Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Straw Dogs

Large chunks of this blogspot will contain musings on films I’ve watched and books I’ve read. Here’s the first:

Watched Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs yesterday evening, just a couple of hours after posting a blog complaining that I had neglected my London-returned DVDs. Found the ideal pretext: a friend dropped in and we saw the film together while chewing on chicken tikkas and sipping wine. If I’d been home alone I probably would never have gotten around to it. (As a rule, I enjoy watching movies by myself but these days any spare time goes into reading.)

Peckinpah, for the uninitiated, is a director who rewrote the grammar of screen violence in American westerns in the late 1960s. His 1969 film The Wild Bunch featured slow-motion shootouts that eschewed the sterile "bang-bang-roll-over-and-die" gunfights that had characterised previous westerns. Peckinpah brought in science; his (inevitably gory) shootout sequences showed the exact effect a bullet fired at close range has on a human body, with shots that dwelt lovingly on bullet entering flesh at one spot and exiting through another, accompanied by thin sprays of blood. (Incidentally, The Wild Bunch had a huge stylistic influence on Sholay -- especially the scene where Veeru and Jai pretend to be dead and ambush the six dacoits who have come to collect their bodies.)

Straw Dogs is no western but has immense shock value in the best Peckinpah tradition. Quick synopsis (no, I have no intention of turning this blog into a DVD jacket write-up): An American mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) moves with his British wife (Susan George) to the little town she grew up in, ostensibly to lead a quiet, peaceful life. But they soon become the targets of xenophobic hostility in general, and attract the unwelcome attentions of a group of leering stevedores -- one of whom is the woman’s ex-boyfriend. Quiet menace soon gives way to an explosively violent climax.

Given that the viewing experience wasn’t an optimum one -- the DVD player remote control refused to work properly, the sound was a little off and the wine and kababs commanded much of our attention -- I could still appreciate the director’s expertise at building tension and claustrophobia. The setting made the film all the more interesting; I’ve always been intrigued by movies that show violence and horror coming to the surface in places where you’d least expect them to -- like the serene English countryside. (Hitchcock once said he would have liked to shoot a murder in a scenic garden in Holland, with a sudden close-up of a drop of blood on a bright yellow tulip.)

Straw Dogs was a very controversial film on its original release, not least for a rape sequence where the lines between consensual and forced sex are disturbingly blurred. I’m not sure about this, but I think the film engendered (note pun) a number of essays on the balance of power between men and women -- this was 1971, with the feminist movement in full swing. My only observation on the topic is that the Susan George character is mistreated/commodified/dominated by almost all the men in the film -- including her initially mousy husband -- and yet she’s the one who takes the decisive action in the climactic scene.

Hoffman was excellent, I thought; I’ve never been a huge fan of his and in the last 20 or so years I think he turned into a caricature (like many of the top American actors of that generation) -- but he did almost everything right here.

I didn’t originally want to write more than a few quick, casual observations but this has turned into a near-review. Quick note to self: lighten up.


  1. I really liked what you wrote. I have never seen the film, but after reading your blog, I want to see it.

  2. i added this to my cart without knowing much abt it, except that my dvdwalla told me its a must see movie for me(read indie/arthouse/international etc etc film freak).

    now i cant wait to get my hands on the wild bunch, whenever he gets it that is!

    The director manages to shake you up and leave you in the cold by yourself! great film making. great acting.