‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ Pauline Kael, and the Essay That Changed Film Criticism

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Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Bonnie and Clyde, a nice round number of a milestone that will presumably be commemorated by retrospectives and analyses of the film – and for good reason. It was, most agree, the starter pistol for the “New Hollywood” movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (The Graduate followed later that year), and a film embedded with many of the elements we identify with that moment: a demystification of classic genre movies, with an anti-authoritarian spirit and a formal approach that leaned experimental, coupled with a script that took full advantage of the new freedom in subject matter permitted by the shedding of the Hays Code of film censorship.

It’s a brilliant movie, and there’s a great story behind it, which you should read all about. This piece is not about the movie; it’s about a review of it, a review that was, it could be argued, as revolutionary to the craft of film criticism as Bonnie and Clyde was to the craft of film. It was written by Pauline Kael, and it ran in the October 21, 1967 issue of The New Yorker.

The vastness of the window between the picture’s release in New York and its review in the city’s favorite magazine is itself an oddity; can you imagine The New Yorker devoting several pages of this week’s issue to a lengthy defense of, say, It Comes at Night? (Contrary to the current climate, in which reviews will sometimes appear weeks before a film’s release, Kael would regularly devote her space to films that were already in theaters – she preferred seeing them with general audiences than at advance screenings.) But the film’s journey had already been more than a little bumpy. Jack Warner, old-school head of distributor Warner Brothers, reportedly hated Bonnie and Clyde, and initially gave it only the spottiest of releases; he only agreed to go wide when star Warren Beatty, also the film’s producer, threatened to sue the studio. Warner relented, perhaps just to prove Beatty wrong, and its early reviews (including pans from Variety’s Dave Kaufman and the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther) seemed to suggest the mogul was right.

Pauline Kael wasn’t hearing it. She considered Bonnie and Clyde to be the most exciting American movie in years, and wanted to shout it from the rooftops; trouble was, there were precious few rooftops left for her. She had spent the early part of the decade freelancing for a variety of outlets, large and small, and collected those pieces into a book, I Lost it at the Movies, which had sold well (as far as those things sold). But she’d bounced from one regular film critic gig to another, pin-balling from Life to McCall’s to The New Republic, and found each of them exhausting – the battles with editors over length, tone, and vernacular, the outcry from readers over her divisive picks and pans. (Her scorching takedown of The Sound of Music was reportedly the last straw at McCall’s.)

She was on her way out the door at TNR when she penned a lengthy (roughly seven thousand words) essay on Bonnie and Clyde, which the magazine politely declined. Too long, they told her. Her agent, Robert Mills, reached out to William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker; they had published a more free-form Kael essay, “Movies on Television,” earlier that summer. Maybe he’d like to take a look? Shawn ran the Bonnie & Clyde piece, and film criticism would never be the same.

Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate,” she wrote. “The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.” And with that, she’s off and running, not only drawing us in with the breathless urgency of her praise, but vibing on what would become one of her signature preoccupations: the wild notion that this commoner’s entertainment could also be considered art, even when functioning outside the rigid confines of the “art film.”

She tackles this idea sideways, in considering and refuting the key argument of the film’s detractors (chief among them, Crowther at the Times): its violence. “To ask why people react so angrily to the best movies and have so little negative reaction to poor ones is to imply that they are so unused to the experience of art in movies that they fight it,” she surmises, and expands upon that notion thus:

Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

These were fairly radical notions at the time (for an American critic, anyway), that a popular art form like film should not only be provocative, but was better for it – and at the very least, it was a radical idea for the tony pages of the New Yorker. But the film’s volatile relationship with its audience, how it turns our expectations and reactions (to violence, to sexuality, and especially to humor) back on its viewers, make for both the essay’s most compelling ideas, and its most astonishing writing. To wit:

Bonnie and Clyde keeps the audience in a kind of eager, nervous imbalance—it holds our attention by throwing our disbelief back in our faces. To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at Bonnie and Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they’re not stooges—that they appreciate the joke—when they catch the first bullet right in the face. The movie keeps them off balance to the end… Instead of the movie spoof, which tells the audience that it doesn’t need to feel or care, that it’s all just in fun, that “we were only kidding,” Bonnie and Clyde disrupts us with “And you thought we were only kidding.”

Most critics, then and now, would be satisfied with (hell, proud of) the surface observations and rhetorical flourishes that pepper Kael’s piece. But she drills down on these insights, at the hard truths beneath them. So it’s one thing to praise how director Arthur Penn and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton use dark humor as ironic counterpoint; it’s another to note, “Children of peddlers and hod carriers don’t feel at home in tragedy; we are used to failure. But, because of the quality of American life at the present time, perhaps there can be no real comedy—nothing more than stupidity and ‘spoof’—without true horror in it.”

But her wisest words come in addressing the film’s violence, in all its intensity and explicitness, throughout the duo’s crime spree but particularly in the oft-imitated, even-more-oft-clipped climax, in which our antiheroes are wiped out in a blaze of bullets, dozens of them, hundreds even, a bloodbath the likes of which hadn’t been seen this side of Herschell Gordon Lewis. “People also feel uncomfortable about the violence,” she wrote. “And here I think they’re wrong. That is to say, they should feel uncomfortable, but this isn’t an argument against the movie.” And here, she brings it back to the comic element (the unification of ideas in this piece is sort of astounding):

But the whole point of Bonnie and Clyde is to rub our noses in it, to make us pay our dues for laughing. The dirty reality of death—not suggestions but blood and holes—is necessary… Suddenly, in the last few years, our view of the world has gone beyond “good taste.” Tasteful suggestions of violence would at this point be a more grotesque form of comedy than Bonnie and Clyde attempts. Bonnie and Clyde needs violence; violence is its meaning.

And here’s what’s really amazing: she then goes out of her way to stick up for the likes of, well, Herschell Gordon Lewis. “We must also defend the legal rights of those film-makers who use violence to sell tickets,” she notes, “for it is not the province of the law to decide that one man is an artist and another man a no-talent.” Jot that last part down and put it up somewhere prominent; it keeps coming up.

That’s the spirit of this thing – it’s both laser-focused and wide-ranging, making room for film history (in particular, a mini-lesson on the French New Wave, which was beginning to influence the American film industry that had influenced it), an argument against the idea of fealty to “historical accuracy,” some objections to the diminished acknowledgment of the screenwriter (“unmentionable men who do what the directors are glorified for”), a brief summary of recent black comedy, and an acknowledgment of the artistry of the editing (a quality rarely even mentioned in contemporary reviews). Oh, and for fun, she makes some guesses about the film’s behind-the-scenes struggles that turned out to be spot-on (“I’d guess that Newman and Benton, whose Bonnie seems to owe so much to Catherine in Jules and Jim, had more interesting ideas originally about Bonnie’s and Clyde’s (and maybe C.W.’s) sex lives”).

Yet perhaps most astonishingly (and in spite of its reputation), this is not an outright rave. For all her proclamations of the picture’s greatness, Kael devotes plenty of ink to “its compromises and its failures” and notes its “many poorly directed scenes,” calling director Penn “a little clumsy and rather too fancy; he’s too much interested in being cinematically creative and artistic to know when to trust the script.” She dings most of Beatty’s previous acting work while pinpointing the specific sprung timing that makes him so interesting here (“we seem to be watching him think out his next move”), dismisses much of Dunaway’s performance entirely (“She has some talent, but she comes on too strong; she makes one conscious that she’s a willing worker, but she doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing—rather like Bonnie in her attempts to overcome Clyde’s sexual difficulties”), and notes that “several of the other players—though they are very good—needed a tighter rein.”

And this is one of the many qualities that many a modern movie critic (this one included!) could learn from Kael: the idea of jettisoning the rotten/fresh, thumbs up/thumbs down binary, in which it seems every movie of note gets either a rhapsodic rave or a furious smackdown, because those are the reviews that are easiest to summarize in a social media post, and thus the most shareable. Kael’s work was a lot of things, but it was never simple; she grappled with big ideas, ongoing questions about the place of the artist, the audience, and the critic (and their relationship to each other), and even movies she loved had their flaws, and even those she hated might have a good performance, or even a good line, that was worth singling out.

The impact of the Bonnie & Clyde piece on American film criticism was profound – it proposed a new way of looking at and thinking about movies, and a new way of writing about them. There had been great film critics before Kael: James Agee and Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson and her occasional rival Andrew Sarris. But few, if any, had written with her passion and depth, with her daring and wit and unpredictability. So even when the specifics are disputable – when she’s slagging a great movie like Raging Bull or inexplicably boosting an unexceptional one like The Fury – her work is carried aloft by the fierce energy and freight-train momentum of her prose, and the unassailable honesty of her perspective.

She wrote not from the elevated perch of the New Yorker critic, but from the seat next to yours. Her reviews are almost always written in first person plural, with frequent references to “us” and “we,” in lines like “we suck in our breath; we do not dare to laugh” and the aforementioned “Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood.” She addressed us as she saw us, as fellow moviegoers, compatriots in the dark, presumably looking for the same things she was: craftsmanship, humanity, truth, or (failing all that, or perhaps in addition to it) a good time. Her reviews always seem to operate under the assumption that her readership is at least as smart as she is. We usually weren’t, but if you read enough of her work, you might get closer.



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