Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
February 10, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 6
films in focus
By Andrew Sarris
The subject of violence has been so persistently debated and so pretentiously demonstrated in recent movies that reviewers are beginning to sound more like revivalists. Unfortunately, there are always readers eager to believe that all the violence in the world has been inspired by Hollywood movies, and that if only John Wayne and Clint Eastwood could be disarmed and pacified, then all the gunfire from Bangladesh to Belfast would cease immediately. Movies have always made a splendidly superficial target for our lazier moralists. it is so much easier to ban a movie or whine about a misleading rating than to confront the social tensions that are tearing us apart. Movies are an especially inviting target for people who don’t like them at all and who resent the pleasure other people take from the silver screen.
Consequently, I disapprove of the ratings games too many reviewers are playing these days. Arthur Bell, for example, wastes newsprint complaining about the alleged anomaly of “A Clockwork Orange” with an X-rating and “The Cowboys” with a GP. The net effect of Bell’s bellyaching is to play into the hands of the ratings people and the repressive forces behind them by inciting them to demand an X for “The Cowboys” rather than a GP for “A Clockwork Orange.” And let’s fact it, the advertising campaign for “A Clockwork Orange” was designed to appeal to every dirty old man in the metropolitan area. My stand has been consistent from the beginning. I am and always have been against all ratings, and particularly after Jack Valenti betrayed the original purpose of the ratings by treating X-rated movies as slimy celluloid. Not only did Valenti strengthen the hands of community busybodies in imposing newspaper and theatre boycotts on X-rated movies and even titles; he also made it necessary for the movie studios to apply pressure on the ratings system in order to survive economically. Idiocy compounded by hypocrisy. And the village elders are still clucking their tongues over the GP-rating MGM squeezed out for “Ryan’s Daughter.” But enough of this nonsense. If ratings are indeed here to stay, they deserve more a yawn than a yowl.
It is banal also to express at this late date any shock over the tendency of American censors to be harder on nudity than on bloodletting. After all, the words “moral” and “morals” have alway applied almost exclusively to sexual behavior of rather to the enforced absence thereof. Silly, of course. And all these years we have been told in cultivated tones how the wondrously civilized French and Swedes were as shocked by the violence in our movies as we were by the sex in theirs. I am the first to applaud our being less uptight about grown-up European sensuality, but I am not sure that I can applaud the continuing European uptightness about anarchic American violence. Perhaps in their haste to feel guilty and inferior, too many cultivated Americans have overlooked the hidden repressions and restrictions of that picturesque European civilization they so admire. With all of America’s widely publicized injustices and inequalities, there is still a larger percentage of American blacks attending college than there is of French and English youths of all races. And with all the violence and nastiness and unpleasantness in our society, there is considerably more upward (and sideways) mobility here than in any of the more civilized havens across the Atlantic. We pay a price for that mobility in violence and paranoia, and the price may already seem too high. My only point here is that the solution to one problem always creates another problem. Not that I have anything good to say about violence itself as a means to an end. It is always better to break bread with one’s neighbor than to break his skull. What is at issue is the rhetoric against violence in movies, a rhetoric, particularly in the authoritarian domains of parent and child or doctor and patient, that is itself violently repressive. Let us never forget that all tyrants are censors, and that all censors seek to be tyrants.
The four movies that seem to have aroused the long-slumbering essayists on violence are Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry,” Mark Rydell’s “The Cowboys,” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” As a certified non-admirer of all four films, I have been fascinateed by some of the critical polarization that has taken place, especially between the Kubrick and the Peckinpah. Whereas Vincent Canby, Judith Crist, and Rex Reed admired “A Clockwork Orange” and detested “Straw Dogs,” Pauline Kael and John Simon dismissed “Orange” and glorified “Dogs.” (I must add immediately that Miss Kael’s review of the Peckinpah is a masterpiece of auteur rationalization in that it acknowledges the conflict between the stylistic personality of the director and the moral sensibility of the critic: “I realize that it’s a terrible thing to say of someone whose gifts you admire that h has made a fascist classic.”)
