Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García

Alfredo Garcia posterIn a crucial scene towards the end of Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García, the movie's protagonist Bennie has finally got hold of the eponymous head of Alfredo García, but is stopped in his tracks by the family of the deceased. Somewhere in the middle of Mexico, in front of a backdrop of dramatic snow-capped peaks, Bennie and the Garcías have an armed stand-off, and the former reluctantly gives up his precious cargo. Then all of a sudden, there is an interruption: a tour bus is for some reason traveling along this lonely country road. It can't get by the two cars that are blocking the way, so a member of the García family jumps into their impossibly battered car to move it off the roadway. As the bus then slowly negotiates its way past, those inside wave to the locals outside. And the combatants briefly lower their weapons and doff their caps in order to wave back, the family matriarch clutching her chest the bag that holds Alfredo's now rotting head.

This is an instance of the grisly black humor that characterizes much of the film. Shortly thereafter most of the García clan are gunned down in a bloody shootout and Bennie recovers the battered body part, and is therefore able to resume his part in this off-kilter buddy movie: by this time he has nobody to talk to, and certainly nobody he can trust, beyond the disembodied noggin rolling around his passenger seat and foot-well. But the tourist bus scene also encapsulates one of the movie's most significant themes: the missed encounters and misrecognitions that plague foreigners south of the border.

For Bennie is a gringo, and while when we first meet him he seems to have found his niche in Mexico City, the rest of the movie charts his dramatic decline and fall, although this descent into something like madness (as he starts talking to Alfredo's head) is also of course the achievement of a kind of knowledge.

But the film starts off by playing with audience expectations and images of Latin America. It opens in some unknown Latin American country with a shot of an idyllic scene by a duckpond, but the mood then quickly turns to menace and violence: a young girl is pregnant and her father demands to know the name of the man who has knocked her up. To do so, he's quite prepared to have her knocked about, and makes his henchmen break one of her fingers so that she gasps the name "Alfredo García." Having first dramatically shifted tone from rural tranquility to callous violence, in a second shift we suddenly realize that this is no historical drama, but a parable shot decisively in the present day. As the jefe's men fan out from the hacienda to seek the head of García and so earn a promised $1,000,000 reward, they drive off in sports cars and stationwagons and jump on to planes to land in swank international hotels.

Bennie, meanwhile, is piano man in a fairly seedy bar, but he's well connected (the first person even to have heard of García) and his glass is full of greenback tips. He also has a girlfriend, a singer and prostitute who dreams that they could have a better life together. But the search for Alfredo García, driven by the money he's promised in reward, leads him ever downward such that it's not only his white suit that becomes besmirched, and not only his car that becomes progressively more battered. He loses his woman, who is also his translator (his own Spanish is almost comically bad), and practically loses whatever soul he ever had: desecrating graves, shooting at almost anything that moves.

In the end Peckinpah portrays Mexico as a place in which nineteenth-century codes of honor and shame plus twentieth-century expectations of cash and social mobility together conspire to ensure that the country's heart is rotten, decadent, and corrupt. But Mexico is far from alone in its degradation. In a Mexico City hotel, an impeccably-besuited hired hand is reading a copy of Time with Nixon's impeachment prominently displayed on the cover. Peckinpah's playing out a sense of US decline, the notion that the nation's values come down now to raw power and the profit motive, by means of this dislocated allegory of nihilistic despair. US tourists take bus rides to see the picturesque Mexican villagers, but these images are merely a distraction from the violent money-grubbing that lurks behind every façade. Just before the credits roll, the film's last image is of a smoking gun. And it's pointed right at us.

Everything in the world that this movie depicts is inescapably tainted, grubby, and dirty. The only way out is a kind of suicidal apocalypse, which in turn no doubt only kickstarts once more the cycle of violence.

Alfredo Garcia still
YouTube Link: the movie trailer.

Labels: ,