Archive for The Last Picture Show

Old School

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2012 by dcairns

When John Waters appeared at Edinburgh Film Fest to talk about his career and his monologue-movie THIS FILTHY WORLD, he spoke of the tragedy of Divine’s passing — not only did his star miss out on the success of HAIRSPRAY, but his death cast a pall over the film. “Who would say ‘Let’s go see that comedy starring that guy who just died?'” he asked, rhetorically. This didn’t stop a drunken female fan in the audience from bellowing “I would!” Waters, who is a real gent, which one might not guess from some of his movies, looked slightly pained, and answered, with great restraint, “Yes, but you know what I mean.”

Well, I’d been meaning to revisit THEY ALL LAUGHED, and Ben Gazzara’s passing seemed as good a reason as any. Fiona had never seen it. While not having Gazzara around any more is a cause for sadness, in a way it was good to see the film with a slightly different pall over it than the usual one, which is of course due to the presence of Dorothy Stratton, murdered before the film came out. And it’s hard to separate that tragedy from the movie’s history. When the distributors decided to write the film off, Bogdanovich bought it back from them and distributed it himself, which bankrupted him.

So the movie has baggage — it also has John Ritter, who died much too soon, and a lingering view of the twin towers during the opening credits. A pretty heavy load for a movie to bear when it’s trying to coast along on charm.

Because there’s virtually no plot, something which perplexed me when I saw it as a kid (it was one of the few movies our local VHS/Betamax rental place had in stock). I got the distinct impression I was missing something — a bunch of characters are set in motion for obscure reasons, move around Manhattan, get up to mysterious stuff, switch partners, fall in love, and then it’s over. I grasped that some of the men were private eyes, and I grasped who they were following — Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratton — but since the husband-clients who engaged the ‘tecs spend most of their time offscreen, and are virtually never seen conferring with their hired snoopers, I had little idea why anything was happening. It’s like Truffaut says to Hitchcock, whenever A & B are discussing an absent C, the audience scratches their scalps and wonders who the hell C is.

On top of the puzzlement, there’s an almost total lack of dramatic tension, a necessary ingredient in farce and screwball, I’d have thought. Some of the slackness comes from our not being sure what’s afoot, some of it from a genuine sense of there being nothing at stake. The characters deal with romance in such an easy-going manner — the film takes it as read that everybody is unfaithful to everybody else, and nobody seems to mind except a couple of unsympathetic husbands — that it’s hard to get engaged with the entanglements of the lead characters.

Yes, characterS — the hero role is split between Gazzara and Ritter. BG brings movie-star manliness and dignity to a bed-hopping character who arguably lacks dignity in some key ways, while Ritter, as absolutely everybody has pointed out, is playing Bogdanovich, down to the blazer and big plastic specs. His impersonation is so good he illuminates the ways in which Ryan O’Neal before him had channelled the Bogdanovich persona. But O’Neal’s own, more muscular personality still came through, whereas Ritter is subsumed.

The other cast member who suffers is Colleen Camp, who most people seem to find annoying in this. I think the problem is that she’s been drilled in the mannerisms of Madeleine Kahn in WHAT’S UP, DOC? (herself modeled on the henpecker in BRINGING UP BABY), and it’s too one-note, especially as the character has more screen time and seems intended to be at least somewhat appealing.

BUT — there are compensations for all of the above, even for those who don’t like country music (yes, it’s set in New York and has a largely country music soundtrack, with a splash of Sinatra and Benny Goodman). Bogdanovich’s conceit of transposing screwball style onto a 1981 location-shot New York movie is, in itself, quite charming. Patti Hansen (now Mrs Keith Richards) is a sensational discovery (rather eclipsing Stratton) as the lady cab driver who casually flirts with Gazzara. She’s got cute freckles and an unselfconscious manner which suggests she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing but trusts it all to work out.

There’s a very young Elizabeth Pena!

Bogdanovich’s daughters play Gazzara’s daughters, and are terrific — everybody’s got the Bogdanovich 40s timing down pat.

Audrey Hepburn has too little to do — it’s an odd romantic comedy which spends most of its time stalking — but when she finally gets a line or two, the film gains emotion. But it’s weird, with one character getting divorced, how Hepburn never seems to consider ditching her fat-cat hubbie for new love Ben. Hard to feel heartbroken for her. Maybe she’s afraid she’d lose custody of her kid, but if so, that’s a dramatic point which the film ought to bring out. It’s as if PB is so intent on keeping things light, he forgot to charge the story’s batteries with some actual motivating power.

To be honest, skipping through the director’s filmography, it’s a problem I tend to find in his original screenplays. Where the source material provides an edge, you get THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Where he has to engage with the dynamics of the thriller, as in TARGETS, it’s rather electrifying, in part because of his discomfort with the nastier qualities of the genre (and his story collaborator, Polly Platt, was a good influence). But Bogdanovich on his own wrote AT LONG LAST LOVE — not as awful as its reputation suggests, but singularly lacking in forward momentum.

