The Early Brilliance of Peter Bogdanovich

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A look at the early work of Peter Bogdanovich, brought to you by our friends at Filmstruck.

Among Filmstruck’s curated lists, many of which comprise interesting contextual film historical narratives themselves, one of the most interesting currently on the site is their “Early Bogdanovich” quintet. The list consists of the first five theatrical features Peter Bogdanovich directed under his own name—his debut, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, made under a pseudonym, and his documentary, Directed by John Ford, are not included—and trace an interesting and unique career arc, to bring that business about the context of film history back. First, there’s the debut, a calling card of sorts. Then there are three enormous critical and commercial hits, elevating Bogdanovich to wild heights of celebrity, and then finally, a first faltering step toward downfall (the enormity of which is politely not mentioned).

The list begins with Targets, a film whose creative process derived immediately and directly from the resources Bogdanovich had immediately at hand. Roger Corman was owed two days of Boris Karloff’s time, by the terms of a previous contract, and told Bogdanovich he could make whatever film he wanted, given that he use Karloff, a clip of Karloff and Jack Nicholson, and stay under budget. Bogdanovich then MacGyvered a film that was half suspense thriller about an ordinary-looking Vietnam vet who embarks on a quest to kill as many people as he can before being killed himself, and half show-biz drama about “Byron Orlok,” a Karloff-like character who wants to retire from movies. The stories converge at the climax, a presentation of one of Orlok’s films at a drive-in theater featuring an in-person appearance by the star. While clearly made very quickly for not very much money, Targets works perfectly as a calling card. Bogdanovich’s encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood movies—which is, indeed, one of the few personal collections of information that warrant the literal use of “encyclopedic knowledge”—and the way they’re made enabled him, as a first-time director, to employ an unusually mature level of technical skill. Targets is very much a film nerd’s film, one in which the director, playing a character quite close to himself, gleefully shouts out Howard Hawks and seems perfectly fine with Boris Karloff nailing his girlfriend, between which poles Targets’ entire DNA can be sourced. How it will play for non-cinephiles is uncertain, but it is most assuredly the kind of film in which anyone of the mind to subscribe to Filmstruck in the first place will find much to enjoy.

Next chronologically is The Last Picture Show, which made an instantaneous star of Bogdanovich. Aping the techniques of John Ford, and getting a crucial assist from Ford personally in persuading longtime John Wayne sidekick Ben Johnson to take the role which would win him an Oscar, Bogdanovich established himself as a meticulous classicist with the crucial knack of wringing emotional impact from his formalism. His particular gift for casting manifested many times over here, from Johnson whom he specifically had in mind and who was perfect to a degree that almost throws the entire balance of the movie off, to utilizing a young Jeff Bridges’ charm to offset his character’s lack of likability, to, finally, casting Cybill Shepherd for largely extratextual reasons (a euphemism for being smitten with her) that coincidentally made her perfect for the role.

Following The Last Picture Show’s elegy for an America recently (yet still permanently) past, it was time for a laugh. Bogdanovich approached the head of Warner Brothers, John Calley, and said he’d like to make a throwback to the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, and such was Bogdanovich’s star at the time that Calley greenlit the movie on the spot. The emergent What’s Up, Doc? shows the occasional sign of having been thrown together in great haste—subtle indicators like the plot making literally no fucking sense whatsoever—but is otherwise a lovely piece of extended silliness. Barbra Streisand basically plays Bugs Bunny, which automatically obviates any flaw the movie might have, and Ryan O’Neal is a cross between Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (rather than the more obvious choice of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby) and Ryan O’Neal in Love Story. The slow parts, mostly concerned with the plot itself, always give way just in time to sequences of everything going apeshit, which are the movie’s highlight. There are a lengthy list of “A movie can only be so bad with” things in addition to “Barbra Streisand playing Bugs Bunny,” including “Kenneth Mars doing a goofy fake European accent,” “Austin Pendleton all horned up and bantering with Streisand,” “a car chase through the streets of San Francisco,” and “Madeline Kahn gracing it with her presence.” It is, in short, a delight, and another huge hit for Bogdanovich.

Then followed Paper Moon, arguably the perfect blend of his previous two films, in which Bogdanovich filmed a comedy about a con man and his adorable little kid partner in the style of Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. And it works, perfectly. It’s an exacting copy in formalist terms of the kind of film that, with the exception of a few tiny details, could just as easily have come out in 1940 as 1973. DP Laszlo Kovacs shoots the entire thing in a glorious, classicist deep focus, and utilizing the effect (suggested by Bogdanovich’s friend and mentor Orson Welles) lent by shooting in black and white with a red filter, a unique visual texture that evokes a palpably organic warmth. In concert with the sublime lead performances by father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, the effect is a timelessness hinted at and pursued arduously in Bogdanovich’s previous two successes, only fully reached here. Paper Moon is the first time Bogdanovich’s academic mimesis fully meshed with the fuzzier, messier, more organic realm of emotionalism, the result being one of the greatest movies anyone ever made.

And then, finally, there’s Daisy Miller, which at first glance is a bit of an enigma, because at first glance it’s a film based on a great piece of literature, directed by a very talented filmmaker, starring a charming and talented actress. It’s handsomely photographed on beautiful locations. And yet, for its entire running time, a question lingers: “…why isn’t this better?” There are any number of possible explanations, like a lack of oversight due to a sweetheart production deal that allowed Bogdanovich complete control within a certain budget (a similar, if larger-scale and with even fewer caveats to the one he had with Corman on Targets), except he made the sublime Paper Moon under the same deal. I propose, at the risk of being simplistic, that it was down to the simple fact of it being the first film Bogdanovich made without production designer Polly Platt, to whom he had been married from 1962 to 1971, and who had continued to work as his production designer on his next two films. Platt’s contributions to Bogdanovich’s films up until that point had, in addition to her officially credited roles, everything from a sounding board to script doctor to co-producer to essential co-authorship. Her insights into ways of life with which Bogdanovich had no experience allowed the films to, perhaps, possess details he would not have thought of. Whatever the total extent of her contribution, there’s a clearly defined dividing line in Bogdanovich’s career: with her, he was a promising talent and then a major star. Without her, his films flopped at the box office, and while occasionally touching greatness in years to come (They All Laughed being one notable gem), never consistently reached the heights of his early 70s run.

The story of his career that “Early Bogdanovich” tells leaves off at Daisy Miller, and is similarly a novella rather than an epic. But it’s well worth delving into, as a chronicle of an essential artist in the American cinema, perhaps its greatest classicist.

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