Sunday, March 03, 2013

CinemArchetype 22: The Outlaw Pair Bond


"Didn't you realize when we started," asks John Dahl of Bonnie Cummins in Gun Crazy, "we'd never be able to ask anyone for help again, not even if we were dying?" It's this that separates the outlaw couple from the normal, accepted one. Lovers feel sometimes they are the only ones in the world, alone on a star. The outlaw couple lives that. In outlaw pair bond movies, being in a monogamous couple means cocooning yourself from the outside world. Once you've had sex you're supposed to spend the remaining time together, parting only after whatever furtive sleep you've managed. Even a few hours or minutes of sleep and you're not the same two people who went to bed together the night before. Falling in love is the best thing ever but it's also scary; the volume on the rest of the world is turned way down. Awash in warm neurochemical radiance, you barely notice the danger signs that used to paralyze you with dread. If you're lucky enough to be in a screwball comedy and you never die or kill anyone chances are you're going to end happy, but in outlaw pair bond movies, there's not even jail to look forward to at credit's knell. Or as Maria once sang: "When love comes so strong / there is no right or wrong / your love is your love."

While this archetype is perhaps the most instantly derivative, all seeming to stem from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) on one end, which in turn was inspired by Gun Crazy and Don Siegel's trashlarious 1964 rendition of The Killers (1964) on the other, (all of which inspired Pulp Fiction), it's worth including as an example of how a strong pair bond can transcend any sense of grounding in the social construct. It starts as a simple series of escalating dares, a sudden accidental homicide, discovering and grabbing of a suitcase full of drugs or money, or maybe just the right hitch-hiker in the right car at the right time. Even just the heady allure of flirting can spin a pair bond out of social orbit and into the fast lane of a shared private reality. All their friends shake their heads confusedly and dad holds the weeping mom close --her baby's going down. Their friends and family don't get to benefit from the glow of the couple's charisma, reading about them in the paper, or being grilled by the cops. But we do --we're the couple's unborn, lost potential child.

Part of the effectiveness of the outlaw pair bond hinges on their having just the right chemistry. Hey sometimes it's not even there and that's the chemistry. But if the passion is there then there's too the velocity that lets them bust loose from the bonds of the social order. We can thrill to the romance and the velocity of their escape and dread the existential payback: their eventual death. Or maybe if they pass all the hurtles, escape... always to the same place: Mexico.


The other keys are the availability of guns, cars, and lots of space to hide in. The real Bonnie and Clyde came to prominence in a perfect storm of Depression-era factors: the wide open expanses of the middle west; a public hatred of banks; the dawn of the American highway (a by-product of the FDR's New Deal; enough gas stations to make cross state-line driving easy at a time when the FBI was still in its infancy; and sensationalist journalism that made heroes of the outlaw.


Lastly, this archetype is perfect for low budgets and high energy. We all long to just drive with some dangerous man or fertile hottie we pass on the street, just hop in her or his car and leave our shitty little life behind. These films allow us that cathartic thrill, and when they get finally caught, if they do--we're suddenly grateful that this was all a fantasy. Our hatred of our shitty life is, after all, just a passing mood, as is our appreciation for it. Once we acknowledge our inconsistent outlook we are free even from the urge to take it on the lam.  


1. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The key moment is Bonnie's freakout when she learns Gene Wilder is an undertaker and she throws him and his date out on the side of the road. She may be enjoying the moment but she sees the writing on the wall, that there's no way out of her current velocity state except death or incarceration. Their romance can't quite stem that icky feeling, perhaps because he is impotent, but more likely due to the uncouth loud boorishness of their other gang members.


Movie lovers tend to be sensitive types, easily bruised by the uncouth loudness of odious relatives. In her wincing at the loud hillbilly roaring of Clyde's brother (Gene Hackman) and his whiny wife (Estelle Parsons), Dunaway resembles the lovely Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), forced to put her sexual longing on hold in favor of tedious episodes of lowbrow Americana.

