One of the preeminent film and television directors of his time, Arthur Penn is best known for groundbreaking films like Mickey One, The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, and Night Moves. Two summers ago, Gregory Zucker and Robert White sat down with Penn in his Manhattan apartment to discuss his career.
RAIL: Let’s begin by discussing a constant theme in your work: the treatment of the outsider or the marginal figure in society. Why your interest in that sort of character?
ARTHUR PENN: I suppose that it’s around those marginal figures that interesting things happen. The more orthodox of us tend to go along our way, but we don’t shoot up a bank or do something really extraordinary. So, it’s mostly sort of after the fact that I even pay attention to that, because it’s really the story that intrigues me, and then as much of the psychology as I can intuit I use or invent.
There is also the inverted case of The Chase, in the sense that the central character, the sheriff played by Marlon Brando, is trying to keep a lid on a volatile situation. He is really trying to follow a non-outsider course and can’t. The events simply twist themselves to the point of despair, finally.
RAIL: And what about the treatment of marginal social groups in your films? Whether it’s Native Americans in Little Big Man or the migrant workers and African-Americans in The Chase, almost all of your films deal with marginal social groups.
PENN: I went to Black Mountain, which was an unorthodox college. It was not even a college because it was not accredited. I found it to be a haven for people. It was really dominated by people from the Bauhaus who had been forced out of Germany. They came to America with great international reputations, but they were not permitted to enter American academia. At that point, America said no to everything European. If you wanted to receive credentials you had to pass our examinations. Fortunately, it became a place that attracted a lot of marginal people, particularly artists. For example, while I was there, there was Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Bill de Kooning, and Rauschenberg. And there were not more than 200 people in the whole place, faculty and students, so we all knew each other very, very well.
Everybody there just fascinated me. These were giants. I thought, it takes a very small-minded society to keep people like that in a certain place. That is what sort of lay behind my choices to explore the lives of marginalized people: migrant workers, Native Americans, and African-Americans.
RAIL: You emerged to prominence as a filmmaker right after the era of blacklisting began to die out. What were its lingering effects?
PENN: Several years before I got into film, the blacklist was very widespread. I was in television. We were doing maybe the best dramatic show out of New York [called Goodyear Playhouse], and we would do everything we could to circumvent the blacklist. The choice was either “I do nothing with this, I have no association with it,” or “I work inside of it and try to do something.” And we did, clearing quite a few actors.
You know, you could not have gone through the Second World War with all that nonsense with Russia being an ally and then being the big black monster. It was an absurd time. The McCarthy period was ridiculous and humiliating, deeply humiliating. When I finally did Mickey One, it was in repudiation of the kind of fear that overtook free people to the point where they were telling on each other and afraid to speak out. It just astonished me, really astonished me. I mean, I was a vet, so it was nothing like what we thought we were fighting for. Also, during that period I met Alger Hiss, and we became very close friends. In fact, Alger got married here in my apartment. And so I became more of a student of the Hiss period than I knew what to do with, frankly.
RAIL: Let’s move to the present. How could someone use film and media as a means of social critique today?
PENN: The medium is there. I can’t see it coming through the orthodox financing channels. I went that way because the resources were there, but those have changed completely. They are parts of great, big international corporations who have no real concern about the content of film except as a money-making ingredient. So, I think it’s going to have to come from the ground-up again. It will come from the available technology now. What was almost unthinkable in my time is now thinkable. Of course the problem is going to be distribution, but then there’s the Internet. There is going to be a technological meeting somewhere, where film will be seen and heard, but not in the same way. Not with that great merchandising sweep that they presently have.
RAIL: Given the recent attention to so-called independent cinema over the last two decades, tell us your thoughts on how this phenomenon has been appropriated by the big studios. As a filmmaker who wrestled with the big studios on a regular basis, do you think that this independence they market so well is authentic or is this something of a financial ploy?
PENN: No, we’ve seen a lot of evidence of that now collapsing. I think it was, “Let’s do this, because we’ll be with the guys.” But they have no mechanism—psychological, financial—for dealing with being independent. You know, you can’t be Time Warner and independent. I think the world around theaters like the Anthology Film Archives in New York is truly the world of true independent filmmakers—what they need is distribution.
RAIL: When you look at the films shown at Anthology Film Archives, they are emphasizing a radicalism of form and not so much of content. How does one achieve a balance between serving an aesthetic radicalism and a radical content?
PENN: That’s the magical question.
RAIL: But, given this social context, given a crumbling economy and the war in Iraq, what do you think should be emphasized today?
PENN: But why aren’t those living aspects of the radically formed films? That’s what I think I was trying to do in Mickey One. I was trying to wed a social phenomenon to a liberalization of form.
RAIL: And in terms of your aesthetic education, does that come out of your experience at Black Mountain and the people you were studying under?
PENN: It was all that. It was the war. I was quite left politically all through World War Two. Then, under the G.I. Bill, I went to Black Mountain, which was socially radical without working very hard at it. That’s not what they were about. They were about art as it was alive and as it pertained to all the issues, but without being overly literal. De Kooning and others were exploring the unorthodox treatment of paint on canvas, which were really radical statements in and of themselves. At the same time, Bucky Fuller was building his radical structures—that’s when he started work on the dome.
When I came out of there, I had two more years on the G.I. Bill. I decided, “I’ll go to Italy and I’ll read Italian poetry without being able to know what I want to do in the world, where I want to go.” I eventually deviated a lot from the Italian poetry into looking at painting. I had a good time.
RAIL: Given the fact that you started off in television and then moved to film and then back to television, what do you think about the capacity of using television as an art form?
