Sam the Lion, Restored; Plus, Not-Bad Education
By Fernando F. Croce

The obligatory Revenge of the Sith review is out of the way, time to get back to real works, among the most interesting out there, appropriately enough, celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Back in 1965, Major Dundee meandered through its tortuous production, ran over the assigned budget, and got cut and re-cut by the studio for shrugging reviews -- business as usual for the late Sam Peckinpah, who made a career out of playing against the System, losing, and funneling his nihilist-romantic brooding into works of art. Taken away from him during editing, Major Dundee has over the decades snowballed enough butchered-masterpiece status among buffs to rival Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, and the Extended Version now hitting theaters adds 12 hitherto unseen minutes, with a new score replacing the reportedly Peckinpah-loathed old one. The result remains the definite broken-backed epic, no martyrized masterpiece but a fascinating deconstruction of the Western, whose male honor codes plagued Peckinpah's career, and an invaluable link between the lyrical kiss-off of Ride the High Country and the savage implosion of The Wild Bunch.

If, as Robin Wood once said, the Western is the genre through which America sees itself, Major Dundee is, despite the century-long distance in the narrative, a jumbled mirror of '60s unrest, opening on a homestead left smoking, complete with hanging-burning combos, by a group of renegade Apaches. The period, as narrated in diary-format by callow Cavalry bugler Michael Anderson, Jr., is 1864-1865, the Civil War barely over and title martinet Charlton Heston grumpily presiding over a prison camp for some vague business at Gettysburg. A trio of children was kidnapped in the opening slaughter, so Heston, in stubbornly wrongheaded control, assembles a ragtag bunch to follow pursuit into Mexico, recruiting horse thieves, drunks, freed slaves and, most notably, Confederate prisoners, chief among whom is flaky Richard Harris, half Irish immigrant, half Southern dandy, all former-bud-cum-mortal-enemy. Tensions run high between Blue Bellies and white trash, though, as the film moseys down into Emperor Maximilian's territory, the motley crew (a call-list of Peckinpah's Death of the West Soul Players: James Coburn, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens, et al) gets a short-lived idyll at a much-mauled pueblo, where the director's idealization of Mexican peasant life takes over and Heston and Harris can battle over bosomy German widow Senta Berger before going back Apache-huntin'.

John Ford was one of the only filmmakers to whom legendary blowhard Peckinpah would tip his hat, and Major Dundee is arguably his most Fordian picture, bits from The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Horse Soldiers worked in, "Shall We Gather at the River" moaned over a mass grave, Jim Hutton brought in for the Jeffrey Hunter role as the comically ramrod lieutenant. Scarcely as complex as the master's own Cavalry works, the film nevertheless derives much of its richness from Peckinpah's view of them and subsequent attempts at evoking the genre's simplicity during a conflicted time when the country's Vietnam involvement was ushering in bloodshed more than matching Harris' on-screen condemnation of a "hopeless war." A sense of national disunity not dissimilar to our own Red State-Blue State times bleeds throughout the film, internally warring groups warbling dueling hymns while off on an unacknowledged imperialist trip, under the command of a disillusioned bullethead (Heston's superb performance emphasizes his most interesting side, what David Thomson called "the sense of human inadequacy under the muscle"). In the wackiest, perhaps most personal episode, the Major, recuperating from an arrow to the leg, undergoes his own Durango purgatory, whoring and stumbling piss-drunk into gutters, only rescued by a rival who wants to kill him himself. Peckinpah's self-glorifying barroom blubbering over a pet project flying off the rails? Ineffectual refuge from a world where the code of the West has become painfully obsolete? Any answer points, of course, to the magisterial apocalypse at the end of The Wild Bunch.

*

Gregg Araki, one of the spearheads of the New Queer Cinema of the early '90s, has fashioned indelible apocalypses of his own, particularly the holocaustic ending of The Doom Generation, where the destruction of a tentative, sexually polymorphous Gen-X utopia is scored to the "Star-Spangled Banner." Mysterious Skin, his first movie in four years, is his strongest work to date, and also his most serene. Which isn't to say that it lacks the director's pop-saturated fury -- indeed, by choosing to adapt Scott Heim's 1995 book, Araki went straight for pedophilia, the most discomforting of subjects even for this very seasoned provocateur. Yet, the picture reveals the filmmaker returning from hiatus with recharged vigor and, more surprisingly, a mellow sense of subversion which, like Pedro Almodóvar in Bad Education, tackles the hands-off subject with a bracing awareness of the tragic-liberating sides of desire. The two stem from the summer of 1981, where a little-league coach (Bill Sage) molests two boys -- the one who remembers the event grows up into Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a pimply hustler out of Pasolini, picking up johns from his dead-end town's playground; the other, who blocked out all memories and suffers bloody noses, grows up into Brady Corbet, almost a cousin to Napoleon Dynamite, dreaming up alien-abduction stories to fill in the gaps in the past.

Sex has always been the enlivener to the alienation of youth in Araki's films, and the plot's traumatic underpinnings can't cool his sexualizing camera, always raunchy and tender -- Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Solomon no more, gives himself over to the randy gaze, proudly showing off a trick's teeth marks on his dick to raccoon-eyed pal Michelle Trachtenberg or working up steam during his first New York City pick-up. As always with Araki, however, there is a dark side to sex, and the young hustler soon gets his first repulsed look at flesh (courtesy of Billy "Death's Head" Drago, looking like latter-day John Carradine) before a horrifying beating that sends him home to Kansas. Sexual abuse is the albatross haunting the characters' stunted lives and, following soon on the heels of Solondz's derision in Palindromes, Araki's warm compassion is all the more admirable -- having already ditched his gross-outs, the filmmaker also avoids the facile coldness of caricature when sketching in such peripheral lonely-souls as Elisabeth Shue's working-class milf or Mary Lynn Rajskub's UFO-obsessed kook. Ecstasy and dread walk side by side in Araki's world, though his ending for once signals the possibility of growth, hence of escape, from circumscribed identity: Mysterious Skin's whole trajectory moves to the encounter between the two now-grown boys, where wounds must be opened so that the camera can arise and move away, leaving them in a Robert Aldrich-like black hole illustrating both entrapment and, hopefully, newfound awareness.

Reviewed June 2, 2005.

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