Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The New Wave breaks on American shores

Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde marked a turning point in American cinema. Not only was it influenced by the French new wave cinema in that it explored camera angles and editing techniques that deviated from the classical Hollywood method of filmmaking, but it was also a barometer for the shift in popular culture and American society in general. As was mentioned in class, some film critics ended up being fired from their jobs for writing bad reviews of the film, since they weren't "with it" enough to understand the new generation of film makers. It was released in 1967, a time when the country was greatly polarized on issues such as the Vietnam war and and civil rights. There was a strong anti-authoritarian counter culture movement, which was embodied in the Barrow gang of the film. In the scene when Clyde (Warren Beatty) first robbed a grocery store with Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) he mentioned how she was different than the rest of the girls, that she wanted different things. This could be read as a symbol of the changing attitudes on domesticity, and the role of the woman in society. Bonnie wasn't a girl who wanted to get married and be a housewife in an apron and a pearl necklace, taking care of the kids and having dinner ready when her husband got home from work. Clyde rejects the hard work ethic that was central to the WWII generation as well. In order to get out of the work detail he was part of while in prison, he cut off his toes with an axe. He also robs banks instead of holding down an honest job, and lures others away from their jobs (C.W., the gas station attendant who steals money from the register of his shop and joins the Barrow gang). The public heralds them as folk heroes instead of reviling them as criminals, and in one scene Clyde shoots up a house with the man who has just been evicted from it by his bank. Another instance of the film tapping into the anti-authority sentiment of the late 60s is when a Texas ranger tries to arrest the gang, they turn the tables on him and place him in handcuffs and force him to pose for photos with them.
Bonnie & Clyde employed many techniques to disorient the viewer and defamiliarize the narrative as in the tradition of the French new wave. It begins with an extreme close up shot of Faye Dunaway applying lipstick and then pulls back to reveal the rest of the room (and reveal that she is naked as well) instead of following the establishing shot / medium shot / close up formula. Another instance which would have seemed at home in a Godard film is when Clyde goes in to rob the bank that has no money. He forces the teller outside to explain to Bonnie that there was no money to be had. Instead of the camera following them outside to the waiting car it stays inside the bank and photographs the scene through the window. We see the lips moving and Bonnie tilting her head back in laughter, but we can't hear any dialogue, just the running engine of the car. A similar technique with sound was used in the scene when the police were involved in a car chase with the Barrow gang. The chase scene, as with all the scenes when the Barrow gang had just done a robbery, was set to the Flatt & Scruggs "Foggy Mountain Breakdown". But the music would cut out abruptly as the scene was intercut with police interviews of witnesses to the robbery.
Also present in Bonnie & Clyde was the cinephilia of the French new wave films. There are several instances of this. The first is when Clyde makes a crack to Bonnie to the effect of "I bet you're a movie star". Later in the film, when we first meet Buck and his wife, she is reading a movie magazine in the car. C.W. gets excited and asks if there are any pictures of Myrna Loy, a pretty, popular actress in both the silent and sound eras. The gang also hides in a movie theater after killing someone robbing a bank, à la Patricia and Michel from Breathless. Like in Breathless, the movie they are watching comments on the action within the narrative. The movie they are watching is The Gold Diggers of 1933, a film that was in the backstage musical genre designed to take people's minds off the depression, which feature the famous "We're In The Money" song. The Barrow gang was flush with cash from their most recent robbery, and was living their life outside the law to escape the the poverty of the depression.
An interesting side note is how this film, which was greatly inspired by the French new wave, was an inspiration for one of the great French icons of the time, Serge Gainsbourg. He recorded a song called "Bonnie & Clyde" with Brigitte Bardot about the film, and the video had Bardot sporting a look almost identical to Faye Dunaway from the film. Here's a link in case anyone wants to see it:
Serge & Brigitte - Bonnie & Clyde

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