Below are the remarks from the May 15, 2018 “Off the Couch” viewing of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” with Phillip Freeman, MD, DMH, Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, regularly a feature on the top ten lists of greatest westerns ever made, does not even have a definitive final print. Sam Peckinpah engaged in a fight to the death with MGM, the producing studio. The deals and sacrifices he made to save the picture alternated with the stands he took to save something of his artistic vision. In the film, Pat Garrett adapts to the vanishing western frontier by accepting the charge from political and business interests to roust his friend Billy out of the country. Billy decides to stay knowing that it will likely be his end but unwilling to sacrifice his sense of who he is. But who is he? The issue of myths, illusions, and the sacrifices we make to preserve them, is central in this film. The epic landscape, the poetic language of the Rudolf Wurlitzer screenplay, the elusive celebrity of the casted recording artists, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and Rita Coolidge, are all used to cultivate a film of consummate beauty and loss. It is a sad film made by a ferocious filmmaker at the height of his powers. Sigmund Freud wrote of the tragic if necessary consequences of civilizing influences. Peckinpah, sympathetic to the deals that must be made, documents the universal tragedy of sacrificed freedoms.
I had the pleasure of choosing the film from the archives to be viewed and discussed at the Coolidge Theater. I suspect I chose this film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as a respite from the high level of expressed emotion that characterizes the current cultural moment. Of course, as an analyst, I should expect that such choices usually reveal what they attempt to avoid. Sure enough, beneath the beauty and lyricism of this western set in the New Mexico territories in the late 1870’s, is a sad film, pessimistic about the prospects for civilization and public institutions. Not surprisingly, the film was made in 1973 in the midst of the Watergate scandal, perhaps the most recent time our country faced a divisive rage capable of rending the social fabric.
In this historic setting, the brilliant audacious filmmaker Sam Peckinpah makes an intensely personal and autobiographical film about a losing battle to hold onto his art in the guise of a story of a vanishing frontier. The infamous backstory of Peckinpah’s desperate struggle with the studio head at MGM directly parallels the film story of the hero’s battle against the legalized violence of the politicians and corrupt businessmen in the New Mexico territory, circa 1881.
Jack Aubrey, the studio head at MGM, had no patience for Peckinpah’s artistic ambitions. From the outset of the production, he cut the shooting days, the staff and crucial funds for equipment and film processing. Peckinpah responded with defiance and covert actions to make up for the deficiencies. His rage was fueled by alcohol and drugs. Aubrey used the stories of an out of control set to justify sending “suits” to further restrict and control the filmmaking. Peckinpah responded with a prank photo of himself being wheeled on a gurney by “nurses” as he received an intravenous infusion of scotch. The photo, which appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, gave Aubrey more leeway to take over the production. In post-production, Aubrey took over the film outright and had his own editors secretly prepare a studio cut for commercial release. Staff members loyal to Peckinpah stole the version of the film that Peckinpah’s own editors had prepared for screenings. They snuck the film out of the studio in the trunk of a car and it remained hidden for years. The studio cut of the film was released, declared a disaster, and vanished. Finally, years later and years after Peckinpah had died, Turner Productions bought the MGM archives and Ted Turner was convinced to restore and release what could be reconstructed of Peckinpah’s intended version of the film. There are still missing scenes and subsequent versions of the film released for television were edited in accordance with the censorship codes of the day. Although there is no definitive version of the film, a commercially available DVD contains two versions that, between them, contain most of the intended scenes.
The film touches on familiar Freudian themes: transience, and the longing to hold on to something that must pass, the arc of the daydream and longing for something set in the future based on the illusion of a paradise lost, in this case the mirage of perfect freedom in an unspoiled wilderness, and the necessary-for-survival and tragic encroachments of civilization in the form of limitations and boundaries on freedom.
Two options to accommodate these encroachments, romantic refusal and corrupted collaboration, one chosen by Billy and the other by Garrett, are both fatal. A third option, the artist observer, is represented by Billy’s sidekick, Alias, played by Bob Dylan, who anticipates the elusive persona cultivated over the course of his career.
“Alias what?” the other members of Billy’s pack ask Dylan.
“Alias whatever you want.””
“Why don’t we call him Alias?”
“That’s what I’d do,” says the impish Dylan.
Peckinpah, asked at the outset of making the film whether he wanted to make the “real” Billy the Kid or the legend opted to make the legend. But, as Freud said in his paper on constructions, the legend—Freud offered the example of the delusion—is compelling because it substitutes an earlier fragment of disavowed reality for the currently rejected reality. The death of Billy, the murderous outlaw, here portrayed and idealized as a tragic romantic hero, is resonant with the loss our own inevitably vanishing frontiers.
Bob Dylan sings,
Gypsy queens will play your grand finale
Way down in some Tularosa alley
Maybe in the Rio Pecos Valley
Billy, you’re so far away from home
Phillip Freeman, MD, DMH, is a Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. His psychoanalytic publications focus on themes of reality and illusion in the analytic setting, virtual reality technologies, and the arts. He is the author of a collection of satirical essays, Adaptations: Disquisitions on Psychoanalysis 1997-2006 and a play, The Witches of Macbeth. He frequently discusses and consults to productions of films and plays in Boston and New York. More information at phillipfreemanmd.com.
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