Wow, man, I don’t know if it’s the heat wave or what, but, celebrities have been dropping like flies this past week. Old Rose, Tony Curtis, stand-up comedian Greg Giraldo, Tarantino’s kick-ass film editor Sally Menke, and now, the visionary director Arthur Penn. Sad!
Like many directors of his generation, Penn began his career directing stage plays on Broadway. And even then, he broke all the rules. Using bold, minimalistic sets and lighting, and cultivating a raw, naturalistic acting style in his actors, Penn literally changed the way we watched modern theatre.
And when he turned that eye towards television and, eventually, film, he truly revolutionized the way movies are made. The stage and screen versions of “The Miracle Worker”, “Little Big Man”, “Alice’s Restaurant”, “Night Moves”, and the little-seen, hipster-noir classic “Mickey One”, Penn’s filmography would be impressive even is he hadn’t directed “Bonnie & Clyde”. But lucky for us, he did, and the world is a better place because of it.
I know I go on about the movies I love, but, “Bonnie & Clyde” isn’t just a movie that I love, it is a movie that rocked my world the first time I saw it. I remember my brother Ryan and I literally trembling while watching it on TV for the first time. Seriously, we were in awe, man. The perfect cast acting at the top of their game, the darkly-hilarious script, that bad-ass, hillbilly soundtrack, and all those crazy jump cuts…whoa…we just about died.
Overnight, “Bonnie & Clyde” became one of my favorite movies. And in the many years since I first saw it, my appreciation for the film and its renegade director has only grown. I mean, shit, “Bonnie & Clyde” could have easily been just another cheap genre picture, a lurid, pulpy, crime drama for the drive-in theatre market. Actually, that’s what Warner Brothers expected to get for their money, but man, were they ever in for a surprise!
Working with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton, Penn and producer/star Warren Beatty, crafted a genuine cinematic masterpiece. And unlike some of the celebrated films from the past, “Bonnie & Clyde” is no dusty relic, revered solely for it’s groundbreaking technique or subject matter. No way, baby, watching “Bonnie & Clyde” today is just as vivid and electric an experience as it must have been in the summer of 1967. Um, you know, minus the drive-in theatre part.
And though there are many things that make this movie great, I have to say that Arthur Penn’s direction was crucial to pulling it all off. Finding the right tone was key…funny and sexy one minute, dark and disturbing the next, Penn walked a tightrope in every scene and the movie crackles with excitement because of it. In fact, that’s probably what makes “Bonnie & Clyde” so modern and relevant today. Crazy tone shifts happen all the time in movies nowadays, but, Penn and company pioneered that shit, yo.
And sure, some might grouse that Penn borrowed liberally from the French New Wavers (who, hello, borrowed liberally from pulpy American genre movies to begin with) but with “Bonnie & Clyde”, Penn didn’t just make a great New Wave film…he actually made New Wave mainstream. And in doing so, Penn and company ushered in a whole new era of raw, gritty and most importantly, personal, American filmmaking. Suddenly, it wasn’t just OK for your big name, A-list leads to be antiheroes, it was cool too! The revolution had begun…
And the violence? Oh, man…forget about it, that shit is insane! Slow motion, fast motion, bullets flying everywhere, it was positively operatic and again, it changed the way violence was depicted onscreen forever. Some might say that’s not such a good thing considering the overuse of hyper-realistic onscreen violence today, but, lemme tell ya, when Penn did it, it was golden, baby. Dying in a hail of bullets never looked so gorgeous. Mmm…
So, thank you, Arthur Penn. You turned the film world on its ear 43 years ago with a little movie called “Bonnie & Clyde”, and for that, and so much more, we are eternally grateful. RIP, brother…