Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Arthur Penn -- and Bonnie and Clyde

Since I choose to celebrate lives rather than mourn deaths, I respond to the sad news of filmmaker Arthur Penn's passing Tuesday night at age 88 with thoughts of the movie that ensured his immortality: Bonnie and Clyde, a 1967 masterwork with the still-undiminished ability -- as I can tell every semester that I screen it for my students at University of Houston and Houston Community College -- to impress and enthrall.

Of course, some 43 years after the fact, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to fully appreciate the impact this classic had on moviegoers at the time of its original theatrical release. Indeed, even if you are old enough to have bought a first-run admission ticket to Penn’s violent folk ballad back in the day, more than four decades’ worth of subsequent cinematic slaughter very likely has immunized you against the shock value of this film’s groundbreaking bloody mayhem.

To be sure, Bonnie and Clyde still can make you flinch, particularly when Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow shoots a bank employee in the face during the panicky chaos of a high-speed getaway. (Clyde's horror is palpable: This is the first time he's ever had to actually kill anyone.) And the extended slo-mo carnage of the famously bloody finale, which has Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and her partner riddled with dozens of bullets in a police ambush, is all the more devastating because of the empathy we inevitably feel for these Depression Era desperadoes.

But violence is no longer the most provocative element of Bonnie and Clyde. Rather, it is the period drama’s audacious commingling of style and substance that continues to amaze and unsettle viewers.

When it first hit theaters in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was condemned by some outraged reviewers as a grotesquely comical treatment of dead-serious subject matter. (A Newsweek critic originally roasted the movie in a brief, brutally dismissive review -- only to later announce an unprecedented change of heart in a cover-story rave.) Worse, according to the most disapproving pundits, the filmmakers appeared to glorify the murderous antics of their title characters. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther went so far as to condemn Bonnie and Clyde as “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous deprecations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

But Bonnie and Clyde was never that simple, and seems even more complex today. There's a long tradition of Hollywood dramas about lovers on the run who turn to crime -- and, in the process, turn each other on – only to wind up being force-fed their just desserts. But director Penn and screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newton were among the first post-modernist filmmakers to view such outlaws as neither cunningly sinister nor tragically misguided, but rather as absurdly self-deluded.

The Bonnie and Clyde of Penn’s film are not quite evil, and not entirely dim-witted. They turn to crime primarily because there's nothing else to do to dispel the soul-dimming boredom of  workaday life in Depression Era Texas. (Also, it's a good way for Clyde to compensate for his impotence.) Once they decide to become criminals -- impulsively, as they do everything else -- they want to be superstars in their field. Early on, when Clyde meets a farmer whose home has been foreclosed by a bank, he introduces Bonnie and himself with a bold claim: “We rob banks.” In point of fact, neither has done anything quite so serious up to that point. But after Clyde boasts so heartily in front of Bonnie, it's only a matter of time before he must make good on his promise.

Bonnie and Clyde is a comedy of sorts, but the humor is midnight dark and the punchlines are real killers. Joined by Clyde's bumptious brother (Gene Hackman) and whiny sister-in-law (Estelle Parson), and a dim-bulb driver (Michael J. Pollard) who inadvertently causes the movie's first serious bloodshed, Bonnie and Clyde conduct a crime spree throughout the Southwest, always mindful of their own newspaper coverage and sometimes willing to supply what might be described as publicity stills. Long after they get in way over their heads, they don't recognize that they're drowning.

Bonnie has a glimmer or two of what's in store for them -- note the tragic ending for her self-aggrandizing poem -- but Clyde remains ludicrously unaware and unapologetic. Near the end, when Bonnie wistfully asks what he'd do if, by magic, they could somehow start over, Clyde blithely responds that he would take pains to never rob a bank in a state they would call home. (Among the movie's more pungent ironies: Despite the frequency of their robberies and the scale of their notoriety, Bonnie, Clyde and the rest of the gang don't ever really appear to be making crime pay very well. In fact, Penn subtly suggests that, never mind the legend, they're not very good at what they do.)

Penn firmly places his characters in the context of their time, and gives a strong sense of the fear, loathing and star-worship they inspired among their contemporaries. (For many folks who was evicted, diminished or otherwise brutalized by banks during the Depression Era, bank robbers often were viewed as avenging folk heroes.) And yet Bonnie and Clyde remains remarkably timeless in its double-edged view of ordinary folks who achieve extraordinary notoriety -- who romanticize themselves as outlaws, even revolutionaries, but remain as banal and smaller-than-life as a members of a stereotypical dysfunctional family. Unlike most subsequent movies that have used it as a template, this 1967 masterwork never makes the fatal mistake of reducing everything to cartoonish excess or ironic posturing. Bonnie and Clyde may be foolhardy killers, but they also are recognizably human. We are not asked to excuse or forgive them. But we cannot help caring as they suffer, bleed and die without fully comprehending who they are and what they've done.

