Writer/Director John Carney’s musical dramedy “Sing Street” is his fifth feature after the Oscar-winning /nominated musicals “Once” and “Begin Again”is not only his best film but one of the best films of 2016. It is also a film that I have connected to the most more than any other film I have seen. I have seen great films but I have rarely seen films that touch me in a place that was so personal.
The film’s central story takes place in Ireland in the 1980’s at the height of the New Wave movement when bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode were the heroes of many young musicians and artists. It also was during the cultural boom of the music video.
The protagonist the teenage Conor Lalor finds himself going to free state-school, Synge Street where he endures bullying by the school bully and the principal. In order to impress Raphina, a wannabe teen model Connor starts a band in order to put her in their music videos.
What makes the film standout then other films about artists is we see Conor and his bandmates grow through this film. They start out as derivative with their influences on their sleeve and over the film they change their style of music and dress as they discover music to by the end of the film the band and most of all Conor have become original in their art. Carney in this reveals the truth about all artists is we all start out be it musician, writer, filmmaker or painter we start out pastiching and ripping off our influences and working through those influences to be artists with an “original voice”. It also reveals something true of being a teenager, in that experimenting with music and dress is as much a part of growing up as heartbreak and angst.
The relationship of Conor to Raphina as presented by Carney is one that is equally very realistic in the relationship of artist and muse and the ultimate fantasy that your muse reciprocates romantic feelings for you.
Carney’s original songs played in the film along with his choice of source music are brilliant. The upbeat “Drive It Like You Stole It” and the ballad “Up” are Oscar worthy and deserve to be hit singles on the radio now.
I have never felt such a connection towards a film ever in my life. Forget the time period or the Irish setting I knew Conor Lalor walking around with a notebook writing songs and in my own case stories.
Taxi Driver” brings a dread and discomfort to the screen that few films have. It is perhaps the most deranged noir film ever made. The film puts us in the head of a reprehensible character and we are forced to understand his pathology. It is one of the few films that can rank among the novels of the existentialist movement. The film is also one of the few American films that is on par with the works of Bergman in its explorations of human nature. The film is a landmark in visual style, acting and screenwriting. It also introduces one of the most fascinating characters in fiction. Travis Bickle is a walking contradiction as Cybil Sheppard’s Betsy tells him in the film, which is an understatement. Travis is violent and tormented by his existence as a human being. What is fascinating is that we don’t really know why Travis is the way he is, we are never given any insight to what made him this way.
The little insight we have of his past is he was a Vietnam veteran and that he has insomnia. Kolker compares Bickel to two icons of cinema Ethan Edwards of John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in regards to Travis’s lineage, “Travis Bickle is the legitimate child of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic, each the obverse of the other, each equally dangerous.” (Kolker 239) Travis is the missing link between Norman Bates and Ethan Edwards. Travis awkwardness and Midwestern behavior comes out of Bates and his deep self righteousness, racism and mission to save a young woman who does not want to be saved comes from Edwards.
As a writer I am astonished at the screenplay. The screenplay by Paul Schrader is one of the most literary screenplays ever produced in America. Schrader’s script takes a film noir plot and instills in it the psychological underpinnings and questions of Dostoyevsky. It makes sense the script has an influence of Dostoyevsky since in Biskind it is declared, “He rewrote the Taxi Driver script, wanted it to be an American Notes from the Underground, an American Pickpocket.” (Biskind 295) Schrader in creating Travis Bickel gives an insight on loneliness but self-imposed loneliness. Schrader went into great depth in the documentary “God’s Lonely Man” on the “Taxi Driver” DVD Schrader states when talking about the script being about loneliness; “We are not lonely by nature we make ourselves lonely. Travis makes himself lonely” (Schrader). Schrader is right Travis causes his loneliness by pushing people away through his actions and behavior.
