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'Bonnie and Clyde' -- that's full throttle

September 26, 2003|Gene Sullivan | Newsday

Lately, I've found that the only way to get my teenage son focused on a movie older than his 13 years is to make a social occasion out of it. You know, have some of the neighbors over for dinner along with one or two of their own teenagers and then, after the meal, pick out a DVD from the archives.

So one such night this summer, I mixed the mango ice cream dessert with a showing of "Bonnie and Clyde." The Beyonce and Jay-Z single, " '03 Bonnie and Clyde," made my son curious about the notorious 1967 Arthur Penn film about the 1930s Texas couple who, paraphrasing that catchy marketing slogan, were young, in love and killed people. He didn't know much other than its title.

Nevertheless, there was no problem getting him focused. And he remained focused after Faye Dunaway's Bonnie and Warren Beatty's Clyde were shredded in slow motion by lawmen's bullets. He was focused on the closing credits. He was even focused at the blank gray screen over which a melancholy soundtrack continued to tinkle away. He looked as if he couldn't quite believe what he'd just seen.

Understand the context: This was amid a summer in which every Hollywood product seemed made for him and his middle-school friends. Whether it was stuff he liked ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "S.W.A.T.") or stuff he didn't ("Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life"), it all seemed of a hyperbolic, bombastic whole. Most, if not all, of the violence in those films hardly seemed more realistic than the bang-and-bop of an animated cartoon.

Nevertheless, something about "Bonnie and Clyde" pierced through the pop-cultural din in my son's head. He was still trying to figure out what it was hours after the movie ended. Then, later that night, he remembered a routine about old Raid commercials from one of my Robert Klein comedy albums. "It's exactly like what he said about the bugs in those cartoon ads," he told me. "They make me love them. And then, they kill them."

Which was pretty much what Pauline Kael had written decades ago in her essay about "Bonnie and Clyde" that established both the movie's reputation and hers. In a celebrated conclusion, Kael speculated that what upset people so much about this "entertaining movie" was that "in making us care about the robber-lovers, [the film] puts the sting back into death."

Once again, one must understand the context. By the late 1960s, most Hollywood product had settled into a glossy blandness typified by lugubrious big-screen spectacles aimed at getting audiences away from their TV sets.

"Bonnie and Clyde," inspired in equal measure by the hip revisionism of 1960s French New Wave cinema and the raw determinism of 1930s American gangster melodramas, was a stealth missile in this cultural environment. It came on like a raucous, sexy and darkly comic genre piece and then blew away one's expectations with violence that made you feel its effect. That first shooting -- remember the guy with the glasses Clyde shot in the face? -- made you aware that this was not the kind of anonymous, retributive gunplay where all you saw were a few puffs of smoke in someone's chest. This movie was going to hurt. And, judging from my son's reaction, it still does.

I don't mean to suggest that "Bonnie and Clyde" will work on all teenagers in the same way -- though it's worth noting that Penn's movie holds up well even for those of us old enough to have seen it during the Vietnam War era. But after a summer of lugubrious big-screen spectacles in which even the most graphic violence was presented in gratuitous, blandly cathartic fashion, it is bracing to see how this relatively modest film can still unsettle emotions and bollix expectations.

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