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Louis Menand Examines the Churn of American Culture After World War II

On occasion, foreign and American film styles clashed with amusing results. Menand’s description of the making of “Bonnie and Clyde” is a masterpiece of storytelling. The script came from two American journalists who imagined “a witty gangster picture featuring cool antiheroes in the manner of Belmondo in ‘Breathless’ and Charles Aznavour in … ‘Shoot the Piano Player,’ together with a romantic situation that would be a little outré, in the manner of ‘Jules and Jim.’” What could possibly go wrong?

François Truffaut expressed interest in making the film before bailing out to do “Fahrenheit 451.” He gave the script to his friend Jean-Luc Godard, who couldn’t fathom why the picture had to be shot in Texas when it could just as easily be filmed in Japan. “I’m talking cinema and you’re talking meteorology,” he lectured the two Americans before bidding them adieu. The option was picked up by Warren Beatty, whose career, post-“Splendor in the Grass,” had hit the skids. Brilliantly cast by the director Arthur Penn, the film barely made it off the lot. The studio boss, Jack Warner, despised it. Beatty bore no resemblance to Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney, Warner’s favorite bad guys, and the script depicting a clan of murderous but otherwise likable hillbillies left the mogul speechless beyond a string of obscenities.

“Bonnie and Clyde” got a better reception in Europe than it did in the United States. Bosley Crowther, the longtime critic for The New York Times, called it “a garish, grotesque film.” Other early reviews were similar, with the notable exception of Pauline Kael’s 7,000-word paean in The New Yorker, a publication, Menand notes, that catered to well-educated, culturally insecure folk “eager not to like the wrong things, or to like the right things for the wrong reasons.” Kael had a reputation for liking almost nothing. In this instance, however, her affection for the film’s quirkiness, sexuality and foreign touches helped to assure audiences, as well as future reviewers, that they were witnessing a changing of the guard. Or, as Menand puts it: “When Dunaway stroked Clyde’s pistol and sucked on her Coke bottle, the New Wave had truly come to America.”

Authors are free to choose their characters, of course, and Menand, with 727 pages of text, is freer than most. There are finely tuned capsule biographies of Elvis, the Beatles, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan and Tom Hayden, along with a host of public intellectuals whose occupation no longer exists. Hundreds of names are mentioned, making it difficult at times to connect the dots. And there are some curious omissions, like Alfred Kinsey, whose huge studies of the sexual practices of America’s men and women caused a cultural earthquake; and Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, the nation’s premier women writers, whose bare-knuckled exchanges are the literary version of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy.

Menand concludes in the 1960s, with Vietnam as the anchor. The antiwar movement had begun with scattered student protests against the role of the modern university as the servant of the power elite — a message borrowed from the sociologist C. Wright Mills, and echoed by President Eisenhower, of all people, in his farewell address. And the protests had remained that way, confined largely to college campuses, until the grinding escalation in Vietnam could no longer be ignored. America’s avant-garde came late to the struggle, but quickly made its presence felt. Political activism replaced political indifference. Some believed that Vietnam sucked the oxygen from America’s most creative minds. Menand takes a more sympathetic view, seeing the shift as a welcome, if belated, response to an unfolding disaster.

Meanwhile, Realists like Kennan and Morgenthau lashed out at the insanity of entering a conflict in which the United States had no legitimate interests. By then, Kennan had softened his earlier views, admitting that containment could never be a blank check. There were nations that were worth defending, and nations that weren’t. His contempt for the arrogance of the Kennedy-Johnson policy hawks outweighed his distaste for radical students waving Vietcong flags.

In 1945, America had been viewed as a cultural backwater with a generous government — one that had shed blood to liberate Europe and then spent billions to get the continent back on its feet. Two decades later, the opposite was true. American culture was confident and diverse, while the government’s reputation was in tatters. One hopes Menand has a sequel in mind. The bar is set very high.

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