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Archive for July, 2012

“Auteurism today? Well, everybody thinks they’re an auteur. But nobody seems to understand what the whole auteur thing was. It wasn’t a theory as far as the French were concerned. It was a political statement called la politique des auteurs. Truffaut and Godard were attacking the old-fashioned, well-made film, French or American. They thought Howard Hawks was an infinitely better director than Fred Zinnemann. They thought Alfred Hitchcock was a greater director than David Lean. They were against Marcel Carné  and for Jean Renoir. Personal films were what they looking for, where a director’s personality dominated despite who wrote it or who was in it or who photographed it.”
Peter Bogdanovich
“Everybody thinks they’re an auteur” article by Vince Cosgrove
New York Daily News/March 2012

P.S. In the interview, Bogdanovich mentions that his favorite books about movies “include The Parade’s Gone By by Keven Brownlow, The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris, Adventures with D.W. Griffith by Karl Brown and Growing Up in Hollywood by Robert Parrish.

Scott W. Smith

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“Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence…”
Simon & Garfunkel
What a Time it Was

“When I was a kid, I’d never seen a screwball comedy. So for me [What's Up, Doc?] was just this mind-blowing, new type comedy. …I went bananas for it.”
Bridesmaid director Paul Feig
Watch This: Paul Feig’s Eclectic Must-See Movies on NPR

My first date movie was What’s Up, Doc? I remember it well. The date, not the movie. But cut me some slack, I was ten years old.

The 1972 film starred Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand and was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, but I wouldn’t have been interested in them in fourth grade. I was much more interested in Paulette, my FGF—fourth grade friend.

But since I’ve been writing about Bogdanovich for the past week I thought I would revisit the film for the first time in 41 years. I can’t say that I remembered a single scene—or even line—from the film. And actually my viewing of movies was pretty limited in elementary school back in the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray/Cable TV days.

In 1972, I was much more focused on playing football & baseball (or watching Dallas Cowboys or  Cincinnati Reds play) than going to movies. In fact, I only remember a few movies that I even saw in movie theaters before What’s Up, Doc? But I remember fragments of all of those. The little kid looking for his friend at the end of The Green Beret, the car flying up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the planes flying down in Tora, Tora, Tora, and the kid falling in chocolate in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

But in What’s Up Doc?—I only remember Paulette. And how we bolted from my mom (who had driven us to the theater and stayed for the movie) and sat alone.

So last night I watched the movie and bet I loved that film as much as anyone when it first came out. The film was #3 at the box office in ’72. (Behind The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure.) According to Bogdanovich on the What’s Up, Doc? director’s commentary it broke a 33 year old house record when it opened at the 6,500 seat Radio City Music Hall. (Imagine a screening with 6,500 people.)

It’s worth noting that when the G-rated What’s Up, Doc? premiered that three of top ten money makers of 1972 according to Wikipedia were X-Rated films. Perhaps nothing signaled the past and the future more than What’s Up, Doc? and Deep Throat being released in the same year.

“What’s Up, Doc? opened yesterday at the Radio City Music Hall, which seems a perfect place for it if the audience with which I saw it is any indication. There were lots of children on hand to fall apart with laughter during the chases and the hoverings on hotel ledges seventeen floors above the street, but the real mean age of most of the others was, I’d estimate, about fifty-two and three months. With their pearl earrings and crunchy, purple-hued beehives, they didn’t always laugh as much as they might, but they did feel secure in the evocation of a past remembered as innocent.”
Vincent Canby
New York Times review March 10. 1972

The movie was Bogdanovich’s nod back to the screwball comedies of the ’30s. The Depression era when people needed a good laugh. And while I wasn’t familiar with movies like Bringing Up Baby, I did enjoy silliness found on TV in the late 60s and early 70s such as Gilligan’s Island. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hogan’s Heroes, The Monekees, Bewitched, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and reruns of Mr. Ed, Get Smart and I love Lucy.  And characters like Red Skelton and Bugs Bunny. For me, it was in fact, the wonder years.

In viewing the film again the thing that most jumped out at me most was the contrast between What’s Up Doc? and The Last Picture Show. The Bogdanovich directed The Last Picture was a leisurely paced drama/character study shot in black and white with a small cast in a dying small town in Texas set in the 50s.  What’s Up, Doc? is a big, colorful, fast tempoed comedy set in contemporary San Francisco that employed 28 stunt men along with a large cast of characters.

