Arthur Penn, 1922–2010

An American auteur's decades-long struggle against the Hollywood machine
by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin  posted September 30, 2010
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

This piece on Arthur Penn, who died on Tuesday at 88, was originally published on Moving Image Source on June 4, 2008, and adapted from the introduction to Arthur Penn Interviews, edited by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin (University Press of Mississippi, November 2008). The Museum's Pinewood Dialogue with Penn can be found here.

Born in Philadelphia in 1922, Penn grew up during the Depression, spending his childhood divided between the city of his birth and, after his parents' divorce in 1925, New York. The dislocation of Penn's home life, coupled with the stigma of being a child of divorce, would have a profound and lasting effect on his psychological and emotional development. Moving among comedy, tragedy, realism, and absurdity (sometimes within the same story), his films address the traumas of childhood and adolescence through characters whose lack of self-evident identity is circumscribed by the impersonal social forces governing their lives.

Penn first entered Hollywood at a time when the studio system was in ruins, still recovering from the historic 1948 Supreme Court ruling that deemed studio control of movie theaters and distribution channels a violation of antitrust laws. It was in this troubled period, at the height of the Hollywood blacklist, that his first film, The Left Handed Gun (1958), starring Paul Newman and adapted from a play by Gore Vidal, was released in America. Playing on the bottom of double bills the film received little notice and quickly vanished from theaters, finding resonance a short time later with a handful of European critics who understood the film for what it was: a brilliantly crafted existential western-one of the first of its kind. "When I read the reviews in France I couldn't believe my eyes because in America no one even saw the film, and certainly no one wrote more than three lines about it," Penn told critic André Labarthe in his first major interview in 1963 for Cahiers du Cinéma. A sparse, grim retelling of the Billy the Kid story, Penn's debut would contain many of his major themes: man's conflicted sense of self, the primacy of the father-son relationship, the rigorous demands of society, the desire for greater personal freedom, the quest for truth, the edifying falsehoods of myth.

Penn's second feature, The Miracle Worker (1962), which he had directed previously on stage and for television, was an artistic and commercial success. But his attitude toward the American film industry-and the intransigent technicians it employed-was deeply hostile by the time of its release. He told Cahiers du Cinéma that "Hollywood just isn't real," adding-with unfortunate prescience-"As far as I can see the place is killing itself. Pretty soon it'll be churning out only big blockbusters and TV series. That's all, no more actual films."

Few American directors are as blunt and hoary as Penn (most of all when it comes to assessing the value of his own work), but if his public statements carry the patina of scorn and envy they also have the substance of truth, particularly when characterizing the seismic shift that took place within Hollywood once corporations began annexing the studios.

In the early '60s the critical and box office success of The Miracle Worker in America boosted Penn's position among the major directors of the time. But his outspoken contempt for the mechanizations of the Hollywood system, coupled with his moral outrage at America's foreign policy in the wake of World War II, put him squarely at odds with an industry with spare use for psychic outlaws. At his outspoken best when dealing squarely with the predicament of the independent artist in forced abeyance to the demands of commerce, Penn would tell the editors of Cahiers in 1965 that filmmaking in Hollywood is "by committee" and that the amount a film costs is directly related to the number of minds involved. As such, "with each additional mind the power of a film is diluted, not strengthened." Penn at the time correctly predicted that the "real developments" in American cinema would come out of the 16mm counter-cinema, though he seemingly never entertained the notion of taking that route himself, instead persevering through the series of injustices that befell him as a studio director.

