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Arthur Penn

Montage Tensions


“I try to lean over backwards not to use symbols”, Arthur Penn says in The Film Director as Superstar by Joseph Gelmis. “But it’s hard” he admits, “symbols are implicit. They jump out at you, even when you haven’t consciously set them up.” Penn moments before has tried to differentiate between conscious and unconscious symbolism, saying that in his work he will admit to conscious symbolic intent, admitting for example that symbolism runs throughout Mickey One, but at other times insists that he tries to avoid it. When co-writer Venable Herndon was saying during the making of Alice’s Restaurant that the symbolic connections between two people sitting in a church at the same time as there was a carving of a nude man and a woman in the church, Penn insisted there was just “a bunch of kids sitting around in a building which happens to be a church.” This appeal to and resistance against symbolism seems apt for a filmmaker whose films in Robin Wood’s words, in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, “is a cinema built on tensions and paradoxes.”

Perhaps much of Penn’s resistance to the symbolic comes from the idea that film is a medium well capable of capturing the real, and Penn, who started out in television, wanted to make films which respected that reality. Born in 1922, Penn worked in multi-camera TV drama before making his debut in 1958 with The Left-Handed Gun, and he has talked in interviews of trying to use a second, lighter Arriflex camera to work in conjunction with the traditional and heavy Mitchell against the wishes of his cameraman who had only lit the shots for the Mitchell. Perhaps Penn’s ambivalence towards symbolism resides in his need for a restless sense of realism, but this combination of styles also makes Penn distinctive, especially when allied to Penn’s editing strategies.

To understand the way this tension is played out in Penn’s work, let us look at four of his key films, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks. At the end of Bonnie and Clyde the two titular characters are ambushed and Penn films the onslaught as vividly violent, yet with an added significance through the slow-motion he adopts, the canted angles he offers and the multiple camera positions from which he shows us the characters’ demise. Now numerous critics including Robert Phillip Kolker, in A Cinema of Loneliness and Stephen Prince, in a chapter on Peckinpah in Screening Violence, have advised us not to take such violence realistically, with Prince saying for example, “Penn was a vivid stylist of violence” and never more so than in “the multi-camera carnage that caps Bonnie and Clyde”. The word stylist is the operative word here, and Penn himself, according to Robin Wood, believes that editing is the most important element of cinema. And it is clear that often in Penn’s work the violence is if you like cinematic rather than verisimilitudinous. Penn is interested less in violence as an observational issue than an editing one. A good example of realist violence would be the way Ken Loach often utilises it. In films like Ladybird, Ladybird, My Name is Joe, Looking for Eric etc, Loach creates a documentative space that makes us witness the violence rather than be part of it. Loach doesn’t anticipate the action, he surprises us with it. In Looking for Eric, the family are together having just finished dinner when the police burst in through the door in full riot gear and search the house. Loach wants to show how violence interrupts life, and uses longer takes to do so.

Penn wants to indicate how violence is within the texture of life, and his editing schema helps reflects this. Now his frequent editor Dede Allen used what has been termed the ‘power cut’, which, in Vincent LoBrutto’s words in a Cineaste piece on editing, “was really a superpowered version of compression”. This means that you can shave scenes very tightly to create a greater sense of force in the cutting; an approach frequently adopted in Penn’s work, and which can give violent tension to even non-violent scenes. Thus in the scene before Bonnie and Clyde’s death, we notice how Penn and Allen cut with no presence of violence, but its impending possibility. From the moment we see Michael J. Pollard’s character looking out of the window, to Bonnie and Clyde’s death, Penn cuts very tightly as the shot/counter-shots between Bonnie and Clyde suggest not only a quick verbal exchange, but that danger awaits. It is also present in the aural and visual match cut when Clyde closes his car door and the next shot shows the cops opening theirs.

In much of Night Moves, Penn and Allen power cut in scenes where it would seem to have less impact than in Bonnie and Clyde, which is at least clearly motivated by the violence that promptly follows. But of course Night Moves is one of numerous paranoiac thrillers that came out of the States in the mid-seventies, including The Parallax View, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, all films tapping into a wider sense of rot than the immediate. If Pakula in The Parallax View worked with the architectural, and captured characters small within the frame next to looming buildings, Penn offers the paranoiac in the cutting. Minor scenes of character exchanges are cut tightly enough to indicate an off-centredness. Where the traditional noir plays on the speed of the verbal exchanges as characters try and outwit each other, there is still usually space between the shots. In scenes here, we sense central character Harry Moseby is caught in something bigger than he can understand not especially by the lighting, which lacks the usual noir play on light and shadow, nor especially by the categorical manipulations of the characters, which lacks the complexity say of a Chandler piece, but by the off-centred quick-pacing of the editing. Even in an innocuous discussion between Gene Hackman’s Harry and the lover of the step-father of the girl he is looking for, the cutting is sharp. As Harry introduces himself and walks along the pier, Penn offers around sixteen shots between the moment Harry step out of the car to the moment when he shows the woman his ID. An equivalent scene in a classic noir like The Big Sleep covers roughly the same period of time in half a dozen shots, but where Hawks’ film offers greater tension between the characters, as Bogart and Bacall banter in movie chemistry style, Penn manages to convey in the accelerated pace of the cutting a broader sense of mistrust than in the immediate situation.

