Friday, April 4, 2014

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA: Blu-ray (UA 1974) Twilight Time

Few movies are as nauseatingly hallucinogenic or morally bankrupt as Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), begun in the vein of a Shakespearean tragedy. Regrettably, this knight’s errand becomes maleficently polluted by its creator’s penchant for hard liquor and recreational cocaine; moreover submarined by the free reign afforded Peckinpah from his producer, Martin Baum to make exactly the movie he wanted to without any creative restraints. There is this myth in Hollywood, particularly amongst a certain ilk of 1970’s auteurs, that imposing restraints of any kind on an artist is tantamount to censorship. It is not! Moreover, a good many movies made throughout this decade in particular – and more than a handful created ever since - have proven they might have benefited from stronger hands at the helm, working not quite so close with the material.
Of all the movies to his credit, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia remained Sam Peckinpah’s personal favorite – perhaps, not so much for its’ outcome (eviscerated by all but a marginal group of film critics) but rather, because he was undeniably working within his element and in Mexico – a country more valued by Peckinpah than perhaps even his native own. There’s no getting around it. Sam Peckinpah was a demonstrative renegade and a story-telling genius of impeccable tastelessness; miraculously made stylish and often engrossing; a man dictated to by his demons and ultimately perverted in his vices. In hindsight, one can see the latter getting the better of Peckinpah in ‘Alfredo Garcia; his legendary alienation of the Mexican crew, even before principle photography wrapped, necessitated associate producer, Gordon T. Dawson shooting the final violent death; that of our grotesquely unattractive anti-hero - Bennie the bum (played with resplendent poise by the late Warren Oates).   
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia begins with a rather vicious bounty placed upon the aforementioned title character’s head and concludes with an almost homage to Arthur Penn’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. In between these pessimistic, Tequila-soaked bookends, an unsettling mania percolates; the Peckinpah/Dawson screenplay becoming something of an iniquitous exaltation of Mexico as it was, instead of that chronically romanticized mariachi-playing/sombrero-dancing/jumping bean goodwill ambassadorship, more readily on display in Hollywood’s version of our Latin American brethren. No one is denying Peckinpah’s worship of Mexico. The question remains, exactly what was it he so loved and sought to bring out in this movie? For Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’s landscape – apart from being sparsely populated – is as densely packed with disreputable scoundrels who wouldn’t think twice about slitting the throats of their own mothers for some cold hard cash. At least, that’s the way it all starts out for our Bennie; a boozing/using loser, banging the keys of an out of tune piano inside a seedy little ‘wanna hump-hump’ dive, nightly frequented by the good ole boy tourist trade who’ve come to see something of the real Mexico wholly absent from their guidebooks.
Here is a world of cheap liquor and even cheaper women – chronically inebriated to blot out their collective ennui over the utter hopelessness that is their dead-end lives. What is there left for Bennie after all the gringos have all gone back to their comfortable hotel suites, except to carouse and kill for a few extra pesos earned the hard way? There’s no personal satisfaction in this nasty deed however; the high water mark merely rising from contemptible frustration (knowing he’s still very much alive) to swallow him whole in a very dirty pool of sin and depravity by the end. In some ways, Warren Oates’ grimy contender for this uncharismatic and very gruesome quest (decapitating a corpse to return its’ decaying, fly-ridden head to a mafia-styled chieftain) is Peckinpah’s mirror image; a guy without compunction, harboring a certain natural disdain for the niceties he nevertheless craves, yet still quite unable to put to bed those tattered remnants of his own nagging conscience.
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia would be considered a great work by a very great director, if only someone had had the guts to reign in Peckinpah – if anyone ever dared. But somewhere along the journey, Peckinpah has so completely fallen in love with his raw material, he ultimately becomes a slave to it; his masochism resonating throughout the ranks of cast and crew; many of whom partook in the liberal drug and alcohol-induced distractions provided on set. These steadily allowed Peckinpah to detach from his already tenuous stake in reality. It isn’t a stretch to suggest Sam Peckinpah, like all truly obsessed artists, lived mostly when he was working; creating these worlds without end – or rather, apocalyptic ecospheres according to his own likes and dissatisfaction. But in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’s case, scenes just seem to drag on – needlessly, in fact - and with very little to say once Peckinpah has given us his prodigious setup of the piece. We get the point, already. The film is about revolting, backbiting misfits doing vicious things to one another. Why should we care? Well, for starters, because Sam Peckinpah is at the helm; always capable of rescuing even the most repugnant and anti-social rogue from the judgment call made by our collective moral superiority, quelling our outright dismissal into self-effacing contempt.
