Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Solved Nothing

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[Spoilers for The Missouri Breaks and sort of for Night Moves follow. I'd include Bonnie and Clyde as well, but, I mean, seriously.]
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When Arthur Penn died last year, it was my belief that in the wake of his passing, Bonnie and Clyde would be about the only film anyone was going to bother to remember, and that I might as well accept it (which, considering the man was dead, was exceptionally brave of me). Well, I should have known better, because while Bonnie and Clyde (1967) –a film I hate – is easily Penn’s best known film, and would appear to be his most consistently loved, and would further appear to be the one that is most likely to endure, God help us, the kind of people who are going to bother writing anything about Arthur Penn in the first place, even when he was alive, are going to have a deeper knowledge of the man’s work, and are going to appreciate more than just the poor-little-killers film that invites the audience to share in its own obliviousness.
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I hate Bonnie and Clyde. But I like Arthur Penn. Penn was a bit of a genre guy, which is always nice, even if his interest lay primarily in subverting them, or subverting what we expect and desire from those genres. His genres of choice tended to be Westerns and crime films, which are spiritually linked in a very basic way which somehow often goes unremarked upon. But listen: how many Westerns essentially double as crime films? Yes, you have your cowboys and Indians Westerns, and your historical Westerns (which Penn covered as well), and all that, but the tin star and the posse and the bad man fed just as many films as did frontier life and Cavalry uniforms.
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Such is the case, sort of, with Penn’s first feature film The Left Handed Gun (1958), and his later, commercially and critically disastrous (well I like it) The Missouri Breaks (1976). The Left Handed Gun, which stars Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, is plainly the work of a young filmmaker who desperately wishes it was already the 1970s, or at least the late 60s. In some ways, Penn is already pushing towards Bonnie and Clyde here, with its near-romanticizing of a punk kid whose claim to fame is spilling innocent blood (though probably less blood of any kind in reality than in this film). But eventually The Left Handed Gun takes a more peacenik approach to its violence, because of course – or not “of course”, because this is not an element you can necessarily bank on in films that print the legends of Billy the Kid, or, say, Jesse James – Billy finally goes “too far”, and Pat Garrett (John Dehner), who’d rather not kill the boy, finds that his hand is forced, for the greater good. No, if The Left Handed Gun has problems, which it does, it’s not due to the film collapsing under its own confused morality, but rather to the two men involved with the film who would eventually enjoy much higher profiles than Penn: Paul Newman and Gore Vidal. The film was based on Vidal’s play, and I’m willing to blame all the shortcomings on him because I hate Gore Vidal about as much as I hate Bonnie and Clyde. But the film’s real problem is its theatricality – despite the variety of locations, and the horses, and all the things you wouldn’t expect from a stage play, the damn thing still seems weirdly stage bound in the sense that it seems pitched to the back of the theater.
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Newman, who was still finding his sea-legs, doesn’t help. It’s I guess ironic that the common line on The Missouri Breaks is that Penn lost control of star Marlon Brando, who was at the “fuck it” stage of his career, and would, so the story goes, rather amuse himself on set than help whatever movie he was filming. But when I watch The Left Handed Gun, I see a young Paul Newman who is out of control, as yet unable to keep the lid on his worst instincts, and receiving no direction on how to do so from Penn, so that this great actor instead bounces around and mugs like a cartoon psycho. Meanwhile, when I watch The Missouri Breaks, I see a legitimately mad Brando who towers over everything else, and manages to raise the film up to his lunacy. Before Brando shows up, the film is a bit wearyingly ordinary: a bad rich man (John McLiam) takes to hanging horse thieves, thereby putting a group of otherwise decent horse thieves, led by Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson), on edge. But the bad rich man hires Lee Clayton (Brando), whose line of work, while never described quite in this way, is that of an assassin. And once that happens, “ordinary” is no longer a word one could logically use to describe The Missouri Breaks.
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Is any of what follows Brando’s introduction – specifically, anything that actually involves Brando and his performance – really out of control? The commercial failure of The Missouri Breaks badly stalled Penn’s career, but I’m more inclined to blame the people who didn’t go see it and the critics who didn’t give it a fair shake than either Penn or Brando. My understanding is that giving Clayton an Irish brogue was Brando’s idea. Okay, so? Brando doesn’t do a bad job with the accent, however many people claim otherwise, so where’s the problem? And Brando wears a dress at one point. Yes indeed he does (he dresses strangely throughout, but this moment would, I admit, have to count as the pinnacle of that). By the time he puts on the frontier-lady dress, Clayton has been established, partly through Brando’s performance, and partly through what Thomas McGuane’s script has him do and say, as a complete lunatic, loyal to nobody, a sadistic chessmaster, so that, to a degree the dress makes sense, and anyway, as this scene goes on and the building burns and more blood is spilled, the dress adds a Psycho-esque chill.
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Then, of course, there’s the climax to Clayton’s story, his last night on Earth, spent with a couple of horses and Penn’s patient camera, which records Clayton’s loving interaction with one horse, then stern rebuke of another, then his lilting attempt to sing himself to sleep, then sleep, the blackness, then death. I have to rank this as The Missouri Breaks’ finest hour, and possibly Penn's, and if much of what precedes Clayton’s sleep was improvised by Brando – and I don’t know that it was anyway – then bravo to him, and to Penn for seeing the worth in it all. There’s some darkly comic poetry at work here, and if this counts as out of control, then I want more of it.
