Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia [1974]

"There's nothing sacred about a hole in the ground... or the man that's in it."

Films that have a reputation for their shocking content often fail to live up to expectations, especially those films that managed to isolate and disturb audiences of 30-40 years ago. The final salvo of machine-gun fire in Bonnie & Clyde still opens your eyes, but surely the most shocking aspect of that films now is that it still carries an 18 certificate? A Clockwork Orange's violence and rape seems tame, almost comical, compared to scenes portrayed on the primetime cop shows of today. It is, sadly, the same for Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Yet even though the 21 deaths of the film may not seem so bloody to today's audiences the film is still notable for its dream-like progress and its portrait of a man's unswerving ability to see a bloody job through.

Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a tourist trap cantina in Mexico, bashing out the same old standards on the keys for tips and drinks, 'Viva Zapata' scrawled on his jacket. Alfredo Garcia (or 'Al' as Bennie calls his decapitated and rotting head) was a womaniser who got the wrong girl pregnant. El Jefé, the father of the girl, doesn't take well to this and pledges $1,000,000 to whoever brings him Garcia's head. Bennie takes up the challenge, knowing that Al is already dead from a car crash, and sets out to chop the old boy's head off, taking his courtesan girlfriend (and ex-squeeze of Al's) with him. These fellas are the one's who set Bennie on the trail of Garcia's head....

They're supposed to be hard-cases, but they look like somebodies pervy uncle from the 70s.

It's one hell of an amoral film. Bennie is sick of his bullshit life. "I wanna go somewhere new", he says "This time I'm going up". Whether or not he gets there is another question. The increasingly frequent deaths build up to a crescendo in El Jefé's mansion where Bennie seems to achieve some kind of rehabilitation through violence, a gun in one hand, a case full of money in the other.

(Bennie before and after a rather painful exhumation and burial...)

Oates is brilliant, it is his film, even if he does simply deliver his best Peckinpah impersonation. Only a character actor of such good calibre could play such a lowdown character and manage to squeeze out a few drops of empathy and humanity from Bennie. He is ruthless and unscrupulous, but don't you just want him to succeed and get away with it all? When Kris Kristofferson's biker threatens Bennie's girl with rape you seethe with anger and itch for Bennie to start the bloodshedding. But when it comes it all seems so easy, so pre-determined, as if all of that suspense in such an excellent other-wordly scene bled out of the frame the moment the action started. Bennie points and shoots. The man dies. Move on. Bennie was never in danger. Repeat. 

All violence in the film is offhand: there are no major repercussions, no strenuous grapples or tense gunfights. Bennie obviously isn't a seasoned gunfighter, yet he never fails to gun everyone down with ease. His easy progress makes the film feel like a revenge fantasy where all the bad guys get killed with the littlest amount of effort, the protagonist moving on, seeking out more goons and haters, determined to blow all adversaries away. It is very distancing to the viewer and it's hard to tell if this atmosphere was intended. However, the dreamy atmosphere is there, and as you watch this picture it seems to transcend its thriller constraints and move into the realms of existentialism. You want to see how far Bennie will go, how isolated from society and civilisation he will become, how far he can follow his own whims and emotions, not constrained by regret or distaste, simply exercising his desire for revenge and his ability to realise it.

Many critics at the time of the film's release claimed it was one of the worst films ever made. I suspect this is mostly due to the graphic content, but if this criticism was levelled at the lack of suspense in such a violent, morbid film, then I can understand where they were coming from. However this is not to detract from the strange glory of the film. The lack of suspense and  always-certain progress of Bennie's fates raises what could be simply a duff action revenge thriller into a druggy, angry atmosphere piece well worth viewing. Don't expect to be compelled by this film. Instead allow yourself to be taken along in Bennie's wake. It will wash over you like a wave of blood.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Man Who Fell To Earth [1975]

If ever there was a man born to play an alien it was David Bowie.

Roeg cast Bowie whilst The Thin White Duke was at the height of his cocaine addiction: deathly thin, red shock of hair and living on a diet purportedly consisting only of glasses of milk. Bowie is as much a character in the film as 'Thomas Newton'. He was a celebrity androgyne who seemed separate to the overwhelming excess of the 70s modern world, but was actually wholly part of it. The same is true of Newton, the alien who falls to Earth, exuding naivety and innocence, yet strangely knowledgeable and intent on corporate conquest.

There is no escaping how strange this film is: it raise more questions than it answers. Newton's plans for space travel seem to peter out, the motives of his business enemies remains vague, the parallel lives of Newton and the scientist Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) never quite converge. Instead the alien images of Earth seem to offer some sort of explanation - but what? Roeg, ever the exquisite photographer, gives us moonscape deserts, washed out slag heaps and clinical interiors; all scenes of extra-terrestrial life, yet situated here on Earth.

The story is slim: Bowie's alien is on a mission to acquire water for his drought ravaged home planet. He has learned of Earth through intercepting our TV transmissions. He arrives with money and knowledge of exactly how to set up a corporate monopoly on scientific advances only he knows of. Rip Torn is a womanising academic who's life seems connected to the fortunes of Newton. Along the way Newton is distracted and corrupted by drink, women, TV (lots of it), guns, and money.

Was the film meant to be shallow? Perhaps. The synopsis above is quite a spoiler, yet it is 3 sentences long. At times it is like the most tongue in cheek moments in a Godard film: the Americans are very American, so much so that the film seems like a pastiche or attack on American cultural vandalism. The TVs, the adverts, the greed, drink and fast food: We are all Americans now. But we knew that already.

The films seems to disintegrate at the end after so many orgies, moments of hysteria and strange sex scenes. Did anyone in a Nicholas Roeg film ever actually fuck? If you were confused by the bizarre elbow-chewing wrestling match Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie performed in Don't Look Now then you ain't seen nothin' yet.

I apologise if this makes little sense. The film is so odd, so compelling, it can only be approached elliptically. At the end you kind of feel like Newton, confronted with a series of images bombarding you, yet you remain impassive and strangely compelled. Could Bowie have managed such impassivity without the numbing effects of coke? Who cares. Its a great film. Watch it. I'm going to listen to Station to Station.