Scorsese as director of the film creates a visual style that brings the audience into Travis’s warped psyche. Scorsese and his director of photography Michael Chapman’s decision in regards to the cinematography was all of Travis’s scenes are from his point of view. This allows for the viewer to relate to Travis. This is clear in the use of close ups on Travis’s eyes and the point of view shots of Travis looking at what he despises about the world. One particular shot that shows this is in a shot of pimps who are African American in a cafeteria, the way it is shot causes the viewer to be repelled by these characters not because they are pimps but because they are black the same reason Bickel does because of his casual and not quite understood racism. In certain points of the film scenes that do not even include Travis in the scene it is from his point of view. In a scene between Iris and Sport that shows the revolting pimp being romantic with the child prostitute, through a shot of Travis Bickle outside as the scene ends it stays with the film’s subjective visual style. Yet one shot in the film that shows Travis Bickel’s personality and pain is in a scene when he is talking to Betsy on the phone after the date where he is asking her when will they see each other again, as it becomes more obvious that Betsy wants nothing to do with him the camera tracks away from Travis and focuses on a vacant hallway because it is too painful to watch.
The visual choices in the film also are to create a film that almost is not part of reality. The use of gels, slow motion, flat on establishing shots creates a nightmarish folktale aesthetic.
Scorsese’s depiction of Time Square is through the eye of a director deeply influenced by his Catholic upbringing. Time Square through Scorsese’s eye as hell on earth is not that far off from what New York in 1976 was like. Scorsese shows in the film a New York not seen in post cards or even in the less flattering Naked City tv series; it’s the New York of garbage strikes, a prominent sex industry, an ineffective John Lindsay, escalating violence and drug use.
“Taxi Driver” is considered one of the most violent films ever made going further than “The Wild Bunch” and “A Clockwork Orange” in its depiction of ultra violence. What people forget is that “Taxi Driver” is not a constantly violent film compared to other films. The film does not show ultra violence until the final 15 minutes of the film with the shoot out in the whorehouse. The climax is a build up of nearly two hours of tension from De Niro’s performance and threats of violence through dialogue and confrontations. In fact Travis does not truly commit true violence until this, before the shootout he had shot a man in self-defense to prevent a robbery that Scorsese shows close to bloodless. In fact in that scene the most violent part is at the end of it when Victor Argo’s character beats the near dead man to death to protect Travis who does not have a permit for his gun. The shootouts violence is justified in its surreal yet stark tone in presenting violence as it is. Scorsese does not take lightly the pain and aftermath of violence as a James Cameron or even Sergio Leone would have. Throughout the sequence a guard who is shot and whose hand has been shot off is in horrific pain and does not simply die. I see a lot of influence of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain in the sequence in that it takes forever for Bickel to kill this guy until he finally puts a bullet in his head.
The ending also asks the question where is the line between a villain and a hero, in many ways the film shows that it comes down to who the victims of the violence are. Had Travis killed the candidate he would have ended up a villain but because he kills a pimp and johns of a child prostitute he is a populist hero. The final moment of the film makes it clear that Travis will commit violence again but that next time he might not be so lucky in being portrayed as a hero.
“Taxi Driver” remains a film that over thirty years after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival is one that leaves its viewer debating the character of Travis Bickel and its ending. In a film that is anything but hopeful it is a cautionary to show people that have those times of loneliness that they are not alone and that they cannot allow it to over take their life.
As we open up on “Traffic” we are placed in the middle of a war that is failing, the war on drugs. Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film is a masterpiece that shows the culmination of experimentation over the first half of his career. As Andrew Sarris proclaimed in his review of the film, “Traffic marks him definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he’s going to do next. The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled” (Sarris). The film also is one of the great commentaries on drug culture and the war on drugs with only Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” being of equal emotional impact.
“Traffic” is at face value a highly commercial crime thriller, yet it’s experimentation and risks is what makes it independent. The film is the forerunner in hyperlink cinema a movement in cinematic storytelling in which everything and everyone is connected. This is perhaps the best type of story to use this storytelling technique because it goes from the dealers, DEA, Justice system all the way to the addicts. Soderbergh helps keep the many stories together by his use of color temperature, film stock and shutter speed in each storyline to differentiate between. The risk also is having one of the storylines being done principally in the Spanish language. “Traffic” presents the war on drugs as more complex than ‘just say no’. The cops in Mexico can’t do their job because corruption of officials who are making money with the cartels. The absolute ruthlessness of the cartels makes it impossible for DEA and the judicial system to make cases cause of the murders of witnesses.
