Reading the obituaries in the newspaper, I often find myself musing over how frequently the measure of someone’s life – at least to the extent it’s deemed worthy of recounting in print – covers only a relatively few years; in particular, often sweeping the last decades into a cursory final paragraph. Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of that life, measured day to day. Maybe it’s only one’s own fear of stagnation or decline that makes it tempting to impose a narrative of regret on some of these stories.
Bonnie and Clyde
This went through my mind when the director Arthur Penn died in September 2010. Penn was 88, and universally acknowledged as a great and significant filmmaker; he’s always figured hugely in my inner cinematic landscape. But he only made thirteen full-length theatrical films (along with a lot of work on TV and in the theatre), and the most famous of those – The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man – all came out between 1962 and 1970. Consequently, most obituaries couldn’t help but convey the sense of a staggering career peak, followed by decades of relative drift. Penn commented in several interviews on how movies had changed, moving away from his own strengths (“I'm not into outer space epics or youth pictures”) but he always seemed to me to be pretty objective about it.
He was known for his advances in screen violence, in particular for the shoot-out at the end of Bonnie and Clyde, but showed little interest in following the trajectory of Sam Peckinpah. Similarly, while those key films seemed to distill some essence of the 1960s, they’re the work of a clear-minded observer rather than a delirious participant. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why Penn wasn’t able to use his great work in that decade as a springboard to engaging more fully with the ambiguities of the 1970s (some writers refer to personal problems in the first half of that decade). Anyway, his industry “bankability” petered out in 1976 with The Missouri Breaks, a notorious Brando/Nicholson flop at the time, although evidencing many of the qualities of his previous successes. Luck plays a part for film directors, obviously, just as for anyone else.
Bonnie and Clyde was one of my favourite films for years; I’d hardly ever seen anything so vivid, so dazzling as an evocation of the past while seeming so directly relevant to the present. For a moody teenager, it seemed to embody the possibility of transcendence and tenderness even while pursuing one’s inevitable self-destruction. I suppose I value the film a little less now, seeing it more as a masterful exercise than a reference point of ongoing significance, but I can’t imagine not returning to it every few years.
Penn and Teller Get Killed
When Penn died, I found my mind drifting more toward his later works, the ones forming a mere footnote in the obituaries. For example, I haven’t seen his 1985 Gene Hackman/Matt Dillon thriller Target for years (has anyone?), and Penn himself didn’t seem to rate it very highly. At the time I remember esteeming it almost as greatly as the earlier films, as a thriller responsive to its times, and since those times were peak-Reagan era, the movie’s seeming superficiality was stylistically very eloquent…at least, that’s what I remember thinking back then. Anyway, that’s definitely one to return to before long, along with the 1981 Four Friends, which applied some startling narrative techniques to a drama of fracturing times.
But I first found myself thinking of Penn’s penultimate cinema release, the 1989 Penn and Teller Get Killed (the Penn is no relation, although it’s such an anomalous project for the director that it’s tempting to think someone was following a train of free association in offering him the job). Another commercial failure, and all but forgotten now, it’s available on mail-order made-on-demand DVD from Warner Archives. Penn and Teller play themselves, the anti-magic magicians, caught up in the career grind of late-night talk shows and Atlantic City casino gigs (nowadays, I believe they spend most of their time in Vegas). Shooting his mouth off in customary fashion, Penn says on TV he wishes someone were trying to kill him; it would add some excitement and provide a handy excuse for skipping out on various commitments. Soon enough, it seems, he’s getting his wish.
As the movie depicts it, the pair messes around with life itself just about as much as they do with the conventions of magic; there’s a hilarious early bit where Teller keeps tossing coins at a guy playing the slot machines, while Penn loudly accuses him of poisoning the environment with his Commie redistribution of wealth. Most of what follows is inherently ambiguous, up until one of the more distinctive final acts in movie history, simultaneously both ridiculous and cosmically meaningful (and in its own wacky way, yet another advance in screen violence!)
If Arthur Penn’s name wasn’t on the credits, I’m not sure too many people could rapidly identify it as his work. Early on the tone of things seems a bit forced and uncertain, but the movie becomes much more assured as it continues. It’s certainly an effective showcase for the two stars, but ultimately, in a very integrated fashion, it provides some analytical perspective on their art as well. In that sense, it’s ultimately entirely consistent with Penn’s earlier work, although of course with the handicap that Penn and Teller provide an inherently much more narrow field of study than, say, the sixties counterculture. But again, it seems to me the 80’s were bewildering to mostly everyone. The most high-profile and active chronicler of those times was Oliver Stone, but it’s questionable how much lasting analytical perspective a film like Wall Street actually carries.
Penn and Teller Get Killed didn’t really lead Penn anywhere (unless into greater oblivion) and received only a token mention in those obituaries I mentioned. I think most people, if they thought about it at all, would write it off as the project of an aging filmmaker (he was in his mid-60’s by then) just taking what he could get. But of all the preeminent American directors, Penn feels among the most pragmatic (although very ethically so) and the least defined by cinema; his particular greatness was largely rooted, I think, in a kind of wariness of it. There’s a sense of fascination in Bonnie and Clyde, a delight with how Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway shimmer before the camera, soldering us to the social history they embody and yet so empathetically present that the movie can’t help but be about now, whenever it is you might be watching it. In Penn’s case, I think distance helped to nurture that fascination. Presumably he would ideally have chosen to make at least a few more films than he did, but his work suggests he was just too darn wise and sensible not to understand, and take appropriate pride in, the value of what he’d achieved.