Books: Even As We Speak — Who <i>Was</i> that Masked Man? |
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Who Was that Masked Man?

Peter Bogdanovich doesn’t need a career, because he has a destiny. The same once applied to his hero Orson Welles, and it is a tribute to Bogdanovich’s mind, soul and stature—all increasingly rare attributes in modern Hollywood—that the comparative powerlessness of his mature years should remind us so much of how Welles’s exultant precocity came unstuck. In at least one dimension, the comparison works to Bogdanovich’s advantage: his opening moves, though uncannily assured, might not quite have ranked with Welles’s for their lasting impact, but his endgame, despite a private life undeniably baroque in some of its salient aspects, is showing a lot more class. Welles wound up narrating commercials for social-climbing brands of mid-price wine, and one of the reasons for his inability to get a film financed was that he was a spendthrift: prodigal even with peanuts, he was the enemy of his own best gift. Bogdanovich, though he might never be allowed to direct another movie, looks admirably determined to keep at least one side of his best gift well tended and fruitful.

Right from the jump, he could write about the movies with a cogency that placed him in the top flight of critics, and as an interviewer he has always been without peer. His latest book, Who the Devil Made It, is just further confirmation of a quality he seems to have had since the cradle. When it comes to movies, the master of the medium is often a buff but rarely a scholar—he hasn’t the time, even when he has the inclination—yet Bogdanovich somehow always managed to service his debt to the creativity of his past masters while he was busy with his own: articles and interviews, slim monographs and fat books were all done with manifest love, despite his being in a tearing hurry. Here, from the new book, is Bogdanovich on the Lubitsch Touch. First he defines it as “a miraculous ability to mock and celebrate both at once.” Then he gives an example.

In Monte Carlo, alone in her train compartment, Jeanette MacDonald sings “Beyond the Blue Horizon” in that pseudo-operatic, sometimes not far from ludicrous way of hers, and you can feel right from the start that Lubitsch loves her not despite the fragility of her talent but because of it: her way of singing was something irrevocably linked to an era that would soon be gone and whose gentle beauties Lubitsch longed to preserve and to praise, though he would also transcend them.

When a critic can quote so creatively, his criticism becomes a creation in itself. Among Bogdanovich’s previous volumes, Pieces of Time remains a model of how a miscellany of pieces can add up to a lodestone, and This Is Orson Welles rivals Truffaut’s mega-colloquy with Hitchcock as an example of how a sufficiently instructed disciple can get his master to talk revealingly about the nuts and bolts in the mechanism of his miracles. Bogdanovich was, and remains, the kind of star student who goes on studying after he graduates.

Being a star student was how he got into movies in the first place. He started off as an enthusiastic young archivist, putting retrospective screenings together for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Catalogues for the retrospectives would include interviews with veteran directors, conducted in extenso by Bogdanovich himself. His licence to pester gained him entrée to the Hollywood studios, where in time he was allowed to try his hand as a director, perhaps because it was less trouble than showing him the door. After proving his competence with a low-budget effort called Targets, he was off and running like Craig Breedlove. But when his run of hits—The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973)—was wrecked by the failure of the musical At Long Last Love (1975), his wunderkind’s privilege of creative freedom was brutally withdrawn. (The memory of that deprivation must surely have been rekindled by the recent success of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, another musical full of people who can’t sing, but this time with the sour notes meeting critical approbation.)

Bogdanovich, his career as a director already in irretrievable trouble, was then stricken by tragedy on a Greek scale. In 1980, his muse and mistress, a twenty-year-old Playboy centrefold named Dorothy Stratten, was murdered by her lowlife husband: The Killing of the Unicorn was what Bogdanovich titled his subsequent book about the event. On any objective scale, the Unicorn was not greatly talented as an actress, but Bogdanovich can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because she was greatly beautiful. Unable to get over his loss, Bogdanovich began looking after her thirteen-year-old sister, whom he married seven years later; the dream lived on. But his fame faded, to the point where his name is now starting to sound foreign. Perhaps he never was a typical American in the first place. The tradition behind his work was American, but the way he thought of it as a tradition was European. Now that the work has dried up, the thoughtfulness remains, and might well be his lasting contribution.

Extraordinarily concerned in his films with the integrity of his technique and the burden of what he was saying with it, he has shown in his publications where he got that concern from: his predecessors. He was Hollywood’s Mr. Memory even while he was its golden boy. Now that he has become the Man in the Iron Mask, he is free to cultivate the archives at his leisure. Executives who played a part in condemning him to strangle in his own beard might be in for an unpleasant surprise. What makes them pygmies is that there once were giants: it’s a cliché, but on the strength of the documentation assembled in Who the Devil Made It, Bogdanovich looks as if he might raise it to the status of an axiom.

The book comprises interviews with veteran filmmakers—Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Sidney Lumet, Leo McCarey, Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Josef von Sternberg, Raoul Walsh and others less famous though sometimes even more ready with illuminating war stories of their craft. These were (and sometimes are: a few yet breathe) men rooted in history as much as in Hollywood. Their collected memories make the past look fearfully rich beside a present that is poverty-stricken in everything except money. “Whoever invented spending millions of dollars has absolutely ruined the picture business,” Allan Dwan told Bogdanovich in the late 1960s. It might have sounded like an old man’s bitterness then. Said today, it would simply sound accurate—except, of course, for the amount of money. For “millions” read “hundreds of millions.” A mere million buys you one pout from Val Kilmer in The Saint and maybe two drops of sweat from Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible as he hangs there reprising the heist scene from Topkapi at a hundred times the outlay for a tenth of the impact. Today’s blockbusters, despite the technical bravura of their components, rarely strike us as being very well put together: the tornado twists, the mountain blows up, the dinosaurs eat the scenery, and you are supposed to be lost in wonder, but instead you are left wondering why you are meant to care, because the characters risking death have never been alive and there would be no story without the scenes that interrupt it. The special effects leave NASA looking underfunded, yet the general effect, despite oodles of expertise, is one of a hyperactive ineptitude—of the point missed at full volume, as in the unstoppable monologue of a clever, spoiled child. Mountains of money in labour give birth to ridiculous mice. There’s a reason, and this book’s radiant bullion of reminiscence illuminates what it is.

To put it bluntly, the old guys had to tell a story because they couldn’t blow up the world. There were limitations you couldn’t spend your way out of, and in overcoming them lay the essence of the craft, its economy and brio. Don Siegel says it for all the others when he unveils the secret of shooting on the back lot: “For instance, if there’s an area which looks weak, I decide that I’ll pan down to the feet of the guys walking and then come up where the area’s good. . . . At the moment where it’s weak, I’m closest to the feet. This is no hard and fast rule, just an example.” When you remember that one of the main reasons that Heaven’s Gate nearly bankrupted United Artists was that Michael Cimino couldn’t live with the idea of a background that looked weak for even a single square yard, you realize that there is a whole aesthetic, and hence a morality, embodied in Siegel’s attitude. To accept and transcend limitation can be a source of creative vibrancy, whereas to eliminate it with money almost always leads to inertia. On his seventeenth, and last, day of shooting Baby Face Nelson, Siegel did fifty-five separate camera setups, and they’re all in the picture. (“It cost $175,000 to make,” Siegel told Bogdanovich, “and it took a lot of bookkeeping to make it up to $175,000.”) Warren Beatty, given the choice, would have gone on editing Reds forever, but no amount of editing could lend tension to the footage, in which only Jack Nicholson behaved as if he owned a watch. Reds, a pioneering effort in the annals of modern wastage, was made in order to indulge the creative whims of its maker. Baby Face Nelson was a cynical, cost-conscious piece of exploitation. Which was the work of art? All right, which would you rather see again tonight?

Reality is a useful brake on megalomania. Besides this key point (continually and hearteningly endorsed by almost everyone in the book), there is plenty of other stuff that merits thoughtful attention from the current generation of moviemakers, who so often not only can’t do anything small but don’t even want to, except as a career move on the way towards doing something big. Leo McCarey took credit for very few of the hundred or so Laurel and Hardy films that he was effectively responsible for, but his vision shaped that of his actors. “At that time,” he says, “comics had a tendency to do too much.” (There has never been a time when they had any other tendency, but let that pass.) In From Soup to Nuts, Hardy as the maitre d’ came in to serve a cake. He tripped, fell and buried his head in the cake. It was McCarey who shouted (in 1928 the audience couldn’t hear him), “Don’t move! Just don’t move! Stay like that!” Seeing it now, all you get to look at is Hardy’s back, stock-still as you rock back and forth with the best kind of laughter—the kind you bring to the joke, participating in it with your imagination.

