Arthur Penn, who died last month at the age of eighty-eight, was, among many other things, a very nice man. I suspect you thought I was going to call him a visionary filmmaker but if you read this blog, you probably knew that. For that matter I probably can skip the professional stuff (or redirect you to his Wikipedia entry for a brush up) and jump to the personal--heading for the category now known in computerland as "My Arthur Penn."
I knew Arthur on and off for twenty-five years, ever since I was an undergrad at Bard College. He came up to the school to teach a course one spring and I was one of the handful of students selected to participate in the class. (It was quite a fussy deal, as I recall--he met with a number of students, interviewed us, and picked who he wanted in the class). The focus of the class was on screenwriting and he made copies of a few of his scripts available to us in the library--one of them was Calder Willingham's adaptation of "Little Big Man" which I remember being thrilled to see had the scene numbers intact (hence it was his shooting script).
Everything about Arthur impressed me and in a sense showed me what the bearing of a director needs to be. He was insightful, outwardly modest and unflamboyant, but gave you the sense that you were the only one in the room when he focused on you. There was no mistaking his innate authority; the low-key, professorial manner masked a very steely resolve. I wasn't surprised when he told us about his "leaving" the movie "Altered States" due to differences with Paddy Chayefsky, the writer. This was in the context of a conversation about the roles of the writer and director on a movie when the job isn't held by the same person and, without dishing any dirt, he made it clear that the control Chayefsky wished to exercise was not something that Arthur was prepared to share.
The class met once a week and a number of us began writing original screenplays (in my case my first attempt at a feature length one). Then a terrible thing happened. One of the students who was writing a quite compelling script was killed in a car crash, apparently while tripping on acid. This dreadful occurance made it quite difficult to get back to business as usual. Things were saved, in an odd way, by Arthur getting a job; he was hired to direct a movie called "Target", which starred Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon. He was only sporadically available for the rest of the semester and so no real continuity of work could be achived in the class.
But this led to one of the most memorable days we wound up having. I had never seen his legendary 1965 movie "Mickey One" (below I've posted the films unbelievably groovy credit sequence) but had read much about it. In that pre-historic pre-video, pre cable era, film buffs were reliant on revival houses and thirteen television channels for all their needs and "Mickey One" was tied up in some kind of legal limbo. Quite casually, I mentioned that I'd always wanted to see it and Arthur--a bit bemused perhaps--said he had a print of it. I urged him to bring it up. At first he was a bit reluctant--could it be that he hadn't seen it in awhile and wondered if it held up? Finally he relented. And so one fine late spring afternoon, a handful of us sat in the little screening room that Bard had recently installed and watched one of the freshest, most innovative early crossover new-wave/mainstream masterworks with the man who made it. Hard to explain how very important that afternoon was to me. The idea that the films creator was, twenty years later, sitting in a room dispassionately watching a work of art he'd willed into existence, was truly thrilling to me. Equally impressive was my discovery after the screening that Arthur was driven up to the school for the day each week by a hired driver who waited for him. (I discovered this when I offered to help him carry the film cans back to his car). The waiting Mercedes, the sleeping chauffeur, the pensive back-seat drive back to the city...now that's a real director, thought I...
"Target", the movie he left to make, wasn't terribly good. And I'm sorry to say that nothing he did afterward was much better. In some ways, Arthur was a victim of his time--the movies that he was allowed, in his prime, to make simply weren't movies that studios were making anymore. He was more active on Broadway and announced a few film projects along the way, but his film career was effectively over twenty years before his death. What a waste! But that's the filmmakers dilemma--to make only what you want and risk extinction or make what THEY want and court mediocrity. Arthur, ever his own man, opted for the former.
Fifteen years later, I got a phone call that fifteen years earlier I never would have expected to get. It was Arthur Penn complimenting me on my second movie, "Two Family House", which he'd just seen at Lincoln Plaza. He remembered me from that long-forgotten spring and was pleased to see that I'd gotten where I'd wanted to in life. And I knew that his warm words about the movie were sincere--because I knew that Arthur wasn't somebody who handed out compliments or picked up the phone just to gab with former students. Arthur was all about integrity, conviction and certainty of where he stood. Those qualities were, I'm sure, what compelled some of the major collaborators of his life--Beatty, Brando, Bancroft and so many more--to go further in their work with him than they'd ever previously gone. He also knew how to live. His courtliness, intelligence, curiosity and distinguished bearing were--to me--as influential as his films..to say nothing of that chauffeured Mercedes.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 9:05 AM