Friday, December 20, 2013

Straw Dogs (Unrated Version) (1971)

Straw DogsPeople seem to love or hate this movie. I love it. Dustin Hoffman plays professor on "sabbatical" to write a book on astronomy and computers. There is some allusion to his having been driven to his sabbatical (or from his job) because of his refusal to take a stand over some undefined issue at his place of employment. In any case, he retreats to a farmhouse in rural England with his pretty wife, played by Susan George.

When some of the local underemployed thugs start bullying him--(The script and Peckinpah's direction of the actors hits bull's-eye here; having lived in England, I saw the same sort of behavior--punks all over, I guess, have mannerisms of bullying peculiar to their culture.)

The violent climax to this film is--you hate to say it--beautiful. It certainly isn't gorey by today's standards. This, perhaps, is what makes people so uncomfortable about this movie--their own reaction to the violence. Hoffman conveys wonderfully both the fear and the satisfaction his character is experiencing.

At one level, this film exists as a simple tale of revenge. At another level, the movie affirm's Peckinpah's vision of violence as a rite of manhood. Whether this rite is a regrettable one . . . well, that remains arguable, and this ambiguity is part of what makes this such a watchable, and re-watchable, movie.

Aside from the notoriety, and aside from the viciousness (the film leaves you most of all with a taste of viciousness in your mouth, a sour, bitter, metallic taste, akin to that feeling you get reading "The Tin Drum", the piece of metal stuck in the back of your throat), what you get from "Straw Dogs" is a manifestation of personal demons (specifically, Sam Peckinpah's personal demons, but also, both more generally and more acutely, masculine demons) and an exploration of a certain type of male sexuality.

To do the film justice, you need to plug your brain in. Which, on the surface, may not appear to be the case, because the story what it is is relatively simple. It's an English western.

David, a mathematician (Dustin Hoffman), is on sabbatical from the university where he teaches. He has left the states and returned with his wife Amy, (Susan George) to the tiny English village in which she grew up. From the word go, David has to contend with the fact that Amy has a history in the town. He also has to contend with the fact that she is younger than him, and bored. Her boredom serves as a distraction from the reason behind his sabbatical. Amy on the other hand has to live with a quiet, "odd" American who does not give her the attention she requires.

Within the town, there are various echoes at work: there is a character called Niles, played by David Warner, who has a known history of problems relating with women (to the extent that he has served time for undisclosed offences); there are the locals, who divide their time between procrastinating over work on David and Amy's roof, and leering at Amy (who periodically informs David about the effect she has on them, how they "lick her all over with their eyes"); and there is David himself, spending a little more time than he really should looking at teenager Sally Thomsett.

All of which feeds into the terrible rape scene (a scene of which Peckinpah is quoted as saying in the excellent biography "If it moves . . . kill 'em" "I wanted to film the best rape scene ever" a line ripe with complexity and moral disorder): Amy is raped by Charlie, leader of the leering locals, who may or may not be her childhood sweetheart (two earlier scenes indicate that (a) something went on years earlier and (b) Charlie took it further then than Amy was happy with).

At some point during the awful protracted rape, for whatever reason (and there is something manifest at work in her face, palpably desire but desire for what who knows?) she stops fighting and starts (ugly this, but true this is what happens in the film:) starts to participate. The participation is taken (by some) to be a playing out of a certain retrogressive masculine attitude (that all women deep down etc etc etc). However you interpret it and it does require interpretation, importantly the participation is at the dark heart of "Straw Dogs"' notoriety. The fact that this is followed by the appearance of a second man, and a second rape, only compounds the difficulty the cloudiness that will inevitably surround any attempt to precisely articulate what is going on here.

At which point, the echoes become still more manifest: you have Niles, despised because of his weakness for young girls (and as such in the context of the character's lives a "bad" man), you have the men who rape Amy (a fact that remains undisclosed within the body of the film), men who later attempt to avenge themselves on Niles (in a vivid reworking of "Of Mice and Men"), and you have David a man in whom, perhaps, all of these violent urges conflict.

The film culminates in a series of extremely violent (and ridiculous) altercations, veering wildly between extremes (shotguns firing off left, right and centre, characters riding tricycles and playing bagpipe records, mantraps, boiling fat, fire, pokers, broken glass, wire). But the central relationship the whole dynamic of the film between David and Amy continues to fight definition, remaining ultimately unresolved and unclear.

In the end, aside of everything else (aside of the fact that this film lingers with you, you do not watch "Straw Dogs" and leave it at that, those "Straw Dogs" take up residence with you, for a while), you have the fact that this film would not get made today the Dustin Hoffman character is too complex and too unsympathetic, and there are too many (coldly intellectual) questions raised by what goes on.

