Arthur Penn, 1922–2010

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Design by Bill Gold.

With respect to Bonnie and Clyde and my other films, I would have to say that I think violence is a part of the American character. It began with the Western, the frontier. America is a country of people who act out their views in violent ways—there is not a strong tradition of persuasion, of ideation, and of law.

Let’s face it: Kennedy was shot. We’re in Vietnam, shooting people and getting shot. We have not been out of a war for any period of time in my lifetime. Gangsters were flourishing during my youth, I was in the war at age 18, then came Korea, now comes Vietnam. We have a violent society. It’s not Greece, it’s not Athens, it’s not the Renaissance—it is the American society, and I would have to personify it by saying it is a violent one. So why not make films about it.

From The Bonnie and Clyde Book (1972)

Thus film director Arthur Penn, whose death was announced earlier this week, speaking at a press conference in Montreal in 1967 following the first screenings of Bonnie and Clyde. Penn’s film shocked critics and audiences at the time ostensibly for its graphic violence although the disturbance went deeper than that. What I found shocking the first time I saw it—home alone one evening, watching TV with no idea what to expect—was the abrupt shifts of tone from near comedy (the speeding cars and bluegrass soundtrack, Gene Wilder’s role) to awful realism as the consequences of a life of bank-robbing became apparent. This was disturbing for audiences used to being spoon-fed their morality tales with easily identifiable heroes and villains; the sudden, savage conclusion was especially jolting. A “nightmare comedy” quality was a hallmark of Penn’s best work, and he followed Bonnie and Clyde with another nightmare comedy that’s also a further exploration of America’s troubled history, Little Big Man (1970). Here Dustin Hoffman’s character finds himself caught between the Native Americans who raised him and the warring Cavalry intent on massacring the native tribes. Like Robert Aldrich in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Penn was using Western history to make a statement about America’s involvement in Vietnam; the soldiers in Little Big Man are murderous racists and General Custer is presented not as a doomed hero but as an unhinged psychopath. For me the film has always been distinguished by the character of Little Horse, the first (only?) gay Native American character in cinema. There’s plenty of documentary evidence for gay individuals in Native American tribes but these have seldom been seen in films. It’s Thomas Berger we have to thank for this detail, since it was Berger’s novel which Penn adapted, but the film’s writer and director are also to be congratulated for keeping a minor character who might easily have been excised.

It’s surprising when you see Bonnie and Clyde cited as one of the films that enabled directors to have more artistic freedom during the 1970s that Penn didn’t manage to do more during that golden decade. After Little Big Man there were two films which seem minor in comparison but would be major works from many lesser directors. Night Moves (1975) is one of the handful of attempts at updating film noir which appeared in the 1970s (for others see The Long Goodbye, Robert Aldrich’s Hustle and Taxi Driver), with a screenplay by Alan Sharp, the writer of Ulzana’s Raid. It’s a curio even by the standards of the decade, part detective story set in the Florida Keys, part symbolic drama with chess games and boats named “Point of View”; it’s also Penn’s last great film. The Missouri Breaks (1976), another Western, is fascinating for its pairing of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson but Brando’s eccentric performance is the start of his decline as an actor. It’s hard to believe that Penn only made five more films after this but he was one of a number of individual talents who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s then found themselves shut out in the 1980s as intellect was ousted by commerce. There’s even less room for him today than there was then. We’ve travelled from a time of intelligent and challenging films made by adults for adults to an era of shitty action movies and worthless adaptations of equally worthless costumed vigilantes. But I never counsel despair; celebrate what we have rather than bemoaning what we might have lost. Fuck Star Wars in 3D, watch Little Big Man instead.

Guardian obituary | NYT obituary
David Thomson on Penn

Wildeana 3

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Some recent pieces of Wilde news. The cover above is for a new edition of Teleny and Camille, Jon Macy‘s comic strip adaptation of the erotic novel attributed to Oscar Wilde and members of his Uranian circle:

Teleny is the haunted musical genius that everyone desires but no one has truly touched… until the fateful night that he senses Camille’s presence in the audience. The wealthy young man is instantly seduced by Teleny’s dark beauty and smoldering melancholy. This groundbreaking and powerful early gay novel, written in secret by Oscar Wilde and his anonymous circle of writers, is now re-interpreted as a graphic novel, in all its lush, pansexual excess.

I wrote something about the novel last year. I’m not convinced that Wilde penned the whole thing but I can see places where he may have contributed. There’s a marvellous scene in an all-white room, for example, which seems inspired by the obsessive decor in Des Esseintes’ house from À rebours, the novel which had a great influence on Dorian Gray (both book and character). I’d been intending on writing something substantial about Macy’s adaptation all summer but failed dismally due to a deluge of deadlines. Suffice to say it’s a very accomplished and (most important) erotic work, doing full justice to a story that makes many later erotic novels seem timid and evasive. The drawings are black-and-white throughout which gives a Beardsley-like quality in places, and Macy conveys a period feel without fretting over details as I’m afraid I’d be tempted to do. Northwest Press have published the new edition and have a selection of reviews here.

