Volume Five, December 2004

home » articles » Asbjørn Grønstad


Straw Dogs attracted scores of controversy when it was released in late 1971. Much due to the impact of The Wild Bunch (1969), its director had already become widely and infamously known for his ground-breaking depictions of violence on the big screen, and Straw Dogs only appeared to confirm this reputation. Where The Wild Bunch was set in the waning days of the mythical West, the action of Straw Dogs takes place in and around a small rural, Cornish village. David Sumner, the main protagonist played by Dustin Hoffman, is an astrophysician who has just moved to England from the States with his wife Amy. In order to have the roof of his house repaired, he hires a group of locals to do carpenter work. It is clear from the outset, however, that the workers’ main focus of interest is Sumner’s wife Amy. As the narrative develops, the relationship between David, Amy and the carpenters grows increasingly tense, defined by a gradual transition from relative harmony to escalated antagonism and violence. This brief synopsis provides the context for the film’s story. In addition to the main character we are also introduced to more peripheral but important individuals like Henry Niles, the town freak once convicted of sexual abuse-related crimes; Janice, a village girl; Tom, her father, who is a hothead alcoholic who spends most of his time in the pub; John, Henry’s brother; Major Scott, the town policeman; and Reverend Hood and his wife Louise.
Its title a reference to the writings of Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu, Straw Dogs has often been (mis)understood as Peckinpah’s response to Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative (1966).1 In terms of commercial marketing the film is presented as a domestic drama, featuring the tagline “How far will a man go to protect his wife and his home?” as a thematic premise for the story.2 This is evidently a trivialized simplification of the subject matter, as the narrative contains a delicate web of ambivalent relationships and ambiguous loyalties. Although Peckinpah is known for a certain heavy-handedness and lack of subtlety in his treatment of violence, this uncompromising attitude is not reflected in the way he constructs character relations, psychology and motives. As examples one could mention the main protagonist’s indecision and bewilderment as to the actual nature of the situation he is involved in. Lacking a clear overview of all the events that have caused the current state of affairs, he remains largely ignorant of the deeper implications of his actions. Not even toward the end of the narrative has he become fully informed of the intricate structures of hatred and anger that frame the violence he reluctantly finds himself participating in. His allegiances seem likewise confused; when he undergoes the transformation from irresolute coward to the straw dog killer of the film’s title, his determination to fight the trespassers appears to be motivated more by a stern and slightly irrational drive to protect Henry (who eventually turns out to be the main target for the invaders) than his own wife. As the aggressors start to attack his house, he first hesitates to resort to violence, and being forced to defend himself, he becomes increasingly obsessed with his own capacity for brutality. His wife Amy is portrayed as similarly ambiguous in her actions and loyalties. In the extremely problematic rape scene she is depicted as both victim and participant; and as the violence escalates in the attack on their house she is both assisting and resisting her husband’s endeavors. Henry’s murder of Janice during the church party is wholly unintended (he inadvertently strangles her as the two of them have to keep quiet so as not to be discovered by the search party that is looking for them). Finally, the lynch mob (the carpenters) does not seem capable of or intent on murder, but in the heat of the action they are fuelled by an infectious bloodthirst that converts them from drunken hoodlums to vicious killers. The violence in this film is never confined to – or identified with – specific characters. It is not given as the manifestation of brutal or sadistic impulses in protagonists that are inherently evil. Thus, the narrative disrupts any commonplace structuring of violence as the visible conflict between good and evil forces. That is, violence is not something that can be accounted for by collapsing it with consistently evil characters. In this respect the conventional narrative scenario of the good-bad polarity is eliminated. This is also underscored in the narrative’s lacks of a moral dimension that might serve as a contrast to the violence; there is a strong sense of all-pervasive evil to this film.
What the above observations suggest is that the text posits violence and evil as omnipresent but abstract phenomena which do not require any rational causation in order to come into effect. Violence is conceived as a quality independent of anthropomorphic interests, and as a potential open and accessible to virtually everyone. It is always chaotic in its constitution and transgressive in its configuration. Insofar as it is constructed as a quality sufficient onto itself, violence also claims a transcendent function. As a result, violence cannot be reduced to its singular expressions and effects. Even if it produces very concrete and destructive traces, it also exists as an abstract notion, as a perception, as a memory, as a possibility, and as an imaging, on another plane of consciousness. Another way to consider this is to differentiate between the act of violence on the one hand and the generalization of the concept on a theoretical level on the other.