It is dissatisfying but intentionally so: this is Peckinpah's "Salo": it demonstrates that resolution is the most ugly abstraction, that what gets wrapped up leaves the viewer with no space for thought: that which is left open, is that which remains discussed. At the end, almost a week after last watching the film, I am reminded of what Ian McEwan wrote in his novel "Black Dogs": "...I came face to face with evil. I didn't quite know it at the time, but I sensed it in my fear these animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. And . . .when conditions are right . . . a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within . . . (But) This is what I know: Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, the consciousness itself call it what you like in the end, it's all we've got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish."

That is at last "Straw Dogs"' role: to develop, to expand, to show us what can be, what needn't be, but what is, and hope that something else (not necessarily finer) but something else, prevails.

Buy Straw Dogs (Unrated Version) (1971) Now

Straw Dogs is a controversial film. Some people hated it, others loved it. The fact is that Sam Peckinpah was a controversial man: in his films, violence was a necessary test that every man had to face in order to prove his manhood. Peckinpah was a hard man, and his vision of life and humanity is shown in Straw Dogs, you may agree with him or not, but you will have to accept the basic concept: in the heart of every coward, burns a beast, a straw dog. And Peckinpah says in his movie that when you are caught in a dangerous situation, you change, and you are capable to kill or do anything in order to survive. No one did it better than this filmmaker, maybe Boorman with Deliverance, but Straw Dogs is a cruel testimony of the cruelty that common men are capable to do.Hoffman is terrific, and in the end, when his house and wife are in danger, his whole coward character changes, and he turns into a explosive and brutal murderer. Susan George carries on a difficult part, the scene of the rape is one of the most shocking and complex images of the seventies.In the end, you will understand why the tagline says that in the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog.

Read Best Reviews of Straw Dogs (Unrated Version) (1971) Here

I've now seen Straw Dogs 7 times. The first time I saw it years ago, I thought it was pretty good, kind of slow, but good. The second time I fell in love with it; for all the wrong reasons. The third time, something clicked and I realized this isn't a Hollywood movie, there's a reason it still strikes a nerve with so many people: it's one of the few films that says to you, in a whisper:

"If you like this movie for the action, you're scum; if you associate with any of the characters, you're scum. If you cheer during the siege, you're utter scum. This is not a heroic film, there are no good people, because in life there are no good people, we are all animals."

At the time, and to this day, claims of the glorification of violence are heard, but this is just idiotic. In order to glorify something, in the end, it has to be shown in a majestic light. Straw Dogs does everything but this; it begins quietly and ends bleakly, you'd be heart broken if you weren't so scarred and trembling.

Sure, Hoffman goes from mouse to "man", "but at what cost?", the film asks. His already crumbling marriage is utterly obliterated by the final sequence of the film, where he declares that he's no idea how to get home, because what once was his house, wife and all, is no longer a part of him.

It's a statement on many things: the animal nature of the human being: territory, sex, violence, pride; the futility of law. Highly recommended, but don't expect a chipper feeling when the credits begin.

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About the infamous rape scene...

It's important to bear in mind that this is a work of fiction, not a documentary. In fiction, people do not necessarily behave in ways that people do in real life. It is, for instance, highly unlikely that the meek Dustin Hoffman character could successfully slaughter a half dozen brawny opponents, but that's the story.

The second point to remember is that the rape scene comes in two parts, with two different sexual couplings. The first is merely a "fantasy rape scenario", while the second underlines that point by showing a far more realistic example of rape.

How does fantasy enter into the scenario? Although some may deny it, studies have routinely shown that 'forced sex' fantasies are popular with both genders. Nancy Friday, in "The Secret Garden", documented the popularity of such fantasies with women. Anyone who has ever read a typical romance novel from the 1970s (the time this movie was made) realizes that the 'rape' scenario has played a key role in women's erotica.

This does not mean that women want to be raped (nor that men want to rape them), merely that many women are sexually aroused by fantasizing about non-violent situations where they find themselves overpowered and 'forced' to do what they really want to do. In these fantasy situations, the women are really in total control, of course, because the fantasy takes place only in their own minds. The fantasy 'rapist' does only what they choose for him to do, no more no less. He is, in fact, the puppet in the fantasy, not them. If they chose, they could just as easily fantasize about them raping HIM (another theme that arises in some women's fantasies). As such, there is no actual 'rape' at all in 'rape fantasies', only the iconic use of masculine force and a pretense of resistance to add heat to the imagined situation.

In the film, just such a fantasy is presented, then contrasted with the reality of rape.

The Susan George character knows the first 'attacker' well. She grew up with him and introduces him to her husband early on. There's a strong possibility that they were lovers in the past, or at least boyfriend and girlfriend. Residual sexual tension remains between them. It is clear that the man desires her from the moment they meet again. It is likely that the continued attraction is mutual.

