Arthur Penn RIP

If this doesn’t feel like the end of an era…Arthur Penn left a powerful cinematic mark on the 1960’s and without his risky experimentation, the New Hollywood Cinema would simply not have been the same. Imagine a year when your choices of films include THE GRADUATE and BONNIE & CLYDE. Penn had already made waves with the existential studio art film, MICKEY ONE (1965) and had THE CHASE (1966), a Southern epic of corruption, savagely re-edited by the producers. If not for Warren Beatty’s famous insistence, Penn might not have done Robert Benton and David Newman’s script, BONNIE & CLYDE. It’s still not hard to quantify the effect this film had on critics and audiences in 1967 with its graphic violence and sexual innuendo. TIME Magazine fueled the fire with its cover story, and old-guard critic Bosley Crowther wrote no less than three reviews of the film, each one amping up the attack while Pauline Kael became the film voice for her generation with her famous review for “The New Yorker” calling it, “the most excitingly American movie since THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. The audience is alive to it.”  That the film became a huge commercial success and altered the cultural landscape is undisputable. When I taught a class on groundbreaking films of the 1960’s and presented BONNIE & CLYDE, it was great to see the young audience gasp when Clyde fires his gun into the face of the bank teller — they weren’t expecting the hero to do this either. BONNIE AND CLYDE was the NATURAL BORN KILLERS of its period on a bigger tapestry since there was little to compare it to. Penn was a more psychological than visual director, although every scene in BONNIE AND CLYDE has a striking, vibrant style.

His next film, ALICE’S RESTAURANT (1969), based on the hit protest song by Arlo Guthrie was a deliberately raw and ragged story, with Penn getting more insight into the communal vibes of the late 60’s and the melancholy end of the era. Although Penn was older than the 60’s sprites, he appreciated their passion and bravery, but he was wise enough to see the cracks in the paisley. Following on the heels of that, LITTLE BIG MAN (1970), was his summation of the nation as seen through the eyes of Jack Crabbe (wonderfully played by Dustin Hoffman) a prairie son turned Indian fighter turned storyteller. LITTLE BIG MAN is the perfect conclusion to Penn’s “Americana Trilogy” that started with BONNIE AND CLYDE, and a genuine revisionist epic. Although Arthur Penn didn’t go as gently into the 70’s and beyond, he didn’t have to. He established himself as a gutsy intellect who helped break the shackles on Hollywood and showed that film could contain many worlds, subversive and introspective. As another reel of American cinema winds into history, here’s a lovely, haunting moment from ALICE’S RESTAURANT featuring Joni Mitichell’s apropos paen, “Songs To Aging Children.”


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7 Responses to “Arthur Penn RIP”

  1. More sad news for this week. Wonderful tribute to an avant-garde filmmaker, christian.

  2. Don’t forget NIGHT MOVES.

    RIP Arthur Penn

    • Yep he made a few fascinating films in later years like FOUR FRIENDS and the bizarro THE MISSOURI BREAKS with Brando in full-on Dr. Moreau Mode.

  3. Sweet Jesus, celebs are dropping like flies this week. LITTLE BIG MAN is prolly my fave film of his. I remember seeing this after DANCES WITH WOLVES and Penn’s film blew my mind and I realized how safe and formulaic Costner’s film was.

    Hell, I even enjoyed PENN & TELLER GET KILLED.

    • Yes, a sad week. LITTLE BIG MAN is awesome and a favorite as a child, even though its tonal changes like MASH and B&C give it a strange subversive aura.

      Still haven’t seen PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED. Tho I’d like to. Joking.

  4. Aw, now Arthur Penn has died! The film industry is taking a battering this week. He was a superb director…. RIP to a great filmmaker: Arthur Penn. He brought us Bonnie and Clyde

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