Trace that pornoviolence back to 'Bonnie and Clyde'

David R. Boldt

August 04, 1993|By David R. Boldt

THE current society-wide awakening to the pernicious effects of what Tom Wolfe has termed "pornoviolence" on television and in the movies raises a number of questions, such as, "What took us so long?"

And, "Where did we go wrong?"

I have a theory on the latter that may, in turn, possibly shed some light on the former. Specifically, I think we went wrong with the release of "Bonnie and Clyde" 26 years ago, in August of 1967.

I don't have a lot of convincing research to back this up. Certainly I had no clear realization when it first came out that "Bonnie and Clyde" was the first in a wave of movies that came to the screen immediately after Hollywood's self-policing apparatus was dismantled in 1966, intent on exploring the outer reaches of the envelope in terms of depicting violence and sex.

And I had no idea that 1967 would be the year cited by chroniclers of Hollywood as the year in which the movie industry lost its hold on the American mass audience. Average weekly attendance at movies dropped from 38 million in 1966 to just under 18 million in 1967 -- and never really came back.

All I knew the first time I saw it was that "Bonnie and Clyde" was a malignantly manipulative movie -- and that all the other people in the theater around me seemed to be eating it up. I can actually recall thinking to myself at the time, "This is it. We've had it."

And I still do.

The movie was a sensation back then. Time magazine called it "the movie of the decade," and it was nominated for 10 Oscars that year (though it won only two relatively minor awards).

It was the story of two Depression-era bank robbers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, who set off on a crime spree through the Middle West for fun and profit. "We're Bonnie and Clyde," they informed strangers. "We rob banks."

Aside from the tone of cheerful amorality, there is the gore. When a bank teller makes the tactical error of hopping on the running board of Bonnie and Clyde's getaway car, Clyde shoots him in the face -- and the camera freezes the explosion of blood.

The dead teller then -- literally -- disappears from the screen and one never hears again about the consequences of his death, or the deaths of any of the dozens of other victims the Barrow gang dispatches. The entire film is told from the point of view of the criminals.

The motif is simple. First, a member of the gang is depicted in as cloyingly sympathetic a scene as possible -- playing parlor games, bickering over domestic matters, eating a chicken dinner, discussing his or her troubled youth. (In one particularly touching episode, filmed with gauzy softness, the gang has a sun-drenched picnic with Bonnie's poor old mom.)

Then, in the next scene, that member for whom the greatest sympathy has been built is blown to kingdom come (or permanently maimed) by the unseen forces of The System.

In the climax of the film, Bonnie and Clyde are shown happily sharing an apple as they motor back to their hideout, while conversing about the possibility of perhaps going straight.

Alas, it is not to be. At this point the two young innocents are sneakily ambushed by the Texas Rangers, who machine gun them from behind bushes, stitching their youthful bodies with bullet holes (signified by sequentially exploding bags of blood) as the bodies writhe on the killing ground "in slow motion."

Neat, huh?

Indeed, what is so interesting about the movie is not that it was so bad, but that it was so "good" -- at least in a technical sense. The film catapulted upward the careers of its main stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. It gave an even bigger boost to Mr. Beatty's efforts to become a producer.

The reaction of critics to the film was fascinating. Some, such as Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, simply adored it. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, however, clearly had not gotten the word.

He wrote that "Bonnie and Clyde" was "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick that treats the depredations of that sleazy pair as though they were full of fun and frolic." Later that year the Times would suggest that it might be time for Mr. Crowther to retire, and he did.

Perhaps the most interesting case was that of Newsweek critic Joseph Morgenstern, who initially panned the film as "a squalid shoot 'em up for the moron trade" after watching it in the Warner Brothers screening room with Warren Beatty sitting next to him trying to read his notes.

But then Mr. Morgenstern went to see the film with his wife at their local theater in Manhattan. "People were enraptured," he recalls. "I got a cold chill. I realized that I had really missed it."

He went into Newsweek the next Monday and asked to write a second review, in which he castigated himself for having been "grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate" in his first review.

His about-face did not appear fast enough, however, to save him from Ms. Kael's scorn. "You really missed the boat on 'Bonnie and Clyde,'" she informed him when they met for dinner after his first review had appeared.

Much was written about the sensitive ways in which the film had dealt with then-to-fore forbidden sexual themes. And, true enough, Bonnie's efforts to rescue Clyde from the heartbreak of impotence are worthy of a Florence Nightingale. The woman was willing to try "anything."

But my opinion, in case there's any doubt, is that Mr. Morgenstern was right the first time. "Bonnie and Clyde" is trash. The only error in his initial analysis was failing to realize that people other than morons might also find it thrilling, if afforded the opportunity under socially acceptable circumstances, to watch people getting their heads blown off.

Many theories have been put forward to explain why people of such talent would make such movies, and why people of supposedly discerning taste would be so eager to praise them. My own theory tends to be rather simple. I think they're scum.

David Boldt is editor of the editorial page at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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