Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn: 1922-2010

I just finished uploading my latest post when I read the news that Arthur Penn passed away at the age of 88. I'd like to share a few thoughts on this most individualistic director:

Penn will forever be linked with his 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, the film that changed the look of gangster films as well as introducing contemporary Hollywood cinema to sudden, brutal violence. Who can forget when Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) shoots a man hanging on to the rear of his getaway car after a bank robbery? Filmed from inside the car, Barrow fires through the window directly into the man's face; this was clearly a shocking scene that had not been seen in American films to that date.

The final shootout when Texas Rangers fire hundreds of bullets into the two title characters is another horrible scene, yet the beauty of Penn's direction (along with Dede Allen's brilliant editing) lifts this scene above the normal killing of bad guys as depicted in most movies. We see in separate shots Bonnie and Clyde moving toward each other as though to embrace and show their love for each other. The sequence ends as we fade to black - chilling.

For me, Penn would never quite match this intensity again, though I believe his Night Moves (1975) is another highlight in his career. A brooding, film-noirish detective story with a wildly complex plot about smuggled goods that was more concerned with the frustrations of its characters, the film displayed a bitter edge that Penn often brought to his finest work. This is a film that takes you on a journey where you share many of the same emotions of the main characters who worry about the paths that had been taken by America.

Penn never took the easy way out, as evidenced by these two films as well as others - Little Big Man was not the usual "the white man has been brutal to the Indians" story; rather it dealt in great degree with the brotherhood of the Indian and how they dealt with their outside troubles. Penn, in his best films, always challenged us to look at these characters - gangsters, detectives, Indians -in a new light and constantly challenged us - the audience, to see things things anew. We could be entertained by an Arthur Penn film, but often, we came away confronted with our own faults (especially true with a film such as Four Friends (1981)) This may not be what everyone wanted from a movie, but Penn went there in an honest fashion.


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