For the other Wildeana, Lambda Literary had a review of a new book by Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst, Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews which sounds like another essential purchase. And the Independent had this story about a sale of Wilde letters which included one to a magazine editor that may be read as a proposition. Readers of Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde will be familiar with the form and know that there’s no “maybe” about it; Priapus was calling.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive
The Oscar Wilde archive

Diaghilev’s World of Art

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Cover by Evgeny Lanceray for Prospectus of the Magazine, 1901.

Previous posts here have concerned fin de siècle art magazines like The Savoy, Pan and Jugend; yesterday we had Sergei Diaghilev so it seems fitting to mention Diaghilev’s own magazine, Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), founded in 1899 with similar intentions to the European magazines which were highlighting developments in art beyond the academic sphere. Mir Iskusstva was also the name of the Russian art group who used the magazine as their forum, and a number of the artists involved in the movement, notably Léon Bakst, Ivan Bilibin and Nicholas Roerich, went on to work for Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes.

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Cover by Léon Bakst for Mir iskusstva #8 (1902).

I find this later development especially fascinating since it positions the magazine as a precursor to the groundbreaking works which followed rather than being—as so many periodicals were and still are—a publication which had its moment of glory then faded from view. Of the works shown here, Vrubel’s Symbolist Demon, one of several painted by the artist, was featured in a 1903 edition of the magazine, whilst the Bakst painting, depicting the destruction of Atlantis, shows a Symbolist side to an artist who later became far better known for his Ballets Russes costume designs.

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Demon (1902) by Mikhail Vrubel.

Unlike the other magazines mentioned above, I’ve yet to come across a cache of whole editions of Mir Iskusstva (and I’m still waiting for Ver Sacrum to turn up somewhere). This page has an overview of the Russian art movement and its journal, while this page has a selection of works by the artists involved. For more of Vrubel’s work, Wikimedia Commons has the best collection of the artist’s paintings and sculpture.

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Terror Antiquus (1908) by Léon Bakst.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
The art of Ivan Bilibin, 1876–1942
Magic carpet ride
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

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Ida Rubinstein as Zobeide and Vaslav Nijinsky as the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade (1913) by Georges Barbier.

Another great exhibition at the V&A, London, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes gathers a wealth of costumes, stage designs, photographs and ephemera—including some of Stravinsky’s manuscripts—to present a history of the legendary ballet company and their visionary impresario. For those who can’t get to London the museum website shows some of the items which will be on display, and there’s also a blog about the installing of the exhibition. The enormous frontcloth from 1924 based on Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach received a flurry of attention in the press here but my own attention was caught by the picture of Natalia Goncharova‘s even more enormous backcloth for The Firebird. The exhibition runs to January 9, 2011.

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Cover of Le Théatre showing Tamara Karsavina in costume as the Firebird, May 1911.

While we’re on the subject, a new biography of the impresario, Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen, was reviewed last week in the New York Times:

Diaghilev loved beautiful young men, and at a time when the fashion in ballet was to exchange patronage for sex, his company provided a bounty. Scheijen dexterously plays his sources against one another to examine the erotic and professional dynamics between Diaghilev and his stars.

For a fictional (and necessarily heterosexual) account of those erotic and professional dynamics, I recommend Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) which not only has a central character based on Diaghilev but includes among the cast of real dancers Léonide Massine, dancer and principal choreographer of the Ballets Russes from 1915 to 1921.

See also:
Russian Ballet History | An archive and documentary site.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
The art of Ivan Bilibin, 1876–1942
Jack Cardiff, 1914–2009
Magic carpet ride
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky

Weekend links 31

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One of a series of illustrations by Vera Bock for A Ring and a Riddle (1944) by M.Ilin and E. Segal. Via A Journey Round My Skull.

The Creator of Devotion: Photos from a Vogue Hommes Japan feature by Matthew Stone. And also here.

Dressing For Pleasure: Jonny Trunk gets out the rubber gear. Related: King of Kinky.

Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) is having a show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Hackney Dissenting Academy #1: Throbbing Gristle, Iain Sinclair & Alan Moore.

Out Of The Flesh (1984) by Chakk. A great single never reissued on CD.

• Photographer Charles Gatewood remembers William Burroughs.

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The Endless Mural. Follow links here to have a play around.

Vinyl record sales are at the top of a four-year sales trend.

Can explosions move faster than the speed of light?

• Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car is reborn.

• Maximus Clarke talks with William Gibson.

Why Stephen Fry loves Wagner.

Kafka’s Last Trial.

• Alice Coltrane in concert, Warsaw, 1987: Harp solo | Impressions | Lonnie’s Lament | A Love Supreme.