The Future Catches Up With The Past: Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets
“Targets are people…and you could be one of them!”
(Tagline for Targets)
Peter Bogdanovich got his start as a critic and historian, conducting interviews with some of cinema’s most illustrious directors in their twilight years, which were published first in a variety of books and magazines, and finally collected in his volume Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors in 1998. But Bogdanovich wanted to do more. He moved to Los Angeles and fell in with the Roger Corman circle at the height of its creative brilliance, and soon found himself working on such landmark exploitation vehicles as The Wild Angels (1966), in which he did double duty as an Assistant Director and an extra.
The next logical step was directing a movie himself, and Corman, then able to green light films with modest budgets that would actually wind up in a theater, as opposed to going straight to tape, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray or VOD, famously offered Bogdanovich a deal. Boris Karloff owed Corman two days work on a multipicture deal, and he offered the fledgling director two days of Karloff, twenty minutes of footage from the recently completed film The Terror (1963, ostensibly a Corman film, but one which nearly everyone in Corman’s circle had a hand in directing, including Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson), with a minimal budget and shooting schedule. Corman told Bogdanovich that if the finished film was any good, he’d distribute it through Paramount; if not, he’d dump it in drive ins through American International Pictures.
Absorbing this, Bogdanovich went home, and working with his then-wife, Polly Platt, and an uncredited Samuel Fuller, who contributed considerably to the final script, drafted a screenplay about the last days of a aging horror star, Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), who wants to quit the business because he’s sick of starring in one rotten horror film after another; in addition, he feels that his brand of Gothicism is out of date, and that he should quit the business gracefully while he’s still in demand. At the same time, in a parallel story, young All-American Vietnam veteran Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly, in a terrifyingly realistic performance) is having trouble readjusting to society after his hitch in the service, and goes on a murderous rampage as a sniper, picking off unsuspecting people from the top of a huge oil refinery tank, and later, from behind the screen of a drive in theater. He does all of this quite casually, as if the entire rampage was simply a sporting event, which, of course, it is for him. He has no empathy for his victims; he has no feeling for anyone. All of his victims are simply targets, as the title states with succinct finality.
It is at this point that the two stories converge; Orlok has been persuaded to make one final public appearance at the drive in to plug his final film, and during the screening, Bobby starts killing people in their cars with a high-powered rifle. Taking command of the situation, Orlok summons all his strength and confronts Bobby, knocking him down in front of the screen; he’s aided in this effort by the fact that Bobby can’t distinguish between Orlok on the screen, striding through the opening of The Terror, and Orlok in real life, walking towards him in a similar outfit – Samuel Fuller suggested this touch, and it’s a brilliant one. With Bobby subdued, Orlok looks down at the pathetic figure before him, and murmurs, “is this what I was afraid of?” And thus the film ends. When Corman saw the finished product, made for less than $100,000, and on which Karloff wound up working five days instead of two – the three extra days were a gift to Bogdanovich from Karloff, who correctly sensed that the project would be a significant and important film – he immediately realized that he’d gotten a much better film than he bargained for. Corman sold it to Paramount, where it received a desultory release – see below – before vanishing into oblivion, only to resurface on DVD and VHS years later.
But Targets (1968) was and remains a brilliant, stunningly prescient film, and perhaps Bogdanovich’s finest work, precisely because he had nothing to work with. When you have nothing, you have to give everything to a project to make it work, unless you don’t care, and Bogdanovich certainly cared – intensely. Bogdanovich cast himself in the film as director Sammy Michaels, who desperately wants Orlok to make another film – which would be Sammy’s big break as a director – simply because he had no money for anyone else. Despite the fact that the film got only a limited release, the critics quickly recognized it as the masterpiece it was and is, and thus it fulfilled its primary function, in getting Bogdanovich on the map as a director. Shortly after that, Bogdanovich directed The Last Picture Show (1971), and his career was assured.
The topicality of Targets was also a plus, because for the sniper section of this bifurcated film, Bogdanovich didn’t have to go far to find a story line. The inspiration for Targets was utterly contemporary; the reign of terror inflicted on the citizens of Austin, Texas by Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966, when Whitman, armed to the teeth with an arsenal of legally acquired weapons, ascended to the top of the University of Texas Tower and began randomly shooting anyone who came into view.
