Monday, April 13, 2009

My "Bonnie and Clyde" Problem




Like most people who read Pictures At a Revolution, I wound up re-watching many of the 1967 movies mentioned in the book. (Can't bring myself to revisit Doctor Dolittle, though.) In particular, Bonnie and Clyde, one of those movies that I used to consider a masterpiece and now consider... something else.

The impact of watching Bonnie and Clyde for the first time is incredible, no matter where or when you see it. (I saw it for the first time on television with commercial breaks, and even that couldn't kill its momentum, the way it made you want to know what was going to happen next even though you already knew the ending.) So it's not just a relic of its time, the way Easy Rider is; it's a real, living movie that doesn't lose its power to confuse you. By that I mean that it set out from the beginning to make the audience feel unsure about how to respond to it: with no one in the movie to anchor the story in conventional morality or authority (like the cops in White Heat), and its constant, sudden shifts in tone, it makes us respond and then ask ourselves why we're responding the way we are. Every movie that tries to get us involved and then ask questions about the nature of our involvement and the nature of moviemaking and storytelling, from Taxi Driver to Observe and Report, owes a debt to Bonnie and Clyde, but more importantly, the movie still has that effect today, and carries it off better than most of the movies that imitated it. So in that sense, the movie still "holds up."

But while the movie still works, I don't know any more whether I think it's all that good. I don't even know if that makes any sense. (How can a movie not be good if it works?) But for one thing, I'm not terribly fond of most of the performances in the film. Well, Gene Wilder as the nervous undertaker is great. But Beatty is, as always, playing himself instead of getting into the character; Michael J. Pollard, same deal; Faye Dunaway does create a character, because she had no pre-set persona to fall back on, but I find her Bonnie to be kind of a depressing, dour doormat with no real joy in anything, even crime and guns. Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons are stuck with under-written parts, which shouldn't be a problem; the movie is called Bonnie and Clyde, after all. So my problem comes back to Bonnie and Clyde; the way they're played, and the way they're written, they seem like vehicles for the filmmakers' ideas about style and tone and audience response. I can't really see them as people, not in the '30s, not in 1967, not now.


The obvious point of comparison for Bonnie and Clyde is Gun Crazy (as Harris notes in his book, Truffaut took the writers of the film to see Gun Crazy when he was considering directing it, and Godard, who also considered it, attended the same screening with Anna Karina). It's pointless to talk about which movie is "better"; they may both be Freudian melodramas about male-female gangsters teams, but they're very different movies. But the thing that amazes me now is that Bonnie, made 18 years after Gun Crazy, seems more dated than Gun Crazy. In part, this is my very personal reaction to many of the films from Hollywood's "Second Golden Age", roughly the late '60s through the late '70s: I find that films from this era, with exceptions of course, date faster and more badly than movies from any other era of Hollywood filmmaking. I'm talking not about bad films, which always date badly, but the good ones. In writing, acting and especially editing and photography (the ostentatious zooms, the music-free direct cuts where one sound effect is cut off and the next sound effect begins, with no attempt at seamless transition; the downbeat or ambiguous endings), these movies just feel very "old" to me in a way that the good films from earlier and later eras do not. I'm not sure if I can explain why, even if I took another post to do it.

Update: I should add, since I didn't make this clear, that I'm not just talking about the way these movies look, or the references. I'm also talking about the intangible quality that makes something transcend its time, and which I often find lacking in late '60s and early '70s classics. There are many films from all other eras -- even the '80s -- that I can watch without thinking too much about when they're from, but I find that when I watch even some of the best 1967-1975 movies, I'm completely conscious that they're period pieces. That's 100% subjective, of course.[/update]

(And again, I don't just mean the films that tried to be timely -- of course Taxi Driver seems dated in some ways; it's got things to say about the crumbling New York of 1976 and post-Vietnam rage -- but almost anything. Airplane! is a light comedy/spoof that happens to have been made in 1980. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are light comedy/spoofs that always leave me thinking that this must have been funnier in 1974/5. I'm not even saying that Airplane! is a better film than Young Frankenstein, just that I don't think it dates as badly.)

