Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is not technically about the American South. It's really a film about the southwest and the middle-United States—the regions in which Bonnie and Clyde were active during the 1920s and early 1930s. But Bonnie and Clyde are a Southern tradition and heritage. I remember my grandmother, in her last days, rambling on about two young hoodlums in Texas who held up banks and shot people during the 1920s. it took me a while to realize that she was talking about Bonnie and Clyde. Though the actual province of the film may not be the deep South, it certainly feels Southern—the accents of the primary characters (not that authentic) and the Homer and Jethro soundtrack.

The new book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris discusses how screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman wrote the original screenplay with Francois Truffaut in mind, and how they even managed to interest Truffaut in the idea of directing a Bonnie and Clyde film. Truffaut seriously considered directing the film and made detailed notes on the screenplay. According to Harris, Truffaut significantly influenced the shape and style of the film. At the time, Truffaut's attention was mainly focused on Fahrenheit 451, which would be his first English-language film. He apparently discussed the Bonnie and Clyde screenplay with Jean Luc-Goddard, who also considered directing. Ultimately, the task fell to Arthur Penn, whom Truffaut admired. This information led me to look at and think more carefully about the film. I had not watched it all the way through since its original release in 1967. At the time the film had considerable shock value. It was violent and bloody, and it presented the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde in a relatively sympathetic context. Their deaths in a brutal hail of gunfire at the end of the film were incredibly graphic and shocking. Though that final scene still has its power, it no longer delivers the shock it carried forty years ago. The realism of the film has suffered as well. There's an air of glamor surrounding the two main characters as portrayed by Beatty and Dunaway. The film often shows photographs of the real Bonnie and Clyde, who were considerably less beautiful that the movie versions. The originals were sallow and hard in appearance. The film versions seem well fed, full of curves and smooth lines. They wear nice clothes, even before they start accumulating money by robbing banks. It's difficult to think of a character as goofy as the Warren Beatty version of Clyde robbing banks and killing folks.

Bonnie and Clyde is not seamless, it suffers from certain logical flaws, and it is broadly drawn. It has more energy and force than skill.

The film attempts to portray the two outlaws as depression-era heroes. During one bank robbery, Clyde decides not to take the money of an old man because he is a farmer who needs it. Yet in other robberies he shoots people who are little better off than the old man.

Penn's outlaws are not rebelling against social injustice or poverty. They're rebelling against boredom. At least this is the case for Bonnie, who wants escape from the heat and emptiness of her bedroom, where we first see her lying naked at the beginning of the film. She also wants sexual adventure, and at first she thinks she has found it with Clyde. Their first bank robbery together is clearly a sexual thrill for her, though she soon discovers that Clyde is unwilling to respond to her advances. Clyde at first glance is not the kind of rebel Bonnie wants to be. He's an ex-convict, of course, recently released from prison, but he's not in revolt against much at all. He comes across as a dumb brute, at times, and it's only his unstoppable vigor and momentum that gets him through the robberies, which he carries off more by impulse than by plan.

It's not always clear what Bonnie and Clyde really want. Clyde at times seems willing to settle down into a traditional husband-and-wife relationship. Bonnie chafes at these moments, yet she also longs for her family and her mother—who knows very well where Bonnie's prospects are bound. Mostly the two don't know what they want. They just want to be themselves, and they don't want to give much thought or time to self-justification.

Contrasted against law enforcement officials in the film, especially the sheriff who devotes himself to bringing Bonnie and Clyde down after they take embarrassing photos of him and then throw him in a river after he spits at Bonnie, these outlaws don't look so bad. The film shows Bonnie and Clyde doomed to failure almost from the start. As their fame spreads, more and more law enforcement people want to catch them. The better known they are, the more likely it is that people will recognize them and report them to the police. The last half of the film dramatizes the downward spiral of their exploits.

To what extent do the rampages of Bonnie and Clyde answer to the dreams of the 1960s-era audiences that flocked to see the film? Surely there were numerous films that catered to the youthful American audience desire for escape from middle class conformity and blandness.

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