Bonnie and Clyde

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Referring to at least TWO films screened from weeks 1 to 7 on this module, discuss the relationship between crime and sexuality in American cinema.

Through the late 1960s the French New Wave became a pronounced and significant factor in the creation and development of Hollywood films. Such movements had gained popularity through an ability to engage with a younger audience by means of a more youthful focus; taking advantage of a counterculture brought about by the disillusionment with hierarchy exemplified by protests against the Vietnam War, political assassinations, experimentation with drugs, gay liberation and a rise in sexual freedom. Partly in an attempt to take advantage of this, but also encouraged by favourable taxation on filmmaking prior to 1976, the studios funded young, college educated filmmakers to create youth orientated pictures. These brought modernist techniques, a novel narrative structure, and storylines which, in previous eras, would have been restricted by the production code or not risked to a conservative audience. Films of this period also placed the relationship between crime and sexuality into a new context; a change in accordance with the growing apathy toward the former and the liberal embracing of the latter. Characterising the American film renaissance and the merging of Hollywood with a European style of filmmaking was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde(1967). Here, sexuality was used as a tool to express the sense of escapism achieved through crime, and as a means in itself to perforate the mundane. In contrast, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown(1974) serves solving crime as a means of finding answers in an overwhelming world, and sexuality, or rather sex, as a tool of oppression and corruption. This is most obvious in Noah Cross fathering his daughter’s child, but also in Jake Gettes’ Oedipal journey. Both Penn and Polanski also pale crime in comparison to individual evil. A conspiracy to divert a water supply, even one supplemented by murder, doesn’t make much of a moral dent once Catherine’s true identity is revealed, while the murders and robberies of Bonnie and Clyde are swamped by the romanticism and brutality of their own deaths. Consequently, Chinatown and Bonnie and Clyde, both quintessentially tragedies, challenge perceptions of what comprises criminality, especially in relation to individual evil, and construct sexuality and crime as tools of escapism, corruption and oppression.

