Two by Penn
For a few years in the late 1960s, director Arthur Penn employed Method acting, nouvelle vague filmmaking, and his own intuitive left-liberal sympathies to make three landmark films that sum up their era as much as any speech or concept album (Bonnie and Clyde, Alice's Restaurant, Little Big Man). This week, Bay Area viewers have a chance to catch three Penn films from either side of his golden age. The double bill of Mickey One (1964) and The Chase (1966) at the Roxie on Sunday and Monday is a good place to see where Penn, and America, were coming from in the run-up to their Summers of Love. Mickey One is the very definition of arty and pretentious cinema, which must be why I love it so much -- its existential tale of a nameless comedian on the lam from the mob is chockablock with obscure symbolism, bizarre flourishes, and some very funny throwaway gags. Warren Beatty looks young and hungry in this black-and-white curio, which if nothing else is the film of a free man pushing the medium, and his talent, to the limit.
Its rarely screened companion feature The Chase is heavy and lugubrious by contrast, possibly because Penn was removed from the editing process by producer Sam Spiegel, or perhaps because its Southern Gothic material (penned by Lillian Hellman) is simply intractable. It's a sick-soul-of-America allegory that only comes to life when Penn can put a scene over visually, as in a drunken party that becomes a mock shooting match. Also of use is the generally fine acting by a large cast, of whom the standouts are less the big names (who include Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Robert Duvall) than some of the supporting cast. The forgotten James Fox is particularly good as the dissolute scion of the local dynasty, bringing to tarnished life a cliched part. Finally, there's Penn's post-hippie era Night Moves (1975), a disillusioned detective film with no solution and no heroes -- like the rest of America at the time. It screens Wednesday (May 20) at the UC Berkeley. Gene Hackman stars as the detective who just doesn't get it, a stand-in for Penn, perhaps, who didn't understand why America elected Nixon, even as Brando never comprehends just why he can't maintain the law in the same Texas that killed John Kennedy. The two or three films of any significance Penn has made in the 20 years since says volumes about both his limitations and ours.
The Chase screens Sunday and Monday, May 24-25, at 2:45 and 7:15 p.m. (with Mickey One at 1, 5:15, and 9:45 p.m.) at the Roxie, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia). Tickets are $6; call 863-1087. Night Moves screens Wednesday, May 20, at 3:20 and 7:15 p.m. (with Robert Altman's California Split at 5:15 and 9:10 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6.50; call (510) 843-3456.
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