A second thing that jumped out at me was the cast of characters behind the scene that I am much more familiar with now. What’s Up, Doc?  (based on a story from Bogdanovich) was written by Oscar-nominated David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde), and two-time Oscar nominated Buck Henry (The Graduate, Heaven Can Wait), and three-time Oscar-winner Robert Benton (Kramer vs KramerNobody’s Fool, Places in the Heart).  The director of photography was Laszlo Kovacs (who in 2002 won a ASC Lifetime Achievement Award), the editor was Oscar-winner Verna Fields (Jaws) and the assistant to the producer was five-time Oscar-nominated producer  Frank Marshall known now for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies, The Sixth Sense, The Bourne Ultimatum, Seabiscuit and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (And for good measure, director John Ford visited the set one day.)

So What’s Up, Doc? had some fire power. In 1973, it won “Best Comedy Written for the Screen” from the Writers Guild of America. It’s also had some staying power as it was listed at #61 on AFI’s America’s Funniest Movies. 

I must also point out the in the movie Howard (Ryan O’Neal) and his fiance Eunice (Madeline Kahn) are from Ames, Iowa, where he is a musicologist/professor. “Not at the University. The Conservatory of Music. You never heard of it? Well, it’s a small conservatory, but there are those who love it.” Wonder which screenwriter landed on Ames, Iowa and how it made it into the film. All roads lead to Iowa.

And lastly, when I started this Peter Bogdanovich thread last week I didn’t know that it would extend a whole week and land on his birthday today. So happy birthday, Peter Bogdanovich. What’s up?

P.S. For what it’s worth, What’s Up, Doc? was the last picture show that Paulette and I saw together.

P.P.S. Actors born in 1972, the year What’s Up Doc? was released; Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Garner, Amanda Peet.

Scott W. Smith

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“Can I tell one quick story? It’s not a funny story, but it’s a nice story to end with. It has to do with why we all sit around talking about movies so much. What is it we like about the movies? I was sitting with Jimmy Stewart one time and we got on to the subject of movies and the effect they have on people. And Jimmy told me this story: “We were shooting a picture in Colorado. We broke for lunch, and it was the usual terrible box lunch. And this guy, an older fella, who’d been watching us, he comes over to me and says, ‘You Stewart?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You said a poem once in a picture. That was good.’ And I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ That was all he said and he walked away. And I knew just what scene he meant – it was a scene in a picture made 20 years before, and it was just about a minute, and he’d remembered it all these years. And I thought, that’s the wonderful thing about movies. Because if you’re good, and God helps you, and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across, then what you’re doing is, you’re giving people little… tiny… pieces of time… that they never forget.” Isn’t that a great description of movies?”
Peter Bogdanovich
Interview with Clive James

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“Nothing’s ever the way it is supposed to be at all.”
Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd )
The Last Picture Show

We are living in the wild west. Right now, right here in the good ole United States of America.

Last night I watched the classic John Ford/John Wayne western The Searchers, and though the story is set in the wild west almost 150 years ago it only took ten minutes to connect it to current events here in the United States.

The plot of the movie kicks in the first few scenes when a young girl and her older sister are abducted in the wild west. Unfortunately,  just two weeks ago here in the Cedar Valley in Iowa two young girls (cousins) disappeared without a trace. Initially more than 350 people joined the volunteer search locally, eventually FBI divers were brought in search a nearby lake, but as of today there is no news of their whereabouts.

News of their abduction went national, only to replace this weekend with the headlines of the shooting in a movie theater in Colorado where 12 people were killed.

It’s a political season so the right blames the left, and the left blames the right. “It’s movies.” “It’s guns.” Of course, it’s not that simple. But I am fond of saying that movies reflect the culture that it helps produce. Rebel Without a Cause reflected a gang culture in LA in the 50s that resulted in tires being slashed in parts of the country where that was never a problem before the movie. John Travolta hops on a mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy reflecting a Texas trend and mechanical bulls pop in bars around the country.

When Paul Giamatti yells, “I’m not drinking any f___ing Merlot!” in the Oscar-winning film Sideways it was blamed for causing a “Sideways effect” where Merlot sales dipped.  Some wine expert said the movie actually helped get rid of lousy Merlots. But there is no question that the movie Sideways gave the red wine a black eye.