Although the Susan George character no doubt admired the peaceful, civilized manners of her husband when she met him in a culture which valued these traits, it is clear that she is repulsed by (and ashamed of) her husband's perceived weakness once they move to the backwater community where she grew up a more primitive and violent environment where his passivity is seen as a mark of shame. It's hard to shake one's upbringing, and once back in her home town, she bristles at having to watch the macho locals ridicule her passive husband. She reverts to the villagers' way of valuing things, and when she does, the socio/sexual value of her husband dims by comparison to that of her former macho boyfriend, a native son who understands the rules of survival there. A part of her yearns for the rough, primitive kind of man she grew up with but the Hoffman character seems incapable of being that man for her.

As her husband continues to ignore her sexual needs, and resentment between them increases, the (fictional) Susan George character seems to make a (conscious or subconscious) effort to goad her former boyfriend into making a move. Perhaps she is hoping that her husband will respond by becoming a more masculine protector, perhaps she is trying to prove to herself that she is still in control in the backward environment (even though it is clear that she is not), or perhaps she secretly hopes that her former boyfriend will force her into the affair she secretly craves. Either way, she is playing a dangerous game, but seems to feel that any result would be preferable to the current situation of being ignored by an ineffective husband. She exposes herself to the man and his fellow workers on several occasions, virtually daring them to do anything about it. Having grown up there, she must realize the likely consequences of goading these kind of Neanderthals.

When the men lure her husband away on a hunting trip and her former boyfriend comes knocking at her door to test the waters, her actions are revealing. She meets him wearing just a robe over panties and a T-shirt. She lets him into their home while she is alone and helpless, despite knowing his aggressive nature. She offers him a drink. When he offers to leave voluntarily, his offer seems to be a sincere one, but she tells him to stay. She challenges him openly about killing her cat, even though she must know how a primitive like that would respond. Finally, when he kisses her, gently, she doesn't resist. Quite the opposite, she responds sexually, clinging to him and kissing him back, displaying obvious desire for him. While still in his arms, but not resisting, she says "Please leave me", sending what may be the world's most mixed message. He kisses her again, and once again she kisses him back, although she mixes in a minor show of resistance while doing so. Suddenly, she pulls away and slaps him, hard, in a mock pretense of outrage. Predictably, the confused Neanderthal reacts aggressively. His angry response is more violent than she expected, as he loses his temper, slaps her back hard. She backs away, as he begs her not to tease him (which is exactly what she has been doing, whether intentionally or because of conflicting desires). When he reaches out gently to brush her hair, she she slaps him again, which to a man of this social level would be translated into a challenge to his masculine strength, perhaps even a message of "if you want me, you'll have to take me by force".

He believes that she is merely teasing him, and (in this story) he is right. In stereotypical caveman fashion, he drags her by her hair to the couch, slaps her again and rips off her robe. She is briefly overcome by fear & pain, by resentment of being manhandled, and by guilt over betraying her husband, so she resists at first. Even then, though, there is something in her heavy breathing and 'heaving bosom' that seems to come straight out of a bad old romance novel. Her resistance, while real, seems less than whole-hearted. Her breathy gasps of "no" are mixed with returned kisses and embraces of the man who is about to 'rape' her. And despite making a few threatening gestures when needed to subdue her, the 'attacker' otherwise seems suspiciously gentle and romantic in his approach, in line with typical bodice-ripper fantasies. The former boyfriend seems to genuinely care for her. He even says "I'm sorry" as they finish.

Once she is stripped naked and taken on the couch, she soon responds sexually to her old lover, pulling his head down to kiss him passionately, caressing his face, and clearly enjoying the sexual act, perhaps even achieving orgasm.

This is not really supposed to be rape that we are watching, this is a fictional, unrealistic 'force fantasy' playing out on screen, the end result of a lengthy game of sexual one-upmanship in which she has manipulated the Neanderthal male into doing what she wants taking her by force, and hence absolving her of the guilt associated with voluntarily cheating on her idiot husband.

To view it as actual rape (despite the initial violence at the onset) is to misunderstand the dynamics of the scene.

The SECOND part of the incident, on the other hand, is meant to illustrate the actual crime of rape, and to contrast it to the earlier fantasy situation. This time the attacker is a stranger (not a sexy former lover whom she secretly desires). This time the sex is truly involuntary. This second time, it really IS rape. There is no romantic tenderness this time, she is held face down and either sodomized or taken from behind in brutal fashion and she definitely doesn't enjoy it.

We are seeing two different events: a real rape, and a pretend rape. Fantasy and reality. The former, in this script, being no more than an extramarital affair played out under the guise of resistance. The latter being a clear act of violence and sadism.

(On another note, on first viewing, it's easy to make the mistake of assuming that Dustin Hoffman's orgy of violence is an act of revenge for the rape of his wife. But in reality, his character never learns that his wife was attacked. His violent explosion comes as the result of the men invading his home and challenging his manhood an idea that is probably more open to criticism than the rape scene.)

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