Peckinpah’s initial vision for our story begins in very predictable Peckinpah-esque country; the hibiscus-covered and candle-lit hacienda of El Jefe; a murderous chieftain (played to perfection by the ‘as calculating’, Emilio Fernández, rumored to have killed at least two men in real life – one, a critic who once wrote a scathingly negative review about him). Here is a backdrop we are immediately familiar with and can completely embrace and understand as Peckinpah devotees; the heartless overlord seated behind his imposing hand-carved desk, holding court over a pious group of wealthy sycophants and female martyrs, the latter draped in mourning black; flanked by gun-toting mercenaries all too eager to fulfill his latest command. 
Seems Alfredo Garcia (never seen in the film) has committed the ultimate sin – having impregnated El Jefe’s unwed daughter, Theresa (Janine Maldonado). Stripping the girl naked in everyone’s presence, her humiliation brought to bear on the family honor and his own moral indignation as a proud parent; El Jefe takes out a million dollar bounty, coldly declaring “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!”  Exit the assassins, in all manner of modern four-wheel drive muscle cars, trucks and jeeps. So we’re not in old Spain after all, but Mexico circa 1974; straddling the old and new worlds with Peckinpah’s tongue firmly in cheek; Peckinpah – the myth-maker, suddenly dismantling his own mythology. The narrative timeline gets condensed; two months of empty searches leading up to our first ‘cute meet’ in the picture; this one between El Jefe’s personal coadjutants, Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Johnny Quill (Gig Young), and Bennie (Warren Oates), the barroom pianist, serenading patrons – badly – with his mangled rendition of Guantanamera.
It didn’t start out this way for Bennie. He used to be a U.S. Army officer, then a knockabout, though good-natured enough saloon keeper, and now this – a drunken clown banging the ivories for two dollar handouts. Sappensly and Quill make their inquiries about Garcia, believing they’ll have better luck getting answers from a fellow American. Bennie isn’t forthcoming, however. Not yet. He needs a little time to think it over. Too little, in fact; getting a taste for the pair’s depraved indifference, after Sappensly – propositioned by one of the establishment’s whores – knocks the unsuspecting wench senseless, simply for taking a gentle squeeze of his thigh. So much for love…er…rather, sex – at least, the heterosexual kind. There’s something subversively homoerotic about Sappensly and Quill’s professional relationship. 
Bennie decides to pay a call on the last person who might have seen Alfredo Garcia alive; the sensual songstress cum madam, Elita (Isela Vega). She used to be fairly hot and heavy with Bennie…that is, before finding passion in Garcia’s arms. It seems Garcia was a ‘real man’ – or, at least, one unafraid to profess his love in more concrete terms, something Bennie still never brings himself to do. Having earlier bought a machete, perhaps intent on performing the homemade decapitation on a live subject himself, Bennie learns Garcia died in a terrific auto wreck after a night of drunken revelry. He’s buried in a cemetery near his home town. What to do? Only one thing, as far as Bennie is concerned: dig up Garcia and lop off his head. Mmmm…yummy.
Bennie is rather relieved he only has to exhume and defile a body, rather than actually commit a murder for hire. He tells Elita that there is nothing sacred about “a hole or the man who’s in it”, adding “or you or me” – putting a period to her dewy-eyed plans to wed Bennie. Still, the sex is good, even if Bennie has to soak his crotch in day-old Tequila the next morning, presumably to avoid the Clap.  Ordering Elita from his bed, and even going so far as to drag her to the floor, knocking his guitar from the wall, Bennie sets out to find the final resting place of Alfredo Garcia with Elita’s reluctant help. Unbeknownst to them, they are being followed by a pair of goons loyal to El Jefe; the happy drunkard, Chalo (Chalo Gonzalez) and his less agreeable cohort, Esteban (Enrique Lucero). 