In both Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks, Penn films massacres and destruction with a sort of montage-tension, a tension greater than if the scenes were filmed without any or minimal cutting. In Little Big Man this is especially so in the Indian massacre at Wishita, the battle that finally turns the self-serving and shallow white character Jack Crabb into a man of reflection as Penn films it with a sense of horror even greater than the situation. As Penn cross-cuts in matching shots that are nevertheless elsewhere in space, between Crabb’s Indian lover and her child being killed and Crabb falling, so Penn captures the full cruelty of the white man, and the full realization on Crabb’s part of that cruelty. In such an instance, as in Bonnie and Clyde, as perhaps in Night Moves, we might say Penn isn’t a subtle filmmaker, and of course there is the idea ever since Andre Bazin that editing is a crude form next to the pro-filmic: better to show than to tell; better to offer long takes rather than quite literally editorializing.

However there has always been an Eisenstein side to Penn, a need not only  to film violence, but to create it in the editing suite, and we see it again in The Missouri Breaks. Here one of the gang on the run from a determined lawman, takes time out in the toilet and the lawman strikes. As Penn shows the gang member going to the shack, so the film cuts to a hazy long shot from the point of view of the killer, and then cuts to the gunshot going into the wooden toilet cabin door, and the gang member coming out with a huge bullet hole in his stomach. Penn cuts between the gangster, the lawman’s point of view and a child looking on, before also incorporating other cuts to various people rushing to the body. The numerous shots add to the chaotic sense of violence, but also to its relative anonymity. Just as in Bonnie and Clyde, where Penn shows us the ambush whilst barely showing us the ambushers, who are hiding in the bushes until Bonnie and Clyde have been killed, so Penn pushes this further by giving us the point of view of the lawman though we don’t actually see him.  Now while Penn is of course a great director of montage-tension, this isn’t quite the same thing as saying that he is a great filmmaker of logistical violence. In the logistical lies the laying out of perspective and point of view, of giving the viewer the necessary information at the necessary pace to comprehend the event. But it’s as though Penn often wants us to comprehend the violence much more than the event; with the violence greater than the act in front of the camera. It is partly what gives his work its paranoiac tinge.

This is brilliantly captured in the conclusion to Night Moves. Here we have Harry taking a boat out with the lover determined to get to the bottom of the case, but only arrives at its bottomlessness because it potentially incorporates everyone. When in an interview in Sight and Sound about the film Penn reckoned it was an allegory of Watergate, understandably certain critics including Stanley Kauffmann in his review in Before My Eyes, thought Penn was talking nonsense: wasn’t it basically a contemporary film noir? Yet while Penn might have been overstating his case, the film captures well a feeling of epistemological despondence, a sense that the world contains mysteries beyond the frames of our ready reference. As we might notice, the boat Harry is on at the end of the film is called Point of View, and like numerous key works of the seventies including Chinatown, Taxi Driver and The Parallax View, much of the paranoia comes out of the partiality of perspective. Night Moves feels less like an allegory of Watergate, than a film incorporating the despair of the period. Penn’s editing approach plays up that despondency in his refusal of logistical coordinates. When Kauffmann insists that “…it’s all that both French Connections were not – muddled, sententious and dull”, he seems to be missing the point. William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer’s films are works of logistical precision; Penn’s a work as we’ve suggested of epistemological despondence. One approach requires keeping the viewer informed; the other aware of the limitation of point of view. Penn’s editing captures this well as he cuts not for clarity but for a vague sense of suspicion.

In Night Moves this method plays into the story, where Alan Sharp’s script explores the possibility that everybody is implicated, whether intentionally or not. For example Moseby’s wife is involved in antiques, and a fellow investigator collects Mexican art treasures: the very treasures the plot seems to hinge upon as various characters are involved in smuggling Mexican relics into the country. Penn doesn’t link everybody to the central plot, but leaves us to wonder who exactly is involved and what exactly are their motives. We notice at the end of the film the plane that crashes after the pilot has tried to shoot at Harry in the boat is piloted by none other than the stuntman ‘accidentally’ responsible for killing a key character earlier in the film. We can piece together the plot, but the film offers no opportunity for the dying stuntman to explain it. Instead we watch as the two characters behind glass confront each other. Harry watches from the glass-bottomed boat as the stuntman’s plane sinks, with the man trapped inside. Penn offers a brilliant image of hopelessness and helplessness; Harry can neither save a life nor strictly solve the case. There is potentially a symbolic dimension to this helplessness, but the strength lies in the tangible impact of the crashed plane, the sea and Moseby’s realization that investigations cannot always have ready answers.

