Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn Moves On

Motion picture and stage director Arthur Penn has died in NY a day after his 88th birthday. Penn came to national prominence with the release of "Bonnie & Clyde" in 1967. The movie's radical departure from typical Hollywood fare in its embrace of romanticized social misfits and stylized graphic violence struck gold in the anti-establishment youth consciousness of the late '60s and set the pattern for a generation of films in a similar vein; "The Wild Bunch", "Taxi Driver", "Apocalypse Now", "A Clockwork Orange", "The Godfather" and "Dirty Harry" among others. Their success was the death knell for the previous era of pictures and the people that made them. Super stars like Doris Day, Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra, along with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Blake Edwards and Douglas Sirk no longer satisfied audiences that had acquired a cynical worldview. Many of the mainstays of older cinema drifted into television and a new group took their place in the movie industry. Penn was among the vanguard of this trend that included Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and others.
I was an extra on Penn's next big project, the screen adaptation of Thomas Berger's novel, "Little Big Man", starring Dustin Hoffman, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan and, once again, Faye Dunaway. The reminiscenses of 121 year old Jack Crabb, captured by the Indians as a child and raised among them, eyewitness and participant in the battles of the Washita River and Little Big Horn, friend of Wild Bill Hickock and acquaintance of Custer, are used as an allegory of the US presence in Southeast Asia. As a cavalryman, generally involved in battle scenes that were directed by Hal Needham, I was involved personally with Penn only occasionally. He seemed to be the kind of director that took a lot of shots, hoping that at least one would survive the editing process. While many of the cast and crew circulated about the set and engaged in the kind of social interactions you might expect in that kind of a situation, Penn himself didn't associate much with the proletariat of the cinema industry.
"Little Big Man" was a popular and critical success, more so than "Bonnie & Clyde", and while it wasn't the ground-breaking effort of its predecessor, it may better stand the test of time.

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