Saturday, February 25, 2012

Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde"

Being a film studies major, it was only a matter of time before I posted on something film related. There are a vast number of things and people I could have chosen in regards to film, but one of my classes this semester is COMM 324, entitled "Film Genre: New American Cinema", and this is where I found my inspiration. I had never really understood what was so spectacular about these movies that my dad knew and loved from the 1970s and constantly kept bugging me to watch for all these years, but after about 4 weeks of class, I finally understood. Arthur Penn was one of the directors who kickstarted the era of New American Cinema, or New Hollywood Cinema (which I'll abbreviate NHC from here on out). The era in film was an era of response and initiative to take action against things that many found to be unsatisfactory. Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was the creative boost that American cinema had been in desperate need of for years.

Much like my last post about Noel Fielding, Penn's creative product relies majorly on the collection of objects and ideas from not only the past, but what was currently happening in the French New Wave of cinema with directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. There was violence abound in both the U.S. as race riots raged on and the Vietnam War proceeded to escalate. In addition to the escalating violence, youth rebellion and unrest grew in proportion. Of course, there were Vietnam War documentaries and news coverage segments shown on network television, but these outlets only helped forge the burgeoning generation gap. With the destruction of the studio monopoly in Hollywood and the creation of a new, less restrictive MPAA ratings systems for films, directors were jumping at the bit to push the limits of what could be shown on screen and how they could toy with the previously indoctrinated narrative structures of films.

Arthur Penn was a product of film school and an extensive background in network television and writing/directing for Broadway. He read up on all of the past film movements and kept a close eye on the French New Wave. Famous for its radical techniques in cinematography, the French New Wave because a huge inspiration for Penn and others of the NHC era. In Bonnie and Clyde, Penn employs the use of jump cuts and extreme close up shots of Bonnie in the opening sequence, completely opposing the traditional Classic Hollywood Cinema standards and forging a new path from the very beginning frames of his film. His use of French New Wave techniques in such a succession implies almost immediately that he is the creator of something entirely new to the American cinema regime.

The difference between Penn and other directors of the time was that Penn used these techniques of the French New Wave, as well as those of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, to create a product that forced his audiences in the mainstream American film stream to dwell on and contemplate the subject matter presented to them in a film that was not a documentary nor an educational piece. The images of violence, especially in the finale in which Bonnie and Clyde are riddled with bullets by Sheriff Frank Hamer and company, are composed and shot not in a way which audiences had very well seen before. Penn took direct influence from Akira Kurosawa and one of his scenes in his famous masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954). Penn shot the sequence with a number of cameras, capturing the scene from different angles, and upon editing Penn placed some of the frames in slow motion and others at normal speed, causing the scene as a whole to last almost a solid 60 seconds. Penn uses his collected knowledge of cinematography to not just simply make the movie "look cool" or "fresh" for audiences, but to present them with a topic which they had been avoiding for so long even though violence was peeling through their backyards and in Vietnam. Bonnie and Clyde was also one of the first films to extensively use blood in violent acts, where films before could not show blood upon a person being harmed. The scenes were still stylized, yes, but they became more realistic as blood was put onto the screen, and in vast quantities too.

As far as narrative structures go, Penn also denied any sort of knowledgable pleasure to the audience. His film portrayed gender reversals, as Bonnie hounds Clyde for sexual satisfaction, and she remains the aggressor of most of the film's action (which was usually the male's role in the narrative). Clyde has a number of hangups, all which inhibit his relationship skills (which was typically a set of traits that females would have in films). In addition, the film plays with youth and rebellion, as one character named C.W. Moss gets a tattoo and his father becomes obsessed with it and how "wrong" it is for his son to have that tattoo. These topics of gender reversal and youth rebellion would not ever be touched before the blow up of the studio monopoly, but Penn uses the changes in narrative to complement his creative endeavor to both attack and push the limits of screen restrictions.

Penn's film was creative in that it found new ways to make audiences face the music. He did not write a narrative attacking the industry for its hangups, and proceed to make a film showing burning film reels or anti-studio protests. This would have been the easy way out. He used techniques he had collected from the French New Wave, in the jagged jump cuts placed in long takes and extreme close ups which both reveal and hide various traits about the film characters, thereby avoiding giving the audience full knowledge (which was a must in the traditional cinema). He also used narrative arcs which also deny knowledge and satisfaction to his audiences, as the genders become switched and the youth seem to have power over the older generation. His film was creative because he was able to light the spark for a new era of cinema in which the films could force the audiences to think about violence, to think about protests, to think about why gender standards are such, and to think about why these topics were never before touched upon in cinema. By using techniques such as jump cuts and extreme close ups, he firstly caught the mainstream American audience's attention and thereby keeping them connected through visual cues, the audience could further speculate things brought about by the narrative. Many found the films of the NHC, including and especially Bonnie and Clyde to be simply gratuitous expressions of rebellion with the means to glorify violence and corrupt the youth, but this view of the film was mainly due to the generation gap. The older generation saw the film as trash, only meant to corrupt, while the youth saw the film as relating to them and the restrictions they faced themselves. Years later, film scholars applaud the creativity of Penn as he went above and beyond to present issues to all audiences, but when the film was released, it was not met with such applause and ended up being re-released the next year, doing much better in theaters the second time around. Penn's years of collecting information and techniques were finally put to good use, and a very creative use at that, in his film Bonnie and Clyde as he brought issues to the forefront of American cinema, and the NHC era directors followed his lead further making films to make audiences think and reflect on current issues through mainstream cinema.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who watches an excessive amount of movies, I was glad to see a masterpiece like Bonnie and Clyde make it onto the blog. Often, I feel as though people discredit films’ potential to convey creativity. They see it as a medium that’s only used for entertainment, and while that is sometimes the case (Twilight, Transformers, The Smurfs), there are also countless examples of film’s ability to be used creatively. Your post shows how film can be innovative through the use of new techniques while also being useful by presenting the audience with themes which require reflection.

    Regarded as an American classic by today’s film critics, I was shocked to read in your post that Bonnie and Clyde was not immediately viewed with the high esteem it maintains now. This embrace by the film community many years after its initial release makes me wonder what current films future generations will praise and admire.


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