What I Learned About Peter Bogdanovich

Recently TCM released their podcast The Plot Thickens featuring interviews with Peter Bogdanovich. He’s always been an intriguing figure of the movies, and part of this is how he’s been able to cultivate his image while also acting as a living bridge to Classic Hollywood.

He was part of the New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, but certainly associated and befriended some of the giants of the past from Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant.

What’s unprecedented is his knowledge and his openness to share in interviews, regaling audiences with his stories. He really is a raconteur blending the talents of an actor, director, and film critic.

Recently I watched two of his earliest projects: The Wild Angels (1966) and Targets (1968) with Roger Corman, along with his documentary Directed by John Ford.

I also pored over some of his other interviews including spots on The Dick Cavett Show and contemporary retrospectives. There is some general overlap, but he always seems ready with a new recollection to keep the old masters alive for the present generations.

Here’s Some of What I Learned:

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Cybil Sheppard in The Last Picture Show

-His father was a painter who grew up with silent pictures and gave young Peter an appreciation for the greats: Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd

-Bogdanovich started out at the Actor’s Studio working under Stella Adler at the age of 16! He lied about his age to allowed to study there

-When he was barely 20, he put on his own stage version of Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife starring Carroll O’Connor

-He started keeping film reviews on index cards around the age of 12 starting in 1952 all the way until 1970. One of his first reviews was on Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952).

-The Monographs he wrote for the MoMA on Orson Welles (1961), Howard Hawks (1962), and Alfred Hitchcock (1963) led to in-depth interviews with each director and a reappraisal of their careers.

-At a screening of Bay of Angels (1963) in Los Angeles, he met Roger Corman who knew Peter’s writing and enlisted him to work on The Wild Angels (1966). The success led to his directorial debut Targets (1968).

-He met a young Frank Marshall at a birthday party for John Ford’s daughter. It would instigate a lifelong collaboration alongside his first wife Polly Platt.

-His competitive spirit meant he felt like he was a failure for not making his first film at the age of 25 like his hero and friend Orson Welles (who made Citizen Kane). Coincidentally, The Last Picture Show was hailed by some as the most important film by a young director since Kane.

-Most importantly, he wears bandanas, not ascots.

Recollections Rehashed:

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Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc?

-Frank Capra told him film always has a habit of slowing time down so you have to speed it up to make it feel natural. If you want to make it feel really fast, you have to speed it up even more

-Cary Grant told him Jimmy Stewart was doing the same stuttering, mumbling persona years before Marlon Brando ever got around to it

-He stole from Howard Hawks’ Bringing up Baby for What’s Up, Doc? because Hawks told him all the great directors stole from other people

-Hawks’ favorite directors were the ones you know who the devil made the movie because they have a personal style unique to the creator

-Jimmy Stewart famously told him if you’re lucky and God helps you, what actors have the opportunity to do is give audiences little bits and pieces of time that they can cherish forever.

AFI Corner: Villains #30 Travis Bickle

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In this column, I go back to my roots with The American Film Institute’s Top 100 Lists, a good place to start for those interested in Classic Hollywood films. It’s in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

The first time I ever saw Taxi Driver — owing partially to AFI’s list of heroes and villains and my own naivete at the time — I think I legitimately did think of Travis Bickle as a villain. At least he was a volatile human being I didn’t know what to do with. He unnerved me in a sense. Hence, villainy. It makes it a lot easier to categorize him in such a way because it makes it unnecessary to consider his character in more complicated terms.

However, over subsequent viewings and as I’ve grown as a person, my thoughts on Travis have evolved even a little bit. Sure, there still is the same knee-jerk reaction to his brand of vigilantism that goes to the extreme. And yet I look at him, his genuine desire to clean up the revolting streets, his sense of compulsion to protect Jodie Foster’s character — how do you come to terms with him?

These are not bad desires per se, but they get twisted over the course of the movie. By the time of his dream-like ascension, the angst of this cabbie and Vietnam vet has taken him off the proverbial deep-end.

The final scenes of Taxi Driver — even the ones leading up to the climax — and following thereafter, do not make me angry at Travis. On the contrary, I pity him and question what kind of world we live where someone can come to believe that they are a hero in their little world of self-delusion. And yet it doesn’t end simply there. Something more exists. For even the briefest of moments I think and question: Is there someone or something like Travis Bickle inside myself?

