Robert Mckee exposes in his books the ‘change of story values’ and how essential they are in films. And I happen to find the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) from director Arthur Penn a great sample of it. ‘Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next”.
In this film, the color of the universe is bright and literally shines when there’s excitement in their journey (robbing a bank, finishing a crime without problems): the triumphal scenes that go with the southern sound of the banjo. And then it turns a little blurry and even monochromatic in the more sentimental parts of the film.
One example that can better describe how the scenes work, would be when, near the end, the whole gang is being chased by the police. We witness a police shooting and they finish in a forest, where Clyde’s brother and sister in law are hurt. The five try to scape in a car (along with Moss and Bonnie), but Clyde gets a bullet in his arm too.
After trying too hard, Moss, Clyde and Bonnie get out of the place, but the other two are just too weak to do it. The three survivors find a new car to scape and the banjo sounds tell us how they got lucky.
We go from the negative situation to a more positive one, along with the music and color that narrate that too.
But the director surely also knows about suspense. When he doesn’t use the banjo theme soundtrack, I find two kinds of dramatic scenes: ones that introduce us to the inner lives of the characters. Those scenes where they don’t really do much but they show us about themselves and how vulnerable they are (for instance: the ‘failed’ sex scenes between the protagonists). These go along with a tremendously heavy silence, that leaves all the attention to what they express with their faces and through the dialogues, often resolved in closed places with little amount of light.
The others would be the action scenes, with a variation in the lights but with rapidity and excitement that come with the fact that they’re bandits. They have to run away from the law very often so these scenes represent climax that go with the sounds of the shootings and a music that elevates the pulse of the spectators.
When we first meet the characters Bonnie and Clyde we experience the excitement of the road that is also charged with the suspense caused by danger.
During this trip of delinquency and road to stardom, they find new partners and make their way with them now. They star doing just robberies but they advance to kill people, and get a higher position with the crimes. We find here what Mckee calls the ‘active protagonists’, a character that ‘in the pursuit of desire takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him’. Through the movie we see a transformation from where they begin, the way they rob and to whom, how they dress, the fame that comes with crimes, how they get bigger, their inner affairs, etc.
We encounter the path of Bonnie, this young girl who from the first moment of the film is irreverent. She surely wants change, excitement in his life and finds Clyde who shows a rude and elegant look, the bad guy type that seems to be just what she’s been looking for. Here can fit the descriptions that Panksepp makes, when he says: ‘The high incentive state, from the nervous system perspective, may be the arousal of an emotive process that invigorates search and foraging behaviors’. She wants something, not really sure if she knows what it is, but she will do whatever it takes to get it.
They both begin a search, a constant seeking, a look for a reward of a better life than the one they had. They’re curious and ambitious. Through his experiments Panksepp confirms that those who like to be engage with curiosity ‘here and now’ have the urge to reach out for more. And that’s exactly what they’re engaged to do, live for the moment and achieve a glamorous life (like when we see Bonnie watching the film in the cinema or they taking photos of themselves).
As we go on, not only the crimes get bigger, and more elaborated, but their relationship becomes closer, and they go through different stages, obstacles and success. They live for the moment and still when they die they have the adrenaline that feeds their spirit to continue and to keep reaching new goals and defeat personal records (first robbery, then killing, then shootings).
My favorite scene from the movie
I’d have to choose the last act, which concludes a journey in a special way.
They defeated death in their last encounter with the police, where Clyde’s brother and sister in law where left behind. Their wounds have healed and one more time they will get ready for the new adventures. They’re shopping for some stuff in Moss’s hometown, including a little ballerina porcelain, which Bonnie claims to be the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. They wait for their partner Moss but suddenly the Sheriff’s car arrives. Clyde starts to drive carefully and slowly, and again they’re free, just like that. Moss watches them from the inside of a house with a proud face, because ‘no one catches Clyde’, he affirmed earlier to his father.
After all they have been through together; each one has an idea about what the future holds. For me, they really don’t have a clear idea about what they were trying to achieve. Clyde says a few times how he would like to get married and be with Bonnie. She is more likely to look insecure, expectant and doubtful about where they’re going, but wants to keep going. Anyhow, as spectators we’re in front of a pair of lovers that have overcome little and big obstacles that life has set for them, to name a few: family issues, police chases, sexual problems, and being near death so often. Being living legends, provides them satisfaction and tranquility.
We’re back in the scene when Bonnie is filled with joy, eating an apple on the way. Clyde has a smile on his face that pretty much says ‘nothing can go wrong with us’. They see Moss’ dad on the road and then they stop. He apparently has a problem so Clyde gets out of the car to help him. The old man seems scared, and much more when sees that another car is coming. Suddenly he looks a little forest on the side where some pigeons fly scared. There’s obviously someone behind the trees, and Bonnie and Clyde just figured it out. The camera shows us the stare they gave each other, so full of love and so thankful too. They know that is it. Next thing: with a slow motion the movie gives us the end of this couple, their death arrives in the form of excessive shooting from the Sheriff and the Town’s police that had the whole thing planned.
The use of slow motion, reinforces the idea that these adventures were destined to finish like that, in a sense of fate and tragedy. We witness the end of this powerful couple, as I said, living legends of local crimes, committed to their roles of bandits, inspired by characters like James Dean, and that meet a sudden death taken by surprise. For me, they found death with the desire for more, the seeking system activated. They were motivated by the many plans and rewards they were trying to collect in a life that was not to finish soon.