What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Interesting Emendations: Pauline Kael's "Bonnie and Clyde"

Reading Richard Brody’s “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” list ("The Top Ten,", May 15, 2012), I found myself considering what my own list might look like. One film I’d definitely include is Arthur Penn’s great Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Rereading Pauline Kael’s classic review of it (“Bonnie and Clyde,” The New Yorker, October 21, 1967), I was intrigued by the line, “There is a kind of American poetry in a stickup gang seen chasing across the bedraggled backdrop of the Depression (as true in its way as Nabokov’s vision of Humbert Humbert and Lolita in the cross-country world of motels) – as if crime were the only activity in a country stupefied by poverty.” It’s an inspired sentence, containing a number of Kael’s signature moves: praise in terms of poetry, literary reference, use of parenthesis. Interestingly, she deploys this line to set up a significant criticism of Penn’s direction:

But Arthur Penn doesn’t quite have the toughness of mind to know it; its not what he means by poetry. His squatters’-jungle scene is too ‘eloquent,’ like a poster making an appeal, and the Parker-family-reunion sequence is poetic in the gauzy mode. He makes the sequence a fancy lyric interlude, like a number in a musical (Funny Face, to be exact); it’s too ‘imaginative’ – a literal dust bowl, as thoroughly becalmed as Sleeping Beauty’s garden. The movie becomes dreamy-soft where it should be hard (and hard-edged).

This passage not only pinpoints one of Bonnie and Clyde’s few weaknesses, it also illuminates Kael’s notion of cinematic poetry. One of her favorite expressions of movie love was to call a film “poetry.” For example:

La Grande Illusion is poetry” (“Retrospective Reviews: Movies Remembered with Pleasure,” I Lost it at the Movies, 1965)

“Yet it’s an astonishing piece of work, an uneasy mixture of violent pulp and grandiosity, with an enraptured view of common life – poetry of the commonplace” (“The God-Bless-America Symphony,” When the Lights Go Down, 1980)

“It’s a traumatic poem of violence” (“The Wild Bunch,” 5001 Nights at the Movies, 1991)

“An amazingly high-strung, feverishly poetic movie about Cain and Abel as American brothers living on a lettuce farm in California in the years just before the First World War (East of Eden, 5001 Nights at the Movies, 1991)

The above passage from “Bonnie and Clyde” indicates Kael’s notion of poetry – “toughness of mind,” not “gauzy,”  “hard (and hard-edged).”

Interestingly, when Kael wrote her capsule “Bonnie and Clyde” review (collected in 5001 Nights at the Movies) for the magazine’s “Goings On About Town,” condensing the original ten-thousand-word essay to 175 words, she distilled the “There is a kind of American poetry” line to its essence, deleting the parenthetical comparison with Nabokov’s Lolita, and completely omitting her criticism of Penn for not having “the toughness of mind” to do justice to the “kind of American poetry” inherent in the story. The result is a capsule review conveying the impression that there is, in Bonnie and Clyde, “a kind of American poetry in a stickup gang seen chasing across the bedraggled backdrop of the Depression – as if crime were the only activity in a country stupefied by poverty.” It’s a superb line, enacting the poetry it describes. And it comes with an unforgettable soundtrack. I hear it now, mentally, as I write this – bluegrass, banjos - Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs playing their brilliant, jangling, jumping “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” another of Bonnie and Clyde's myriad artful elements. 

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