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Nashville Scene Gun Crazy

"Bonnie and Clyde," 30 years after.

By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman

APRIL 27, 1998:  Gangster movies are a law-abiding citizen's version of porn--a film-looped ritual that endlessly spools out fantasies of rebellion, of brute force and money, of death. The Code-era gangster classics of the '30s hid behind a moral smoke screen to deliver doses of lowdown thrills. You still got to see lawbreakers raise hell and bang bang bang, and as long as justice prevailed before "The End," your appetite for destruction was sated, not challenged. Bonnie and Clyde, which shows Tuesday and Wednesday in a special engagement at Sarratt, calls into question just what the hell we find so thrilling.

Bonnie and Clyde is quintessentially the product of a country where guns are props in the national playhouse, from the time a kid is old enough to play cops-and-robbers. At the same time, the movie is shrewd enough to wonder what kind of impact that has on our notions of reality and fiction, law and order, right and wrong. As such, Bonnie and Clyde may not be the greatest American movie--let's not even play that parlor game--but you could certainly make a case for it as the great American movie, the one that best represents our character and our cinema, warts and all. Even after 31 years, after countless imitations and the numbing escalation of movie violence, its basic contradictions remain more pertinent than ever. How can we demonize crime as citizens and romanticize criminals as moviegoers?

First and foremost, Bonnie and Clyde is a great gangster movie about two people who imagine themselves as the stars of a gangster movie. Everything in it calls to mind the outlaw classics of the 1930s, only fonder and dreamier. No Little Caesar or Scarface ever looked as flawlessly handsome as Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow; no moll ever gave off anything like the heat of Faye Dunaway's Bonnie Parker. The gleaming roadsters, the vintage fashions (which sparked a short-lived craze)--Burnett Guffey's camera polishes them all to a stylized gloss that evokes the world through a celluloid curtain. Car chases cut from real cars to obviously fake process shots; the fleeing robbers see themselves riding to glory against a back-projection screen. A scene in a movie theater captures the disparity between the movie world and their life of crime. Onscreen, dancing chorines sing "We're in the Money" in a Busby Berkeley production number. In the audience, Clyde fatmouths about killing a bank guard--the first of many killings to come.

What isn't stylized is the violence. It isn't poetic, as in The Wild Bunch; it's blunt and ugly. The director, Arthur Penn, undercuts the rollicking tone of the early scenes with ominous hints: credits that fade to blood-red, a splash of ketchup on Bonnie's blouse. A clerk with a cleaver bolts into the frame behind Clyde as he holds up a grocery, deliberately violating the lighthearted mood, and from then on the violence is sudden, disruptive, and as harsh as the rest of Bonnie and Clyde's world is idealized. The outlaws pose for photos with guns and write their own ballad, but the grubby reality constantly undermines the glamour--matinee-idol Clyde is an impotent coward, beautiful Bonnie is a vicious crook, and the people they kill look like us. We start out admiring the outlaws, and they respond by shoving their shiny guns back in our faces. In the notorious ending, a masterpiece of montage in editor Dede Allen's hands, a firing squad brutally punctures their delusions with a hail of machine-gun fire.

Ironically enough, it was the seriousness of the violence that infuriated reviewers when Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967. (Many of them turned about-face when the movie became a blockbuster and a critical cause cl¸bre.) The blood was nothing new, and neither was the brutality. Herschell Gordon Lewis' far grislier cheapies had been playing drive-ins for years, and one of the biggest hits the same year was Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen, which tossed in a near-rape and several beatings along with a substantially higher body count.

But those movies didn't explode their cartoonish use of bloodshed as entertainment the way Bonnie and Clyde did. Bonnie and Clyde jumbled humor and horror in ways that recalled the groundbreaking thriller pastiches of the French New Wave--whose leading lights, Jean-Luc Godard and Fran¨ois Truffaut, were initially offered the David Newman-Robert Benton script by producer Beatty. (A lyrical slow-motion shot of a child tumbling down a hill, an homage to Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, gives a glimpse of the film that might've been.) The movie's moral ambiguity isn't about killing; it's about bank-robbing. The movie immerses us so deeply in the delusions of its bank-robber heroes that it makes banks deserving targets, stick-ups fun, and lawmen bloodthirsty bullies. It takes bullets to snap us out of it.