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Though the connection is thin at best, when, in its early going, The Missouri Breaks seems to be about how law and order crushes otherwise peaceable thieves, or at least that the idea of "frontier justice" was an oxymoron, it plays a little bit like a wheezing version of Bonnie and Clyde (thin at best, I know, I said that, but you gotta connect these things somehow). Bonnie and Clyde. Motherfucking Bonnie and Clyde. It's a well made film, I'll grant you -- watching it again recently, I was impressed by how well it moved -- but if I had to boil my contempt for it down to one scene, it would be the part where the gang robs a bank and Clyde fires a shot at the bank guard (Russ Marker), who'd been going for his gun. In this same scene, Clyde tells a bank customer to keep his money (because he's nice like that), and later we see both the customer praising Clyde's generosity to a newspaper reporter, and the bank guard vainly posing for a photograph while he describes looking into the face of death. We're meant to laugh at this guard because, additionally, we're supposed to scorn the way he pumps up the danger in his story. In order to do this, the audience needs to forget, or not care, that not only after that robbery, but before it, Bonnie and Clyde (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) have been killing policemen by the handful. The real Bonnie and Clyde did the same thing (though, in terms of the film, I'm told this doesn't matter), so it's more than a little appalling to see the police represented in the film either as glory hounds or bumbling seekers not of justice, but of vengeance (this in the form of Denver Pyle's Sheriff Hamer, who after being humiliated by the Barrow gang, later orchestrates the ambush that will lay our heroes low).
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There's a sense that Bonnie and Clyde played to audiences who outwardly professed to abhor violence and bloodshed, but might be okay if the blood was being shed from pigs. I'm sure the film's admirers, as well as Penn and screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman, would wave their hands in the air and say "No no no no no!" if presented with the theory. But look at how the stage blood is dispensed in Bonnie and Clyde. One innocent victim, the first one Clyde kills in the film, is allowed a brutal death, with shattering glass and a blown off face. The film comes very near to making something out of this, but in order for that to really click, the pursuit by law enforcement of the Barrow gang would have achieve at least ambiguity, but it doesn't -- the cops aren't good, and we're shown this. Not only that, but the dozen or so cops who are murdered by one or another member of the Barrow gang don't get to be brutalized, and therefore humanized. All those deaths are of the grab-chest-and-fall-over variety of the Hollywood crime films and Westerns that Bonnie and Clyde is supposed to be signalling the end of. That is, of course, until Bonnie and Clyde are most cruelly ambushed by the police force, whose ranks the Barrow gang has bravely thinned. Then, Penn makes with the red paint, and how. Because these were human beings, damn it. We know this, because the manner in which their deaths are depicted invites the audience to look away. All those cops, though, well, you know. You can't make an omelette, etc.
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There's a terrible smugness to Bonnie and Clyde that I absolutely cannot stand. It flatters its audience, those who like it, in a way that, say, Sam Peckinpah, the master of moral confusion and splattered viscera, never did. It's a kids film in a lot of ways -- Clyde's gun is like a penis that one time, and so on -- and thankfully Penn would grow out of it. He would do this most notably, to my mind, and going by my incomplete experience with his work, with Night Moves (1975). Written by Alan Sharp and starring Gene Hackman, Melanie Griffith, James Woods, Jennifer Warren, and Edward Binns, Night Moves is the kind of loose, digressive detective story that, in literature, is perhaps best represented by the fiction of James Crumley. There's not a huge narrative drive to solve the mystery, and in fact for quite a while it seems that there is no mystery, once Hackman's Harry Moseby, a private detective, does right by his client (Janet Ward) by tracking down her free-spirited and often nude teenage daughter (Griffith), who has been hiding out in Florida with her stepdad (a quietly terrific John Crawford). When bodies start to appear, and motives come into question, all the plot elements that had been held in reserve -- which have to do with stuntmen and filmmaking and drugs and statutory rape -- are released in a rush towards the end, so that while Moseby is able to piece together what's been going on, he has to acknowledge that it all just fell into his lap. "I didn't solve anything," he says.
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He sure didn't, as the film's incredible and devastating final ten minutes makes clear. It takes a great deal of courage, not to mention confidence, to intentionally leave an audience as confused by why something has just happened as Penn and Sharp do at the end of Night Moves. I've said before that one of the great tragedies of the word "mystery" as it relates to genre fiction is that it has come to mean, in most people's minds, "something that is solvable." Night Moves rejects that utterly. This embracing of uncertainty is one reason why Night Moves feels like the film of an adult, or group of adults, rather than a film like Bonnie and Clyde, which was made by people who just wanted to set fire to all the shit that was older than they were.
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TIFF's Lightbox is running an Arthur Penn series in the coming weeks. All films discussed in this post, and many more besides, will be shown. The Left Handed Gun will be screened on March 27; The Missouri Breaks will screen March 28; Bonnie and Clyde on March 24, March 27 and April 6; and Night Moves on March 31.