One of the key features which distinguishes Straw Dogs from the majority of American films that contain some degree of violence is that Peckinpah’s movie tends to separate its carnage from any instrumental function it may have fulfilled in the narrative at large. Not only does the violence in Straw Dogs become an end in itself – which occasionally is the case with certain films in the exploitation genres (slasher movies represent one example) – but it also emerges as a primary structuring principle of narration. Despite the significant reliance on violence in the American cinema, the case of Straw Dogs stands out as an anomaly in this respect. It is by no means common for even mindlessly violent films to reverse the relation between story structure and violence; the latter is typically integrated into the narrative as an inevitable but nonetheless secondary component. Violence may push the story forward, but it is rarely the motivation for the story events. Inversely, violence figures as a morally transgressive but indispensable pragmatic logic utilized to accomplish various external, narrative goals. Whether it occurs in crime films, thrillers, war epics, road movies, science fiction or drama, violence is accommodated to the text as a functional device at the service of personal or societal interests, and as a last resort to solve a narrative conflict if all other measures have failed. On a purely formal level, violence can be seen as one of many resources the protagonists have at their disposal in their quest to realize a particular objective. Whereas this function of violence may still form a part of the narrative structure of a given film, in Straw Dogs it has become the structure. The film thus epitomizes the dismantling of the teleology-driven cinema at the time of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967) and The Wild Bunch, and the subsequent development of the phenomenon Russell identifies as “narrative mortality.”3 The term, obviously, refers to at least two aspects of meaning. First, it literally recalls the notion of death and violence as intrinsic structures of narrative fiction. Second, it metaphorically indicates a certain exhaustion of conventional story construction – and it may also suggest the immanence of the demise of narrative as traditionally conceived of.
There are thirty-four scenes in Straw Dogs, some of which contain multiple actions sandwiched in a network of cross-cutting structures. Twenty-five of these include various forms of abuse and violent behavior. I seek to examine how the segments containing violence constitute a carefully patterned textual layout that controls the narrative configuration of the film. I also intend to show how a series of permutations of the point of view shot and the eyeline match become a vital aesthetic strategy throughout the narrative. Finally, the analysis will pay attention to the ways in which the pictorial qualities of the mise-en-scene establishes what I call a violence-space that in its auto-focal potential may differentiate itself in significant ways from earlier depictions of violence on screen.
The majority of the violent scenes in Peckinpah’s film are systematized within a composition that combines single incidents in parallel groups, and which frequently connects scenes by way of graphic, thematic or metaphorical association. Moreover, the scenes are also organized in a temporal logic in that early scenes prefigure later events. None of the violent scenes and images seems to escape this system. By enclosing the violence in a sealed and self-contained pattern where all the segments dissolve into and echo one another, the artifice and non-realism of the narrative is enhanced to the extent that it takes on an abstract dimension. Like A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick 1971), where the violent scenes repeat themselves in a cyclic structure, the narrative of Straw Dogs exhibits the formal resemblance of a musical composition. The configuration further reinforces the disconnection of violence from possible motives external to it; the inter-relatedness of individual scenes creates a dense texture of violence that prevents other narrative concerns from entering the diegesis. On a story level the violence is self-perpetuating, on a formal level it dominates the structure of the film by performing a central narrative role in almost every scene. Evidently, this approach foregrounds accentuates hostility so crucial to the experience of the movie.
The ominous atmosphere generated by the formal system of the narrative inevitably effects the protocols of characterization, and most of the protagonists in the film are shown in a state of continuos deterioration. They appear to be alternately overwhelmed and reinvigorated by their own participation in the brutality, which arguably controls them more than they can control it. In this respect Straw Dogs conveys the characters’ relationship with violence in a way dissimilar to The Wild Bunch, where the gangsters are in charge of the carnage they create. However morally flawed the outlaw ethics of the latter film, there is an unrelenting acknowledgment of the individual responsibility of violence which seems far less articulated in Straw Dogs. This is not to say that Peckinpah’s earlier film is less problematic in terms of violence than the later feature. Perhaps the opposite is true. Where The Wild Bunch flagrantly exposes an excessive will to violence, Straw Dogs is far more ambiguous when it comes to the protagonists’ attitude toward it. David is generally portrayed as a coward who even abstains from resorting to verbal abuse until he eventually – and apparently – undergoes the transformation to a cool and resolute killer. His main adversaries, the gang of workers, are no less puzzling in their approach to violence. Their seemingly good-humored and cheerful behavior is menacingly compromised by a looming determination to intimidate David and Amy. Hints are being made as to the criminal background of some of the workers, and their desire for Amy is evident from the beginning of the film. At the same time as they are cast as a threatening and potentially disruptive force always present in David and Amy’s immediate environment, they remain surprisingly passive and almost subservient up to the point of the rape. Later in the film, as the final conflict ensues, they seem to hide behind Tom, who, crazed with anger and concern for his missing daughter Janice, initiates the attack on Amy and David’s house. The gang never manages to function as a group; they are disorganized and inebriated, hesitant and chaotic in their proceedings. Although it is evident that the workers are unscrupulous and ruthless, they lack the steadfast commitment to violent acts so characteristic of Pike and Dutch’s codex in The Wild Bunch. Both in terms of temperament and behavior the gang in Straw Dogs resembles the three droogs in A Clockwork Orange, but without an Alex to organize them. Not even as the assault on the house takes on an increasingly aggressive mood do the gang members take the situation fully seriously. They continue to behave erratically, putting on a clown’s nose, riding a tricycle in the yard in the heat of the conflict, and throwing mice in through the windows to scare Amy. This blend of violent action and morbid comedy can be read as a signifier of the underlying ambivalence of the characters involved toward the escalating carnage. They seem unprepared for all the violence, yet they are powerless in resisting it. As a way to repress this ambivalence, the attackers attempt to make a spectacle out of the situation.
The paratextual structure of violence that resonates throughout the narrative begins in the movie’s third scene, as Tom the local pub regular provokes a fight by the counter. The bartender refuses to bring him another beer, and cuts his hand on a glass that shatters as he fights over it with Tom. His nephew Charles, and David, who has just entered the pub, try to restrain Tom but he shakes them off. The scene follows immediately upon our introduction to the main protagonists David, Amy and Charles, who first meet in the street outside the pub. Tom’s assault on the bartender only takes up a few seconds of screen time, but the action is fragmented into as many as fourteen different shots. In comparison with the violence that ensues later, the episode is fairly harmless and does not contain much dramatic significance. Nevertheless it represents a primer onto the ominous mood of the film in that it flaunts the hostile quality ingrained in the environment. The sequence also discloses the pacifism of the Hoffman character, who attempts to remain anonymous in the midst of the skirmish. His sole function in the scene is that of the spectator, and the fourteen-shot segment contains his point of view. The position David assumes during this incident is one that is progressively sustained until it ultimately proves inadequate when faced with the terror of inexorable violence. In structural terms the scene establishes Tom as the instigator of violent action; he is the first character who behaves in a physically threatening way, and will later be the one who starts the massacre at David and Amy’s house. Notably, the character of Tom remains tangential to the key conflict in the story; that between David and the workers. Both before and after the rape of Amy, Charles, Scutt, Cawsey, Bobby and Harry desist violence. They are unreliable in their work, they flirt openly with Amy, play games with David and generally harass the couple, yet do not seem prepared to act aggressively. Tom may therefore be seen as a catalyst for the violent potentials of the others, launching the bloodshed both on the macro-and micro narrative levels.
The scene following the fight in the bar sets up another series of thematically related events. After leaving the pub, Charles and two friends walk away from the village and barely escape being run over by Amy and David’s car. Nobody is injured in the confrontation, but the situation bustles with suppressed violence. Later in the film (scene 14) the stakes are nearly reversed, as the carpenters signal to David that he may pass them, even though they are aware of the approaching vehicle from the opposite direction. David manages to avoid a collision. A third variation of this set-up occurs after Amy and David decide to leave the church party. Henry, having just strangled Tom’s daughter Janice, escapes from the scene of the crime, but is run over by David who does not see the man soon enough to stop. It is this event that brings the violence of the lynch mob to Amy and David’s house. Not knowing what to do, David takes Henry into his car and brings him home. He cannot get hold of a doctor and decides to call the pub to ask if anyone has seen him. Tom and the workers are in the pub at this moment, and learning of the accident, the gang soon shows up outside David’s place to demand Henry.
A third series of inter-related acts of violence is targeted against the couple’s house cat. The first half of the film shows Amy repeatedly searching for her pet, which her husband merely regards as a nuisance constantly disturbing him in his work. At one point he sadistically bombards the cat with tomatoes and grapefruit in the kitchen, chasing the animal away from the scene (scene 11). Later, after the reverend’s visit, and as David is about to go to bed, he finds the cat strung up in the closet (scene 17). The discovery designates a turning point in the story in that it represents the carpenters’ first act of trespassing David and Amy’s privacy. Up to this incident the workers have remained apparently innocuous voyeurs, openly revealing their desire for Amy but nevertheless staying away from the house. The killing of the cat not only foreshadows their subsequent descent into violence, but it also indicates an ability and readiness to intrude upon the couple’s personal lives. As Amy tells David, the hooligans did it “to prove they could get into your bedroom.” In demonstrating their purpose, the workers cross the threshold of the professional and the private, the public and the domestic, and the act becomes a token of their challenging of David’s reaction to the ongoing flirtation with his wife. Rather than provoking a resolute determination to confront the intruders, the episode signals David’s decline into utter apathy and humiliation. The day after he spends most of his time watching the carpenters at their work, too paralyzed to inform them about his decision to fire them. When he invites them into the house, he tells Amy that he intends to “catch them off guard,” but instead the appointment ends with the workers persuading David to embark with them on a hunting trip. Much to Amy’s frustration he consents, which becomes something of an ironic decision since the hunt provides Charles and Scutt with the opportunity to return to the house and rape Amy while David is patiently waiting for his prey in the woods.
