Thursday, September 30, 2010

Arthur Penn (1922 – 2010)

I learned that Arthur Penn passed away on Tuesday, September 28, 2010. He was an American film director best known for the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. “Bonnie and Clyde” was by far his most popular film and is considered ground breaking for it’s treatment of sex and violence. The New York Times stated, in Penn’s obituary, that “Many of the now-classic films of what was branded the New American Cinema of the 1970s — among them Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” — would have been unthinkable without “Bonnie and Clyde” to lead the way. “

I believe “Bonnie and Clyde” was a more popular hit than a critical success. I recall people talking about the sex and incredible violence of the heroes’ ultimate demise in a hail of special effects bullets and contortions.

I am not motivated to write about Arthur Penn and probably wouldn’t have just for "Bonnie and Clyde." It was not my favorite movie of his. I never even saw "Bonnie and Clyde" in the theaters and maybe not on television until the late 1980s or maybe even early 1990s. I liked the film. I do not love it. There are other films of his that stand out more in my mind namely, “Missouri Breaks”, “The Miracle Worker”, “Little Big Man”, and “Alice’s Restaurant.” I will watch “Missouri Breaks, Little Big Man, and Alice’s Restaurant” whenever they are on. These were not his greatest films but I especially love “Little Big Man” and “Alice’s Restaurant.” As for “Missouri Breaks”, Nicholson and Brando in the same film, Brando over the top in eccentricity, and includes four scenes that are amongst my all time favorites.

Let’s rewind to 1973. I took a film appreciation course at the University of Michigan-Dearborn with a freshly minted and quite able Professor Rick Axsom. For a term paper, we had to choose a film and critique it. “Alice’s Restaurant” immediately came to mind. In those days, there were no VCRs, DVDs, on-demand, or even so many TV channels that showed the same movies over and over again. I suppose we had to choose a film that was currently showing so that we see it a few times to properly take notes. My second choice was “Harold and Maude.” But, I stuck with "Alice’s Restaurant" because I felt it spoke of the times I was living in then in a way that was both romanticized and bluntly real. I wanted to see it again, if for no other reason than for the snowy funeral scene with Joni Mitchell’s classic "Songs to Aging Children Come" perfectly matched to the mood. I cannot hear that song without evoking the cold, grey, sad, and, empty feeling of that scene. The song and scene were perfectly matched. They were etched in my mind upon first viewing.  I would experience exactly that weather while I lived in Connecticut and often would think of that scene.

Before writing that term paper, I did not know Arthur Penn directed this film or that he also directed  “Bonnie and Clyde.” I barely knew who Joni Mitchell was and had no clue she was the writer of that haunting beautiful song. I suppose I knew what I liked and, in retrospect, knew quality when I saw or heard it.

I was glad to watch the film again and write that paper. I enjoyed Rick Axsom’s course and became aware of films in deeper way. Because of that course, I know who Arthur Penn was. Because of that course, I can say I believe Arthur Penn was perhaps the first American auteur I was aware of. Because of that course and “Alice’s Restaurant” I was moved to dedicate my daily writing to the memory and good work of Arthur Penn.

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