American New Wave: Bonnie and Clyde

Perhaps the most infamous “classic” American film ever released, Bonnie and Clyde was not just an important film but a signifier of something more important occurring in and around its release, a seismic shift in American filmmaking. 1967 is often considered a watershed year for American film with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and The Graduate tackling difficult issues of race, class, gender, and age in ways American cinema hadn’t before. But while those films vary in quality (from kind-of terrible to merely good, unfortunately) and revolutionary status, none stand taller today than Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn’s explosive examination of Depression era American culture, and implicitly, the culture of the late ’60s in America struggling with social unrest. The film was one of the first to signal a New Wave of American Cinema, films which not only tackled more difficult subject matters but were more subversive in the way they tackled them and borrowed and expanded upon filmmaking tactics prominent during late ’50s and early ’60s European cinema. As such, it remains perhaps the earliest gasp of a fruitful future fifteen years of cinema which would redefine the nature of going to the movies.

As the story goes, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) meet by chance in a Midwestern town during the Great Depression when Clyde tries to steal Bonnie’s mother’s car. Realizing she’s relentlessly bored with the doldrums of her life, she opts instead to join Clyde on his escapades, which begin first as small-scale robberies and soon elevate to much greater thefts when they hook up with Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife (Estelle Parsons) and form a small crime syndicate ravaging the Mid-West.

The film’s relationship to its titular characters is extremely complicated and ambiguous –herein lies the films’ fascination. On one hand, they are killers who slowly come to love what they do throughout the film. The film depicts these actions starkly and unsentimentally. We get the sense that they like it and are coming to “find” themselves in their actions. On the other hand, we also come to enjoy their company and value aspects of the dangerous lifestyle they live.  In many ways, they are victims of the same depression that affects those they rob, the only difference is that they’ve been transformed into its agents as well. With society breaking down as a result of economic crisis, individuals do so as well and there emerges an ability to reject and challenge social norms. Unfortunately, the only outlet individuals often see available when doing this is to give up restraint, lose their inhibitions, and lose what semblance of control they had, giving in to a lifestyle of mayhem and, in this case, murder. Bonnie and Clyde, as depicted by the film, are violent, vicious humans, but there’s a certain loneliness in their eyes and, especially, stark brutality to their famous murders at the end of the film, that paints them as two more victims of the inequality they promote through robbery. Their running away from death at the end of the film, mirrors how they were running away from a sort of social death found in their menial lives before-hand. Their inevitable inability to avoid it, however, mirrors how their outlet to run away from death was itself another form of death, a death that at first seemed like a thrill and, indeed, a new life.

There are those who say that the film’s attitude toward Bonnie and Clyde is too lenient, that they are monsters who should be put down. The film’s unwillingness to submit to this view is precisely what gives it an edge. The violence at the time, of course, was famously shocking, but it’s really the film’s depiction of two individuals (Clyde initially starts with petty crime and Bonnie, a waitress, joins in initially because she’s, quite simply, bored) that is most unforgettable and most haunting. It refuses to indict them in a one-sided fashion, but it knows their actions have consequences. Above all, it doesn’t follow a typical redemption storyline; these aren’t bad people who try to be good. They’re people who are neither, torn between the two, and who commit actions for reasons (outside of their innate character). The idea that we can become Bonnie and Clyde, that they could be anyone, scares us, and the film through allowing us to develop at the least an understanding of how their moods and attitudes develop, implicates us in not only their actions but the larger cycle of violence, in brutal, immediate and long-term, slow-moving, but just as harmful forms.

As the film romanticizes violence, it’s because they (and we) would inevitably, and not un-wrongfully, feel some sort of minor thrill in bucking the curveballs society has thrown us and forging our own paths in a fiercely independent manner. We come to see the fun they feel in their actions and the family they develop because it’s something of an unconscious fantasy in many of us. But what seems like fierce independence in the long run can continue, and may even exacerbate, the cycles individuals may feel they are rejecting. In this regard, Bonnie and Clyde are like another famous group of “villains” characterized in late ’60s revisionist filmmaking: The Wild Bunch, another product of a violent system that remain complicit with it. In turn, their burgeoning criminal career is inevitably cut short, something we come to realize Bonnie and Clyde may have known all along but had been too busy fighting off these beliefs to truly stop and think about it. The second of the film details their increasingly erratic nature, making what was once “fun” for them something of a living hell as their group comes to disagree, argue, fight, and question each other. There is a chaos to how their group breaks down which mirrors what has happened to larger society and ultimately strips away any romanticization we felt for them earlier in the film. Bonnie and Clyde can’t escape at the end. The film knows it, and while it makes us like them, this is an act of humanization, not glorification.

