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Ed Driscoll

Easy Riders, Raging Boomers

October 2nd, 2010 - 10:15 am

In an interview with Reason magazine to promote his 2008 Nixonland book, Rick Perlstein, the left-wing author and JournoList member, said: “My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important text of the New Left”:

Reason: You like to mix cultural history with political history. Bonnie and Clyde is one of the central texts in the book.

Perlstein: My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important text of the New Left, much more important than anything written by Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills or Regis Debray. It made an argument about vitality and virtue vs. staidness and morality that was completely new, that resonated with young people in a way that made no sense to old people. Just the idea that the outlaws were the good guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guys—you cannot underestimate [sic] how strange and fresh that was.

And of course, the rest of us have been forced to live with Radical Chic and its aftermath ever since.

But at the New York Times, the passing of Bonnie & Clyde director Arthur Penn is yet another opportunity to let the boomer hagiography commence!

A pioneering director of live television drama in the 1950s and a Broadway powerhouse in the 1960s, Mr. Penn developed an intimate, spontaneous and physically oriented method of directing actors that allowed their work to register across a range of mediums.In 1957, he directed William Gibson’s television play “The Miracle Worker” for the CBS series “Playhouse 90” and earned Emmy nominations for himself, his writer and his star, Teresa Wright. In 1959, he restaged “The Miracle Worker” for Broadway and won Tony Awards for himself, his writer and his star, Anne Bancroft. And in 1962, he directed the film version of Mr. Gibson’s text, which won the best actress Oscar for Bancroft and the best supporting actress Oscar for her co-star, Patty Duke, as well as earning nominations for writing and directing.

Mr. Penn’s direction may also have changed the course of American history. He advised Senator John F. Kennedy during his watershed television debates with Richard M. Nixon in 1960 (and directed the broadcast of the third debate). Mr. Penn’s instructions to Kennedy — to look directly into the lens of the camera and keep his responses brief and pithy — helped give the candidate an aura of confidence and calm that created a vivid contrast to his more experienced but less telegenic Republican rival.

…Or maybe it didn’t, as W. Joseph Campbell writes at his Media Myth Alert Website, in a must-read post titled “Indulging in myth on debate’s 50th anniversary.”

But back to the portion of the Times’ obit of Penn that focuses on his 1960s directorial efforts, which did transform Hollywood — not entirely for the better — in the 1970s:

“Arthur Penn brought the sensibility of ’60s European art films to American movies,” the writer-director Paul Schrader said. “He paved the way for the new generation of American directors who came out of film schools.”

Many of the now-classic films of what was branded the “New American Cinema” of the 1970s — including “Taxi Driver,” directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Mr. Schrader, and “The Godfather,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola — would have been unthinkable without “Bonnie and Clyde” to point the way.

Loosely based on the story of two minor gangsters of the 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, “Bonnie and Clyde” had been conceived by its two novice screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, as an homage to the rebellious sensibility and disruptive style of French New Wave films like François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”

In Mr. Penn’s hands, it became something even more dangerous and innovative — a sympathetic portrait of two barely articulate criminals, played by Mr. Beatty and a newcomer, Faye Dunaway, that disconcertingly mixed sex, violence and hayseed comedy, set to a bouncy bluegrass score by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Not only was the film sexually explicit in ways unseen in Hollywood since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 — when Bonnie stroked Clyde’s gun, the symbolism was unmistakable — it was violent in ways that had never been seen before. Audiences gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde’s shooting a bank teller in the face with a shotgun, and were stunned when this attractive outlaw couple died in a torrent of bullets, their bodies twitching in slow motion as their clothes turned red with blood.

Reporting on the film’s premiere on the opening night of the Montreal Film Festival in 1967, Bosley Crowther, the chief film critic for The New York Times, was appalled, describing “Bonnie and Clyde” as “callous and callow” and “slap-happy color film charade.” Worse, the public seemed to love it. “Just to show how delirious these festival audiences can be,” Mr. Crowther wrote, “it was wildly received with gales of laughter and given a terminal burst of applause.”

Similar reactions by other major critics followed when the film opened in the United States a few weeks later. The film, promoted by Warner Brothers with the memorable tag line, “They’re young. They’re in love. They kill people,” floundered at first but soon found an enthusiastic audience among younger filmgoers and won the support of a new generation of critics. “A milestone in the history of American movies,” wrote Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun Times. Pauline Kael, writing her first review for The New Yorker, described it as an “excitingly American movie,” although she disliked Ms. Dunaway’s performance.

“Bonnie and Clyde” was nominated for 10 Oscars but won only two (for Burnett Guffey’s cinematography and Estelle Parson’s supporting performance), reflecting the Hollywood establishment’s ambivalence over a film that seemed to point the way out of the creative paralysis that had set in after the end of the studio system while betraying all the values — good taste and moral clarity — the studios held most dear.

