A Penn in his lens: An auteur#039;s series

by Beacon Staff • January 30, 2008

Before Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, before even Taxi Driver and The Wild Bunch, there was Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, a film whose violence and irreverence had a profound effect on American cinema. The film, which many critics argue helped kick-start the cinematic renaissance that were American movies in the '60s and '70s, is one of the screenings at the upcoming Arthur Penn retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive.

Running from Feb. 1 to 4, "Arthur Penn, American Auteur" will feature 11 of the director's films, spanning over two decades, from the 1953 television drama The Tears of My Sister to 1976's cult western The Missouri Breaks. The 85-year-old Penn will be in attendance at several of the screenings and participate in a question-and-answer segment afterward. These screenings will be on Feb. 1 and 2 for films The Chase, The Tears of My Sister, Mickey One, Night Moves and The Hightest from Visions of Eight.

Despite being of an older generation than renegade 1960s and '70s filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Dennis Hopper, Penn is probably best known for a trio of films-Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant and Little Big Man-released in the Woodstock era. Like many of the groundbreaking movies being released at the time by younger and more idealistic directors, those pictures are revisionist and anti-establishment.

Many of his films, including Mickey One and, more notoriously, Bonnie and Clyde, were panned at the time of their release, only to be rediscovered and given their full credit in later years. Even The Missouri Breaks-a strange film featuring a tongue-in-cheek performance by Marlon Brando-has been hailed as a misunderstood masterpiece by some alternative critics. Only time will tell if Penn Teller Get Killed, a forgotten comedy featuring the magician duo and directed by Arthur Penn, will one day get its due.

Penn's films are sometimes seen as more culturally important than entertaining, known for their influence but not necessarily rewatchability. How many, even at film-conscious Emerson, can boast a DVD collection that contains Alice's Restaurant? Whether they hold up or not, Penn's ability to challenge genre conventions, from the murderous romance in Bonnie and Clyde to the leftist American history lesson in Little Big Man, make his work a must for any budding filmmaker. Even as cultural artifacts, Penn's films are worth discovering, and this Harvard Film Archive retrospective, with the auteur himself as our guide, is the perfect place to start.