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Burning Bright

Rewatching Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) served as an aggressive reminder that it’s a really fucking great movie. Like, on every level. Dede Allen’s editing, for example: evocative, disorienting, whipping up chaos and tension, setting the tempo for the film’s action scenes and attuning us to the character’s libidos in intimate scenes like the one pictured above. Or Francis Stahl’s sound work: emphasizing the tentative breaths and rustles that precede the din of gunfire. Or David Newman and Robert Benton’s screenplay: an intoxicating string of comic set-pieces underlain by tragedy, crumbling into tragic set-pieces laced with gallows humor.

But I’m here to discuss the film’s visuals, as part of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series. Narrowing down the film’s best images is especially agonizing, since Penn and cinematographer Burnett Guffey constructed such a rich, allusive world—one whose fidelity to the Depression-era Midwest is complicated by its very 1960s sexual and political resonances. Although the film’s renowned for its violence, so much of its story is expressed through precise tableaux like the one above, the aftermath of an abortive lovemaking session. Between the pulled-down shade, the turned-away faces, and the way their arched bodies form a line across the frame, the shot smolders with shame and dead-end arousal.

That same arousal is built up in another of my favorite shots, this one arriving a mere six minutes into the film. It features a totally commonplace action—a man and a woman drinking coke outside a corner gas station—that Penn and Guffey shoot as near-pornographic, drawing us to Bonnie’s sultry eyes and bottle-fellating lips. (The innuendo here and moments later, when she strokes Clyde’s gun, is train-through-the-tunnel obvious.) Dunaway packs so much into that gaze: desire, sure, but also curiosity and longing for the things Clyde represents. This is lust blossoming out of small-town tedium.

I love this shot’s geometry. We’re seeing her through the curved frame of Beatty’s arm, bottle, and mouth, which intersect with the rusted gas pump she’s leaning on. Like so much of Bonnie and Clyde, it’s playing with anatomy and architecture, letting performance and composition ricochet off one another. Her desperation and his ambition are always contextualized by the desolation that created them. They’re the children of a dusty, bankrupt nation, and that lineage is underscored in my favorite shot.

“We rob banks,” says Clyde to a dispossessed farmer. The sentiment might be meant as a gesture of solidarity, but it nonetheless oozes with braggadocio. This is Warren Beatty in his element, swaggering as he sports a broad, toothy grin. This is Beatty as Clyde Barrow, nascent folk hero: dripping with sex appeal and a yen for revolution, but also short-sighted and a little narcissistic. The Depression has crushed everyone else, but for Clyde it’s an opportunity to realize the American dream. To rob banks.

He’s oblivious to Bonnie, silent and forlorn, hair blowing into her eyes. She’s aroused by his transgression, certainly, and she returns his smile as the scene ends. But she has more on her mind. Her partnership with Clyde is edged with vulnerability and fear of loss, the same fear that eventually leads to her heartbreaking family reunion. This fear creeps visibly around Dunaway’s mouth throughout the film, always coupled with an understanding that this is the course their love must run, that someday “it’ll be death for Bonnie and Clyde.” It’s all wrapped up in this shot. Comedy, tragedy, past, and bloody future.

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“Used to be my place.”

For 1967, I feel like this is a pretty radical image. It’s two friends, one white and one black, sharing a gun. They used to own a farm together, but the bank kicked them off, so now they’re firing randomly at their former house. It’s an impotent expression of rage, sure, but it’s better than nothing—it does seem to give them a strange feeling of empowerment and satisfaction, at least. When the powers that be screw you over, sometimes impotent rage is the best you can do. Then you just have to bundle up your family and possessions, and move on.

This tale of two old men whose land has been snatched out from under them is one of the many note-perfect, poignant vignettes of Depression life squeezed into Bonnie and Clyde. The film’s episodic structure lets it meander around the Midwest, following the infamous Barrow Gang along their route of crime while occasionally stopping to glance at the assorted characters in their periphery: the other poor farmer who says, “They did right by me!”; the laconic, grudge-bearing Texas Ranger Frank Hamer; the young couple Eugene and Velma; and of course Bonnie’s sad, brittle mother, who was played by a schoolteacher discovered on location. (Her name was Mabel Cavitt. She would never act again.)

