This week's Wednesday Night at the Movie's open thread will focus on Bonnie and Clyde and to start rev-ing up the discussion here's an extended quote from Rick Perlstein's Nixonland describing some of the contemporary reaction to the movie:
The action opened with a close-up of the siren lips of Faye Dunaway as the young Bonnie Parker, all flouncing sexuality, imprisoned in a respectable Christian home. She stares languidly out her bedroom window, Rapuzel-like, spies the radiant Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) stealing her mama's car. Rather than save her family's property, she chooses to join him. He explains that he has just got out of prison for armed robbery. He lets her stroke his gun.
The setting was 1932. But the scenarios were anachronistic---Faye in make-up like Twiggy and a beret like a Black Panther, Warren (who they said had been one of JFK's favorite actors) with a mop of Bobby Kennedy hair. The police ride in riot tanks like the ones in Detroit and Newark. The abiding sin of the bad guys, cops, and ordinary townfolk---who in any previous movie would have been the good guys---is their bourgeois inauthenticity. When the Barrow Gang holes up at the farm of a young member's father, the old man ends up selling out his son: not because he is a murderer, but because of his tattoo (a 1932 stand-in for long hair) makes him look like "trash." "Don't shoot, the kids are in the crossfire," you hear at one point above the cacophany. The cops shoot anyway. The Barrow Gang would never put kids in the cross fire. They were the kids.
They weren't bad folks, went the movie's moral logic, until an evil system forced them to extremity: robbing banks that repossessed farms, killing only when the System began closing in all around them ("You oughtta be protectin' the rights of poor folks instead of chasin' after the likes of us," Clyde tells a Texas ranger, that embodiment heretofore of everything upright and true.) Bonnie and Clyde made those around them feel alive---all except the squares who were chasing them, who were already more or less dead anyway, with their sucker obsession with honest toil. Defiant indolence (Beatty's Clyde Barrow walked with a limp from cutting off two of his own toes to avoid a prison work detail) made Bonnie and Clyde honest in a world of lies. They were also McLuhanite outlaws. They lived to get their pictures in the paper. The first time it happened, in fact, cured Clyde Barrow's unfortunate impotence.
Clyde held up a grocery store. The grocer attacked this charmed youth, who pilfered the fruit of his honest sacrifice. Barrow replied incredulously, "What does he have against me?"
Life and freedom against death and toil: this was the movie's structuring antinomy---a generation gap Rorschach. Everyone watching had to choose a side: was this new immorality that Hollywood was offering actually a higher morality? Or just a new name for evil? "Not in a generation has a single Hollywood movie had such a divisive and worldwide impact," the Hollywood Reporter concluded of the furor that ensued---a public symposium over the meaning of the present.
The producers---Warren Beatty was one, and later claimed he preferred Bob Dylan for his role---let there be no mistake: forcing this debate was their intention. They advertised it with the slogan "They're young...they're in love...and they kill people." Clyde's proudly insouciant self-introduction---"We rob banks"---was a dream-factory coutnerpart to the words of the SNCC militant who complained about Urban League types around the time the picture opened: "We're trying to get jobs in a bank we ought to destroy."
Director Arthur Penn also broke the production code's most ironclad rule: show all the shooting you like, but never show what happens on the receiving end. In Bonnie and Clyde, the bullets were shown from first to last---not least in the final shot, Bonnie and Clyde riddled from law enforcement tommy guns in a low-down and dirty ambush. The New York Times' schoolmarmish film critic Bosley Crowther, aghast that "so callous and callow a film should represent [the] country in these critical times," led the party of the outraged with not one but three attacks in the Paper of the Record. Newsweek called it "represhensible." Film in Review tagged it "dementia praecox of the most pointless sort." Others recollected a generational primal scene. If "you want to see a real killer," Jimmy Breslin wrote in disgust, "You should have been around to see Lee Harvey Oswald." Tom Wolfe compared its "pornoviolence" to the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination. Arthur Penn led his own defense by, more or less, agreeing. He boasted of the black man who emerged from a preview screening and said, "That's the way to go, baby. Those cats were all right." Pauline Kael published nine thousand words saying pretty much the same thing: that "Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies what people have been feeling and saying and writing about." Afraid of Bonnie and Clyde? Then you were afraid of the abundance of life.
New Left notes, the theoretical journal of Students for a Democratic Society, devoted a quarter of an issue to the film's meaning for the struggle ("We are not potential Bonnies and Clydes, we are Bonnies and Clydes"). A college girl from Peoria wrote Time: "Sir: Bonnie and Clyde is not a film for adults, and I believe much of its degradation has come from that fact. Adults are used to being entertained in theaters---coming out smiling and humming the title song...The reason it was so silent, so horribly silen in the theater at the end of the film was because we like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, we identified with them, and their deaths made us realize that newspaper headlines are not so far removed from our quiet dorm rooms."
Rick isn't trying to describe what's in Bonnie and Clyde. He's descibing what a lot of people in 1967 thought they saw when they went to see Bonnie and Clyde. If the movie was just a countercultural manifesto or a training film for the violent underground it would be the least interesting of all the movies in our current series, duller than Doctor Dolittle. I'm not sure how the kids back then saw themselves in Bonnie and Clyde. Gorgeous as they are, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are also decidely adult looking. Their gang includes the already middle-aged Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons. Michael J. Pollard was more of a mascot for the cool kids than a surrogate. And as far as Bonnie and Clyde being portrayed as countercultural rebels, as Mark Harris makes clear in Pictures at a Revolution, the rebellion was in the artists not the characters. Beatty, Penn, screenwriters David Newton and Robert Benton, all thought that what was most avant-garde about the movie they were making was its honesty in portraying some very sick and twisted people. As Rick notes, Beatty didn't originally see himself in the part of Clyde Barrow. What attracted him to the part, though, was the opportunity to play against his romantic pretty boy image.
But movies don't get released into a vaccuum, and filmmakers can't control what audiences think they're watching. Back in 1967 Bonnie and Clyde was a different movie than it is now. I think it's a better movie now because it's easier to watch it for itself than for what it might be saying about current events. But that's something we can take up Wednesday night.
The newcritics website is still messed up. Our fearless leader, Tom Watson, is working hard on getting it fixed but it might not be ready by Wednesday. The beauty of open threads, though, is that they are portable, and if newcritics isn't up and running, we'll hold the discussion right here. Either place, the thread opens at 10 PM Eastern, 9 Central, but feel free to arrive fashionably late. Discussion will go on all night if people are up for it.