The story of “Traffic” works on every level. On one level it’s a social commentary. On another it’s a crime drama on level with “The French Connection” and “The Godfather”. It also is a family drama. The levels of the story shows the audience that the drug war and drug culture effect on society is political, legal/ illegal all the way to your own family. It goes for an immediacy that allows for both commentary and an intense cinematic experience.
Though I found the story involving Michael Douglas character going rogue to find his daughter and threatening drug dealers to be very melodramatic, its very much true to fact on an emotional and personal level in what happens to parents of drug users. Douglas finds his daughter stoned and having sexually degraded herself in exchange for drugs. It is this of all the storylines is that gives the film its soul, every audience member has been a child or could be a parent as compared to a DEA agent or a drug lord so we are able to see at a personal level what the drug wars and drug culture have on society in the micro social group of the family.
In terms of the level of the film as a crime drama it perhaps has one of the most interesting twists on a crime family. Helena is a character who very much rings true of how ruthless these cartels are and what they are willing to do to keep their comfortable lifestyle going. Another thing that is interesting about that character is her rose-colored sunglass approach she does not see the long lasting implications of her husband being a drug lord she just cares about keeping her nice upper middle class existence going. She is the opposite of Kay Corleone in “The Godfather” or even Carmela Soprano in which both women are either disgusted or have moments of guilt in who their husbands are and what they do to give them such an affluent life, Helena becomes her husband she becomes as ruthless as her husband and in many ways is much more dangerous than her husband. This storyline ends perhaps the best of all the storylines because the fact is these people while they may have gotten away this time they will not next time. In many ways they have made the situation for themselves worse since they have the blood of a DEA agent on their hands.
In terms of where “Traffic” is in Soderbergh’s career it is the beginning towards the next step in his career. “Traffic” shows Soderbergh changing his approach to filmmaking after being a great formalist director for the first ten years of his career. Soderbergh called the film his Dogma film regarding Lars Von Trier’s cinema movement towards a truthful cinema:
“I don’t know Von Trier; I’ve never talked to him. But I certainly felt that I was becoming a formalist and that’s a real dead end. So I felt the need to break radically from that way of working, and clearly he did, too. Because his earlier films were machined to the point of insanity, unbelievable precision. Obviously, he just felt like that goes nowhere.” (Kaufman)
It makes more sense now that Soderbergh went for the quasi-documentary approach to “Traffic” because this is not a film that if done in a formalist way the immediacy that the story calls for would not exist. The fact that he was one of the camera operators on the films helps the immediacy because we are seeing it through the director’s vision literally what he chooses to focus his camera on. This docudrama technique is different than say “Battle of Algiers” which used stationary camera as opposed to Soderbergh’s choice of kinetic camera movement and editing. Soderbergh further admitted that he studied the films of Ken Loach who is known for a similar documentary aesthetic to his films:
“I looked at how he would frame, how far away he would be, what the length of the lens was, how tight the eyelines would be, depending on where the characters were. I noticed that there’s a space that’s inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic.” (Hope)
Watching the film it does not have really any moment of theatrical composition even in the sequences of action and suspense they feel like they are from a documentary or even footage from news cameras.
Because of experimentation and risk Soderbergh accomplished a film that every filmmaker wishes to have which is a film that fulfills artistic needs along with being an engaging piece of entertainment. “Traffic” is a landmark in American cinema that gave a different side to the issue of the drug wars by not making it a black and white issue or right wing and left wing cause it made it what the problem is a human issue.
Born in Queens, New York on November 17th, 1942 Martin Scorsese has become the American filmmaker of the last 50 years. Raised among immigrants, priests and gangsters his childhood in New York’s Little Italy influenced Scorsese’s formative years as a filmmaker and in doing so influenced the themes of his work as a filmmaker.
Scorsese’s aesthetic is informed by the films he saw in his formative years, asthmatic and considered by many in the neighborhood a weakling Scorsese’s parents took him to the movies as much as possible. In the movie theaters of the 1940’s and 1950’s the young Scorsese fell in love with cinema. Starting with the Golden Age of Hollywood films particularly the musicals, gangster and film noirs that would become a lasting influence in his work. The works of John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Elia Kazan, Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk had an influence on Scorsese.
