Armchair Cinephile 

THE FIRST, THIRD, FOURTH, AND FIFTH PICTURE SHOWS

Targets (Paramount)
What's Up, Doc? (Warner Bros.)
Paper Moon (Paramount)
Daisy Miller (Paramount)
Laurel & Hardy (Hallmark)
Little Rascals (Hallmark)

 
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Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who now talks about movies more than he makes them, is rarely able to go 10 minutes in an interview without dropping the name of his old pal Orson Welles. It's an annoying habit, but his constant references do keep one in mind of the way the younger man's career mimics his idol's - albeit for different reasons.

Bogdanovich, a young man from the theater, was viewed as something of a wunderkind when his small-town requiem The Last Picture Show hit theaters in 1971. But he had already made his debut, a strange, resourceful little number called Targets. It was made as if on a dare: B-movie king Roger Corman was owed two days' work by Boris Karloff, and the novice director was to take those two days, combine them with old footage, and shoot additional scenes with other actors to make a feature. Bogdanovich and wife/production designer Polly Platt gave Corman more than his money's worth, hatching dual plot-lines - one, a poignant tale about an aging horror movie star who is retiring; the second a chilling reimagining of the crimes of U.T. tower sniper Charles Whitman - that converge in the darkened lot of a drive-in theater. The film's release came unluckily in the wake of real-life sniper events (much like the recent Phone Booth), but it's an inventive thriller that doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

After The Last Picture Show, the filmmaker was the toast of the town - and his obsession with Hollywood's Golden Age came into full bloom. In What's Up, Doc?, which holds up far, far better than most comedies of its era, he cast Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand in a Howard Hawks-ish screwball comedy that wreaks havoc on the streets of San Francisco. Don't let Babs scare you off - she is devilishly charming, pulling off madcap mischief without a hint of self-consciousness; and O'Neal is an ideal straight man - never as good looking or charming as Cary Grant, he compensates by exaggerating Grant's willful cluelessness.

O'Neal returned for the director's follow-up, the black-and-white Paper Moon. Also a comedy, this one is slightly darker and far more heartfelt. The leading man plays a two-bit grifter who winds up saddled with a cynical young girl (played with stone-dry sass by O'Neal's daughter Tatum) on a rambling road trip through the Midwest. The humor is offset by the stark look of the Depression-era hick towns through which the duo roams, which are photographed as if by Walker Evans; the importance of the look of things in Bogdanovich's first four films is a testament to the talents of Polly Platt, who was his wife until he fell in love with Cybill Shepherd …

… and then went on to have his career basically ruined by her. The couple were glamorous and very much in the public eye, and they were resented for it. Whatever the flaws of Daisy Miller, there is little doubt that the Henry James adaptation starring Shepherd was received more poorly thanks to resentment of the couple's off-screen life; Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez could take a lesson from the saga of Peter and Cybill.

After Daisy, Bogdanovich's career took a nosedive, artistically and commercially, with occasional exceptions such as Mask. He had a tragic romance with Dorothy Stratten that ended when she was murdered, and the lack of a spark in his contemporary work - in the last 10 years, he has directed more for TV than the silver screen - can probably be attributed in large part to the aftermath of that event. While his old mentor Welles died commercially but always had grand plans brewing, Bogdanovich seems for the moment to have run out of things to say; even the recent The Cat's Meow, which overflowed with thematic material that should have brought out the director's best, was flat and under-developed. Fortunately, through the magic of DVD, we can relive those few years in which he set the world on fire.

Movielovers who check out Paper Moon and find themselves wanting to stay a little longer in its Depression atmosphere have two choices: Wait until Dubya's fiscal acumen completely devastates the lower-middle class, or head to the video store. Hallmark and Artisan have just released a couple of anthologies of the kind of stuff the O'Neal characters would have been watching in-between pulling quick-change scams. A disc titled simply Laurel & Hardy contains five of the comedy team's collaborations, including the memorable The Music Box, in which The Fat One and The Skinny One try to get a piano up a mountain of stairs.

Confusingly, the companies have also released two separate discs titled The Little Rascals, both of which sample installments of the serial from throughout the '30s. I wasn't all that excited about these until I had a bad case of insomnia the other night and put one on to keep me company; I had forgotten just how charming those rapscallions are. I especially love the little moments when the production seems set to fall apart - a kid makes a face after reading his line, somebody walks in the wrong direction - and nobody bothers to edit it out. Orson Welles-style wunderkinder they ain't, but these kids are at least verifiably wonderful. •


More by John DeFore

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