Sunday, July 11, 2010

All in the Cut: Editing Emotion in New Wave Style of 'Bonnie and Clyde'

            It’s hard to begin to describe the importance of Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 American classic from Arthur Penn that, along with films like Easy Rider and The Graduate, launched the American New Wave, helping pioneer a new era of American cinema. The film, staring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, is a frankly sexual and violent picture (often at the same time), and is truly an explosive picture. And it was an explosion in 1967. When Bosley Crowther, the long standing critic for the New York Times, dismissed the picture, he was dismissed from the newspaper. Another critic, praised the film: “Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that have been feeling and saying and writing about” (Friedman, 179). That critic was Pauline Kael, and that review launched her career.

            I re-watched Bonnie and Clyde at a special presentation at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, New York. Not having seen the film in years, it felt as fresh and as bold as ever. However, one thing stuck out to me more than anything. No, it wasn’t the aimless plot, modeled off of the French New Wave style that Robert Benton and David Newman had tried to emulate. No, it wasn’t the bold violence and sexuality, and the relationship of Clyde’s need for violence for his own sexuality. Nor was it the subtle political commentary—an examination of violence and endless, unnecessary killings following a tumultuous few years of assassinations and war.

            It was the editing. The brilliant, staccato-like, discontinuous but not unstructured editing that made this movie. The editor on the film, who died earlier this year, was Dede Allen. One of the many great female editors, Allen’s first film was a strange noir from Robert Wise called Odds Against Tomorrow. While the film, which stars Harry Belafonte, is a strange and sometimes silly noir that attempts to comment on race relations, the editing is certainly avant-garde. However, Allen, whose work includes Dog Day Afternoon and Reds, is a director who has said she cuts with her heart.

            Benton and Newman wanted to make a New Wave film—they originally came to both Francios Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who encouraged them but ultimately told them to have an American director. And Penn, certainly a director who did not have as many other successes as his colleagues, is certainly a director with a New Wave style. But what separates Bonnie and Clyde from being completely French is Allen’s editing. In Breathless, Godard cuts anywhere and everywhere. For him, the meaning is the cut itself—a break from the establishment. However, this is not how Allen works. She is cutting at beats, though they aren’t the typical beats of Hollywood pictures. But each time she cuts, she reveals something about the characters that’s not in the dialogue. In one of her most dynamic sequences, watch how she cuts. (Click through for the link)

Newman and Benton don’t need dialogue to describe Clyde’s impotence, it’s all in the visual language. Allen cuts between their reactions, getting closer and closer as they becoming more intimate, and then quickly cutting to a long shot after the embarrassment is realized. This allows Beatty, who is simply bigger and more muscular than Bonnie, to assert his dominance over Bonnie again, who simply lies in bed while he stands. 

            Throughout the film, Allen’s work is evident as she pulls into close-ups and long shots that are atypical, except they help reveal the path of these characters. The film is full of moments like the one above where the shot choice says much more than the dialogue. By the time we get to the final bullet ridden sequence—about 100 shots in a matter of seconds—Allen has earned herself as one of the great editors in film history.

            It’s easy to not pay attention to how editing works—great editing is invisible, only helping you become more invested in the story. Godard tried to turn editing into an idea, and Allen helped turned it back invisible, but the emotions of Bonnie and Clyde—her sexual desire, his aimlessness, Buck’s loyalty—only come through with the sensibilities of Allen, because the script avoids making those judgments. If there is one artist that really launched the New Wave from a passing curiosity to the new Hollywood sensation, it was Dede Allen.  

For more on the launch of the American New Wave, Mark Harris wrote an excellent book called Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the five Best Picture nominees of 1967 and the radical shifts in film history at the time.

No comments: