Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn 1922-2010

Arthur Penn died today, making this an even sadder week for cinema lovers.

Penn was responsible for helping to drag both the American cinema and more importantly, the American cinemagoer, kicking and screaming into maturity. As a result I don’t think it’s hyperbole, to call his one of the most important careers in its development.

In a perfect world, I’d be writing an indepth consideration of his entire career, as the blog is about five seconds from going into lock down mode, I’ll simply share with you my impressions of five (well six) of my favorite Arthur Penn films.

All of them are great movies, and Little Big Man didn’t even make the list.

While this doesn’t have the same tragic kick of Sally Menke, the man was after all eighty eight, and by all accounts lived a full and happy life. But whenever a great man passes, we must show a little respect. So stand up, take off your hat, and enjoy these five great films from a great filmmaker.

5. Mickey One /The Missouri Breaks

Neither of these are movies I’d recommend, or say were good in any traditional sense. And yet I don’t think any filmgoer’s diet, especially one with the taste for the esoteric could do without it.

They are simply two of the most inexplicable movies ever made.

Of the two Mickey One is the easiest to understand at least the impulse behind it. It's Straightforward in its ambition, if not its content, to make an American New Wave Movie. It does this quite badly (This was two years before he would do it quite expertly).

To quote Mark Harris in his seminal deconstruction of the era, Pictures At A Revolution;

“The budget of Mickey One was low, though not nearly as modest as its commercial potential. Penn shot the wintery film in bleached, deliberately raggedy black and white, and it was assembled with muffled sound; an impressionistic, only semidiscernible plot that cast Beatty as a minor nightclub comedian on the run from a group of Detroit mobsters; jumpy, discontinuous editing; and a surreal climactic scene involving a performance artist whose work eventually bursts into flames and is destroyed. A reasonably appropriate metaphor for the film itself.”

I can only imagine how this all must have played to the average audience circa 1965. But I can imagine it pretty well, since everyone on screen looks just as befuddled.

And Missouri Breaks makes Mickey One look about as commericial as Star Wars by comparison. A perfectly average Saturday Afternoon in Bizarro World (We Do Opposite All Earthly Things!). This is a movie that features Marlon Brando in drag, in a ridiculous Oirish Brouge, scalping Harry Dean Stanton and making out with a horse.

Those scenes I described? They’re not just in the same movie, THEY’RE IN THE SAME SCENE!!!

The unquestionable pinnacle of crazy Brando, featuring Jack Nicholson doing his best to try to keep up. When Brando went full boor most directors shrank back in horror, Penn followed right behind him.

4. Targets: As understated as the last two where over the top. Targets was panned upon its release and ignored at the box office. But it’s held up really well, despite it’s non existent reputation. A gritty proto Bourne thriller, made during the time that Remo Williams was more par for the espionage course then John Le Carre.

In their third and final collaboration, Gene Hackman plays a retired CIA agent, who is forced to unretire, and drag his son, played by Matt Dillon, along when old enemies kidnap his wife.

Hackman is gritty and resourceful, and Penn keeps the pace quick and tense. It’s a great little programmer, ripe for rediscovery.

3. The Left Handed Gun: Another under seen, underappreciated little gem (and the one I ended up personally watching in tribute to Penn). It's Billy The Kid as a juvenile delinquent. And while the film has its flaws, Paul Newman replaced James Dean, and unlike in Somebody Up There Likes Me, where he made the role his own, he basically spent The Left Handed Gun doing an impersonation, one that unfortunately underlined the worst of Dean’s habits.

But there are many things to recommend it, Penn was already experimenting with New Wave Techniques, and does so much more successfully here then in Mickey One and the script based on Gore Vidal’s play is sympathetic and interesting. Also Newman’s Newman, even when he’s goofy he’s charismatic.

