CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2)
August 2, 2019
One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating some of our favorite action movies from the Seventies (1974–1983).
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA | d. SAM PECKINPAH | 1974
It’s all about the head: bagged in burlap in the passenger seat of a Chevy Impala, drawing flies like shit, soaked in tequila but still stinking from the grave it was lifted from, the eponymous body part of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a MacGuffin that becomes, by the third act of this brilliant and wayward film, an oracle of doom and an empty signifier of the emptiness of signifiers. For who wants the literal head of a dead man?
At the start of the movie, shot on the cheap with a mostly Mexican crew, a vengeful ranchero patriarch is driven to utter the film’s titular injunction with a spirit of traditional Old West values. This romance is almost immediately crushed into bleak modern efficiency by attracting cold-eyed and besuited American bounty hunters. Our loser-hero Bennie — played with shambling, alcoholic intimacy by a never-better Warren Oates, who proves here that shades cannot block our empathy for a well-wrought desperado — hopes to escape his barroom rut by grave-robbing the head and delivering up the rotten token of a hit he did not commit.
To extract the signifier from the grave, Bennie not only hacks it off with a tourist sword but must also sever the religiosity lingering like copal smoke over the honored Catholic dead. “Nothing sacred ’bout a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it,” he says. True enough, perhaps, but the hazy, haunted Mexican atmospheres so grittily conjured here drown such realism. Bennie pays for the head with the death of his lady, the palpably lovely Isela Vega, whose whore’s heart of gold is the film’s other major neo-Western resonance.
So that third act: the virus of vengeance passes to Oates, who finds himself murdering murderers and drunkenly haranguing Garcia’s head, which, upon delivery to the Mexican don, is consigned to the pigsty. The MacGuffin, the signifier, is useless crap after all. Bennie already had his point, his pot of blond gold, and he squandered it. It’s an old story, but here becomes the allegory of a whole era scraping the bottom of the existential barrel. While the hallucinated violence of Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch (1969) exposed the blood-lust of ’60s collectives (from ’Nam platoons to Movement radicals), the hallucinated violence of Alfredo Garcia sucks us into the nihilistic undertow of the solitary ’70s self, losing itself entire in the very seeking that would save it.
CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION | Madeline Ashby on BLADE RUNNER | Erik Davis on BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA | Mimi Lipson on CONVOY | Luc Sante on BLACK SUNDAY | Josh Glenn on THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR | Lisa Jane Persky on SORCERER | Devin McKinney on THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | Adam McGovern on QUINTET | Mandy Keifetz on DEATH RACE 2000 | Peter Doyle on SOUTHERN COMFORT | Jonathan Lethem on STRAIGHT TIME | Heather Kapplow on THE KILLER ELITE | Tom Nealon on EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE | Mark Kingwell on THE EIGER SANCTION | Sherri Wasserman on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK | Gordon Dahlquist on MARATHON MAN | David Levine on PARALLAX VIEW | Matthew Sharpe on ROLLERBALL | Ramona Lyons on ALIEN | Dan Piepenbring on WHITE LINE FEVER | Marc Weidenbaum on THIEF | Carolyn Kellogg on MAD MAX | Carlo Rotella on KUNG FU | Peggy Nelson on SMOKEY & THE BANDIT | Brian Berger on FRIDAY FOSTER.
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