Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Overshadowed: I Hope You Slit Your Throat

Gordon M. Williams's career as a writer, at least at a glance, is pretty sobering. In 1969, his fifth novel, From Scenes Like These, was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In 1981, his last published novel (he is still alive, from what I can tell), was The Revolt of the Micronauts, his second novel based on the popular line of plastic robot toys (see comments). Though I don't know for sure, I think it's safe to assume that these last books (as well as the film novelization he wrote, for Ridley Scott's The Duellists, of all things) were written to put food on the table [well, who knows if that's true now - Ed.], and it's simply depressing to actually acknowledge and take to heart the realities of the life of a professional writer.

Even worse (possibly, anyway, but I shouldn't presume) for Williams is that his most famous novel is not really all that famous, except as the basis for one of the most notorious films of the 1970s. In 1969 -- clearly a big year for him -- Williams published The Siege of Trencher's Farm, the story of an American literary scholar named George Magruder, who, with his daughter and English wife, Louise, rent a home in a secluded, rural English village. George wants to finish his book on "Branksheer, the late 18th century English diarist", and Louise wouldn't mind reconnecting with her home country, not least because she's grown to hate America, and Americans, including, possibly, her husband.

And so, with the exception of the different names, the daughter, and the protagonist's intellectual pursuits, you can see that what we have here is the basic set up for Sam Peckinpah's 1971 masterpiece, Straw Dogs. (It's worth noting, as a curious bit of harmony, that Peckinpah's fifth film, if you count his 1966 TV film Noon Wine, was The Wild Bunch, released, as Williams's Booker-nominated fifth novel was, in 1969, and Peckinpah's last film was the paycheck-providing The Osterman Weekend, from 1983. Two years later than 1981, and more dignified than a Micronauts novel, but...) In that film, Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner, a mathematician, who moves to the same kind of English village with his similarly resentful wife, Amy (Susan George), but sans daughter. The plot of both novel and film progress in pretty much the same way: George/David is a liberal pacifist who, shortly after the disappearance of a village girl, finds himself responsible for the well-being of Henry Niles (David Warner in the film), the man who may be responsible for said disappearance. George/David ultimately finds himself violently defending his home against a group of local men, who would have Niles for themselves, to exact justice how they pleased.

But hold on there, fellows, because things ain't that similar. For one thing, while Henry Niles, in both novel and film, is mentally a child, in Williams's story he's also a convicted, and multiple, child killer, while in the film he's merely the "village idiot" who kills the little girl in an Of Mice and Men-style accident (and he also has a vague backstory, involving "making a mistake" with a girl). And in the novel, child killer or no, Niles is actually innocent of this particular murder. The reader knows this primarily because the girl isn't killed at all. She disappears (she, too, is mentally handicapped in the novel) because she gets spooked at a children's party and runs out into the snowy evening, unseen (she's later found, nearly frozen, but alive).

Overall, the lack of death in The Siege of Trencher's Farm stands out quite a bit, especially if you've come to the novel, as I have, after witnessing the blood-soaked finale of Peckinpah's film. As it happens, while there is still the accidental and fatal shooting of a fellow townsperson and attempted peacemaker, a killing that changes the whole dynamic of the suspense, as well as cluing George/David into how far he may have to decide he's willing to go to protect himself and his family, in the novel, none of the men who attempt to break into George/David's home are killed. A foot is still blown off with a shotgun, and a baseball bat, a poker, and boiling water all come into play, but no one is eternally down for the count in the novel, and their fates, in fact, are tossed off by Williams in his coda with the revelation that the men are "being x-rayed".