The many caper movies that followed Bonnie and Clyde abandoned subjective subtleties altogether. The movie's careful ironic remove gave way to an easy cynicism that made heroes of criminals, patsies of working stiffs, and villains of lawmen. By the time you get to something as corrupt as the recent Set It Off, in which the filmmakers' casual exploitation of economic troubles winds up glorifying armed robbery, you see violence reduced to window dressing, to affectless spectacle that leaves an audience feeling numb. As even a cursory look shows today, that's one crime nobody can pin on Bonnie and Clyde.

--Jim Ridley


One reporter's opinion

Every baby film critic has been bounced on papa film critic's knee and been told the legend of Bonnie and Clyde--how the movie had been all but dismissed, until The New Yorker's Pauline Kael turned critical and public sentiment around with a single review. This lengthy essay made Kael a cinematic tastemaker and arguably launched a generation of existential, youth-oriented movies (and reviewers). Ever since, critics have longed for the days when their opinions had the power to alter the national taste.

Now, in a recent New Yorker article, critic David Denby laments that the influence of the critic has waned to the point that reviewers can't even sell the public on a crackling middlebrow entertainment like L.A. Confidential. He complains that critics have responded to their growing powerlessness by becoming either blurb-spouting studio shills or cranky contrarians who preach that big budget automatically equals bad movie.

All of which begs a couple of questions. The most important--and the one I'll save for later--is whether a film critic's purpose is to push people in and out of theaters. The second is whether a film's box office is the true measure of its success: After all, if L.A. Confidential's Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland made a good movie that won awards, riveted half-capacity auditoriums, and will eventually turn a modest profit, how is that a failure? Finally, is Denby blinded by metropolitan arrogance--does his research begin and end with the major dailies and weeklies on his nightstand?

Certainly, Denby has reason to complain. Much of the critical writing in major publications is either glibly cutting or comprised of shallow plot summaries--even without the overabundance of critics willing to tout movies as "roller coasters!" in giant ads. (As Denby astutely notes, these eye-popping quotations have become so prevalent they're meaningless.) And despite the blurb-o-maniacs, the public generally perceives critics as esoteric snobs. I can't count the number of times people have told me, "You don't like anything" or "You hate what's popular." I'd drag out my positive comments for Titanic or Toy Story, but it's not really me these people are deriding: It's the generic huffy film critic of the pop subconscious.

Perhaps we should all follow Harry Knowles, the affable, well-intentioned proprietor of the entertaining but illiterate Ain't-It-Cool-News Web site. When he isn't passing on sloppily written, unedited test-screening reports, Knowles files his own rambling "reviews," wherein he recounts the events of his day--including what he ate and how well he digested it--capped off by an unsubstantiated opinion. He calls these reviews "spoiler-free," because he doesn't reveal any meaningful plot details. But if the function of a film critic is to persuade a reader whether to see a movie, I can't imagine who'd be persuaded by Knowles' purposeful avoidance of insight.

The alternative is to be one of those list-makers in Film Comment who pride themselves on how obscure their favorite movies are. Jonathan Rosenbaum, the quirky, TV-phobic leftist who reviews movies for The (Chicago) Reader (and who has his own choice words for Denby this week) complains that American critics aren't obscure enough--they're slaves to domestic cinema who ignore great works from overseas. But leaving aside the fact that many American moviegoers don't have easy access to foreign movies, it's as vital from a cultural perspective to examine Lost in Space, or even ER, as it is to talk up Ma Vie en Rose or Hana-Bi.

Then again, what is the purpose of a film critic? The public resentment of critics stems partly from a misunderstanding of this question, both by the public and by many critics. As a professional critic, I write for my fellow enthusiasts--people who care enough about movies to stay on top of the current buzz. I try to add to a discussion, not deliver the final word to the masses.

