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About the Author
ROSE EICHENBAUM is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist. Her work has appeared in several national magazines and has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, including a national tour hosted by the Smithsonian Institution. A respected educator, Eichenbaum is a professor at Woodbury University in the Media, Culture and Design School and directs the dance photography workshop at Jacob’s Pillow. She also teaches photography at the Los Angeles Center of Photography. Eichenbaum is the author of four books and lives in Encino, California. ARON HIRT-MANHEIMER is the editor of numerous books and articles, including Eichenbaum’s The Dancer Within and The Actor Within. He lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
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Author, screenwriter, producer, actor and director of such classic films as The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), and They All Laughed (1981), Peter Bogdanovich is also an authority on the films of Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. So when we sat together in Los Angeles, he shared with me a bit of cinematic history, commentary, and moviemaking techniques as well as some sensitive moments about his own life.
"You've been writing and commenting on cinema for decades. How do you view the state of the art today?"
"Today, every time a movie is made it's like inventing the wheel. How do you find an actor? How do you find a director? Everybody is independent. When I think back to the days of the studio system, I'd have to say that it was actually a brilliant system that worked well for many years. It operated much like theatrical stock companies, but instead of putting on plays, they made movies. Everyone was under contract — directors, writers, actors, producers — so it made sense as a business, and it also produced some artistic work. Of course, there was a good percentage of crap, but they did produce some great classic films. Today's pictures are all about franchises and superheroes. You've got pictures being made for hundreds of millions of dollars, which I think is a crime. Pictures today cost too much. I knew when Titanic (1997) was a hit that we were in a lot of trouble. Before it came out, everybody said, 'Oh, James Cameron is spending a hundred and fifty million dollars and it's going to be a disaster. But it was a hit, so then everybody said, 'Oh, that's how you get a hit. Spend a hundred fifty million dollars!' Independent filmmakers will occasionally make good films, but that's occasionally. I hate to be negative, but I think we're in a period of decadence. I can't say anything good about the industry today."
"What do today's films say about us as a society?"
"I think we're living in a very angry society right now, divided, terrified, confused; it's a mess, and movies reflect that mess. The novelist Robert Graves had a great line and I'm paraphrasing: 'It's impossible not to be part of your time, even if you're against it.' So every film that is made is a part of our time. And what we want now are comic book heroes, escapism, and instant solutions through fictitious computer-generated fantasies. Spiderman (2002) proved you can do just about anything with computer-generated tricks. When people go to the movies today, what they see is fake and they know it. One of the greatest elements of moviemaking has always been suspended disbelief. You believed it when you saw Douglas Fairbanks swinging from ropes and jumping all around, but he really did all those things. Buster Keaton did all his own stunts. He didn't resort to tricks. When he saved his father in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), he lassoed a jailhouse and you're seeing it all happening. If somebody did that today, it would just be a trick — even if it was real, everybody would say it's a trick. So we've ruined it for the audience. The magic's gone. We have people going on Universal Studio Tours so they can see how it's all done."
"If movies are a mirrored reflection of where we're at now, are you saying that we're basically shallow and fake?"
"Yeah — pretty shallow and fake. That's how I see it right now. Occasionally, you'll find a few American and foreign filmmakers who make pictures well, have integrity and have something real to say about the human condition. Take a look at the films of the Golden Age like John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) or Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953). No one's going to make films like that today."
"There also seems to be a lack of good women's stories being told and good parts for women actors. Why do you think that is?"
"Women once dominated films, back in the teens, twenties, thirties, and even in the forties with a last gasp in the fifties. By the sixties it was over for them; we saw fewer and fewer female stars because the men took over. The actors went independent when the studio system collapsed, leaving no one to promote and protect women."
"I read that silent films had a huge impact on you as a director and noticed that you incorporate many silent moments in your films."
"Yes, that's true. My father took me at a young age to see the great silent films at the Museum of Modern Art. I especially loved the movies of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith. Silent films were the foundation of the medium — telling stories visually with moving pictures. They had a very hypnotic quality — the looks between people, the fine nuance of a gesture or facial expression. When I'm directing a scene, I try to imagine it without sound and see if we're still able to follow the story. The silent moments are usually the key moments, the best parts of a picture. I think it's the glory of the movies."
"Watching your films I also became aware of how you use the camera to show us the character's point of view on what he or she is seeing."
"That's based on the subjective use of camera. Hitchcock was so good at that. He liked to put audiences in the shoes of the characters so that they could identify with them much more strongly and see things through their eyes. In Rear Window (1954), Hitchcock reveals the story through Jimmy Stewart's point of view. We see what he's seeing through the binoculars as he watches his neighbor's apartment. But also there are scenes that are clearly not from Jimmy's point of view but from Hitchcock's. You'll see the camera pan from the temperature thermometer to Jimmy while he's asleep, and we know it's Hitchcock telling us the story.