But by the late 1960s, the studios were in a double-blind trap: they believed that they could feel audience sensibilities changing, but the replacement of the Hays Office and its Production Code with the much more wide-open G-PG-R-X ratings system was disastrous for Hollywood’s bottom line, as Michael Medved noted in the Wall Street Journal back in 2004, when Jack Valenti retired as president of the Motion Picture Association of America:

Hollywood originally panicked that television would destroy its business by offering for free the sort of entertainment that cost money at the local Bijou, but during the fateful 10 years of the primary TV invasion (1950-60) the audience actually declined 34%, compared with a 60% decline in those nightmarish four years of the late ’60s. In later decades, the arrival of the VCR, cable TV and DVD actually corresponded to modest increases in the motion-picture audience, so no theory centered on technological alternatives can solve the mystery of the missing moviegoers.

* * *

So what happened 38 years ago to drive millions of Americans away from movie theaters? In 1966, Mr. Valenti’s Motion Picture Association of America quietly dropped its enforcement of the restrictive old Production Code that Hollywood studios had imposed on themselves since 1930. Then, on Nov. 1, 1968, Mr. Valenti introduced the “voluntary rating system” that continues in force to this day. As he proudly declared in his farewell address to the industry on March 23 of this year: “The rating system freed the screen, allowing movie-makers to tell their stories as they choose to tell them.” That new freedom allowed the profligate use of obscene language strictly banned under the Production Code, the inclusion of graphic sex scenes along with near total nudity and, more vivid, sadistic violence than previously permitted in Hollywood movies.

The resulting changes in the industry showed up with startling clarity at the Academy Awards. In 1965, with the Production Code still in force, “The Sound of Music” won Best Picture of the Year; in 1969, under the new rating system, an X-rated offering about a homeless male hustler, “Midnight Cowboy,” earned the Oscar as the year’s finest film. Most critics, then as now, welcomed the aesthetic shift and hailed the fresh latitude in cinematic expression, but the audience voted with its feet.

And for a time, it seemed like the only thing Hollywood knew how to do was to make dank, depressing films in which everybody dies at the end. (Happily so at times, as P.J. O’Rourke’s old joke about Easy Rider goes.)

The taint of the early 1970s was bad enough to even ruin the swank and style of Arthur Hitchcock’s movies, as James Lileks once wrote:

One of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen is Hitchcock’s “Frenzy,” because you get the feeling that this is what he always wanted to do, and was finally able to do it because of the new post-60s frankness in cinema. It’s cheap and dank and smegmatic like no other Hitchcock film, and it’s depressing that he didn’t see how altogether smelly it was.

One of Bonnie & Clyde’s biggest fans was the late Pauline Kael, who loved to champion the sort of pulpy low-brow culture that Quentin Tarantino has so profitably mined over the last twenty years. But as Robert Fulford wrote in his 2008 profile of Kael for Canada’s National Post, it’s nowhere near as much fun when that’s seemingly the only type of movie being made:

Her part in the process began four decades ago when she wrote an article for The New Yorker defending Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 Warren Beatty film that treated two 1930s bank robbers with sympathy and raucous humour.Most critics found Bonnie and Clyde empty and trashy. The crusty old New York Times guy, Bosley Crowther, then one of the most influential American critics, decided that Bonnie and Clyde failed to meet his narrow, simple-minded, painfully respectable standards. It was too violent, and he thought the love story of its doomed, hare-brained title characters was “sentimental claptrap.”

Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.”

She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond “good taste,” moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?

Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. “Violence is its meaning.”

She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.

When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and ’80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.

It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”

Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”

While the first two Godfather movies, Taxi Driver and Chinatown are near-universally regaled today as classics, many of the films of that period simply weren’t that profitable. Concurrently, MGM collapsed, and its fabled backlot was broken up and sold off.  And the Young Turks who followed in Penn’s wake eventually became as dissipated and exhausted as the old-timers they replaced. In short, Hollywood in the pre-Star Wars 1970s was a fallow time, as I’ve written before:

Not surprisingly, you can find similar stories of dissipation and overreach in a variety of industries just before they too experienced a tectonic plate shift. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls documents the near collapse of the film industry twice within a single ten year period: first by the out-of-touch old fogies who ran the studio system in the 1960s, and then by the coke-addled youngsters who replaced them, only to be replaced as industry leaders in the late 1970s by two clean and sober hotshots named Lucas and Spielberg.

Or as a veteran director was quoted as saying in 1982 by the Internet Movie Database:

The movies have changed: there’s now this wonderful storyteller Spielberg making benign movies that are enormously successful, while I’m known mainly for making movies about people shooting and cutting each other up. I love his work, but I could never make stuff like that.

But that’s OK, Spielberg rarely can as well these days. And yes, that was a quote from Arthur Penn. Almost 45 years after his landmark (for better and worse) film Bonnie & Clyde, Hollywood is still churning out movies where the outlaws are the good guys and the bourgeois property holders are the bad guys:

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And you cannot overestimate how exhausted and utterly predictable it’s become.

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