Before this attack, during which Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 32 others with deadly, methodical precision, Whitman killed both his wife and his mother, leaving behind a suicide note as more than ample evidence of his unbalanced mental state. The partially typewritten note, which was later recovered by police, is dated July 31, 1966, and begins with these chillingly prophetic words, “I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.” Then, after adding several additional sections of text to his note, some in ballpoint pen, Whitman went out to kill. In the end, the Austin police finally stormed the tower, and shot Whitman dead. He was 25 years old. The weapons the police found at the shooting site included a machete, a Remington 700 ADL 6mm rifle, a Universal M1 carbine rifle, a 12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun, a Smith and Wesson M19 .357 magnum handgun, a Luger P08 9mm pistol, and a Galesi-Brescia .25 ACP pistol.
At the time, the Whitman rampage was seen as an utterly aberrant act, although if one looks at the era more closely, we can see that alongside the Peace movement and Flower Power era many remember with affection, dark events were occurring in American society with regularity, including the endless Vietnam war itself, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, the Watts riots, and numerous other societal disruptions, which in their own way pointed inexorably to an ever more ominous future. Violence became the cultural currency of the era, and then as now, the nation was split, between those who embraced guns and the culture they were a part of, and those who sought to restrict guns to forestall a repeat of the Whitman incident, and many that were sadly to follow. Now, in 2013, we confront in the United States a new wave of terror brought on by gun violence, with a series of mass shootings too mind numbing to recount, and too terrifying to fully comprehend.
Bogdanovich himself has confessed his own bewilderment over the current state of affairs in the United States surrounding the gun culture, which seems to grow ever more vocal every day, essentially tone deaf to what the majority of Americans wish; stricter controls on guns, especially automatic weapons. As Bogdanovich wrote in an op-ed piece for The Hollywood Reporter, shortly after the massacre in Colorado at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, 2012,
“We made Targets 44 years ago. It was based on something that happened in Texas, when that guy Charles Whitman shot a bunch of people after killing his mother and his wife. Paramount bought it, but then was terrified by it when Martin Luther King was killed and Bobby Kennedy was killed. The studio didn’t want to release the film at all. So they released it with a pro-gun-control campaign, but that made the picture seem like a documentary to people, and it didn’t do too well. It was meant to be a cautionary fable. It was a way of saying the Boris Karloff kind of violence, the Victorian violence of the past, wasn’t as scary as the kind of random violence that we associate with a sniper – or what happened last weekend. That’s modern horror.
At first, some of the people [at The Dark Knight Rises] thought it was part of the movie. That’s very telling. Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It’s almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. Video games are violent, too. It’s all out of control […] Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, ‘We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.’ The respect for human life seems to be eroding […] It’s too easy to show murders in movies now. There are too many of them, and it’s too easy. There is a general lack of respect for life, because it’s so easy to just kill people. Nothing’s changed in 44 years [since Targets]. Things have gotten worse when it comes to the control of guns. This guy in Colorado legally had an arsenal. What’s an AK attack rifle for? What is that for but to kill people? It’s not for hunting. Why is it for sale? It boggles the mind.”
And, of course, there’s much more to it than that. The Saw films, the Hostel series, and the Texas Chainsaw films, all deal in the “cheapness” of human life, and invite the audience to vicariously identify with the killer in a series of nihilistic slasher films that degrade both the audience and the people who make them – not that they’ll stop doing it, especially in view of the genre’s continued profitability. But there’s another issue here, and that’s the essential emptiness of American culture on a mass basis, fueled by fear and a desire to consume, consume, consume, even as the “news,” skewed either to the left or right, is so stage managed and leveraged with “expert opinion” that the facts in any given situation are often impossible to discern.
But what makes Targets an altogether different experience from the films mentioned above is that it relentlessly, with scalpel like precision, examines the complete failure of American society to either address the social causes behind such rampages, but also to provide audiences with print, television or cinematic material that has any real content – it’s just an endless diet of junk food. In Targets, Bobby’s father, Robert Thompson Sr. (an appropriately militaristic Tom Brown) knows only guns, and mindless television as recreational activities; in a scene early on in the film set at a shooting range, when Thompson Sr. goes out on the practice field to pick up some targets during a shooting session, Bobby levels the sight of his gun on his father, idly considering whether or not to kill him. Bobby’s father catches him in the act, and severely reprimands him, and Bobby sheepishly apologizes for his “error” in judgment.
But it’s already clear what’s going to happen, as Bobby’s mental state continues to spiral into free fall. At night, in a superbly executed dolly sequence through a house utterly barren of any intellectual sustenance – no books in sight, other than cookbooks and the Bible, mass produced paintings on the wall, conversations that never go beyond “Hi, how are you?” and “What’s on TV tonight?” – Bobby and his family watch television. We never see what’s on the TV, but it’s obviously a late night talk show a la Johnny Carson, and there’s no real contact between any members of the family.
