' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Arthur Penn, Thank You

Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Arthur Penn, Thank You

"'Bonnie and Clyde' is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life." - Roger Ebert

Arthur Penn, who passed away late Tuesday at the age of 88, directed many movies but one stands above the rest. A direct descendant of the French New Wave but without all the overt artiness, "Bonnie and Clyde" was upon its release in 1967 quite possibly the most revolutionary, most game-changing movie America had ever seen, so much so that it was unrelentingly trashed by film critics (aside from the esteemed Roger Ebert) likely because it wasn't exactly what they expected before they reversed course in droves upon realizing that what they were actually seeing was essentially the Sun Sessions of the cinema. "Bonnie and Clyde" - to quote Jason Lee in "Almost Famous" - is/was a movie that says: "Here I am, and fuck you if you can't understand me."

If possible you want a film that opens with a scene, a line, an image that encapsulates the ride the audience is about to take and it is difficult to argue there was ever a more powerful image at a movie's open than Faye Dunaway as young Bonnie Parker (in a shot admittedly lifted from "Band Of Outsiders" but used to greater effect) holding her celestial face up to the bars of her bed to emulate a life that while technically outside them is behind them nontheless.

From that instant you are with Bonnie, you are on her side, you two are a team even when Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow turns up just a couple fingersnaps later to form the real team because who among us hasn't at least once - probably two thousand times more - woken up and wanted to put his or her face between the bars of a bed because you feel like all there is to do in the place where you are is - as Clyde says to Bonnie - "listen to the grass grow?"

Sure, sure, Bonnie and Clyde rob banks and wield guns and, uh, kill a few people and so on and so forth and this is, of course, bad because upon watching it in my early 20's I immediately went out and committed a string of bank robberies that spread across....oh, wait, no, I didn't. I forgot. Crazily, I'm not an impressionable moron who blindly blames every bad thing in society on movies. (Although Faye Dunaway did cause an entire legion of young girls to begin wearing fanciful berets.)

Arthur Penn & Faye Dunaway

30 years after its release the esteemed Ebert wrote a commemorative piece and indicated how its "freshness"had been "absorbed in countless other films" and that it's impact "may not be obvious to those raised in the shadow of its influence." I will admit the realistic and insistent violence and many of the anti-classical filmmaking techniques that would have been so utterly shocking to a 1967 audience did not make as much of a dent on me watching long after its release but that was never what intrigued me the most. I was more interested in its storytelling, its ability to paint a kind of peaceful tragedy.

There is that moment early on where they have taken a few banks and they know Clyde but they don't know Bonnie and Clyde tells her she can still get out, she can still go home, but she she says she doesn't want to do that and he says "You won't get a moment's peace" and she asks, rhetorically, "Promise?" The bank robbing, frankly, could have been anything. It's the sensation of being alive, is what it is, and that is crystallized in the unforgettable bluegrass score by Flatt and Scruggs. It isn't dire and it isn't foreboding, it's joyful, it's expressive of this duo on the lam. They're young, they're in love, and they rob banks. Deal with it.

But then there is foreboding midway through when the gang visits Bonnie's family and Penn films the encounter in that dustbowl haze, suggesting memories out of focus, and Bonnie realizes this is a life she and Clyde can never ever have, that there is no going back, that maybe they are doomed. And the third act could have been a spiral toward that doom but then she writes "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde" and they send it in to the papers and there is the shot of the newspapers blowing away in the wind set to the bluegrass score again and you know what's coming but it's the movie being defiant to the inevitable tragedy.

All anyone wants before they go is to know they lived, that they lived how they wanted to, that they embraced their time here, that they may have made bad decisions - who doesn't? - but that they don't regret them because they gave them this particular life with which they were satisfied. You wonder if that is how Bonnie and Clyde feel? She asks him in bed about the fantasy of walking away and starting over. The answer, of course, is in the fleeting moments before their end - their famous, horrific, beautiful end, when they catch each other's eyes and smile. They're done but they're at peace. We should all be so lucky.

Arthur Penn's career arc was not the most traditional and I will admit to being familiar with very little of his other work but I know to a certainy that my movie-watching, movie-writing, movie-loving life would be much, much less rich and fulfilled without "Bonnie and Clyde." It's one of my favorite movies. I can pay it no higher compliment.  Arthur Penn, thank you.


Louis Catliff said...

loved bonnie and clyde one of the most iconic on-screen couples in cinematic history, and i have been loving the blog
keep it up
feel free to join my bloghttp://lcmoviereviews.blogspot.com/

Moopot said...

Good piece. I just have one problem: Roger Ebert wasn't the only critical voice in the wilderness. What about a little critic called... Pauline Kael?

Nick Prigge said...

True, true, very true. Good call. Kael knew what was up. That was my oversight. I'm sure there were a few other critics out there - perhaps not as visible - that were aware of what they were seeing too.