After the incident with the cat Amy also becomes increasingly condescending toward David; while the men are in their living room helping him with a trap, she brings in a plate of beer glasses with the cat’s bowl filled with milk amid them. Some time after the men have left the house, David discovers on his blackboard a message from Amy which reads: “Did I catch you off guard?” Evidently, her scornfulness provides a rationale that may explain her later behavior, i.e. when she refuses to assist David in his battle with the gang. In any event, the violence lashed out at the cat can be understood narratively and symbolically as a motif that crystallizes the crisscrossing paths of antagonism, evil and desire in the film (Dave’s remarkable inactivity but also his latent capacity for violence; Amy’s baffled feelings for Charles and David; and Charles and Scutt’s impending viciousness and shared lust for Amy). The animal imagery is further substantiated in the rape scene, where David’s killing the grouse is intercut with the completion of the rape. At the end of the intercourse Charles becomes aware of Scutt standing beside them and pointing a shotgun at his head. The gesture – which literally signals that it is Scutt’s turn to rape Amy – is structurally reversed near the end of the film when Charles shoots Scutt through the stomach with a shotgun. The overall function of these similarities is effectively to cement our experience of the omnipresence of the violence and its visually configurated interwovenness.
In addition to these three clusters of carefully structured violent events, there is the carnage in the film’s final scenes, as well as minor acts of aggression which are distributed systematically throughout the narrative. Shortly after David narrowly escapes the collision with the tractor, he arrives in the village and decides to wait in the car before walking into the pub. From this position we see John hit his brother Henry as an act of disapproval of the latter talking to Janice (scene 14). After Janice and Henry are reported missing, Tom attacks John, whom he holds responsible for the disappearance (scene 23). Thirdly, there is the scene in which the carpenters start to batter Henry after he has been taken into Amy and David’s house (scene 24), and, as a prelude to the final outburst of violence, David hits Amy (scene 27). The bloodbath at the end of the film is obviously the narrative climax as far as violence is concerned, and is organized serially as David neutralizes the assailants one by one. Significantly, the situation is graphically foreshadowed in the scene where the workers ask David to come with them on the grouse hunt. As a reply, he grabs a sawed-off shotgun from the wall and points it jokingly at the men, and asking “Will this do?” (scene 18). Again the narrative flaunts its irony and symbolism so blatantly that the act appears virtually self-conscious, and at the same time it bolsters the compact web of interconnected scenes of violence.
The patterning of antagonistic sequences and images into a stringent narrative system exposes the fundamentally violent aesthetic of the film. However, audiovisual presentations of violence are not conceptually unproblematic and easily classifiable phenomena. Violence produces heterogeneous manifestations that do not necessarily originate from the same source of intentions and motivations. But when the transgression comes in multi-faceted forms – as in Straw Dogs – it enhances the impact and generates a sense of ubiquity that is characteristic of Peckinpah’s film. Violence may evidently be perceived as being ever-present in different types of film as well – for example in the war picture – but contrary to the situation in Straw Dogs, violence in combat films is uniformly sanctioned as a political extension where murder is reinterpreted and justified as official practice. Its inscription as a collective and political obligation makes violence in the war movie ontologically different from that in films like Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange. Hence, in a film like Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick 1987) or Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg 1998) the impetus of transgression does not derive so much from the private inclinations of the protagonists as from the para-individual dictates of official political initiative. The brutality and mayhem of the war picture can be read as a de-personalized and mechanistic form of violence that has been deliberately instituted by the dominant ideology. It is clearly just as meaningless and nihilistic as other variations of violence, but it can be traced back to a level of decision and responsibility that lies beyond the individual. Moreover, this sort of violence is predominantly instrumental in nature. It represents a pragmatic solution to a political problem. Transgressions originating in personal incentives, on the other hand, occasionally transcend the logic of functionality and constitute an end in themselves. Keeping this distinction in mind is helpful when it comes to circumscribing a more concise notion of filmic violence.
