Remembering Arthur Penn (1922-2010)

By Lippe, Richard | CineAction, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Remembering Arthur Penn (1922-2010)


Lippe, Richard, CineAction


Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1968) is often credited with initiating the New American Cinema which arose from the ashes of the Hollywood studio system and classical filmmaking. The film remains a remarkable achievement as do a number of his films made between The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and The Missouri Breaks (1976). For nearly twenty years Penn was a highly original filmmaker who took a revisionist approach to the Hollywood genres to comment on contemporary American society and culture.

Penn became involved with theatre while serving in the army during WW II. In the early 50's he began working in New York City as a director of live television doing both comedy and dramatic material. The Left-Handed Gun was his first film and in the same year he began directing on Broadway. His background in theatre and television was significant to his filmmaking technique. Doing live television, Penn learned to work with multiple cameras, a practice he continued as a filmmaker. He shot an extensive amount of footage and editing became a creative component of his work. Penn's admiration of the French New Wave filmmakers, particularly Godard and Truffaut, was another element that shaped his films. Like his experience in live television, the work of these filmmakers conveyed spontaneity and a willingness to experiment with the film medium.

As Bonnie and Clyde attests, Penn was willing to be audaciously innovative as a filmmaker and, as a social critic, equally bold. (1) The film, like most of Penn's work, is aligned to the 'outsider', people who reject (e.g., Alice's Restaurant) or who aren't capable of fitting into mainstream society (e.g., The Miracle Worker). While Penn's films provide a bleak assessment of contemporary America, the films aren't anti-American. In fact, it is his commitment to America and its identity that contributes to the films' complexity and emotional force. If Penn can be aligned to a classical filmmaker, it is John Ford who, in addition to sharing Penn's ability to be a film poet, expressed a highly ambivalent attitude towards America, as he does in The Searchers, but never with cynicism. Penn's best work is humanistic and sincere but he is capable, as with Bonnie and Clyde, to brilliantly juxtapose violence, which he saw as being deeply ingrained in America's culture, and humour, using it as a means to challenge the viewer's preconceived expectations of what a well-made film should be like. …

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