Film as Counterpoint: The Quandary of Inherent Violence
A Review/Ponderance of Straw Dogs: Criterion Collection by Mike Meyer
I never saw a Sam Peckinpah film before Straw Dogs. All I knew was that his films were more or less a punch line in film history jokes, having raised the bar for gore and violence in films with his ultra-violent western The Wild Bunch. I bought the DVD sight unseen simply because I had a gift certificate and eager to learn more about the man Sam Peckinpah with the Disc 2 documentaries/interviews than the actual film. But the film was as jaw dropping as it was eye opening. My whole face was tired after running through both DVDs within a few short hours.
The film itself is a cautionary tale that explores viewpoints and subject matter usually written off in this day and age. A meek mathematics professor David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) settles in with his visibly sexual wife Amy (Susan George) settle in a small Cornish village. Over the course of the film, it’s established that the professor tries to avoid conflict in every situation. Amy even illustrates that this failure to face conflict is the reason he’s retreated to the village in the first place. Meanwhile, the local village lads take a liking to Mrs. Sumner and begin to pitch woo like the only way they know how…like beasts. Less of a romantic woo, these men do what they can to debase and weaken both the professor and his wife to the point of helplessness, viewing Amy’s sexual abstinence towards them as almost a fight-like physical defensive formed by high society which they have to combat with a matching fight-like offensive, more like akin to conquering an enemy than a mate. As not to spoil the main crux of the film, the constant battle of the Polite Abstinence vs. Violent Release rages on to illustrate very graphically the absolute horrors of absolute abstinence, how it breeds the more violent release, and how a balance must be struck between the two.
What’s absolutely astounding about this film is that it takes the ideals of it’s era (late 60s, early 70s) and turns them on it’s ear, stating that using an across-the-board peace policy prevents real issues from being faced and ultimately breeds more violence, at least in terms of the human being. This idealism is way ahead of its time (or classic idealism, depending on how you look at it) in terms of acknowledging this practical need of the human to experience anger, violence, and most of all healthy necessary confrontation. True to form, the film itself proves it’s point by confronting the audience outright. According to Peckinpah himself, Straw Dogs wasn’t designed for audience empathy. Just the opposite. You were supposed to cringe in horror when David snaps and exacts unwarranted violence on innocent villagers in what the audience knows is the defense of a murderer. He wanted you to experience as vividly as possible that there is nothing glamorous about true violence but confrontation needs to be explored or else more violence is bred. The film accepts the need for confrontation and even the male predilection for violence, sexually and otherwise, as an unavoidable entity, something to be dealt with rather than suppressed. Straw Dogs is also one of the most biting satires I’ve seen. Pekinpah absolutely refuses to wink at the audience to give them a “heads up, we’re being ironic” like even the greatest film satirists of the age can be accused of doing (read: Kubrick).
If the film weren’t enough (or if you just didn’t get it and are appalled), Disc 2 is as enlightening about the film and its father and just fascinating. At the top of the list, the documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron gives people a look into not only into the mind of a crazed genius but one that helps explain why he made what he made and how we can use his life and work as a way to help understand the modern day Peckinpah’s like Oliver Stone, people who are committed to bringing the ugly truth for the sincere purpose of make the audience say “That WAS ugly!” breeding much more than entertainment, but grimly effective argument through counterpoint.