I am the last person I know to see "Bonnie and Clyde" (Film 433)

Well, the last person besides my boyfriend, who watched it with me this afternoon. It occurred to me, while watching it, that I almost always judge a film more harshly while watching it with my boyfriend, and not merely because he has a more skeptical attitude towards movies than I do. He approaches films with a more analytical eye, or perhaps I should say an analytical eye more attuned to issues of stylistics and construction than to thematics. When I watch a film with him, I become much more aware of the seams, of errors and triumphs of editing, and of the professional processes of acting. He defamiliarizes the narrative for me; suddenly film becomes much more a conscious construction, and much less an overwhelming emotional experience. Which is odd, because he is highly skeptical about applying this sort of analytical gaze to literature.

You probably already know the plot of Arthur Penn's 1967 film, even if you are in fact even more behind on your film canon than I am. It is based on the real story of two 1930s lovers and armed robbers (although honesty might require listing those qualities in the opposite order), Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who captured the attention and to some extent the affection of a nation in thrall to financial depredations of the Depression and eager to see foreclosing banks and big businesses pay. In the film, they meet in Texas, discover Bonnie's ravenous sexual hunger for the excitement of armed robbery, and then in quick succession realize Clyde's talent for satisfying her craving for larceny and his utter inability to respond to her sexual appetite. They acquire several hangers-on along the way, but the most notable is the looming presence of death in their stolen cars and shabby bedsits. This at first unwelcome but increasingly avuncular presence first appears when they pick up a terrified couple and befriend them over an hours-long drive, only to abandon them abruptly when it emerges that the young man (Gene Wilder, who emerges from Zeus's brain fully formed as a comic actor in this his first major movie role) is an undertaker.

For a time, only such a distinctive comic actor as Gene Wilder (who always manages performances at once broad/stagy and highly detailed - is this the definition of a good comic actor?) seems appropriate for the large, stylized acting that Penn demands of his actors in "Bonnie and Clyde." As the film progresses, you settle in to this aesthetic of acting, if less comfortably into the unsettling, abrupt editing style, which seems to evoke the earlier, rougher mode of B-westerns. Would that I could comment on the famous New Wave influences on this film, which might have explained and enhanced these stylistic choices for us, but since I am watching these films out of order in my 1001 Movies project, I have yet to reach its New Wave predecessors. (Curse my infidelity to chronology!!!) I can only promise to return to it when I reach the proper place in the timeline.

The real heart of this film, for us, was not the passion of the love story, nor the innovation of its violence (which include repeated and remarkable references to "Battleship Potemkin," the granddaddy of film violence), but its obsession with celebrity. The film's Bonnie and Clyde, like the real criminals, were not just aware of their public image, they manipulated it through a press which was seldom completely hostile to them, using tactics litarary (Bonnie's mythmaking, pointedly child-like poetry), visual (through pictures which inevitably evoke the ones you get taken at the fair, in different costumes and against different backdrops), and personal (winning over converts one by one on their famous "rides"). They envision themselves (somewhat broadly) in the terms of the myth they build up in the press, as populists wreaking the vengeance of the masses against the rich and powerful.

The most wonderful tensions in the film come when the drive for celebrity comes in conflict with celebrity's handmaiden, death. As Chris Rojek points out in his book "Celebrity," one of the expectations we have of celebrities is that they serve a shamanistic purpose for our increasingly secular culture, undergoing the same "rituals of descent" and abasement that we would otherwise have turned to other symbolic sources to fulfill (messiahs, prophets, gods, priests who would go to the underworld and return). An inevitable characteristic of celebrity is that someone, somewhere, wants to do them harm (sometimes as a way of expressing love), and that we will be there, hungrily watching, as the celebrity is sacrificed, ready to experience the catharsis of mourning for someone we didn't even really know. Bonnie, in particular, is well aware that this sacrifice is the price of celebrity. And she is right - the most famous, oft-cited scene in the movie is the one in which they meet their grisly fate, a scene which inevitably seems smaller in reality than the enormous symbolic place it holds in our culture.

"Bonnie and Clyde"
dir. Arthur Penn

One Response so far.

  1. I should add that Rojek's conception of "rituals of descent" is wonderfully broad, encompassing both the humiliation of the celebrity (I'm looking at you, Mel Gibson) and their death (think Princess Diana, John Lennon, etc.).

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