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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Throwback Thurday - Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (Blu-ray Book)

Note:  Throwback Thursdays is a weekly column in which I will take an indepth look at films of the past.  A movie can be chosen for any reason, the only rule is that it has to be at least one year old.  If you have any suggestions of movies you’d like to see in the future please leave a comment and let me know.        
Movies like any art form change meaning based upon the experiences of the viewer.  We can’t hop in a time machine and travel back to 1967 to see Bonnie and Clyde through the eyes of those that were there at the time.  We are prisoners of the moment; we can’t help but to see it with the 40+ years of the cinema experiences and cultural changes that have happened since the movie’s release.  When Bonnie and Clyde was released, The United States was in the midst of The Vietnam War, distrust of the government was at an all time high and the youth counter-culture movement was growing every day.  Audiences, especially young audiences, were looking for something different from their art, entertainment and lives. Hollywood on the other hand was still tightly clinging to the past. 
The studios were making the same formulaic films they’d been made for decades, and for the first time they weren’t making money.  In fact they were losing money, lots of it.  The Studio’s solution at the time was to throw even more money at the problem, making their films bigger and bigger and more expensive.  The only thing this extra spending seemed to accomplish was increasing the losses of these films.  They needed something different, they needed people that could understand and tap into this new audience.  To the chagrin of Warner Brothers Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy, Reds) decided he would be the one to step into that void.

               Warren Beatty was a name in Hollywood at the time but little more.  He had starred in a few films but he was not taken seriously as an actor, and to his dismay often dismissed as a “pretty boy”.  Despite his lightweight reputation Beatty wasn’t content to just be another smiling face on the marquee, he wanted to do work he felt meant something.  Unsatisfied with the types projects available to him, Beatty set out to take control of his own career.  For an actor to produce his own films at this time was almost unheard of in Hollywood.  This wasn’t some  just some actor looking for a little vanity; this was a movie star using his power to create smaller, more personal, artistic films.  He discovered the script for Bonnie and Clyde off of a recommendation from French New Wave director Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim), hired himself an edgy American director  in Arthur Penn (Mickey One, Little Big Man) and cast mostly unknowns(Faye Dunaway) and stage actors(Gene Hackman) in the lead roles.  It is hard to imagine how radical it must have been in 1967 for a leading man to not only set up his own picture, but to cast himself as a violent, sometimes unlikable and impotent bank robber. 
               Breaking all the rules is what makes Bonnie and Clyde such a fascinating movie.  At the time of its release this was a truly shocking film.  Most Americans hadn’t seen this kind of movie before.  Bonnie and Clyde was overtly violent, sexually dysfunctional and maintained a sense of broad comedy as an often off-putting juxtaposition. The violence of the film was considered to be gratuitous by many.  It is because of these traits that Bonnie and Clyde is often called the first “modern” film, paving way for the Hollywood we have of today. 
Arthur Penn’s mandate for this film was that when people got shot he wanted  it to hurt.  This must have struck a chord with an audience that, through Vietnam, was quickly realizing that violence wasn’t quite as clean as the movies had led them to believe.  Watching it today it’s hard to believe the violence shown was ever shocking.   There are countless hours on primetime network TV displaying images as graphic as anything you will see in Bonnie and Clyde.  What is shocking about the film is not the images, but the jarring shifts in tone. 
We often marry comedy with violence in modern films, but it is ussually cynical one liners.  This is a film that will give you a slapstick moment accompanied by upbeat music, immediately interrupted by a sudden outburst of graphic violence.  Watching the movie for the first time can be an odd experience, because you are never sure whether you are supposed to be enjoying what you are watching.  This is a film that literally tells a joke over and over until it isn’t funny anymore.   
On first glance Bonnie and Clyde seems to be a movie about bank robbers in the south during the depression.  One of the great things about watching it now is that the argument can be made that it better encapsulates the era of the 60’s than it ever did the 30’s.  At one point in the film Bonnie says, “You know what, when we started out, I thought we was really goin' somewhere. This is it. We're just goin', huh?”  This is a movie about dissatisfaction and rebellion.    
               The opening images of the film are that of a nude Bonnie in her bedroom obviously unhappy about something.  Is this because a lover just left her and she is unsatisfied or rejected?  Did she just wake up and is simply unhappy about facing another day? Or is she so disengaged with life that putting on clothes would require too much effort?  The answer doesn’t matter, what matters is that within seconds of seeing her we understand that this is a woman profoundly unhappy with her life.  Bonnie’s drive to a life of crime isn’t about a tangible need for money but rather a spiritual need to exert control over her own life and refusal to maintain the status quo.  Bonnie was just like the millions of young people who grew out their hair and lived unconventional lifestyles in the 60’s.  She might not have known where she was headed but she knew what she leaving. 
               This distrust of authority is most blatantly dramatized in the scene where Clyde captures a Texas Ranger.  Clyde says the Ranger should be, “. . . home protectin' the rights of poor folk, not out chasin' after us!”  Not only do they have no respect for his authority, they feel he is a hypocrite and abuses the power he has.  This sentiment is shared by the poor as well.  To those suffering, Bonnie and Clyde become folk heroes to be praised for standing up and taking what they want from an unfair world.  Stretching back from Jesse James to the gansta rap amongst poor minorities today, it seems when people are having a rough time there will be a glamorization of those snubbing their noses at authority to improve their lot in life.  In 1967 it seems Bonnie and Clyde would be exactly what audiences were looking for.  Clyde doesn’t rob banks to make a political statement though; he robs banks to prove he is a man.
               While the impact of the violence seems to have faded the sexual components may be even more risqué today than they were over 40 yrs ago.  Clyde Barrow is a character that we learn early and often is impotent.  Is this because Clyde suffered some trauma in prison?  Is he bi or homosexual?  Or is it because he is a narcissist?  Once again the reason doesn’t matter.  What is important is that Clyde must substitute for sex in some way to maintain his manhood.  The opening scenes of Clyde meeting Bonnie for the first time while drinking soda, chewing on a match, holding his gun and eventually robbing a bank are not only erotically charged, but are damn near pornographic.  After that first robbery Bonnie is upset that he won’t have sex with her.  What she doesn’t realize until later is that Clyde has already performed a sexual act.  The robbery was his statement of masculinity.  I can’t imagine a major movie released today would ever come close to dealing with these types of issues in such an overt manner.
Bonnie and Clyde is one of those movies we are all told we have to see because it is a “classic”.  The film is important to the history of Hollywood and helped usher in a new era.  It won two Academy Awards (Estelle Parsons, Burnett Guffey) and was nominated for another eight.  It launched the careers of nearly everyone involved from Faye Dunaway (Chinatown, Network) to Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Mississippi Burning), Gene Wilder (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) and more.  But throwing all that out the window it is just as engaging a film today as it was 40 years ago.  It’s a time capsule; not only of the 1930’s with the beautiful set direction and costumes, but to the social mores and mindset of young people in 1967.  It has comedy, violence and tragedy.  Bonnie and Clyde isn’t always a pleasant experience but it is never dull. 
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