Like many filmmakers of his generation a teenage Scorsese fell under the spell of the films coming out of Europe and Asia. Scorsese’s foreign film influence is particularly found in the Italian Neo-realism of Roberto Rossellini, The French New Wave of Jean-Luc Godard along with the mastery of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. A major influence on Scorsese that sets him apart from many filmmakers of his generation was the films of John Cassavetes who would become a major mentor to Scorsese during his early years as a filmmaker. Cassavetes debut film “Shadows” released in 1959 particularly influenced Scorsese. Cassavetes recollected by Scorsese is one of a calling to him and young filmmakers to be independent and uncompromising in their vision; “Once we saw that, we all realized that you can’t sit around and talk about making a film, you gotta just go do it. He exemplifies independence: Don’t be taken in by them. Do what you feel, what you feel in your heart. Don’t be cut down. He was like an uncle in the way he talked to you about this.”(Scorsese)
Apart from film his Catholic upbringing during Vatican 1 instilled in Scorsese with questions regarding the dogma and morality. Scorsese’s influence of the church has stayed with him and is defining aspect of all his films. With a childhood that left him seen as a weakling and a coward Scorsese filled his films with an energy and confrontational attitude that future collaborator Paul Schrader would sum up Scorsese “He was not very confrontational. Which I think is one of the reasons he gets so confrontational in the films, he just letting all that out. All the stuff he can’t do in his day to day life.” (Biskind 306) This brings an understanding to Scorsese as a filmmaker and a context to his work. After finishing a bachelors degree in English from New York University Scorsese entered what was then the infancy of the now legendary NYU film school under Haig Manoogian. Under Manoogian’s guidance Scorsese became the star pupil at the school.
Scorsese’s made many films over his four-decade career, ranging from the underground “Who’s that Knocking at My Door” and “After Hours”, the exercises in style and genre of “New York, New York” and “Cape Fear” & the explorations into faith and morality of “Bringing out the Dead” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”. It is the experimentation in technique and genre exercise that is the hallmark in Scorsese as a filmmaker. This need to push the medium and also to show a love of cinemas past is the hallmark of Scorsese as a filmmaker. Of all the films Scorsese has done it is four films that show truly his aesthetic and obsessions. These films also show Scorsese’s progression as a filmmaker and as one of the great moralists in cinema of the last 40 years.
Though he had made two films previously to “Mean Streets” this was the first true Scorsese film, a culmination of Scorsese’s life up to that point the film is a mix of everything Scorsese had been influenced by both in film and in his upbringing in Little Italy. With its use of source music he was simultaneously showing the influence of Italian Neo-realism, French New Wave and the musical. With its plot about a hood trying to protect his friend who many believe is crazy and needs to be “taken care of” the influence of noirs such as Abraham Polonsky’s “Force of Evil” is apparent. The over all theme of the film is the main character Charlie’s guilt, megalomania that he has a greater relationship with God over others are questions Scorsese was and is still dealing with in his films. “Mean Streets” also introduced Scorsese to the most important collaborator he would have and who would become the Scorsese actor, Robert De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro’s collaboration is the New Hollywood equivalent of John Huston & Humphrey Bogart in which filmmaker and actor are in sync with what the other wants. De Niro’s portrayal of histrionic small time hood Johnny Boy is a revelation and shows the power De Niro would bring to future work over the next 30 years. Johnny Boy is also the first of Scorsese’s exploration into unhinged males, men who are not able to conform to society. Opposite to De Niro’s Johnny Boy is Harvey Keitel as Charlie who is a stand in for Scorsese, a young Roman Catholic who is pulled between wanting to live a religious life but can’t escape the neighborhood where he works trying to get up the ranks of the local mob but his heart is not in it nor does he have the lack of morality fully to make it as a mobster. Charlie’s inability to let Johnny Boy pay for his transgressions towards loan sharks leads to him being exiled from the neighborhood. “Mean Streets” is one of the definitive films of the 70’s and its influence is far reaching with Roger Ebert proclaiming, “In countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, Mean Streets is one of the source points of modern movies.” (Ebert)
