August 23, 2017

Fifty Years After Bonnie and Clyde, Anything Can Happen: A Couple’s Tale 

By Stuart Mitchner

The first time my wife and I saw Bonnie and Clyde, the gunfire-driven dance of death at the end left us limp, wiped out, we couldn’t move. We’d been married less than a year. For a couple destined to see thousands of films together over the next 50 years, it was a defining moment. If one of us had started to get right up and leave as if it had been “just another movie” or if one of us had raved about it only to be greeted by a blank look, it wouldn’t have augured well for the future of the marriage.

So here we are, still together in August 2017, seated side by side watching an episode of Game of Thrones that makes Bonnie and Clyde look like a Road Runner cartoon.

The Couple: Quick View

Take an essentially apolitical male and mate him with female shaped by the Free Speech Movement and you can guess who steers the ship. The couple in question met in Berkeley, worked for the McCarthy campaign and watched the horror show of 1968 Democratic convention, she refusing to vote for Humphrey, he refusing not to. They marched against the war, cheered the fall of Agnew and Nixon, endured eight years of Reagan, lived through the highs and lows of Clinton. After the fatal 2000 electoral college/Supreme Court fiasco that put Bush-Cheney in the White House, they marched against the invasion of Iraq, shared the happy sad Obama movie before being blindsided by the toxic triumph of the Birther that left them limp, wiped out, like the couple they were after Bonnie and Clyde exploded in their faces.

In August 1967, when we picked ourselves up and staggered out of the theatre, we were sure that we’d seen a great film. Hadn’t we risen from the dead, leaving Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the dust of the ambush? We’d had a good time, a memorable time. Our lust for action and comedy and visual splendor had been satisfied. Five stars! Four thumbs up! But in August 2017 it’s another story.

Slaughtering the Audience

Seeing Bonnie and Clyde again on DVD allows for a degree of brutal objectivity. Now we can see how cleverly Arthur Penn entrapped us. All a good director needs is a couple of attractive leads, a gifted character actor in Gene Hackman, a touch of comic relief with Gene Wilder, a Flatt and Scruggs hoedown soundtrack, Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, Dede Allen’s editing, lots of explosive action, and, finally, a tender love scene strategically deployed ahead of the slaughter. No wonder we felt hammered, shot to pieces with the love glow of the happy couple warming our movie-hungry hearts. We’d bonded with the lovers being blitzed, blasted, blown away. That was us up there, the vicarious victims beautifully slaughtered on the big screen.

Glimmers of Awareness

I don’t mean to disparage Penn’s achievement, especially compared to the Hollywood product circa 1967. Watching the DVD, we appreciate the glimmers of political-historical awareness we found appealing at the time: the scene where Clyde lets a farmer shoot out the windows of the home he’d lived in before the bank repossessed it; the moment during a bank hold-up when Clyde lets one man keep his money; the sense of period and place, especially the dusty Grapes of Wrath/Dorothea Lange ambience of Bonnie’s farewell visit to her mother.

And there’s no denying that the last sequence is a landmark of American cinema, a film in itself, the life of the whole picture passing before our eyes in that one sequence as we die with the lovers — it’s in the brief flash of a look they exchange, a fraction of a second’s doomed recognition, and from Bonnie a sweet lost loving smile before the guns start blazing.

The simplistic plotline, that Clyde’s “no lover boy,” is redeemed by Bonnie’s ballad about their exploits, which is what finally makes a lover of Clyde, not some act of manly bravado. With some help from the newspapers reprinting her poem, she’s given his life meaning. “You told my story,” he tells her. “You made me somebody they’re gonna remember.”

Fashion Statements

Besides staking out a new frontier in film violence, Bonnie and Clyde caused a stir in fashion with what British Vogue termed “the chic bandit aesthetic,” noting a touch of the French New Wave in Bonnie’s berets and neck scarves. “The clothes are divine,” Dunaway said at the time. “They’re masculine styles in a feminine way.” According to Vogue, “Sales of berets skyrocketed from 5,000 to 12,000 per week in the French town of Lourdes where they were produced. Calf-skimming skirts made a comeback. Young women scoured the shops for silk and V-neck sweaters – and so did their grandmothers.”

Gun Crazy

The Bonnie/Clyde dynamic is reversed in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950), where Annielaurie (Peggy Cummins) is the gunslinging killer, while her sharpshooter lover Bart Tare (John Dall) can’t abide the idea of killing anything. Even with his lover urging him on, it’s a moral crisis for him to shoot out the tires of the patrol car pursuing them. Annielaurie is a classic femme fatale, and Dall the classic victim, but the true love passion bonding them comes across with a force of feeling lacking in Bonnie and Clyde.

Anything Can Happen

There they sit, the couple with the long history of moviegoing, limp, wiped-out again, can’t move, after watching Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones. “It felt like being a kid again” is a tried and true cliche of response, but even that doesn’t cover the “Can you believe it?” enormity of the thing. It’s time to speak of awe, that word drained of its essence by the coming of awesome as the word of choice — when was it? Probably in the 1980s. But what can you say when common sense has been blown out the window? Well, you can quote Thoreau in the concluding chapter of Walden: “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds …. Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.”

The word that set Thoreau off was extravagance, which he breaks in half as extra vagance, writing, “I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extravagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced.”

Thinking beyond the narrow limits is the only way to deal with what happened Outside the Wall last night. It’s crazy, completely impossible; some otherwise faithful viewers have found it incredible, even downright silly. But anyone who’s been watching Game of Thrones from the first season on should know by now that the abiding message of this show is anything can happen.

The Series That Never Ends

So where do we draw the line? When things get grossly clinical or needlessly brutal, my wife will say, “I can’t look,” and cover her eyes. At one point in the first season of Sons of Anarchy, she said, “That’s it, enough. I can’t watch this any more.” I might have stuck with the program, but watching without her isn’t the same. Half the fun is in the sharing, and it’s our mutual understanding of the “like a kid again” nature of our response to a show like Game of Thrones that unifies us and keeps us watching even when the material is “unsuitable for children,” not to mention all the adults who have covered their eyes.

Then of course, there’s breaking news, the series that never ends, whether it’s terrorism, fighting in the streets, or chaos in the White House. Every day we want to cover our eyes and ears, but we can’t. There’s no drawing of the line or looking the other way. This, too, we share.