53 comments:

Bryce Wilson said...

Superlative piece Bill one of your best since I've started reading you.

But you shouldn't hold back on Bonnie and Clyde like that just because it's a sacred cow. Tell us what you really think.


I'm afraid I like both Bonnie And Clyde and The Left Handed Gun. On Bonnie And Clyde I'll only point out that if the film is guilty of unworthy hero worship then that's much the same reaction that much of the country had at the time to the duo. Folk hero status gets ladled out to some mighty strange places.

I think the problem with Newman's performance in the film is that he's playing Paul Newman playing James Dean playing Billy The Kid, something you can see a little bit in Somebody Up There Likes Me (though in that one the Newman part of him eventually wins out). In speaking of The Penn Peckinpah connection I can't help but be a bit tickled that they both shot "The Shotgun Full Of Dimes" sequence very similarly, right down to the same angle and zoom for the pay off, if my mind is not embellishing. Though the results were undeniably gorier in The Peckinpah film.

Can't say I agree with your thoughts on The Missouri Breaks only if because I think you downplay how intrinsically strange the image of Marlon Brando locking lips in a horse while in drag is. Sure it has it's own internal logic, but so did Brando's perforrmance in The Island Of Dr. Moreau. Didn't make it any less strange.

I do share your regard for Night Moves though. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the best things the genre ever produced.

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, Bryce. And yes, I get that Bonnie and Clyde were folk heroes at the time, but depicting that, as I'd say Michael Mann does in PUBLIC ENEMIES, isn't the same as buying into it yourself, as Penn does in BONNIE AND CLYDE. Which is the other thing: is it normal, when printing the legend about people like this, to still depict them doing horrible things, while expecting the audience to back them up? That's what I find so odd, and reprehensible, about the film.

And I don't dislike LEFT HANDED GUN. By the end, I was reasonably fond of it, but felt Newman was simply not up to the role by that time (I have a similar opinion of his work in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME). Dean would have been ideal, sadly.

Yes, you ARE right, or close enough, about the "shotgun of dimes" bit, which I might have included had I not forgotten about it entirely. It also supports the "dry run for BONNIE AND CLYDE" idea.

As for THE MISSOURI BREAKS, I didn't get very specific about that scene with Brando and the horses, but that doesn't mean I disagree with you. I love the strangeness of that whole bit, including what follows. Did you not like it? It sounds like you kind of did.

I have minor issues with NIGHT MOVES, but I didn't see the point of getting into them because overall the ending is so perfect that everything that might have bugged me is wiped away.

Bryce Wilson said...

Well the best way I can describe my feelings for The Missouri Breaks is that I'm incredibly pleased it exists, while not much liking the act of watching it at all.

It'd be like if someone found a Dodo walking around. It may be one of a kind and I'm certainly impressed by its strangeness but it's not of much use.

bill r. said...

Sheesh! Well, I'd be pretty floored if I ever saw a living dodo, so maybe that's the difference. I guess.

Bryce Wilson said...

Well so would I come to think of it. Drat defeated by my own poorly chosen hypothetical.

You know what The Missouri Break's reminds me of more then anything? The Monte Hellemen/Jack Nicholson/Roger Corman westerns that got made in the late sixties Ride In The Whirlwind and The Shooting.

My reaction to those those are also closer to "bemused fascination" rather then "actual enjoyment" as well, if that helps clarify.

Greg said...

Marlon Brando, who was at the “fuck it” stage of his career

A minor clarification on this point, Brando was at the "fuck it" stage of his career from 1955 until he died. On the Waterfront signals the end of Brando the actor. He did fine work after this (Reflections in the Golden Eye, The Godfather and a small handful of others) but as a star going by the numbers. After On the Waterfront, he was done. The documentary on him run by TCM two years ago all but confirms this through friends and interviews with Brando himself. He didn't even bother to learn his lines after the mid-fifties. As revealed in the doc, he would have his lines placed at sightlines around the set. This explains the odd stiffness to many of his performances post Waterfront because he's reading the damn lines for the first time while they're filming.

So yeah, Brando and acting stopped giving a shit about each other a mere four years into his film career.

As for Bonnie and Clyde, we are essentially in agreement. I wouldn't say I outright hate it (although Laura probably does and says so whenever it's on TCM) because it is so very good on a technical level. It's expertly shot and paced and if you take the characters outside of our reality and accept them only as characters in the movie's reality, it's terrific.

But it's hard to imagine that. And frankly, another major sticking point is the look of the leads. I know I shouldn't let this bother me, but it does. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway look like international super models, not midwestern bank robbers and sure as hell not like Bonnie and Clyde. Movies tend to get that kind of thing right these days (like Charlize Theron in Monster) so looking at movies from the sixties now (and one day I will finally write a post on how bad the sixties was with period looks) they look foolish.

And of course, there's that smugness you mention. It's there, and it's palpable. I think you say it very well when you remark it's a kids movie. It feels very well executed on a technical level but woefully immature on an emotional level.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Was Brando "out of control" on MISSOURI BREAKS, or did Penn actually encourage the actor's eccentricities? I think it was the latter. Penn and Brando had worked together on THE CHASE (my favorite Penn film), and Penn subsequently criticized THE CHASE's producers for using Brando's more "conventional" takes when the editing of the film was taken out of Penn's hands.