The film's release got off to a notoriously slow start but grew to a runaway hit after steady promotion by producer Beatty and a glowing review in The New Yorker by Pauline Kael.  This was a better time for word of mouth and intelligent press, as films could circulate the country for years, a handfulof prints slowly gathering critical acclaim and this is what Bonnie and Clyde did until it took off into legend, where it gave rise to a whole deluge of period films recreating the 20s-30s crime era, such as Corman's Bloody Mama (1970), Big Bad Mama (1974), Boxcar Bertha (1972), and The Lady in Red (1979). Bogdanovich's Paper Moon... (See full list)


It makes sense that Beatty originally thought of Godard or Truffaut for this film as it has a very New Wave feel - the sheer Hollywood glamor of Dunaway and Beatty set them apart from the rest of the cast, all of whom resemble dust bowl portraits. That they regularly send in photos and poetry to the newspapers helps draw the parallels between the burst of creativity from young auteurs in the 70s and criminals. And like all the good films of the outlaw couple, here's the sense that once velocity is achieved there is a collapse of the imaginary, symbolic, and real, especially as involves that most sacred of outlaw spaces, the interior of the car.

2. John Dall and Peggy Cummins - Gun Crazy (1950)
"One of the American cinema’s finest and most influential B-movies — and one of the archetypal “fugitive couple” films — Joseph H. Lewis's legendary, made-on-the-cheap Gun Crazy moulds the cheesy clichés of 1940s crime melodrama into a manic tour-de-force of technique and deadly eroticism. John Dall, as a gun-obsessed sap, and Peggy Cummins, as a predatory femme fatale, are the film’s pistol-packing doomed-couple-on-the-run. Said to have been an inspiration for Godard’s Breathless, admired by the French surrealists as a rare illustration of genuine amour fou, and certainly a seminal influence on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, this off-beat, original and utterly stylish work has been lauded by the likes of Martin Scorsese and widely hailed as a cult-movie masterpiece. Lewis’s other notable noirs include My Name is Julia Ross and The Big Combo. "The art seems to grow right out of the trashiness...Gun Crazy builds up so much power that comparisons to Tristan and Isolde do not seem entirely farfetched" (David Denby). "Far more energetic than Bonnie and Clyde — the most famous of its many progeny — its intensity borders on the subversive and surreal" (Geoff Andrew, Time Out). 
3. Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger - They Live by Night (1948)
To watch a beautifully restored print of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is to understand why the French New Wave fell over itself over old Nicholas Ray. His young lovers are framed by the car interiors in such a way as to make the whole of the screen their sacred space; external to its confines is a world out to kill them but inside they're safe, like a kid's fort made from couch cushions, with only terrifying darkness of the lava floor playroom without. These kids never want trouble but don't know how to say no to sleazy uncle Chicamaw, they just know how to keep running until the darkness of the long arm of the law finally makes it's grab.

4. Burt Reynolds and Sally Field - Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Smokey and the Bandit was the 'other' big hit of '77 (after Star Wars of course). Burt Reynolds became a huge star with this, a-number one. Not that it fazed him, or inspired better films, but he's superbly funny and even believable as a good old boy who knows how to drive real good. As a runaway bride who hopes into his Trans-Am, Sally Field resonates charm and sass in perfect measure, showing that even an actress with formidable chops can whoop it up when necessary. She knows not to show off when sparring with a naturalist like Burt, so instead she starts out from scratch, jumping into his car a full-blown cipher, keying her mannerisms into his, like a jazz bassist keying into the drummer. It's here in this list because it's emblematic of a time when not just the youth wanted to get in a fast car with a dangerous man and run from a fat lawman, but everyone, even our parents. It was the seventies -- the closest we came as a nation to all liking the same things at the same time. Parents learned new curse words by taking their kids to see Bad News Bears; we all danced to "Macho Man" never imagining the Village People were gay; and wife-swapping was as normal at bridge parties as kids sneaking down to steal M&Ms and sips of whiskey sours. Mmmm. A whole fleet of trucker CB radio-style films were dumped on the market after this, and they're all on Netflix streaming if you want to check them out. I tried.... good lord.