“Merlot acreage has been in steady decline ever since Sideways. Many were removed and planted to other crops in the San Joaquin Valley (where 60-65 percent of all California winegrapes are grown) while many along the coast were grafted to other varietals over the past few years.”
Nat DiBuduo, president and CEO of Allied Grape Growers
Merlot on the rebound  (Feb 2012 article by Bob Ecker)

The bottom line is movies & Tv shows are a major influence what we drive, value, buy, wear, eat & drink, etc.—some of those influences are good, and some of them are not.

After the shooting in Colorado, Warner Brothers pulled some of the trailers for its upcoming movie Gangster Squad, where several gunmen fire their machine guns into a movie crowd. USA Today reported the film’s September 7 release has been postponed and the film is “expected to be reshot and edited.”

Since I’ve been quoting Peter Bogdanovich the last couple of days, I thought you’d be interested in an article in The Hollywood Reporter yesterday titled, Legendary Director Peter Bogdanovich:What if Movies Are Part of the Problem?

“One of the most horrible movies ever made was Fritz Lang’s M, about a child murderer. But he didn’t show the murder of the child. The child is playing with a rubber ball and a balloon. When the killer takes her behind the bushes, we see the ball roll out from the bushes. And then he cuts to the balloon flying up into the sky. Everybody who sees it feels a different kind of chill up their back, a horrible feeling. So this argument that you have to have violence shown in gory details is not true. It’s much more artistic to show it in a different way.

Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. 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.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Of course, other than Gangster Squad, the only other movie I think of that involves a gunman shooting a moviegoers is Bogdanovich’s film Targets, in which is a gunman opens fire at a drive-in theater.

As I watched The Searchers last night I also listened to the commentary which happened to be given by Bogdanovich. He pointed out one scene of hope in the film, “Where [director John] Ford sort of lets the mother tell the theme of the picture”:

“Some day this country’s going to be a fine, good places to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”

Perhaps that was the hope in the 1860s after the Civil War when the movie takes place. Just a little time was needed to heal the wounds of division. Perhaps that was John Ford’s hope when he made The Searchers in the mid 1950s. Just a little more time. But over the last 150 years since the Civil War we’ve put a lot of bones in the ground, and I’m not sure that time is the answer.

When I attended film school at the University of Miami in ’81-’82 there was an average of a murder a day in Miami metro. When our film professor showed us A Clockwork Orange (1971), he joked, “Welcome to Miami.”  The next year Brian De Palma’s Scarface came out that reflected the violent culture of Miami at that time. That film’s almost a cartoon today.

“Writing off a tragedy like the Dark Knight massacre as an instance of simple ‘insanity,’ while technically correct, may miss one dimension of what’s really going on. For what has gradually decayed, in our society of screens, isn’t sanity. It’s empathy.”
Owen Gieibman
Why does pop culture inspire people to kill? EW.com

With the passing of time we seem to becoming increasingly violent. With the passing of time movies seem to becoming increasingly violent.

But there is a movie that comes to mind that’s always been one of my favorites, and one that at least wrestles with the violent culture that we live in—Grand Canyon. Early in the film Simon (Danny Glover) is a tow-truck driver trying to haul a broken down Lexus out of the ‘hood and tells a gang member with a gun:

“Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this.”
Simon (Danny Glover)
Grand Canyon

That film, written by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan and released in 1991, showed that Los Angeles—complete with drive-by shootings—isn’t that far removed from the wild west. But neither is Miami, or even small towns in Iowa today.

“The world ain’t supposed to work like this.” Little girls should be able to ride their bikes without be abducted, and people should be able to go to a movie theater without being shot.

Scott W. Smith

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There’s a lot to learn from looking back at the journeys that filmmakers take on their way to being a part of film history. In the case of writer/director/actor Peter Bogdanovich, one of the things that jumps out is his education. Not his formal education—as far as I know he didn’t attend college—but his film & theater education. An education that began as a child. (All of the quotes below are from Bogdanovich himself and pulled from various sources.)

Here’s a compressed timeline leading up to Bogdanvich’s film The Last Picture Show. (A film which sits at 95 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time.)

1) Born in Kingston, New York in 1939 & raised in Manhattan.
2) His father took him to see silent films at revival house theaters in New York City. (Developed an early appreciate of visual storytelling.)
3) “At the age of 10 I remember my favorite films were She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River, and The Ghost Goes West.”
4) “I started keeping a card file of everything I saw from the age of twelve, twelve and a half.” (He did that for 18 years and had between 5,000—6,000 cards.)

