Peter Bogdanovich: The Comedy Smuggler
By James Knight.
This August will see the US theatrical release of She’s Funny That Way, the latest feature from Peter Bogdanovich. Since his directorial debut in 1968, Bogdanovich has been a man who has lived cinema to its fullest, experiencing everything the medium has to offer. He’s been a director, screenwriter, editor, actor, documentarian, critic, producer, dated movie stars and was at one time housemates with Orson Welles. He is a filmmaker clearly in love with cinema, but unlike directors like Jean-Luc Godard, he is not interested in criticising the thing he loves via his films, nor is he much interested in finding the boundaries of cinema, but just simply finding its magic.
Bogdanovich, like most astute and accomplished filmmakers, has fashioned a career for himself by putting into action the lessons he has learned from studying the films of who he believes to be the masters of cinema. As a result, he’s often been unfairly pigeon holed purely as a director of cinematic homages, but look a little closer and you’ll find that the Bogdanovich waters are a lot deeper than the shallowness that some suggest.
Another criticism often labelled at Bogdanovich is that his films are somewhat old fashioned, and compared to certain contemporary filmmakers they are, but that is not necessarily a pejorative, because they are clearly that way by design. Like most artists his tastes are clearly defined and he happens to situate his style with the leading filmmakers of the first half of the twentieth century. In that sense he’s like John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959), standing his ground, refusing to leave, trusting his judgement. He makes films as if he was a director on assignment during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, constantly jumping from genre to genre with each new film. But, like Richard Linklater who does something similar, his personal touch and tastes are always smuggled in (to borrow Scorsese’s term) under the radar, and for the majority of his career, Bogdanovich has been a smuggler of comedy.
“What we’ve got is laughs and drama, an irresistible combination.” That is a line from Bogdanovich’s 1976 film Nickelodeon, it is a line that could sum up his whole career. That is of course when he’s not making full blown comedies to begin with. What’s Up Doc? (1972) one of those full blown comedies, is choreographed like a dance musical. Doors open, doors slam, lifts open, lifts close, people arrive, people exit, all with the precision of a Fred Astaire dance sequence, yet with the naturalistic improvised feel of Gene Kelly dancing on a newspaper. It’s a film of perfect comedic timing. Later on, during the most madcap of madcap car chases where Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, both on the same bicycle, are pursued through the streets of San Francisco by three cars, with the two stars ending up inside a giant Chinese dragon costume, Bogdanovich achieves a similar kind of musical like precision. Watching this sequence is almost a physical experience, almost like being on a roller coaster, but yet not for a moment does Bogdanovich give the impression that he’s losing control, in fact quite the opposite, everything is his doing.
In Bogdanovich’s less effective Noises Off (1992), the same choreographed chaotic-ism found in What’s Up Doc? is again evident, with one particular sequence of note where the characters don’t talk but mime everything out as the chaos ensues around them. It’s Bogdanovich’s obvious nod of the hat to silent cinema, and one almost gets the sense that he wished he could’ve played the entire picture in silence because the rest of the film isn’t made with the same love and careful attention. In They All Laughed (1981), one of Bogdanovich’s most accomplished and cinematic films, the madcap comedic freneticism is again the driving force of the narrative but this time it’s taken to the Manhattan streets, which Bogdanovich shoots with the same level of mastery which John Cassavetes pioneered in Shadows (1959) and then later in Gloria (1980).
In Daisy Miller (1974), Bogdanovich’s almost word for word adaptation of Henry James’ novella of the same title, comedy is again smuggled in. In one scene, Cybil Shepherd and Barry Brown run to make a steamboat before it sails off, jump and both just make the gangway just at the moment the steamboat workers remove it. In a mostly dramatic film, these rare moments of choreographed physical comedy serve as Bogdanovich’s authorial signature, whether he is conscience of it or not. Daisy Miller is also Bogdanovich’s most underrated and technically impressive film. With camerawork that floats majestically through the locations, showing them off in a Hawksian manner, and Alberto Spagnoli’s sumptuous cinematography, Bogdanovich manages to tell a novelistic story in a purely pictorial style.
A common trait in Bogdanovich’s feature film career is that he seems to produce his best work when he’s paired alongside an accomplished cameraman. Whether it’s Robby Muller in They All Laughed or the excellent Saint Jack (1979), Laszlo Kovacs in Targets (1968), What’s Up Doc? and Bogdanovich’s wonderful anti Shirley Temple-esque film Paper Moon (1973), or Robert Surtees on The Last Picture Show (1971). In Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show, two of Bodanovich’s best known films, Bogdanovich shoots the American landscape like a foreigner, just like the likes of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock did previously, managing to both critique and sentimentalise America at the same time. In Picture Show, for instance, Bogdanovich made the last picture in question a showing of Red River (1948), to both nostalgically reference classic American cinema and also to critique the dying of film culture with the closing down of the town’s only movie theatre. By filming both Paper Moon and Picture Show in black and white, Bogdanovich manages to capture the mood of both narratives by using the black and white as a purely cinematic tool, rather than a literary one as in something like Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1998). Not to mention, in relation to the black and white cinematography, Bogdanovich’s brilliant use of deep focus through extensive background action, making use of every corner of the screen, enhancing the overall cinematic experience.
Paper Moon and Picture Show also serve to highlight Bogdanovich’s unique eye for both locations and casting. In Paper Moon the main cast of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, and P.J. Johnson, is wonderfully selected, but so are the nonprofessional day players who portray the local cops, shop workers, house owners, who bring an added authenticity to the picture. Subtle pictorial comedy is also again smuggled in, with one comedic image standing out of the exterior of Ryan O’Neal’s car lined with Madeline Kahn’s many, many cases of luggage.
François Truffaut wrote in his book The Films in My Life (1978), “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I’m not at all interested in anything in between.” If Nickelodeon can sum up the better qualities and tastes of Bogdanovich’s filmography, it can also serve as a metaphor for some of the struggles Bogdanovich has faced throughout his career. One of the major themes of Nickelodeon is that of independent filmmaking versus studio backed filmmaking, and the effectiveness of the film depends on what version you see; the colour studio version, or the black and white director’s cut version. Bogdanovich again faced similar battles with the studio on At Long Last Love (1975), where he all but disowned the original theatrical version and recut it himself years later. In Mask (1985), Bogdanovich’s most quintessentially American film, battles with the studio again dominated pre and post production. Having secured the rights to several Bruce Springsteen songs which Bogdanovich included on the soundtrack, the songs were then removed from the film without his consent and replaced by several Bob Seger tracks. The studio version of Mask is a version that feels drastically undercooked, giving off the impression that it was not allowed to be as touchy and edgy as originally intended. Again, Bogdanovich recut the film years later, putting the Springsteen songs back in for the film’s release on DVD.
With Targets, the most accomplished Roger Corman produced film ever made, featuring Boris Karloff as an aging and fading horror star, Bogdanovich began a long succession of cinephilia inspired films. With fifteen feature films to date, some of them excellent, some good, and some completely forgettable (The Thing Called Love  and his uninspiring Picture Show remake Texasville  spring to mind as examples of some of his weaker efforts), and with almost half a decade of filmmaking experience behind him, Bogdanovich continues to forge a place for himself in an ever changing film universe. He’s also one of the great Hollywood raconteurs, but he’s much more than just a story teller, he’s a filmmaker in the fullest sense. He doesn’t use cinema as a tool to tell his stories just because it’s the most convenient and contemporary of art forms as many younger directors do today, but because he loves the form, and if offered he gives the impression that he would rather be an average, unknown, unimportant filmmaker than a great anything else.
James Knight is a film critic residing in Wales, UK.