Over the years, the idea of so-called auteur filmmaking has become identified with a certain breed of art-house cinema. A short list of American auteurs would probably include directors such as Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson — but not someone like Sam Peckinpah, who made ultra-violent movies about cowboys and truckers, as well as “Straw Dogs,” the anti-intellectual film par excellence.
It’s worth recalling, though, that the idea of auteur filmmaking originated in the pages of French critical journal Cahiers du Cinema, with people writing passionately about directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks — individuals who worked within Hollywood yet somehow managed to put a personal stamp on their many disparate projects.
“Passion and Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah,” a documentary on the late director by Mike Siegel (which opens on Sept. 27 at Theater Image Forum), is a testament to Peckinpah’s mythic status as a spike in the cogs of studio filmmaking. Friends and collaborators recall — with both laughter and head-shaking incomprehension — numerous stories of Sam, from him urinating on the screen to signal his dissatisfaction with some poorly printed rushes to tossing his carefully coiffed leading lady into a pig trough to give her the proper “look,” and finishing off three bottles of vodka before noon each day while filming “Cross of Iron.”
Like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin and so many other 1960s and ’70s directors, Peckinpah indulged his excesses, and didn’t give a damn about anything or anyone except getting his film right, and the documentary gleefully records this reckless streak. Does it, however, successfully make the case for Peckinpah as an auteur?
To be sure, there were plenty of duds in Sam’s career, like the rote shoot-’em-up antics of “The Killer Elite” (1975), but the documentary makes it clear that these were paycheck projects made to keep a foot in the studios’ doors. There were also innumerable missed chances — less violent films such as “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970) or “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” (1973) — which could have been great had they not been hijacked by producers who made their own far-more-formulaic cuts.
Kris Kristofferson, who starred in “Pat Garrett” and “Convoy” (1978), notes how “it’s always the money people versus the creative people. Sam never trusted the bastards in the first place: He knew they were gonna screw him, and he was right.”
Director Monte Hellman (of “Two Lane Blacktop” fame ) notes: “It’s a rare producer that lets you get on with your work; you have to battle greed, lies, stupidity.” Peckinpah rarely got the script he wanted nor enough time and money — and never the final cut. And yet, even with all these constraints, he managed to sneak through a few gems. He persisted until he got his vision on screen — that’s an auteur in my book.
The few times everything came together for him, the director was capable of pure mad genius. His 1969 Western, “The Wild Bunch,” took a half-century’s worth of cowboy and outlaw myths and blew them to shreds — every Western made since has been pointless. It was decried as an insanely violent film, which it was, but it meant to show that doing the right thing in this corrupt world will often get you killed.
Then there is “Straw Dogs”, a 1971 professor versus townies survival flick, which came out the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and was overshadowed by it, even though Peckinpah’s film was an even more nihilistic view of the inherently savage instincts lurking behind the facade of modern liberal values.
And “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974)? Who else but Peckinpah could make a road movie about an alcoholic pianist in trouble with the mob traveling across Mexico with a decapitated head?
Peckinpah’s last great film came in 1977 with “Cross of Iron,” which took the absolutely bleak point of view of a German soldier stuck fighting in the last days of World War II for a cause he had no belief in whatsoever.
Peckinpah is remembered as “Bloody Sam” for how he upped the ante of cinematic violence. Indeed, “The Wild Bunch” was the first film ever to use squibs, with blood spurting as bullets passed through bodies. Combined with his innovative use of slow-motion, these “bullet ballets” set the tone for generations to follow. Without Peckinpah, we would have no John Woo, no Quentin Tarantino and certainly no “Saving Private Ryan.”
Yet the irony is that while many have copied his techniques, few have grasped the point. As a WWII vet himself, Peckinpah knew what actual violence was like, and wanted to hit audiences with the horror of it, not just the thrill. In his debut film, the otherwise unremarkable Western “Hand on the Gun” (1960), there’s a cowboy who asks, “You ever seen a bullet hole up close? A gun isn’t something to play with.” It seems like the director spent the rest of his career trying to prove that point. In an old interview used in the documentary, he says quite clearly that “action does not work without people, without character. Action, for its own sake, I think, is crap.”
Peckinpah remains a visionary, his films uniquely compelling and disturbing today, for the very reason that so much of contemporary cinema is exactly that: action without character. As he would say in a later interview with the BBC, “I believed in the Greek theory of catharsis, that by experiencing grief, pity and fear in a theatrical context we could purge this poison from our systems. I was wrong.”