Saturday, February 7, 2009

bonnie and clyde, by arthur penn

When we wrapped up last week's pick, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), I said that it picqued my interest in two different things: 1) how a filmmaker might control the level of sympathy an audience might feel towards a criminal couple, and 2) how a filmmaker might approach the long-term success or failure of a romantic relationship born in the heat of an impulsive moment. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this week's pick, addresses both of those questions in ways that are worth examining.

First the question of sympathy. There's something powerful about the psychology of movies—perhaps inherent to the psychology of storytelling itself—which enables us to give over our sympathy to nearly any character placed at the front and center of a narrative, even characters who might otherwise strike us as repellent. (I've written on this before, when discussing Psycho (Film Club 39) and Peeping Tom (Film Club 38).)

The addition of "star charisma" pretty much doubles whatever bonus we get from this "protagonist factor": we're prone to root for Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in Postman not only because the narrative centers around them but also because, well, they're incredibly good-looking people.

Does Bonnie and Clyde play this card? Absolutely. If anything, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are even more charismatic than Lange and Nicholson:

But, star charisma or no star charisma, the protagonist factor will only get you so far if the characters' motivations aren't clear, and if they aren't ones that we feel at least loosely sympathetic towards. This is where Postman drops the ball: as I wrote last week, we end up not being sure why Nicholson and Lange decide to flee to Chicago, not being sure why they give up on that plan, not being sure why they have to resort to murder, not being sure why they can't settle down after the murder has been enacted. Each time we encounter one of these moments of confusion, our ability to identify with them drains away a little bit more.

Bonnie and Clyde doesn't make the same mistake. Clyde argues explicity for why Bonnie should join him in a life of crime, presenting it as a clear alternative to (and improvement upon) the service-industry life that Bonnie's headed towards. The two of them later use an identical argument to enlist gas station attendant C. W. Moss as a sidekick:

Neither Bonnie nor C. W. need all that much convincing, and neither does the audience: we've all imagined, at some point or another, that being a bank robber would be more exciting, glamorous, and sexy than whatever it is we do for a day job. The argument also involves an explicit contempt towards the concept of living a "normal" life, a contempt which I think holds ground in the mind of the contemporary film-goer—certainly it must have resonated with audiences in 1967. (Whether it would have been a motivating factor for a young girl in the early 1930s is anybody's guess.)

Once the crime spree is underway, it doesn't take long for the authorities to begin pursuit. This kind of relentless external pressure makes for very strong motivation: they spend the entire remainder of the film trying not to get imprisoned or shot, and we're right along with them, every step of the way.

Interestingly, as this pursuit ramps up, and as the escapes grow more and more harrowing, the normal, domestic life (which we rejected so soundly in the first third of the film) begins to seem more and more appealing, at least to Bonnie, and, to a degree, to the audience. This is where we begin to part ways with Clyde: during one memorable moment where we see (and where Bonnie sees) that he is unable to imagine a life other than the one he has chosen. (There's a definite purity to his world-view, but such lack of doubt can't, it seems, be sustained by non-mythic mortals like ourselves.)

This leads up to the inevitable conclusion—I won't discuss it here in great detail, beyond saying that, like Postman's director Bob Rafelson, this film's director, Arthur Penn, seems to be saying that the criminal impulse and its associated libidinal energies are nonviable foundations for a stable, long-lasting relationship. From a narrative perspective, this works: the forces that eventually doom the relationship are pretty much the natural end result of the choices they've made. This contrasts especially well against Postman's resolution, which muddies the point by descending into mere capriciousness.

This makes Bonnie and Clyde the more satisfying tragedy, but there's a way in which I wonder if there isn't a faint conservative attitude behind this conclusion: isn't the ultimate moral here, then, that Bonnie would have been better off locked into Depression-era service work? Debatable, sure. But it did get us thinking about exactly which life strategies are the appropriate ones for surviving economic hard times, a line of inquiry that brought us directly to our next pick: 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. This one marks the first choice of our new third member, Tiffanny E. Welcome aboard, T., looking forward to seeing where this goes.

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