Tag Archives: Sam Peckinpah

When Men Betray Men

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

‘No one would ever pay 25 cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.’ – The narrator on Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Western has its themes as large as the geology of Monument Valley and yet as intimate as a face. Masculine friendship is one of those themes. The plus side is a sense of kinship and solidarity, a closeness, a masculine friendship that runs from Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) and Shane (George Stevens, 1953) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and through to the thoroughly unsurprising, though at the time daring Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005). And yet it was always there, that need, that desperate need for companionship and self-realisation that a mere woman could never provide. After all, if women represent anything, they represent the end of the West. Be it Natalie Wood in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) as the confused end of the quest (whether she wants it or not) or Claudia Cardinale in Once upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), who is not only the instigator for the death or departure of all the male characters but the end of Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western cycle. Women hadn’t featured at all, except in the tired dichotomy of Madonnas (Marisol) or sundry whores.

Friendship is all. It is an emotional connection that you can have while still remaining true to the West. It is as old as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, or for that matter Huckleberry Finn and Jim, who in the end would rather go to hell than betray a man he comes to realise is his friend. The chalk and cheese buddy relationship would be the template for the cop buddy movies, in the same way horse operas turned to gangster movies.

The importance of friendship, the centrality of male friendship casts a long shadow though. The vulnerability and emotional neediness that stand behind the ideal of male friendship run against the emotional inscrutability and toughness that represent the macho ideal. The shadow such neediness casts is that of betrayal. Betrayal is to male friendship what adultery is to marriage, it at once contravenes all the rules but at the same time is the necessary definition for the relationship itself. Being married (in the traditional sense) is basically defined by exclusive sexual access, and so being married is about not being adulterous, but then again you can only be adulterous by at first being married. So betrayal is not only a contravention of friendship, it is another expression of it. It is always disappointed love.

Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch (1969) pursues William Holden’s Pike with something like ardour. In the events leading up to the betrayal we see Thornton’s capture taking place in the bedroom of a brothel with a get-in-the-way woman conveniently muddying the waters. The proximity of sex to the key moment, the seed of betrayal, sharpens the sense that in hunting Pike, Thornton is revenging himself against Pike’s betrayal of him. The blood bath that concludes the film also represents a choice that the men make. They turn from the brothel and the boring repetition of heterosexual sex to go out in a blaze of male-bonding glory. Pike will receive his first bullet from a woman who stands watching him from a bedroom mirror. ‘Bitch,’ he hisses as he blows her away. The violence of their demise will be better than sex in that it is irreversible. Instead of the innumerable little deaths of the orgasm, this is the big death of the Gattling gun.

Sam Peckinpah’s misogyny can only really be understood as a sop to his disappointed man love. He is heterosexually gay. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) pits James Coburn as the law man against his former friend and accomplice, played by a beardless and ultimately bare-chested Kris Kristofferson. There is a careful strategic deployment of whores in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but they are only there for the biological ho-hum jiggery-pokery of sex. Love is something that is felt exclusively between men (and therefore so is murderous hate), and women can only get in the way and ruin the fun. It’s significant that in Billy the Kid’s demise Peckinpah refrains from his usual slow-motion bloodletting, as if he couldn’t bring himself to spoil Billy’s beauty.

Masculine betrayal bleeds through into other genres, but generally speaking it tends to be familial. Fredo in The Godfather: Part Two (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) is not the first brother to do a sibling wrong – think On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954): ‘It was you, Charlie’ – but it is a fantastic moment, as the fragile façade of an ethos falls to pieces before our eyes and we realise that this is just bloody mayhem, straight and simple. Not only is family not protected – the rationale behind Vito Corleone’s actions – it is corroded, torn apart. Even in science fiction, Lando Carlrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) is recognisably that of two cowboy chums with a long history.

