Directed, written, and edited by Paul Seydor. Narrated by Nick Redman, with the voices of Ed Harris, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien, and others. At the Opera Plaza, Dec. 6-12, with a restored 35mm print of The Wild Bunch.
When I met Sam Peckinpah's second daughter, Kristen, on the set of The Osterman Weekend, I gingerly asked her what it was like to grow up in the wake of such a volatile, galvanizing character. "You have to understand," she told me, "how inspiring it is to be around someone so completely devoted to his art." Watching Paul Seydor's documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, everyone can understand. Pacing in white jeans and shirt sleeves (or no shirt at all) in the blazing sun, this compact, concentrated figure is both charismatic and devastatingly poignant. Whether he's commanding his armies or glowering inscrutably from his director's chair, his presence emits an electric and emotional hum. He's the magnetic center of the chaos that surrounds him -- T.S. Eliot's "still point in a turning world." This documentary's joltingly fresh footage of Peckinpah working at his peak conveys a rare, urgent feeling: a sort of turbulent hopefulness. It gets across Peckinpah's intuitive command of epic filmmaking and complex storytelling at a time when it looked as if the world could be his, before he was stigmatized with the grandstanding public persona of "Bloody Sam." Too many movies about moviemakers lack one essential ingredient: a keen account of how a director interacts with cast, writer, cinematographer, crew. A corkscrew twist of fate has enabled Seydor to create an uncanny 34-minute chronicle of precisely those relationships. The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage is a magical salute to movie production on a grand scale. It's also a moving tribute to Peckinpah the committed artist -- the 20-hour-a-day filmmaker.
Sharing producer's credit on the picture is record producer Nick Redman. A longtime proponent of the work of Peckinpah and his composer, Jerry Fielding, Redman had already generated collector's items for a deluxe Wild Bunch laserdisc package (including a CD with Fielding's original recording of his score) when Warner Bros. Preservation and Research Manager Bill Rush made an amazing discovery: 72 minutes of silent black-and-white 16mm footage of Peckinpah and company on location in northern Mexico. The stash promised to be the perfect capper to a laserdisc gift box. But no one at the studio was able to give these home movies valid shape and point; some bureaucrats dubbed them "worthless." The apparent dead end threatened to halt the entire laser package. So Redman took on the challenge -- and called in Seydor.
Redman knew that Seydor was uniquely qualified for the job: A gifted film editor (White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup), he's also a former college professor and the author of Peckinpah: The Western Films, which Redman aptly describes as "the first academic treatise I'd ever read by a person who understood what a montage was." Redman suggested that Seydor treat the footage as an opportunity to create a documentary version of his book's chapter on The Wild Bunch. Actually, Seydor does more. Drawing on the work of Peckinpah interviewers and biographers from Stephen Farber and Aljean Harmetz to Garner Simmons and David Weddle, he's conceived of the film as a new entry in the Peckinpah legacy.
Seydor takes privileged glimpses of three days of an 81-day shoot and marries them to production stills and bits and pieces of the finished movie, using everything to dramatize (not just illustrate) the insights of witnesses and participants quoted on the soundtrack. Some speak for themselves, like Sam's first daughter, Sharon Peckinpah, screenwriter Walon Green, and the late Edmond O'Brien (in an interview also unearthed from the Warner bins). Actors and readers give voice to the others -- notably, Ed Harris as Peckinpah, in a superbly dry, probing interpretation. What emerges is a wonderful introduction to Peckinpah's radically detailed historical film about American outlaws in revolutionary Mexico -- a masterpiece that's part bullet-driven ballet, part requiem for Old West friendship, and part existential explosion. Seydor's movie is also a poetic flight on the myriad possibilities of movie directing.
In plain-spoken words and eloquent pictures, Seydor gives us Peckinpah as a demanding and attentive actor's director, ripping the clothes off O'Brien's back and providing him with a single "dead man's" suit to wear; and as a master planner, whether making 350 Mexican soldiers look like 6,000 for the climactic massacre (which the crew called "The Battle of Bloody Porch") or preparing to blow up a bridge while a string of wary stunt horsemen stretch across it. Best of all, Peckinpah registers as an improviser of genius. We see how his cryptic decision "to do a walk thing" fortifies the Bunch's final confrontation with a Mexican overlord and makes this most intricate of all westerns pay off. Although the documentary stays focused on Peckinpah, it shows how even a visionary artist depends on his power to energize his forces. That "walk thing" is solely the director's idea. But assistant director Cliff Coleman helps him "layer in" the background of Mexican troops and peasants groggily awakening to a red-hot morning. And the actors are so deep into their roles that with little apparent guidance they adopt beautiful, telling postures: Ben Johnson and Ernest Borgnine cradle their rifles in their arms on either side of the quartet; Warren Oates carries his as casually as a walking stick; William Holden, ever erect, holds his barrel-down, like a side arm.
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