After all, if he started from a place of genuine altruism, what about me?  I can be, at times, petty and self-serving on my worst days (or even some of my better ones). You never set out to be a villain. Sometimes it just happens due to the proclivities of human nature and how we are wired.

So, on a good day is Travis a hero and on a bad day, a villain? I’m not sure if it’s as easy as that. But I would like to slightly push back against the villain title. I think what drew Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro toward the character was this inherent sense of the everyman ambiguity.

He could be any of us. The character is a barometer of the times and a culture coming to terms with the times. Even as De Niro leers into the mirror gruffly yelling, “You talking to me?” he’s not just calling out to his own reflection. We are all in his place. It’s yet to be known how we respond. That’s what makes it one of the most memorable characterizations of the 1970s. As much as I don’t want to admit it, Travis spells out the best and worst about us.

AFI Corner: Alternative Picks Vol. 1

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The AFI Corner column is in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

I hinted at several things in my Introduction to this column. Namely, the AFI lists are great but hardly comprehensive. There are numerous blind spots. It’s folly to think 100 titles (or even a couple hundred) can encompass every good movie.

However, they triggered so many rabbit holes for me — to different directors, actors even foreign cinema — and I’m glad for these asides. In no particular order, I want to point out some titles you won’t find on the AFI Lists. It’s not in an effort to be contrarian, mind you. On the contrary, I want to shine a light on more great movies!

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Leo McCarey is represented on 100 Laughs with The Awful Truth, but it is Make Way for Tomorrow that remains his other often unsung masterpiece. Among many other accolades, it served as the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story focusing on an elderly couple slowly forgotten by their grown children. It’s a surprising sensitive picture for the day and age. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore couldn’t be better.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Hitchcock obviously gets a lot of visibility on the AFI lists and rightly so. However, if we want to toss out another film that he often considered his personal favorite (featuring one of my personal favorites: Teresa Wright), Shadow of a Doubt is a worthy thriller to include. Having spent time in Santa Rosa, California, I’m equally fascinated by its portrait of idyllic Americana in the face of a merry widow murderer (Joseph Cotten).

Out of The Past (1947)

It’s hard to believe there wasn’t much love for Out of The Past on the AFI lists. After all, it’s prime Robert Mitchum (#23 on AFI Stars) an up-and-coming Kirk Douglas (#17), and an inscrutable Jane Greer. However, from my own explorations, its director Jacques Tourneur is one of the unsung masters of genre pictures in Hollywood ranging from Cat People to Joel McCrea westerns.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Howard Hawks is another fairly well-represented figure across AFI’s filmography. This aviation-adventure picture is one of the missing treasures featuring a bountiful cast headed by Cary Grant (#2 Stars), Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth (#19). It exemplifies Hawks’s wonderful sense of atmosphere and rowdy, fun-loving camaraderie.

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

Likewise, Preston Sturges is no slouch when it comes to AFI, whether by merit of Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, or The Palm Beach Story. However, one of my personal favorites is Hail The Conquering Hero. I find it to be such a pointed war picture, taking hilarious aim at a genre that was quick to lean on schmaltz and propaganda, especially during an event as cataclysmic as WWII.

What are some other alternative movies to add to AFI’s lists?

AFI Corner 100 Songs: #4 Moon River

In this column, I go back to my roots with The American Film Institute’s Top 100 Lists, a good place to start for those interested in Classic Hollywood films. It’s in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

Let me be clear about this. “Moon River” was love at first sight. The genesis is a bit unclear. Certainly, I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s first. That must be it. Although my Grandparents had Andy Williams on record. That could have been it. I’m not sure.

The bottom line is the mellifluous tune, with its wafting nostalgic melancholy and quietly evocative tune is beautiful in all its many forms. Mancini’s composition, tailored to Audrey’s own voice, is perfectly understated for her. The lyrics of Johnny Mercer are beyond compare. Simple yet perfectly measured.

I often jest that it’s the kind of song I would want to play at my wedding, but there’s some truth to that as it touches on something that I think is wonderful. For me, it’s the embodiment of love and longing indicative of both the past and future. Huckleberry friends we’ve left behind and those at the rainbow’s end we’ve still yet to meet.