This being said, while the film’s death drama is nuanced, it reveals it brashly, with big bold performances and direction, snappy writing, and a significant amount of bloodletting. The film’s color pallete also uses muted and sometimes even monochromatic backgrounds to emphasize the death and destruction already present in society, even before Bonnie and Clyde arrive. Penn and cinematographer Burnett Guffey contrast bright and muted colors: we see almost artificially colorful grass and nature give way to brown and grey towns ravaged by the Depression. When Bonnie and Clyde are killed, the brightness of the blood contrasts with the lifelessness of the bodies it adorns. There’s a constant tension and suspense to the film rooted in character and the lives of these people who are teetering on the edge of society, and the film visually constructs this tension between the grimy reality of these people’s lives, and the glorious mythic-ness the characters and their anti-social actions have taken.

This tension, constructed by the film’s often guerrilla filmmaking which favors tersity and scary naturalism to deconstruct its characters and render them difficult, conniving, empty people, is perhaps the film’s greatest holdover from the European New Wave.  The film doesn’t ramp up artificial drama or center a forced narrative – instead, like other European films before, it emphasizes the day-to-day doldrums of existence in a slice of life narrative, as if we were there witnessing a documentary rather than having this told to us. Because of this, it’s all the more chilling. This is best emphasized in the final scene – we expect a grand shootout or a dramatic send-off for the titular characters, but instead they’re just shot and that’s it. The effect is uncanny and unnerving, far more than any Grand Story or attempted drama could have conveyed – these are real people, and these are shallow, real deaths.

As such, the film wasn’t a revitalizing American film only for its deeply human characters, its unflinching drama, and its radical displays of violence. It was and remains first and foremost a visual kick in the backside to the flagging pretensions and visual boredom of American film in the ’60s. Bonnie and Clyde, for all its virtues, simply feels alive. It’s chaotic, angry, ruthless, visually witty, darkly humorous, and above all infused with the lifeblood of pure cinematic invention and passion. The camera snaps around and draws its characters into shape, whipping them and everyone into submission. It is as much a character and an agent as any other figure in the film. It catches the little details and the big gestures and orchestrates the film’s chaos with passion – it moves unlike any other camera, with the film occasionally playing as if it was sped-up before being released to convey the purely surreal, inhuman ecstatic camaraderie, passion, and frustration of the film’s characters. This is vicious, un-compromised, electrified filmmaking hopped up on its own pizzaz. It’s as if scenes weren’t so much filmed as squeezed out onto the screen.  They breathe and gasp with cinematic fury and refuse to die out in our minds. They are eternally alive. It is one of the rare films where form and subject are in perfect harmony, the directing moving from propulsive, harsh cuts and a torrential display of camerawork to slower, more standoffish, and generally heaving, tired direction as the characters move from aroused at their own inhumanity to beaten-down and destroyed by it. It is the perfect film for its time period, caught up in social decay and chaos and enraged anger at the world and everyone in it, married to a knowing empathy with impoverished people just trying to get by. And perhaps because it was so timely, so much of its time, it is also the perfect film for an ailing population in any time period.

Elsewhere, the film is surprisingly stark as a dry, bruised comedic, especially early on, as we see the growing family Bonnie and Clyde come to lead and the amusing quarrels between them. Bonnie and Clyde themselves maintain a playful but manipulative attitude toward each other, as well as those around them and the people they rob. This serves multiple purposes: to break up the tension and to enhance it further as we come to enjoy these people while becoming even more concerned with them and angry at ourselves for liking them. Penn also frequently highlights the humorously packed car they drive, with four or five people crowded into the back seat and crammed for space and becoming increasingly sarcastic and short-tempered with the others they are shoulder to shoulder with, revealing how difficult their lifestyle actually is, how much they are coming to dislike each other, how much of a façade their public antics may actually be, and above all, how these individuals are all ultimately trapped in a cage by the very freedom they seek.