With “Taxi Driver” Scorsese is revealing the darkness of being isolated and not being one of the group. “Taxi Driver” is Scorsese taking film noir and turning it into art. While Scorsese is to be praised for the film it is the script by Paul Schrader that is the foundation for the film a mix of film noir, “The Searchers” and Dostoyevsky. The influence of these three is very clear in its protagonist Travis Bickle. With his job as a taxi driver he is in lineage with the working man characters of noir such as Walter Neff of “Double Indemnity”. In his need to purify the world from the filth he sees on the streets of Time Square he is John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers” brought into the 20th century. With his depravity and loneliness he is the unreliable narrator from “Notes from Underground” by Dostoyevsky. It is no surprise that these influences in the profile of Travis Bickle leads Kolker to write that “Travis Bickle is the legitimate child of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic, each the obverse of the other, each equally dangerous.” (Kolker 239)
It is Travis’s warped psyche that brought Scorsese and his director of photography Michael Chapman to create a film that is from Travis’s point of view. This decision allows the viewer to understand his loneliness and self-hatred. This is clear in the use of close ups on Travis’s eyes and the point of view shots of Travis looking at what he despises about the world. Of all the shots that are used in the film to help the audience understand Travis it is in a scene when he is talking to Betsy on the phone after the date where he is asking her when will they see each other again, the camera tracks away from Travis and focuses on a vacant hallway because it is too painful to watch. The violent resolution of the film is visceral and simultaneously heightened and stark in its depiction of the violence. The climax is a build up of nearly two hours of tension from De Niro’s performance and threats of violence through dialogue and confrontations. The end of the film makes it clear that Travis will commit violence again but that next time he might not be so lucky in being portrayed as a hero.
While “Mean Streets” was peripherally a gangster film it is with “Goodfellas” that Scorsese pulled out the stops in depicting the life of mobsters both in its honest depiction of mobsters in the way it is told, shot and edited. The film shows Scorsese fully coming into his own as a filmmaker with his own style. The quick cuts, the dark humor, the vibrant color palette and innovative use of voice over put the audience into this world. “Goodfellas” is the alternative to the romanticized “Godfather”, Scorsese showed the most realistic depiction of mobsters ever in a film. Its depiction of mobsters particularly the violence committed by these characters is shocking even for Scorsese. While “Mean Streets” had characters who committed violence they did not enjoy it like they do in “Goodfellas”. Joe Pesci’s character of Tommy is a sociopath who sees no problem in shooting a man for not walking fast enough to bring him his drink, compared to Michael in “Mean Streets” who does not take violent action against Johnny Boy until Johnny Boy has crossed the line in calling him a “jerk off” and refusing to pay him back. The unpredictability of violence in “Goodfellas” as Kolker writes “almost always winds up in a joke” and that it turns the gangster film into a “low-life screwball comedy with blood and with a self-awareness that distracts us from its more appalling elements.” (Kolker 215) Scorsese however in the film makes the viewer befriend the gangster and shows what makes one become a gangster or in the case of Henry Hill’s wife Karen why they are attracted and stay with someone they know steals and kills people. The audience for the first half of the film enjoys the anarchy and mayhem of these characters lives and it is not until the murder of Billy Batts that the audience realizes fully that this life is nothing but danger and damnation. Scorsese shows also in the ending the complete nerve the character of Henry who becomes an informer to save his life and is in witness protection wishes that he was still a gangster instead of as he calls it being “a shnook”.
With “Goodfellas” and its spiritual sequel “Casino” Scorsese believed he had said everything about the mob but with “The Departed” Scorsese found a new way to use the gangster film to explore morality and ethics. The plot is a throw back to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30’s and delves into themes of loyalty, guilt, betrayal, father figures, and ultimately the showdown of good vs. evil. The film is perhaps Scorsese’s most overtly moral film, in Billy Costigan played by Leonardo DiCaprio the first true Scorsese character ever who is a good man trying to do the right thing. The film however is far removed from “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” though, “The Departed” is about Irish gangsters as opposed to Italian gangsters and the camaraderie that makes the two previous films so warm and engaging are next to non existent. Robert Kolker in his examination of the film says the lack of camaraderie makes sense “Everyone is rightly suspicious of everyone else because everyone is out to betray someone” (Kolker 260). In getting rid of the camaraderie and feeling of good will among not just the gangsters but law enforcement Scorsese is able to portray the themes of betrayal, paranoia and guilt more effectively. It also allows for Scorsese to once again examine loneliness like he had in “Taxi Driver”, Costigan is a man without a country he has to survive within the world of gangsters while being at his heart a cop, yet he does not fit in as a cop.
