“I thought that if we’re going to show this violence, we should show it. We should show what it looks like when somebody gets shot. TV coverage of Vietnam was every bit, perhaps even more, bloody than what we were showing on film.”
“I would say that the only people who really interest me are the outcasts from society. A society would be wise to pay attention to the people who do not belong if it wants to find out what its configuration is and where it’s failing.”
Born: 27 September 1922, Philadelphia, United States.
Died: 28 September 2010, New York City, United States.
Directing career: 1958 – 1995.
Movement: New Hollywood.
Traits: Themes of: antiheroes and outsiders and their challenges to and against authority; violence; subversion; dark humour. Genre revisionism; strong work with actors; a revived sensibility importing some European cinema influence into American movies. Close attachment to working in the theatre.
Collaborators: Dede Allen (editor), George Jenkins (production designer), Warren Beatty (actor), Gene Hackman (actor), Faye Dunaway (actor), Marlon Brando (actor).
The Miracle Worker (1962)
The Chase (1966)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Several ground-breaking films (Easy Rider, The Graduate, The Wild Bunch…) kickstarted what came to be called the New Hollywood, that last golden age of American movies where complexity, darkness, and ambiguity entered the mainstream like never before. But it was Arthur Penn’s film, with its criminals on the run and its violence, both romanticised and depicted more boldly than ever before in Hollywood, which captured both the cinematic and cultural traits that would characterise the forthcoming era. Two glamorous, bank-robbing lovers were morally questionable protagonists by 1960s standards, especially when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway make them so charismatic and the film is largely sympathetic to them — they are after all rebels during the 1930s Great Depression when nobody but the Rich has anything worth stealing.
The lack of preachy moralising about the anti-establishment rebellion of these criminal misfits felt fresh and helped reach out to younger audiences who’d been alienated by the staleness of Hollywood’s output (although audiences still needed a healthy shove from critic Pauline Kael before eventually flocking to see this picture). Bonnie and Clyde also brought the spontaneity of the French New Wave to US cinema; these two dangerous but chic outlaws could come straight out of a Godard or Truffaut riff on the American B-gangster film, and famously the screenwriters Newman and Benton first offered it to those directors, one of those intriguing what-might-have-beens of movie history. Most notoriously, and here it can be paired up with the aforementioned The Wild Bunch, it raised the bar for graphic violence with the elegiac, strangely romantic and yet utterly bloody death of its two protagonists, riddled with bullets, but at least together and sharing a final glance before the inevitable end. Such carnage making it onto cinema screens was a logical extension of the cultural zeitgeist. Millions were seeing daily news footage of the Vietnam War on their TV sets, and movie violence had to catch up to that in order to not be left behind.
Penn went so far as deliberately demanding his effects team create a small chunk of flesh flying off as Clyde gets shot in the head, adding a gruesome reference to the other great American trauma of the times, the JFK assassination. Four years earlier, Kennedy too had infamously been shot in the head, bits of his brains shooting out as immortalised by Zapruder’s amateur video recording on the scene. Other allusions to JFK haunt the movie. At one point Clyde and an accomplice are shot at while in a moving car, just as JFK was, before then hiding from police inside a cinema, just as Harvey Lee Oswald had on that grisly day. Penn had been a friend of JFK’s, had even worked on his presidential campaign for television. For him and a whole generation of Americans, something was lost forever that day in Dallas 1963, metaphorically reflected in Bonnie’s nostalgia for her lost family. For Hollywood, this was the start of a new era, one that would last a mere few years, but one that would be as innovative and exciting as it was pessimistic and reflective of the USA’s collective crisis of confidence. (April 2017)
Little Big Man (1970)
Night Moves (1975)
The Missouri Breaks (1976)
To be updated.
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