"I've done that in all my pictures and pride myself on doing variations on it within a given scene. There's a way to do it, how you shoot it, so that it's subliminal for the audience. When you have a close-up of one character and a medium shot of another character as they're talking to each other, it automatically becomes the close-up's point of view. A lot of the time you'll see movies with cross-cutting. The director says, 'We want matching sizes,' and he or she is very particular that the sizes of the shot are the same. That's fine if you want to tell your story objectively, show two people talking without emphasizing any one character's point of view. There is an interesting scene in Mogambo (1953), a film that John Ford made in Africa with Ava Gardner and Clark Gable. It's Clark Gable's story; he's the lead. But the first time you see Ava Gardner, Ford switches it to her, and we see close-ups of her. And Gable is in a medium shot — interesting twist. It shows that Ford wanted to give the scene to Ava, and he's actually on Ava's side throughout the whole movie. You can tell that from the way he shoots it. That's a very important element in storytelling/filmmaking — whose point of view is this?"
"Close ups are also used to show heightened emotions experienced by the characters — correct?"
"Yes, but if you use them indiscriminately, they lose power when you really need them to make an effect. Look at a picture like Howard Hawks's Air Force (1943). There is no close-up until forty-five minutes into the picture. He gives you medium shots, long shots, two-shots, three-shots. When he needs it, he's got it. And you think, Wow! Bang, bang! Those close-ups really pay off. The grammar and the vocabulary of the cinema was established very early on by such great pioneers as D. W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, Buster Keaton, and it hasn't been improved upon. There have only been variations of a theme, or it's been degraded."
"Is that because every art form is confined by the elements of which it is composed? For example, in dance, you have the elements of space, time, energy, effort-shape of the human body, and often music. It has what it has, and you can't make it something that it's not."
"Yes. That's true in film too. Filmmakers continue to do things that they don't need to do, like telling a story backwards or telling a story in jumbled time sequence. Those are all attempts to create something new or novel, but they are not telling the story better."
"Did you think that The Artist (2011) was well done? It was widely embraced by the public and won an Academy Award for best picture."
"It was a particularly good silent movie for anyone who has never seen a silent movie. But the original silent movies were a lot better than The Artist. It was fun, it was light-hearted and kind of a novelty — a black and white silent film in the twenty-first century. I think that's why it was popular. Mary Pickford had a great line after the talkies came in: 'Looking at the quality of the pictures, you would have thought the talkies would have come first.' What she meant was that many of the silent movies were so much more sophisticated visually, and their stories better told. Charlie Chaplin made a comment, 'Just when we got it right, it was over.' The silent era was a period of extraordinary work. You talk to young people today about silent movies, and it's like talking to them about Sanskrit. They don't want to know about it."
"How do movies stand the test of time?"
"Stories that are about human nature and regular people stand the test of time. These films don't get outdated because human nature doesn't really change much. A good example is King Vidor's Crowd (1928). I saw it when it was over thirty years old. When I saw it again, it was more than seventy years old, [and] it seemed more modern than ever because of its human theme, high quality of direction, and the actors' performances. When I make a picture, I think, This is not just for this season. It's a picture that I'd like people to see in fifty or a hundred years and still get something out of it. I'm very careful not to put in topical references unless it's a period piece and that reference is about that period. I wouldn't have a character say, 'Oh, I watched Johnny Carson the other night.' Things like that date a picture."
"You were part of the American New Wave cinema when filmmakers in the mid-1960s through the 1970s began exploring social issues, breaking with convention and taboos, and emphasizing realism. Were you aware that the art form was undergoing a huge change of which you were a part?"
"When you're in the midst of a big cultural-societal shift, you're not as aware of it. Twenty years later I looked back and thought, Oh, that was happening then. Wow, I was in the middle of it. Yes, I was part of that movement in cinema but my friends were not Francis Coppola, Billy Friedkin, and Steven Spielberg. My friends were John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller, George Cukor. I hung out with them and Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and John Wayne. These actors and filmmakers were still very much alive, and I felt kind of bad that I was working and a lot of them weren't. And so I talked about them in interviews and said things like, 'This was influenced by Hawks. This was influenced by Hitch or Welles or Ford.' What I had been doing in my work was using the grammar and vocabulary of movies that I'd learned from watching good films and from talking to them. They showed me the way. I put myself through the best film school anyone's ever been through. I didn't have some bum who never directed a picture giving me advice. I had Alfred Hitchcock telling me why he did a scene the way he did. I had Orson Welles explaining to me how he did a particular shot. Howard Hawks taught me that the audience doesn't know the geography of a place; they only know what you show them, so you can create your own world and this frees you up to make your own story. Sometimes I can hear their voices in my head and I remember their advice. I think about them often, and I always enjoy seeing their films. It's sort of like visiting with them again."