Making a brief pit stop to indulge in a picnic lunch prepared by Elita, Bennie reluctantly proposes marriage. Not even he believes the words issuing from his lips and Elita probably knows it. Settling for a night under the stars, Elita and Bennie’s idyllic romantic getaway is thwarted when a pair of grifters (one of them Kris Kristofferson) hold the pair at gunpoint. Kristofferson’s reprobate takes Elita into the brush, presumably to rape her. Instead, he suffers an attack of conscience; Elita strangely sympathetic and now willingly giving herself to him. But Bennie has managed to shoot Kristofferson’s cohort dead and, in short order, dispatches Elita’s ‘attacker’ as well.
Elita is reluctant to reveal the truth to Bennie, electing to take him to the outskirts of an impoverished village, to the remote cemetery where Alfredo Garcia lies buried and is presently being mourned by his elderly grandmother (Tamara Garina) and family. Taking a room at the nearby hotel for the night, Bennie bides his time until the sun has set, heading back to the gravesite with shovel and machete in hand. Elita follows, but does not stick around for the moment of decapitation; thus delayed when an unseen assailant knocks Bennie unconscious.
Sometime later, Bennie is startled to life, discovering he has been buried alive in Garcia’s grave, lying on top of Elita who is quite dead; Alfredo Garcia’s head severed from its body and missing. Unable to rectify his outpouring of conflicted emotions with the rage mounting from within, Bennie discovers Chalo and Esteban are responsible for Elita’s murder. More determined than ever to take possession of Garcia’s head (now wrapped in a burlap sack and riding in the backseat of Chalo’s green station wagon), Bennie discovers Chalo and Esteban by the side of the road with a flat tire. He mercilessly guns them down, tossing Garcia’s head onto the passenger seat of his car before driving off, pursued by Garcia’s grandmother and family.
Still jealous of Garcia’s passionate affair with Elita, Bennie makes crude remarks to the head, dousing it in Tequila. He is forced off the road by Garcia’s family, toting a small arsenal of rifles and shotguns. Very reluctantly, Bennie gives Garcia’s head back to his grandmother; Sappensly and Quill arriving in the nick of time, pretending to have lost their way while they make their inquiries in code to Bennie, who informs them the bundle presently cradled by the elderly woman in black is the trophy they have all been desperately searching for. Quill opens fire, as does Sappensly; Quill mortally wounded in the slaughter and dying by the side of the road. Bennie shoots Sappensly, determined to bring Garcia’s head back to Max (Helmut Dantine); El Jefe’s puppet master pulling everyone’s strings. But the meeting at the hotel is predictably even bloodier; Peckinpah upping the ante inside this relatively small suite, as Bennie much too conveniently massacres the rest of El Jefe’s loyalists without ever taking a single hit.
Bennie arrives at El Jefe’s estate, confronted by the pompous patriarch on the day of his grandchild’s christening. A bitter Theresa is present for the exchange between Bennie and El Jefe – a million dollar payoff for the severed remains of her dead lover for whom she still desperately pines. Rejecting the money, Bennie is instructed by Theresa to kill her father and thus, Peckinpah moves into his penultimate embrace of stultifying carnage for which his cinematic repertoire has long since been justly famous. Another hailstorm of slow-mo bullets ricocheting about the room, make mincemeat of El Jefe and his men, none of whom it seems are expert marksmen. It is a wonder the ole crime boss has remained so well protected from his rivals for so long!
Bennie emerges with the attaché of money and Garcia’s head, instructing Theresa to look after the child while he endeavors to do the same with the remains of its father. Alas, Bennie’s grotesque handy-work is prematurely exposed by the rest of the party guests come to witness the christening. As he makes a valiant attempt to drive through the iron gates of El Jefe’s estate, Bennie is gunned down by armed guards who riddle his car with bullets; the knight’s errand come to a very unsurprisingly ferocious and blood-spattered end.
