‘Beautiful images are all well and good but we need films that take a stand’

When meeting the man who made the definitive gangster movie, «Bonnie and Clyde,» one expects large doses of cynicism. Instead, the 80-year-old American filmmaker Arthur Penn («Dead of Winter,» «Target,» «Four Friends,» «The Missouri Breaks,» «Little Big Man» and «Alice’s Restaurant,» among others), who was in Athens as the guest of honor at the recent Film Panorama organized by the Eleftherotypia daily, radiates sweetness and good will, with rosy cheeks and top physical fitness. His cheeks become redder though, when he talks about US President George W. Bush. Do you feel any nostalgia for the 1960s? I would have to say yes. I have a feeling that young people back then used to be a lot more active. They had energy, there were causes. Today, George Bush is doing terrible things and nobody is reacting. What bothers you most about the Bush administration? He’s a businessman. The only thing he’s interested in is oil. But that’s not all. His economic policies, instead of aiming at favoring the middle classes, continuously strengthen the rich. He gives very little thought to the people who need it most. You never stopped living in New York, even when you were working in Hollywood. How come? I never went to live in Hollywood simply because I never felt comfortable there. Anyway, in New York I could do theater at the same time as making movies. Many people have categorized me as being a film director. I have to remind them that I have spent as much time doing theater as I did doing film. If we put it all down, you will see that I have directed 11 movies and 12 plays on Broadway. Speaking of New York, I can’t help but ask you what effects the September 11, 2001 attacks had on the city. Americans suffered an unprecedented shock. They had never experienced anything similar. Things were a bit different for me. I served during World War II and I have seen a lot of destruction. Therefore, I could say that the effect on me was less intense, less dramatic. This does not mean, of course, that I did not feel sorrow and shock for the death of thousands of people. You were one of the first directors in Hollywood to depict violence in such a clear-cut manner. I thought of things completely differently back then. We were in the age of the Vietnam War. We would hear, we knew, that so many people were losing their lives, Americans and Vietcong, but we couldn’t really see it. I wanted to show it. To show death on screen. Was it mostly a reaction? Yes. But it was also more than that. I think that young people don’t really have a real social or political agenda so they end up using their energy in the wrong way. That is why they give an impression that their violence is senseless. It seems senseless and ridiculous because there are no clear motives. We are not surprised by someone being injured or killed during a protest. Everyone thinks it’s normal. But if a 13-year-old kills a classmate in the schoolyard, we think it strange. For me, the cause is the same. In the early 1990s, American independent cinema seemed on the brink of offering a dynamic alternative to studios. This dynamism seems to have subsided today. Why is that? There are a lot of good independent directors around and I will just mention Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers and Jonathan Demme. But you know what the problem is? There isn’t a suitable social context within which this can develop any further. I’ll give you an example. I went and saw Sam Mendes’s new film («The Road to Perdition»). It’s a movie that talks about the Great Depression in the 1930s but what you see are beautiful images: a lovely Tom Hanks, a very handsome Paul Newman, nice, sweet kids. That’s all well and good, but nowadays we need films that take a stand. Do you believe that digital technology will renew hope of a more pluralistic cinema? It is a very big hope. I love cinema and the use of a digital cameras is unavoidable; I can see it coming. Movies will be made with a lot less money and this means that people with talent who couldn’t make a movie with the cost of a conventional camera will be able to very soon. Why should we be afraid of such a development? You have worked with some of the greatest names in Hollywood. Do you have any favorites? I have worked with very important artists and to tell you the truth, it’s always been difficult for me to single someone out. I can tell you about Dustin Hoffman. I can speak fondly of Dustin, but if you asked me about Marlon Brando I would do the same. They each had a special quality. And they gave it, just like that. Though you made some of the most important films of the 1960s, you have dealt with publicity a lot differently than the norm. First of all, I never left New York. Second of all, I have had the same woman by my side for 48 years. I have two children and four grandchildren. I chose a quiet, family life. This interview has been translated from the Greek version.