THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983)
Running Time: 103 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, Chris Sarandon, Meg Foster, Helen Shaver, Burt Lancaster
THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND Is About Television, Chump.
Forget whatever else you might have heard about The Osterman Weekend. When it came out no one really had it figured out. It did not fit neatly into the Peckinpah canon and it took a while after his death for a broadly philosophical-aesthetic of Peckinpah to be established to shoehorn various elements to make a coherent (but incorrect) analysis possible.
To give you an idea of the mental set of the time, what was taken seriously as filmic art, what was considered a first rate film, top of the heap, was TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983) which won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Script, not to mention Golden Globes, DGA, WGA, L.A. & N.Y. and National Board of Review awards etc. THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND was barely noticed, and, if at all, instantly dismissed as – Why would Peckinpah ever agree to direct this? At the time Peckinpah’s career was essentially over. He was not only unemployable but also very ill. Some wannabe producers thought that the expressway to film success was to buy a best seller, which they did. For some reason, probably his impeccable legendary status, they hired Peckinpah. At the time Peckinpah was living in Peter Fonda’s Montana cabin. Now I’m only speculating, or rather projecting, but my informed guess about THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND comes from certain privileged information.
I too lived in a northland cabin. In the pre-satellite, pre-cable days, it was typical to be able to get only one channel. From early fall through spring, ones days become oddly set. Once you’ve done the chores, shopping, taken long walks with the dog in the woods, it starts to grow dark and a bit nippy around 3:30 and there’s nothing left to do but go back to the cabin, make a fire in the fireplace, light up a bowl to enjoy the sunset and maybe get a brewski from the fridge and turn on the TV. One channel, remember, and what’s on? I remember for me it was “Hawaii 5-0” and “The Streets Of San Francisco.” I was amazed at the total inanity of these 50+ minute narratives. Maybe I’d socialize in the evening, go to the mall or drive an hour to the art cinema for a film but these afternoon syndicated ‘action’ shows were a main source of perverse amusement.
Peckinpah was offered a job and took it. He didn’t have the strength to insist on his own cast, he made his film and then had the final cut taken out of his hands to be cut by a bunch of schlockmeister hacks who have since glommed onto a profitable franchise in the Highlander pictures. It was a spy/thriller best seller, inviolate in its success. He still took the job and made the ridiculous story. However the film of THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND is not a spy/thriller. It is a very clever and at times venomous critique of television whose skewering varies from witty to sarcastic. THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND is about television.
Set ups and shots mock those of tv action series. So does the mise en scene and the cutting. The tone of the close-ups, the use of expository devices like telephone calls, time gobbled up and the illusion of action delivered by mere geography passing the windows of a vehicle. To further enhance the subject the lead character is a television personality. But the last and most brilliant layer is for this shadow play to play out on various television screens. The film must have an hour, a solid hour, of people watching other people on television screens, or people watching other people watching people watch television (it happens). Television is a bad imitation of life (and death). The story is a toss away but the bitter critique of television and even more denunciation of the audience is what occupies Peckinpah’s interest. He does plant various Easter Eggs throughout. The death of John Hurt’s wife is the alternate scenario of the death of Marilyn Monroe. That is directed like real Peckinpah and not faux tv. I haven’t seen the director’s cut but I’ll bet that the extended sex scene – 1. Makes the viewer very uncomfortable, and 2. Makes an aesthetic statement independent from the film’s narrative. I don’t know if its super sexy or super depressing or anything in between but I’m sure its something.
Of course the blowhards who paid for it all didn’t care what the hell Peckinpah was doing for his own satisfaction. ‘Everyone’ had read the novel and everyone wanted to see the film of the novel. It was a sure hit. All of that artistic crap was beside the point. So ‘everyone’ thought TERMS OF ENDEARMENT was the height of art and it succeeded mightily and THE OSTERMSAN WEEKEND was D.O.A. and survived, barely, because it was an auteur’s final film. It gets written about because nearly everything to be said has been said about the accepted Peckinpah masterpieces and this must, somehow, have its virtues. The trick was to bend the film to fit a set of acceptable virtues.
In fact what we have is Peckinpah’s spleen exploding on the screen. Sure TERMS OF ENDEARMENT was superficially the serious film but all of its seriousness is insensitively mechanical. A typical novel about the hollowness of an academic career adapted to soap opera verities. While it pressed certain cultural buttons in 1983 it just lies lifeless on the celluloid today, a story unreeling whose emotional peeks will diminish as the actor’s special personas become more remote from the viewers. THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, despite the culturally chronologic specificity of the topic, television will resonate as long as there is an idiot box, by whatever dimension, in front of our eyes and resounding through our consciousness, and, worst still, become a part of our daily lives down to our autonomic nervous systems.
If you like this recommendations: