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Paving the Way
The growing mass audience has been prepared for change and experiment both by life and art. It has seen and accepted the questioning of moral traditions, the demythologizing of ideals, the pulverizing of esthetic principles in abstract painting, atonal music and the experimental novel. Beyond that, oddly enough, younger moviemen credit television with a major role in paving the way for acceptance of the new in films.
"TV has changed the world by changing people's attitudes," says Polish director Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water). "When they are born with a TV set in their room well you can't fool them anymore." Or at least, it might be added, not in the same way. Director Richard Lester, who got his start on TV, believes that television's abrupt leap from news about Viet Nam to Corner Pyle to toothpaste ads expands people's vision. "TV is best at those sudden shifts of reality. TV, not Last Year at Marienbad, made the audience notice them for the first time."
Undeniably, part of the scandal and success of Bonnie and Clyde stems from its creative use of what has always been a good box-office draw: violence. But what matters most about Bonnie and Clyde is the new freedom of its style, expressed not so much by camera trickery as by its yoking of disparate elements into a coherent artistic whole the creation of unity from in congruity. Blending humor and horror, it draws the audience in sympathy toward its antiheroes. It is, at the same time, a commentary on the mindless daily violence of the American '60s and an esthetic evocation of the past. Yet it observes the '30s not as lived but as remembered, the perspective rippled by the years to show that there are mirages of time as well as space. The nostalgic Technicolor romanticism alters reality, distorting it as a straight stick under water appears to be bent.
The story has its basis in fact. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two veal-faced wrongos who rode out of Texas during the Depression, killing and plundering for fun and profit. The constabulary bushwacked them in May 1934 near Arcadia, La., firing a thousand rounds into the fugitives and their 1934 Ford De Luxe, which 18 years later was still touring auto showrooms as a ghoulish curio. On their own turf, Bonnie and Clyde passed from the front page into folklore; elsewhere, they were relegated to Sunday-supplement features, colorful figures of the gangland era. It is a measure of the movie's excellence that it has transformed those unlikely, unlikable criminals into the leading characters of an epic folk opera.
Bonnie, played by Faye Dunaway, is first glimpsed naked, a sensual Erskine Caldwell backwoods beauty imprisoned by her hot, airless room. Clyde, the jaunty, vacant car thief, played by Warren Beatty, offers her passage out of the Dust Bowl, with his gun as her ticket. To her dismay, she discovers that he is impotent. "Your advertising is just dandy," sneers Bonnie, after their first no-love session. "Folks'd never guess you don't have a thing to sell." Yet Clyde does have a salable commodity: movement in a time of inertia, elation in the midst of depression.