All of this makes Williams's novel look a bit soft, even inconsequential. At worst, contradictory. In the novel, George travels much the same path as David in the film: he begins as a firm pacifist, not a bad guy so much as not terribly likable (more about that later) who, when faced with his wife's immediate desire to throw Henry Niles to the wolves, because whatever those wolves do will more than likely be just desserts, can't help but hammer on their shared history as anti-death penalty crusaders. His point of view is fine and defensible, whatever your own views, but given that Niles is a child killer, and he does have a terrified daughter in the house, he could maybe allow his wife to voice her understandable change of heart (more about her later, too). But really, it's more just the way he says things, as opposed to the content of it, which is largely his problem in the film, as well. In any case, of course, he pretty soon will himself move past his own pacifism, much to his own horror, ultimately. This is the novel I'm talking about here, don't forget, and forgive me if the image of George, after just winning his final, vicious battle with the last intruder -- another character who is mentally handicapped, if only mildly, which brings the count of such characters in the novel up to three -- broken and unbelieving at his own capacity for brutality finally leaves me unmoved, due to the fact that the loser in this clash is fated only to be "x-rayed". The villagers had a shotgun and several knives, while George had whatever everyday items -- which somehow does not include knives -- he had to hand. Add to that the fact that Niles is innocent here, and no murder was committed at all, save the one (technically manslaughter, I suppose) committed by the intruders against one of their own, and it's very hard for me to see where the deep moral ambiguity Williams is aiming for ever really comes into play. George is responsible for no fatalities, the reader knows that at least a couple of the villagers had decided to simply slaughter him and his family, to erase witnesses of their earlier killing, and at the end we're left with Williams's trumped up bit of moralizing, asking "Well, what else was George supposed to do?"

And Williams attempts, half-heartedly, to present both sides of the issue of what should be done with Niles. At one point, before Niles is taken in by George, but after he has unintentionally escaped (long story) from captivity, two local policemen, engaged in the search for the girl, discuss the situation:

"You'd have to feel sorry for the poor bugger," said a police sergeant... "He'll freeze to death."

"Won't be much of a loss," said the constable. "Lunatics like that shouldn't be in a position to get out."

"You'd hang him, would you?"

"Maybe not hang him. An injection. He's a liability -- to himself much as anything."

"The Two Waters folk say he's not dangerous anymore. Bad health."

"Can't be bad enough for my taste. You ever see the photographs of the kids he done in? Gave me nightmares for months, they did."

"Aye, I know. But he's not better than a kid himself. He isn't responsible."

"That'd be a lot of comfort to the kids. And their mothers."

At this point, we don't know that Niles hasn't killed the girl, but by the end of the novel we sure enough do, and this knowledge clouds over any ambiguity Williams may have wanted to convey. Wherever you stand on the idea of stringing up child killers -- and let's not pretend this isn't an intriguing notion in some ways -- I think we can all agree that it's pushing it a little bit to string them up for a murder that they not only didn't commit, but that never happened at all. So Williams is either guilty of bad ambiguity, or of deck-stacking.
Not so the film, of course. Or not quite so, anyway. Because, to begin with, in Straw Dogs, David takes down just about everybody, and permanently, too. It is within the kingdom of reason to think that David's actions by the end of the film are a bit much. But before we get into what is presented on screen, and what morality, if any, can be gleaned from that, here's what Peckinpah had to say about it, taken from various letters to unsympathetic critics, and conversations with Peckinpah recalled by friends and colleagues (all quotes taken from Marshall Fine's biography Bloody Sam*):

John Bryson, after seeing the film, said to Peckinpah, "Where'd you get the heavies? They were incredible," referring to the beefy British actors.

Peckinpah narrowed his eyes, gave Bryson one of his reptilian smiles and said, "They weren't the heavies. The husband and wife were the heavies."

Following Pauline Kael's famous review, in which she referred to Straw Dogs as "a fascist work of art" (this being around the time that a small group of people decided to completely redefine, and thereby corrupt, the word "fascist", a move that everybody else was pretty much cool with), Peckinpah wrote her letter that read, in part:

"I read your review. Its ambivalence was complete, although I was distressed that you didn't pick up that David was inciting the very violence he was running away from."

I'm not sure I've ever encountered a film that has invited a more diverse stream of opinions, and justifications for those opinions, as Straw Dogs. The idea that David is the villain of the film has been picked up and run with by a number of people, though not in the direction I suspect Peckinpah might have intended. In my view, Peckinpah could very well mean that David's early cowardice, and inability to act, inspires his attackers to push him further and further, to the point that violent death is the only conclusion. A stronger man would have maybe kicked their asses earlier, and scared them into a little respect ("My vision of morality is not yours", Peckinpah told Richard Schickel). I feel that, since the above-quoted statements from Peckinpah have started to widely circulate, some critics have latched on to them -- desperately, even -- and interpreted them as claiming that David literally brings the violence he defends against upon himself. All this in order to make these critics feel better for liking the film they suspect might be distasteful to them.

The problem here, really, is ambiguity. Now, I'm not knockin' the stuff, but a lot of people have a tendency to fetishize ambiguity as some kind of Ultimate Good, until, that is, the ambiguity is in service of something about which they feel they have a pretty clear head. So then, they either flee from it -- the ambiguous thing is clearly unambiguous, and vilely so -- or they condemn it, because such a topic cannot, must not, be viewed in any way other than this way. As a result, the violence in Straw Dogs has a tendency to utterly repulse viewers, or to force them to engage in mental and moral gymnastics resulting in an interpretation of David Sumner as this monstrous -- if ignorant of his own monstrosity -- bringer of destruction.

And let's face it: the guy's kind of an asshole. He treats his wife Amy like a child, he's jealous, yet blithely disregarding of her actions as long as she's not in his way. He's smug, self-important, all that stuff (and all of it brilliantly underplayed by Dustin Hoffman in, for my money, his very best performance. His second best, to me, can be found in Marathon Man, which might give you some idea of how I feel about Hoffman overall. Suffice it to say, I wish there were more Straw Dogs and Marathon Men on his resume). But he's also not wrong, at least not always. In the last twenty minutes of the movie, five drunken, violent men are trying to break their way into his home and murder the mentally handicapped man Sumner doesn't know to be guilty (and neither do the villagers, yet) of murder. He would rather, as a good and reasonable man of liberal tendencies, to wait for the doctor (Niles is injured at this point) and the police to arrive. In fact, he demands that this be the course of action, and he has every right to, as a law-abiding citizen, and because this whole debate is occurring in his own home. The villagers have a skinful at this point -- plus, not incidentally, the missing girl is the daughter of one of the men -- and they lay siege to Sumner's home, with fire, knives, and guns. The violence that follows is the result of a man defending his home and his wife. A wife who, by the way, has been raped twice at this stage, by two of the men now trying to break in, but David doesn't know about this, so I guess it doesn't count. Also, they more than likely strangled his cat.

Again, Peckinpah doesn't make it easy for us. Watching the film again last night, I almost found it funny how thoroughly he seemed to want to fuck with his audience. Amy (Susan George is terrific, and rarely gets the credit she deserves for her performance -- why Hoffman thought she was wrong for the part, I'll never understand) is quite an appealing character for much of the film, but her psyche is well and truly cracked by the double sexual assault she suffers about midway through, committed by a man she once had a relationship with, years ago, and his brother. This notorious scene is the most hotly debated one in the film, because at one point during the first rape, Amy does appear to, as the man said, "lie back and enjoy it". Peckinpah offered a lot of, let's say "dubious", opinions about women and rape in the aftermath of the film's release, and it's frankly hard for me to watch Amy transform from a woman suffering through rape to a woman making passionate love, and begin any thoughts with, "Yes, but what Peckinpah meant was..." For a long time, I was against -- and pretty much still am -- the idea that Amy should not be viewed as "Amy", but rather as All Women, which is the tendency these days. But while Peckinpah's portrayal of women throughout his career offers a sort of limited, but real, variety that he doesn't always get credit for, I'll be damned if he wasn't asking to be hit with both barrels after people saw this scene. The only thing I can offer up now is that while the rape scene is a source of understandable offense to many people, I do wish that more of them would acknowledge the Amy that appears afterwards: withdrawn, angry, haunted, frightened. If her enjoyment was put in the film for a reason, then so was her outrage.

In any case, the Amy that appears at the end of the film is somewhat less likable, on the surface, at least, and mainly to David -- we know something he doesn't, after all. But when the siege begins, and Amy says that Niles is the only one they want so they should just give him up, David says, "But they'll beat him to death." Amy responds, "I don't care," and David's baffled, sickened reply is "You really don't, do you?" Of the three parties involved -- the attackers, Amy, and David -- who occupies the moral high ground here? Can anyone argue that it isn't David? And if David is the film's villain, I can only ask, who isn't the villain?

And then, of course, he slaps her. Later, when she tries to flee the house -- and leave him to defend himself against five armed men -- he grabs her hair and slaps her. The only way I can respond to this moment, which must be mentioned, is that I can understand his anger. But he absolutely should not have slapped her. I can underline that last sentence if you need me to, and I will if you will just understand his anger.

But then again, this anger, and David's sudden taste for violence is all part of what makes Straw Dogs such a skin-crawler, isn't it? In the end, David isn't just defending himself and his wife and his home. He's enjoying it. In the novel, when this change begins, Louise notes: the beginning he'd seemed helpless, weak and passive, looking to her for strength. Then there was a stage when he'd taken over. She'd liked that. To think that George, her bookish husband, was capable of finding ways to keep a gang of ruffians out of their house.

For the first time in years she'd felt the way she'd always wanted to feel, like a woman. Protected. Given a man to lean on....

But now...why was he looking so pleased with himself?

Maybe because he wasn't dead. Also, no points to Williams for sexual maturity, either. But anyway, that's the sticker. Had David performed each act of justified (please tell me how it's not) violence with a grim and never-changing face, I think the film -- the ending, at least -- would have been met with fewer howls of disgust. Violence is not something to be liked, which sounds sarcastic coming from a guy who loved Rambo, though I don't mean it to be. Yet David lets slip that little, cold-blooded smile, more than once. And maybe the reason we blame him in the end, is because we can't blame him. Most of us have never defended our lives, or the lives of those we love, with lethal force. Maybe there is something satisfying about it. Isn't it awful to think so? Isn't it awful that Peckinpah presents that possibility?

Oh, and lest I forget, David spreads that satisfied smile quite a bit wider, in the last scene, when he's driving a successfully protected Henry Niles back to the village. That moment's a real kick in the pants, isn't it? How dare he. But why is a moment never taken to consider what will happen to that smug grin when David gets to the village and finds out what really happened to that girl? Why does no one think about what happens after the credits roll? Why in the world would anyone want Straw Dogs to be any easier to take than it is?

*Just as a by the way, though a possibly unwise one: as I've made clear, I have many problems with Gordon Williams's novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm, and apparently so does Fine, who, in his biography, calls it "submediocre". But he also persists in referring to it as The Siege at [sic] Trencher's Farm, and says that in the novel "the timid academic rises to the occasion of defending his home, killing all the attackers in the process". Except that the number of attackers George kills is a big goose egg. I feel as though if Fine hadn't familiarized himself with the novel at the time he wrote about it, then he shouldn't have behaved as though he had.
[This post is part of Neil Fulwood's month-long Sam Peckinpah blogathon, over at The Agitation of the Mind. Fortuitously, it also continues my own Overshadowed series, earlier editions of which can be found here and here.]


Thomas Pluck said...

I haven't watched the film in a long time; it is tough to watch at points, as you noted. But I think it is one of the more realistic accounts of violence, and the mythology we hold toward it. The ugliness is the truth, but we still admire the ability to mete it out.

bill r. said...

Yes, it's the realism that's always gotten this film in trouble. As De Palma once said, "Violence is the one thing you get penalized for doing well."

David N said...

Good piece on a hard film to love. It has a bitterness - in its tone and in the characterisation, I think -which is evident in much of Peckinpah's work, nut somehow more plain here.

I think the context helps make the violence more shocking and ugly. You expect it to a certain extent in the Westerns, its a part of the genre. But here we are in a weird little English village, almost the last place you expect to encounter some Peckinpah ultraviolence.

"Suffice it to say, I wish there were more Straw Dogs and Marathon Men on his resume." Straight Time is the other one I associate somewhat with these performances. He is great in it too.

bill r. said...

"Good piece on a hard film to love. It has a bitterness - in its tone and in the characterisation, I think -which is evident in much of Peckinpah's work, nut somehow more plain here."

Yes. Even his nastiest film, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, has the love and romance between Bennie and Elita to soften you and pull you in. In STRAW DOGS, nothing is ever all that pleasant. There's always a hostility underlying even the happiest scenes.

I've never seen STRAIGHT TIME, though I have read NO BEAST SO FIERECE, the Edward Bunker novel on which it's based. I guess I should get around to that, huh?

Adam Ross said...

Great post Bill, one of the best I've read on STRAW DOGS, which I had been thinking of re-watching even before reading this (for some reason, it doesn't play that well on Christmas).

It's such a complex and well made movie that you can examine it from many angles. In my review (, I focused solely on the relationship aspects of it, and how STRAW DOGS is one of the best examples of the power struggles within a marriage.

What irks me is how I still see STRAW DOGS described as a bloody revenge movie, when it's clearly so much more than that. I went into it expecting something like DEATH WISH after some of the reviews I found. Also, it's a shame NOON WINE isn't available anywhere, because it sounds like it shares a lot of the conflicts and themes with STRAW DOGS.

(One more thing, can you IMAGINE if Peckinpah had kept the original character names? "GEORGE, give Niles to them!" Aaaagghgh! So weird!).

Adam Zanzie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bill r. said...

Adam - Thank you very much. And personally, I don't see how STRAW DOGS is a revenge film at all. Who or what is being avenged? If David knew about the rapes, then it could be a revenge film along with everything else, but he doesn't. If people are going to reduce STRAW DOGS like that, they should properly call it a self-defense film.

To be honest, I didn't even know NOON WINE existed until I was preparing this post.

And I agree...George?? What the fuck? Why not call him Steve?? Am I right? Or Lawrence! "Hey Lawrence, our house is being attacked!" I would laugh my ass off if his name was Lawrence.

Adam - I agree, STRAW DOGS is the most troubling film Peckinpah made. A lot of critics focus on BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, but before that thing goes Apocalyptic, there is some real warmth. Not in STRAW DOGS -- it's ice cold.

Though I don't know why it's difficult to justify David's violence. How can it not be justified? It's not pleasant to watch, but what are his options? He can't call the cops; the phone lines were cut. All he's got is his own will to survive and protect his wife and home. As I say in the post, it's more complicated than that, and STRAW DOGS is not some viscerally satisfying down-with-the-badguys action movie, but David does nothing in the end that isn't justified.

Your theory about the slap is interesting. You're right: if Amy went out there, she'd be a goner. I actually hadn't thought of that. I must say the scene doesn't really play like that, though. It plays like a slap out of anger, but if someone wanted to take a stab at justifying it morally, your idea holds up (although I don't think that's the reasoning that Sean Connery gave in the interview...).

And yes, the late 60s, early 70s were a particularly nasty era in American film. I resist some of the political justification for that stuff -- it seems awfully thin to me, and it also often strikes me as a self-important pose on the part of the filmmakers (see George Romero). But something was in the air, certainly. It could be there's something to it, though I wouldn't try to take it too far.

Anonymous said...

In your opening you stated "In 1981, his last published novel (he is still alive, from what I can tell), was The Revolt of the Micronauts, his second novel based on the popular line of plastic robot toys."

That is incorrect. Obviously you have neither read nor researched the books you referenced here.
The Revolt of the Micronauts is the third novel in the series and they are not based upon, nor do they have anything to do with the plastic robot toys, nor the comic book series that has the same name.

bill r. said...

Indeed it would appear that I have not (never claimed to have read them). I should have done more research. But since the toy-line does in fact predate Williams's novels, I hope my error -- which is absolutely what it was -- can be forgiven.