blood meridian | the wild bunch

"the wrath of god lies sleeping. it was hid a million years before men were and only men have the power to wake it. hell aint half full. hear me. ye carry war of a man's making onto a foreign land. ye'll wake more than the dogs."     

                 -blood meridian: or the evening redness in the west


 

while reading blood meridian it occurred to me in the back of my mind that the violence and brutality of the american frontier as described by cormac mccarthy had a familiar ring to it. as i thought about it more i realized that perhaps sam peckinpah's wild bunch was the cinematic counterpoint to mccarthy's literary wild west. on the surface it seems obvious. a group of marauding opportunist outlaws make their way across the american west killing with impunity. an irrational body count lies in their wake, resulting in a bleak unsentimental survey of the american myth.  it seems however, that the movie and the book do not arrive at the same conclusion.

there is certainly a connection between mccarthy's biblical evocation of language and peckinpah's visual blood ballet. i will not contest the visceral success of peckinpah's style in evoking both disgust and horror through the use of violence. i did however find that any attempt at realism and critique the film offers is completely undermined by it's sentimental stance towards the western hero.

in mccarthy's west there are men who deliberately seek out evil and those that go along with it. both are culpable but he does not present any sentiment about it. the dispassionate violence daws us to this conclusion, rendering it more palpable. peckinpah's heroes however, operate within the confines of the hollywood western and even as they attempt to explode the myth, they are in fact over determined by it. they operate within the romanticized notion of a  "code" and yet they abandon it at will. when they die by that code is it meaningless and nihilistic. this tension is what makes the movie thoughtful and interesting and ultimately modern. but it also makes it a less searing indictment of the west because the feeling we are left with is that time passed these men by. they were noble and the land around them had become amoral and so they had to die. in mccarthy's west it is the amorality of the men that in fact molds the landscape. they do not die nobly. they just pass into the evil that exists and will continue to exist- it's part of the landscape and the people. it's part of us. this is much more depressing, but perhaps more truthful.

 

stills from sam peckinpah's the wild bunch, 1969

mcCabe and mrs. miller

 

maybe i'm just a fangirl when it comes to films of the 1970s, but i really like a lot of the conventions that seems to have gone out of style. zooming, split screens, uncomfortably long pauses- i find them effective and stylish. in both barry lyndon [1975] and mccabe and mrs. miller [1971] the dramatic zooms seem to punctuate the idyllic panoramic landscapes, contradicting them in a way. i'm not sure if this is more about disrupting the frame or drawing attention to the form, but i like it, and i think it works.

i also really like modern and postmodern westerns. the classic stuff a la john ford kinda kills me. too stuffy, too patriotic and too...conservative. but the deconstruction of all those myths i find much more relevant. robert altman's mccabe and mrs. miller falls into this category. our hero mccabe, played by warren beatty is a bumbling trepid sort of loner who rides into town with a reputation for gun slinging that no one quite buys. with some sort of luck he manages to start up a booming business only to get caught up in a gunfight that proceeds more as a cat and mouse game and less as a high noon shoot up. in altman's west, good cowboys die senselessly with their faces in the ground, whoring takes precedence over romance, and the wild west is a nihilistic place.

one other thing- warren beatty may not be john wayne, but he manages to pull off a bowler hat + fur coat magnificently.

 

stills from mccabe and mrs. miller, directed by robert altman, 1971

near dark

 

as a fan of both horror and western films, i only recently realized that the intersection of these unrelated genres had in fact taken place in 1987 by way of katheryn bigelow's near dark. when it comes to vampires, i will pretty much read and watch anything. the iconography, conventions, myths and ultimately clichés, of the genre are easily identified. but i'm not putting the clichés down. because, generally they work. there is something about the vampire with a tortured conscience and the inevitable doomed romance that ensues when he finds [un]likely love with a mortal, that just gets me: angel, louie, bill compton, even edward [ok not edward, i can't stand him, but i'm throwing him in for good measure].

it also seems, that with the exception of a film like 30 days of night, there aren't very many truly evil representations of vampires.  there is always AN evil vampire but it is balanced by the romantic tragic one we want to fall in love with. and so, i found near dark, to be a bit off the beaten path. while the film is awkward and a [slightly dated] product of the 80s, it does try to get at the idea of the romantic/villainous vampire but deconstructs it from another angle. it takes the western hero- isolated, reckless, living by his own code and somewhat of a good old boy, and tears him down by forcing him to face darkness and the loss of his soul. adrian pasdar is definitely more clint eastwood than john wayne. but our hero cannot be a vampire, because the film establishes all vampires are good for nothing murderous psycho bill paxton like ner-do-wells. and like a classic western, once our hero has faced the darkness within himself and the world, he emerges doubly heroic. the order of the old west is preserved and vampires are really bad. even if the old west does have a distinctly 80's guitar riff and a terminateresque big rig blow up extravaganza.

it's very stylish and moody, and worth a viewing.

 

images from near dark, 1987, directed by katherine bigelow