The most recent and indeed the most thorough treatment of the topic comes in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Robert Ford is a pallid adolescent forever catching the breath of his own surprising emotions. His love for Jesse James is somewhere between fandom and embarrassing teenage infatuation. He spies Jesse in the bath, collects facts about him and fetishistically touches things that Jesse has touched. Jesse is well aware of the boy’s feelings and indeed courts them, disappointed as he is by the quiet anonymity of his own family life and his estranged relationship with his elder brother (Sam Shephard). In fact, James himself is a lost boy, a fact that the casting of a visibly ageing Brad Pitt emphasises. His little boy lost status is seen in his proclivity for practical jokes, little dances, pouty moodiness and occasional tears. Even his violence is childish: he sits on a child and tries to twist his ear off. It is schoolyard bullying writ large but bullying nonetheless and it explains his need for Robert’s adoration, even perhaps his need for death, which he already feels perhaps is coming too late.

The assassination (the word was introduced into English by William Shakespeare to describe Caesar’s death, which included the second most famous betrayal) itself is not a betrayal. The assassination is longed for, wanted. As with Judas, Robert is not so much Jesse’s adversary as his accomplice. He is armed by Jesse, given motivation, cajoled and threatened into it. The scene of the assassination is almost comic in the way Jesse is the director and Robert and his brother (Sam Rockwell) the reluctant actors. Jesse lays down his guns, positions himself with his back to his would-be killers and even gets to become a spectator in his own death as he watches Robert Ford raise his gun in the reflection of the picture glass that he is ostensibly intent on cleaning. An alternative title for the film could be ‘The Suicide of Jesse James Exploiting the Witless Ambition of Robert Ford’.

The true betrayal comes in the aftermath: the exploitation of Jesse’s death for personal gain. Initially, Robert and his brother are traumatised by what they have done, tearful and panicked, but in the space of time that it takes to run down the hill to the telegraph office they have become cocky and assured of their future fame. The theatrical replaying of the murder betrays not only Robert’s friendship with Jesse but also the integrity of the moment. It goes from tragedy via repetition to farce. But then of course the telling of the tale becomes, as with the Ancient Mariner, a curse: ‘By his own approximation Robert assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one had ever so openly and publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.’ The psycho-drama enhanced by Charlie’s casting as Jesse and his increasingly uncanny portrayal seems like a punishment and already the audience begins to see through Robert’s self-aggrandising version of events, calling out ‘coward’.

By killing Jesse, Robert has only managed to facilitate Jesse’s resurrection via photography and theatrical representation. Robert’s own fame is initially intense but fleeting. He will be forgotten and if remembered, his name will be forever subsidiary to and blackened by his association with Jesse James. It will also make him fair game for the passing psychosis of the man who will kill him. As such the betrayal serves Jesse: he is the beneficiary. Christian martyrdom is, in the final analysis, an immoral aggressive act, a cornering, or better still, given the Chinese box presence of the media in Dominik’s film, a framing.

John Bleasdale

When No Means Oh OK: A dubious return to 70s-style rape in film

Love and Bruises

68th Venice International Film Festival

31 August – 10 September 2011, Venice, Italy

Biennale di Venezia website

Love and Bruises, the new film by Chinese director Ye Lou, which premiered at the latest edition of the Venice Film Festival, is a rough-and-tumble love story between a French scaffold worker (Tahar Rahim) and a Chinese student (Corinne Yam). Taken from an autobiographical novel entitled Bitch, this is an uncompromising film that examines a self-abusive bad relationship from the point of view of the woman. Or does it?

The film begins with a humiliating scene of a very public split-up. Hua, the Chinese student, is dumped by her lover. She falls asleep at a bar, and when she then wanders past the market where some workmen are dismantling the scaffolding she is hit in the head by an iron bar being carried by Matthieu. He apologises and makes sure she’s OK. He helps her find a bank machine, then follows her and pesters her until she gives him her phone number. He phones her immediately as he walks behind her. They go for dinner. He walks her home. He tries to kiss her, and when she refuses he asks what the point of the dinner was if she isn’t going to agree to have sex. She refuses again, so he drags her into a building and rapes her. Thus love is born.