In some ways, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia plays much better today than it did back in 1974. This isn’t a compliment; merely illustrative of just how complacent and desensitized audiences have become in today’s degenerate movie culture. Not all art has to be ‘pretty’ to make its statement.  And true enough, violence has its’ place as an illustrative tool in American cinema in general and Peckinpah’s class in particular. But without it, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia really doesn’t have all that much to offer the casual viewer; Sam Peckinpah relying on visual techniques accrued over a period of time – though arguably, exploited to much better effect elsewhere in his body of work.  Warren Oates offers us a memorably and inspired performance as our Don Quixote on crack; a untrustworthy bastard who begins this journey into fear and self-loathing with visions of escaping the gutter depravity that is his life, only to wind up realizing the money wasn’t worth it after all.
Isela Vega is competent as his Man of La Mancha-inspired prostitute/lady fair. Her untimely – and rather unexpected passing at the tail end of the movie’s middle act is shocking; but it deprives our self-serving anti-hero of his more deserving compatriot; even if it provides him – and Peckinpah - with the feeblest of revenge motivations (like we didn’t see that one coming from a mile away!). The rest of the cast are cardboard cutouts at best (the Mafia chieftain, the Mary Magdalene, the bloodless, steely-eyed assassin-types; all of the Mexican villains, playfully perverse variations of Alfonso Bedoya and his ‘stinking patches’); some painted with broader brush strokes than others – none having any genuine staying power. If Sam Peckinpah adored this movie above all others (and he did), it is likely due to the associations fostered along the way and the unfettered creative freedom he enjoyed in making it, rather than for the work emerging from this exercise.
I must admit, I did not care for Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, finding it less provocative as an artwork by the master than mere foreshadowing to where our present-day movie culture has devolved; celebrating the ‘new normalcy’ as the morally downtrodden perish under the weight of their own imploding societal decay. Peckinpah’s thought process herein isn’t profound: just shady and un-glamorous. The death of Bennie isn’t a surprise. It’s expected, yet neither satisfactory (as in ‘it serves him right, he deserved it!’) nor compelling (bittersweet, yet somehow fitting to what began as a presumably Shakespearean-styled revenge/tragedy).
I’ll just go on record stating that I’ve grown weary and bored with movies where the actual norm in our society (the basically good person attempting to better themselves – if not the world around them) has been unceremoniously thrown under the proverbial bus; neither concretely represented or, in fact, even acknowledged in token reference as still existing. Even as a precursor to just how far we have since slipped down this proverbial rabbit hole, I still cannot get excited about this movie in any way that would make me want to recommend it to anyone who isn’t planning a Columbine-style assault on their neighborhood. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia is a merciless tale of obnoxious, frightened and filthy people reacting in dreadful, anxious and socially-repellent ways.  To what purpose and what end? I give up. Just bring me an Aspirin. I have a headache.
MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray via Twilight Time’s Limited Edition series really hasn’t afforded this movie the necessary upgrade it requires. Yes, the image is significantly brighter than the old DVD, and yes – color fidelity considerably improves, as does sharpness and contrast. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia was shot ‘quick and dirty’ on a rather modest budget, according Sam Peckinpah’s usual zeal for capturing grittier images. We can accept that. What is entirely unacceptable is the barrage of age-related dirt, scratches and even a hair caught in the lower right hand corner of the frame during the opening sequence; all imperfections that ought to have been digitally removed before porting the image onto disc. The darker sequences show far more of this damage; as inside El Jefe’s hacienda, where the age-related anomalies are considerably distracting. 
I also had a problem with the new DTS mono cutting in and out during several key scenes and rendering dialogue virtually inaudible. Twilight Time has jam-packed this disc with considerable extras; two audio commentaries – both featuring TT’s Nick Redman, accompanied on one by Gordon T. Dawson, and on the other, by Paul Seydor, biographer Garner Simmons and David Weddle. Passion and Poetry is a nearly forty minute ‘making of’ with surviving cast and crew and Peckinpah’s daughter affectionately waxing about their memories of Sam. There’s also a featurette on The Writer’s Journey with biographer, Simmons explaining his ongoing relationship with Peckinpah, plus vintage junkets showing the director hard at work in Mexico, TV spots and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: for those who are fans of either Peckinpah’s work in general or this movie in particular, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia on Blu-ray is only a so-so experience.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS

5

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