At the time of his death, Arthur Penn had lived long enough to see Bonnie and Clyde endure as an inspiration for three generations of filmmakers. He graciously agreed, on the occasion of its DVD reissue three years ago, to briefly chat about it with me. Some highlights of our conversation:

Q. Many folks forget that Warners more or less dumped Bonnie and Clyde during its initial release, and that it didn’t really begin to draw crowds until was re-released several weeks later. But that was back in 1967 – before cable, before home video – when a movie might be given time to find an audience during a theatrical run. Would it be impossible today to repeat that phenomenon?

A. It would be very, very unlikely today. I wouldn’t say impossible. But it would require the luck of the gods. Which we had with us, I guess.

Q. Bonnie and Clyde often is cited as one of the movies that ushered in the “New Hollywood” era. Back when you were making it, were you aware that the times, they were a-changing?

A. I wouldn’t say we were quite that aware. We became aware in the course of the year. But not while we were actually making it. Although it was a little strange, because we were dealing with Warner Bros. But Jack Warner was in New York, selling the studio. That was rather unusual.

Q. Were you worried that you might be making a movie that would never be released?

A. A little bit, yes. It felt that way until Jack came back. And then the man in charge of things at the studio, Walter MacEwen, thought we should show Jack the movie. So we did. And he hated it.

Q. Uh-oh.

A. Yep. And that in part is what accounted for the very bad initial distribution.

Q. When did the tide begin to shift in your favor?

A. I think the turning point was Warren Beatty. Warren really re-launched the film virtually on his own. And what it did was, it just caught the wave of sort of anti-establishment young people who saw the film -- and responded furiously to the critic of the New York Times.

Q. That would have been Bosley Crowther, who practically made it his mission in life to attack the movie.

A. He really did. He panned it, and then panned it again, and panned it again. And every time he did that, the letters poured into the Times. And so, consequently, we were receiving an extraordinary amount of publicity for nothing.

Q. Aside from Crowther’s crusade, did anything about the initial response to your film really shock you?

A. I was amazed by the claims of “excess violence” when here we were in the midst of the Vietnam War. You could turn on the news and see kids in body bags being loaded into helicopters, having been shot up. So I don’t know how you come to a movie like this – which is really a romantic movie – and decide that its principal character is violent, and that the violence in it is so-called “excessive.” I thought that was nonsense.

Q. As I say, Bonnie and Clyde is considered one of the movies that kicked off an extraordinary period of innovation and experimentation in American cinema. At the time, did you feel as a filmmaker that anything was possible?

A. No, I wouldn’t say so. It was still a struggle to get Little Big Man (1970) made. Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was easy. But Night Moves (1975) was not easy. You know, Warners really didn’t like the script for that one – although they liked the idea of Gene Hackman. And I think they liked the idea of me at that point. Because they’d made a lot of money by that point out of Bonnie and Clyde.

Q. Your last theatrical feature was Penn and Teller Get Killed (1989) – the only out-and-out comedy on your resume.

A. Oh, yes. That was a kick. That was fun. You know, in this country, we tend to think of our film directors as rather serious figures if they’re at all conspicuous. One of the things I admire about European filmmakers is, they play frivolous games with films every once in a while. And it doesn’t bring the world down on their heads. For some reason, some people seemed resentful that I did Penn and Teller. But I enjoyed every minute of it.

Q. But you haven’t directed another theatrical film since then. Did you fall out of love with filmmaking?

A. No. [Laughs] I think I fell out of love with the physical capability that films really take. And I don’t know that I have it anymore. You know, they’re tough. They’re really tough. And I make them the hard way, I guess. I never sit down.

Q. You mentioned some of your other films – including two of my favorites, Night Moves and Alice’s Restaurant. And yet, you’re still best known for one movie, one masterwork. Is there any sort of downside to being so strongly identified with – and by – Bonnie and Clyde?

A. I would say so. Because other films I’ve made – and I think you share this view – are also pretty good. But Bonnie and Clyde was an absolute phenomenon. It was more of a sociological phenomenon than it was an aesthetic one. I mean, the times were so consonant with the theme of that film that it was just picked up, and it ran – despite everything that Warners could do to kill it.

Q. OK, if I were going to show a film at a tribute to you – but it couldn’t be Bonnie and Clyde -– what would you want it to be?

A. I think Little Big Man. It was a hard film to make. It was not responded to well by the studios when I shopped it around -– it took me six years to get it made -– so there’s a lot of passion in that one.

Q. Well, maybe that’s the key to the enduring popularity of Bonnie and Clyde – it, too, obviously was made with a lot of passion.

A. Yes, I think so.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Great post. I'm glad that Penn mentioned "Little Big Man" as a movie to remember him by. I felt there was a lot of heart in that movie, and (gay stereotypes aside), it was a major step forward in the way Native Americans were portrayed on screen.

Plus, such wonderfully dry narration... "That was the end of my gunfighter period."