Looks That Kill

Sam Peckinpah’s cinematic legacy seems easy enough to pin down: his radical leap of melding Bonnie and Clyde’s pyrotechnic overkill with Kurosawa’s ruptures into slow motion bloodletting was so astonishing it remains the Hollywood standard for depicting violence. In other hands, the slow motion used to distill and extend key moments in his violent scenes became an instant cliché, less his attempt at fixing and intensifying the moment of death, rendering it unbearable to the viewer, than an easy way to make explosions look cool.

The bloodbaths that define the popular conception of Peckinpah’s work remain deeply unsettling. Thirty-five years of technological innovation devoted to increasingly accurate depictions of human injury have not blunted the emotional force of the massacre that begins The Wild Bunch or the siege that ends Straw Dogs: if anything, their wounding power grows with age. If they are, in fact, the blueprint for all subsequent cinematic mayhem, why do they maintain their disturbing power?

The sequences that open and close The Wild Bunch are above all virtuosic: Peckinpah and his editor, Lou Lombardo, display a command of rhythmic montage that improves on Eisenstein. As in Potemkin, the scale of the action is monumental, with dozens of people caught in the slaughter. The difference is that in the Odessa Steps massacre, Eisenstein never particularizes the perspectives from which the audience experiences the carnage: his is an omniscient view, the energy of the scene generated through clashes of scale (the long shots of marching troops butted against the close shots of the victims) and rhythm (constant reiterations of the stolid, unyielding march of the soldiers against the frenzied, darting townspeople). Aside from the baby carriage sequence, where we see reactions from the mother and two bystanders, Eisenstein stages the action with little regard for audience positioning among the characters — indeed, he eschews the notion of individual character completely, preferring social types.

Peckinpah was a storyteller, not an avant-gardist: his aesthetic strategies were always driven by the requirements of his narratives. He constructed his montages through the rigorous use of point of view. It’s a standard Hollywood tactic: a character is shown in medium or close shot looking at something. The following shot is the object at which they were looking, shot at an angle that approximates the position of the character. This is sometimes followed by a return to the first in which the character is shown responding. It’s a device of great immediacy, strongly encouraging identification with a character by forcing the audience to see what he sees.

Peckinpah was hardly the first to incorporate point of view techniques in gun fights. Complex battle scenes have often balanced point of view cutting (we see the shooter aim and fire, then the target get hit from the shooter’s perspective) and wide vistas that offer some geographical clarity while allowing the audience to keep track of the overall progress of events. The device serves to heighten the visceral impact of violent action while grounding the scene in a character’s perspective, essentially leading us to take a particular attitude towards the event: we see what the shooter sees, and are led to feel what he feels. (It’s worth noting that Ford, the filmmaker most often linked to Peckinpah, composed his battles primarily in neutral wide shots, eschewing point of view almost entirely. He traded immediacy for grandeur.)

What is unique to Peckinpah is the distribution of these points of identification. Rather than focusing on the protagonists alone, the audience is encouraged also to witness the action from the perspectives of horrified onlookers and victims of crossfire. The complexity of the audience’s position to the material increases the disturbance of the scenes: we see from the perspective of the putative heroes (in The Wild Bunch, brutal gunmen willing to shoot dozens of bystanders to escape a botched robbery), their assailants (“gutter trash” bounty hunters and their hopelessly compromised leader) and the innocents they slaughter.

The massacre that opens The Wild Bunch shifts among a dizzying number of perspectives, climaxing with two short, disconcerting sequences. In the first, Pike and Deke exchange lingering, wary looks at one another before Deke takes aim and fires at Pike, missing when a bystander steps in the way after Deke hesitates. It’s a silent face-off in the midst of chaos that encapsulates the film, each look held just long enough to establish the two primary characters and their relationship. This is followed by a series of shots of a boy and a girl huddled in the street as they see first a man falling from his horse to be dragged down the street, then Dutch grabbing a saddlebag and riding off, and finally, a man shot first by Coffer, then by T.C. The boy jerks his head away, overwhelmed, as the victim twists in a spastic lurch to the ground. The point of view alternates quickly between the children and both gunmen, placing the audience in a shifting relationship to the action. We move from witnesses to the bloodshed to perpetrators and back, fully implicated in the violence that we are, however complicated our responses, enjoying.

Peckinpah’s films are far more than apocalyptic gunfights, of course: if his work was reducible to his pioneering contributions to the “realistic” portrayal of violence, The Wild Bunch would be a historical footnote, the I Am Curious — Yellow of action films. He was, perhaps, the last great studio filmmaker — a director less concerned with radical aesthetic experimentation than with yoking the infinitely rich and variable vocabulary of the classical Hollywood cinema to stories of enormous intellectual and moral sophistication. His work, at its best, was an extension of the genre film, an attempt to move beyond its simple moralism to a novelistic complexity. Ultimately, Sam Peckinpah’s cinematic legacy is not his exploitation of violence but his fearless exploration of it, the way he imbued scenes of outrageous carnage with such intelligence, moral weight and, paradoxically, beauty.