In Bonnie and Clyde, crime and sex are methods of achieving escape. Bonnie, from her nude introduction, to her suggestive drinking of the bottle of coke and delicate grasping of Clyde’s obviously phallic gun, presents herself as a deeply sexualised character; attracted to the criminality of Clyde and the adventurous implications of running from the law. Here, therefore, crime provides an exoticism, a means by which to escape the mundane and seek stimulation. Penn saw Bonnie as “a woman with an enormous appetite that was going ungratified - an appetite for identity, for sex, for contact with someone who brings with him an air of the exotic, something outside her tiny little town and tiny little job as a waitress.”(Macnab, 58-9). Bonnie turns to crime because she finds her attempts to fill this appetite for the exotic by way of sex unsuccessful, through previous, implied encounters, but also with Clyde. Despite the excitement provided by crime “The only reaction to this excitement that is available to Bonnie is sexual, the means by which her ego expresses itself.”(Blum, 29). Consequently, even in the thrill of being pursued, Bonnie seeks sex and an emotional connection with Clyde. This relationship between sexuality and crime and their overlapping usage are also evident in Chinatown. In contrast to Bonnie, Evelyn’s sexuality serves to entrap her and foreshadow her death. Stephen Cooper argues that “the detective in fact does align himself implicitly with the very forces of repressive power against which he struggles (to struggle), and in so doing ultimately victimizes the women he investigates/works for/loves.”(24). Here, Cooper is articulating that in the moment Gettes has sex with Evelyn, he aligns her journey with that of the last women he failed to protect in Chinatown and the generic romantic interests of the protagonist in detective movies. Furthermore, he notices the flaw in her iris- the ominous birthmark which is ultimately pierced by a bullet- immediately before they have sex. Therefore Evelyn’s sexual association with Gettes, and his professional association with crime, condemns her. If the sexuality of Bonnie initially prevents her engaging fully with the rebellious freedom usually provided by criminality and present in a road movie, Evelyn’s sexuality, and her relations with Gettes, confirms her entrapment in ‘Chinatown’: the corrupt, criminal world of the Film Noir detective.
The dark, dishonest world of Chinatown reflects a popular contemporary view of the establishment as an insular body operating above personal and liberal freedoms. The emerging Watergate scandal in 1972, the ongoing Vietnam War and the associated atrocities, corruption and democratic anomalies distanced the public, especially the booming youth population, from their elected representatives. Gittes asking Cross “What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”(Chinatown) underlines the sense of pointlessness that surrounded political transgressions in this period. Arthur Penn recalls that “a similar resistance was expressed in another form by middle-class people in the 60s” to the “young, bucolic bumpkins who took on the banks, which were perceived as the social enemy”. Therefore the title characters, ordained as mythically embodying this “cause of the dispossessed”(Bernstein, 24) through Bonnie’s poem, reflect the society they predated by thirty years due to their desire to reclaim personal freedom and be more than the situation they were born into. Bonnie is allowed to find crime adventurous and Clyde sexually attractive- yet remain engaged with the audience- because the idea of crime was belittled by the weariness the public felt with the law, after all, “Society murdered St. Joan, too.”(Blum, 30). Chinatown reflects this weariness as its protagonist is unable to win, despite solving the case. Gettes knows Cross killed Mulwray, he works out the conspiracy and yet it all means nothing as Cross “owns the police”(Chinatown) and is able to escape justice and recover Catherine. Such a situation draws comparisons to Richard Nixon during the Watergate Scandal, and his pardoning by Gerald Ford afterwards, in so much as a solved case doesn’t necessarily instigate justice. In the final sequence, the frustration of a scene dripping with political and moral corruption is contrasted with the almost sickening sight of Cross, with no reaction from the police or Gettes, leading the screaming Catherine away from her dead mother; the reminder that his use of sexuality transcended the crime of the film through an individual act of evil.
American cinema in this era acted to question the perception and definition of crime and criminality. Michel Foucault theorised that human consciousness was shaped and defined by historical and social context; that the codification and classification of behaviour varied through time. The concept of crime, like all concepts to Foucault, becomes changeable. As a result, the morality of stealing, murder, corruption and violence is relevant only to the culture in which it is taking place. Similarities between the social problems of the late 1960s and the economics of the Depression era, allows robbing banks to be interpreted as an attack on the capitalist forces of social oppression. Corruption, however, is more relatable to contemporary crimes against the wider population and innocent individuals. If power is perceived to have been derived from discourse, then an act of rebellion draws sympathy rather than criticism. If the audience interprets Clyde and Bonnie’s ‘criminality’ as a rejection of this discourse and an attempt to embrace the liberal freedoms from which they have been deprived, then their actions become a form of expression; an exotic, adventurous release to which the audience can aspire and relate. Moreover, this sympathy, along with Penn’s romanticised direction, pushes criminality away from the title characters, and on to those by whom they are brutally killed.
Even without a Foucauldian perception of crime seated in the context of 1960s political apathy, Penn’s direction creates an inescapable sympathy for the bullet-ridden duo. The overt quantity of ammunition, piercing already lifeless bodies, coupled with the morality of trapping people who weren’t warned, armed or subject to trial, gives the audience a sense of pity and almost guilt- Bonnie and Clyde are relatable, but the law is part of a society that the audience actively engages in. The brutality of the scene, enhanced by the slow motion and the knowing, loving final look they give one another, leaves the audience not only querying crime, but struggling to understand their own system of justice. Bank robbers being ambushed on roadsides may have been all but consigned to history by 1967, but death by force without trial certainly was not. Much like the swamp of corruption and revelation of sickening sexual crimes in which Chinatown ends, the killing of Bonnie and Clyde reinforces a sense of apathy toward the power which attempts to reinforce the discourse of what is criminal. William Blum argues that “The violence of society's retribution characterizes its response to the exceptional as frightened, hysterical, stupid, and uncomprehending.”(30). Such an interpretation of social justice allows an attraction to Bonnie and Clyde’s raw simplicity and moral innocence, enhanced by their sexuality. Warren Beatty also carries an automatic sexualisation and sympathy to the character of Clyde due to his star persona, as interpreting a murderous criminal out of such a well known and respected figure becomes unlikely. Instead the title characters draw compassion and understanding at the expense of a brutal, corrupt and conspiring justice system.

