by Bruce S. Thornton
As New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote recently, forty years ago this summer the movie that changed the movies premiered. Anybody old enough to remember films before Bonnie and Clyde can testify to the jolting power of Arthur Penn’s kinetic blend of blue-grass slapstick, Depression-era nostalgia, and gruesome, stylized violence. But something else was revealed then, something that I, 14 at the time, was too callow and ignorant to notice behind the cinematic innovations — the moral idiocy that has since come to define pretty much most of American popular culture.
Bonnie and Clyde staked a claim to a moral seriousness that supposedly validated the stylistic innovations and elevated the film beyond mere flashy entertainment. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, played with fashion-magazine glamour by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, are “just folks,” as Dunaway says in the movie, salt-of-the-earth Americans driven to crime by the machinations of the evil banks they rob for some justified payback, Texan Robin Hoods admired by the common-man victims of American capitalism. Yet the “man,” embodied in the sadistic Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, wouldn’t let them be, hunting them down and slaughtering them in the movie’s famous bloody climax, just after Bonnie and Clyde had finally found the soft-focus sexual fulfillment of a typical Hollywood romance.
The Marxiste folk-tale underlying the movie’s otherwise conventional star-crossed-lovers plot was obvious, and as much as the cinematic innovations accounted for the film’s popularity with many critics (The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther was a noble exception). The movie was in fact a popularized version of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn’s 1959 “social bandit” thesis, a bit of communist agit-prop arguing that robbers and thieves were reallyexpressions of the “people’s” legitimate resistance to unjust economic and political structures. This notion helped to glorify and justify the violence against authority that exploded in the sixties, from the bombing of college labs to the depredations of the Black Panthers, the Oakland street gang that was shrewd enough to exploit the delusions of privileged white kids in order to provide cover for the gang’s crimes.
The corollary to the “social bandit” idea was that those responsible for maintaining social order — particularly the police — were in fact the goons of an oppressive establishment, and as such legitimate targets of retributive violence. The “pigs” were now the enemy, at best oafish dupes of the “man,” at worst sadistic crypto-fascists who delighted in inflicting pain on the “people.” This demonizing of legitimate authority is obvious in Bonnie and Clyde, where all the police are depicted as anonymous shock troops of capitalist oppression, spraying bullets with moronic glee, as in the scene showing the capture of Clyde’s brother Buck. Frank Hamer is particularly creepy, obviously sexually oppressed and filled with vengeful rage over the gang’s playful kidnapping of him (which never actually happened). His sadistic nature is obvious in the film’s slow-motion climax, when he engineers the couple’s death with a fusillade of excessive force, repeatedly raking the bodies with machine-gun fire.
And here we come upon the monstrous lie at the heart of Bonnie and Clyde. The historical Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were not beautiful Robin Hoods but psychopathic killers — Clyde had jug-ears and a weak chin, Bonnie the mean mouth and ferret eyes of a white-trash skank. Their sexual proclivities, which included their younger male accomplices, were sordid, not romantic, and their violence was usually an unprovoked pleasurable indulgence, like their killing of two highway patrol officers on Easter Sunday in 1934. Their 12 victims were mostly police officers who, in accord with the laws Barrow and Parker scorned, announced themselves as such before they were gunned down in cold blood. Nor did the gang rob that many banks, their targets just as often being small mom-and-pop stores. As for distributing the money to the “people” — those scenes in the film were actually based on anecdotes about John Dillinger — there is no evidence that these predators ever gave a dime to the victims of the Depression, some of whom the pair robbed.
So too with the movie’s despicable portrayal of Frank Hamer, the Texas lawman who doggedly tracked the two and put an end to their murderous career. Hamer’s methods do not meet our modern standards of police work founded on solicitude for criminals and a fetishizing of process. He lived in a tougher world where such luxuries were fatal. In fact, the reason he and his fellow lawmen killed Bonnie and Clyde the way they did was because of Clyde’s long record of resisting arrest and shooting down police officers on sight. In life Hamer was one of those grim, unpleasant men whose bravery makes it possible for people like Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn to make “mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.”
This distortion of historical truth has come to dominate American popular culture, which has made the leftist libretto its default narrative, one immune to the repeated demonstrations of its falseness and bloody failure. Warren Beatty’sReds, a ludicrous valentine to John Reed, one of Lenin’s most useful idiots, used the same technique of papering over historical lies with cinematic glamour and wide-screen flair. Just about every Vietnam movie made is pretty much a lie, depicting brave Americans as psychopathic killers or drug-addled victims drafted into an unjust war to serve the capitalist Evil Empire. In fact, if I needed ten good men I’d take any ten Vietnam vets picked at random over any ten college professors or reporters or movie directors. The same lying narrative is at work today in the depiction of the war in Iraq, where America’s best are killing our enemies and giving Iraqis a chance at freedom. I bet that in most of the movies about Iraq coming out this fall, these brave soldiers will be portrayed as pathetic dupes of the evil Man and his “illegal” war, their heroism ignored, their beliefs condescended to, and their suffering sentimentalized.
Just as bad, Bonnie and Clyde also enshrined the wrapping of this Orwellian reversal of historical truth in the glamour of style — the essence of what Tom Wolfe called “radical chic.” Truth doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in fashion. Politics isn’t about coherent principle and the possible, it’s about stylistic display, sensibility, and feeling, a way for the privileged to show how much better they are than everybody else. Worse, this attitude has legitimized a complete disconnect between word and deed, between what one says and how one lives. Privilege and power can now be enjoyed and indulged, as long as one mouths the proper liberal-left pieties: a 1400-dollar haircut is okay if one agonizes over the income gap, and pollution-spewing jet-travel accepted if one rails against global warming.
In short, Bonnie and Clyde is a milestone in the transformation of American culture from one that reflects the mentality of adults to one that enshrines the mentality of teen-agers, a process documented by Diana West in her brilliant new book The Death of the Grown-Up. Unfortunately, as West concludes, an adolescent disregard for reality and an obsession with fashion and feeling are dangerous indulgences in a world filled with ruthless enemies who see our cultural immaturity as the sign of our moral exhaustion and deserved extinction.
©2007 Bruce Thornton