A Mess o’ Flowers

Was talking to my first year students about editing. Showed them a robbery scene from BONNIE AND CLYDE. Probably didn’t say as much as I could’ve, but the clip was well received, and the first question, from two separate sources at once, was “What’s the name of that film again?” because they immediately wanted to SEE the whole thing.

Which has to be good. And if you’re shocked that they didn’t already know it, remember they’re young, they haven’t had the chance to see everything.

(If you want to get angry at anyone, the BBC and Channel 4 would be suitable targets for their willfully falling down on the job of introducing their audience to great cinema.)

I introduced the film’s stars with their names and the words “And the Oscar goes to…” because that is likely to remain the principal recognition factor for those actors for a little while, but they WILL live it down…

Why this scene? Well, Dede Allen’s cutting of the robbery itself is masterful, with the tautness of each movement, the sparse soundtrack a series of steps and clicks and thuds with dead air between, creating a sense of a tense but very METHODICAL operation being undertaken.

(Gene Hackman was recognised as someone who was grumpy to Wes Anderson.)

And then the car chase — the music being an existing recording rather than a specially made score, simply dropped into place and cut in and out of as required. The fast-and-loose continuity, designed to get a sense of life and jeopardy and velocity into the ponderous movements of aged vehicles. I didn’t have to point out the moment when one camera operator jerks sideways as a jalopy gets a little TOO close for comfort (Objects in Wide Angle Lens May Be Closer Than They Appear).

And the recklessly bold interruption of the chase with cutaways to the bank where witnesses are being interviewed by the papers: sudden silent static shots interrupting the flow of the chase with TOTAL RUDENESS, bringing things to a momentary standstill, seemingly slamming the brakes on every aspect of the tone and pace the sequence is otherwise trying to achieve. And yet, it’s absolutely right. Because the filmmakers have decided, for the sake of the story, that robbing banks is exciting and fun. And the bank scenes are hilarious.

“There I wuz, staring into the face of DEATH.”

“All I can say is, they did right by me, an’ I’m bringin’ me a mess o’ flowers to their funeral.”

By the second interruption, it’s no longer an interruption but part of the peculiar rhythm of the piece, which behaves like a game of musical chairs. The brutal treatment of the music is probably the main survival of the early notion of Jean-Luc Godard directing the picture.

9 Responses to “A Mess o’ Flowers”

  1. I don’t think it’s surprising that Bonnie and Clyde’s light has dimmed. Remember that it’s a movie that’s at this point fifty years old, which means that it is as remote to contemporary audiences as a lot of classic films and silent films were to many people in that time and until the 90s. I mean Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List are celebrating 25 years, next year will be 25 years of Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. And Scorsese’s Age of Innocence is getting a 25th anniversary Criterion release.

    The so-called New Hollywood now seems like an epilogue to the Golden Age rather than something separate and new. And at this point it’s about as remote.

  2. Quite true about it being remote. Back in 1967 “Bonnie and Clyde” played of its audiences familiarity with classic gangster films — the best of which were produced by Warner Bros. as was “B & C.” The comic giddiness of much of the film, particularly the bank robberies, was an affront to the status quo represented by Bosley Crowther of the NYT who attacked the film relentlessly. This giddiness is exactly while Pauline Kael loved it so much — especially when it was wed to violence that overwhelms the film’ second half,

    Incidentally “B & C” is the start of films trafficking in period detail (eg. the costumes, the road signs, etc.) “Inside Daisy Clover” shot the year before is set in the 30’s but doesn’t evoke it in sets or costumes at all.

  3. Although all the stars are still alive. What impressed me is that it connected with the students in a way that the old-old one’s didn’t, at least to the same degree.

    Annoyed I didn’t get as far as Peckinpah but maybe we’ll carry on and do that next time.

  4. It’s amazing to me when I see something like Party Girl or Love Me or Leave Me and they make a vague stab at period with maybe the correct cars, but everything else is blatantly wrong. And the directors had lived through those periods!

    Yet westerns didn’t feature modern dress. It was only the twentieth century that got treated as a single block of contemporary style.

    Just reading Mazursky’s biography and he credits B&C designer Theodora Van Runkle with making extremely potent hash brownies.

  5. Bonnie and Clyde along with The Conformist set the stage for the 70s period film I think. Think of films as diverse as The Godfather films, Fassbinder’s Despair, Losey’s M. Klein, The Serpent’s Egg, Stavisky, Chinatown. All of them I think are based on the idea that it’s set in a past during which movies existed but it contained a reality that wasn’t there in the movies. And many of the films were made by people who still remembered that old unrepresented past or grew up around people who did. Like Resnais was a kid during the 30s (as was Rohmer whose TRIPLE AGENT really feels like a 70s period film even if it was made in the 2000s).

  6. Gitt Magrini’s costumes for Il Conformista are magnificent, and part of the process where Bertolucci, Scarfiotti and Storaro looked at the art and films of the period to distill its essence.

    Van Runkle’s great work on B&C resulted likewise in costumes that looked cool — and became fashionable — in 1967, without being inappropriate for 1933.

    At the same time, while films set in older periods went all-out to create a period feel recognizable to the audience (the gay nineties demanded lots of frills, so was WWI the cut-off point for accuracy?), the hair and make-up department still didn’t give a damn, so you have Julie Christie’s weird hybrid look in Zhivago, or the many fifties movies where Tony Curtis’ quiff would accompany him oto the middle ages.

  7. John Warthen Says:

    No one has mentioned how movie-makers have made cigarettes into automatic signifiers of Back Then. The lush series BABYLON BERLIN invests hugely in cars/clothes/costumes emblematic of 1929– even the actors’ complexions have been toned down for period– but its central image is of 2-3 characters in peril puffing away even as their lives are endangered.
    Easy to like a series where every major character gets at least one manic period dance scene.

  8. David is right about hair and make up remaining anachronistic. This is also evident in television westerns, where almost everything feels right except for the actresses eyelashes and hairdos. Younger actors also got a pass on period hair.

  9. Hair and makeup HAVE improved more recently, but perhaps not apace with everything else.

    Cigarettes are now automatically period, it seems, yes. And pipes, cigars and cigarette holders are Beyond Quaint.

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