* * *

The movies are a collaborative art, then—or, rather, they were a collaborative art then, back at a time when the audience didn’t feel left out. But this is to talk like a curmudgeon. Actually, there are more good, solid, humane, well-plotted and well-acted movies being made now than ever before. Compare a densely textured political thriller like City Hall with the average FBI gang-busting melo of the 1940s—one of those movies in which the agents sneak up on the spies while a yelping commentator on the soundtrack tells you what they are doing (sneaking up on the spies). But there is no comparison. The movie business now is immeasurably more sophisticated than it used to be. Sophistication, however, is a two-edged sword. It abrades the innocent delight necessary for the making of, say, a screwball comedy. (Bogdanovich’s triumphant latter-day contribution to the genre—What’s Up, Doc?—is the surest testimony that we should put the best possible construction on everything that has happened to him since the death of Dorothy Stratten: only a man capable of deep love could celebrate a wild girl’s pilgrim soul with so much joy.) And, above all, it erodes the concept of a modest sufficiency. It ought not to—in almost any other field, the sophisticated rein themselves in—but in the movies it somehow does. People who have made small, intelligent movies dream of making big, dumb ones, persuading themselves that if all values except production values are left out some kind of artistic purity will accrue.

So the creators get carried away. And they want to carry us away with them, but without giving us anything to hold on to except a train being chased by a helicopter through a tunnel. To adapt the famous words of Gertrude Stein, it is amazing how we are not interested. The hero couldn’t be doing that, even if it looks as if he were, so the only point of interest is how they worked the trick. Whereas in the old days, even if he didn’t especially look as if he were doing that, he could have been doing that. So we were with him, and we didn’t care how they worked the trick. We let them care. That was their job. They didn’t expect to have articles written about it, or to be interviewed—least of all in advance, before the movie was even finished. They worked from pride, but the pride was private. Somewhere in there is the difference between then and now. Then we participated in the movie without participating in its making. Now it’s the other way around, and now will pretty soon become intolerable if we don’t remember then. This book will help, like all of Bogdanovich’s other books.

It might even help us remember his movies, which were marked from the beginning by a rare compassion for those blasted by fate. The great scene in his first great success, The Last Picture Show, was when Ben Johnson told the normal boys off for their “trashy behaviour” in humiliating a halfwit. In one of his later movies, Mask, the director’s challenge, met with subtlety and grace, is to transmit the awful self-consciousness of a superior mind as its grotesque containing skull closes in on it. Bogdanovich’s understanding of fate’s unbiddably cruel workings is rare among filmmakers anywhere in the world and almost unheard-of in America. He seems to have been blessed with it from birth. But the blessing brought a curse with it. Fate came for him, too. The killing of the Unicorn left him inconsolable. Since then, he has been living a story so sadly strange that not even he could plausibly make a movie of it. One would like to believe that he doesn’t want to, since without a deep, literate conviction that the movies can’t do everything, he would have less of a gift for celebrating everything they have done.

(The New Yorker, July 7, 1997)


Out of respect, and because he was already suffering enough, I soft-pedalled the common knowledge that Bogdanovich had arranged plastic surgery for the Unicorn’s sister in order to make her look even more like the prize he had lost. For one thing, I didn’t know if the common knowledge was true, and I thought it incumbent on me not to find out for sure. One of the virtues of The New Yorker was that it could understand such reticence and did not insist that the personal stuff be jemmied into the piece. Other magazines would have been less forbearing. Though short of back-up by that stage, Bogdanovich had further film projects on his mind and could scarcely have relished my tones of valediction.

Nevertheless he got in touch the next time he came to London and we went out to lunch in Notting Hill. I had already interviewed him on television and knew him to be an entertaining man, but this time, with no clock ticking and nothing at stake, I found out just how entertaining he could be. In the studio he had been sparing with his powers of mimicry. Now he let rip. The mimic’s gift is extravagant anyway, but Bogdanovich has an extravagant gift to an extraterrestrial degree, as if he had be been sent here to docket the voice patterns of the human race. Nor is there the problem that was undoubtedly raised in the case of Peter Sellers, of finding the real man among the many adopted personalities. Bogdanovich might have been talking in the voice of Gary Cooper, Cary Grant or Boris Karloff, but the brain driving the supernaturally adaptable muscles of the mouth and vocal cords was all his.

So amused that I starved, I found it hard to believe that a man who could do all that could have lost control of his career. He had, though. A film director has to be a general before he is an artist, and when they take away his army, he has to fight his battles in a sand tray. If things had been going well, Bogdanovich, although always a courteous man, wouldn’t have had time for lunch with a writer. I tried to be sorry about that, but I was too glad to have heard him in the full flight of his fancy.