The flow of the comedy, which is pointedly messy and switches on a dime from affable hijinks to desperately brittle sarcasm, also plays no small part in the film’s chaos, which elsewhere emphasizes shifting tones to capture an allusive view of life. We see these characters not so much through a narrative arc but in mere moments, and thus the tone of each scene is disjointed from the last –  we can go from the admitted thrill of tense action to the bitter despair of violence in an instant, with the film pointedly denying us the transitions in between. It is very much a film of the chaos of outward moments, meaningful for the surface way in which the two main characters live their lives, always looking for surface pleasure in moments rather than meaningful dramatic arcs.

Thus, the playful but bitter humor is essential to the film’s ragged, desperate identity, dueling for the title of most pointed and despairing with Penn’s terse, jarred direction (captured to most famous effect in the opening moments where the downright lascivious camera plays both celebrity photographer and voyeur, constantly threatening to reveal something of a naked Dunaway while somehow managing to continue the tease despite its erratic yet fluid quickness). The film isn’t above glamorizing aspects of the two leads, but only while retaining a succinct, angry quickness to its movement that doesn’t lean on images of its violence but instead leaves us with the impression of something scary we’ve seen just enough of to understand its implication but have to fill in the details for ourselves. The film, like its title characters, is too gung-ho to linger, except of course, in its final traumatic images of the two, slowing down to mirror their now endlessly stalled life..

It’s hard to talk about Bonnie and Clyde without its two stars. It was a watershed moment for both and their initial claim to stardom, and the two shine in this film like few film pairings ever have. They exhibit chemistry, of course, but it’s a scarier, nastier variety. They come to like each other, but most of all they like each other’s image and their reckless a-sociality. There’s a sense they don’t really know each other –  they’re in love with each other’s public personas, which eventually bleed into their private lives and subsume them as people. There’s significant sexual tension between the film’s two leads, but later in the film as we see the fringes come undone though we begin to wonder if there is anything more than a surface level joy they get from each other, as well as their actions more generally, as they become increasingly hollow. Both the leads sell the immediate exuberance they gain from big-crimes and bank robberies as well as the disheveled, confused cores hidden beneath. They keep us on edge by riveting us on the surface while also scaring us more deeply, and giving the film’s cognitive dissonance a human face. As Dunaway and Beatty essay them, Bonnie and Clyde are at once larger than life and yet all too human.

Bonnie and Clyde may be most famous today for its revolutionary, harrowing violence which famously shocked American audiences into submission and, perhaps even more famously, lost the most prominent film critic in America at the time his job for disliking the movie (time and time again, in several vehement articles in rapid succession). Perhaps the real reason for the confused reaction to the film, with many critics and audience members quickly adoring it and other despising it, has less to do with its violence than the complications in the film’s attitude toward its violence. Simply put, the film doesn’t know, and that’s the (perhaps unintentional) genius of its effect. The film wants to like them and wants to hate them, and perhaps must do both, as much audiences who innately see the appeal of their recklessness while also knowing its dangers. If the film’s jarring, angry direction and terse scripting wants us to worry about the central figures, it also knows part of us may see some appeal in their actions, and it follows suit by both creating in the heroes the myths they have become and chopping them down to size by rendering them the petty people they would become. It aims for a kind of fun even as it threatens and rages about with a furious chill, exactly as its title characters lived their lives.

And it fits all too comfortably with a 1967 America on the edge of itself, wrapped in conflict both domestic and foreign, torn between choices and decisions for movement forward, and generally seeing impassioned excitement and dreaded anxiety as two sides of the same coin. And if it fits gloriously with the conflicted times, it also challenged everything about American film logic up to that point, freeing it and giving it a much needed kick in the pants at is stagnancy in both characters and the formal visual elements of the film world. The early ’60s is just about the worst, most deadened time ever for an American film industry so drearily tired of itself – Bonnie and Clyde was the light at the end of the tunnel, the beginning of a new generation of filmmakers reered on European filmmaking with more verve  and energy and more of a chaotic tumbling propulsion. American film in 1967 felt bored to be alive – perhaps it took a film like Bonnie and Clyde that deals almost entirely in death to breathe new life into the industry. The film is unhinged in its confusion – it sees all sides and doesn’t know what to do with them – the idea of rendering characters as myth and as bitter, flawed people at once seems contradictory – and these cathartic, angry complications not only enthrall us, but they cause us to question any attempt to easily define human nature or character. The film doesn’t know what to do with them because society doesn’t know, and perhaps never can know. All it can do, and all it does stunningly, is expose and explore them in gritty, earthy, grimy detail.

Score: 10/10

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