One of Peter Bogdanovich’s film index cards

5) His parents didn’t get a television until he moved out of the house.
6) At age 15 he got his first job with a professional theater company in Traverse City, Michigan. “That was a great experience, we did 10 plays in 10 weeks.”)
7) At age 16 started studying acting with Stella Adler. (Continued for 4 years.)
8) At age 19 he got the rights to a Clifford Odets play and took 9 months raising $15,000. to direct The Big Knife. (The play was not a financial success.)
9) When he was 20 he met New York Times film critics Andrew Sarris and Eugene Archer. “They would come over to my apartment in Manhattan and talk movies into the wee hours. I learned a great deal from both of them.”
10) Started writing about plays and films for newspapers to earn some money.”It was a way of getting on screening lists and seeing movies for nothing. And getting books and seeing plays for nothing. It was totally motivated by not wanting to spend my own money because I didn’t have any.”
11) At 24, he did a retrospect on Orson Welles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $50.
12) Started writing freelance articles on film for Esquire magazine.
13) Had his second theatrical flop in New York and moved to LA with his wife Polly Platt to try to get into the movies.
14) “A little less than a year after we’d gotten to Hollywood I met Roger Corman by accident…he said, ‘you’re a writer, I read your stuff in Esquire. Would you like to write a movie?’ Yeah, I’d like to write a movie.”
15) He did a rewrite on one of Corman’s scripts for $300 and no credit. “The Wild Angels (1966) as it was known as— it was the most successful film of [Corman's] career.”
16) Bogdanovich also found most of the locations and shot second unit on The Wild Angels. And suggested Peter Fonda for the lead.
17) Just before turning 30 he directed and co-wrote a feature film for Corman called Targets starring Boris Karloff.
18) His next film was The Last Picture Show (1971) which he directed, edited and co-wrote. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and comparisons were made between a young Bogdanovich and Orson Welles after he made Citizen Kane.

That’s a good place to stop for now. Professionally, that was Bogdanovich’s mountain top experience. He was 32 years-old. We’ll look where his career went from there in a later post. But look at the journey. It’s not something that you can duplicate as a filmmaker. But you can appreciate the work and the years (even the failures) that led up to his breakout success.

It’s another prime example of the 10,000 hour rule in effect. What you can take away from Bogdanovich is he took small steps and moved forward. He was serious about the craft. From his film index card system that he started when he was 12, to working at a regional theater in Michigan as a teenager, to hanging out with New York film critics in his early 20s, directing off-broadway plays, writing articles, jumping into Roger Corman’s B-film world, to writing and directing The Last Picture Show was basically a 20 year journey.

P.S. Here’s a little bit of odd film trivia I just discovered. Bogdanovich’s first wife, Polly Platt (who had her own distinguished career in Hollywood) was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois—the same city where actor/writer Sam Shepard was born. And just 4 years apart. Fort Sheridan is a Chicago suburb on the North Shore of Lake Michigan and just 30 miles from where Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I watched the movie Mask for the first time since it was released in 1985. It’s a terrific film. Mask is not to be confused with the Jim Carrey comedy The Mask (1994), it’s more in line with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).

Mask is based on the life of Rocky Dennis who suffered from craniodiaphyseal disease which gave him a severe skull deformity. In the film, Eric Stoltz is Rocky and Cher is his mother and both of them are 100% believable. Part of what’s so amazing about that is they both had limited feature film acting experience.

Cher won the Best Actress Awards at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival for her performance. She would later win an Academy Award for her role in Moonstruck, but when Peter Bogdanovich cast her in Mask it was a gamble. Though she had solid performances in Silkwood (1983) and the Robert Altman film Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), she was still best know for the TV show Sonny & Cher (71-74) and her hit songs. Against Bogdanovich’s wishes, the studios made Cher test for the part.

Though Stoltz was around 24-years-old when he made Mask, he had been acting for ten years in theater, TV, and in films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life. Bogdonovich cast him out of 300 people he saw for the part of Rocky.

So all that leads us to the first tip we can learn from Peter Bogdanovich.

Tip #1: Cast the right actors in the right parts.
Bogdanovich seems to follow the old Hollywood axiom, “casting is 90% of directing.” (I’ve seen that quote attributed to everyone from John Ford, to John Huston, to Elia Kazan, to Hitchcock, but don’t if any of them actually said that—only that it’s often repeated. (On the director’s commedtary on Mask, Bogdanovich says that of all of the actresses being consider for the role, Cher was the only one he thought would be believable as a druggie/biker chick.)

