Peckinpah vs. Beckett

Ordinarily I try to ignore film reviewers who will just irritate me. Armand White at The New York Press, for example. Ken Tucker when he was writing for New York magazine. (Since I ignore Entertainment Weekly entirely, I never have to encounter his TV reviews there.) Increasingly, David Denby at The New Yorker. Charles Taylor used to write for The New York Sun (where I occasionally place pieces) and salon.com. He is also sometimes the author of the Mr. DVD column in the New York Observer. His piece in the January 30th issue was on the Sam Peckinpah box set recently released by Warner Bros. This is the second sentence of the article:

So rather than add to the heap of writing that already exists about Peckinpah’s balletic violence, or about the stunted career and mangled movies caused by his own intransigence as well as the stupidity of studio execs, I simply want to convey the flavor of the four films contained in the new Warner Bros. DVD boxed set Sam Peckinpah’s The Legendary Westerns Collection (for once a title doesn’t lie), by cutting small windows into each picture as a view into the director’s preoccupations, and as a way of listening in on the echoes that occur from film to film.

Taylor proceeds to summarize Ride the High Country (using its worst scenes to conclude that the film is about “the unadorned glory that’s possible in Puritan forbearance”), The Wild Bunch, the justly maligned Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (lauding a scene lifted from Only Angels Have Wings thirty years earlier), and The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue was a pleasant but hardly memorable tall tale about a prospector and a prostitute finding a measure of peace in the western desert. Taylor is entitled to his opinions, of course, and if he finds this “Among [Jason] Robards’ finest moments on screen,” he’s welcome to say so. But to quote long stretches of Robards’ excruciatingly cutesy monologue (“Ain’t had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin’ a little thirsty…”) only points out how hamfisted and overwrought a Peckinpah movie could be.

Still, “This is the closest the Western ever came to Beckett. There are some of us who think it was Beckett improved by the acquaintance.”

Who doesn’t reach for the Beckett tag when confronted by a director with a bleak vision? But what does it mean to compare Peckinpah, a self-destructive alcoholic with a thick sentimental streak, with Beckett? Doesn’t that just reduce Beckett to the level of a director for hire who managed to get himself fired from almost every project he took on?

How come Budd Boetticher isn’t Becket? Or Sergio Leone? Or any of the cynical, jaded directors of B-westerns who found themselves grinding out the same story week after week in isolated desert locations with false-front sets and washed-up vaudevillians for actors?

Born in 1906, Beckett was well aware of movies, although his cultural influences seem more aligned with music halls and vaudeville. He even wrote his own Film, and it was awful, full of empty symbols and images stolen from Buñuel. And that despite the presence of Buster Keaton, whose own film universe, with its unfeeling gods, inexplicable twists and reversals, and implacable Nature, comes closer to Beckett than anything Peckinpah ever imagined.

The real Beckett film (and one he might have actually seen) is The Happy Hottentots, a 1930 Vitaphone short starring Joe Frisco. Two vaudeville performers who bill themselves The Reese Brothers (Frisco and his partner Bob Callahan) take a job in a deserted theater. They seem to be the only act on the bill, they only know one song, and they have to sing it over and over in front of a non-existent audience. Directed by Bryan Foy, the son of the once-famous singer Eddie Foy, it is the funniest and starkest depiction of an actor’s hell that can be found in American film.

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