High notes: From "The Sopranos" to "Paper Moon" to "Nickelodeon," the moves and movies of Peter Bogdanovich get tribute treatment at the Castro, where Bogdanovich will be present for onstage Q&As. (Photos courtesy Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

"A Genuine Tribute to Peter Bogdanovich"

Max Goldberg March 5, 2008

There’s a scene a third of a way into Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film Targets (1968) in which the director seems to directly address his future critics. The film, an early mash-up of serial killing and cinematic reflexivity made under Roger Corman’s watch, stars an aging Boris Karloff as a romanticized version of himself. A slick-haired Bogdanovich stands in to play the part of…the young celluloid-mad director trying to revive the Karloff character’s star with a couple of quickies for an independent producer. I’m not sure even the Coen Brothers would be arch enough for such a ploy, but Bogdanovich plays it beautifully in a scene in Karloff’s hotel room. One of the old actor’s first films, The Criminal Code (1931, directed by Howard Hawks), plays on television, and Bogdanovich’s director is immersed within moments. Before long, he’s shushing the real actor in favor of his black-and-white likeness.

It’s that old schoolyard ploy of diffusing a situation with a well-placed bit of self-lampooning. Before the critics can lob complaints about Bogdanovich’s preferring film style to real life, here he is with the pie already on his face, but his way: which is to say, with perfect comic timing and shot in long take. Bogdanovich’s aptness as a visual storyteller has never been in question; a modest master of sightlines and rhythmic cutting, almost all of his films begin with the kind of streamlined, wordless exposition that were par for course in studio-era productions. Even a soppy mess like Mask (1985) has this basic assuredness, with the opening series of shots giving us a gloss of the central character (a fundamentally “normal” teenager who likes rocking out to Springsteen in his room) at the same time that it ushers us into his world (the echoes of "Dancing in the Dark" get a bump in volume with each cut closer to Rocky’s room).

And yet this technical proficiency has been used against Bogdanovich as part of the oft-repeated appraisal that his films forego substance for smooth, smart-alecky surfaces. The charge is borne out by some of the writer-director’s strained efforts, but never without complication and more than enough guilty pleasures to make it worth the effort. In general, applying the style-for-style’s-sake critique to such well-made, measured movies seems increasingly unrealistic in this era of Tarantino knockoffs. It’s telling enough that Bogdanovich’s films have had such a clear, if unrecognized influence on some of the younger generation’s most ambitious, talky filmmakers—the Coens certainly, but also leave room for Wes Anderson and Señor Quentin, who listed They All Laughed (1981) as one of his dozen favorite films of all time in a 2002 Sight & Sound poll.

Three decades after most of the films featured in three-day marathon at the Castro were made, Bogdanovich’s merits are considerable. His films seem remarkably relaxed for their stylistic conceits and demonstrate a palpable affection for actors. And while he sometimes doesn’t seem to know why he’s emulating his icons, most of the films have a lightness of touch which renders them with the rich double-sidedness of offering homage at the same time that they entertain these old movie fantasies with a knowing (and implicitly disbelieving) grin.

Midnites for Maniacs A Genuine Tribute to Peter Bogdanovich starts with Targets, a film which establishes many of the writer-director’s tics at the same time that it seems anomalous for its dissertation-ready provocations. The movie is cleaved into two parts, alternating between the Karloff plot and an all-American psycho killer with the kind of sharp parallel editing Bogdanovich still can’t resist. The film is one of the writer-director’s only pictures set in its own time, and while its profile of wholesome sadism—co-scripted by Samuel Fuller—might make even Peeping Tom blush, Bogdanovich demonstrates a keen sense for cinematic space, whether in his cultivation of unsettling direct sound effects, or in his patient, loving construction of a drive-in theatre set-piece.

Made three years after Targets, The Last Picture Show (1971) is a quantum leap and remains the defining work of Bogdanovich’s filmography for many onlookers. The film trades in the debut’s formal bravura for serene pathos and a detailed depiction of a small town in Texas where high-schoolers are in dress rehearsals for the disillusionments intrinsic to adult life. Much has been made of László Kovács’ achingly nostalgic black-and-white cinematography and Bogdanovich’s almost religious devotion to certain cinematic relics. Indeed, a lionized role for Ben Johnson (Rio Grande, Shane) and an unlikely local showing of Hawks’ Red River (1948) both threaten to rupture the film’s psychological realism. Rather less remarked upon is Bogdanovich’s ability to empathetically navigate an ensemble cast. Here too is an emerging talent for shaping a compelling sense of place, as Bogdanovich uses Hank Williams numbers on AM radios to greater effect than a hundred voice-overs. And chalk up another direct line of influence, as well: with its swirls of music, collective coming-of-age, Texas and temps perdu, The Last Picture Show bears more than passing resemblance to Richard Linklater’s own nostalgia trip, Dazed and Confused (even the time lapses are right: Bogdanovich made his ’50s movie in the ’70s, while Linklater’s ’70s ode came in ’93).

