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Why filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich stopped going to the movies

Peter Bogdanovich during a 2012 visit to TIFF Bell Lightbox. — Photo: Keith Beaty, Toronto Star.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

𝗣𝗲𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗕𝗼𝗴𝗱𝗮𝗻𝗼𝘃𝗶𝗰𝗵, the filmmaker, film scholar and raconteur, died this week at age 82. The 1970s cemented his fame: He made a powerful contribution to American cinema with “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon” and revived screwball comedy with “What’s Up, Doc?” Always a great interview, our most recent chat was for a "Last Picture Show" retrospective screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2012, which ran in the Toronto Star under the headline, "Why Peter Bogdanovich Won't Go to the Movies":

The topic is film, its present and future, and Peter Bogdanovich grimly offers an Orson Welles anecdote to illustrate his belief that cinema is on the proverbial handcart to hell.

"Where's it all going? Peter, I don't know — it's not going good!" Bogdanovich says during a Toronto visit. "Sometime in the mid-'70s, I remember discussing this with Orson Welles and he said, ‘We're debasing the audience. We're making them insensitive. It's all going to end up like the Roman circus.' "How did that end up, Orson?" " Screwing and killing, live." Sounds almost as if Welles, the late auteur behind "Citizen Kane," was anticipating the day when blood-sport dramas like "The Hunger Games" would become popcorn amusements for the masses. And it also sounds as if Bogdanovich, at 72, has finally tired of an industry that has consumed him for more than half a century, as an actor, programmer, critic, director, author and lately as a professor — he teaches film students at University of North Carolina's School of the Arts. Or maybe his trademark cravat is just a little too tight. Whatever the reason, the film buff who used to see upwards of 400 movies per year now says he rarely goes to any. "I don't see a lot of movies. I really have to be dragged (to the theatre). Because they're so bad, most of them. You just feel, what's the point?" His melancholy oddly fits with the reason for his Toronto visit. Bogdanovich was here last weekend for a TIFF Bell Lightbox screening of "The Last Picture Show," his 1971 landmark that mourns the fading of youth and the silver screen in a small Texas town. It was presented as part of a Turner Classic Movies roadshow hosted by TCM's Ben Mankiewicz. But what beef, exactly, does Bogdanovich have with modern movies? "I just think films have become so decadent. Fast, fancy cutting just for the sake of cutting. Just because it's something to do, like eye candy or whatever. These stupid movies, these 'tentpole movies,' which is a term I hate, are just inane. I have no interest in them." There was a time in the 1970s when Bogdanovich was considered an upstart. He and other brash members of the "New Hollywood" gang - guys like Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese - were helping to break up the last vestiges of the old studio system, where actors and directors were under contract and movies were made under strict controls. Back then, he was happy to see the studio system vanish in the New Hollywood era of boundary-pushing directors and actors, even though he admired and studied such old steady hands as Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. He now calls what happened a "disaster" that Hollywood still hasn't recovered from. "I think, as we get perspective on it, the studio system worked. It worked because everybody was under contract. Now, every picture is starting all over again; every picture is one of a kind. "It's ridiculous: you spend all your time worrying about how you're going to make the picture instead of making the goddamned picture." He speaks from personal and embittered experience. His last feature film for theatrical release was "The Cat's Meow" in 2001, which dramatized a notorious incident from Old Hollywood. Since then, he's made films for TV — which he's very proud of — and also had a well-received stint playing psychotherapist Dr. Elliot Kupferberg on "The Sopranos." Bogdanovich is hopeful that his theatrical dry spell will soon end. He's in advanced planning for "Squirrel to the Nuts," a screwball comedy. He loves the genre, having explored it in 1972's "What's Up, Doc?" "It's not quite as screwy as 'What's Up, Doc?' It's edgier because it's about an escort who gets everybody into a lot of trouble." Who's in it? "I can't say. I do have a cast shaping up but I can't say because I haven't signed anybody. I don't want to jinx it. But it'll be a good cast. We're just in the process of casting now. It's a funny picture; I've been wanting to do it for awhile and we finally got the right people involved. It's always tough to get the money now that the industry has gone insane." The paradoxical thing about Bogdanovich is that even though he's gloomy about movies, he still loves making them. And he loves talking about them even more. He has a sharp anecdote or opinion about just about everything: On "The Artist," this year's Best Picture winner: "I think 'The Artist' is a very good silent movie for people who've never seen a silent movie. It wasn't really like a silent movie of old, but it was entertaining. I like the spirit of it. It was a bit thin." On movie critics: "There used to be more interesting film critics than there are now. I don't read many. Ebert's good. He's interesting. I think Anthony Lane in The New Yorker is good. And David Denby can be very good; Denby wrote a really good piece a month or so ago in The New Yorker about silent film." On directors he likes now: "I do like Wes Anderson. He's very talented and he has his own point of view; you can tell it's a Wes Anderson picture. I think that's good. I like Noah Baumbach. He's a very good director. Serious. They happen to be friends of mine, but they're friends because I like their work. I also like Quentin Tarantino's work. I don't like the violence so much but I like his pictures." On why "The Last Picture Show" endures: "People have asked me about the film, ‘How come it doesn't date?' Because it's not dated. I say it's sort of like a pre-shrunken shirt. It was pre-dated. It was dated when it opened because it was set in the '50s and it was in black and white, which was purposely anachronistic to the period that we were in. "We were very careful to make sure there were no anachronisms in the picture. And the kids would still have to go through a coming of age and older people would still get frustrated and have f---ed up relationships."

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.) @peterhowellfilm


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