Wednesday, April 22, 2009
He doesn't work as much as a director these days (although when he does, he can be spectacular), and his most high-profile public profile of late has been as an actor in films like Broken English and television shows like Law & Order and The Sopranos (where he played the shrink to Lorraine Bracco's shrink, to wonderfully deadpan effect). So it's easy to forget just what a remarkable directorial run Peter Bogdanovich had between 1968 and 1981.
It started with Targets, a film generated by producer Roger Corman's desire to not waste cut footage from an earlier film, The Terror: he told Bogdanovich he could make any film he wanted as long as he used Karloff and the footage, and stayed under certain time and budget constraints.
Together with his then-wife and close collaborator Polly Platt, Bogdanovich came up with an eerie thriller that weaves together a cinephiliac love of Hollywood's past and a sardonic take on its present (Karloff is working in B-movies for a Cormanesque producer). He then drops those characters into a contemporary Los Angeles whose populace will become sniper targets for a disaffected Vietnam vet. Released just two months after the RFK assassination, the film had a mixed critical and commercial reception, but it's available on DVD, and it's worth looking at again-- for a young director, Bogdanovich has a remarkable sense of pacing and tone, and he gets wonderful performances out of his cast.
That love of actors would serve Bogdanovich well on his next film, The Last Picture Show. According to the take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Targets caught the eye of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, the producer-director-businessman team who'd formed BBS in the late sixties (the company was made possible through Schneider and Rafelson's success creating and producing The Monkees TV show, and it's one of my favorite movie ironies that this most hipster of film companies owed its existence to bubblegum pop). BBS had made Head, and then scored big with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and it functioned as a kind of post-graduate hive for Corman alums like Jack Nicholson. BBS told Bogdanovich they wanted to work with him, shot down his initial idea for a thriller, then agreed to make The Last Picture Show, an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel that, according to writer Peter Biskind, Bogdanovich had not even read when he blurted the title out.
Shooting on location in Texas, and following the Targets model of older character actors (Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman) and relative unknowns (Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms, among others), The Last Picture Show had a tumultuous birthing process (involving several romantic triangles, an affair between Bogdanovich and Shepherd and many arguments about the raw sexuality of the film, and its black-and-white look). It was captured best by journalist Grover Lewis, a childhood friend of McMurtry's who agreed to play a small role in the film, and did a magisterial piece for Rolling Stone, "Splendor In The Short Grass," on the making of the film; amidst lyrical descriptions of the craggy Texas landscape, and atmospheric anecdotes about cast birthday parties (where "Mexican hors d'oeuvres are making the rounds, and Jagger is bleating 'Sympathy For The Devil' on a tinny cassette machine"), one of the running jokes of the piece is that cast and crew members would yell out "Academy!" at different points during the shoot, in both sincere and sarcastic tones, to break up the tension or raise the spirits. It turned out to be prophetic: the movie was a huge hit on release, and scored eight Oscar nominations, eventually winning supporting awards for Leachman and Johnson. A year later, it was still playing in New York when Bogdanovich's next film, the screwball pastiche What's Up, Doc? was released; Bogdanovich has told the story of going to New York in 1972, seeing both films playing in his hometown and feeling like a conquering hero: "It was a peak," he says in Raging Bulls (between the two films, Bogdanovich would also release his auteurist documentary, Directed By John Ford).
Certainly, the two films demonstrate his range: in contrast to the sad elegy for a dying way of life that we see in Picture Show, Doc is effervescent fun, all quick dialogues, winky double-entendres and expertly timed pratfalls; Cinematographer Robert Surtees crafts Picture Show in a Dust Bowl black-and-white, while Laszlo Kovacs' camerawork on Doc is a bright, summery Technicolor; and while both owe a lot to Classic Hollywood models (Robert Altman-- no stranger to genre play himself-- would derisively refer to Bogdanovich as "Mr. Xerox"), Picture Show aches with reverence and longing for patriarchal models like Johnson, while Doc is hell-bent on using its Hawksian play to pinpoint and make blossom the off-kilter appeal of its very contemporary stars, Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand.
I blow hot and cold on Streisand as an actress, but there's no question that she's a delight in What's Up, Doc?. As she walks in a gangly hippie manner across a San Francisco street, chewing gum while a boating cap throws shadows across her face, she really does have a quirky sex appeal, and it's hard to resist the pull of her character, Judy, as she lures stuffy academic Howard Bannister (O'Neal) out of his shell, and away from his fiancee Eunice (Madeline Kahn). She crashes a conference dinner (where she ends up underneath one of the tables); she "seduces" him on a piano while singing "As Time Goes By" (just before she falls off); she gets him involved in a high-speed chase around San Francisco whose escalating sight gags make it a worthy hommage to Buster Keaton; but like Susan Vance and Ellie Andrews and other great screwball heroines, her self-absorption and full-steam-ahead craziness somehow make her more lovable, not less. "Love means never having to say you're sorry," she coos to O'Neal at the end, in a play on the famous line from O'Neal's last hit, Love Story; after a perfectly timed beat, O'Neal responds, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
I first saw Doc when I was seven or so, when it was on TV one night; I didn't understand a lot of it, of course, but its offbeat mixture of high comedy, sweet romance and occasional melancholy stayed with me, and I remember thinking about the film for days afterwards, and wondering what happened to its characters after the screen went dark. That juggling of tones is central to a lot of Bogdanovich's best work, but also to those films that are more of a mixed bag. His next two movies, Paper Moon and Daisy Miller, fall into the latter category, but they're both worth watching.