“The Departed” also is an homage to gangster films of the pre code and Hayes code era and a denouncement of those films. While Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello is right out of Howard Hawk’s “Scarface” and Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat” a monster devoid of any human decency yet he has moments of righteous annoyance towards the hypocrisy of the archdiocese of Boston. Yet it is the film’s ending which is the thumb at the nose towards the morality of the Hayes Code. While violent and even a nihilistic ending it does follow in many ways the tradition of Warner Brothers gangster films in that as long as the bad guy dies at the end of the film its moral. The ending lead Scorsese to say “I just had no place to go. I was at moral ground zero at that point.” (Carne) If “The Departed” is Scorsese bidding farewell to the gangster film for good much the way John Ford ended his meditation on the myth of the West with “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” with denouncing the myth of the West he is ending it on a high note.
As a filmmaker Scorsese has been an influence on filmmakers. His redefining of editing, camera work and his portrayal of violence and psychologically damaged characters have influenced directors diverse as Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino to even showrunners as “The Sopranos” David Chase. Chase has been very vocal in the influence Scorsese had on his creating “The Sopranos” which is seen not just in the casting of many actors from Scorsese’s films but also in the shows referencing of Scorsese’s films. Perhaps though the most well known filmmakers who Scorsese’s influence has been on is Spike Lee and Oliver Stone students he taught during his many times as both a guest and adjunct professor at NYU. Stone has praised Scorsese as a teacher who taught his students to make a film that is personal to ones experiences. Lee perhaps the closest to Scorsese in style in terms of editing and cinematography has over his career praised Scorsese’s work and has worked with many actors from Scorsese’s stable of actors. Lee is also the one closest to Scorsese having both a deep friendship and also working relationship, Scorsese was a producer on Lee’s adaptation of “Clockers”.
Over the course of a career that started with “Who’s that Knocking at my Door” to his most recent triumphs with the 3D family film “Hugo” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, Scorsese continues to challenge not just the viewer but the medium of cinema. If Steven Spielberg is this generations John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille, Scorsese is Elia Kazan or John Huston.
With the premier of “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 American film was never the same. The culmination of a generation who came of age in art house screenings of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol; “Bonnie and Clyde” was a call to a new authenticity and style that was missing in American cinema. The influence of the French New Wave and the golden age of Hollywood are apparent in the film, which is equal parts “Jules and Jim” as it is “Gun Crazy”.
The film does what the great gangster films of the classic Warner Brothers era did you fall in love with the gangster. The film takes it one step further in mythologizing two notorious real life criminals and turning them into sexy, young and rebellious figures similar to Robin Hood, when the truth was anything but that. What makes it work for the audience is that the film is seen from the view of the gangster who just wants to be free and be left alone by the system. It’s this subtext that made for it to be a great allegory for the youth of the late 60’s, rebelling against society and being against the status quo. The scene that shows this best is in a scene between the protagonists and a farmer who lost his land to the bank, Clyde in a symbol of defiance shoots the bank owned sign and lets the farmer take a few shots as well and as the farmer leaves Clyde proudly says “we rob banks”. It is this unapologetic nature in being criminals is what gives the film such a power and caused critic Bosley Crowther to despise it. Crowther in his legendary review in which he proclaimed “It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.” (Crowther)
Writer of the film Robert Benton recounts in Biskind that the juxtaposition between the bluegrass music and the graphic violence was what caused the backlash; “It was perceived to be a thumbing your nose attitude, a moral flipness, an arrogance, because nobody in the movie ever said, ‘ I’m sorry I’ve killed somebody’.” (Biskind 48) The arrogance and unapologetic behavior is what makes the film honest however as true career criminals rarely have a moral quandary over what they do. By not making a moral judgment it allows the audience to not have feeling towards these characters.