With Penn it was all about the acting, what he could create with the actors on the set. He also had a thing for blood - which might explain why he chose to direct the otherwise inexplicably chosen PENN & TELLER GET KILLED late in his career.

P.S. I agree with your critique of BONNIE AND CLYDE though, as in any Penn film, there are some nice acting moments.

bill r. said...

Bryce - As it happens, I have a couple of Monte Hellman Westerns saved in my DVR. I hope to watch them this weekend, although if I end up loving them then your point will still be lost on me.

Greg -

A minor clarification on this point, Brando was at the "fuck it" stage of his career from 1955 until he died.

Ha! Well, okay, point taken. But I have to be honest and say that, whatever was going through his head, I don't believe I've seen a Brando performance that I didn't like to one degree, and for one reason, or another. I just love Brando, and think his presence and eccentricity is nearly unbeatable.

As for BONNIE AND CLYDE, I don't believe it would matter if these had been completely fictional creations. They still massacre a shitload of cops in the movie, and we're still supposed to embrace them.

Jerry - See, that's my take on it. I keep hearing how Penn was overpowered by Brando, but the way he shot that last scene of Brando in the woods, and cut it together, speaks volumes, I think. It really suggests that Penn was relighing Brando's performance.

Greg said...

As for BONNIE AND CLYDE, I don't believe it would matter if these had been completely fictional creations. They still massacre a shitload of cops in the movie, and we're still supposed to embrace them.

I don't mean fictional in that they're not taken from actual characters. I mean taken as a tale where it is simply good guys against bad guys and in this world, the good guys are the robbers and the bad guys are the cops.

It's the same thing with Birth of a Nation. Sheila and I disagreed on this one, in which she can accept the Klan as being wholly fictional creations and, in the context of the movie, are the good guys and thus, can root for them. I, quite simply, cannot. I can't work that kind of magic with my brain and erase the historical knowledge that I have. I cannot with the characters of Bonnie and Clyde either, but that's what I was trying to say. The movie technically succeeds in presenting its characters as heroes but I cannot accept them as such while acknowledging that the film is still very well made.

Bryce Wilson said...

I guess I wasn't so much trying to make a point beyond acknowledging that personal preference means a lot with these particular flicks.

I'm certainly not saying that they're without merit, just that they're not quite on my wavelength so I don't get a lot out of them.

Trust me I can easily see how someone could, I'm the king of acquired tastes. Just not these ones.

In regards to late period Brando I tend to agree with Nathan Rabin's theory that sometime in the mid sixties he began taking marching orders from The Great Gazoo.

Marilyn said...

Your views on B&C sound like they were issued by the Hays Commission itself. Glorifying killers? Oh horrors! The same reasons people loved gangster films in the 30s apply to B&C. We were going through some socially volatile times with anarchists and communists and whatall questioning authority all over the world, and yes, we weren't opposed to spilling what we saw the right blood to do it.

You chose not to discuss Alice's Restaurant, which gives a sweet, genuine look at the rebellion of the times. I'd say AR is MLK Jr. and B&C is Malcolm X.

You should have included a discussion of Four Friends in your analysis, the coda to B&C, in which all the mixed-up ideals of the 60s are aired of all their hyperbole and shown to be empty and dangerous, loving and forgiving.

Patrick Wahl said...

Regarding the comment that only Bonnie and Clyde will be remembered - am I the only one who likes The Miracle Worker? Hope that one will continue to be seen. I agree with Marilyn that Four Friends is a good one, haven't see it in many many years but have good memories of it. Seems to have completely vanished from general awareness among movie fans.

bill r. said...

Bryce - I understand that. All I'm saying is that this could turn out to be another dodo analogy.

Greg - Okay, I get what you're saying now, and no, I can't make my brain work that way, either.

Marilyn - So it's okay to glorify killers? Dead cops is the "right kind of blood"? That's...that's pretty reprehinsible. I hope you don't actually believe that.

As for ALICE'S RESTAURANT and FOUR FRIENDS, no, I didn't include them. I'm not required to, either, even though you think I "should". The idea of this post was to look at some of Penn's genre films, and the way he approached them.

Plus, I don't know what the hell gangster films you're referring to. ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES? WHITE HEAT? PUBLIC ENEMY? Where's the glorification? Either way, objecting to a film isn't the same as censoring it. I have to assume you actually know that.

Patrick - I liked THE MIRACLE WORKER, and I didn't mean to suggest that BONNIE AND CLYDE is the only Penn film that will be remembered, but rather if only one does, that's the one it'll be.

Greg said...

Marilyn, I would disagree that all gangster films glorify them. In the thirties they were not seen as the heroes but the villains. No one likes Tom Powers, he's evil. Same with Rico of LITTLE CAESAR. Or Tommy DeVito years later in GOODFELLAS. In BONNIE AND CLYDE however, they're portrayed quite differently: misunderstood, societal outsiders (not misfits like Tom, Tommy or Rico, outsiders), rebels going against the grain. That portrayal is there and the film does indeed smugly relish in it.

The film is dishonest about it too. Take what Bill said about the bank robbery where Clyde tells the man to keep his money. Well, these banks weren't FDIC insured, not yet at least (a year later they were) so they're stealing his money anyway. The bank's not paying that guy back.

