2017.31: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia -its all there in that horrific, oh so typical 1970s b-movie title- is something of a masterpiece. But it’s rare that watching something you can admire so much can make you feel so dirty too. It must be something like sitting next to director Sam Peckinpah whilst watching it and realising that he’s a thoroughly nasty individual who you’d prefer not to ever meet again. It’s certainly a rare thing nowadays, watching a film and feeling that, rather than seeing something generated by a committee, you are stepping into someone’s sole creative vision, unpleasant as it may be. If Peckinpah was indeed haunted by his demons, then they are all up on that screen to be seen by all.
Peckinpah was no doubt a fascinating, disturbed individual- Arrow’s superlative Blu-ray features ten hours of interview footage about the director that is much too daunting for me to tackle right now, if ever. I’m sure Peckinpah had his redeeming features, but by the time he made Garcia he was an alcoholic and the booze had pretty much destroyed him- its surely no accident that Warren Oates in the role of Bennie looks so like Peckinpah with his dark shades etc, the film approximating some kind of autobiographical features as Bennie spirals towards his doom.
This is a film to provoke as much as entertain, turn away as much as enthrall. There are sudden moments of violence towards women, for instance, that are quite harrowing to watch- Garcia often feels like an artifact from some distant age. Its really quite brutal, a dark fury running throughout- a rage against life, against women, against booze, against God.
And yet you can’t take your eyes from it.
So, Warren Oates is Bennie, a washed-up piano player falling into a liquor-soaked oblivion in a dead-end Mexican bar, having spent his life digging himself into a deep hole he can’t climb out of. A powerful Mexican crime-lord, El Jefe, discovering his daughter is pregnant has demanded the head of the man responsible- Alfredo Garcia. The reward is huge enough to set dozens of desperate men on the hunt, including two bounty hunters who stumble into Bennie’s bar looking for clues. Bennie thinks he has a lead- his girlfriend, a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega), knows Garcia, and she subsequently tells him that Garcia is already dead.
Bennie decides to turn this to his advantage- the money from the reward could rescue Elita and him from their dead-end lives, so they jump in his car and travel across country to find Garcia’s grave, dig up the body and take his head back to El Jefe. Along the way they have to dodge bounty hunters and other bad guys they stumble across- but Bennie is a drunken fool shit out of luck, and all he manages to do is get people around him killed as he digs himself deeper into that hole he is already in. By the end of the film, all Bennie has is the sack containing the decomposing head, swarmed by flies in the relentless desert heat- even as he succumbs to madness, perhaps his prize could still finally be his way of getting even?
Garcia is a hard, twisted film. Its the kind of film Tarantino must wish he could write and direct- there is something horribly authentic about its internal logic, its mindset. Life is venal, cheap, dirty- this is a world in which men have no redeeming features at all. Women are repeatedly demeaned and marginalised, but there is also some purity to them, even the prostitute Elita, while the men are pretty much all no-good, greedy fools dominated by their lust for wealth and women- except for the two bounty-hunters that approach Bennie at the beginning. It is suggestive that they are homosexuals, something they are secretive and ashamed of, manifested by a violent hatred of women (one of them beating a prostitute unconscious for provocatively touching him).
Its utterly bizarre and quite unlike any film made in the last few decades, a throwback to a time -1970s American cinema- and a director who seemed to belong to some other era. Its not a Western, it’s not a film-noir, and yet it is both, as well as being rather horrific. The curious thing about watching films as old as this now -it dates from 1974- is how you can in hindsight trace its impact on subsequent cinema and film-makers. There is a scene for instance, with a naked, post-traumatic Elita sobbing under the spray of a shower, comforted by Bennie, which is clearly the ‘inspiration’ for a scene and imagery in 2006’s Casino Royal. There’s no doubt that Peckinpah, for all his faults and demons, cast a long shadow over cinema, and Garcia is likely his masterpiece. But it’s certainly not easy to stomach.