Sunday, February 15, 2015
Stealing Cars: "Bonnie and Clyde"
Question and Challenge Authority
Given the emergence of the federal government during the 1960s as a countervailing force to what appeared to be manufacturers’ lax efforts to improve anti-theft deterrents in their vehicles, it seems paradoxical that films of that era push back on the subject with themes that question authority and the law. Unlike the 1950s, in early 1960s films the subject of lawless youth and automobile theft was neglected. However, in 1967, the notion of challenging traditional values burst on the scene with the release of Bonnie and Clyde.38 Along with a number of other late 1960s films, Bonnie and Clyde revitalized Hollywood’s use of the automobile as a symbol of autonomous individuality. The film elaborates on earlier themes while also taking the symbolic potential of auto theft in new directions. Centering on the lives and violent deaths of the infamous 1930s bank robbing duo, Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated the transformation of auto theft in film from the subtextual expression of delinquents grasping for autonomy, into a gradually more overt use of the subject as a reaffirming act of reclaimed selfhood. Along with other films of the era that featured personal transportation, such as Bullitt, The Graduate, and Easy Rider, this story of mobile criminality captured the complex generational response to the bankruptcy of post-war American culture. It did so by recapturing a populist view of the Depression-Era past.
Bonnie and Clyde opens with a scene of voyeuristic anticipation. Clyde (Warren Beatty) is hesitantly preparing to steal a car. Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), in the nude, observes from her bedroom window a handsome young man suspiciously lingering around her mother’s automobile. Rather than alert her family, she watches curiously, drinking in the scene, anticipating what is to come. It is evident that her curiosity stems from the banality of her own life. Confined in domestic imprisonment, she gazes outside to freedom. To passively consume the thrill of theft, she steps outside to confront the would-be thief. Her purpose, however, is not really to stop Clyde, but rather to join him. Clyde and the stolen Tudor Ford car are her vehicles to escape the self-destroying oppression of the common, undifferentiated tedium of the everyday world. The act of auto theft is the catalyst of the film, and it is repeated time after time, although it was always a secondary crime to that of bank robbery. Accompanied by the rousing banjo classic “Foggy Bottom Breakdown,” the opening acts of car theft, criminality, and disorderly mobility convey the recapture of control over one’s life. What follows is an elaboration of the search to find self through repeated acts of stolen mobility and the defiance of society and its institutions that strangle the chance for personal realization in rural America during the Great Depression.
Set at a time in the United States history when the failure of society to create an environment in which autonomous individuality might be realized, the film radiates an anti-establishment sensibility. The protagonists become the heroes of the struggling working class people who live in stark visual settings. As bank robbers, Bonnie and Clyde victimize the institutions that have victimized the common person. In one scene, they are awakened in an abandoned home by the family who had been evicted from it. Hearing their story, Clyde announces to nodding approval that they are bank robbers, and gives the family a chance to shoot the windows of the home now owned by the bank. More deeply, over the course of the film we are led to see that the simple dreams for dignity and independence of these people parallels Bonnie’s own basic desires, her wish for a meaningful, loving life. However, the atmosphere of stark emptiness of Depression era America created by the film makes clear that Bonnie’s wish will not be fulfilled. On the sexual level, Clyde’s ability to perform is as disappointing as the landscape. He can shoot a handgun with great accuracy and steal cars effortlessly, but he avoids intimacy with Bonnie at every turn.
Clyde’s reasons for stealing cars are rooted in masculine frustrations that mirror Bonnie’s simple longings for dignity and fulfillment. Throughout, Clyde betrays a volatile combination of diffidence and rashness expressive of suppressed manhood: a condition embodied in Clyde’s sexual impotence. Bonnie’s assertive, longing sexuality repeatedly spurs him into substitute actions of auto theft, bank robbery, gunplay and compulsive mobility. His manliness has, in effect, been diverted into bold usurpation and defiance of institutional authority in the form of banks, the police, and the laws of the road. It’s their ticket to dignity. Repeatedly, the theft of a car saves them from capture or death by the malignant forces which, far more than the money they steal, signals their independence. Emphasizing the point is the up-tempo banjo music, signaling the positive restoring vitality of the act. At the same time, the music’s folksiness suggests a populist political message that each act of stealing mobility restores the traditional distinctive individuality that has been lost in mass society.
Yet these themes of restoration of selfhood through stolen mobility are undercut as the film progresses. Like many of the films of the New American Cinema movement, Bonnie and Clyde demonstrated a reflexivity that brought into question the conventional use of mobility as a simple signifier of restored liberty. Midway through the film, a darker mood of futility and inevitable doom begin to creep across events, foreshadowing the bloody climax at the end. The gang of idiosyncratic individuals begins to unravel. At various points they are shorn of their vehicles, the up-tempo music slows with new car thefts, and Bonnie steadily abandons any hope of transforming their freedom into something sedentary and real. In effect, the declining fortunes of the gang, combined with Bonnie’s sense of impending calamity, communicates the transience of the “freedom” they had attained. The bright possibilities of the road and subversive autonomy were exposed to be only temporary successes against the repressive forces of mass society. In the end, we never see the fallen heroes, only their bullet-riddled car.