Thursday, December 11, 2008
Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde: The Marriage of Technique and Theme
The opportunity to see Arthur Penn's BONNIE & CLYDE in an unadulterated and contiguous form (that is without censorship and commercial interruptions) brought forth the ability to see certain striking cinematic stylistics and risk taking performances. I was particularly taken with the opening shot and the opening sequence of the film. After the opening credit montage of what appeared to be authentic snapshots of the real Bonnie and Clyde there is a magnificently complex opening shot that begins with a close up of Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) applying red lipstick to her lips. The shot then shifts into a close up of Bonnie's face and then pulls back to reveal that we are looking at her face as reflected in a mirror. This opening shot, although seemingly a simplistic affair, actually required two focus pulls, a short pan and a zoom out all of which had to be perfectly timed with the rhythm of Bonnie's movements. It is interesting from a technical point of view because of the high degree of difficultly of getting the rhythms of the camera movement and the rhythms of the body of the actor to synchronize so that there wouldn't be any distracting distortions of focus or detail. Here, Penn and his cinematographer Burnett Guffey (The Harder They Fall - 1956) are establishing the fact that this film will not settle for an easy way out of specific details that other traditional Hollywood films would do. The technical dexterity and determination has a thematic corollary in the overall design of the picture; that is that Bonnie & Clyde will attempt something different and will go boldly and frankly towards that difference in its presentation of the sexual and violent nature of its story. Where other Hollywood 'professionals' and those from the old guard would have easily simplified this opening shot by turning it into a single medium close up of Bonnie in the mirror- Penn and his cinematographer (and by extension, Warren Beatty as producer and Dede Allen as editor) chose to announce the boldness of the entire film with a boldly complicated opening shot. In short, their technique is signifying their theme conceptualization of the story. If we move beyond the technique of the opening shot we find that there is a sexual suggestiveness which has Bonnie's lips in full close up with red lipstick as if she were kissing all of the male members of the audience; the shot establishes a raw and rare intimacy between actor and spectator in a non-pornographic film. For as the opening shot melds into the opening scene we discover that Bonnie is nude and alone in her bedroom. The opening sequence becomes a dance (or rather a stripped tease) between the naked Bonnie and the observing camera. Every edit to a different camera position entices the male audience member with the notion that he might see Bonnie's naked breasts, a wisp of pubic hair, her buttocks, etc... Yet, Bonnie remains elusive, turning her body away from the camera just before it gets to its next position so that "the goods" are kept just out of our eye's reach. Her to-be-looked-at ness, to borrow the phrase from Laura Mulvey, is a window through which we might see the entire film. When she looks out of the window, part of the window frame bars us from seeing her breasts, frustrating our desire, but igniting the hope that the next camera shot will give "it" to us. The reverse camera shot from Clyde's perspective when he looks up at Bonnie in the window-proxies our desires to Clyde, because unlike us the audience members whose view is controlled by the camera, Clyde is free to see all of Bonnie. He can see her nudity, her pubic area, her breasts; he can see all of the goods and thus Clyde becomes the proxy of audience male desire. This is an important transference for the film since Clyde's sexual dysfunction later in the film further frustrates those males who might want Clyde to slide into Bonnie for their own sake. But, it is not that Clyde is sexually dysfunctional, but rather that Clyde is a virgin. He is a virgin adult male and this is what makes Beatty's performance of the virgin adult male all the more shocking since he would have been climbing up to the height of his stardom as a "Hollywood Hunk" at the time of the film's production and release. Beatty played against his own growing star persona with his portrayal of the adult male virgin in Clyde Barrow. In deference to Mulvey, Beatty also presents his to-be-looked-at-ness in his demeanor, style of dress, the archetiture of his upper body which is on display when he is in his wife-beater tee-shirt and although he is not disrobed to the degree of Dunaway, we have to acknowledge that the female spectator was also given a raw and imtimate -albeit psychological- look at masculinity. Clyde's virginity is confirmed for us after he and Bonnie finally do make love and Clyde asks her, in a moment of post-coital giddiness, if this is the way," you're supposed to feel after," it. Here we realize that Clyde has never had sexual intercourse before and their previous sexual attempts were masturbatory instead of penetration. Such a dramatization of male sexual inexperience is theme that had never been touched on before in American cinema. In fact, Mike Nichols, The Graduate which was to come out in January 1968, six months after Bonnie & Clyde follows a theme of male sexual inexperience, humiliation and disturbance that would continue through John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). So I admire this film both for its visual technique which announced its boldness and distinction from previous traditional Hollywood cinematic techniques as well as the film's overall boldness in its presentation of male sexual inexperience in an era of increasing sexual freedom.