'Country' keeps faith with Peckinpah, Mailer

The Baltimore Sun

The keenest observation about the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men came from its ace cinematographer, Roger Deakins. He said from the moment he read the script he saw it as a Sam Peckinpah movie.

With all the ink spilled over the resurgence of the Western, Peckinpah, the most influential and talented director of Westerns of the past 50 years, and for my money the greatest of all American filmmakers, has received short shrift. His erratic output and excesses, his long-declining energy and his pop-culture image as a purveyor of mindless (versus brainy) machismo long ago gave the genteel and ungenerous excuses not to take him seriously.

In that way, and others, he was like Norman Mailer. Peckinpah's death in 1984 was by and large ignored; Mailer's was covered grudgingly or inadequately, with the exception of The New York Times. But who can gainsay the peak achievements of the director of Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, or the decades-long stream of accomplishment from the author of The Executioner's Song and some of the most incisive and embracing political and boxing journalism ever written?

A lot of their energy did come from machismo. But it was machismo as Mailer's idol Hemingway understood it and as the men of Peckinpah's beloved Mexico tried to live it: the urge to embrace experience and form one's character in the world, and take responsibility for the consequences - including the disasters that can occur at the intersection of an unfettered sensual life with family life.

In the "Masculine Principle" section of his landmark book Peckinpah: The Western Films, Paul Seydor linked Mailer and Peckinpah as artists defined by their pursuit of extreme action, their rebellion against official culture and bureaucratized society, and their recognition that the quest for authentic manhood is absolute and never-ending. "A man can hardly ever assume he has become a man - in the instant of such complacency he may be on the way to becoming less masculine," Mailer once wrote.

Their paradoxical linkage of fragility with appetite and strength - so different from the cheap certainty of macho camp - drove Peckinpah to create the most dynamic of all visual lexicons and Mailer to master a dazzling variety of rhetoric in both intimate and epic modes. They found their real security only when they fully practiced their art. That's when their genius cast a spell over other artists who would rarely share their styles or biases.

The very different writer John Updike once acknowledged to me how much he liked Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex despite its being "a male chauvinist oink," simply because of its beautiful and frank expression of how Mailer really did feel about the masculine-feminine divide. The very different director Todd Haynes, in his perverse filmed essay on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, tries to echo, in certain scenes, the worn, spent feeling of Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which brought forth Dylan's bizarre performance as a character named Alias as well as one of his instant-classic songs, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door").

Peckinpah would have been the ideal director for movie versions of Mailer's most disreputable novels, such as An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?, as well as The Naked and The Dead and the nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song.

Mailer hung onto illusions of being a moviemaker himself. In the 1960s, he made several experimental fiascos (Maidstone, Wild 90 and Beyond the Law), then nearly 20 years later, the risible neo-noir, Tough Guys Don't Dance. But Mailer did pick up early on the improvisatory wave that would sweep through international filmmaking.

"Realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen - that's what Bertolucci and Brando achieve [in Last Tango in Paris]," the critic Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker in 1972. "It's what Mailer has been trying to get at in his disastrous, ruinously expensive films."

As Kael noted, moviemakers such as Martin Scorsese were starting to insinuate their own alter egos into fiction films the way Mailer did even in his nonfiction. Peckinpah gave himself a small role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (and can be seen in Convoy, too). But his signal gift was to imbue each frame he shot with the eye of a mad poet. In the shooting and editing, he found ways of conveying every ounce of his agony over the mechanization of the modern world and his ecstasy at escaping it on the edge or in the wilderness.

Deakins' insight that No Country for Old Men resembles a Peckinpah film resonates within and without the borders of the picture. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the sheriff hero, was Mailer's Gary Gilmore on TV and later gave a ruthlessly honest and moving performance as Ty Cobb. Cobb's writer-director, Ron Shelton, said he based it partly on his knowledge of Peckinpah's fierce and relentless creative and competitive drive.

No Country pits Jones against the stoniest of stone-cold killers (played by Javier Bardem), a ghostly abstraction of a human being. Bardem's weapon of choice is a sterile air gun. He reduces existentialism to basing on a coin toss who will live or die in his presence. His mere existence diminishes the life force of a man like Jones - a man of experience and emotion.

Today's over-hyped cinematic breakthroughs have become impersonal, like the digitized universe of Beowulf. But No Country for Old Men renews the legacy of Mailer and Peckinpah, who extended the reach and freedom and redefined the positive and negative limits of the male character in American literature and movies.


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