Look Closely at Your Own Soul: A Review of Savage Cinema

Even though he is not working from an explicitly religious or theological perspective, Stephen Prince’s writing on film is a must read for all film lovers interested in the theological and/or religious dimensions of film. I’ve written and raved here about the collection of essays he edited, Screening Violence, and I have just finished reading his Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies, part of which he includes in Screening Violence. I was equally thrilled by it. Peckinpah aficionados and those who haven’t seen a single film of his should read this book.

Few writers can make film theory and studies as accessible as Prince. He gets into the cinematic nitty-gritty, breaking down Peckinpah‘s films on a frame by frame basis in some cases, and, miraculously, such attention to detail is never boring. A strength of Prince’s work is the way in which he combines attention to Peckinpah’s personal life and personality with changes in the filmmaking industry and the culture at large (the late ’60s through the ’70s) in which he worked that created both the perfect storm and ideal conditions in which Peckinpah could unleash his complex cinematic visions. This is the perfect book for readers who think they “know” Peckinpah based on his films or those who think they have a “handle” on these films, particularly their violent elements and their influence on subsequent uses of violence in cinema, which, Prince recognizes, has become more ultraviolent but, unfortunately, detached from the more complex representations and themes that grounded Peckinpah’s influential films. Prince reveals an emotionally and aesthetically complex filmmaker who raged against both the political corruption and cultural apathy of his time and those critics and audience members who failed to accurately understand his films and, especially, his use of violence.

Prince highlights and disarms numerous popular misconceptions of Peckinpah’s work and impact on the history of Hollywood. Chief among these is that he aestheticized violence in order to glorify and celebrate it. Prince argues that accurate viewings of his films reveal that this could not be further from the truth. Instead, Peckinpah did aestheticize violence but only in order to wake people up to its brutal destructiveness. Having known and witnessed the horror of violence, he could no longer tolerate Hollywood’s blithe treatment of it in which victims suffered little and died gracefully on screen or invisibly off it. Moreover, he broke with traditional cinematic portrayals of clearly-defined good vs. evil. Prince writes:

The moral abrasiveness of Peckinpah’s work, particularly its tendency to place a brutal or compromised protagonist at the center of the narrative has been a tremendous influence on subsequent filmmakers. […] Peckinpah decisively shifted the moral parameters of commercial cinema away from a clear separation of good and evil and toward the unsettling contemplation of flawed, debased behavior viewed up close and without a secure moral reference point. (xv)

Prince devotes the bulk of his book to a detailed analysis of Peckinpah’s films from The Wild Bunch in 1968 to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in 1974. The other films include The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Straw Dogs (1971), Junior Bonner (1972), The Getaway (1972), and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973).  Chapter One explores the tumultuous times in which Peckinpah lived and worked and how he responded to them professionally and personally. Chapters Two through Four are the heart of Prince’s work, which he organizes around three key characteristics of Peckinpah’s aestheticization of violence. Chapter Two focuses on montage editing, Chapter Three on emotional and psychological attitudes attached to violent events and Chapter Four to the audiovisual designs he used to lay out truths of human violence. These designs included “didactic tableaux,” irony, and the use of mirrors to examine alienated subjectivity (169-170).

"Straw Dogs" was one of Peckinpah's most morally and aesthetically complicated films and one so often misunderstood by audiences.

Prince concludes his study with a chapter on Peckinpah’s cinematic legacy and shows how so many contemporary filmmakers who trade in ultraviolence fail to do so in as complicated fashion and as maturely as Peckinpah. These filmmakers trade emotional and intellectual stimulation for spectacle and titillation. As a result, Prince is forced to ask himself and readers/audience members: “Are Peckinpah’s explorations of graphic screen gore invalidated by their legacy of contemporary movie ultraviolence” (213). Prince, through this insightful and important text, offers a resounding “No” to the question. In fact, he reminds us, as Peckinpah so often did with his viewers, that oftentimes our experiences of and with Peckinpah’s films say more about us than it does the director or the production. As Peckinpah told a disgusted Straw Dogs viewer: “‘I didn’t want you to enjoy the film, I wanted you to look very close at your own soul'” (228).