When first released, Penn’s films were groundbreaking for their graphic representations of violence and social tensions that had been previously absent in movies, which Penn said was intended to echo the brutal assassinations of prominent leftist individuals, the rebellious youth and counter-cultural movements sweeping the nation, and the hostile oppositional beliefs so prevalent in American society at the time.
Penn described a snapshot of the atmosphere of American society at the time that he was directing his movies. “We were living in a period when two Kennedys had been killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, John Wallace had been paralyzed,” he said. “Violence was right near the edge of the not-so-distant parts of society.”
Despite the brutal scenes in many of Penn’s films, he recognized the senselessness of depicting gratuitous bloodshed and remained committed to communicating the emotional motivations behind a character’s move to violence.
“Violence is one part of human nature. Violence is a part of us all—except Bosley Crowther,” he said, referring to the New York Times critic who denounced “Bonnie and Clyde” as a “cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy” remarkable only for its pointless violence and lack of taste.
Penn reacted against critics such as Crowther who, during America’s military engagement in Vietnam, deemed the brutal undertones of his films irrelevant.
He also expressed admiration for the young people who tore up their draft cards, resisted the war, and sought peace—the generation that inspired him to write “Alice’s Restaurant,” a film loosely based on Arlo Guthrie’s anti-war protest song of the same name.
“Each generation has its own spirit,” Penn said. “The one that was the generation of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ was the group that rejected the draft. That was extraordinarily bold and forthcoming politically. This current generation...I don’t know what the beef is.”
The director also offered little-known pieces of trivia about the films screened at the HFA. In “The Chase,” for example, Marlon Brando refused to use a stunt double in the scene in which his character, Sheriff Calder, is attacked by men living in the surrounding town, insisting that the other actors actually hit him. The fight was shot off-time in order to simulate a real beating.
Brando also once convinced the director of the existence of an imaginary Native American tribe; playwright Lillian Hellman had coughing fits whenever an actor paraphrased a line; Penn’s advice to John F. Kennedy ’40 in the first live-television presidential debates with Richard M. Nixon was to “use close-ups.”
Despite the technical advances that have pushed the art of film forward, Penn emphasized the fundamental importance of understanding actors and their role in front of the camera. “Only people on that side of the lens are actors,” he said. “And they better feel that you know what they’re doing and how they got there...how they can be emotionally vulnerable in front of that damn lens.”
—Staff writer Denise J. Xu can be reached at email@example.com.