Straw Dogs hosts a variegated spectacle of transgressions that are dissimilar both in kind and motivation. Although I do not intend to map a typology of the different forms of violence, it may be useful to introduce some basic conceptual distinctions among all the acts of brutality that make up the narrative framework of the movie. The actions of the carpenters – the strangling of the cat, the false signal to David as he wants to drive past them, and the concluding confrontation – can be understood as deliberate, corporeal violence of a principally non-teleological nature. After Tom is shot, the repossession of Henry ceases to be a motivating force for the gang’s attack on the house. The aggressors turn to destruction for the simple pleasure of it. One could define this transgression as basically sadistic (compulsive, obsessive, irrational) in nature. Secondly, David’s eventual submission to violence is at least incipiently a form of desperate self-defense, although one could argue that his behavior increasingly takes on a sadistic dimension as the conflict progresses. At any rate, when David resorts to violence, it is a forced decision, and as such it suggests a defensive transgression. A different expression of violent action can be detected in Henry’s mainly non-conscious strangulation of Janice, in Dave hitting Henry with his car, and in Tom shooting himself in the foot. The resulting violence in these cases may be defined as corporeal but accidental. Finally, there is the transgression of the rape scene, which perhaps is the most troubled sequence in the entire film. Unquestionably, this is a representative example of a sexualized, or eroticized type of violence that otherwise is relatively rare in Peckinpah.4 In sum, the transgressions in Straw Dogs constitute a complex tangle of sadistic, defensive, accidental and sexualized categories of violence. One of the chief effects that this variation creates is the perceptual omnipresence of violence, and as an abstract phenomenon functioning independently of the motives and determinations anthropomorph agents. The protagonists do not act through violence, the violence acts through them.
In Straw Dogs Peckinpah shifts the emphasis on conflict and violence from the collective to the individual sphere. While The Wild Bunch can be read within the framework of social and cultural transformations which cause insurmountable ruptures in the relationship between different groups of individuals and their rapidly changing environment, Straw Dogs is more introspective in its approach as it concentrates on psychological aspects of the individual. It is essentially concerned with interpersonal relations rather than relations between individuals and society. In this sense, the text is more conceptual and less significantly anchored in external reality than the preceding film, whose embededness in a specific historical moment remains a crucial aspect of its narration. One might claim that The Wild Bunch depicts violence as a social phenomenon, while Straw Dogs analyzes it as a private, domestic one.
Loosely based on Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, Peckinpah took the cue for his 1971 film from Sartre’s play The Flies, which circles around the notion of violence against the family and the vindication of it. Recounting the story of the young Orestes and his sister Electra battling against the tyranny of Argos, the play provides a narrative and moral template for Peckinpah’s exposition of the eventual submission of the pacifist to the forces of violence. Although the director cites Sartre as a direct influence on the general body of his work, critics like Terence Butler notes that the preoccupation with forms of reflective consciousness associated with Sartre is translated into the notion of innate natural drives in Peckinpah.5 Considering the film to be the director’s “biggest failure”, Butler argues that its chief problem results from the depiction of the main protagonist as an individual who ultimately relies on irrational rage rather than sane contemplation in order to restore order and value to the world around him. Butler views the hero of the narrative as an unregenerate solipsist who despite his capacity for intellectual reasoning is thoroughly unable to discern the logic of the human relations and social context.6
The overall pessimism of the film, Butler goes on to argue, represents a regrettable setback for the humanism with which Peckinpah also has been associated.7 Every character in the story appears flawed and amoral, and David’s way of resolving the conflict with the locals can be interpreted as a sanctioning of the violence Peckinpah generally has set out to critique in other texts. Rather than interrogating the moral implications of the violence shown in the film, Butler suggests, the director collapses the distinction between the violent acts and their ethical meaning. In short, the violent impulse is depicted as moral in itself.8 There are objections to this assessment, however, one of which centers on the fact that a work of art does not need to make explicit pronouncements of its moral affiliations. One cannot logically infer that an absence of overt ethical signs in a text means that the assumed opposite of ethics – i.e. violence – has become the guiding moral principle. That is, there is nothing about the representation of the violence in Straw Dogs which suggests that it actually embodies the only ethical alternative within the diegetic universe of the narrative. Violence does not automatically become moral simply because the characters involved fail to discern other means by which to resolve their conflicts. For example, the development of the conflict into violence may not necessarily be predetermined; it could be more or less accidental – the least constructive of many possible options.
