Friday, April 21, 2017

On Kael's Review of Bonnie and Clyde

This week in my class, Writing About Film, we are reading Pauline Kael's review of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Vivian Sobchack's essay on violence in American cinema. I referenced Sobchack's essay in my post about Logan (James Mangold, 2017). I would like to say something about Kael's essay.

We give our students rules about writing and all the great writers break them over and over again. I teach my students a specific paragraph structure, with the hopes that it will teach them a measure of precision, and then I give them a 20-page essay, with long paragraphs, some of which exceed the length of a page. Kael notes counter-claims but doesn't provide sources for other critics. She rants. She can't stop herself from indulging her visceral pleasure. Film studies academics talk like this over drinks in between conference presentations, but never in the conference presentation. We'll write this way in Facebook posts, but never for publication. The few of us who try to write about performance will never manage a stretch like this on Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow, a stretch which doesn't even make up half of one of her paragraphs. The passage could be a defense of her own strategies as a critic:

As Clyde, Beatty is good with his eyes and mouth and his hat, but his body is still inexpressive; he doesn't have a trained actor's use of his body, and watching him move, one is never for a minute convinced he's impotent. It is, however, a tribute to his performance that one singles this failure out. his slow timing works perfectly in the sequence in which he offers the dispossessed farmer his gun; there may not be another actor who would have dared to prolong the scene that way, and the prolongation until the final "We rob banks" gives the sequence its comic force. I have suggested elsewhere that one of the reasons that rules are impossible in the arts is that in movies (and in other arts, too) the new "genius" -- the genuine as well as the fraudulent or the dubious -- is often the man who has enough audacity, or is simpleminded enough, to do what others had the good taste not to do. Actors before Brando did not mumble and scratch and show their sweat; dramatists before Tennessee Williams did not make explicit a particular substratum of American erotic fantasy; movie directors before Orson Welles did not dramatize the techniques of film-making; directors before Richard Lester did not lay out the whole movie as cleverly as the opening credits; actresses before Marilyn Monroe did not make an asset of their ineptitude by turning faltering misreadings into an appealing style. Each, in a large way, did something that people had always enjoyed and were often embarrassed or ashamed about enjoying. Their "bad taste" shaped a new accepted taste. Beatty's non-actor's "bad" timing may be this kind of "genius"; we seem to be watching him think out his next move.
I know someone who told me that he never much cared for Beatty because he was always ACTING, consciously performing, telegraphing his movements second-by-second so that you were never surprised by any one of his line readings or movements. He was in his youth what his contemporaries Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino became by the time they hit 50. But Bonnie and ClydeMcCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), and Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975) gave Beatty the right roles. In each film, he plays performers. And Clyde Barrow is the absolute performer, a figure who, within the world of the film, is imitating an idea of himself in the press, and, for Beatty, imitating, and at times besting, his predescessors in Hollywood gangster films. Bradley Cooper did this sort of thing well and Christian Bale did it poorly in American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013).

But let's go back to Kael's language, because I would love to be able to write this sentence: "As Clyde, Beatty is good with his eyes and mouth and his hat, but his body is still inexpressive; he doesn't have a trained actor's use of his body, and watching him move, one is never for a minute convinced he's impotent." There are only so many people who understand what it means for an actor to be good both with his face as well as his clothes, and what it means for the body to remain inexpressive, and to know why not looking like a "trained actor" might be a good thing. But I also love the steady beat of the "and" in the second clause, with the abrupt falling line "but his body is still inexpressive." This sentence captures the thrill of watching moving human bodies on screen. The voice captures the way our minds process a performance that occurs over a period of time, from moment to moment. And the list of other artists speaks to the catalogue a cinephile always keeps in his or her memory, always recalling during the period of time while he or she is watching that body.

There is too much writing in Film Studies that is indifferent to style and voice, that ignores the way we talk about movies when our students aren't listening. And so when outsiders hear us talk, it's no wonder so many of them are baffled and say, "Do you even LIKE movies?"


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