An old lady once told me, “You never know what a picture meant, what it really meant” — and her great opal eyes widened to show how vast and heady a thing meaning might be — “unless you saw it the weekend it opened.”
As a principle, it’s as intriguing as it is debatable, but I was respectful of what she said, not just because of how steady and luminous she was (she was about 83), or even because she was Lillian Gish. We were talking about D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which was already very hard to take in 1979, when we talked, and which becomes increasingly problematic as the years pass. I couldn’t tell Lillian Gish that Birth of a Nation was dangerous hogwash. I daresay she knew that line of argument as early as 1915. She put her cold hand on mine and she said, “Garbo when she began, Mr. Griffith in 1915 — they drove people mad. That’s what films can do. But they’ll never drive you mad if you see them years later.”
I think that is so, and I believe it is a condition of moviegoing that we overlook at our peril. I know, for myself, that whereas No Country for Old Men stunned me in its first weekend, by the time it won Best Picture I had come to feel what a bleak trick it is. But I find myself still close to tears with Bonnie and Clyde, even though I know it shot for shot, and I’m not sure now whether I am moved by Warren and Faye, by the idea of cinema, or by the bloodshot summer of 1967. I cannot forget that when the picture opened (for me) in London that August, I saw it day after day, leaving the job I dreaded and telling myself that my life had to change, even if I ended up shot to pieces with those two shampooed darlings. After all, death was their best moment; it was when they looked in each other’s eyes with rapture and knew that machine-gun bullets were the trigger for the shuddering orgasm they longed for.
It’s still an ending that leaves you hushed, not just because of what may have been the fate of two very homely Texan outlaws on May 23, 1934, but because of the power that movies can have. The reason I insist on August 1967, in a London that was getting ready to swing is because of the uncanny way in which Bonnie and Clyde collapsed time: Everything looked like 1934, as far as spiffy art direction and costumes could get it, but all of it — starting with the staggering self-love in the faces of Beatty and Dunaway — began with 1967 and the way you (or I) could smell the fuse burning. The fuse? Buddhist priests setting fire to themselves in Vietnam. The mounting casualties in that jungle war, and the TV coverage of it. Race riots in so many American cities. The Six-Day War. China’s first hydrogen bomb. The anguish on LBJ’s face; the mask of McNamara. Respectable women getting close to naked on the streets. The loss of control. And the way any hooligan could stand up and shout “Me!” and expect to be heard for a few minutes. Under the beguiling veil of a Warner Bros. gangster film — a rural gangster film, please note — the new Warners had somehow made a picture that was as true to the jittery, destructive-expressive urges in the London starting to swing as Mick Jagger’s sneer or the Mary Quant skirts that went up every couple of months.
Of course, the new Warners didn’t know where they were at. In part, that was because by 1967 the world had pretty well given up on movie studios as powerhouses. Jack Warner was still alive and he was driven bananas by Bonnie and Clyde — the dailies, the rough cut, the finished film — so that the marketing department was at a loss. But in 1967, in London, as a film buff, I went to see it as the new Arthur Penn film — something in the tradition of The Left Handed Gun, The Miracle Worker, Mickey One and The Chase. And the picture easily fit, in that it understood the ambiguity of violence serving as self-expression, like that great line in The Miracle Worker: “The room’s a wreck, but she folded her napkin.”
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