The vision of director Arthur Penn on “Bonnie and Clyde” is the culmination of experimentation on previous films. The French New Wave influence of “Mickey One” is in the editing and shifts in tone, along with the cutting between camera speeds is the influence of “The Chase”. The aesthetics that Penn showed in “Bonnie and Clyde” made him truly come into his own as a director with an approach different from other American filmmakers at that time. Yet the film is not a singular achievement for Penn but to those he chose as his production team which included future Coppola collaborators production designer Dean Tavoularis, costume designer Theadora Van Runkle and Oscar winning cinematographer of “From Here to Eternity” Burnett Guffey brought an authenticity and a stylization in its presentation that had not been seen in American cinema and certainly not in the gangster film genre. Tavoularis design and eye for locations is authentic all props and pieces of set look like they existed in the 1930’s. Van Runkle’s costumes are stylish yet not anachronistic. Guffey’s photography particularly in the reunion between Bonnie and her family is astonishing and the fact he just put a piece of screen window between the camera and lens to create the beautiful almost ethereal light in the scene, which juxtaposes a beautiful image to a scene in which the protagonists realize they can not go home. However if anyone on Penn’s team deserves credit for the success of the film and its place in cinema history it is editor Dede Allen. While Penn had used New Wave inspired editing in “Mickey One” which came across as self indulgent it is “the more cohesive, though arrhythmic style of Dede Allen, which depends on rapid and dynamic associations of image and movement within the image” (Kolfer 29) that gives the film its power. While the legendary ending with Bonnie and Clyde going down in a hail of gunfire is analyzed over and over again, the cutting of the siege by the police best shows Penn’s abrupt shifts in tone from Keystone cops humor to horrific violence. The scene begins with Blanche running out of the house in very comedic hysteria all while the scene cuts back to gunfire and soon the humor is gone and bodies are falling and all the major characters are horrifically injured. This sudden shift in tone is an influence of the French New Wave.
The tone of the film, which shifts between humorous camaraderie and violent action, causes the audience to stay emotionally distant. The film does not make you feel happy or sad its similar to what would happen in the films of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese in which the audience is filled with a sense of dread coming even in moments of humor. The scene that best shows this switch in tone is the scene with Gene Wilder in the car. In the middle of a very jovial comic scene Wilder is asked what he does for a living; Wilder proclaims he is an undertaker and in the next shot he is kicked out of the car as Bonnie sees him as a bad omen. The shifts in tone also cause the audience to remember that things are not going to end well for the protagonists. The film’s distancing effect is also in the characterization, which like the sudden switch in tone is an influence of the New Wave. The characterization of all the characters is very one-dimensional, starting with the opening we have the briefest knowledge of Bonnie and Clyde; we know Clyde was in jail and Bonnie is a waitress outside of that we know nothing of what makes them act the way they do. If anything their immature behavior and shallowness best sum up everything they do and how they think. Bonnie is sex starved, Clyde is obsessed with publicity and the rest of the gang want nothing more than to eat, drink and wear the top styles of the day. Image is also a major theme in the film with Clyde in one scene in a rage over a newspaper downplaying his and Bonnie’s criminal acts.
The film’s influence on later filmmakers is apparent in both taking a genre film and treating it as a device to make commentary on society and in portraying violence. Without this film Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would not have the same freedom in portraying violence simultaneously stark and heightened. Stone with a story by Tarantino took “Bonnie and Clyde” one-step further with his surrealistic satire on crime and the media in “Natural Born Killers”. Scorsese with films such as “Goodfellas”, “Casino” and “The Departed” shares the same lineage that goes from “Bonnie and Clyde” all the way back to William Wellman’s “Public Enemy” in its portrayal of crime and gangsters. Coppola perhaps more than anyone showed the influence of the film in “The Godfather” with the tollgate sequence. “Bonnie and Clyde” is a film over 40 years after its release is still being discussed and analyzed. The great films are those that leave a lasting impact, in the case of “Bonnie and Clyde” it is the film that changed movies.