5. Geen Davis and Susan Sarandon - Thelma and Louise (1993)
“People complained about our suicide,” said Sarandon in an interview with Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star. “But I didn’t hear a peep when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did pretty much the same thing. 
Author/activist Judy Rebick, president of the feminist National Action Committee in 1991, liked the movie for its portrayal of a powerful female friendship. “They fought back…they were free. They liberated themselves,” she said in a telephone interview with Diebel. The movie showed Melanie Caplan, fragrance consultant in her 50s, that you can be powerful and not give in. “They controlled their destiny when women were [and still are generally] being portrayed as victims.” In a world where they are expected to be rescued by men, I might add. Near the end of the movie, the sympathetic Arkansas police detective played by Harvey Keitel—their shining knight—does try and fails to “rescue” them.  
That’s what the controversial ending was about: not giving in. Not giving in to a false “god”. Not giving in to the imposed rules and strictures of an androcratic* world. Not giving in to feelings of unworthiness and victimization. Not giving in to the oppression of the sacred feminine wisdom, the goddess in all of us. Celebrating The Bitch. ” --Nina Munteanu(The Alien Next Door)

6. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette - True Romance (1993)
I thought about putting in the Winona Ryder-Christian Slater mix of the very popular and influential HEATHERS, but I object to its 'bad faith' philosophy: Winona's character rejects her handsome beau's homicidal impulses after only one murder, and moves to save the school and prevent further mayhem. It's like bitch, who do you think you is? Are you going to go all Loretta Young and confess your involvement in the earlier faked suicides? I freakin' doubt it. This is supposed to be a revenge fantasy against all the hateful subgroups of high school, so indulge a little! As if we didn't know the difference between films and real life! As if we might see a film like Heathers and start shooting up our schools.

Quentin Tarantino is a great one for redressing these kinds of choices in other movies, even if here he only wrote the screenplay and the late, great Tony Scott directs. There's a key scene that reflects the key difference early on: Slater has just killed his new wife's old pimp and shot up the brothel / drug den where she used to work and has returned to her all bloody and hopped up on killing. She starts to freak out and he and we brace for another moral lecture like we had to endure from Winona in Heathers five years earlier, but NO!!! She's just deeply moved by the true romance of his gesture. This, my friends, is a woman of the new wave!

7. Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen - Badlands (1973)

Now TRUE ROMANCE has that weird steel drum soundtrack and this is its clear inspiration. Director Terence Malick is now known for big pompous masterpieces of cinematography like TREE OF LIFE but before all that, he made this cult favorite. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek both became stars overnight and from then on every time a redhead was cast in a film you had to shoot her hair reflecting the setting rays of the evening sun, framed in the darkness of a dark red barn.

What's brave about this film is that it acts as kind of sobering counter-dote to the giddy high wire bullet-huffing of Bonnie and Clyde and all their breakneck escapes from the sheriff. These kids might be playing outlaws on the run but really they're just sick people. Spacek's voiceover narration (another tac borrowed for True Romance) lets you know she's not playing with a full deck, on the other hand, maybe she's faking to avoid too much jail time. Starkweather/ Sheen meanwhile, just rolls with his death wish, anxious to get his picture in the paper even if he reads that paper at his death row breakfast.

In its odd, beautiful, quiet way the film is like a broken down Chevy at the crossroads between the ugliness of Columbine era / Natural Born Killers and the old-fashioned fantasias of They Live By Night and Gun Crazy.  The outlaw couple romance exists in this film, but only as long as the lovers are completely isolated, adrift in the empty off-road spaces of the midwest, their own desolate forest of Arden, where their mutual craziness can intertwine like two sick vines that make an even sicker vine, one that will bear bitter fruit, the Shadow knows...

8. Anna Karina and Jean Paul Belmondo in Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Now it seems marvelously modern, hip and edgy, because after several viewings it becomes apparent that Belmondo's jaded intellectual husband is fully aware this sexy babysitter he's running away with is only going to ruin his life. All the best noir heroes have no delusions about the unfaithful duplicity of their femme fatales, and they just roll with it anyway, aching to see how their dicking over is going to happen. Even if it means you're going to die fairly soon, and are already knee-deep in gun-running and terrorism, you just got to know. Karina makes Belmondo's defection from life, lover and liberty understandable; Belmondo adds self-reflexive distance cool. Even if you don't understand half of the fractured stuff he's saying, it's hilarious. And they get a second chance the way few of their types get. They get, in fact, the sky and the sea, or at least blue ektachrome.

