Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Brief Introduction to the Cinema of Peter Bogdanovich

Last week I talked a bit about Peter Bogdanovich's new blog and some of his wonderful writings on film.

I don't want that to obscure his work as a director, though. Bogdanovich was one of the brightest talents of the 1970s, a period of extremely bright talents. For a brief window of a few years, it looked as if there might be no end to his success. One wonders what would have happened if he had been the dominant voice in American film instead of George Lucas; we'd be living in a different world--one with far better movies, I suspect. Bogdanovich was one of the few major directors of that era who wasn't obsessed with violence. While Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg either made violent cartoons or bloody masterpieces, Bogdanovich made comedies and stark dramas. Among American directors of that era (most of them men) he was the one who seemed to like female characters the most, while also being the one most comfortable with the subject of sex. I wish his influence was more keenly felt today.

Here is a brief introduction to the films of Peter Bogdanovich:

Targets (1968)-His first film, made for producer Roger Corman, was a tense thriller starring Boris Karloff as an aging film star who comes face to face with a deranged young killer based on the Texas clocktower shooter Charles Whitman. An amazingly assured debut, smart and suspenseful. A film about violence rather than a violent film.

The Last Picture Show-This quiet drama about the sexual goings-on in a sleepy Texas town was shocking in its day. Hell, it's still shocking. Few American films are so plainspoken about matters of the bedroom. A great cast, anchored by the touching affair between Timothy Bottoms
as a high football player and Cloris Leachman as the lonely wife of a latently gay football coach.

What's Up, Doc?-His biggest moneymaker was this blockbuster comedy starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. It's screwball in the tradition of Bringing Up Baby--a G-rated goofball jamboree. Want to understand why some people love Barbara Streisand? Here's the answer. One of my favorite comedies.

Paper Moon-One of my favorite films of all time. In the middle of the Depression, a con man named Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) discovers that one of his ex-girlfriends has died and left behind a ten year old girl named Addie (Tatum O'Neal). He agrees to take the girl to her family in Missouri, but as they travel across the country it turns out the girl has a gift for grift not unlike Moses himself. I am in love with this film. It's charming and funny without being sentimental or cute. Ryan and Tatum O'Neal had, by all accounts, a horrible relationship in real life. In the film, though, the gloom is always lifting, the sun always peaking through dusty skies. The more I see it, the more I love it.

Nickelodeon-Bogdanovich's comedy about the rough-and-tumble early days of moviemaking plays a little like an adaption of his interview book, Who the Devil Made It. His script was cobbled together from stories he'd heard from directors like Leo McCarey, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and John Ford--all of whom had started out in the primordial pre-Hollywood silent film industry. Cinema during this little-known era was more like gorilla filmmaking than the sleek studio system it would give rise to, and none of his contemporaries could have brought the same passion and knowledge to the subject than Bogdanovich. That said, the film is a minor entry on his resume. There are a lot of laughs here, but the film lacks the precision of some of his other comedies. The shoot was also compromised by the studio's insistence that the film be released in color, but the newest DVD release of the film features the director's preferred black and white version.

Saint Jack-Bogdanovich's fortunes took a sharp turn after the success of Paper Moon. He started getting bad reviews and his films started flopping. Even his personal life got bad press. He scored a critical comeback with this 1979 drama about an American pimp in Singapore starring Ben Gazzara. A pointed criticism of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia and another stark look at the emotions, self-justifications, and self-delusions surrounding sex. A great film, criminally overlooked.

They All Laughed-The film that nearly ruined his life. Bogdanovich fell in love with his leading lady, Dorothy Stratten during the making of this comedy co-starring Ben Gazzara, Audrey Hepburn and John Ritter. After she was murdered, the studio wanted to shelve the project, so a distraught Bogdanovich bought the film (!) and tried to release it himself, a move that ruined him financially. While the film holds a special place for the director and has its defenders among people like Wes Anderson and Quinton Tarantino, I've never really warmed it. In short: it's a comedy that doesn't make me laugh. See it yourself to decide. (And click on the title above to watch Wes Anderson interview Bogdanovich about the film)

Mask-I haven't seen this film since about, oh, 1987. Cher, Sam Elliot, and Eric Stoltz as a funny kid with a deformed face. That makes it sound like one of those disease-of-the-week films from the eighties, but my recollection of the film is that it was a genuinely moving, surprisingly funny, piece of work. Bogdanovich was able to release a Director's cut of the film on DVD that reversed some tampering by the studio.

The Cat's Meow-His last feature film to date, this 2001 drama is a fictional meditation on some old Hollywood gossip--the story that William Randolph Hearst supposedly shot and killed a man during a cruise because he thought the fellow was having an affair with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. A witty little romp.

Directed By John Ford-In 2006, Bogdanovich updated his 1971 documentary about director John Ford. He included new information and footage (including a private conversation accidentally recorded between Ford and his long lost love Katherine Hepburn). The result is a fascinating look at one of the cinema's pivotal figures.


Paul D Brazill said...

Paper Moon, Saint Jack,Last Picture Show & Targets alone are enough to put him near the top of the tree for me. Good call,Jake.

Naomi Johnson said...

If he'd never done anything but Paper Moon, I would still rate him as one of my favorites. That is such a great, great film.

Pookahontas said...

He directed the Tom Petty documentary-that's pretty darn good too there Michael.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Agreed about WHAT'S UP DOC and SAINT JACK. WHAT'S UP DOC is one of the most charming movies I've ever seen -- radiates joy. And SAINT JACK is astounding, I got to see a 35mm print of it a few years back. The DVD is now out of print, but I found a used copy since I wanted it in my collection.

Jake Hinkson said...

Cullen-I saw What's Up Doc projected last year and it was a divine cinema experience. To see it with a crowd--the audience was roaring with laughter and there was a chorus of gay guys sitting in front of me who were quoting dialog along with Babs--it was one of the great moviegoing experiences I've had.

I envy you getting Saint Jack in 35mm. Such a smart, quietly emotional film. Love it.