Retrospectively, we can rationalise this wasn’t really rape as in the end she, you know, enjoyed it. By the way, this film was made in 2011 and not the early 70s when enjoyable rape wasn’t ruined by political correctness gone mad. The 70s, and films informed by that mentality, often gave us two types of rape to choose from. Remember Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. We have the non-consensual sex with an ex-lover that becomes pleasurable (no means oh OK), softened by romantic music and a single tear, swiftly followed by the anal brutality of another workman, which is facilitated by the ex-lover. This version of rape says ‘well, it all depends on who is doing the raping’. Bongwater, in their 1991 album The Power of Pussy, had a lyric that ran: ‘It’s easier to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour when he looks like Willem Dafoe’, and the same, according to Peckinpah’s logic could be said of rapists. Love and Bruises would be an altogether different film if Matthieu wasn’t played by the fantastic Tahar Rahim. OK, he’s a rapist, but look at his body and he has such kind eyes. In fact, his thuggish friend also has a go at raping Isako with Matthieu’s complicity (a test of her loyalty), but he doesn’t look like the guy from A Prophet (2009) and so this rape (whether he succeeds or not is left unresolved) is seen as purely nasty and violent. Nothing on the earlier rape, which after a night of drinking and dancing, the couple go back to the original building site to re-enact.

The other way of portraying/mitigating rape is to distinguish between victims. Just as some rapists are OK, so some girls can be raped with more or less impunity. Think of Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America. Robert De Niro’s bank robbers are told about a teller called Carol (Tuesday Weld), who is in on the job – she is not to be touched – but when the robbery begins she starts screaming and bawling, and so Noodles (De Niro) does the right thing and rapes her on the desk, complete with ‘I’m coming’ joke when badgered by his fellow bank robbers to hurry up. This horrendous humiliation is later ‘justified’ because Noodles et al meet the teller again in a brothel where she’s now working as a prostitute. Not only is there no anger, but Carol plays a game of trying to pick out her rapist by identifying him from his cock. So Carol is readily characterised as a girl you can rape, a prossie, a whore. Someone who will be a good sport about it afterwards and in fact becomes the girlfriend of bank robber Max (James Woods). But that’s Carol. When Noodles rapes Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), his lifelong love, it becomes apparent that he’s raped the wrong girl. Deborah is the romantic girl, the virgin, to be revered, not ravaged. Noodles’ tragedy is in mixing up the virgin and the whore. It might be easy to blame this Latin dichotomy on Italian Leone, who had form (see Fistful of Dynamite for another comedy rape scene), but WASP Clint Eastwood carried the idea over in its entirety for High Plains Drifter.

Of course, some might argue that I’m conflating rough sex with rape, but actually I think that is what the films are doing. A fight that turns into a clinch is a cliché that goes on and on: Blade Runner another example. It’s a way of showing feistiness in the woman, resolving a conflict into a relationship and making it all edgy. Sparks are going to fly. But at what point does this turn into a glamorisation of rape? Or at the very least, promote values in which rape (some rape) becomes less bad than other rape? It could also be said that I’m missing the point of Love and Bruises, which is about a woman who has low self-esteem, and who is throwing herself headfirst into an abusive relationship, which is no less abusive for her consent, but I’d argue this is basically Nine and a Half Weeks with shaky handheld camerawork. The rape scene is supposed to be to some degree sexy. It fits in with all the other sex scenes and stands in stark contrast to the ‘bad’ rape scene.

Rape scenes are notoriously difficult to make without there being the possibility of titillation. After all, some (hopefully small) part of the audience might get off on rape itself. A film that takes rape as an issue, like The Accused, tied itself in knots trying to imply the rape without actually showing it: a pinball machine banging against a wall. Gasper Noé’s Irreversible takes the opposite approach and eliminates all escape routes. In what is apparently a single take, we see Monica Bellucci’s Alex being accosted by her assailant and then raped and beaten to a pulp. It is a merciless ordeal to watch, the film dares us to look away because it won’t. There is no cinematic shorthand, no cutting away, no fade to black, it is crude, violent, disgusting, nauseating, repulsive. In fact, it’s rape.

This year’s FrightFest also featured a couple of films that had a fairly primitive, 70s view of women, sex and rape.

John Bleasdale