But it’s a starting point for a lot of things in Penn, his impulse of expirementation (the shot where Billy executes the sheriff’s deputy with the infamous shotgun full of Dimes is home to one of the most effective rack focuses in cinema), his expressions of slow motion violence, and his storys of doomed Outlaws. It’s a crystallizing film. And those are always fascinating.

2. Night Moves

One of the very few films that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Chinatown. Saying anything more about this wounded noir would be cheating. Only to say it might be Gene Hackman’s best performance.

1. Bonnie And Clyde


Anonymous said...

My Arthur Penn Top 5:

5. The Miracle Worker
4. The Missouri Breaks
3. Mickey One
2. Night Moves
1. Bonnie and Clyde

In Mickey One's defense, I'd like to post this:

by: David Thomson

'Those were the days: just consider the assembly of talents-director Arthur Penn, just off The Miracle Worker; Warren Beatty in his most beautiful and ambiguous period; photography in black and white by Ghislain Cloquet (between jobs for Malle and Bresson); music by Eddie Sauter, but featuring the melancholy improvs of Stan Getz; a supporting cast that gathers Alexandra Stewart, Hurd Hatfield, Franchot Tone, and Jeff Corey; and a script by the brilliant, pretentious, paranoid Alan Surgal-the kind of script a kid does on spec, and which got taken up by some of the best people in town. To call the film pretentious is hardly amiss, or less than flattering: this is the kind of daring experiment that a great industry should be able to make. It is also, let us note, the mood of Alan Pakula's more famous and successful paranoid movies, ten years earlier and far more jittery than velvetlike. Truth to tell, Mickey One is amazing and a huge tribute to the influence of the French New Wave on a mind as fertile and ambitious as Penn's. The story is not meant to be clear, but Mickey is a comic and/or piano player, a nightclub stand-up, who now longs to hide because he believes the Mob or every They he can think of are after him because of a mysterious offense he has given. To say the least, this troubled soul relies on the very confused moodiness of Warren Beatty in the 1960's and his urge toward narcissism and reclusiveness at the same time. It is uncanny casting (since he was producer too!), and no small tribute to the movie is way Beatty dislikes it and has sought to distance himself from it. Yet he would never be more himself, both appealing and insufferable. But as a fusion of noir and moderism, Mickey One is hard to credit, even as you watch it. There are lurches toward symbolism and the ponderous dragging up of 'meaning,' but for much of the time the picture has a sinister, inane momentum all its own and quite stunning. George Jenkins did a great job on the seedy settings-this is a film made in 'metropolis'-and for most of the time Penn trusts the weird serenity of the script and just lets it play. No doubt, his discussion with Beatty-in search of the core-were agonizing, but in fact Beatty's inconsistency as a player only feeds into Mickey's incipient breakdown. Alexandra Stewart's modest talent also serves to make the romantic setup more inexplicable. It's beside the point to say that there are things 'wrong' with Mickey One. The whole concept is outrageous, and the style-for-style's-sake is mannerism to an extreme. At the same time, I think it's relevant to say that only Arthur Penn would have tried it, but that Penn is also so generous and so curious that he refrained from imposing a starker line of control. So it's unique, wayward, and a film to see whenever you get depressed about the withering of the American imagination.'

A great, great filmmaker. Thanks for posting this, man.


Bryce Wilson said...

No thank you Jim.

I certainly respect Mickey One for it's ambition and its singularity.

But at the end of the day it is still a failed experiment, to my mind at least.

Then again I prefer my New Wave in the Truffaut rather then Godard flavor, so that could just be part of it to.

Will Errickson said...

I only saw Night Moves for the first time about three years ago, and it instantly vaulted to the top of my list of favorite films ever. It was a *revelation*. As for Mickey One, well, I've been watching it off and on on my DVR for about, oh, six months. I can only take about 10 minutes at a time.

Bryce Wilson said...

Good to know I'm not the only one.

Jim always makes me feel like a philistine, lol.

Biba Pickles said...

Faye Dunaway has always whooed me. She is such a fine actress and so pretty.