Friday, April 23, 2010

Bonnie and Clyde

The mark of a true innovator is how common their innovations become after they do them. Dede Allen, who died earlier this week, was a true innovator. Action films are cut like Bonnie and Clyde, her use of jump cuts and edits as pacing are pretty much staples now, and it seems hard to believe that the work she edited was not cut like that before she came along. How many other editors have gotten as many loving tributes as she has had during the past week? How many editors are even recognized at all? That tells you just how much of a ground breaker she was. It's appropriate that, by sheer coincidence, I had Bonnie and Clyde cued up for this week, since this a large part of the reason she has gotten the recognition she has.

Bonnie and Clyde is one of those films where, if you come 20 years after the fact, you're not going to quite get what the fuss was about. This isn't a knock against the movie, but more an observation of just how much film was influenced by it. You hear about its groundbreaking editing, filming style and the innovative and visceral way it handled violence. Then you watch it and think, yeah, it's good, but it's hard to appreciate that once upon a time not all films were like this. If it changed the face of film, it did so in a way that everyone has since copied, to such an extent that it's difficult to appreciate how different it was at the time.

That is not to say that this makes the film worse. There is a very good reason why everyone has been influenced by this little film about violence and sexual frustration. The story is one that has captivated people since Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow started robbing banks and being sexy. Warren Beatty's Clyde is a charming ne'rdowell who Faye Dunaway's Bonnie spots trying to steal her mothers car. Lightly turned on by the danger this charming stranger represents, Bonnie decides to follow him and his impressive gun, and they start robbing banks and styling themselves as a modern day Robin Hood. They bring along C.W. Moss (Michael J. Parsons), a kid from a gas station who they convince that robbery will be fun, Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his screaming wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and go around robbing banks and getting in violent shootouts. Then, things go quite badly, though everyone knows this because the story is pretty famous.

The film is entirely about sex, and the violence is presented as simply sexual urges expressed in a different way. We get a clear indication that this is the intent from the first robbery, as Bonnie can't keep her hands off of Clyde after he does some good old fashioned armed robbery. As he spurns her advances it becomes steadily more violent, until finally they do the deed and they are no longer seen armed. It's a clever way to approach sex in a society that fears it to no end, and somewhat disconcerting that bodies full of holes are acceptable while a nipple still sparks outrage.

Okay, this is not historically accurate, fine. It doesn't have any desire to be, it uses near-legends to express a point, and it's probably better for it. The real Bonnie and Clyde had a much less tidy story arc to them, and while an entire television series could be made of their exploits, one movie is a bit of a stretch. Considering that sex played into the legend as it was, it's entirely appropriate that a sex-themed film was centered around them.

It's not perfect, but nothing is. The real Blanche Barrow objected to Estelle Parsons making her look like a screaming ass, and she's right. Yes, she won an Oscar, though if your objective was to look like a screaming ass it was a good job. That's pretty much the only thing I didn't like about it, but I've never been a fan of the constantly screaming woman character.

The passage of time might mean it's hard to see what was so innovative about Bonnie and Clyde, but that's fine. It hasn't dulled what makes it a good movie, and at the end of the day, innovation only matters if the innovations catch on. Bonnie and Clyde's innovations did, and it remains an excellent movie on top of it. So it's everything you might have expected, it's just hard to see right away.

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