9. Billy the Kid and Captain America - Easy Rider (1968)
The problem with these kids is, they want to be outlaws but got no one to run from. We're supposed to believe a guy in a gooney chopper like Fondas' is going to fill his gas tank with enough rolled up hundreds to retire in Florida with? And one piddling yayo deal with Phil Spector is going to fund it all? And why would a good-looking boy like Fonda want to retire in Florida with a dimwitted stoner like Billy? Different times, man. It's only when Jack Nicholson hitches on for awhile that they find any kind of soul. Even their acid trip is murky, sad, and fish-eyed. Dig, man. Dig. But there's a lot more going on here. The Lazlo Kovacs photography is heaven-sent and I've seen it a hundred times, yet not once in the last 20 years!

10. Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw - The Getaway (1972)
Here's a pair of actors that became romantically entangled over the course of making a film, and it shows, while Peckinpah's camera still captures the initial coldness of a couple who've spend the last few years apart and missing each other, only to find a huge wedge between them once they're finally outside of a wire screen (he's been in jail for armed robbery). But they work it out through ballets of orgiastic violence against a bunch of slimy, cold-dead rednecks manned by sleazy Texas politico Ben Johnson, who insists Steve pull a bank job with Bo  Hopkins and Al Lettieri. Naturally things go bad really fast. But Peckinpah is in peak form, the driving is insane and it has the best escape-through-a-garbage-truck in the history of chase outlaw cinema, as well as some controversial and realistic slapping. Based on a book by the amazing Jim Thompson and coated with sweaty, vivid detail, the ending comes as a legitimate surprise. And as far as archetypal couples on the run go, this is one of the rare ones where the couple are already married, both badasses, and neither much of a gabber. And when they finally start rekindling it's so slow and natural, with ebb and flow of attraction and disdain just like real couples, that you genuinely root for them to make it; for once there actually seems to be something at stake.

11. Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci - Monster (2003)
A lot of us didn't know what to expect going into this film, and it delivered. Ricci's blah performance is totally overshadowed by the scary power of Theron's Aileen, adding tons of poignancy as we realize the loveless horror that has been Aileen's existence has made her delusional. My favorite part - Aileen gets Ricci into a motel room, scores some beers and smokes, and then realizes she hasn't really planned beyond this point, and any kind of romantic warmth she idealized is kind of unrequited by her flatline of a partner. I've been the romantic drunkard Aileen is in this film (except for the killing and prostituting parts), so I sympathize; the brass ring of total happiness seems always a drink away, and you gradually get spinal fatigue from years of fruitless cross-carousel reaching. 

 12. William Powell and Kay Francis - One Way Passage (1932)
The chemistry between Francis and Powell is electrifying yet urbane and smooth. He’s a caught criminal sailing home to face execution and she only has a few weeks to live. An ocean liner trip from the far east to San Francisco is all the time they have. Romantic comedies nowadays are full of children in grown up bodies, trying to make mothers out of each other so they can cry in a lap again. ONE WAY PASSAGE, by contrast, is laden with grown-ups, and not a drop of stuffy morality taints their beautiful inherent decency as they walk to their deaths like it’s just another ocean voyage. Unlike the 'sea and sky' of PIERROT LE FOU, their love lives inside broken champagne glasses, the stems crossed forever... until the broom of a new year.

3 comments:

  1. Fantastic write up about one of my (and presumably everyone's) movie conventions! This is one of those tried and true formulas that just flat out "works" no matter what the tweaks are. (And as you pointed out, there's been many, many tweaks). I'll even nominate a totally obscure riff on this archetype: Jimmy and Judy. (Look it up if you haven't seen it).

    I can isolate what's so appealing about this in two words: reckless abandonment. Who doesn't fantasize about that? You're not fully human if you don't.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good one.

    A few years back when I was watching that Lady Gaga video where she kills the restaurant full of people with Beyonce, I thought about how that was sort of a film archetype - partners in crime driving down the highway together.

    Of course, Warren Beatty didn't dance afterwards. But that was probably only because his best movies were all pre-Thriller.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'd add Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillipe in "Way of the Gun." Masterful and underrated.

    ReplyDelete