Wednesday, September 29, 2010

And another one bites the dust: Arthur Penn (1922-2010)

It's sad to see another superb filmmaking talent leave one after another (for some reason people from the movie business die in packs: Ingmar Bergman & Michelangelo Antonioni, or earlier this year Dennis Hopper and Gary Coleman).  Sadder still I was not as well-versed in the career of Arthur Penn before he passed as I was in my previous entrant on Sally Menke.  Penn came from a time in filmmaking where he broke rules, got some acceptance, and stayed on the edge of things.  He sometimes made some stinkers (a couple of them can be found in his 1980's output), but for the most part his career was pretty solid, as both a director of film and theater, and earlier on in the 1950's as one of the live TV pioneers.

In full disclosure, I've only seen completely four of his directed films - Bonnie and Clyde, The Left-Handed Gun, Alice's Restaurant, and Night Moves (I started The Chase but didn't get far due to a damaged DVD) - but each of them has something special to offer to a receptive audience.  For Bonnie and Clyde it's the de-mystification and re-invigoration of the crime genre (and also the sub-bank-robbery genre of movies), with its fresh characters, frank (for 1967) sexuality, and its notorious climactic shoot-out inspired by the blood-letting of Kurosawa samurai films.  For The Left-Handed Gun we got to see one of Paul Newman's best performances, actually out-doing James Dean in a character that was originally written for him, as a smart-ass and tortured Billy the Kid.  For Night Moves, we got a different kind of detective neo-noir with Gene Hackman as a real down-and-out Shamus who gets embroiled in a case that is way over his head (sort of a more modern, moody cousin of Chinatown).  For Alice's Restaurant... you can get anything you want, such as a surprisingly funny Arlo Guthrie.

His influence has been felt by many filmmakers, and he gave many fantastic actors- Hackman, Beatty, Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker, which I did see in middle school but have little memory of save for some scenes with Helen Keller), Dustin Hoffman (Little Big Man), and even Penn & Teller in a concert movie from the late 80's, which I need to procure asap.  One can also read more in-depth about his work in the 1960's in the fantastic book Pictures at a Revolution, which is all about the behind-the-scenes in the five best picture nominees at the 1968 Oscars and is like reading the book about the making of Bonnie and Clyde, and the working relationship between Penn and Beatty. 

One more note here.  In 2007 (or was it 2008) I got to be more familiar than ever before with Penn almost by accident.  Though never personally meeting, it was by a sort of favor that I got a peek at Penn's process in interview form.  My wife Korey worked briefly as an intern for an online political-social-issues magazine called Logos, and part of her job was transcribing interviews that has a 50/50 chance of being printed.  One of these was an in-depth interview with Arthur Penn.  As she couldn't do it in time due to other academic concerns, I took over the transcribing.  The interview was never published, so what I may do later today is to post a blog featuring the full interview transcript (hey, you snooze you lose I say).  It's a fascinating lot of talk about Penn's career and how his films fit into a social-concern framework.

In the meantime, here are some reviews on IMDb of his films:

Night Moves
Alice's Restaurant
Bonnie and Clyde
The Left-Handed Gun 


AMMENDMENT:  Damnit!  i almost forgot The Missouri Breaks - Brando and Nicholson in the SAME MOVIE!  It's like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with dudes (underrated, though short of greatness by just how fucking odd it is):

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