As the camera prowls the barren air-conditioned nightmare that is their Southern California dream home, we hear them chuckle mindlessly at the antics on the screen, their faces illuminated only by the bluish glow of the television screen. At length, the family members peel themselves away from the electronic hearth to go to bed, but there’s no real conversation, no communication, no sense that this family is a unit, or that they even know each other. They’re just four people in a room, thrown together by chance and circumstance; a son who’s about to go off the deep end, a by-the-book father with no emotional or intellectual depth, an equally blank slate for a mother, Charlotte (Mary Jackson), and Bobby’s similarly uncomprehending wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan).
Shortly before he goes out to kill, Bobby makes one last desperate attempt to break through to his wife in a scene that is as economical as it is chilling, trying to explain to her that something is going wrong – he doesn’t know what, but something is happening to him that he can’t explain – and though Ilene tries to listen, she simply doesn’t have the depth to understand anything more than fashion magazines and Southern California pop culture. As the pair slouch against a wall in their bedroom, Bobby’s face illuminated only by the glow at the end of his cigarette, it becomes clear to the viewer that nothing will stop Bobby now, because the people around him lack any social reference points, indeed, any real feeling for anything other than the instant gratification that throwaway culture so relentlessly provides. Bogdanovich lights the scene so that Ilene gets some illumination, but Bobby is shrouded in darkness, the darkness that will soon consume both himself, and those around him.
It’s also interesting to note that there’s no music in the film other than synthetic top 40 pop music, complete with a motor-mouthing disc jockey, which endlessly pours forth from the radio in Bobby’s car, and, if one wants to count it, Ronald Stein’s original score for The Terror. Like Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which used only “sound patterns” created by Bernard Herrmann, Remi Gassmann and Oskar Sala based on the sounds of birds in flight, calling to each other, Targets is set in a world that is all the more realistic because it eschews extra-diegetic music, which audiences have come to rely on for emotional response cues. There’s nothing like that here; it’s never apologize, never explain. The other thing that’s remarkable about Bobby, of course, is his complete lack of remarkability; Bobby Thompson seems like an utterly reliable, responsible, straight ahead citizen who smoothly engages in idle chit chat with both his family members and those outside the home with a casual ease that makes his ferocious eruption all the more terrifying, and all the more credible.
As he prepares for his shooting spree by buying even more guns and ammunition at a local gun shop, Bobby seems to be an absolutely balanced individual, hiding in plain sight, a normal, easy going individual who has nevertheless completely lost touch with reality. And indeed, there’s nothing for him to hang on to. The society that has created Bobby Thompson has given him nothing to fill his mind with other than guns, violence, and junk culture; significantly, he’s a horror movie fan, and early on in the film recognizes Byron Orlok outside a Los Angeles screening room (while purchasing still more weapons), and later picks the drive in where Orlok will be appearing, for his last, murderous stint as a sniper.
There’s nothing here that’s even remotely sensationalistic; Targets is a masterly depiction of the emptiness of conventional American life – sports, guns, videogames, junk movies and junk television, plus junk novels – that offers nothing for something, and leaves the reader, listener or viewer both unsatisfied and undernourished, still empty after two a half hours of a mind numbing spectacle at the multiplex, or knowing nothing new or useful after consuming yet another pop culture serial killer novel. It’s all junk, and there’s nothing to be gleaned from it. Bogdanovich’s film all too accurately depicts what the world was becoming in the late 1960s, even as many struggled against it; a culture ruled by mob consensus, fear, and conspiracy theories, which people with nothing better to do were more than happy to propagate.
In the late 60s, we were moving towards where we are now in American society – total emptiness. Nothing challenging, nothing sentient, nothing to believe in. One might try to dismiss Orson Welles’ comment that “we’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum,” but the fact is we’re already there. This is the terrifying prophecy of Targets, a vision that now has come to be true through decades of cultural neglect, and the devaluation of both the humanities, and humanity itself. Targets thus depicts an utterly empty universe, in which there’s nothing real for anyone to hold on to; just things to buy, fast food to eat, pop music to deaden the senses. In showing us the future of America – whether he knew it or not – Bogdanovich has given us a clear blueprint of what will happen, and continue to happen, unless we take steps to reign in the violence, and the culture that embraces and glorifies it.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here. His newest projects include the just completed Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in May 2013.
Works Cited and Consulted
Bogdanovich, Peter (2012), “Legendary Director Peter Bogdanovich: What If Movies Are Part of the Problem?” in The Hollywood Reporter, July 25.
Sterritt, David (2010), “Targets”, Fipresci 6.4.