Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Arthur Penn

Arthur Penn came between the fag-end of the Golden Age and the generation of the movie brats. He acknowledged himself that Spielberg sort of stomped all over his work and made him redundant. With Bonnie and Clyde he very briefly became the hottest director in town. That film is fresh. Or  fresh by Hollywood standards. Jean Luc Godard was originally slated to direct, but that was never going to happen- and it devolved to Penn to introduce that  free-wheeling, nouveau vague aesthetic into American cinema (And about time too!) Does it still work? I have to confess I've never been back to find out. It's a film that meant a lot to me at the time and I don't want to dilute those first impressions by watching it now and finding it diminished. The mere fact that I have these doubts suggests that they could be well-founded. I don't have similar reservations about revisiting Weekend or If or The Wild Bunch- other movies from the same era that similarly knocked me sideways.

For one thing it's got Warren Beatty in it- with those tiny little eyes of his. I don't believe I was ever particularly enamoured of its stars. What grabbed me was its sense of the great outdoors- those old cars chasing across the prairie while the  banjoes duelled- and all that shockingly beautiful violence.

Penn made movies to either side of Bonnie and Clyde. I don't believe any of them quite measure up. I remember The Chase going on forever. Alice's Restaurant was briefly important to me- because it took my generation- and its clownish rebelliousness- seriously. Little Big Man debunked the western- something it seemed important to do at the time- but Little Big Man has come and gone and John Ford still stands tall. Lampooning Ford is like lampooning Shakespeare.  The scene where the US cavalry massacre the Indians to the strains of Gary Owen stays with me, but it has never stopped my heart fluttering as usual when the cavalry canters into view, again through snow, to the same tune in The Searchers. Besides, Ford contains his own critique. Every one of his great westerns is also a revisionist western. He knew it wasn't right what was done to the Indians. He could see things all ways round. 

Then there was the Missouri Breaks, which is a mess. Penn couldn't control his star- and his star went nova- and Penn should have gone with him because his star (this is Brando we're talking about) knew his craft better than Penn did. The Missouri Breaks was the end of Penn's career as an "A"-lister. 

Bah, I meant this as a tribute and it seems to be turning into something else. You'll gather I'm disappointed in Penn. Bonnie and Clyde seemed to signal the arrival on the scene of a master- and it turns out it was only the best work of a director of  average talent. No shame in being of average talent. Most of us don't reach even that high. Bonnie and Clyde may not be quite the world-historical masterpiece we once took it for, but it's still a damn fine movie. Turn up at the pearly gates with something as good as that swinging at your belt and I reckon they'll give you a round of applause. 
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