Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Arthur Penn | Bonnie and Clyde

by Douglas Messerli

David Newman, Robert Benton, Robert Towne [uncredited] and Warren Beatty [uncredited] (script and writing), Arthur Penn (director) Bonnie and Clyde / 1967

With Arthur Penn’s death this year at the end of September, I determined to review his noted film, Bonnie and Clyde, a movie I saw when it originally appeared in the theaters in 1967. Few of the early reviews had been particularly positive when I saw the film at Madison, Wisconsin’s Orpheum Theatre. Time magazines glowing appreciation changed all that. I absolutely loved the movie without really comprehending why I did so. But I remember trying to talk about it with others and attempting to share some of my feelings. In that sense it may have been one of my first attempts at movie reviewing, even though I used my voice instead of a pen.

In the years since, I have seen it a couple of times and watched clips from it on television, but I have not truly given it the attention it deserves. My viewing of the other day was intended to be a correction, and a reinvestigation of the work.

While I still believe it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, it has certainly lost much of its luster in my older mind. Perhaps the story of a group of misfits, including a beautiful young man and woman—a 30 year-old Warren Beatty (playing Clyde Barrow) and a 26 year-old Faye Dunaway (playing Bonnie Parker)—who, bored with the drab world in which they live, suddenly decide to take a wild road trip, replete with guns, robbery, and, ultimately, murder, doesn’t have the same sense of innocence to it as it did in 1967, a year in which I had just turned 20 myself.

Using some of the techniques and themes of Jean-Luc Godard and other French New Wave directors (there are elements in Penn’s work of Breathless and Band of Outsiders), Penn sought to convey the energy and hidden innocence of his characters, despite their often brutal acts. We all knew kids that came from perfectly decent homes—the sons and daughters of ministers and police chiefs—who had been arrested for stealing cars and other petty crimes; in my hometown the head of the police’s son shocked us by stealing a neighbor’s car, driving it into another state! I was the superintendent’s son, just then beginning to perceive that I was gay and becoming involved in political protests. Bonnie and Clyde were simply precursors of what any of us knew we might be capable of. And in the back of our minds, perhaps we all wanted, like Kerouac, to get “on the road,” embarking on the adventuresome voyage of life.

By romanticizing the original Barrow gang’s story, by turning them into beautiful people who perceived themselves as simply out on a lark, Penn and his writers could use the bleak backdrop of the Great Depression as an explanation for their character’s seemingly rapacious acts: it was a time when few people had anything, so who cared if they stole from the rich? Like 20th century Robin Hoods they kept very little for themselves.

These were, Penn underscored, basically “good folk,” as we witness, for example, when they attend, on the run, a family reunion, filmed in red tinted, near stop-cam action, a scene of notable film artistry that pulls these wild Americans out of the white trash rabble and drops them, momentarily, into a simulacrum of the European art film. After all, we are reminded, Bonnie is a poet!

But Penn knows his American audience well, and while he allows them to briefly rub shoulders, metaphorically speaking, with their European counterparts, he keeps them almost sexually pure, a necessity if his audience is to allow them their other lusts. The fact that Clyde is sexually impotent and Bonnie gets off with guns is as American as apple pie, just as are the more generally violent acts which soon begin to dominate.

At the very moment that this sexless couple’s energy begins to flag, they accumulate others, at first just an idiot gas station attendant, C. W. Moss (perfectly played by Michael J. Pollard), and then Clyde’s older brother Buck (the veteran actor Gene Hackman) and his wife, a minister’s daughter, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), gradually transforming the couple into a "gang."

As Penn and his writers, suggest, however, that is just when the “fun” begins to dissipate, and they are all swept up into forces of the society they have been attempting to escape. If Bonnie is a modern day Hedda Gabler, a kind of feminist gunslinger, using her “weapons” to destroy the men who threaten, Blanche is just the opposite, an old-fashioned, passive, subservient, and selfish wife, whose every act results in a kind of hysteria, and, indeed, as in the clinical description of that long misunderstood disease, goes blind (she is shot in the eyes), perhaps even, in her ear-shattering screams, falling deaf! Parsons won an Oscar for her hilariously over-the-top portrayal. Despite Clyde's impotence, Bonnie is able, by film's end, to sexually reawaken him--a necessity, one suspects, for Warren Beattie's reputation as a ladies' man.

What such thrill-seekers always forget, alas, is that authority in American culture is just as violent and is far more vengeful and righteous in its behavior. The so-called “good” people are generally more dangerous and, accordingly, nearly always win out over what they define as the “bad.” Using C. W.’s father as a ruse, the police lure the by now worn-out couple into an act of kindness; as they attempt to help Mr. Moss change a worn-out tire, the police brutally kill the two in a blood-bath of hundreds of bullets.

The ending, consequently, hits the audience as an utter shock, so seemingly out of sync as it is with the tone of the rest of the film. Reality, as it must, suddenly hits not only the characters as their bodies fill up with lead, but the audience, who has gone along “for the ride,” with what might have seemed simply as a kind of goofy gangster film, is forced to understand the result of such societal behavior. For those of us against the Viet Nam War, facing always the possibility of the draft, it came like a slap in the face, an awakening from our presumably innocent childhoods themselves so steeped in Western and gangster myths. It was not that we could not see it coming; we knew it must end that way. But in Penn’s filming of that inevitability, the impact stung us so deeply that it seemed almost that all of our laughter had suddenly and irrevocably been turned sucked up into one deep, long howl. And looking back, if we might ever want to locate the point of loss of American innocence of the baby boom generation, it may not have been the day years later, on September 11th, 2001, but that September in 1967 (the film was released in August, but did not reach most of the smaller American cities until the next month) in the dark of a movie house.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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