One of the unremarked ironies in the critical debate surrounding Kubrick and Peckinpah is that although both “A Clockwork Orange” and “Straw Dogs” take place ostensibly in some version or other of England, almost all the American reviewers have treated the films as allegories of the American experience. Allegory and even analogy be damned, I say. England is England, and America is America, and no cockney punk or village yahoo can tell me otherwise. Of course, Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah are American directors, but, on this occasion, at least, I find them both dealing with material much too abstract and undeveloped for me to become sociologically implicated.
However, the last thing I want to do is to lump Kubrick and Peckinpah (and Siegel and Rydell) under the spuriously journalistic sub-head of violence. Indeed, all four films under consideration area remarkably dissimilar, but the fact that I like none of them does suggest that they have something in common. In the past I have tended to prefer the work of Siegel and Peckinpah to that of Kubrick and Rydell, and yet I find “Dirty Harry” and “Straw Dogs” more outrageous and more offensive than “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Cowboys.” Perhaps I am more aware of a perversion of talent in the Siegel and the Peckinpah than in the Kubrick and the Rydell. Also, Siegel and Peckinpah are the kind of directors who can get to me viscerally in a way that the self-consciously arty Kubrick and Rydell never can.
For most reviewers, however, the Kubrick and the Peckinpah tend to be treated as major works, the Siegel and Rydell as minor. Fro one thing, “A Clockwork Orange” and “Straw Dogs” are clearly non-genre works, whereas “Dirty Harry” is clearly labeled as an American policer and “The Cowboys” as a western (albeit with twists, some right out of “Oliver!”). More conspicuously, the leads for Kubrick (Malcolm McDowell) and Peckinpah (Dustin Hoffman) are as markedly non-genre types as the leads for Siegel (Clint Eastwood) and Rydell (John Wayne) are genre standbys.
If I choose to defend Wayne and Eastwood on this occasion against Miss Kael’s morally inconsistent diatribes, it is not so much for their current vehicles as for their rich iconographical associations with films and directors and genres which, I feel Miss Kael has insufficiently appreciated to this day. It is grotesque to imply, as Miss Kael has done, that no one ever made a good western until Peckinpah and Altman came along, much as I am impressed by the Messrs. Peckinpah and Altman. Similarly, I think it is unfair to brand Wayne as a screen fascist on the basis of his off-screen politics when it is Peckinpah who is the foremost fascist in this particular woodpile. Not only does Wayne not kill anybody in “The Cowboys”; he himself is killed by the viciously villainous Bruce Dern. By contrast, Dustin Hoffman kills half the male population of an English village, and smiles proudly afterward. Yet Miss Kael treats Wayne as a graver menace to the children of this republic than Hoffman. It is a puzzlement, though not so much aesthetically as morally. Miss Kael is entitled to derive more pleasure from the slaughterhouse antics of Hoffman here and Warren Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde” than from the more professional pulvertizations and perforations accomplished by Wayne and Eastwood. But not on moral grounds. Particularly when Hoffman and Beatty clearly get their kicks (if not their orgasms) from killing whereas Wayne and Eastwood do not so much assert as confirm their virility by their violent deeds. An urban sensibility may feel more at home with actors who must overcome a neurotic reluctance even to say hello than with relatively uncomplicated mythic figures of implacability and inexorability.
Not that Wayne’s career is as uncomplicated as his detractors proclaim. It has been my experience that people who think they have Wayne down pat mythically have never seen his more interesting performances. Indeed, I suspect that there are even reviewers who have never seen more than a handful of the 40 or so Wayne projects that deserve preservation over the 100 or so truly stereotyped time-killers on which he was employed. The big plot twist of Wayne being killed in “The Cowboys” struck many critics as a first, but the fact is that Wayne has died in a film at least twice before — in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Reap the Wild Wind” in 1943 and in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in 1962. Of course, it took a giant squid (a myth as well as a monster) to do Wayne dirt in the De Mille, and in those days he had lower billing than the surviving hero, Ray Milland. And in the Ford, the Duke dies of his own despair rather than from another man’s wrath. Still, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (which opened unfashionably in Brooklyn is not only a film of extraordinary resonance, both spiritual and stylistic; it is also the occasion for a Wayne characterization that is completely inconsistent with the smug virility that is often attributed to his screen persona.)