The circumstances from which the fatal climax of Peckinpah’s film develops can to some extent be seen as arbitrary, like a set of individual conditions which upon coming together produce destruction and chaos. The locals who attack David and Amy’s house are drunk and agitated and consequently lose control over their actions; David’s hitting Niles with his car is a mere coincidence. Nonetheless the event provides the locals’ with the reason for assaulting Amy and David; and finally, Niles’illegitimate association with Janice and her being strangled by him (although her father and the boys do not have this information during the pursuit) is what motivates the manhunt which eventually leads the locals to David’s house. This event also has a certain arbitrariness to it. David’s embrace of violent means can be considered neither as the only moral option left in the defense of his house and family, nor as the compensation for his failure to protect Amy from being raped earlier in the story. It was not out of weakness but out of a profound ignorance and misrecognition that David was unable to prevent the rape. Additionally, the scene seems to be equally suggestive of David’s erotic inadequacy as of his inadvertent neglect of his wife. It has even been noted that David’s maiming and killing of his adversaries is an action which is symbolic of his re-establishment of a sense of sexual virility which had been absent from his relationship with Amy.9 Secondly, since Amy has already rejected her husband prior to the outburst of violence, David’s decision to fight the trespassers cannot be based on any real conception of territorial imperatives. Stripped of any other motives save the instinctual drive toward self-defense, David’s violence is beyond the realm of moral values. Contrary to Butler’s conclusion, however, this does not imply that Peckinpah depicts violence as intrinsically moral in and of itself.
Disclosing the emotional suffering of the characters involved in the mayhem is clearly as crucial a part of Straw Dogs as it is in other Peckinpah movies. Throughout, the narration makes frequent use of reaction shots which reveal the characters’ responses to the action. In fact, the interrelations of point of view shots and reaction shots constitute the primary narrational principle in the film. Importantly, it is also in the architecture of these shots that the moral ethics of the text might be detected. One may for instance consider the opprobrious rape scene. In his instruction to the editors, Peckinpah explicitly demanded that the shot syntax show Amy’s reaction to the abuse: “Use second cut of Amy reacting to slap in close-up rather than the two shot.”10 In an earlier cut the scene contained a more withdrawn framing which was then subsequently changed. Moreover, the horror of the incident is presented as a lingering influence which is not simply forgotten once the scene of the rape itself is over. Amy’s subjective flashbacks during the church social intensify the suffering and humiliation she experiences and gauge the text’s empathy toward her. Similarly, during the gory excesses toward the end of the film, the camera regularly cuts to Amy to give us her reactions to the violence to which she remains largely a passive witness.
The proliferation of reaction shots and subjective inserts in the film seems to indicate a willingness on part of the narration to emphasize the position of the victimized. Because the interplay of internal glances is granted such a crucial function in the film, the transgressive actions depicted are held in check so as to prevent the impression of scandalized exploitation many reviewers have falsely attributed to the film. Recognizing the dynamic of the shot structure in Straw Dogs, it is difficult to see it as the exercise in detached and cold cruelty it frequently is thought to be. The narrational system which comprises the discourse of the text is highly subjective and even “stylized.” As spectators we are offered few objective perspectives, and the images resonate with a wealth of different emotional cues. This observation is related to the ways in which the text organizes narrative space and shot relations. The relentless cutting up of diegetic space opens up to an array of different perspectives which provide us with privileged access to the psychological and emotional experience of the protagonists. The narration does not seem to produce a unified point of view through which one dominant attitude is filtered. In refusing to do this, Straw Dogs eschews the risk of constructing pure spectacle out of the drama. At first this may sound paradoxical, given that the extremely rapid editing and the radicalized exposition of violence are elements one usually associates with spectacle.
The belief that cutting manipulates and guides the spectator’s attention far more than mise-en-scene based techniques (such as the long take, camera movement and depth of field), is a conviction that goes back at least to Kuleshov and the Russian montage theorists and directors. The theory assumes that montage sequences of constructive editing, in which diegetic space is chopped up into little pieces, severely limit the creative perception of the viewer. A proponent of the long take aesthetic like André Bazin, for example, objects to the montage principle on the grounds that it violates the integrity of the profilmic spatio-temporal continuity, as well as the potential for ambiguity inherent in the photographic image.11 Because the editing determines what the viewer is supposed to look at at any given moment in the film, the images will lack any heterogeneity of design and meaning. The strategy allows the viewer only a minimum of interpretive freedom, of which the consequence is that the spectating activity is completely subsumed under the manipulative discourse of the text. While the film through this technique becomes a dictatorial presence, the perceiver is critically pacified. Thus, when the viewer is bombarded with graphic images of violence presented in fast-paced montage sequences, the uniformity of meaning irons out all narrative impact and retains only the function of pure spectacle. Apparently, the logic of the theory presumes that the constant reframing of the image imposes serious restrictions on the spectators’ ability to evaluate what is presented, and in the case of extremely short segments the image might even only be perceivable in a subliminal fashion. Another assumption is that constructive editing and montage codify the images as spectacular in a more self-conscious way than the various mise-en-scene approaches. When a scene is anatomized into many different constituent parts, it is as if the narration implicitly calls attention to itself in its exposition of any little detail. Conversely, if the same narrative information is conveyed through the long take, the scene appears coded as more detached, disinterested and “objective.” Since the viewer in this case is relegated to a static point of view, the spectatorial situation resembles the conditions in reality; the perceiver does not have access to a privileged viewing position which in less than a second could transport him or her anywhere. This implies that in order to map what is going on in the scene, the viewer has to invest more of his or her own interpretative energy in the decoding of the image. The narrative information, and the relations within the image, might be ambiguous. In Bazin’s version of this argument the presupposition is that in a mise-en-scene based approach, the profilmic reality is less set up – less structured – than in the montage approach to film narration. Hence, the long take is perceived as less self-reflexively spectacular than montage, an assumption in part consolidated by the greater sense of vivacity, movement and kinetic energy generally associated with rapid editing.
