I have come to find Talking Pictures TV a useful channel from our television providor. It screens old classic films and television and has been a good source of viewing when I want to feel nostalgic. It is also instructive to re-watch films and programmes that I enjoyed when much younger. Frequently I am pleasantly surprised at how well these have weathered the passage of time. Sometimes I can be quite shocked in the difference between how the item appears now and how it was when I saw it originally. It can sometimes feel quite awkward trying to mentally reconcile my original views with how I think and feel now.
Now a large part of this is my own fault. When a teenager and a young adult I was deeply involved in student politics. At that time I felt it very important to know, and appear to follow, the party line. There was a party line on everything from the economic status of Allende’s Chile (State Capitalist) through to which chocolate bars were edible (not Nestle). In the issues relating to economics, politics and boycots then things were fairly straightforward, there were goodies and baddies and my enemy’s enemy was my friend. This was easy ground to master and never caused me any great difficulty.
However, in the world of the arts it was a different matter. In the 60s and 70s everything was political and especially the arts. Some books, paintings or plays were progressive and in the vanguard helping us push back the boundaries of the old regime and breaking new and exciting ground. Other works of art were reactionary, regressive and backward and needed shunned and avoided at best and preferably rooted out and destroyed.
There were guide books of marxist cultural criticism to help you manouvere this minefield but these were much trickier waters. Especially as issues about how pleasing or well executed the artwork was, seemed to bear no relationship whatsoever to the likelihood of it being considered progressive or reactionary. The faux pas of expressing enjoyment in reactionary art was a near fatal step in social circles and required a great deal of fancy footwork (professing one was being ironic and post-modern) in an attempt to redeem oneself.
During this time I watched a lot of emperors parade their new clothes : I watched films where people sat in a chair silently for an hour, or a camera filmed the front of a building for three; I listened to poems lacking grammar, content or imagination, let alone rhyme; and I read novels that had abandoned the narrative structure in search for new ways to narrate a story. While I watched and read this rubbish I made sure I knew the correct stance to take, and the right things to say – “its transgressive”, it “pushes back boundaries” and “confronts the reality” it might even “attack the hegemony” if I was lucky. I even read Richard Brautigan and Thomas Pyncheon, for Heaven’s sake. If there had been a three hour epic of watching paint dry on a wall, as long as it had been trailed as a provocative film, attacking our conceptions, and revealing how the media covers all opposition and blanks it out, then I’d have been there in the queue. I would be in the audience for anything, as long as it was cutting edge and hopefully made me look windswept and interesting to the opposite sex. In short I was a bit of a prat.
So I remember “Straw Dogs” well : it was a film that pushed the boundaries and explored issues of violence and masculinity in our society. It was an uneasy watch but an important film that made us question our views. Or so I thought. Does it stand the test of time, is it still an important piece of film theatre ?
The plot of the film is very slight : mild mannered mathematician moves with his beautiful wife to a town in the back of beyond. The locals are strange and start to torment them building up to the killing of their cat and the rape of his wife. Eventually the worm turns and, in an X-rated version of the siege in Home Alone , he vanquishes the attackers with a stunning show of violence.
There are aspects of the film which still work. The acting is generally of a very high standard and, through this, the menace is built up well. By the time of the climax you have really come to dislike the attackers and are ready for revenge. The violence and slow motion effects are still shocking. In days of CGI we are used to being able to see anything whether it is possible or not. But the hyper-real detail that often accompanies CGI is somehow less frightening, we know this is made in the computer , we know there is no real risk. A bit like if one replaced fireworks with flashing lights and buzzers, they would look and sound the same, but they would not be exciting as there is no risk that it might go awry.
There is a slight piece of moral justification for the films feast of violence but it is really very minor. So if all you want is excitement and violence then this film would fit the bill. But then so would many other video nasties from the 70s, this film is meant to be better than that. This film is held to be a significant piece of art not some populist piece of porn. However, there are serious limitations to the film that stop it rising above its true genre.
Firstly there is the problem with the female characters in the film. There are only two in the film (The vicars wife really only plays an ornamental role). Amy is his annoying, provocative and flirtatious wife who undermines Hoffman’s masculinity and interferes with his work. At the height of the siege she would be happy to give the mentally handicapped man to the crowd, to be beaten to death, if it saved her own skin. The other female character is a young girl who flirts and teases the handicapped man to such an extent that he accidentally kills her (John Steinbeck may come after Pekinpah for some of the royalties due to this scene).
In essence both female characters are dislikeable and behave in ways that lead to their own downfall – rape or murder. The rape scene is upsetting, as a serious depiction of rape should be, but this is not the worst aspect of misogyny on show. In his masterful phase Dustin Hoffman, having found his masculinity, starts to shout to tell his wife what to do and when she doesn’t jump to it he strikes her – presumably for her own good. There is a clear message women should shut and do as they are told as the men know best in a crisis.
The only thing which might ameliorate the misogyny is that, in truth, it is not only the women who are unpleasant. There is more than a touch of misanthropy; all of the male characters are unpleasant also (With the questionable exception of Dustin Hoffman). There is no character guided to do good, there is no explanation of why they do bad, just a picture of a world populated by nasty people doing nasty things. When Duston Hoffman starts to fight back he does not do so for any real moral purpose, he simply intends to defend his house. He is not avenging his wife’s rape (he does not know of this), to a small degree he is protecting the handicapped man from the mob, but he is repeatedly clear it is his house he is defending.
The nearest we get to a moral to the tale is that, having won, Dustin discovers that he enjoyed the violence and took pleasure in it. Indeed, the finale would suggest that any moral justification for violence is just a convenience, an excuse, to start fighting and killing. There is no questioning of this, which is why this film really doesn’t move out its true genre : it is simply an exploitative vigilante film. It is possible to move above this and consider issues of violence and masculinity. It can be done, and was done, 5 years later with Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver. However, this film would be best filed alongside “I spit on your grave” rather than beside “Taxi Driver“.
It is sad when we look back and find our earlier heroes have feet of clay but it is better to have a true memory rather than a fragment of fiction in our mind.