"What makes your opinion any more valid than mine?" runs the common complaint, and the simple answer is, not much. Although I could tout the sheer number of movies I've seen and reseen, what matters is how well I structure my argument and how meaningful my observations are. A worthy critic focuses on the many particulars of a movie (good, bad, or both) rather than on delivering a simple verdict. Regardless of my opinion, I would tell the reader to see every movie he can--with the possible exception of Speed 2.


Worse things to come
Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, delivering cold, unflinching violence in Bonnie and Clyde

Unfortunately, many critics approach their job as though they're administering a driver's test: They pick apart movies so minutely that no film is ever good enough. What they sacrifice is the joy, enthusiasm, and belief that any given day at the cinema will renew their love of the movies, be they high art or low pop. I don't have much time for a critic who doesn't have high hopes for a film like Godzilla, even if it turns out to be lousy. As shaggy as Harry Knowles and his ilk may be, at least they understand that the appeal of movies is that they can simply be cool.

All of which leaves Denby's concerns about the health of his profession sounding a little strained. He has a tendency to make arguments based on how he senses things are. Check out his previous New Yorker pieces, which boil down to obvious premises like, "Hey, the kids seem to like that pop culture," or, "Boy, look at all those great books." (Coming soon: Denby on the many virtues of sliced bread.) He imagines himself a tastemaker, but since the public at large doesn't share his taste (despite his best efforts to be as populist as possible), he concludes that no one is listening--which is completely spurious. If you know where to look, there are plenty of interesting trends and worthy writers. And there are lots of interested readers; they just fit a different profile.

And that may be the problem. When Pauline Kael wrote her Bonnie & Clyde piece, at a time when the notion of popular art was hotly debated, film buffs were a more united breed. Today, cineastes are endlessly substratified--into those who love everything about the medium; into those who love its artistic potential; into those who can quote every line of The Blues Brothers. Maybe that's what makes David Denby feel so isolated. When he wonders why the modern critic has little persuasive power anymore, who exactly is he trying to persuade? He doesn't even know the choir he's preaching to.

--Noel Murray


Third-rate romance

The romantic comedies we fall in love with have simple premises and complex characters. There's a reason the formula goes "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back"--three acts, no waiting. The stories are thin precisely so the characters have room to display the full range of their personalities and put us under their spell. We want to nudge Cary Grant into Irene Dunne's bedroom in The Awful Truth; we want Julia Roberts to hold out for her fantasy in Pretty Woman.

The Object of My Affection is based on a novel by Stephen McCauley and has a novel's surfeit of incident. It's crowded with events and crises, and as a result, the protagonists, Nina and George (Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd), never get a chance to turn on the tractor beam of attractiveness. Nina's dissatisfaction with her boyfriend Vince (John Pankow) leads to a deepening friendship with her gay roommate George. Discovering she's pregnant, Nina enlists George to help her raise the child, playing on his affection for her and on his desire for the ordinary pleasures of childhood. But when George tries to have a normal love life, he provokes Nina's jealousy.

Good ideas abound in the screenplay by Wendy Wasserstein: that a family need not happen biologically but can be constructed by choice, like a kit; or that gay relationships suffer from a stigma of impermanence because marriage is not an option. These dramatic situations are garnished with throwaway jokes about pretentious A-list New Yorkers, personified by Nina's stepsister and her literary-agent husband (Allison Janney and Alan Alda). In fact, the comedy is only an occasional fillip on an essentially dramatic storyline, leaving Aniston's most potent talent undisplayed.

Aniston and Rudd have little chemistry, comic or otherwise, and thus have to spend too much time going through the plot's various wringers to develop any character. Their goofy amiability never becomes radiant charm, and perhaps some of the fault can be laid at their rather lightweight skills. Nigel Hawthorne arrives about halfway through The Object of My Affection, playing a drama critic plagued by unrequited love; his sober, poignant presence lends a dignity and wisdom to the film in just a few short scenes. Now there's an actor, and a character, who could anchor a romance and inspire undying affection.

--Donna Bowman


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