Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” turns 50 this week. Rogerebert.com critics pay tribute, fitting as the film was one of Roger Ebert’s favorites and his review of the film helped to make his reputation as a critic of seriousness, insight, and influence. He wisely and accurately wrote at the time that the film was “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance” and predicted “years from now it is quite possible that ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s.” Later, with some perspective, he included it as one of his “Great Films” and wrote, “It was a film in which all of the unlikely pieces were assembled at the right time. And more than anything else, it was a masterpiece of tone, in which the actors and filmmakers were all in sync as they moved the material back and forth between comedy and tragedy.”
“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.
How can you not be attracted to home movies? Just about every home movie is unique and exists in a single copy. And while many of them picture similar events (birthdays, holidays, trips to the lake, honeymooning at Niagara Falls), each has its own look and emotional feel. I’ve started to think that maybe the essential story of the 20th century is really the composite story made from identical events shown slightly differently.
They’re also structurally unique. Most documentary films these days are built as narratives — stories with a beginning, middle and end; stories with some kind of conflict and resolution; stories with “compelling” characters. But home movies bypass this artificial layer. Home movies are stories all by themselves. There are many small dramas we might imagine about the people, places and activities we see. But in themselves they’re little narratives about the unfolding dynamic between the person shooting and the person shot; about performing for the camera and watching people perform; about family mysteries we may never solve.
Then there’s the element of unpredictability. What will the next shot be? What will these people do? Where will the camera shoot next? You can find anything from close-ups of ears of new sweet corn to covert shots of President Roosevelt walking down a ramp from his private railroad car, shot from behind a baggage cart so that the Secret Service wouldn’t notice and take the film.
And just as there is unexpected beauty in daily life, there is real beauty in films made by ordinary, nonprofessional shooters. It can be intentional or accidental, but I am constantly struck by the wonderful images I find that would be extremely difficult to shoot on purpose. Strange juxtapositions, unpredictable camera angles, mistakes that make perfection look boring.
It’s not necessarily experiences that we have all gone through but I do think that there is something about The Glass Castle that still resonates and feels very familiar. We may not have gone through something to that degree but I think everybody has a Rex Walls in their life. Everybody knows what it feels like to want to love somebody so badly and have the struggle of how difficult that can be with someone who is either an alcoholic or has ups and downs in their life or who can’t be what we need from them. And it’s incredible to watch somebody like Jeannette go through something like that and come out the other end, not just learning how to accept that part of it but to take it and make it something that makes her so much of a better person. That’s really inspiring to me.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Some strong language
Non-explicit sexual situations
Smoking, alcohol and alcohol abuse
Domestic violence, child badly burned in a cooking accident, child neglect and endangerment
Date Released to Theaters:
August 11, 2017
In her 1986 best-seller, Necessary Losses, author/poet Judith Viorst talks about the beliefs each of us has to give up in order to move forward. The first and in some ways the most difficult is the understanding that our parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that they cannot kiss all of our hurts and troubles away forever. Some of those realizations are worse than others. Most of us, I hope, do not have to give up on the idea that our parents at least want to take care of us and that they do their best. But parents who neglect or abuse their children take away something worse than food and safety; they take a child’s senses of trust and pride.
And so “The Glass Castle,” based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, begins with Walls, a sophisticated, elegant, and successful New York journalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) on her way home in a cab after dinner in an expensive restaurant with her fiance and his prospective client, seeing her parents dumpster diving. They were homeless.
And so, we go back in time to see her as a very young child, telling her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) she is hungry. “Would you rather me make you some food that will be gone in an hour or finish this painting that will last forever?” It is a rhetorical question. Young Jeannette (Chandler Head) toddles over to the stove to make herself some hot dogs. But her dress catches on fire and she is badly burned.
When her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to take her out of the hospital, without doctor permission and without paying. At this point, Jeannette is still young enough to believe everything her parents tell her, like “our home goes wherever we go.” Rex, probably self-medicating for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was immensely brilliant and charismatic. The glass castle of the title was the home he kept promising to build the family, and he spent years drawing plans for it. Rex and Rose Mary were less and less able to maintain any kind of stability at the same time that the children became more and more aware of what they were entitled to expect and unlikely to get. Instead of excitedly making plans for the castle, they began pleading with him to stop drinking. And then, when he could not, they decided to take responsibility for themselves and each other.
Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Larson in the outstanding “Short Term 12,” which also had themes of abuse, damage, and resilience. He is especially good here in dealing with the challenge of three different performers, some quite young, portraying Jeannette and her siblings, maintaining consistency as they grow up, but using the cinematography to help convey the journey from their glowing memories of childhood, believing in their parents’ view of the world as beneath them, to the grittier life of deprivation and uncertainty. The spot where the glass castle was supposed to be built literally becomes a garbage dump.
What’s wisest and most significant is that the film becomes more than the story of survival. It is really only when Jeannette stops being afraid to tell the truth about herself that she is able to accept the best of what Rex and Rose Mary brought to her life. As Walls — and Viorst — might agree, necessary losses are worth the pain when they lead to the freedom that only comes from being true about and to yourself.
Parents should know that this film concerns the neglect and abuse of children, parents with substance abuse and mental illness problems. It includes smoking, drinking and drunkenness, domestic abuse, a child burned in a fire, strong language, and a sexual situation.
Family discussion: Why did Jeanette decide to tell her story? What was she grateful for receiving from her parents? If there was a movie about your family, who would you like to play you?
If you like this, try: “Running with Scissors,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (another real-life story with Woody Harrelson as a father with a drinking problem), and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and the book by Walls
Kyle Mooney’s “Brigsby Bear” is an endearing story about a man who learns in his 20’s that his “parents” have been lying to him all his life, about everything. He believes the entire world has been contaminated and they live in a shelter to protect themselves from toxic radiation. He also believes they are his parents. And his primary contact with the outside world is through a children’s television show called “Brigsby Bear.” But it turns out they kidnapped him and his “father” (Mark Hamill) created the show just for him. Part of the charm of the film is the low-tech “show” that Mooney’s character is determined to finish.
Mooney has released an excerpt from the imaginary show, inspired by 70’s television and Teddy Ruxpin.