"You were extremely influenced by them, but your films were of a new age, especially a film like The Last Picture Show (1971), which in a way was like creating a new genre."
"When I was making Picture Show, which was my second picture, I did things that would not have been done in the golden age of movies that I had extolled and revered. Those filmmakers whom I admired wouldn't have done it the way I did it — the sex, putting his hand under her skirt, a nude swimming party. Looking back on it, I think The Last Picture Show was so impressive because I showed unusual things in a classic way. The technique of the film was not artsy — hand-held cameras, upside-down backwards storytelling. It was very much in the grain of good, classic American storytelling. But I was dealing with subject matter that would have been taboo in Howard Hawks and John Ford's time. I think it's the tension between the two — the formal way of telling it with material that wasn't formal — that made the picture work. I remember John Wayne calling me up after seeing The Last Picture Show and saying, 'Pete, I liked your film, but I can't show it to my family.'"
"The juxtaposition of classic storytelling with risqué material worked so well you could have done that in your future films. But you didn't do that."
"No, I didn't. I tried to make different kinds of pictures. It was a conscious decision on my part. I looked to challenge myself in new ways every time."
"You actually went a step farther, choosing to make genre films that were outside the normal fare in the 1970s, like What's Up, Doc? (1972), a screwball comedy; Daisy Miller (1974), a costume period piece adapted from the Henry James novel; and At Long Last Love (1975), a song-and-dance musical. You took big risks that audiences would accept these somewhat dated genres."
"Well, I was interested in exploring those genres. Someone once asked me, 'Why did you do the documentary Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Runnin' Down a Dream (2007)? Were you a big fan?' 'No, I didn't even know who Tom Petty was.' But I was interested for that reason — I could find out. My curiosity would be communicated to the audience, and they would find out things that I was finding out in the same way. People said to me, 'You grew up in New York City. How could you make a film so realistically about this small town in Texas?' That's why. To me Texas was a foreign country, so I was interested in inspecting the details of this place and showing them."
"You've said that when you worked on The Last Picture Show, it was one of the most creative periods in your life. How so?"
"I felt very inspired working on that picture and loved Larry McMurtry's story. I was focused on making the best film I could. I devoted myself to getting the best performances that I could out of these actors who were mostly unknown at the time. I spent all my time with them. And many things happened to me while on that film. I fell in love with Cybill Shepherd, and she became my muse for that film. My marriage to Polly Platt broke up and my father died suddenly, all while I was working on that picture. I was one person when I arrived in Texas and another when I left. My life changed entirely after that film."
"So many artists have told me that they can't separate their personal life from their artistic life, that when they're happy their art soars, but when things go badly their art suffers."
"Yes. I believe that's true. Working on They All Laughed (1981) was the most inspired I had been since Picture Show. Dorothy Stratten was my muse for that film in the same way that Cybill was with The Last Picture Show. I was falling in love with her. But when she was murdered, things became terrible. [Stratten was murdered by her jealous husband shortly after the film had wrapped.] I did a lot of reading after Dorothy was murdered. I read all those things you're supposed to read when you're in trouble — Francis Bacon, Montaigne, the Bible. And I didn't really get much out of those. But Robert Graves's work spoke to me. I think I was looking for a time in history when something like this wouldn't and couldn't have happened, and I found it around 4,000 BC. I dropped out and spent three years writing about Dorothy in my book The Killing of the Unicorn. I think it is the best thing I ever wrote."
"Artists, including filmmakers usually make work for self-expression or to deliver a message, but they don't just come right out and say it. They camouflage it through their artistic medium. Isn't this one of the artist's greatest challenges — to deliver their message indirectly but effectively?"
"Yes, my film They All Laughed is a perfect example of that. I wanted to cloak a personal story in the form of a genre picture, which is what all the great Hollywood filmmakers have done. Sometimes it's a gangster story or a western or a love story. I chose a detective story. I wanted to make a movie about personal relationships — falling in love, being in love, being promiscuous, being faithful — but I didn't want to make it about my own life, even though in this film John Ritter's and Ben Gazarra's characters were based on me — an older and younger me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Director Within"
Copyright © 2014 Rose Eichenbaum.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Rob Marshall• Kathleen Marshall
Paul Mazursky •Reginald Hudlin
James L. Brooks
Lesli Linka Glatter
Tim Van Patten
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