But there are other reasons why Bonnie and Clyde seems very creaky to me, reasons that are specific to the movie itself. One of them is its look. As Harris notes, Burnett Guffey was one of the few veterans who worked on Bonnie. He had shot many dark films, mostly in black-and-white, but when he worked in color, his movies had probably the brightest, cheeriest look in the business. In fact, Guffey was the first cinematogapher whose work I actually noticed: realizing that How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Silencers and Bonnie and Clyde were all shot by the same person, I understood how a director of photography could create a distinctive look. Guffey's color movies were the ultimate in candy-box artificiality, which may be one of the reasons Beatty and Penn wanted him for the film; making Bonnie look like a Matt Helm movie helped re-inforce the plan to start out as a light comedy and then gradually make the audience more and more uncomfortable with what it was seeing. But the look of the movie, which is virtually identical to The Silencers the year before, makes it feel like a '60s relic studio movie, as does the rear-projection in the car scenes. (As Penn says in Pictures At a Revolution, if they had done the movie two years later, they could have done it without rear-projection; it wasn't technically feasible to put cameras and sound equipment in the cars on the actual locations. On the other hand, couldn't he have taken a page from Gun Crazy and put a camera in the car for one robbery?) There's something disorienting about a movie that wants to be modern and cutting-edge but looks like a Dean Martin movie, and it's not the good kind of disorienting that the movie's going for, it's the bad kind of disorienting, where the technique takes you out of the film. (The Wild Bunch, two years later, has something similar going on, where the old-fashioned film grammar of a lot of the picture -- right down to the dissolves between scenes, which by then were out of date -- clashes with all the slow-motion and zooms. But in that movie, you can argue that the mix of old and new is built into the story.)

And so I get the feeling, overall, that this is another movie where Arthur Penn had interesting ideas and executed them in a sluggish, confused way. Penn was the real deal as a film director, unlike other '60s transplants from TV and stage like Arthur Hiller or Gene Saks or (I have no problem saying this) Mike Nichols. Penn clearly wanted American movies to be better than they had been, and he wanted to make movies that shook us up. But I don't think it's just bad luck that he made relatively few actually good movies (and after Bonnie, he didn't do much stage work, either, which may be a waste; he had a remarkable track record as a stage director). I find something smug and preachy in a lot of his work, as if he can't stop telling us what we're supposed to learn about life and ourselves, and won't commit himself to the characters. Bonnie and Clyde... I was going to say it "needed" something, but that would be silly; since it was a hit and became a classic, Penn clearly gave it what it needed. So I'll say that what I now want from Bonnie and Clyde is a movie that believes in the lovers and their pop-Freud problems, and also stands apart from it and comments on the story in a self-conscious way. I think Penn got the second half of that; I'm not sure he got the first half. So what I see now is two attractive late-'60s people play-acting at being young gangsters on the run. And I no longer see much reason to worry about the points the movie is trying to make, because I no longer think it's about people, the way other great lovers-on-the-run pictures (before and after) are about people.

Of the hit 1967 movies that used the past to comment on the present, and changed the way violence was portrayed in the movies, I think I prefer The Dirty Dozen, which at the time was sometimes used as an example of the "wrong" way to do this kind of film, bad cop to Bonnie's good cop. Pauline Kael in her review of Bonnie mentioned Dirty Dozen, "which isn't a work of art and whose violence offends me morally." But while there's nothing terribly thought-provoking about The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich's angry misanthropy -- his attitude that we can root for thugs and murderers because that's all any of us are -- has the kind of passion, of sincerity, that I don't find in Penn's work.

But I changed my mind once; I could change my mind again.

One thing that I find interesting about Bosley Crowther's famous campaign against the movie, which didn't hurt Bonnie but cost Crowther his job as the New York Times movie critic, is that even though Crowther was the ultimate middlebrow critic, his attack on Bonnie and Clyde was very much in line with the things that highbrows used to criticize in Hollywood movies. He focused on two things: pandering to the lowest common denominator (in the form of goofy comedy and celebration of violence) and historical inaccuracy.

There was a time in the early '60s when you couldn't go wrong tut-tutting Hollywood for its tendency to change and prettify real-life events and people. So when Crowther wrote about Bonnie and Clyde's "ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperados were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years," he probably thought he was on safe ground. What he didn't get was that expectations had changed. It used to be that big-studio movies trivialized history, while tough little movies tried to tell the truth about the way things were. By 1967, historical accuracy was the province of safe, bland studio movies (the ones that spent millions of extra dollars to make every costume and hairstyle perfectly in-period), and it was now cool to use anachronisms and inaccuracies to make "historical" subjects apply to the modern era, the way Bonnie and Clyde and The Dirty Dozen did. Crowther missed that, and I get the impression that he really thought the argument from history would be a winning argument, because it used to work against Hollywood.

On the other hand, as mediocre and middlebrow a critic as Crowther was, the crusade against him for not liking Bonnie and Clyde was basically unfair. (Though he brought it on himself by repeatedly complaining about the movie; he either didn't know or didn't care that many people were looking for an excuse to force him out.) His moralistic attacks on Bonnie aren't really very different from Pauline Kael's attack on Dirty Harry, four years later, as a "deeply immoral movie." Both Crowther and Kael agreed on some level that movie violence can be immoral; they just disagreed on what movies went too far in their celebration of violence. And such moralizing isn't really a big problem as long as the critic isn't calling for censorship.