His unceremonious removal as director of The Train (1963), a growing admiration for European auteur cinema, the critical drubbing of one of his most personal films, Mickey One,(1965) and the editing of The Chase (1966) being taken over by producer Sam Spiegel without his knowledge or consent had made Penn, by the mid-'60s, the ultimate Hollywood outsider (both figuratively and literally: he spent most of his professional filmmaking career in New York and Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Yet it was Penn-whose criticisms of the Hollywood system were as bitter and pointed as any ever lobbed against it-who helped to revive the moribund studio system with the blockbuster success of what is arguably his masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Perhaps no film in the history of American cinema has struck as deep a psychic chord with audiences and critics alike. At the time of its release, Penn's mythic retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde saga, a miasma of youthful beauty, berserk violence, sex, and slapstick comedy, baffled American critics who were unable to make up their minds whether the film was an unmitigated disaster or an unrivaled masterpiece. A generation coming of age in the '60s, however, needed little deliberation. Disgusted by the values of their parents' generation and the worsening crisis in Vietnam, with martial law quickly becoming a viable recourse for quelling political dissent at home and abroad, with the clarion call of revolution being sounded in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe, young people around the world immediately saw Bonnie and Clyde for what it was: a thinly veiled mirroring of their times, one whose prophetic, tragic, message would find its embodiment in the growing civil unrest of the era. "Youngsters today feel powerless in the face of this dehumanized world which is becoming more and more reliant on technology. We don't actually understand youth culture which is the same thing as being afraid of it. It doesn't scare me though," Penn told Yvonne Baby of Le Monde in 1968.

Remarkable in its ability to conjure past, present, and future in its thematic pertinence and Modish stylization of the Depression era, Bonnie and Clyde grew to become a phenomenon not just in the United States but worldwide, giving Penn a notoriety he was not completely prepared for, but one the studios were quick to capitalize on, particularly with regard to the youth market the film helped them locate. As the progenitor of a bold New American Cinema that, up until that point, had been a movement very much on the fringes of commercial moviemaking, Bonnie and Clyde was followed shortly after by Dennis Hopper's anti-authoritarian generational manifesto Easy Rider (1969) and would soon have the studios taking risks on smaller budgeted, personally crafted films by an up-and-coming generation of film-schooled directors, Coppola, Scorsese, and Lucas among them. The film also inadvertently opened the floodgates to the endless stream of violent images that has permeated so much of mainstream cinema since. If the violence in Bonnie and Clyde is rooted in a particularly American pathology, the meretricious violence of the film's descendants would offer all the visceral impact with few of the moral real-world consequences expressed by Penn and his screenwriters.

As an engaged artist and thinker-and an autodidact who described himself to Michel Ciment in 1982 as someone who "never stops learning"-Penn was so affected by the lessons of 1968 that he faced a debilitating crisis of conscience. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the sweeping victory of Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election and the daily horror and brutality of the Vietnam War were a shattering denouement to the utopian idealism of the '60s, one that had many on the Left trying to reckon with these cataclysmic events. Penn would follow Bonnie and Clyde with two comedic tragedies, Alice's Restaurant (1969) and Little Big Man (1970), before taking a five-year hiatus from feature filmmaking altogether.

Penn was stigmatized as a director obsessed with violence, but Alice's Restaurant and Little Big Man have a more pronounced humanist sensibility than any of his earlier films. While the righteous outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were being championed by the radical fringe of the New Left, Penn looked to a group of pacifist, draft-dodging hippies for the inspiration for Alice's Restaurant. The film's pre-electric Dylan vibe, performances by Dust Bowl era progeny Lee Hays, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, and quaint Stockbridge settings all give Alice's Restaurant a decidedly rustic feel in comparison to the garish pop explosiveness of Bonnie and Clyde. Penn portrays the lifestyle of his fugitives from modernity-in their quest to establish a new community divorced from bourgeois morality, with a de-sanctified church serving as their communal home-with a deep and specific sympathy but also with reserved, critical distance. The church, a tabula rasa for Arlo and his friends, becomes for Penn a symbol of personal struggle and conflict that ultimately leads to disillusionment with the Aquarian ethos. "What I'm trying to say," Penn would tell Jan Aghed and Bernard Cohn of Positif, "is that their lives have basically stayed the same, that the choices they made have meant things that are even more difficult for them today. That's really what I wanted this film to express."

Little Big Man, based on Thomas Berger's novel, is an epic re-imagining of the settling of the American West where the roots of American imperialism are explained metaphorically through the saga of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), the lone survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Crabb's tale of Native American genocide is at once an allegory of the Vietnam War and a requiem for the old, worn myths of the American West. In 1971 Penn told L'Express that he took his inspiration from John Ford films such as Cheyenne Autumn, with its sympathetic depiction of the "Indians' bloody march" and the "miserable life they went on to lead." Offering that "American cinema has continually parodied and ridiculed native Indians, depicting them as savage beasts, in order to justify the fact that we wiped them out," Penn concludes that a mythic and heroic account of the settling of the West "might ease some people's consciences but I'm having none of it."

