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Doc Talk

Meet the real Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, pictured in 1933.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, pictured in 1933.Jim Hounschell

Here’s an opportunity to compare a documentary and fictional feature version of the same event.

Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) dramatized the rise and fall of the bank-robbing couple whose Depression-era crime spree infuriated lawmen but delighted the public — especially those with little love for banks that were foreclosing on their homes and farms. Penn’s brilliant film was a formal and stylistic breakthrough for Hollywood, one the first of the masterpieces that led to the all-too-brief auteur heyday of the ’60s and ’70s. Starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, it focused on the power of self-generated myth, inspired by pop culture, which turns ugly when it collides with brute reality.


John Maggio’s PBS “American Experience” documentary “Bonnie & Clyde” (airing Tuesday at 9 p.m.) doesn’t try anything fancy; it’s a solidly conventional investigation featuring interviews with those with links to the two, and with cultural and historical experts along with archival footage, stills, newspaper clips, and a voice-over narration by Michael Murphy. What it lacks in style points it makes up for in information. That includes such illuminating facts as the circumstances of Clyde’s first homicide. While in prison he bashed in the brains of another con with a wrench. Some would say justifiably — the victim had been repeatedly raping him for two years. It also makes clear the depths of poverty from which the pair arose, photos of destitution reminiscent of those by Walker Evans. These suggest motives for their behavior more compelling than the impact of movies like “Little Caesar” (1931).

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True confessions

Autobiography may be the least reliable form of recording the truth, whether written down or filmed. Joe Gibbons, a veteran avant-garde filmmaker with a dry and subversive sense of humor, probes that disparity in quasi-documentaries about a character called Joe Gibbons, who may or may not be himself.


As it turns out, even fictitious or invented personae must bear responsibility for their actions. Just ask Bonnie and Clyde.

In “Spying” (1978), Gibbons indulges in the primary impulse behind all filmmaking — voyeurism — as he covertly records the activities of his neighbors as they garden, sunbathe, practice nude yoga, and, sometimes, look at him.

Fortunately no one called 911, and he’d didn’t have to explain, “Hey, officer, I’m not a peeping-tom, I’m an artist!”

Not this time.

In the more ominously titled “Confessions of a Sociopath” (2001), Gibbons takes a harder look at himself, pasting together bits and pieces of footage depicting him being destructive and committing crimes (punching blossoms in a patch of mums, among the lighter offenses), resorting to substance abuse (he sips a beer and says, “this helps me understand a little bit”), and engaging in extended therapy that probes the past to find the reason why he is the way he is.

It’s all quite funny until the behavior explored becomes less cute and more pathological. He steals things, he shoots heroin. For its merging of real life and invention, of comedy and depravity, many critics included it in best of the year lists in Artforum and Film Comment.

But Gibbons, whether the persona or the filmmaker, decided to go a step too far. Last New Year’s Eve in New York’s Chinatown, he entered a bank, pointed his tiny digital camera at the teller, and handed her a note reading “This is A ROBBERY—LARGE Bills—NO DYE PACKS/No GPS.”


He took the money and ran. The police caught up to him in a seedy hotel, and to his credit, he remained in character, whatever that might be, all the way through the booking process. He is now in jail. The police have the camera. Perhaps when he is free he can make the long-awaited sequel to “Confessions of a Sociopath.”

Until then, one can watch the original “Confessions of a Sociopath” and “Spy” when they are screened by the MassArt Film Society on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Massachusetts College of Art Film Department’s screening room 1, 621 Huntington Ave., Boston.

For more information go to www.

Domestic terrorism

Those worried about ISIS tend to overlook the fact that 250,000 “hate crimes” are committed in the US every year by people unaffiliated with any militant Islamic group. So what’s the difference between “terrorism” and “hate crimes?” Perhaps the answer might be found in Rachel Lyon’s documentary “Hate Crimes in the Heartland,” which narrows the topic down to two instances that occurred in Tulsa, Okla. — 90 years apart. It seems that hate crimes have a long tradition in the United States.

“Hate Crimes in the Heartland” screens Monday at 7 p.m. at Emerson College’s Bright Screening Room in the Paramount Theater, 559 Washington St., Boston. Admission is free.

For more information go to www.


Eyes still on the prize

The tradition of hate crimes, racism, and other iniquities does not go unopposed, as the groundbreaking PBS documentary series “Eyes on the Prize, I and II” demonstrates. Created by Henry Hampton and produced by Blackside Inc., this multi-award winning epic relates the inspiring history of the civil rights movement, as seen and experienced by the extraordinary and ordinary people who made it possible, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955 to Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) in 1983.

It seems about time to make a sequel documenting the progress — or lack thereof — made in the three decades since.

Meanwhile, it is inspiring to see what has been accomplished in the past as PBS reprises the series. “Eyes on the Prize I” can be seen on six consecutive Sundays on the WORLD Channel starting Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. “Eyes on the Prize II” will air eight consecutive Sundays beginning Feb. 28. A short documentary, “Eyes on the Prize: Then and Now,” precedes the Jan. 17 broadcast at 7:30 p.m.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.