The third type of editing which represents a crucial aesthetic principle in Peckinpah’s treatment of violence is called poetic or psychological. In the following discussion I will refer to it as expressive montage. Prince claims that the technique, which implies a liquid oscillation between physical and psychological spaces, appears in a rudimentary form in The Wild Bunch and is fully developed in Straw Dogs.12 This relation Prince strains however. The flashback sequences in the former film hardly issue from the same stylistic source as the subjective shots during and after the rape scene in Straw Dogs. Formally, Pike’s and Dutch’s flashbacks exhibit conventional temporal markers – the dissolve – which clearly signal the transition to a diegetic time that precedes the current action. Secondly, the duration of the flashbacks is considerably longer than the rapid, psychological point of view shots in Straw Dogs. This durational discrepancy indicates a difference on the level of narrative function; the flashbacks in The Wild Bunch do not produce the dialectic of external action and internal consciousness found in Straw Dogs. Instead, they designate a brief, but complete narrative unit on a lower level than the narration which frames them. The effect of the flashbacks is not to complicate the temporal delineation of the film, but rather to give additional information which has important explanatory power for the comprehension of the protagonists’ actions and motivations. While this narrative information easily could have been conveyed by other means, for instance dialogue or voice-over, the information which is mediated through Amy’s subjective perception could probably not have been rendered in any other way without a loss or alteration of meaning. Thirdly, on the functional level, the flashbacks in The Wild Bunch are primarily informative, the subjective shots in Straw Dogs are predominantly expressive, both in the sense that they reveal the emotional state of the protagonist, and in that they do not have any direct consequences for the unfolding of the subsequent action. The course of events would have remained the same whether we were given Amy’s tormented recollections or not. The same will evidently be true of the flashbacks in the former films as well, but whereas these recollections reveal a segment of what we may call external narrative action, Amy’s subjective point of view shots reveal not the action itself but how a particular character mentally experiences and responds to it.
A notable aspect of the spatial composition in Straw Dogs is that it frequently operates on two different levels. On the one hand, relations within and between shots serve as vehicles for the diegetic unfolding of the narrative action, which is the common primary function of filmic storytelling. On the other hand, the ways in which the shots are configurated comment upon the mediated events. Prince offers a suggestive example of this stylistic doubleness with a scene concerning an argument between David and Amy during which the local villains are present. The camera set-up has Amy and David placed at opposite sides of the frame, with the visitors positioned in between them. On a mimetic level the composition conveys important story information which essentially could have been articulated in other ways, for instance as a voice-over summary. On a conceptual, metaphoric level the scene manifests the gradual sense of mutual estrangement between the two characters. The increasing interference of the village workers in the lives of Amy and David reinforces the feeling of isolation, which has estranged them from each other. Additionally, the pictorial outline in itself delineates salient elements of the relationship between the characters. The low angle camera position creates a sense of claustrophobic space in that the ceiling is made to loom suppressively overhead, a perspective which also gives the image a peculiarly jagged and irregular slant.13
Furthermore, the composition is markedly decentered as there is no key focus occupying the space in the middle of the image. The relative “emptiness” of the space which normally represents the privileged locus of shot information is further underscored by the positioning of the characters at marginal points in the image. David, placed with his back half turned against the camera at the extreme right-hand side of the frame, is featured in the foreground of the composition. At a slight diagonal line across from him Amy occupies the middle ground to the left, with her body half frontal, half turned toward David. Charlie, Cawsey and Norman emerge in the extreme background of the frame, poised between the two main protagonists but at a far distance. Their glances appear to be directed toward David, who in turn looks toward Amy who again looks back at him. The focus of attention in this shot configuration, I suggest, does not rest on any particular, concrete point in space. Rather, the narrative and mimetic focus lies in the relations between the protagonists, which is a considerably more abstract locus. The absence of characters or objects in the middle of the image enhances this impression of a thoroughly decentered configuration where the saliency of the image is dynamically relational rather than stationary and fixed to a certain tangible space. Apart from effectively defining character relations, the shot also points to ways in which the filmic image may transcend the limitations of an apparently rigid mimetic dependency. The logistics of the space in this scene, confusingly disorienting and off-center, represents a significant strategy of stylization which is repeatedly explored throughout the film, and a remarkable aspect of this formal approach is the sustained use of the type of narrative doubleness found in the scene discussed above.