Besides launching the star of Cybil Shepherd—who, in a last-minute addition, will be appearing with the director for Friday’s screenings—*The Last Picture Show* vaunted Bogdanovich to the forefront of the so-called New American Cinema. The film was described as “Wellesian,â€? a dubious claim even considering Boggie’s close relationship with Papa Orson. The Last Picture Show has some of the seamless skin of Citizen Kane, but none of the underlying daring—and besides, the “wunderkindâ€? tag never did much for Welles anyway. Evidently struggling with his accolades, Bogdanovich began a strange jag through genres with a string of pictures marked by sublime detail, a strong stock company, occasional bathos and a general air of uneasy confusion. With mock-ups like What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), one can’t help but think of Bogdanovich’s lightly despairing line from Targets, later echoed in Nickelodeon, that “all of the good pictures have been made already.”

Amongst this bunch, Nickelodeon deserves special attention, especially for the fact that the Castro screening will be the world premiere of a new director’s cut (like several other Bogdanovich movies, it’s unavailable on DVD). The film opens with one of the writer-director’s typically cutesy references—actor Ryan O’ Neal doing his best Harold Lloyd—but soon flowers into a fleet-footed fictionalization of early American film production, the real days of “down and dirty pictures.â€? In its constant reversals and coincidences, Nickelodeon is certainly the most entertaining packaging of Bogdanovich’s vast stores of movie lore. It’s also the closest he gets to Preston Sturges madcap, with a definite nod to Sullivan’s Travels (1941) in its sweet-and-sour treatment of the motion pictures business.

It’s a business Bogdanovich has all too frequently lost out on, never more spectacularly than with his maligned musical At Long Last Love (1975). The writer-director improbably casts Shepherd, Burt Reynolds, Madeline Kahn, and Duilio Del Prete as his charmers, and directs them to crash about cold art-deco sets and belligerently pound out Cole Porter couplets. Anyone who derides At Long Last Love for failing to live up to MGM standards misses its blasted daydream quality. Bogdanovich and his cast pursue tongue-in-cheek at every turn, often in emphatic long takes. It’s not quite parody, and it’s not quite camp, but it’s certainly worth a second look.

At Long Last Love may be the musical, but They All Laughed is surely Bogdanovich’s most lyrical film. Buried in its initial release by the tawdry media coverage of ingénue Dorothy Stratten’s murder, the film’s merry-go-round of love and looks now stands on its own. Two real-life affairs thicken the daisy-chain of private-eyes and romance—Bogdanovich was infatuated with Stratten, and Ben Gazzara and Audrey Hepburn had tested their impossible love—though one need not know this subtext to revel in the film’s accumulation of flirtations, its constant shuffling of duo and trios, Blaine Novak’s scatting, Hepburn’s autumnal glow, Gazzara’s weary grace, Colleen Camp’s irrepressible honky-tonk singer, the soft glow of New York locations and Bogdanovich’s evident fondness for all his female leads. The underlying mood, as per the title, is melancholy, and herein lies the film’s richness: that for every consummation we sense the shadow of missed opportunities and mistakes, and that for every burst of snappy Hawksian patter, there is also a shrug of c’est la vie.

Somewhere along the line of Bogdanovich’s harried career, his movie-centric definition of regret in Targets became something broader. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,â€? one character says in They All Laughed, before Gazzara’s softly intones, “Who does?â€? The real trick of the writer-director’s best work is that it draws on the classical Hollywood vernacular to tell us stories with themes—death, divorce, deceit—those old movies couldn’t touch. It’s in this threading of magic and loss that They All Laughed resembles Jacques Demy’s tender musicals more than Woody Allen’s superficially similar New York stories.

When Midnites for Maniacs programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks first contacted Bogdanovich about the series, he told the writer-director about his general interest in spotlighting overlooked and underrated films. “And he was immediately like, ‘Well that’s really interesting because in the ’50s and early ’60s, I did a film series…called ‘The Forgotten Film’ in New York for two weeks, and I played Howard Hawks films,’” Ficks relays to me one rainy February afternoon. “So immediately this ‘forgotten film’ thing was a great connection…and I got to be myself the way he was talking to me…And he was genuinely surprised. “A Genuine Tribute to Peter Bogdanovich” is a major coup for Ficks and a deserved vindication for Boggy—all these years later, he’s ready for a retrospective of his own.