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Arthur Penn last directed for the big screen in 1989—a Penn & Teller movie, at that. Now 85, he's on the posterity circuit—a voice for TCM, DVD commentaries, and a new "Conversations With Filmmakers" interview volume, the last being the occasion for Anthology's eight-film retrospective.
But Penn was once a filmmaker uniquely synchronous to What's Happening, his work a countercultural March of Time. His most famous film, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), is considered New Hollywood's moment of arrival, tipping square critic Bosley Crowther into retirement (The New York Times, they were a-changin').
Penn debuted with the self-absorbed anguish of the Actors Studio Western The Left-Handed Gun (1957). There are rare, really new moments here, like the cutaway to a little girl who's slapped by her mother for laughing at an empty boot that a man's just been shot out of. But the odor of the vogue social problem pic is strong, with Paul Newman's Billy the Kid a juvie-hall case history—one waits for the tough-but-fair Boys' Club counselor to ride into town. Penn's training in theater and live-TV drama (e.g. Playhouse 90) shows; the central performance is rehearsed into an anxious stir, every line matched to an actorly decision, a blocking cue.
The Miracle Worker (1962) was Penn's third staging (after Broadway and TV) of Helen Keller's domestication, a film that storms where most biopics respectfully tiptoe. The centerpiece is a one-room, nine-minute war of attrition, as a tutor (Anne Bancroft) imposes table manners on her feral charge (Patty Duke). It's a heaving, shin-cracking donnybrook, done with complete commitment. Equally impressive is Penn's feel for family dynamics on a postwar Southern plantation; a Philadelphian by birth, a good part of his filmography stays to the backwaters—perhaps to whet his sense of terror.
West Chicago has never been more lunar and rapturously stark than as filmed by Ghislain Cloquet for Penn's Mickey One (1965), in which a nightclub comic (Warren Beatty) is blocked in by mobsters who may or may not exist. This hermeneutic curio evokes Grove Press, Kafka-cum–Lenny Bruce persecution anxiety, Jean Tinguely demolitions—a harsh, subterranean avant-gardism. The one-off experiment tanked; it was by tapping the historically conscious Youth movement of the following years that Penn would find his audience.
Bonnie and Clyde developed the aesthetic that marked Penn's high-visibility period: slyly accented, harmonica-hootin', harvest-gold-patchwork Americana; ever-poised violence; and an open invitation to apply the story as a flexible allegory for the issues of the day. So, just in time for My Lai, here's Little Big Man (1970), revisiting the Indian Wars through the perspective of Dustin Hoffman's Jack Crabbe, border-jumper of the Cheyenne and white worlds.
Inscribed social commentary increasingly undercuts human motivations. Rather than a people with their own indigenous life, Big Man's Cheyenne are the inverse, the antidote to stifling Western values (see: the ongoing paleface ghostwriting of Chief Seattle), with Dan George's Chief Lodge Skins as the cool, laid-back dad—who'll smoke you up!—that the target audience thought they wanted. Sadly unscreened here is Penn's The Missouri Breaks (1976), a Western-as-capitalist-critique piece shanghaied by Marlon Brando's eccentric bounty hunter trying on brogues, mumus, and buckskin Nudie suits.
Penn's nearest thing to direct, state-of-the-Youth address was his film from an Arlo Guthrie talking blues, Alice's Restaurant (1969), in which Western Massachusetts communalists shrug past bureaucracy (small-town police, draft boards). It compares unfavorably to Greetings, Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up to Me and the Barbara Eden film of Harper Valley P.T.A. Pale, pouchy, distant Guthrie is Penn's least viable protagonist—especially when he's strumming his guitar to "gently" brush off a woman's imploring advances. Retrospectively, Guthrie has deemed the movie a bummer for the very bits where Penn's genius overtakes the dropout romance, like a final post-bacchanal hangover that suggests liberation as an El Dorado dream.
Those closing stanzas of Utopia deferred predict Penn's most tone-perfect film, Night Moves (1975). P.I. Gene Hackman tries to extract a runaway child of the new morality from a free-and-easy Key West/Jimmy Buffet deathtrip. It's a rueful masterpiece, made with deep understanding of how sad it can be to be young and free and how sad it is to carry the baggage of midlife. "Who's winning?" Hackman is asked of the football game he's watching. "Nobody," he replies. "One side is just losing slower than the other."
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