The perennial outsider, vanquished by his critics, then heroically hitting back with a masterstroke: this is what characterizes Penn's first decade in film. When he returned to directing it was with all the hardened cynicism of a battle-weary soldier. Night Moves (1975) turns the Philip Marlowe-styled detective picture on its head, following truth-seeker Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) on a labyrinthine whodunit that leads him on his own dark night of the soul. An allegory of its times, a portrait of a man succumbing to the ennui around him, Night Moves offered faint hope for filmgoers in the post-Watergate era. A mystery that grows in proportion to the moral weakness of its main interlocutor, the film ends in vertigo: a maimed Moseby, endlessly circling the waters on an unmanned boat, totally lost at sea. "Harry Moseby's inability to understand his own problems, to discover his own identity, leads to his inability to recognize that the problem-the case he has been hired to solve-doesn't actually concern him," Penn explained to Jean-Pierre Coursodon in 1977.

By the late '70s, Penn's growing sense of futility in trying to fight Hollywood led him back to the New York theater where he would direct actor George C. Scott in Sly Fox before reuniting with Anne Bancroft in 1977 for the Broadway bio-play Golda. His films The Missouri Breaks (1976) (which Penn would dismissively tell Claire Clouzot was directed with all the vigor of "passionless sex"), Target (1985), and Dead of Winter (1987) were, by Penn's own admission, acts of conscription.

Penn's last major success with critics and audiences was Four Friends (1981). An autobiographical account of screenwriter Steve Tesich's immigration to the United States from Yugoslavia in the late '50s, the film is an elegy to the subsequent decade, though one far different from Alice's Restaurant. Praised at the time of its release for its sensitive portrayal of working class youth coming of age against the backdrop of the civil strife of that era, the film follows the intersecting lives of four childhood friends as they navigate their way through personal relationships and the accompanying pains of young adulthood. Considered by some as one of the best films ever made to document the immigrant experience in America, Four Friends remains the most optimistic of Penn's films, a mature statement about the American dream where individuality is not self-evident but self-realizing: an achievement hard won, inductive, attainable.

In recent years, Penn has returned to theater-what he has called his "true métier". His longstanding relationship with Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio (where he would serve as president for eight years in the '90s) instilled in him a deep sensitivity and appreciation of the actor's craft that would carry over into the cinema. His painterly and balanced style of mise-en-scène, built firmly around the physicality of his actors, never eclipses or diminishes the nuanced and emotive performances that are a hallmark of his films.

Despite Hollywood's disinterest, Penn managed to direct a handful of small, personal projects that saw limited theatrical release in the '80s and '90s, including the cult film Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989) with the titular illusionists and Inside (1996), a compelling drama about the horrors of apartheid. He would also return to direct for television in the ensuing years-where his son Matthew had become a successful producer and director-for the popular crime drama Law & Order, the family drama The Portrait (1993) with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, and an episode of his friend Sidney Lumet's television series 100 Centre Street.

Now 85, the recipient of numerous lifetime achievement awards and the subject of international retrospectives, Penn remains the most outspoken and uncompromising of the post-World War II generation of directors to emerge from the live television era. His best work can be said to preserve an entire era under glass, while his least noteworthy films-still always interesting-speak more to the state of the industry in which they were produced than to any deficiencies on the part of their director. He remains our greatest living director in the tradition of John Ford, his films the fulcrum of a life dedicated to craft and moral vision.

Adapted from the introduction to Arthur Penn Interviews, edited by Michael Chaiken and Paul Cronin (University Press of Mississippi, November 2008) 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Warner Bros. and Photofest
Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Arthur Penn on the set of his film Bonnie and Clyde


Michael Chaiken is a film programmer and contributor to Film Comment magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.

More articles by Michael Chaiken

Paul Cronin is a documentary filmmaker and the author of several books including Herzog On Herzog (Faber and Faber, 2002).

More articles by Paul Cronin