Moon is very funny until you stop to think about the actual darkness of its tale of a father-daughter con team on the run. I haven't seen the film in five or six years, but I remember it as balancing between the mournful and the manic. It's full of narrative twists and fast-talking performances, but the deep-focus black-and-white and the beautifully ornate set designs of Polly Platt always pull the viewer back into something slower and more textured: the tonal sleight of hand that occurs as the viewer's eye moves from the comedy in the foreground to the drama in the background is the movie's best embodiment of the cons its characters are pulling.
Miller, an adaptation of Henry James' novella, was savaged upon initial release, but it's aged well: Bogdanovich uses elaborate long takes and deep focus shots as a surrogate for the dense description of James' prose, and if he can't quite translate the interiority of James' voice (who could?), his close-ups and the understated sadness he pulls from his cast (a better-than-advertised Cybill Shepherd, a brilliantly cold Eileen Brennan and very quiet Barry Brown) at least suggest the kinds of impenetrable depths and walled-off aesthetics that trap and doom James' characters.
Alberto Spagnoli's location photography artfully balances the bright exterior light of Italy with the heavy shadows of the bedrooms and drawing room parties where a single glance can cut open an emotional vein; Frederic Raphael works hard to capture and naturalize the ornate dialogue of the characters, and can't be blamed if the more modern timbres of the actors are occasionally jarring. It's not a perfect film, but it is an admirable one.
Bogdanovich would return to these themes of class, urbanity, art and doomed love in a brighter, more contemporary setting in 1981's They All Laughed. It was meant to be his American comeback after the set-in-Singapore thriller Saint Jack (itself his first film in three years), but he failed to find a distributor, decided to distribute it himself, and was bankrupted by its commercial failure. Far worse was the tragedy that haunted the film: Bogdanovich had fallen in love with Dorothy Stratten, one of the film's stars, and Stratten's jealous husband killed her in a murder-suicide. This was a series of blows it would take years for Bogdanovich to recover from, and the film's sad history and poor box office (despite some glowing reviews) meant the movie was unavailable for years.
It was finally released on DVD in 2006, and it's an amazing film, for my money the best thing Bogdanovich has done to date. The title refers to a Gershwin song, and the Manhattan setting set me up for something screwball and jazzy. So, of course, the first shot is a taxi headed into Manhattan, accompanied by the sound of country music on the radio. The voice is that of Colleen Camp, who also stars in the film as a singer and go-between for many of the film's mixed-up romantic triangles. She's delightfully dizzy, and the embodiment of the movie's desire to constantly throw curveballs your way: just when you think you've got its narrative and tone sussed out (quirky pop detective film! OK!), it goes somewhere else (fizzy tale of love across class boundaries! Got it!), only to end up somewhere else again (quasi-New Wavish integration of NYC location work and delicate narrative piece! No problem!), then somewhere else still again (intentionally unstable mix of bright romance and sad, doomed love! Sure! Please don't change on me again!).
And somehow, all of this fits together like a movie master class, as Bogdanovich and a sterling cast that includes Stratten, John Ritter, Camp, and the pitch-perfect pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara (who apparently fell in love, in a doomed manner very similar to the way their fictional narrative plays out on-screen) expertly negotiate a story that unfolds as a series of incidents and accidents as much as a "proper" narrative.
Looking at his IMDb credits, I noticed that Bogdanovich likes to cast himself as a DJ in his films (he does so in both Laughed and Picture Show) and it's interesting to think about that as analogous to being a film director: instead of worrying about arcs and themes, he offers us movies and scenes as musical variations on a larger set of cinephiliac concerns. It's not surprising that Wes Anderson conducts a fascinating, lengthy interview with Bogdanovich on the Laughed DVD: you can see how the film's mixture of fairy tale fantasy and occasionally harsh reality would influence Anderson's own aesthetic.
Between Miller and Laughed, Bogdanovich went through a period of flops and reassessments. Miller was Bogdanovich's first commercial failure, and he'd follow it with an even bigger one, the can't-sing/can't-dance musical At Long Last Love. I'm on record as saying I'd love to see this film, if only someone would release it on DVD; even if it's bad, I can't resist the perverse pleasure of Burt Reynolds 'singing' Cole Porter. Bogdanovich followed that up with Nickelodeon, a look back at the creation of Hollywood in the 1910s and 20s, and Saint Jack, a thriller that was his first collaboration with longtime friend Gazzara (they had a mutual friend in John Cassavetes; I can't think of two more opposed sensibilities among 70s filmmakers, but in his book about directors, Who The Devil Made It, Bogdanovich has a lovely remembrance of Cassavetes, and moving anecdotes about the latter's friendship and support after Stratten's murder).
None of these films has been available for years, but I was delighted to read, via Dave Kehr, that Nickelodeon was released as part of a two-disc set this week, and includes both the theatrical release and a director's cut (the latter in black-and-white, rather than the color that the studio forced on Bogdanovich). It sounds great, and the comments section of Kehr's post extends the discussion about the film into a broader conversation about pastiche, history, and Hollywood's obsession with a mythical American past. Now that the late sixties/early seventies moment in which Bogdanovich began is itself as mythologized, as floating in a misty past as the world that Nickelodeon recreates, I'm very curious to see Nickelodeon, and to fill in one more blank in this remarkable director's career.