Artists like Arthur Penn are the reason I run this site. As a film nerd, I get jollies from discovering lesser-known films or hidden gems; I’ll sift through a dozen Targets for one Mickey One. Unfortunately, I risk paying for my search in daily page views. It’s risky to write about a name with no pop. Jim Henson, Stanley Kubrick, and James Bond are all SEO-friendly names. Five months on Arthur Penn? Pfffffft.
Thankfully, my numbers didn’t shrink during the Penn Project and may have even grown. My goal was to make Arthur Penn’s case for those unfamiliar with his work, and it appears as if I may have done that, at least in some tiny way. Hopefully my readers who haven’t checked out Penn’s catalog will take a chance now. It’s never been easier to discover someone new. As of today, three Penn films are available on Instant Netflix: Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, and Night Moves. All you have to do is CLICK.
Now that I’m finished with the Arthur Penn Project and can see the scope of it, I realize how sad a story it truly is. I don’t mean that we should feel bad for Penn; he seemed happy enough and lived an amazing life. It’s just disappointing to see a man whose place in history is denied. The New Hollywood movement of Coppola, Malick, Altman, et al, didn’t manifest from nowhere. It stood on the shoulders of what came before. Specifically, it stood on Penn’s shoulders. No amount of late-career flopping can take that away.
So as we close the book on Penn, let’s take stock of his legacy.
Arthur Penn brought the French New Wave to America. Maybe that’s not a big deal to you—and I received several comments over the course of the project that said as much—so here’s something that should be. First, if you take a look at American movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and early 60s, you’ll spot plenty of obvious differences, from technical advancements to content. But what you won’t find in surplus is variation, at least not in visual style. The studio system was exactly that—a system, a factory method of producing art. Men (always men) succeeded if they thrived within the system, men such as Michael Curtiz who never had a strong visual look, but who knew how to get the right shot from the right actors at the right time and thus produced a library of classics. But the films of the late 1960s and leading into the 1970s are radically different precisely because directors like Penn embraced the New Wave. Out went the too-perfect films off the factory line and in came movies that used editing to tell stories, shifted tones and styles jarringly, and redefined what a movie could be. Even if New Wave isn’t your thing, the films of New Hollywood don’t exist without it, and Penn helped make that happen by seeing the writing on the wall and accepting it. Not bad for a man who cut his teeth on television, the home of no-nonsense, get-the-shot filmmaking.
Arthur Penn helped topple the Hays Code. The Hays Code was Hollywood’s self-imposed system of censorship that made sure couples never slept in the same bed, murders always happened off screen, and crime never paid. The Code literally shaped reality for generations of movie-goers who couldn’t conceive of a story in which the bad guy didn’t suffer for his schemes or where sex happened outside of marriage. The Code was already on life support by 1968, an inevitable decline that began when the studios lost control of the theatres in 1948. Penn didn’t kill the Code, but he hastened its death by showing the studios a way forward without it. Penn proved that violent films could be art, and the new youth Baby Boomer audience had dollars to spend on mayhem.
Arthur Penn was an auteur. This might be a controversial point for critics who never shined to Penn’s visuals, but what’s the counter-argument? OK, Penn almost never took a writing credit on his films, but he was intimately involved with the rewrite process for each. Yes, Penn popped out a bunch of real clunkers late in his career, but even those films have a remarkable uniformity in theme and tone. Penn’s work is of a piece, concerned with outcasts and identity and lost children looking for surrogate parents. Penn’s lost characters range from Billy the Kid to Arlo Guthrie to Bonnie, Clyde, and all Four Friends.
I recently watched a VHS copy of The Portrait, a schmaltzy 1993 TV movie directed by Penn. (I mentioned it briefly way back on the kickoff post for this Project.) It’s an overwrought, uneven little nugget starring Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck, and Peck’s real-life daughter, Cecilia, as a weird dysfunctional family. Basically, Cecilia plays a painter about to get famous, but she needs to finish a portrait of her mother and father. She believes her parents don’t care that much about her or her career, and the twist is that, yeah, they kind of don’t. Peck and Bacall are so wrapped up with themselves and with being in love after decades of marriage that they won’t sit still for the portrait and even casually remark that they never really wanted a child. They come around, though, sit for the portrait, and attend her show.
So, what do we have here? There’s a girl with no clear role in her family and no identity for herself. In fact, her parents are assassinating her identity by mocking her like a couple of AARP shitheads. It’s an odd script, but even so, it’s right in Penn’s wheelhouse.
Penn’s own search for identity was the guiding narrative of his life. We’re talking about a man from a broken home who spent years changing houses and schools like we change socks, a man who lived with his father from age 14, but never knew him. Penn’s upbringing took its toll; he referred to himself as “emotionally unavailable” for his own children.
Penn poured his unresolved issues into his work—he claimed his themes were unintentional, but admitted they were there. He found success because just as Penn was struggling with his identity, so was his audience. Penn’s work resonated in the 60s in a way that it simply didn’t in the hangover of the 70s or the me-me-me 80s, and although he found critical success here and there, his work was never the same after 1970 and his long hiatus. Penn was a man of his time, and time only moves on.
Penn’s greatest work is the result of synergy with man, material, and moment. He was good enough at finding that synergy to succeed at every medium he attempted. He was a success in film. He was a success in TV. He was a success in theatre, his first love. As a man of history, Penn played his role. He fought in wars, advised Presidents, and shifted the axis of an art form. What he did for film cannot be measured. As an artist, Penn snuck into the studio after hours, kicked over the furniture, and left the door unlocked for others. The real revolution would soon begin, and although it wasn’t Penn’s fate to join it, he was there. It was his show. It was always his show.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
9. Inside (1996)
8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
7. The Chase (1966)
6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)
4. Mickey One (1965)
3. The Miracle Worker (1962)
2. Little Big Man (1970)
1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)