I love all these minor details of Bonnie and Clyde. Somehow, these people all ring so true, even when the film becomes a little affected. Arthur Penn and cinematographer Burnett Guffey so unforgettably distilled the Midwest down into a series of earth tones and worn-out faces. As a lifelong Midwesterner who’s spent enough time in rural areas, I have to admit: they nailed it. Visually, it’s the Dust Bowl, and politically? A black man and a white man, both impoverished and dispossessed, borrow a gun from some bank robbers and take aim at bank property. Judge for yourself.

Oh, and another part of Bonnie and Clyde I love? The reaction shots. Like how Clyde’s famous “We rob banks!” brag is greeted with nothing but a blank stare from the white farmer as he walks back to his waiting family. Clyde looks at him expectantly, as if he’s going to force a grin out of this world-weary, fed-up old man. Well, at least he gets Bonnie to smile. I’ll close with a very nice picture of Warren Beatty, because that’s always the right choice.

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Pictures at a Revolution: good film history and a great read

I recently finished Mark Harris’s thrilling volume of film history, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, so I’d like to write about it briefly. In his book, Harris (the husband of Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner) writes at length about the planning, production, and reception of 1967’s Best Picture nominees. (To be specific, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. Dolittle, and the winner, In the Heat of the Night.) In the process, he’s able to give a wide cross-section of a Hollywood in flux, caught between the studio system’s gradual demise, and the industry’s impending renaissance.

Harris also frames his meticulously researched history as an exciting narrative, full of characters on every end of the roue de fortune, some set at cross-purposes to each other. There are the real-life clashes between Warren Beatty and Jack Warner; Rex Harrison and the cast and crew of Dr. Dolittle; and Stanley Kramer and the late ’60s film criticism community, just to name a few. And they all build up to this greater, intergenerational conflict, in which The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde ultimately win out, aesthetically and financially.

But at the same time, Harris doesn’t oversimplify these struggles, as each major player is presented objectively through interviews, letters, newspaper accounts, and various archival sources. When uncertainty exists, as with the sexualities of Tracy and Hepburn, he footnotes it. Unlike many books which profile movie stars, he fact-checks scrupulously, giving the reader a well-rounded account. For example, he portrays every side of the layered star image of Sidney Poitier – from the viewpoints of black radicals, film critics, filmmakers (like Kramer and In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison), the general public, and Poitier himself.

It’s also a book that gives equal time to each part of its dense story, as the films’ production schedules are charted alongside each other. Harris uses the contrast to show how multiple types of filmmaking coexisted in the late ’60s, with intentions, production models, and end results as different as The Graduate and Dr. Dolittle. And within this broader depiction of rapid, industry-wide trends, Harris finds time for dozens of smaller stories to illustrate points about film history, like how The Sound of Music‘s success helped lead to the New Hollywood. (Studios placed their bets on other big-budget musicals like Camelot, Hello, Dolly!, and Sweet Charity, which turned out to be crippling flops.)

After reading Pictures at a Revolution, my immediate reaction is that I want a book like this about every Oscar year. Preferably by Mark Harris. Since it talks about an era of such social and cinematic upheaval, every event is investigated for historical relevance, but he doesn’t draw conclusions where there aren’t any. But when, say, Oscars host Bob Hope makes unfunny jokes about the ceremony’s two-day postponement (due to King’s assassination), there’s a clear generational divide at work. It’s a symptom of a rift, signaling that one part of (film) history is ending, and another is about to begin. It’s these little fissures that Harris diagnoses so well through what would otherwise seem like trivial anecdotes.

That may be the book’s greatest triumph: using these fascinating stories about filmmaking (which really do make it a fun, accessible read) to back up serious historical arguments about changes in the methods and substance of American cinema, and their significance amidst the broader cultural turmoil of late ’60s and early ’70s. I recommend Pictures at a Revolution both for those seeking new knowledge and understanding of beloved films (like Bonnie and Clyde‘s early history being passed around between Truffaut and Godard), and those with an interest in the greater sociocultural context. Harris provides a helpful window into one of the more intriguing times in film history, and American history in general.

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