The movies Bogdanovich admires usually only seem to coast along. While I admit I can’t remember a thing about the storyline of TOP HAT, I do recall that THE GAY DIVORCEE sets up narrative expectations early on and even delivers a superb plot twist. And Hawks’ disparagement of plot should never be taken at face value — his characters nearly always have goals.

In the end, THEY ALL LAUGHED is pretty enjoyable — we didn’t know precisely why we were watching, but we never felt like switching off. And the film would appear to be seriously overlong, at nearly two hours, but survives. I can’t resent its formlessness too much — the plots of Bogdanovich’s best films, which are seriously good (PAPER MOON was my first exposure to The New Hollywood, and I still love it) always threaten to disintegrate, and hang together against the odds. So one should allow him the odd film which doesn’t quite make it to the finish line intact. The sad thing about his career is that Hollywood, or the public, or fate, did not allow him these “failures”.

Blood for Oil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2008 by dcairns

Alex Orr’s zestful cheapie BLOOD CAR played the Edinburgh Film fest this year (the Fest has a long history of supporting imaginative exploitation cinema, starting with its ahead-of-the-curve Corman retrospective back in the ’70s) and the writer-director was around for the whole event. He seemed very approachable so I cornered him for the first Shadowplay interview.

Well, it turns out I suck at interviewing, but am OK at free-ranging movie conversation, so once we stopped with the programmed blather things went much better. This means that I only garnered a tiny amount of useable on-topic stuff to print here. So I’m using ALL of it.

BLOOD CAR details the misadventures of vegan schoolteacher Archie Andrews, who’s trying to convert his car to run on wheat grass, but inadvertently discovers it prefers blood. The day before the interview I heard someone describe the film as “technically horrible” (it’s not, but it’s shot on digital) but “conceptually brilliant”. The political subtext of “blood for oil” is never stressed, but it doesn’t need to be. The filmmakers were certainly well aware of it.

“A B movie should just be a BIG AWESOME RETARDED THING,” he says, citing Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS as the big-budget version of that principle: Pretty kids getting eaten by bugs, plus a weird Nazi vibe. It’s all in the concept.

Alex and his pals were pitching ideas in the car, trying to find an exploitable low-budget scenario, and I guess the idea of a car came naturally to mind since they were in one. I bet lots of cyber-thrillers are thought up while the writers are staring at their P.C.s. It’s obvious, really.

Being an aspiring low-budget filmmaker myself, I had to ask Alex the budget and schedule question. The movie was made for “around 25-30” and shot in 12 days, but there was a subplot that didn’t work, comprising about a third of the footage, so that was ditched and a further couple days new material was produced to bring the film up to length and add touches like the very funny baby-kissing coda. (OK, there IS some overt political satire).

Alex has a group of friends he regularly works with, and had helped out on horror films before, but never made one. His leading man is a friend whom everybody thought it would be amusing to systematically degrade and smear in blood. The “meat girl” character is Alex’s girlfriend (lucky guy). A local rap artist was drafted in to play a carjacker.

A little money was spent on one essential prosthetic effect, and a device to spray blood at high pressure was hired. And about fifty gallons of “Kensington gore” was purchased at a knock-down price.

The resulting movie has sold in Germany and has U.S. distribution, arranged through a sales agent. It’s pretty clearly going to turn a profit, and hopefully Alex will be able to make his next project.

“It’s about a white supremacist who gets a black hand transplanted onto him. It’s called BLACK HAND.”

Alex admires the seemingly loose but actually tightly organised plotting of LITTLE BIG MAN, and hopes to achieve a similar historical sweep. “Sex and violence can’t really offend anybody in a movie anymore, what with the Internet,” he says, “and nobody takes religion seriously,” so his plan is to use race, which is still a hot enough potato to get people talking.

“You gotta have an angle, other than ‘I’m great!’

Oh, I also want to mention Alex’s excellent abstract Peter Bogdanovich impersonation. “I met that guy, and he’s like a caricature of himself. He’s all, like, ‘Ah-wub-wub-wub.'” The sound can best be characterised as a smug burble. But Alex paid tribute to the burbler: “Your first two movies are the reason I became a filmmaker.” Bogdanovich is quite used to soaking up deserved praise for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, but: “What? Targets???” referring to his low-budget Corman-produced debut, to which Alex could only reply “YES Targets!” 

I agree, it’s a terrific movie, and Bogdanovich gets extra points for gamely seizing a poisoned-chalice project that had to incorporate ten minutes of outtakes from Corman’s THE TERROR, and turning it into a smart and touching homage to Boris Karloff, as well as a chilling meditation on modern-day violence.

It’s the kind of low-budget derring-do I’d like to see more of in British cinema.