What's Up, Doc? (DVD)
Which is the real Peter Bogdanovich: the neckerchief-festooned raconteur who spills anecdotes about Orson Welles, the scandal-plagued burnout with a history of broken relationships and box-office failures, or the under-appreciated cinema wunderkind who once lit up Hollywood with three consecutive smashes? Four of Bogdanovich's first five features have recently been released on DVD, offering a rare perspective on a once-formidable talent, and on what may have crippled him. Targets, What's Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, and Daisy Miller belong to different genres, but all show a director with a clear, mostly effective set of filmmaking principles. The Bogdanovich of the early '70s favored long takes and fast talk, letting his actors build up a rhythm that served as an energetic, abstracted echo of naturalism. Like a lot of directors in his generation, Bogdanovich drew from a stock company–including Cybill Shepherd, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, Randy Quaid, and John Hillerman–and he placed them in precisely dressed rooms and landscapes which he panned, zoomed, and tracked across smoothly and subtly. But like Steven Soderbergh today, Bogdanovich 30+ years ago sometimes let his interest in shotmaking take precedence over complexity. The 1968 thriller Targets, shot for Roger Corman and later bought by Paramount producer Robert Evans, offers a silly, symbol-heavy plot about aging horror star Boris Karloff and a sociopathic assassin who makes scary movies irrelevant. Bogdanovich eats up too much running time by portentously (and, important to Corman, cheaply) exploring homes and highways, but he finds a rich vein in the climactic drive-in shootout, commenting on the effects of media violence by putting a sniper behind a movie screen and his victims behind the glowing square windows of their cars. After the similarly leisurely The Last Picture Show in 1971, Bogdanovich picked up the pace in the 1972 screwball homage What's Up, Doc?, which casts O'Neal as a meek musicologist trying to win a grant while fending off the advances of cute crackpot Barbra Streisand. The hyperactive humor grates at times, but is rarely as labored as many '60s comedies, thanks mainly to Bogdanovich's indulgence of the spontaneously absurd, and his inventive way of letting gags work their way across long, wide sets. He brought back Laszlo Kovacs' deep-focus cinematography for 1973's Paper Moon, an episodic tale of con man O'Neal and a tagalong orphan (played by O'Neal's daughter Tatum) living fat while traveling across the Midwest during the Depression. Snappy patter reigns again, but by letting the story develop in open spaces rather than through tight edits, Bogdanovich fosters an atmosphere of freedom and promise. All of the above DVDs feature Bogdanovich commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes featurettes, which are packed with references to classical three-act structures and the necessity of "paying off" jokes, but next to nothing about theme. That lack of introspection may explain what went wrong with the 1974 Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller, which marked the end of Bogdanovich's winning streak. Unlikely to be rehabilitated by its DVD reissue, Daisy Miller is flat awful, with Shepherd as a turn-of-the-century American iconoclast earning the disapproval of her countrymen while vacationing in Europe. The film looks amazing, but the cranked-up acting (complete with the most rapid-fire dialogue Bogdanovich had yet attempted) is tough to bear, especially as it becomes apparent that James' subtle character study is beyond the story-driven Bogdanovich's capabilities. Daisy Miller proves that Bogdanovich may have broken out of the gate ahead of his film-school-brat contemporaries, but a lack of depth and conviction burned him out quickly, as it became apparent that his skill at telling stories didn't extend to caring what they were about.