But I do understand the unyielding resistance to the Wayne legend among New York sophisticates. I get a great deal of it from my own students. Hence I know better than anyone the rabble-rousing temptation to dump on the Duke in this citadel of enlightenment. Also I know better than to argue with anyone on matters of chemical affinity and bone structure. The only reason I dwell on Wayne at this time is to explore some of the paradoxical attitudes toward violence on the screen. As I have pointed out on previous occasions, Wayne has seldom played the classic role of the gunfighter in the saloon shoot-out. Nor has he been noted for the phallic frenzy of his fast draw. In his most memorably murderous roles in John Ford’s “Stagecoach” and Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo” he has used a rifle rather than a pistol, a triumph of realism over symbolism. A student reminded me recently that Wayne was not averse to smashing people in the snout with his rifle. True enough. But why does no one object when Paul Newman kicks an antagonist in the groin in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or fires on an enemy bearing a white truce flag in “Hombre”? I suppose partly because Newman appears in westerns only in anti-establishment roles, never in Wayne’s official capacity as sheriff, marshal, or army officer. Even on the infrequent occasions when Wayne has played a badman, the plot has been so arranged as to restore his legality and legitimacy in an ordered society, most miraculously and religiously in “Three Godfathers” and “The Angel and the Badman.” By contrast, Newman pursues his rebellion against society to the point of his own destruction in both “Butch Cassidy” and “Hombre.” And by being anti-establishment, Newman is also anti-genre in the sense that he plays his role from both the inside and the outside, that is, as both a character and a commentator. When he kicks his opponent in the groin, he is poking fun not only at his own ratty role but at all the elaborately chivalrous conventions of the western. Until very recently Wayne has not operated at Newman’s (and Hoffman’s and Beatty’s) ironic distance from a genre role. But in both “True Grit” and “The Cowboys” Wayne has come through the other side into rather startling self-parody. Still, he has remained an establishment figure, and thus anathema to vicarious radicals who would argue that a cop killing a crook (even on the screen) is repression whereas a crook killing a cop is revolution. Pauline Kael is hardly a radical, vicarious or otherwise, but her preference for the anarchic outlaw personalities of Beatty, Hoffman, Newman, and, I suppose, even McDowell over the law-and-order personalities of Wayne and Eastwood seems to be based on the less incriminating issue of originality versus banality. We have been watching the cops catch and/or kill the crooks ever since “The Great Train Robbery.” Why not let the crooks have some fun for a change even after the last fade-out? It sounds reasonable enough, particularly after we have chafed for so long against an intransigently idiotic censorship that was completely untrue to life as we knew it. Unlike Miss Kael, however, I do not feel we have to choose ideologically or aesthetically between Wayne and Eastwood on one side of law-and-order canyon and Beatty, Hoffman, Newman, et al., on the other. I can enjoy the antics of both factions without committing myself to either position. But I can never entirely ignore the moral issues involved in any manifestation of violence, and frankly I fail to see how Miss Kael can be deceived by the fake populism of “Bonnie and Clyde” when she is so vigilant against the glossy Manicheanism of “The Cowboys.” Nor can I understand why the lyrical prolongation of human slaughter by slow motion in both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Straw Dogs” (not to mention “The Wild Bunch”) is treated by Miss Kael as the stylistic epiphany of the ages. Indeed, Sam Peckinpah has gotten more milage out of slow-motion catsup squirting than better directors have gotten out of pumping life (rather than death) on the screen.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 31, 2011