And Denver Pyle, who rids the world of these thieving murdering vermin, is portrayed as the bad guy, again, clearly. I don't believe Pat O'Brien was ever portrayed that way with Cagney.

Marilyn said...

Bill - I'm telling you that filmmakers appeal to visceral feelings in an audience regardless of the plot denouement, and that what B&C and the original Scarface tapped. Surely you understand that. Do I endorse "kill the pigs"? If you don't know me better than that, then you don't know me at all, and I'm insulted you would even question that. I don't even eat meat because I can't bear the thought of a (real) pig dying for me.

I didn't see this post as an examination of genre despite what you say about Westerns and crime films - your assassination of B&C really necessitates a look at a later film that is a course correction. Of course, you don't HAVE to do anything, but if you want me to be convinced about Penn's legacy, which you say will be ruined by a singular focus on B&C.

bill r. said...

Marilyn - Now hold on there, Marilyn. Here's what you said:

We were going through some socially volatile times with anarchists and communists and whatall questioning authority all over the world, and yes, we weren't opposed to spilling what we saw the right blood to do it.

I'm very relieved to know that you didn't intend for me to take away from that sentence what I took away from it (and I couldn't believe you'd said it), but I hardly think I can be blamed. You say "we" weren't opposed to it. That's what you said.

And going by what you actually meant, yes, B&C wants a reaction. My reaction is I hated it. It didn't appeal to me in the way they intended. In fact, just the opposite.

Calling what I wrote an "assassination of B&C" is absurd -- I feel confident the film will survive this blog post. Further, who said anything about wanting to convince you about Penn's legacy? I like Penn anyway, so if I was trying to convince you of anything, it would be that he was a good filmmaker. But you say that you don't see this as a look at Penn and genre, even though I talk about that, but rather that I'm trying to convince people of Penn's legacy, which I never come close to mentioning, outside of saying that if only one Penn film survives, it will be B&C. Given its reputation and history, do you think I'm wrong about that? And even if you do, that's hardly the point of what I wrote.

As for B&C the actual film, and what it's actually doing, well, what Greg said.

Marilyn said...

Bill - I was in grade school when the 60s were in full swing. My "we" referred to an era. I never thought you would attribute it personally to me.

As for Penn, I admit B&C is his most notorious film, but I do think The Miracle Worker is an enduring work as well, one that many people will remember perhaps even longer than B&C. Alice's Restaurant has a lesser longevity, but the song and the Guthrie connection may give it legs as well.

Personally, I find Four Friends to be his most unforgettable film, but then it has some personal resonance for me for being filmed in my area and having actors who were little known outside of Chicago at the time in it.

bill r. said...

I really don't want to seem like I'm hammering too hard on the "B&C will survive thing". I mean, it will, and I believe it will always remain his best known movie, but that doesn't mean I think any of his other films are going to disappear.

Bryce Wilson said...

I am going to back up Marilyn here just a bit by noting that yeah in gangster films we come to see the gangsters. Has anyone ever in the history of movie going rooted for Edmund O'Brien in White Heat (Or for that matter Jon Hamm in The Town)? Just because we know Cody Jarret is evil doesn't mean we haven't paid our two bits to watch him.

Same deal with Bonnie And Clyde, although what makes me return to that film is the sheer joy of it's making. Yes as you point out, it's a bit adolescent. Yes it's real proud of that penis gun metaphor. But it's that same exuberance that makes the film embrace those big obvious metaphor's so fully that makes it just a flat out beautiful film to watch.

Now crossing the border into real life, no way would you want to actually root for these guys. But I'm sure I also wouldn't be thrilled if a sociopathic Billionaire started dressing up as a bat and distributed vigilante justice. Or if a British secret agent cut a huge swath of destruction through one of our cities in pursuit of an international money launderer.

Doesn't mean I can't watch a flick about it.

bill r. said...

Has anyone ever in the history of movie going rooted for Edmund O'Brien in White Heat (Or for that matter Jon Hamm in The Town)?

Yes.

bill r. said...

Perhaps I should have clarified. But the answer is still yes, because why should my take on crime and law enforcement change just because I'm watching a movie? Of course I root for Edmund O'Brien! That doesn't mean I don't find Cagney's Cody Jarrett fascinating, or even sympathetic, but to root for Jarrett is to root for what, exactly?

As for THE TOWN, yes, I rooted for Jon Hamm, and everything else I said about WHITE HEAT can be replicated here, with the provision that in the case of the town everything is less fascinating and the sympathy is more manufactured. I like the bone they try to throw you in THE TOWN, though, by having him write that letter to Rebecca Hall about how you have to pay for the things you do. Then cut to him kicking back in Florida.

Greg said...

Has anyone ever in the history of movie going rooted for Edmund O'Brien in White Heat (Or for that matter Jon Hamm in The Town)?

I'd like to add to Bill's "yes" (my answer too) that the difference, again, is that they are portrayed as bad or evil. Bonnie and Clyde ARE NOT PORTRAYED AS EVIL. There is no guilty pleasure in "loving to hate" them. They are portrayed and presented as the heroes. That does not apply to any WB gangster movies. None.

bryce said...

The Roaring Twenties

Greg said...