While the shot examined above might be taken as an example of expressive intra-frame montage, it is montage editing which constitutes the most evident aspect of Peckinpah’s style. In Straw Dogs this technique finds its fullest articulation during and after the rape scene. In his analysis of this sequence, Prince argues that the structuring of the editing from Amy’s point of view mainly functions to reveal the painful response of the victim to the act of brutalization to which she is subjected.14 As far as the production of perspective goes, this is a correct observation. However, the conclusion that the film successfully diverts the focus of attention away from the violence itself and to its consequences seems to be somewhat hasty. First of all, a representation of violent action from the point of view of the victim does not automatically guarantee a mandated revulsion toward violence on part of the audience. In fact, part of the narrative premise of the film Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow 1996), quite morbidly revolves around the notion that access to a victimized individual’s mind and emotions during the act of violation provides the ultimate entertainment kick.
I do not suggest that Peckinpah’s screen aesthetic in The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs embodies Eisenstein’s montage of attraction principle, nor that the expressive editing used in these films can be contextualized with reference to an Eisenstenian didacticism which proceeds through shock to enlightenment. However, Peckinpah unquestionably related his representations of violence to a moral or philosophical framework that went well beyond a one-dimensional preoccupation with the pyrotechnics of violent spectacle. In this sense his cinematic procedure resembles to some extent Eisenstein’s model of dialectical montage.15 On the other hand, the two directors had widely divergent conceptions of what kind of discernment spectacular action ideally should facilitate. Moreover, whereas Eisenstein’s notion of sensory and emotional shock was fairly broad and inclusive, Peckinpah’s was almost singularly concerned with violence. Finally, the ways in which Peckinpah orchestrates his depictions of violence are inherently ambiguous. This entails that his portrayal of carnage vacillates between a didactic critique of violence on one level and kinesthetic gratification on another. As Prince points out, Peckinpah was an intuitive filmmaker whose temperament leaned toward the fragmentary rather than the large design, and as a result his work is characterized by numerous inconsistencies on structural and thematic levels.16

1 See for instance Seth Cagin and Philip Dray. Hollywood Films of the Seventies. Sex, Drugs, Violence, Rock ‘n’ Roll & Politics (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 170, and Steve Neale. “Sam Peckinpah, Robert Ardrey and the Notion of Ideology.” Film Form, No. 1, 1976, 108.
2 The alternative tagline reads: “In the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog.”
3 Catherine Russell. Narrative Mortality: Death, Closure, and New Wave Cinemas (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995), 3.
4 Examples from other films abound. A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), Blue Velvet (Lynch 1986) and Crash (Cronenberg 1996) are three films that document explicitly sexualized uses of violence.
5 Terence Butler. Crucified Heroes. The Films of Sam Peckinpah (London: Gordon Fraser, 1979), 32.
6 Other sources tend to corroborate this characterization of David Sumner, among them Michael Bliss, who conceives of the main protagonist as an immature coward insensitive to the dynamics of the human relations of which he himself is a part. Michael Bliss. Justified Lives. Morality and Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993), 150.
7 Butler, 73.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid. Butler’s interpretation appears to be a product of the psychoanalytical bent of his approach to the film.
10 Stephen Prince. Savage Cinema. Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (Austin: U of Texas P, 1998), 136.
11 Bazin’s concept of ambiguity somehow differs from our traditional definitions of it. In his sense, ambiguity refers to reality’s essential indifference to the purposes and designs of the individual who perceives it and lives in it. That is, Bazin notes that the phenomena of external reality exist independently of the intentions and applications of the individual. An example often used to illustrate this theory is that of the possibility of using stones or rocks in a river for the purpose of traversing it. The rocks do not purposely exist to serve this function, and in this sense their presence in phenomenal reality is ambiguous. André Bazin. What is Cinema? (Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967), 15.
12 Prince, 72.
13 The extent to which Peckinpah’s films employ strikingly edgy and oblique editing and mise-en-scene structures is particularly emphasized when juxtaposed with the extreme compositional symmetry found in someone like Stanley Kubrick. While the latter’s frequent tracking shots are characterized by an almost obsessive angular precision, the former director creates a film space in which the different pictorial elements appear to be in constant confrontation with each other.
14 Prince, 74. The emphasis on the victim’s reactions rather than on the filmic morphology of the violent act itself is reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), in which the violation of Joan is indicated by the camera’s lingering on her face rather than on the clinical details of the assault.
15 Sergei Eisenstein. Film Form. Essays in Film Theory (Trans. Jay Leyda. San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1949), 54.
16 Prince, 184.

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