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Arthur Penn, a Director Attuned to His Country
« on: October 10, 2010, 12:53:05 am »

Arthur Penn, a Director Attuned to His Country

Published: October 8, 2010

 “BONNIE AND CLYDE” was the movie on everyone’s lips after Arthur Penn’s death on Sept. 28 at 88, but there was more to his legacy than this exuberant 1967 gangster joy ride that shook up critics and audiences alike. It was the movie of its tumultuous moment, jolting in its violence and vitality. Critics were appalled or blissed out, and wrote about it and wrote about it until it became a veritable fetish. In time it became something other than a great film, something beyond a sexually bold, violent cinematic exorcism of the generational divide. It also became the first shot in New Hollywood’s war against Geezer Hollywood.

Americans love a good us-against-them story, and the one about New Hollywood and its generation of easy riders and raging bulls has proved intensely seductive. Not that there aren’t truths to that story, including the influence of the French New Wave on “Bonnie and Clyde” and other American films, like Mr. Penn’s “Mickey One” (1965), a visually audacious personal work starring Warren Beatty as a comedian on the lam. That film has been described as Mr. Penn’s attempt to make a French New Wave picture (its cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet, worked with French directors like Jacques Becker), but inspiration flows in more than one direction. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has astutely observed, in the early 1960s “to some extent Americans and Europeans were swimming in the same waters.”

And those waters had been partly fed by the Old Hollywood system. The French New Wave influenced Mr. Penn, but so did Orson Welles, whose “Citizen Kane” “staggered” Mr. Penn on first viewing. (François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, fascinatingly, were in talks to direct “Bonnie and Clyde” before Mr. Penn.) Like the real outlaw, Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie wears a beret, but so does Peggy Cummins in “Gun Crazy,” Joseph H. Lewis’s 1950 noir masterpiece about a pair of robbers running wild in the Midwest. Each film uses location shooting and employs guns as an over-determined symbol of sexual potency. Mr. Penn might have seen “Gun Crazy,” but no matter: he was steeped in American culture, its myths, mores, iconography and violence, not only cinema.

His vision wasn’t only mediated through pop culture — as sometimes can seem the case with young directors who exult in violent imagery — but also real life. He recalled hearing about Bonnie and Clyde as a child. “I remember the universality of fear in the country,” he told Curtis Hanson, the future director, then editor of Cinema magazine. In the same interview Mr. Penn acknowledged the impact of the European art film on American cinema while underlining the pressures television brought on Hollywood. In one detour he invoked both Alfred Hitchcock and Sergei M. Eisenstein, whose influence can be seen in the still-stunning cut in “Bonnie and Clyde” to a man being shot in the face, a shocker borrowed from “The Battleship Potemkin.”

In 1968, during a break from shooting “Alice’s Restaurant,” Mr. Penn explained how he became a filmmaker a decade earlier with his first movie, “The Left Handed Gun,” an initially underrated western about Billy the Kid. Back in 1957 he was working in live television alongside writers like Paddy Chayefsky and actors like Kim Stanley. (He also worked with Jerry Lewis, who years later wrote a letter to Time complaining about its pan of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which — a week before Pauline Kael’s famous panegyric for the film — he hailed as “one of the finest films ever projected on the American screen.”) Directing live television, where Mr. Penn used as many as four cameras was, he said, “like flying four airplanes at once.”

That might help explain why he took to the movies with such little evident effort. He didn’t know why he thought he could make one. Like some other fearless naïfs, he just did, trying “a great many difficult things in that movie because I didn’t know any better.” He was 34 when he shot the film “like a television show.” Several weeks before production began, he and the assistant director visited the Warner Brothers ranch in Southern California, home of innumerable westerns, and used paper cups to map out the camera positions on the ground, clearly expecting to use multiple cameras. “I went through the whole script,” Mr. Penn said, “and figured out every shot and lens, right off the bat.”