Cagney is not portrayed as a folk hero in that but as a murdering rum-runner who redeems himself before death. Redeeming yourself is definitely not something that happens in Bonnie and Clyde. There is no point at which Bonnie or Clyde realizes the error of their ways and turns over a new leaf before being killed. That's what happens in The Roaring Twenties, not in Bonnie and Clyde.

Tom Carson said...

About The Roaring Twenties, both of my parents had vivid memories of seeing it when it first came out. I remember both of them laughing at how Cagney's "redemption" just made him seem even cooler to the audience.

As for B & C, Bill and I have hashed this over before. But I don't think it's true the movie makes them look like heroes. All sorts of elements in the script and direction make it clear that these are pretty stupid people who didn't recognize the consequences of their actions.

But then again, thanks to the casting, the movie does make them *glamorous* stupid people who didn't recognize the consequences of their actions. So it's a bit like watching La Dolce Vita and envying the chance to be that beautiful and stupid.

Bryce Wilson said...

"Cagney is not portrayed as a folk hero in that but as a murdering rum-runner who redeems himself before death-

There's no point in which Bonnie or Clyde realizes the error of their ways and turns over a new leaf before being killed."
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Nope with all due respect I'm calling shenanigans on this.

In The Roaring Twenties Cagney's rise to power is clearly depicted as him "getting what's his" in the aftermath of his mistreatment after World War I. He's taken out of the business not because he sees the error of his ways but because he's not willing to be as ruthless of a bastard as Bogart is.

When his "redemption" comes, it's also not because he realized the error of his ways, but because he decided on a personal level to protect his old friend, the husband of the girl of his dreams and get revenge on that lousy so and so Bogart in the bargain.

His death's not a condemnation it's a validation. It's proto John Woo.

Or hell take High Sierra (Walsh again) Roy Earle's a tragic hero, but he's very definitely the hero. My point is that the Warner Brother's films (or at least the Walsh ones) always had tremendous sympathy with their outlaws.

It might not be exactly the glorification of B&C but it's damn well close and in a way far more mythic. Bonnie And Clyde die in The Dirt. Roy Earle gets it atop the Sierras.

And the more I think about it the less I'm convinced that Bonnie And Clyde glamorizes their heroes above the surface level (which yeah in all fairness is about as far as most people look). Sure Clyde dresses snappy but he's clearly about as sexually dysfunctional as you can get. That's half the joke, He is literally just a pretty face, he can't do anything else. And Bonnie may look pretty but she's box of rocks/bag of hammers done. She's a little girl playing dress up, and writing sing song poems never really getting how much trouble she's in.

They act like what they are, two dumb country kids. They just happen to look like movie stars.

I wonder how you might have taken the film if it had starred (and yeah you've gotta push the timeline up for this) a young Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor with the same script?

Greg said...

Nope with all due respect I'm calling shenanigans on this.

Shenanigans now get called on facts of a plot? Christ have mercy, I give up. Here's what's happening: Rather than anyone, other than me or Bill, saying "Yes, Bonnie and Clyde portrays their characters as misunderstood rebels and folk heroes" there's this game being played: Ha! I'm going to find another example where that happened!

Great, you do that. Of course, it won't prove anything said about Bonnie and Clyde being wrong. It's like someone saying John Wayne Gacy was a horrible man because he killed dozens of boys. Then someone counters with, "But other people have done that too!" Yes. Yes, they have. Doesn't change the fact that Gacy was an animal.

And so, if you have indeed found an example in The Roaring Twenties that fits into a similar mold of Bonnie and Clyde, congratulations. It shows I was wrong when I said no other gangster movies did that. If correct, and I don't agree, but if correct it changes nothing about the central problem of Bonnie and Clyde.

There. Can we now stop with the "I'm going to find another movie that does the same thing Bonnie and Clyde does and somehow that will invalidate what Greg believes is the film's problem" games?

bill r. said...

I wonder how you might have taken the film if it had starred (and yeah you've gotta push the timeline up for this) a young Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor with the same script?

The same way, because none of my points had anything to do with their appearance, but rather with the depiction of violence and sympathy.

Bryce Wilson said...

"Shenanigans now get called on facts of a plot? Christ have mercy, I give up. Here's what's happening:"
...

Facts that's a nice word. I took issue with your interpretation of what happened in the movie.

This is certainly something to be upset about.

You made a declaritive statement. I found an exception.

This is certainly also something to get upset about.

You made the argument "Bonnie And Clyde mythologizes killers most low! Other films in this proud tradition did nothing of the sort!" I disagreed and cited examples.

This is once more something to get upset about.

But I'm tired of being civil when you clearly have no interest in doing so. So please jog on.

bill r. said...

Oh good, another fight. I love those.

Greg said...

But I'm tired of being civil when you clearly have no interest in doing so. So please jog on.

I shall indeed as the break with reality here is quite stunning. I said that the games you were playing with finding exceptions was not addressing the central issue. Instead of addressing the central issue you came back with exactly the same thing: Pointing out that you had found exceptions. Again, this does not in any way nullify what I was saying about Bonnie and Clyde's portrayal of its lead characters.

REPEAT: Finding exceptions does not invalidate the central issue that in Bonnie and Clyde, they are portrayed, quite smugly, as rebellious and misunderstood. Now, we may disagree on that, and I understand that can happen, but that is the issue and it cannot be erased by simply saying, "Aha! I have found another film that does that!"

