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First Straw Dogs about killer within

by Philip Martin | September 16, 2011 at 4:05 a.m.

— My friend, colleague and invaluable resource Joe Riddle says he doesn’t see the point in remaking a good movie. Only bad movies ought to be remade, and only if there’s a reasonable belief that this time they can be done right.

I’m not sure I completely agree - I kind of think of movie remakes the way I think of cover songs. You don’t necessarily need to cut the original version to earn your right to exist, you simply have to apply a different, and sufficiently interesting, sensibility to the song. And so I’m willing to wait and see what Rod Lurie brings to Straw Dogs.

(Though I will admit the signs are not favorable - not only have I not seen it, but I haven’t seen any reviews of the film yet, and my deadlines are milling around the parking lot, smoking and looking at their wristwatches. If it’s good, I probably would have heard by now.)

But I’m grateful that Lurie decided to remake Sam Peckinpah’s shattering masterpiece if only because it occasioned the release of the original on Blu-ray DVD. And Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is a movie that has remained important to me for 40 years. Along with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs stands as a trangressively violent, deeply ’70s film; one that still retains its power to shock after all these years. I admire it, though I cannot say I have ever genuinely worked out my feelings about it.

It is the story of a pacifist mathematician, David (Dustin Hoffman), a self-absorbed American intellectual who, partly in reaction to the Vietnam War and the attendant campus protests, retreats to his young wife, Amy’s, native village in Cornwall, England, to do research. Susan George, then just 20, played Amy over objections from Hoffman, who was 14 years older. Hoffman thought that the age discrepancy introduced a dissonant “Lolita” element into the story. I think he was wrong, that the age difference hinted at an essential truth of David’s nature - though he was, at the beginning of the film, a timid character, he was also a patriarchal male who insisted on the traditional division of marital tasks.

Amy, on the other hand, at least imagines herself a liberated woman, and it’s she who insists that David at least attempt to involve himself in the life of her community. David is repelled by his intellectual inferiors, who sense his arrogance and condescension. Horrible things ensue, escalating from the killing of a family pet. (In Lurie’s version, the couple repair not to England, but to “Deep South” Mississippi - in reality to Bossier City, La., where I went to high school. But, as a copy desk wag reminds me, it will only be a Southern movie if they kill a dog.)

What I took from Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was that the David who emerges by the movie’s end is the true David - a man capable not only of committing violence but enjoying it. It’s an exploration of the ugly things that glide like blind sharks in the black waters of our gut, unnamed, unknowable instincts most of us are lucky enough to never to see in daylight. Peckinpah believed in what he called the territorial imperative, that man was at base an animal fighting for what it could claim as its own. And sometimes that does seem to be way the world operates.

There was one time in my adult life when I was threatened with serious violence; a man with a screwdriver tried to mug me late one night in Chicago. He was not a good mugger. I managed to trap him in a doorway and beat him fairly senseless with my fists until he managed to pull away and run off. And then I ran after him. He was smaller and faster than me; had I caught him I have no doubt I would have tried very hard to kill him.

By the time the police arrived, I was deeply ashamed of everything. Ashamed of the foolishness that caused me to be singled out as a potential victim, ashamed that I had not simply done what they say you are supposed to do in those situations - which is give the man your wallet. (That I happened to have in that wallet more than I could have afforded to lose was another cause for shame.)

I was also exhausted and enervated. But most of all I was scared. Of myself.

So if David is, as Peckinpah often said, really the villain of Straw Dogs, I understand that I am also capable of villainy. Lurie has said his David - a screenwriter played by James Marsden - is a different kind of character. He’s more “amiable,” has a better relationship with his wife (played by Kate Bosworth) and emerges as a “hero” at the end.

I don’t know. I’ve liked a lot of Lurie’s movies, but I don’t know that audiences ought to feel good about themselves, about their surrogate, at the end of a movie called Straw Dogs. I don’t know if they should receive the final spasm of violence as cathartic - with Peckinpah you got the frisson of excitement with the violence, but it was chased by a cold shudder of horror. I don’t mind violent movies, I really don’t, but I recognize that beat of uplift that usually accompanies a Hollywood beat down as phony.

There is some vestigial instinct installed in the lizard brain in the pre-language days, that makes us fear Otherness.

Yet because we imagine ourselves sophisticated and civilized, we are able to suppress this fear when dealing with other people because experience, learning and something like intuition instruct that most other people are basically like us. They want the same things, they are subject to the same inhibitions, they may be reasoned with. They are all bound by the social contract - the least we owe one another is respect. If we have reached the point where we walk upright and cover our loins, it can be assumed that we have evolved beyond the Hobbesian “war of all against all” which afflicted our scrambling naked ancestors.

But what if the mask of your neighbor tilts for a second and you catch a glimpse of the riot going on behind his face? What if you accidentally see the monster feasting on his prey?

Now what if you’re looking in the mirror?

That was Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

One housekeeping note: For the last few weeks, including this one, the Home Movies column has been jettisoned from the newspaper proper for space reasons. You can find it on my blog, listed below. Whenever we’ve got something we want to run but doesn’t fit, you’ll find it there. E-mail:

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 09/16/2011

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