Sunday, February 28, 2016
The Oscars and Straw Dogs
I am one of those movie masochists who have watched the entire Oscar program every year, like, forever. I’m going to start out with my picks, since today is the day:
Best Picture: The Revenant. Great cinematography, with shots from the ground to the sky, reminding us of how Nature dwarfs us. A primal story about family and tribes.
Best Actor: It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s year. He’ll get the award for career achievement, for his almost non-verbal portrayal in The Revenant, but was actually better in The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Best Actress: Brie Larson, in an authentic performance in an even more amazing film accomplishment, Room, which showed how imagination has no bounds, and how the world outside our homes can be very scary, too.
Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, who I really liked as the robot in Ex Machina, a movie that I think was Oscar-worthy.
Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone in Creed. Really. A solid performance in another film that was slighted in other Oscar categories.
Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñάrritu. Again. What a talent.
Now the movie analysis:
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The opening aerial shot in this 1971 Sam Peckinpah directed movie shows children scampering about in a cemetery. In this economical image is an ironic contrast between the vitality and innocence of youth and the loss of that innocence in the cold, static fact of death. A little girl carries a dog, for whom she probably has affection. But, the title of this film derives from the Chinese Tao Te Ching, which speaks of straw dogs being the semblance of living things, with no substance, which can be used in a sacrifice, since there is no feeling attached to them by those performing the sacrifice. In this movie, people become devoid of their humanity.
David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife, Amy (Susan George) have returned to the remote town of Wakely in England where Amy once lived. David is a mathematician, a non-imposing figure, who is used to using his brain and not his muscles. He mentions in town that his wife is a collector, and they have purchased a “mantrap,” a device once used to catch poachers. David reveals his passive propensity when he says all he wants to catch is some “peace and quiet.” The first view of the attractive Amy reveals that she does not wear a bra, her breasts prominent under her sweater top. We immediately see the contrast between the traditionally cerebral husband and his seductive, physically sensual spouse. She tries to “brain up” by playing chess with him, reading a book on the game.
The rural nature of the setting invites comparisons with the film Deliverance, which has Burt Reynolds’ character asking in such a place, “Where is the law?” There is a constable in Wakely, Major John Scott (T. P. McKenna), who has only one arm, symbolic of how damaged civilized law exists in this village. The couple encounter Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and his young cousin, Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett). When Charlie and Amy are alone, we learn that he is the wife’s ex-lover. He comes on to her, saying he was able to take care of her before, to which she replies that he never did. David goes into the pub, and encounters the barbaric Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughen), Amy’s father, who gets into a brawl with the bartender. Maj. Scott tells Tom that he should settle down or there will be “fresh charges,” which informs the audience that Tom is a habitual troublemaker. David refuses to have Tom pay for his cigarettes after the ruckus, showing his rejection of uncivilized behavior. The behavior of the men in this village seems tribal. Tom threatens John Niles, (Peter Arne) because his brother, Henry (David Warner), a disturbed man, is a threat to the young girls of the town due to some previous behavior. Tom, in this case, justifiably says that the law was inadequate in not putting Henry away. However, he shows no understanding of the man’s affliction.
The local men show their depravity by talking about what they can steal from the Sumners. One also takes a pair of Amy’s panties, and he and the others make lascivious references regarding their lust for her. They impugn David’s masculinity: they say he ran away from the violence going on in America in connection with the social unrest at the time; and, imply he is not a real man because instead of drinking beer out of a bottle, he prefers water. They laugh at him when he starts to sit on the wrong side of an English car and has trouble getting it to work. When driving, they almost cause him to get into an accident.
However, this crude world draws out the baser instincts in the lead characters. When heading back to their home, Amy drives recklessly. She complains about the locals hired to fix a building’s roof ogling her, but she is flirtatious with them, too. She becomes impatient with David’s ignoring her to do his work. She tells him that if he could fulfill manly duties, like fixing the roof, there wouldn’t be a need for the other men to be there. She accuses him of leaving America because he is hiding out, unwilling to commit to a cause. After refusing to stand up to the workers, she sexually teases the hired men, appearing topless in an upstairs window. David seems meek, but also starts to exhibit nasty behavior. He harshly says that Amy should answer him when he calls her, like the family cat. He also says that if the cat has gotten into his study, he will kill it (an omen, linking him later to the locals). He even throws grapefruit at the cat in the kitchen.
