Penn’s Landing

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This just in from my redoubtable colleague Mark Feeney:

Tomorrow night at 7, Arthur Penn will be appearing at the Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy Street, Cambridge. His appearance kicks off a four-day retrospective of the director?s work. Friday?s showing will be a double feature: ?The Chase? (1966) and ?The Tears of My Sister? (1953). Tickets are $10. ?The Chase? is a real mess (Penn didn?t have final cut), but it has an impressive cast -- Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall -- and Brando?s performance is worth the price of admission. (It also bears out Penn?s reputation as one of the great actor?s directors.) ?Tears? is a video of a Horton Foote drama that was broadcast live. Penn?s roots were in ?50s television, so this is an extremely rare opportunity to see his beginnings.

In ?The Chase,? you can begin to see flickerings of the New Hollywood: an engagement with politics, a much darker vision of America, a franker dealing with sexuality. A year later, in ?Bonnie and Clyde,? it?s right there on the screen: a movie set in the ?30s that?s a blueprint for the ?70s.

Now 85, Penn has a very significant place in the history of American film. He?s its missing link: the bridge between Elia Kazan, who did so much to popularize Method acting and bring a new seriousness and naturalness to Hollywood in the ?50s, and the Young Turks (Coppola, Scorsese, and the rest) who would create Hollywood?s Silver Age, in the ?70s. Unlike Kazan, Penn didn?t start out in New York theater (or belong to the Communist Party). Unlike the new generation, he didn?t go to film school. He neither came from a group nor belonged to one. Instead, he went his own way, helping make that way -- emotionally daring, politically iconoclastic, artistically searching -- the way of a generation.

Penn, whom Andrew Sarris once called ?the American Truffaut,? was a one-man New Wave, and an argument can be made that for a few years in the late ?60s -- with ?Bonnie and Clyde,? ?Alice?s Restaurant? (1969,? and ?Little Big Man? (1970) -- Penn was almost singlehandedly setting the agenda for serious American film. Everything was up for grabs, and he was showing what and how to grab for it.

Two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of speaking with him at his New York apartment. The conversation covered a lot of ground (who knew Arthur Penn once held cue cards for Martin and Lewis -- and how hard a job it was, since it?s tough holding up a cue card if you?re convulsed with laughter). So not everything made it into my Movies profile last Sunday. Here are a few outtakes.

On his moviegoing background:
?I was never a cinephile [growing up]. I didn?t go to the movies much. There were very few directors I could identify. Of course Welles, and of course Howard Hawks.

?For me, the most alive film I ever experienced was the Italian neorealism [of the late ?40s]. I was there as a student. Bing! These films were coming out, and seeing them with Italians, in Italy, was fantastic! It was more than film! It was film, prograganda, and expression of victory. Boy, that was really something.?

One of the most famous (and influential) sequences in film history is the gunning down of the title characters at the end of ?Bonnie and Clyde.? Penn discussed his decision to use slow motion.
?Kinetics: Cinema is so complementary to kinetics. To use the very device of the storytelling as an element, that?s what pleased me most about ?Bonnie and Clyde.? I was very hesitant about doing the film because, at the end, they?re at the automobile, the bushes explode, and they?re dead. I thought, ?Gee, if that?s where we are, we?ve just got a gangster film.? It troubled me until one morning I woke up and I could see it. I thought, ?That?s what I?ve got to do, I?ve got to begin to use the medium of film as part of the narrative.? It sure did work -- way beyond my expectation. I knew it would be startling, but I didn?t know it would be as upsetting as it proved to be.?

When I pointed out that people getting so upset vindicated his decision, Penn vigorously agreed.
?Exactly. They move from being gangstgers to being something faintly mythological, something legendary.?

Although he?s in a excellent shape for 85, Penn had recently been hospitalized with pneumonia. So he spent most of our time together sitting placidly on a couch. There was one point, though -- and I wish I had it on video -- where he jolted upright with energy, his body language transformed. We were talking about what it was that most appealed to him about film directing. I don?t know how well his words can communicate the absolute passion and almost-boyish excitement with which he spoke.

?Just something happens in the editing room which is beyond the literal: where the film itself, as it goes together, begins to take on an almost-mystical presence. And makes, consequently, a future demand. Which is: If this is the way I am here, then over here you better damn well speed me up and move me because I can?t give you the luxury of that. It really tells you, back and forth, of an internal rhythm that emerges. That, of course, you will carry it in your gut; but, you know, when you do a three-minute take, a four-minute take, and then wrap and come back tomorrow you don?t have that [same feeling]. But in the editing room [the feeling] really begins to be quite reverential about film. . . . It?s ineffable. There are no words for it. You get really kind of mystical at that stage.?

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