COCKFIGHTER (1974 review)

This is excerpted from my “Paris-London Journal” in the November-December 1974 Film Comment, written in August when I was starting work at the British Film Institute after living for five years in Paris.

I can’t recall now whether it was this review or my inclusion of Cockfighter on my ten-best list in Sight and Sound — or could it have been both? — that led eventually to Charles Willeford sending me a note of thanks, along with his a copy of his self-published book A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, a short account of his own hemorrhoid operation. Not knowing Willeford’s work at the time — today I’m a big fan, especially of his four late Hoke Mosley novels — I’m sorry to say that I didn’t keep this book, which undoubtedly has become a very scarce collector’s item.

But first, before reprinting the Film Comment review, here is my capsule review of Cockfighter for the Chicago Reader, written almost three decades later and published in mid-August 2003: “Except for Iguana, which is almost completely unknown, this wry 1974 feature is probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop). Shot by Nestor Almendros on location in Georgia (partly in Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, which seems appropriate), it follows the absurdist progress of a man who trains fighting cocks (Warren Oates in one of his best performances) and who takes a vow of silence after his hubris nearly puts him out of the game, though he continues to narrate the story offscreen. Produced by Roger Corman as an exploitation item for the drive-ins, this performed so badly in that capacity that it was recut and retitled more than once (as Born to Kill, Wild Drifter, and Gamblin’ Man). But as a dark comedy and closet art movie, it delivers and lingers. With Richard B. Shull, Harry Dean Stanton, Millie Perkins, and Troy Donahue. 83 min.”

August 12: Monte Hellman’s COCKFIGHTER. On his own more modest level, Hellman seems to be attempting much the same game as [Roman Rolanksi’s in CHINATOWN]: to elicit all the necessary cheers from the peanut gallery while continuing to play some of his favorite formalist tunes in the bass clef, intermittently abstracting the material at hand. In CHINATOWN – to my eyes, at any rate – the formalist counter-line is minimal and mainly submerged, arising on occasion to take the center (as when we hear, and then see, workmen scratching a name off an office door), but usually kept on the fringes of the Time Magazine-cover characters, who clog up most of the remaining space. In other words, the formal games seem to be played around and between the characters rather than – as was more often the case in WHAT? -– waged through them.

In COCKFIGHTER, the accommodation of the commercial and formal strains is rather more complex, involving interaction as well as co-existence. The peanut gallery merges with the cockfighter spectators in the film, and Hellman manages to suggest the point – without ever forcing it – that watching a movie called COCKFIGHTER is fundamentally just about as ridiculous as watching a cockfight. Working in a genre that is every bit as conventional and predictable as the private-eye story, Hellman comes up with something much closer to genuine absurdism than Polanksi’s cocktail party cynicism.

Consider the plot: a cockfighter (Warren Oates) loses two bets and two birds. One of the victors advises him that he drinks too much and talks too much, and Oates immediately takes a vow of silence, not to be broken until he’s proclaimed Cockfighter of the Year. (To sidestep this refusal in narrative terms, Hellman permits him occasional offscreen remarks as narrator, mainly laconic factual observations.) He joins forces with a Polish immigrant who supplies betting money, birds, and encouragement, and ultimately wins the coveted medal.

It is difficult for me to think of a more idiotic and gratuitiously brutal sport than cockfighting. I happen to find the daredevil flying in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and the car-racing in RED LINE 7000 almost equally ridiculous ways for grown men to spend their time, but perhaps for just this reason I have no difficulty in accepting both these activities in both Hawks films as metaphysical metaphors — even though Hawks insists on treating and honoring them literally, as camped-up reflections of his own experiences with cars, planes, and the men who drive them.

I haven’t the foggiest notion of what Hellman thinks about cockfighting per se, but the fascination with games and competitions that persists through THE SHOOTING and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is always tempered by the dryly comic notion that all of them are pretty silly. And nothing could be sillier than the aspirations and exploits of Oates in COCKFIGHTER. One isn’t necessarily persuaded that he loses because of his bagging or drinking, or that he wins because of any intervening moral growth or increasing amount of expertise. (After all, it is his Polish partner who gets him on his winning streak, and the fights ultimatelyb belong to the birds, not the bettors.) For all the arcane bits of inside information that Oates imparts about his trade, he mainly comes across as a likable, brainless twerp who nurtures a mythical sense of purpose, like some variant of Hemingway’s Old Man of the Sea recast as Don Quixote in a hillbilly context.

The cutting edge of Hellman’s treatment of this Roger Corman quickie can be seen in the wonderful crowds that he collects around the cockfights, the uncanny talent for directing rural speech to make it sound like crazed ritual incantation. As a native of Alabama, I have a sore point about Yankee approximations of Deep South accents and gestures that are indifferently observed; next to such models of precision as THE PHENIX CITY STORY, BABY DOLL, and WILD RIVER, the grotesque caricatures in films like SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, I WALK THE LINE, THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED, and (much as I regret to say it) Renoir’s THE SOUTHERNER tend to drive me up the nearest wall. Suffice it to say that in both his direct use and his paraphrases of the look and speech of local yokels, Hellman has an infallibly witty and accurate ear and eye.

In fact, the mean, caustic bite of the humor in COCKFIGHTER reminded me more than once of Flannery O’Connor. The evangelist hero of Wise Blood observes at one point that any man that’s got a good car don’t need to be justified, and the obstinate pride and conceit of the Oates character about his own stature seems to belong to much the same world. (The cockfights themselves inevitably suggest the depiction of one in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and O”Connor is one of the few serious disciples of West, most of all in her treatments of violence.) Is it by chance or design that Hellman sets his climactic cockfight in Milledgeville, Georgia, the town where O’Connor lived for most of her life? (For all I know, the setting may have come from the novel the film is based on, or some inside knowledge about cockfighting circuits, but the possibility seems worth noting.) This isn’t a major Hellman job, but it will do just fine until one comes along. Less interesting than THE SHOOTING and less pretentious than TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, it is at the very least an engaging minor treat.

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