The dog, cat, and mantrap are just a few of the references to animals and hunting presented in the film. The local men sing a song and talk of bestiality with sheep, showing their crude ways. When David and Amy prepare to make love, he is almost dispassionate as he takes time to remove his watch and set the alarm, while she is sexually aggressive, at which point he calls her “an animal,” thus associating her with the lustful men of the town. Amy later reports that the cat is missing, and when David reaches into the bedroom closet to turn on the light, he discovers the cat was strangled and now hangs from the light chain. Amy is horrified by this event, and is enraged that David makes excuses for not confronting the workers for committing the atrocity. She says that it was an emasculating act by showing that they could get into his bedroom. She further undermines his masculinity when he invites the men in for a drink supposedly to, in a way, trap them (his version of hunting). But, he drops the ball, and she puts out a bowl of milk, of course meant for a cat, on the table. The men invite the gun-challenged David for some duck hunting, but they strand him out in the fields, again humiliating him. He eventually does assert his “manliness,” killing a bird, but then, almost out of guilt, gently leaves the carcass in the bushes. He fires the men because of their treating him badly. When he tells Amy about letting the workers go, she says sarcastically, “Hooray for you, Tiger,” implying that his action was a weak one. Later, in the confrontation at the end, Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton), the rat catcher, throws rodents through the broken windows of the Sumner house, which appears to mean that the residents cannot escape the law of the jungle. But, I think it is too simplistic to think that Peckinpah is equating animals with savagery. They do not engage in sexual perversion, or commit acts of torture, rape, and murder for revenge or exhilaration. Perhaps the director is saying that humans make the worst animals.
While David is out duck hunting, Charlie stalks his prey, Amy. He invades the house, and starts to act rough with her, demanding sexual surrender. She initially tries to resist, but having returned to her roots, and angered by David’s lack of “manliness,” she submits, with the image of David alternating with that of Charlie, indicating that she wished it was David who was possessing her. Charlie apologizes at one point, but then, his mate, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison) appears, brandishing his phallic rifle, and makes Charlie hold Amy down as he rapes her. She does not tell her husband of the violation.
What follows is a scene at the local church which mirrors the loss of innocence of the opening. Amy is in a place of worship, but finds her rapists there, defiling the sanctity of the place. Young Janice, who is starting to lose her virginal youth by wearing very short skirts and spying at the Sumners’ window while the couple make love, has a crush on David. She is attracted to him because he is “sweet.” In this way, she reflects Amy’s personality. Amy acts like a child, erasing and altering David’s blackboard calculations. She behaves like a little girl, wanting attention. As an adult, she wants sexual attention, despite her protestations concerning the local men. David, when alone, seemed to show his subconscious lust by smiling at Janice’s initial attention to him. Now, with his wife present, he ignores the young girl. Being hurt, she looks to another, somewhat like Amy has done. She turns to the damaged Henry. They go off, and she tries to seduce the man. When others alert Tom about the danger to his daughter, he and his relatives and mates go on a manhunt. Henry accidentally strangles Janice while trying to keep her quiet with the searching men close by. In this world, purity is soiled, and there are victims of violence, even when it is not intended.
Driving in the thick mist (suggestive of a moral fog?), David hits the wandering Henry. He takes him to his house, and refuses to give him up to the vigilante justice of Tom and his thugs. In a tussle with Maj. Scott, Tom shoots the constable, killing him. They are all accessories now, and the men terrorize and try to kill Henry and the Sumners. It is in this battle for his home that David turns into a warrior. He causes Tom to blow off his foot and beats another man to death. He scalds others with hot liquid. When Norman tries to rape Amy again, Charlie kills him, but is then killed by David who uses the mantrap on him. Almost thumping his chest, David boasts that he “got ‘em all.” But Phil (Donald Webster) surprises him and is ready to break David’s back when Amy fires a rifle killing Phil. The spouses are somehow united by way of the bloodbath.
The film ends with David driving Henry back to town. Henry says, “I don’t know my way home.” David replies by saying, “That’s okay. I don’t either.” With his former world stripped of the veneer of civilization, there is no going back for him.
The next film is The Departed.