Watch Bogdanvich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and you’ll also see a wonderful cast.

Tip #2: “If you have two good actors there’s no reason to cut around a lot. Just let the audiences get into the story.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Cast the right actors for the part and let them act. Simple, right? Bogdanovich was an actor first—he studied with Stella Adler—so it would make sense that he would be concerned with performances. One trick that he used frequently in the past is to not complicate the production with lots of set-ups. Here’s how he explains a shot in Mask where two character have a conversation on a picnic bench with the scene staring with a close up of some baseball trading cards before settling on a two shot:

“This close-up pulls back into a two shot and then the whole scene plays in one piece. I’ll point that out a number of times in this picture where you had a whole scene play without any cutting, it’s a way of giving the actors a tremendous amount of fluidity. Good actors always love that if you can do.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Mask director’s commentary

Tip #3: Forget about shallow depth of field.

“I like everything in focus because that’s the way the eye sees. Orson Welles had that done in Citizen Kane and other films.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Paper Moon Director’s commentary

Bogdanovich has been a long time fan of the films of John Ford and Orson Welles. And while today shallow depth of field is all the rage with many filmmakers where the background is out of focus, both Ford and Welles were notorious for shots where everything is in focus. (Watch Citizen Kane and The Searchers.) Bogdanovich seems follow their lead. Bogdanovich describes one scene in Mask where two actors walk and talk on a long tracking shot with horses riding and jumping in the background and a freeway with cars beyond that;

“We have the horses behind them and the traffic way in the distance. That’s my idea of a good scene. Two good actors, no cutting, and a lot of movement in the background. It isn’t distracting. It gives you the feeling of life going on. This therefore becomes more real.”

Every actor knows the frustration of  what it’s like having to do a good take over because an assistant didn’t nail a focus pull. Having a large depth of field allows a greater chance of having technical problems. Every great performance is captured. Bogdonovich and his crew tended to favor wide angle lens and fast film to achieve that look. These days because digital cameras can really jack up the ISO without adding too much grain that’s easier to achieve than ever. Though most shy away from it because it’s too reminiscent of the smaller senor video cameras which made everything look it focus. Shallow depth-of-field is now considered the “film look,” yet film history is full of other kinds of styles.

Tip #4“Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Great acting isn’t just saying words.

There’s a scene in Mask where Cher’s father playfully tosses a baseball to Cher. She playfully tosses it back to him. There seems to be a connection made, and he tosses it back to her. Then Cher’s countenance changes and she fires it back to her father. He catches it but seems stunned. He puts the ball down, and walks out of the house. Not a word is spoken, but so much is conveyed. In fact, you can read into it their entire relationship. Silence is powerful stuff. (I should mention that Mask screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan received a WGA for the script.)

Tip #5:The best kind of movie acting is with the eyes.”
Peter Bogdanovich

This is more of an extension of tip #4, showing how to maximize silent looks. In The Last Picture Show where the Timothy Bottom’s character is in the back of a movie theater making out with his girlfriend yet at the same time is glancing up at actress Elizabeth Taylor on the big screen, and then glancing down in front of him at Cybill Shepard who is kissing Jeff Bridges. His eyes say everything about his relationship with his girlfriend.

P.S. In case Bogdanovich is off your radar, or you only know him as an actor on The Spranos, his film The Last Picture Show was nominated for eight Oscars including two for him for Best Director and Best Writing Based on Material from Another Medium (shared with Larry McMurty). (He also edited The Last Picture Show, though didn’t take a credit for it since he thought his name would be on screen too much.) The documentary he directed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, won a Grammy. And if that’s not enough clout, Quentin Tarantino once said that They All Laughed (a 1981 film directed and co-written by Bogdanovich) was one of the top ten films ever made. Wes Anderson called it a “masterpiece.”

Related Posts:
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“I remember I was having a conversation with Orson Welles one time and we were talking about Greta Garbo. He loved her—I do too—but he was rhapsodizing about her. And I said, ‘I agree with you, but isn’t it too bad that she only made two really, really good pictures out of forty?’ And he looked at me for a long time and said, ‘Well, you only need one.'”
Writer/Director Peter Bogdanovich
The Last Picture Show: A Look Back documentary

P.S. Watched Bodganvich’s Mask (1985) over the weekend for the first time in years. Think I’ll make this Peter Bogdanovich week.

Scott W. Smith

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