What’s more, it a melody plucked out of time. Yes, it’s the track in the opening scenes of the movie. Yes, Audrey Hepburn sings it so tenderly. But it has a life of its own.

This is part of what makes it one of the most memorable tracks on The American Film Institute’s Top 100 songs. There might be better songs, but nothing can fill the same void in me like “Moon River.” It warms the cockles of my heart.

 

AFI Corner: 2010 My Film Odyssey

This is the Introduction to a new column called AFI Corner for film fans who want to get to know The American Film Institute’s 100 Films lists. It’s in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

Always in the back of my mind, I had the idea of trying to write a book or compendium on how I got into movies. If you couldn’t guess already, the highly original title of said book was to be 2010: My Film Odyssey (or some derivative).

Well, it’s never gotten off the ground and probably for good reason. The world rejoices. Who would want to read a poorly edited monolith like that? After all, I’m hardly the Stanley Kubrick of the written word. However, in the same breath, 4 Star Films would have never existed without that year and these lists.

It was in 2010 where I began to take a genuine interest in classic cinema. It really was an odyssey born out of curiosity and my own ignorance about movies. I wasn’t exactly an avid moviegoer in those days.

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But a family vacation introduced me to TCM (my family never had cable), and I got to see a handful of respected classics. 12 Angry Men (#87), To Kill a Mockingbird (#25), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (#40 Laughs) among them. Seeing Mt. Rushmore and Devil’s Monument in the flesh, meant I rushed to my local library when I got home, so I could see North by Northwest (#55) and Close Encounters of The Third Kind (#64 Original).

From there, the details are a bit murky. Somehow I came across the American Film Institute’s lists online, the two flagship editions being released in 1998 and 2007 respectively. I was too ignorant to know how much dialogue (and controversy) came with the unveiling of these lists.

All I had was my curiosity and a desire to see more. When I started, I did my due diligence and checked off a whopping 12 out of 100 back in 2010! And if you’ll notice, almost half of the movies were ones I watched that very same summer for the first time.

So I built up some steam and started taking to the list. I took numerous more trips to the library. Had family members and acquaintances all check their progress on the well-worn paper copies I had so I could match their progress. It was evident I was still a movie novice. But I was learning.

Before I get ahead of myself, I should point out this blog came out of the handwritten notebooks of “reviews” I used to keep. After almost every movie I watched, I had a desire to try and write something down, not only as a record of what I had viewed but also to give it some meaning. I didn’t want it to be a mindless endeavor. I wanted to be invested.

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Looking back, I laugh. The writing is stunted and formulaic. It’s more plot summary, and there are very few original ideas, but, again, I was learning — growing as a movie lover and a writer.

I’m not sure how this column will evolve, but I would love to share some of those reviews, many of them buried somewhere on this very blog, and then provide some commentary on them based on the movies and my own personal experiences with them.

Because while my life stage and location have changed quite a lot in the last decade, the movies have remained a constant. What I bring to them anew is what’s so enjoyable with every rewatch.

If I was a true raconteur I would have spun a better tale about my film odyssey. That’s part of the reason my magnum opus never materialized. Instead, I’ll leave you with this. I never actually completed any of the AFI lists outright. As of last year, I have seen 99 of 100 titles from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)!

Yeah, in 10 years I went from 12 to 99 (The one title I haven’t seen is The Deer Hunter, I know, I know). It doesn’t sound that amazing. However, this fails to count all the countless digressions and sidetracks carrying me through all the nooks and crannies of cinema. And while I might get around to watching #100 someday, I’m actually fine not having finished.

For anyone reading this, with aspirations of going through this list or something similar, I think it’s a reminder that the journey is not just about completion. There’s something to be said for setting goals (even a dubious one like watching more movies) and then going out and enjoying the experience. I can say resolutely this hobby has given me a great deal of joy, and it continues to do so even as it increases in leaps and bounds.

I hope you join me in the AFI Corner to explore more of these lists. I also hope it’s a reminder that something like these compilations is innately flawed, but they are not an end; instead, they’re a beginning. At least that’s what they were for me, and they can be for all of us. A beginning of community, conversation, and connection. Please join me!

How many movies have you seen from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)?

How did you get started watching classic movies?