02/08/2017

The Wild Bunch - Chaos Montage

Thoughts On: The Wild Bunch (1969)

An outlaw cowboy dives into deep waters with what is supposed to be his final heist.


The Wild Bunch is an epic masterpiece for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, this is considered one of the most significant films of the late 60s that, along with Bonnie and Clyde as well as The Graduate, kick-started the New Hollywood movement of the 70s, thanks to its graphic, vulgar and seedy depiction of a once romanticised era. This leads us onto our second point; The Wild Bunch is very much so a revisionist film that took the classical Hollywood western and completely deconstructed it. If we then compare this to films such as The Searchers or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which both only came out around a decade previous to The Wild Bunch, the difference is not only obvious, but is staggering. Even if we compared Pekinpah's film to Sergio Leone's Dollar Trilogy, which can be seen to have acted as a transitory selection of films between the likes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Wild Bunch, Pekinpah's movie is still far more extreme and intense than even the most graphic of scenes from For A Few Dollars More or The Good The Bad The Ugly. As a result, much like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (which came out in the same year as this), The Wild Bunch is a great, fresh breath from a tired genre, blown through grit teeth and a sordid smile. But, again, when we try to compare The Wild Bunch to even Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, it seems miles apart due to its focus on violence and immorality. This then leaves these two New Hollywood films two different sides to one revisionary coin; Butch Cassidy and The Sandance Kid focused on revising the manner in which we perceived western archetypes and characters whilst The Wild Bunch has us question the very structure of 'cowboy society' (if you could even claim such a thing existed). What these two films then represent is one of the last breaths of excitement from an integral genre, leaving Clint Eastwood, around 20 years later, to construct and exhale one of the last great stoic breaths of the genre with Unforgiven. However, let's not go too far along a tangent of discussing how the western has changed over time.

Delving further into the mastery of this film, The Wild Bunch is an immense dissection of morality in action films as well as an intricate study of the manner in which audiences empathise with characters. In such, constantly throughout this narrative our characters, our anti-heroes, bring themselves to the edge of a redemptive choice and so have in their grips the chance to act morally and with honour - but they never properly grasp it. Simultaneously, however, our gang never devolves into pure chaos and sadism. As a result, we understand and, to a certain degree, empathise with them - all whilst bracing ourselves against the thunderous storm of their destruction. And what holds this huge commotion all together is certainly this film's melancholic theme of 'the end'. This is something that pervades many layers of The Wild Bunch with death, decimation and extinction imbuing every element of this film both as a story and as a movie apart of the western genre; we sense a great fatigue in all of our archetypal characters and in the explosive, yet classical, narrative structure of a cat chasing a mouse whilst running away from a big dog. This leaves The Wild Bunch, in many respects, an immoral last stand imbued with thieves' honour and a criminal's code.

One of the final things that makes this film so great, beyond the characters, the writing and the legacy, is certainly Pekinpah's direction. It goes without saying, but this is all encapsulated by the tremendous action sequences. And what makes the action sequences work is Penkinpah's astounding approach to montage. Usually lorded for the use of slow-motion, the action sequences, in my view, have a little more to them. Because Pekinpah wanted to experiment with slow motion, he would often shoot his sequences with up to 5 cameras all shooting at different frame rates (24 fps, 30 fps, 60 fps, 90 fps and 120 fps). This not only allowed him to create his stunning action sequences with an impossible amount of camera set-ups, but is what saved this film from the MPAA; because of the cacophonous, rapid montage, there could be bloodshed and gore without the censors outright banning this film - instead, after much editing, allowed them to slap it with an R.

But, what I love so much about the editing of this film is the manner in which it depicts chaos. Whilst montage, especially in the hands of someone like Eisenstein, dilates and extends time out of reality and into a cinematic realm, Penkinpah and his editor Lou Lombardo keep a strong grip on linearity. So, despite the use of slow-motion, there is a good sense that we are seeing Penkinpah's action scenes play out in near-real-time. This becomes ever more prevalent when we consider something such as the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. It seems to take an age for the soldiers to march down those steps, and Eisenstein suspends the reality of this brilliantly with a use of repetition and symphonic shot sizes. (In such, I mean to reference, in part, the manner in which Hitchcock describes the size of a shot as a musical note or beat). Pekinpah does not ever fully step into the realm of Soviet Montage because, whilst he cuts rapidly, he does not utilise shot sizes and repetition with such formal power and sturdiness as we see in the films of, for example, Eisenstein. Instead, Pekinpah imbues his montage with fluidity and linearity with a use of camera movement, telephoto lenses and zooms (some technological details that Eisenstein couldn't have utilised in his era). The end result of this is the illusion that, instead of capturing all of the little chunks of a scene, Pekinpah blasts everything at us, capturing the entirety of his action somehow without expanding time. This is all supported significantly by the ingenious sound design. In such, Pekinpah, unlike silent movie directors such as Eisenstein, actually has to edit gun shots, screams, explosions and dialogue into his montage. Because Pekinpah couldn't endlessly repeat sections of his scenes without tiring us with the same explosions and gun shots, he has to work with the reality of his sound design and so has to be very careful with his expansion of, and play with, time - and such results in the linear nature of his montage which seems to capture every major detail of action. What Pekinpah ultimately creates with The Wild Bunch is then a unique form of montage - what I would call Chaos Montage - and such is one of the most impressive aspects of this film.

So, to conclude, there is so much I could have continued to talk about in regards to The Wild Bunch, but, having given some cliff notes, I hope all I haven't talked about flourishes from your viewing (or re-watching) of this movie. With that said, what are your thoughts on The Wild Bunch and all we've covered today?





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