Thursday, July 30, 2015

Birthday Take: Peter Bogdanovich in "The Last Picture Show" (1971)

Scene from The Last Picture Show
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Peter Bogdanovich
Born: July 30, 1939 (76 years old)
Nomination: Best Director (nominated) for The Last Picture Show

The Take

Among the films of the early 1970's, few directors get their due nowadays as much as Peter Bogdanovich. While his work may not be as immediately noteworthy and stimulating as that of William Friedkin or Hal Ashby, he embodies something more organic and homespun. The films that he is best known for aren't full of spectacle or even twists that are cinematic. His stories are about the humans and their conversations. While he would later perfect his style with Paper Moon, his debut feature ranks among the best of New Hollywood's massive, impressive output. While The Last Picture Show only factors into the last few minutes of the plot, it symbolizes something greater about its characters.

The film follows a series of teenagers as they grow up in a city that is ran down and whose population is closer to dozens than hundreds. The story is familiar to anyone who knows a coming of age story. There's the longing for acceptance and the sexual awakenings that fuel relationships. Friends go to war while others stay in town. The premiere source of entertainment is going to the theaters, where they escape their fantasies to a land that they can only hope to visit. The story is, in a sense, about the people who influence us as we become adult when there isn't much glamour or promise of something greater. 

Thankfully, the film isn't as dour as that plot description will have you believe. With a cast that included Cybil Shepherd and Jeff Bridges, it manages to rely heavily on pivotal moments in these characters lives. We see them grow up and live a life that isn't often depicted in cinema. It may be a technique later adapted by director Alexander Payne, but in the 1970's, wasn't as common. The closest that there would be to rural life still had a Hollywood sheen over it that caused everything to seem far more convenient. While Bogdanovich wasn't the most stylistic director, he provided promise of making something simpler and more engaging on a human level.

While many could argue about the merit of The Last Picture Show for being dull and lacking any momentum, it is a fascinating character study that has become the norm for more prestigious dramas. While Bogdanovich himself wouldn't get too many more Oscar nominations, his work would stand for itself. He would also go on to be one of the most prominent film historians, even writing books featuring interviews with Orson Welles. So while the name Bogdanovich may not be one that gets the average movie goer excited, it is one that likely feels integral for more than one reason. Bogdanovich cared about the people in the films more than the spectacle. For that alone, he remains an outlier of sorts who sought to make the medium different.

It is hard to really understand the appeal of Bogdanovich because he does stories lacking more traditional appeal. He may have soundtracks and a knack for cinematography, but there isn't often a major twist. It often comes in the disguise of character development and great dialogue. It does seem unfortunate that as the years went on, his projects became less interesting and more conventional. However, for a brief moment in time, he was the premiere source for a different side of film making that is more influential than his name would rightly suggest. 

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