12 comments:

dino martin peters said...

Mr. Weinman, wondering if you would be willing to expand on what you man by this comment...
"There's something disorienting about a movie that wants to be modern and cutting-edge but looks like a Dean Martin movie, and it's not the good kind of disorienting that the movie's going for, it's the bad kind of disorienting, where the technique takes you out of the film."
Knowing that you are a huge fan of "Artists And Models"...just wondering what is wrong with looking like a Dean Martin movie?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I'm also a fan of Rio Bravo and several other movies with Dean Martin. But I'm talking very specifically about Dean Martin vehicles from the mid-to-late-'60s, like the Matt Helm movies or Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed? or How To Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life, with their studio-bound, over-lit look, bad process shots, obvious stunt doubles, etc. You could substitute some other big star of the '60s for "Dean Martin" and the sentence would be the same.

dino martin peters said...

Mr. Weinman, thanks for the clarification.

Anthony Strand said...

Excellent, though-provoking post. I think the library where I work has Bonnie & Clyde, and I kind of want to go check it out right now.

As for 70s movies being dated, I'll give you Blazing Saddles, but Young Frankenstein more dated than Airplane? Really?! Young Frankenstein, to me, feels almost completely timeless. Airplane is full of gags about Saturday Night Fever and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career.

Mr. said...

This is probably irrelevant, but I've never heard the Bosley Crowther story. Was it in "Pictures in a Revolution"?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Anthony: I know Young Frankenstein isn't dated in terms of style or references, but (and this is a very personal reaction) most of the jokes just don't wear very well with me.

Mr.: The story of Crowther getting forced out after he couldn't stop bashing Bonnie and Clyde has been in a few places; I first read it in Inside Oscar.

Thad said...

Why do you hate freedom? :-)

Maybe Bonnie and Clyde is like the fox's terrific act in Curtain Razor... it's only good once. I thought B&C was pretty overwhelming the first time I saw it, but I haven't had the desire to watch it again.

Also, while I agree the look of late 60s through 70s movies can be dated, I give you one era that trumps it: the 80s. You can just look at one frame of film from that mire of filth decade and it's clear.

J Lee said...

The period from about 1965 to the huge success of the Godfather movies and "The Exorcist" really was a period where Hollywood was desperately groping for an identity, especially with the expansion of the sales of color television sets and the full-color network TV lineups (not as big a shock as the 1947-48 mainstreaming of TV itself, but still a major threshold point which boosted both TV sales and TV viewing at the expense of theatrical revenues). They were hooked on big-budget, wide-screen musicals for a time, but when that brief revival ran its course, they didn't have anything to take its place, and the old guard really didn't know how to attract the first wave or baby boomers that were now reaching their early 20s.

So it's no big surprise that 1967 was also the de facto end of the original Hays Code, as the studios decided that the technical changes they had attempted in the early 50s (3-D, CinemaScope, etc.) to stem the growth of television hadn't worked, so movies had to offer viewers content they couldn't get from over-the-air TV (a strategy HBO and Showtime follow today with their series programming). Violence, in the case of "Bonnie & Clyde", while in the bigger cities with less restrictive morals police, European films with sex scenes like "I Am Curious (Yellow)" became major successes.

Once you get to 1972-73 and onward, that's really the beginning of the big-release, big-hyped summer blockbusters -- timed to come out when the network TV shows were in re-runs -- that Hollywood finally figures out a plan that at least gives them 4-5 months of prominence. There's still a lot of dreck being turned out to the theaters in the 1970s, but at least now you no longer had the feeling that the studios had no idea where they were going.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Excellent post. I admire your analysis of the dated look of the movies of that period, and Crowthers' and Kael's particular views on the use of violence in those films, and your own revised take on "Bonnie and Clyde." Really great job.

Whit said...

Warren Beatty, tired of hearing how he played himself in "Dick Tracy", really acted in "Bugsy", giving even Shatner some competition.

Rick Roberts said...

"Maybe Bonnie and Clyde is like the fox's terrific act in Curtain Razor... it's only good once. I thought B&C was pretty overwhelming the first time I saw it, but I haven't had the desire to watch it again."

Exactly how I feel. When I first saw the film it was like...DAMN !You couldn't predict a single thing the movie did and unfortunately when you make a movie so compulsive and random, it loses it's appeal after multiple viewings.

"You can just look at one frame of film from that mire of filth decade and it's clear."

Pretty much but for some reason the first two Indiana Jones films seem to almost cut off an 80's look entirely. I say that minus the special effects of course.

buzz said...

What's your opinion on Penn and Beatty's collaboration on MICKEY ONE? I think that's a very modern looking film despite being 2 years older than B&C.