In praise of an old Hollywood master
IN PETER BOGDANOVICH’S first feature film, Targets, a seemingly mild-mannered insurance executive, lately returned from the Vietnam War, murders his wife, his mother and a dumbstruck delivery boy. His actions, loosely inspired by Charles Whitman’s 1966 rampage through the University of Texas, form a grisly prelude to a random, senseless killing spree.
In the final reels of the same film, an elderly character actor, famed for his old-fashioned monster movies, confronts the gunman. The ageing star, poignantly essayed by Boris Karloff in one of his last American movies, is past his prime, but he’s more than a match for a nihilistic nogoodnik.
It could easily be a mute play for the writer-director’s entire milieu. Even before we knew Peter Bogdanovich as a chronicler of movie greats, as the author of books and biographies on Lillian Gish and Fritz Lang, his 1968 debut had articulated a predilection for the golden age of Hollywood.
“I never thought of it that way,” says Bogdanovich. “I’m not that self-conscious a director. I just liked the idea of the old guy winning out. I never thought of it as me wanting the old Hollywood to win out but you could certainly make a good argument for that. My father was a good bit older than my mother, so I’ve always felt more comfortable with people who are older or younger than myself, and felt out of step with my contemporaries.”
Targets established Bogdanovich as a key figure in the post-classical American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The New Hollywood, a vanguard that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, and Michael Cimino, had plenty of swagger. Bogdanovich, however, was the first of the young guns to translate that chutzpah into box-office revenue and mass appeal.
“It wasn’t just me,” says Bogdanovich. “People like Spielberg and Lucas and Coppola were very influenced by the older directors. But now the older directors are people like Spielberg. It’s a bit watered down by now. One of the problems we have in film today is that younger directors haven’t seen enough good ones.”
The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973) were critical and commercial wows, clocking up 11 Academy Award nominations between them and winning three.
“The Last Picture Show is made and structured in a classic way. But the subject matter would never have made it past the Hays Code [the set of industry moral-censorship guidelines that governed the production of most US films until 1968],” says Bogdanovich. “None of the old masters were flashy. They didn’t want to show off. They wanted suspension of disbelief. They didn’t want people to remember they were watching a movie. A lot of films now are just fancy footwork and fast cutting.
“I once asked Orson Welles the difference between cutting up a scene or keeping everything in one shot and he said: ‘It’s what separates the men from the boys.’ Anybody can just shoot lots of coverage then hand it all to the editor.”
The New Hollywood, after the fashion of the nouvelle vague, were buffs, boffins, critics and cineastes. The younger film-makers did not reject the works of the old masters: on the contrary, they embraced them, citing Ford and Hitchcock and Kurosawa at every given turn.
“I wanted to get the word out to the public about these masters,” recalls Bogdanovich. “I loved the films they made. I hoped to create an atmosphere where those films – the kind of films I ultimately wanted to see and to make – would flourish. We were very influenced by the French. The writers at Cahiers du Cinema [the influential French film magazine] had already gone over works by people like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford and had discovered that even though they were working at the highest levels of the studio system, they were making films that were personal.”