Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Wit, wisdom, existentialism. Even Peter Bogdanovich’s silliest movies make time for all three. Over the past few weeks, the Criterion channel has provided me with the filmmaker’s most fondly remembered gems so that I could take a little trip back to the 70s New Hollywood and imagine what it would be like to see them on the big screen. I quite like his style, as do many, regardless of which era he chooses to portray. Whether it be for a chuckle or a deeper appreciation of humanity, he always finds a way to draw people in with relative ease and keep them there. Conveniently, the three movies I chose to watch are each situated two decades apart. So, let’s take a trip back in time.
Finding Empathy in the Great Depression: Paper Moon (1973)
You hear about this movie because Tatum O’Neill is still currently the youngest best supporting actress Oscar winner. And goodness, is she ever so charming in this movie. Ryan O’Neill, meanwhile, is at his most Ryan Reynolds-ist (for lack of a better term) as the detached, swindling, is-he or isn’t-he father of the young Addie. Remarkable in itself is how this movie starts out at a funeral and never once feels like it’s digging itself a grave as a result of that. It, instead, is the grave foundation for a tense camaraderie of burdened man and dispossessed child with a place to be but no specific time for arrival. And of course, Addie needs her $200.
There’s an odd faineance to the story that can be taken anywhere the wind blows it, such as is true for an unemployed man and a child without much say in anything. Thank the heavens for that, because we get humorous schemes like bible scamming, cash register change swapping, and exposing an artificial Madeline Kahn (who is just so much fun in this movie). After a while, you’re not quite sure where the movie is going to end up. They’ve can only outsmart authorities for so long- times are tough, but the law is tougher.
It is then that the fun stops, that the dread ensues. A dead end. Money lost, botched car, broken man. A delivery to the oh-so concerned aunt who will never be the friend that Addie needs. A couple moments in which you truly believe that these memories are all they have, and that Moze is going to disappear altogether.
But alas. Why did we doubt Addy? She is a girl on a mission.
“You still owe me my $200.”
Paper Moon is absolutely timeless. It is fun for all ages, even while set in the dusty Kansas foothills. There’s no question as to why it makes everyone feel all warm inside. Ingenious in its simplicity and all the more engaging for being set in a time of communal unhappiness, Paper Moon finds the good outside of material possessions.
When the Jukebox Music Fades: The Last Picture Show (1971)
I'd been told this was a coming-of-age story. I did not know that the coming of age referred to a town rather than a distinct person.
The way I phrased my immediate impression of this movie's aura was this: a film that simultaneously captures one era of culture and also manages to create one that is entirely its own. Within a few short minutes, you get a feel for the way things operate in this Texas town in the early 50s, you pick up the web of complex relationships, you feel slightly claustrophobic, but also relaxed: no foreign threat. The football team sucks, school is boring, Sam's picture show is the best place to head after school. The high schoolers cross paths with the adults just as much as with their peers, elevating the unique combination of aspiration and nostalgia.
There's no other way to put it: this is a bleak movie. Even in its comedic moments, there's a tinge of melancholic wistfulness. I have a difficult time even recalling what the tone was like in the first hour of movie after it so seamlessly altered itself to adjust to life post the students' reality shock. Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Ellen Burstyn, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, and many more comprise the fabric of this deteriorating southern outpost. Youth seems well within one's grasp one day, and the next it is but a faint memory. Sonny, the future local who is unaware of his predestined role, watches as the a mere year transforms the people and makeup of the town as he knows it. How many different ways can I phrase the idea that this movie is the equivalent to getting old?
Cybill Shepherd gets a quite interesting arc, here, that I would like to contemplate more deeply. Essentially, she is "the only good looking girl in this whole town." She has the looks, she's wealthier than most, she has the the dopey but well-meaning boyfriend, and she's pretty confident of where her life is going to go after graduation: local college and then to building a family. But, her mom reminds her, she has other options.
That's when the dread sets in.
Then what sets in iis this supremely relatable mid-adolescent crisis that she isn't doing enough, isn't taking advantage of her resources, that she's reduced herself to the simplest version of herself because it's the easiest path.
So, she rebels. The stripping party, using Duane to lose her virginity so she has a chance with another man, seducing her father's business partner. But it's not enough. Nobody is disciplining her. What does she have to do for someone to solve her problem for her?
Elope with Sonny, of course, and make sure the police track her down. Let her dad set up the right course. A life out of control requires only a correction of her behavior. She leaves, and she won't come back.
This film rightfully deserves its qualification as one of the greatest American films of all time, especially for how it acutely picks up the very American theme of an incessant pursuit for progress that waits for no one. When the fabric maintaining tradition is destroyed, the tradition, too, is lost.
A Lot to Unpack: What’s Up Doc? (1972)
Okay, that last movie was depressing. Let's go for a change in tone!. A screwball comedy hot off of Paper Moon starring the impossibly charming Barbara Streisand? Peter, you shouldn't have! That sounds like a perfect stimulant after all that grief.
A lot of people believe this movie to be a comedy masterpiece. While I would not go that far, I must admit that they do not, indeed, make ‘em like this anymore. Unashamedly beige, this probably-hip-upon-release movie is both formulaic and fresh. Schtick schtick skit romance schtick: and yet, it works.
You have your caricatures: Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Ryan O’Neill), Freddy’s mom from ICarly (Madeline Kahn), Gina from Brooklyn 99 (Barbara Streisand), C3PO (Kenneth Mars), among others (if you thought those comparisons were wild, just wait until you watch the movie!).
You have the plot device: the ugliest suitcase I have ever seen in my life (seen below),
that all of the characters happen to be holding their most precious belongings in- and of course, you have the setting: a grand hotel where people can trade in and out of rooms like it means nothing. The motive: steal. All of which make a recipe for perfect chaos.
It isn’t until the chicken has flown the coup that this film reaches its absolute peak: a ridiculous 20 minute car chase up and down the streets of San Francisco. Bogdanovich pulls out all the stops to recreate tropes and invent some of his own, whether it be the sheet of glass at the end of the road or stopped traffic at a Chinese New Year parade, it is one bonkers practical stunt after the other. Eventually, the crown jewel: driving into the bay.
With its own theme song, limitless prop-centric slapstick gags, and a nihilistic finale to rival the Coens, there’s really no way this movie can disappoint.
Cheers, Mr. Bogdanovich!