Also, I have been online for years, have commented with thousands of people and taken parts in dozens of forums on film. I have done all of this, Bryce, without ever building a reputation of being uncivil. If I am uncivil now (and yes, I am irritated by this) but haven't been the thousands of times before, I'd have to say the difference is in the conversation you began by taking our difference of opinion and "calling shenanigans" after one of my comments. Read back through them, Bryce. I was stating my opinion but never deriding you as you did me. That's when the uncivil behavior began.

bill r. said...

Deep breaths. In with the good, out with the bad. In with the good, out with the bad.

bill r. said...

Okay, that's probably not helping. Honestly, on the actual points, I'm with Greg. I haven't seen THE ROARING TWENTIES in a really long time, so I'm in no position to get into that aspect (I wonder if I own it), but Bryce, even if your description of the film is accurate it doesn't invalidate anything said about BONNIE & CLYDE. They're different movies.

As for the anymosity...hey, c'mon, guys! Let's not get all, you know, mad, and shit!

Greg said...

Okay, Bryce, look. I got pissed off about the whole "shenanigans" thing. Probably took it the wrong way. You're probably right about The Roaring Twenties.

And then you tell me to "jog on." I'm not joking when I say I've had thousands of conversations with no problems. Bill and I have some differences, and once Rick and I got a little heated but, honestly, I like these things to stay civil and I got uncivil with my "I give up" and "break from reality" statements.

I'm going to let this go because these things are never worth it. You have my full apologies, Bryce.

And you too, Bill.

Bryce Wilson said...

I accept your apology and offer my own both to you and Bill.

The reason I got a bit testy is because I did feel as if I addressed B&C directly in my post after talking about The Roaring 20's.

As a matter of record, the "shenanigans" statement was a South Park reference and was meant in a light tone. I can see how if you didn't recognize the reference it could be taken the wrong way. Sorry I didn't realize it wasn't taken that way sooner.

Like you I pride myself on a reputation of civility on the internet and hope we can put this behind us. As the reason I started debating you in the first place was I was intrigued with the points you were making.

Who knew that Bosley Crowther was being so prophetic when his review of Bonnie And Clyde was subtitled "It Angrys Up The Blood!"

Greg said...

The reason I got a bit testy is because I did feel as if I addressed B&C directly in my post after talking about The Roaring 20's.

I'm sure you did which is a problem I have once these discussions get down and dirty which is that I'm prone to read through something quickly and defensively.

bill r. said...

Accepted from both of you. Now I'm going to leave the internet for a while before someone else throws me into the garbage.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

All this conversation, civil, uncivil and otherwise (?) has served to spark my dormant desire to see Bonnie and Clyde again, and I'm very glad for that. And Night Moves. And The Missouri Breaks.

The issue of representation of sociopaths is mighty complicated, and the reception and interpretation of those portrayals and the images surrounding and contextualizing them is just as complicated when filmmakers like Penn (and Tarantino et al.) begin to poke at a genre's innards and see if it has a different kind of life in it. A lot of movies that came from the era in which Bonnie and Clyde that were heralded as representative of the sea change in Hollywood away from studio excess and artificiality (Easy Rider, I'm looking at you) have been revealed, by our old friend Time, to be as self-serving to a generation's romanticized vision of itself, as misunderstood and victimized, as any mediocre melodrama from the '40s could be. I don't see why the same couldn't be true of Bonnie and Clyde, and it's certainly not unprecedented that seeing a movie through 50-year-old eyes (mine or anybody's) can often bring new perspective, negative and positive, to beloved movies from our past.

I've always liked Bonnie and Clyde but never loved it and I am very interested in seeing how it plays to me now, especially after reading this piece and the reaction to it. And I promise I remain open to the possibility that it may indeed be either all that, or that maybe the bag of chips have gone stale. In the same regard, I suspect that though I always loved Arlo Guthrie's song, Penn's movie of Alice's Restaurant is one I might have much more patience for than I did when I was 17 and saw it for the first time. And I'm always up for Brando in a dress. Night Moves is almost beyond reproach, as far as I'm concerned.

But let's get down to it: Who loves Penn and Teller Get Killed? I kinda do!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

And Bill, don't throw yourself into the garbage just yet. I'm curious to know (on a totally un-Penn-related note) what you thought of the remake of I Spit On Your Grave.

Bryce Wilson said...

Dennis I might not love Penn And Teller Gets Killed (I haven't seen it) but I might be the world's only Targets fan.

Kelly said...

I like Bonnie & Clyde and Penn & Teller get killed. But why in the name of all that is holy would anyone want to remake (or sit through) I Spit on Your Grave? What a horrible piece of shit that was!

BLH said...

It's interesting what you say about The Left-Handed Gun seeming "pitched to the back of the theater." Truth is, The Missouri Breaks is the only Penn film I've seen that doesn't feel similarly pitched. He seems to particularly encourage his actors to go broad at every opportunity in Bonnie & Clyde and Little Big Man and Night Moves.

Mind you, I like all of these films quite a bit, but I wouldn't argue very passionately that any of them are actually improved by the choices Penn makes as director. I was surprised when I saw The Missouri Breaks; it's as if Penn finally looked up the entry on "sensitivity" in his Film Director's Handbook.