He soon discovered that he had only been given one camera, then the Hollywood norm. He brought in a second camera with a different lens and shot the movie in 23 days, only to suffer the indignity of a studio-enforced cut, lousy reviews and negligible box office returns. He thought it was the end of his movie career and dug into theater.

Gore Vidal, who wrote the television play on which the movie was based, once wrote that “The Left Handed Gun” was “a film that only someone French could like.” Ha! After the film was released, the Europeans, the French included, did think there was something interesting about this director, and in time so did the Americans, who eventually got up to speed on Arthur Penn, auteur.

He went on to direct “The Miracle Worker” (1962), which he had done on television and onstage. Critics took to it, but he didn’t stay in their good graces long. “Mickey One” was a bust, he was fired from “The Train” (1965) and had a rough go with “The Chase” (1966). Shot in Los Angeles as Watts burned, that film is set, as Kael sneered, in “a corrupt, blood-lusting Texas town in the mythical America of liberal sadomasochistic fantasies.” It was suggestive, she added, of “ ‘La Dolce Vita’ on the range.” She meant that as a knock. But it gets at the nuttiness of “The Chase,” which builds to an amazing sequence of the town descending into chaos at the junkyard, an eerie restaging of the fires that had begun to engulf the country.

Sometimes it would all come together in his films: a sense of history, a feeling for what makes us human and the lessons learned from theater, television and life. By the time he made “The Left Handed Gun” it was clear that he knew where to put the camera, how to move actors through space and make them dig in hard. As the title character, an overgrown juvenile delinquent with a six-shooter, Paul Newman was heavily under the yoke of the Method. But there’s a vital wildness to the performance that speaks to Billy’s exciting, lethal immaturity, a callowness Mr. Penn puts into visual terms, as when he arranges the gunslinger and his two companions side by side, mirroring an earlier image of three little boys.

The violence in “Bonnie and Clyde” that outraged some critics was already there in “The Left Handed Gun” — and it was ugly, blunt, cruel, absurd. In one dreadful, indispensable scene Billy shoots a man who, gun in his holster, falls into a slow-motion death (much as Bonnie and Clyde would do). The film then cuts to the dead man sprawled in the street, one of his boots, having been knocked off, now upright next to him, as if ready to be put on. A little girl runs to the body and begins laughing and pointing until her mother grabs her and slaps her so hard across the face that you feel the sting, which I suspect was the idea.

“I remembered,” Mr. Penn said, “that in the war I’d seen the remains of a guy who’d been blown out of his boot. A guy who’d got it, and whose boot was still standing there.”

It would be a mistake to reduce his films to his experiences in World War II, just as it is reductive to see a simple cause-effect relationship between the French New Wave and his films, just as it is wrong to omit the sum of a life — the war, European cinema, Hollywood, television, theater, his specific time and place — when discussing his work. It all mattered, as did his attitude. In a 1963 interview he delivered a prophetic take on the Hollywood machine: “As far as I can see, the place is killing itself. Pretty soon it’ll be churning out only big blockbusters and TV series. That’s all, no more actual films.” At the same time, with the demise of the old studios, he could see that “we’re seeing a return to a smaller and perhaps looser kind of filmmaking.”

He directed “Little Big Man” (1970), a Vietnam-aware story with Dustin Hoffman as a possibly white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand, and the great, despairing “Night Moves” (1975), with Gene Hackman as a private detective who ends up circling the abyss, a no-exit comment on the post-1968, post-Watergate times. There was the pleasurable, expansive, bitterly comic western “The Missouri Breaks” (1976), with Jack Nicholson as a thief turned farmer and Marlon Brando as a crazed lawman in a granny dress. There were other films, if not many, and a return to television. Some critics wondered what happened. Hollywood happened: the films got bigger and less loose, and Mr. Penn was no longer young in a business with little use for the old. He might have had regrets, but he doesn’t need anyone else’s.