PENN: Well, I think it’s a popular medium. It’s wonderful when it’s wonderful. When HBO does a gangster series, we all watch it. But it has no real meaning. It is, after all, in the lap of big business. We haven’t really seen independent television—all television is owned. No, I think it’s going to come from digital film. I think that’s where it’s going to be, where something can endure, can be repeated, not as a commercial enterprise, but will end up on the Internet.
RAIL: That raises a question about the current technology. Now, you sit alone in front of your computer or television, and watch just about anything. More films are available than ever before, but in your view, how much of the aesthetic experience is lost in that process?
PENN: A lot. I hope there continues to be something like the Walter Reade, but more of them. But, of course, they don’t make a lot of financial sense—real estate just makes a game of it. So, I don’t know what the solution is, but I know that I aesthetically experience a real diminution whenever I watch something on DVD. I know my attention is not focused in a same way that it is in a movie theater.
RAIL: There is also the whole social aspect of going to a movie theater.
PENN: Everything about it. You are moving from your turf to their turf and that’s a very important part of giving over. That’s what makes Broadway, Broadway.
RAIL: Challenging the assumptions of American history is a theme in your films. Could you speak about that?
PENN: I guess I’m cynical about everything we’ve ever heard, about so-called “history.” One day, Paddy Chayefsky and I were talking about history and I said, “You know, this period is going to be remembered by what Arthur Schlesinger wrote.” Now, he said, “I know him, he’s a nice man, bright, but totally ambitious himself. He couldn’t wait to be in the Kennedy camp.”
I think that the myths about America have been certainly widespread about the wars in my time. I mean, Vietnam would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The Korean War was the illogical extension of the McCarthy terror, and so forth. So, I’ve always been suspicious of history and the way things are reported. And of course, Custer was one of the American myths I just could not wait to go after in Little Big Man.
On the other hand, The Miracle Worker was a really big experience for me because we had the letters [of Helen Keller]. We had so much of the actual data. What we didn’t have, until later was Bill Gibson’s dramatic skill of organizing it. I have a special place in my heart for that film.
RAIL: In one of your films, Night Moves, there is a line about the experience of watching an Eric Rohmer film as “like watching paint dry.” Is that you talking as you? It’s become a very popular, but controversial line.
PENN: The script said Chabrol, and it read “Chabrol film? It’s not like watching paint dry.” It’s a line I wanted to keep. So I thought, “Rohmer won’t mind.” But, apparently, some people took real umbrage at that. David Denby thought I meant it seriously and wrote a piece about the paganism of American filmmakers treating Rohmer this way. In point of fact, before I made Mickey One, I got to know all of these guys. And we hung out together in Paris.
RAIL: What are your thoughts on these figures in French New Wave cinema, who came out of the Cahiers du Cinéma? What was your opinion of them at the time?
PENN: I thought they were marvelous, just marvelous. And they were certainly a new voice. Their films were films in the face of poverty. I mean, you know, Godard’s film [Breathless] was edited the way it was because he didn’t have the money to do it any other way, and that was wonderful. I thought they were a terrific group.
RAIL: And the change in film criticism that was occurring at the time?
PENN: Oh, it saved my life. When I made The Left Handed Gun it was just dropped totally here. It got two nasty lines in the New York Times, and that was it. And then about a year later, I began to get some letters from friends in Paris saying, “Did you know what André Bazin wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma?” And I had no idea.
RAIL: Tell us your opinion of the underground experimental movement that was taking place in New York at the same time as you were working in television and in Hollywood.
PENN: I saw some of the films, and I was always intrigued by them. I have to confess, I was waiting for what we talked about earlier, which was the marriage between visual radicalism and thematic content with enough vigor to hold that together. But I think that they’re a very healthy part of what film is. You need a radical fringe.
RAIL: Given that you studied under German refugees from Nazism at Black Mountain, was there a kind of overlapping of intellectual life, the art world, and politics, that marked pre-War Germany?
PENN: Yes. They brought that with them. They were gracious, very elegant European people, but they also had a lot of passion. In 1947, they were already involved in the Civil Rights Movement. We were all in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or, at least, we all took part in the early Civil Rights Movement.
It was a remarkable spot, I got to tell you. It really was. And the subsequent years when Charles Olson was there, a lot of very good poetry came out. It was sort of vanity almost that I went down there not knowing much about it. I had read a little bit, and I was looking for an American college to go to. I took a bus down to Asheville. I visited and I didn’t leave. I just stayed.
RAIL: Talking about the civil rights, I am reminded of the beginning of The Chase where there’s an African-American woman with her grandson and she tells him, “we leave white business to white folks.” Tell us a bit more about how you came to be so interested in these issues.
PENN: You know, I don’t think it was anything special. It was just what my time was concerned with. Undoubtedly the war had a lot to do with my generation. We did buy a lot of those war stories about it being “one human race.” Then, of course the Holocaust burst on of all of us. I saw a little bit of it, not the concentration camp, but there were displaced persons camps all over Germany, because this population was totally migrant at that point and they locked these people out. When I came home, the situation was similar in many respects.
RAIL: To finish up, what direction do you think film should go in? What direction do you think film criticism should go in?
PENN: Well, I think film criticism has a fundamental obligation to tell the truth, to explore the truth, experience, and the filmmaker’s intention. It’s the basic premise of good literary criticism. As for thematic material, I would say my instinct would be to make fun of this moment where we have everything technologically, but nothing to say.
I think that is a very lively idea, and could be very funny and quite touching. There certainly isn’t enough, at least as far as I can see, good anger in the world. There has been a lot of self-satisfaction. Only recently, literally, are we beginning to feel real evidence of deprivation. It is suddenly hitting home, because it has been some kind of insane capitalist fantasy that was headed by George Bush. It just seems crazy that it could function, and yet it has functioned. Only now, we’re beginning to pay the toll. I don’t know—if I really had a go at it, I think I might go after something like that.