is not going to leave this property alive. He will be joining Mr. Garcia in death. Only re-watching ALFREDO does it become painstakingly clear that Elita’s death has not only rendered his mission futile, but Benny’s raison d’etre itself. Benny has gone through the motions of this mission, not to collect the bounty but to avenge the death of his heart, his soul, his dreams, his future, his reason and his will to exist – Elita incarnate.
In all my hours in a darkened room digesting cinema, I have never seen a movie that so deftly, organically, and seamlessly juggles so many genres. ALFREDO operates on multiple levels. It’s a contemporary Western that doubles as modern-day noir, moonlights as an action thriller works as a road trip movie, and, by its second half, morphs into a revenge fantasy (and zombie movie?) that simultaneously offers the most bizarre buddy comedy ever lensed. In film noir, tragedy and irony creates ersatz comedy, and there is enough black humor in this film to inform a marathon’s worth of Coen Bros. films. But above all, ALFREDO is a very effective romance. Any of you fellas out there ever fall in love with a woman who was ripped away from you while your relationship was still on a high note? Perhaps she moved away when the romance never had a chance to curdle? Well, brother, here’s one film that perpetually gnaws on that nerve without anesthesia. I’m not kidding you when I confess that my eyes well up and my skin turns to goose flesh when I watch this film..even after myriad viewings.
Okay, now here comes the paragraph in which I alienate half of you by suggesting that Quentin Tarantino is a mere cartoon compared to a heavy-weight such as Peckinpah. Why bring up Q.T. now and convolute what seemed like a pithy little thesis I had going here? Because Tarantino, like Peckinpah, has been criticized for exploiting graphic violence. Because a generation of fans and critics have bestowed onto Tarantino the adoration, admiration, even deification that roundly escaped Peckinpah during his lifetime. But only one of these cinematic titans – Tarantino – can be truly guilty of shallowly glamorizing violence. Whereas Tarantino exploits, Peckinpah exaggerates, but not for cheap thrills. His kind of shock value does not pander to the lowest common denominator of bloodlust, as Tarantino does, but illuminates the folly of man. Whereas Tarantino, by comparison, is content to cannibalize scenes from much better movies (and the only lesson anyone who can make it through his unoriginal pastiches comes away with is a good idea of the DVD’s sitting on his shelf), Peckinpah does not attempt to pay homage to his influences (ie. TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE) by simply lifting and repackaging scenes and motifs from them. Rather, he creates his own mythology, down to the tailor-made scores (meanwhile, a complacent Tarantino is not above stealing Ennio Morricone’s Spagehtti Western hand-me-downs from off the rack for KILL BILL). Peckinpah does not amuse himself by plastering his films with violence just to show us some pretty rad action sequences. He shows us violence as ugly by-product; using (often-Old West-set) savagery to comment on contemporary human condition. He fortifies his gory stories with a restless intellect and a steam engine compulsion to hold a mirror to the tragically-destructive nature of men who live by the sword and betray their brothers – and themselves – in the process. Peckinpah is not so much interested in the act of violence but its aftermath. When you look at ALFREDO in this light, the movie accelerates from exhilarating to profound.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that ALFREDO GARCIA, an independent production, was Peckinpah’s purest work – the one film in his oeuvre in which he did not experience studio interference. Instinctively, one feels watching this movie that it represents Peckinpah’s unbridled imagination. Sadly, ALFREDO was also the last of Peckinpah’s mature masterworks, as the white suit that became his late filmography, sullied by increasingly-impersonal studio assignments, seemed to mirror the master filmmaker’s deteriorating health.
We may never see another director in our lifetime as viscerally blunt and effective as Peckinpah again. But perhaps we do not need another. After all, Peckinpah said it all…in ALFREDO alone. In a single film, Peckinpah distilled all of his recurring motifs and obsessions and demons - obsolete cowboys; the corruptive consequences of greed, the evil of man, alcohol, seductive Mexico, comely Latinas, wayward banditos – into the purest, most emotionally-potent form of celluloid tequila that cinema audiences may ever consume. It’s a fine 1974 bottle labeled BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, and every cinemaphile should help themselves to this goose-pimply, chest-warming shot of Peckinpah juice with a worm at the bottom that will surely make the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up. Yes, in a single blunt statement, Peckinpah said it all – a pulverizing, punishing odyssey told in his unique rough-and-raw vision. To paraphrase Bennie playing “Guantanamera”: “Sing it, brother!”