The inevitability, regularity and normality of private evil acts as a point of comparison with the legal interpretation of crime. Crime may be based upon the influence of power provided by discourse, but acts of individual evil are able to transcend the impacts on individual reasoning resulting from indifference toward social hierarchy, though still relying on a level of historically specific morality. An audience will be impacted by evil in a different manner to legal criminality, as the motivation is often unclear and regularly opaque. Wayne D. McGinnis believes Chinatown shows a “potential for evil in all human aspiration”(249), mirroring Cross’ claim “that at the right time and the right place” one is “capable of anything”(Chinatown), but it is the unexplained nature of this evil which creates an unsurpassable negative reaction toward the character. The employing of sexuality as the vehicle for Cross’ evil creates a sense of the inevitable, but also the natural. Combined with his vague justification, it implies an animalistic tendency to commit sexual evil. Foucault’s argument, though, theoretically questions even the idea of sexual evil, as sexuality “was taken charge of... by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity”(1504), meaning an audience is unable to ascertain true sexual evil due to the discourse which surrounds and restricts the deconstruction of sexuality. Nevertheless, the authorial intention and the common audience and critical reception is one of horror and disgust. McGinnis, seeking an Oedipal reading of Chinatown, claims Polanski “split the Oedipus figure”(250) between Gettes and Cross. Tragedy, without sympathy, misadventure, doomed aspirations and naivety, becomes evil, in the form of Cross. Gettes provides the intuitive, smooth detective, seemingly capable and determined in rescuing his people from a plague, only to discover a sexual evil which he is unable to wholly comprehend. While Oedipus blinds himself in punishment of his failure to ‘see’, Gettes’ penalty is Evelyn’s death, not coincidently shot through the eye. Moreover, it is the sexualisation of Gettes’ relationship with Evelyn which condemns her, much like Oedipus’ fathering of his siblings forcing his mother’s suicide. As in Oedipus the King, the protagonist is punished for failing to wholly comprehend the evil of the world to such an extent that he contributes to the downfall of the very thing he attempted to protect and causes the events he initially set out to prevent unfolding. Gettes aims to help Evelyn and Catherine escape Cross, only to literally drive him to them.

In American cinema, especially from the 1960s into the early 1970s, crime and sexuality were used to express a desire to rebel, to escape the economic and social insecurities and to press for independence. Liberal freedoms, which were becoming lost in a tide of political scandals and ineptitude, could be forcefully reclaimed through crime and sexuality. Bonnie and Clyde, in a 1930s setting, challenge a system seemingly taking from its people; an apt reflection of what was lost to 1960s Americans. Such a failure to adhere to the democratic foundations of the nation questioned American normality. Looking through Foucault, aided by the sympathetic style of Bonnie and Clyde, crime becomes not immoral in this era, but a sexualised, exotic rebellion. Lined up next to this legal, socially constructed transgression was an idea of evil, that which the contemporary audience truly viewed as morally wrong. Chinatown presents a world filled with this most unsympathetic form of crime. Noah Cross and Frank Hamer commit very different immoral acts, but both are brutal, violent and rooted in a “kind of collusion” suggesting “Complication is the genuine evil”(Blum, 30), punishing fundamentally innocent and innocuous characters unable or unwilling to accept the world as it is. Instead they use sex and crime, or sex and solving crime, to find an answer, a definitive solution to evil. However the ultimate, overwhelming and tragic truth is that they simply cannot.

Word Count: 2002

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