Greg said...

Well, Bill hasn't responded yet but I just want to say, without jumping back into the fray, that Dennis' mention of Easy Rider was a welcome one because that's essentially the companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde in many ways (right down to being gunned down at the end by the enemy of our heroes). They're much closer to the Easy Rider model for me than the standard gangster model. I never much liked Easy Rider, save Jack Nicholson, so maybe that's a part of my reaction to Bonnie and Clyde.

bill r. said...

Dennis - Well, I hope to read your reaction to seeing B&C again, either on SLIFR or elsewhere. I've long known that I'm in the minority regarding my reaction to it (and I'm glad to have Greg in my corner), and I even thought that watching it again after years of simmering disdain, even as my memory of the specifics of the film faded, might encourage a rethinking of my stance. But nope!

And I loved PENN & TELLER GET KILLED when I was a kid, but I haven't seen it since. I have fond memories of it, though.

Also, I came very close to watching the I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remake this weekend, based on what you said, but the wife was always hanging around, and I didn't think she'd be up for it. I'll get to it, though.

And Kelly, I don't exactly like the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, but that doesn't mean I don't think it gets a bad rap, regarding its morality, or lack thereof, depending on who you ask.

BLH - Where does Penn go broad in NIGHT MOVES? I just watched it again, and I don't see that at all. B&C, yes, it's there (I'm not crazy about the performances in that one, either), but NIGHT MOVES is wonderfully downplayed, I always thought.

Greg - Excuse me, I wasn't in the mood to think too much this weekend, so I read these comments and thought "Er, I should respond, but that means using my brain..." Plus also, I've never seen EASY RIDER. Can you even believe it??? But then, I don't like hippies.

Greg said...

Plus also, I've never seen EASY RIDER. Can you even believe it??? But then, I don't like hippies.

Well, now you know they get killed at the end. Oops. But maybe that'll make you like it better.

bill r. said...

Oh, I've seen the ending. You can't watch a documentary or TV show about late 60s cinema and not see the ending of EASY RIDER.

Tom Carson said...

Can I start a petition to get Bill to watch -- and write about -- Easy Rider? Now, that's a demolition job I'd pay to read. At least we mostly all agree that B & C is well made.

bill r. said...

I don't know, man. My anti-B&C stance has already caused me a lot of grief. Well, this and Charlie Sheen/Catholicism. But even so, I have to see EASY RIDER eventually, right? So what the hell, why not.

Kelly said...

Morality, Schmorality. I Spit on your Grave is a steaming piece of shit start to finish, on every level. Any bad rap it gets, it deserves. I like Easy Rider, but I will admit to hippie-ish tendencies.

bill r. said...

Well I can see you feel pretty strongly about it.

Craig said...

Bonnie and Clyde is one of those movies that reveals my hypocrisy about ostensibly judging a film only by what's onscreen. I like the movie, but I always feel a little detached from it. I don't feel coerced into much empathy for the criminals (they're far too buffoonish for that), nor am I appalled by the portrayal of the police (ditto); I don't really feel anything for either side, and that's a problem. Smug isn't quite the right word I'd use to describe the film's tone; more like glib.

And yet. When I step back and view Bonnie and Clyde as a product of its time, the movie has more meaning to me. Mark Harris's wonderful Pictures at a Revolution (a great book about the five Best Picture nominees of 1967, even if you don't like any of them) reveals a lot of detail about how Robert Benton and David Newman wanted to write an American film that was similar in spirit to the French New Wave. (Truffaut and Godard each seriously considered directing B&C.) Beatty and Penn consciously adopted the style that Benton and Newman were going for in the early 60s, adding to it the cultural issues that had manifested themselves by the later half of the decade. This makes some of the actions of the (anti)heroes seem more politicized and romantic (as when Clyde encourages the farmer to shoot out the windows), whereas anyone wearing a uniform was not to be trusted. And Penn and Dede Allen edited the climax to echo what they saw as the inferno unfolding in Vietnam.

I'm not saying I necessarily agree with any of this, or even sympathize with it. But it does make what unfolds onscreen more interesting to me. It adds another layer to what is essentially a fairly shallow movie.

bill r. said...

Well, that's all mighty fair of you, Craig (and I also really liked Harris's book). And I'd say accurate, too. It's just that where you find meaning, I just find more shallowness. Shallowness that doesn't even realize how shallow it is.

Of course, my problems go further then that, which I guess you've gathered, and I just can't disconnect from that. I acknowledge and understand everything you're saying, but it just doesn't mean anything to me. I know too much about the real Bonnie and Clyde, and the glib (good word) approach to authority and lawlessness in the film, and I just cringe.

BLH said...

BLH - Where does Penn go broad in NIGHT MOVES? I just watched it again, and I don't see that at all. B&C, yes, it's there (I'm not crazy about the performances in that one, either), but NIGHT MOVES is wonderfully downplayed, I always thought.

Basically, it felt to me like every supporting character had been instructed to "make an impression," so to speak. It's been a while, but I can think of a few off-hand: the man Harry's wife has an affair with, James Woods, and Delly's mother. They seem to be playing up the narrative functions of their characters rather than making nuanced humans out of them.

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