Bonnie and Clyde – In the headlights | Kinostalgia

11 June, 2021

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), the hyper-famous flick about doomed gangsters, will be screening at the end of this month as a part of the American Independent Film Festival’s line-up. Isn’t it somewhat ironic for a film that was banking on quite standard means – pure energy and craftsmanship –, and which, like so many others, exited the gates of a classical-age Hollywood which was still deeply connected to the system, to appear today, in contrast to the suffocating stockyard of over-inflated and stuffed dead features which comprises the contemporary blockbuster industry, as being similar to an independent effort? Or maybe this is just just a tribute to one of the last (good) films that were on everybody’s lips? Anyways, before setting into motion the PR-istic wheel of obligatory labels – the most mythical, tragical, I-don’t-know-what film –, maybe it would be interesting to take a look at what Bonnie and Clyde has to say to us in this day and age, and what its place is in the short and stormy history (akin to the story of the two thieves) that was put into motion by cinema. In other words, maybe we should check how much of an incendiary potential a heterosexual couple stealing, in a mainstream narrative, from the rich, then ending up, predictably, in the long arm of the law, still keeps today

Since this day and age is one of a “hypervisibility for all” (as per Serge Daney), in which on-screen violence is no longer scandalous to anybody. The possibility of appreciating the use of violence as a gratuitous and liberating gesture – like a prodigal rage which is in service only to a sort of perverse aesthetic pleasure, and that’s more than enough –, just as in the case of The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) and, to a lesser degree, here, doesn’t work that way anymore. After so many violent films, violence itself has become an option that has shed its “political” weight – and maybe it’s a good moment to take a step backward and, at least on platforms such as this one, who are dedicated to the analysis of cinema, trace a couple of red lines of good practice anew, as we once did in the fifties. Coming back to the film, its relationship to violence is ambiguous. On the one hand because, yes, Bonnie and Clyde murder and pillage, but the film sweetens these acts either through the not-at-all minor distinction that their prey consists of banks and the upper echelons of the financial elite, or through its resignation in front of the blunders committed by this ramshackle troupe, which most of the time acts wantonly, depending on its chances: the comedy arrives, as in the case of Godard’s first features, with a great spatter of red paint. These people will never come across as ridiculous, however – their powerlessness, as contextualized within the hard-hit American society of the thirties, is just a marker of their human, extremely human character. Can we identify ourselves with this Dillingerian Robin Hood that is Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty)? I don’t think so, but we can certainly understand that he is one of us – one that could have been us, and his acts of bravery and wrongdoing could have been ours.

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

The flow of this life on the run, which at one point simply starts snowballing and then never stops, is well-known to us in cinema. The cinephiles of the time were probably aware of other variants inspired by the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, such as You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937), They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1947), or Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950). I’ve seen all three of them more or less recently: Lang is, well, Lang, and there is no point in making a list of the attributes of his dry and precise art, which would make me go on an endless digression and a quite predictable eulogy. From Lewis’ feature, I was left with a few characters that are more or less layered on the inside, and with a striking continuous shot, which translates in a well-thought-out, real-time manner, a bank heist. Ray’s oeuvre was the most recent of them all, and I believe that Pauline Kael wasn’t right in her essay, which is almost as well-known as Bonnie and Clyde itself, to put it up against the wall with accusations of sentimentalism, because I don’t see how Ray’s opting for a juvenile melodrama could have aged even worse than it already did by now, half a century later, in contrast to Arthur Penn’s just-as-mainstream cynicism. Anyways, cinema being what is – a form that must wrap itself around a moral –, we know that things simply cannot end well for our protagonists: in these respects, the suspense has no concrete object. Therefore, what remains is to enter these backroads without any trace of anxiousness, its motels strewed all across the path, along with its dusty and run-down little towns – a territory already known to us, this time around by way of literature, from Nabokov, as Kael aptly points out. That is, if we can do so.

Otherwise, Kael does an extraordinary job wading upstream through the sinuous river of scriptwriterly attitudes towards these misfits. Part of that particular ecstasy which is caused by a series of acts that the film carefully distills into a very complex fashion is still valid to this very day. In comparison to a much more inert film in this regard, such as Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974) – even in comparison to Ray and Lang, who lack in mobility what they gain in incandescence – Bonnie and Clyde first makes us laugh, then strikes us in the face with a series of scenes that are surprisingly tragical, then places a banjo tune over a slightly tense chase, and then once more adds water to the wine. The authors’ cynicism, which not once equates death with something that is almost arbitrary with the lightheartedly-laughing couple, who doesn’t know what else to do, is doubled by an attitude that is not inasmuch socialist – characteristically so, Clyde returns a dollar bill to a poor peasant during a heist, and earlier, he gives another the chance to enact revenge on the landlord which evicted him –, but rather cool, ready to impress a teenaged audience: Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), Clyde, plus a couple of their close acolytes further their impervious acts to the same degree to which they are aware of its mise-en-scene. While their renown constantly grows, their decisions seem to increasingly slip out of their hands, gaining their own life as performance acts.

Nowadays, when one happens to take a ride through Hollywood’s history museum, they can rejoice at discovering a film that doesn’t feel the need to constantly chastise its characters due to their immorality, thus lighting the guilty spark of pleasure within the spectator, making them aware that they can root for them too. Just as we can be happy when we discover a character – such is the case of Nicholas Ray – who takes the pure passion of some characters very seriously, even running the risk of being pathetic by doing so. For if Eddie, the protagonist of They Live by Night, is pure in an almost caricaturist sense, Clyde is his softer counterpart: less so an amoral monster, more a relaxed guy who holds vague ideas about social justice, who might suffer from irresponsibility and the manic nature of clownery. In 2021, Bonnie and Clyde no longer comes across as a denouncement of good faith – but, as in the case of many New Hollywood-era films, which it heralded, as a self-conscious interweaving within a well-defined genre, which one could either be salutary of, or critical of its “revolutionary” gimmicks (more blood, more sexual honestly, more oomph), depending on one’s sensibilities. In both cases, they would be right. Arthur Penn had better films in him – take a look at Night Moves, a solid neo-noir paralyzed by paranoia –, yet Bonnie and Clyde remains, however, a moment. There’s nothing new about that, but maybe it’s time we went over it once and for all.



Title

Director/ Screenwriter

Actors

Country

Year

Distributor

Avatar Victor Morozov
Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.