When we proposed there was a certain ambivalence between Penn’s interest in the reality of what he films, and the symbolic dimension that can be extracted, we may also wonder if his attitude to editing squared the circle. Film editing becomes the means of manipulating feeling through perspective without quite becoming the means of manipulating meaning. If we return to Eisenstein and recall how most critics admired the director’s use of expanding time in the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, but were dismissive of some of his metaphorical conceits elsewhere, we can see the difference. In Strike, the director introduces us to shots of various characters and then superimposes upon them the animals they resemble and from where their nicknames came. In such instances Eisenstein seems to be straining beyond the medium, trying to do in film what it is so easy to do in literature, and yet becomes overly determined in film form. What seems to interest Penn especially is taking what is filmed and shaping it to bring out paranoia and violence. By shaping our response to violence through the editing, he isn’t saying this is what he means, so much as this is what we might feel. When he disagrees with his co-screenwriter over the symbolism on Alice’s Restaurant, it is because the screenwriter wants to over-determine meaning; yet Penn is quite happy to over-determine feeling.

This differentiation is useful, if obviously hardly categorical. Where does feeling stop and meaning start, at what point do we sense that the feelings we have in a scene give way to the meaning of that scene? Let us think of three scenes in Penn’s work; Bonnie and Clyde’s death at the end of the film, the death of Jack Crabb’s Indian friend in Little Big Man, and lover Jennifer Warren’s death near the end of Night Moves, just before the plane crashes. In an article on science fiction cinema Susan Sontag proposed the term ‘sensuous elaboration’ to differentiate sci-fi film from the sci-fi novel, saying “in the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination…” If a film over-determines meaning it becomes not sensuous elaboration but intellectual elaboration, and the film allows meaning to take precedence over feeling. When Kolker says of the scene at the end of Bonnie and Clyde that “form took precedence over meaning, and the formal trend of violence started by Bonnie and Clyde has been irresistible. American filmmakers in the last twenty years have been ready to leap for the veins more quickly and easily than for the intellect”, we can see here he elevates the intellect over the form, the meaning over sensuous elaboration. But we are proposing that the sensuous elaboration is partly what stops film from carrying meaning when it needs to carry feeling. If Penn had turned Bonnie and Clyde so much into symbols of Depression era martyrs that we’re contemplating their martyrdom over feeling the force of their deaths, Bonnie and Clyde wouldn’t have had the requisite impact. It would have lacked “the rag doll dance of death” in Pauline Kael’s words in an essay in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. It would have left the viewer not as part of “the quietest audience imaginable”, but musing over the symbolic or sociological import.

In a scene in Little Big Man, if it is true the film captures the absurdity of existence as Crabb grapples with his Indian friend who doesn’t recognize him now he is ostensibly on the whites’ side, and where the friend ends up shot by a white man Crabb despises, we have to be in the grapple for the impact to have a pay off. We have to feel relieved that Crabb escapes with his life, but moved by the death of his friend as Crabb survives, and as Penn cuts back and forth between the two friends fighting, and the white man taking out the Indian. In Night Moves, the film cuts between Harry and Warren’s character as Harry warns her that she is about to be mowed down by the plane if she doesn’t quickly duck under the water. As Penn cuts back and forth our pulse quickens as the editing captures the urgency of the situation.

Out of such montage-tension any symbolic import gives way to sensuous elaboration. David Thomson in a review of Night Moves in Have you Seen…? said “Arthur Penn was not just a top director, but the one with the sharpest instincts for what was happening in America. He made films set outside the modern era yet…the metaphor was inescapable – he was dealing with now.” This now though wasn’t especially metaphorical; more sensuously elaborated. When Bonnie and Clyde are slaughtered, it is the visceral dimension that brings the film into the present and allows for the audience quiet Kael recognizes. In Little Big Man, the absurd is played out as the viewer is caught between two conflicting feelings: one that Crabb survives and the other that the friend won’t die. In Night Moves Penn doesn’t so much allegorize the story as create enough gaps for it to seem consistent with the problematic political puzzles of the period. Penn’s final importance, and a significance that basically covers the period between The Chase in 1966 and The Missouri Breaks ten years later, is to make films that work from the pro-filmic, from a realistic and not symbolic mise-en-scene, but strongly shaped by editing, and by often working in such a way that the present socio-political problems become emotionally manifest, no matter if the setting is as often in the past (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, The Missouri Breaks), as in the present (The Chase, Alice’s Restaurant, Night Moves).


©Tony McKibbin