Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The Beginning Of The World
Sometimes you can find a great deal of enjoyment in a film, even while freely admitting that, yes, there are a few problems in there. There hasn’t ever been much of an audience for Peter Bogdanovich’s NICKELODEON which got pretty lousy reviews and did little business when released in 1976. It’s never been released on video in any form until now and even a Cinematheque screening I attended about six years ago was pretty sparsely populated. But I kind of like it anyway and now that I have the new DVD release I’m sure I’ll willingly look at various sections of it again from time to time. A mostly comic look at filmmaking in its very earliest days inspired by the stories told to the director in interviews by the likes of Allan Dwan, Leo McCarey and Raoul Walsh, much of it is very entertaining but some of its issues come through that make me understand a little of the response it received at the time.
Set during the early days of the movies beginning in 1910, Ryan O’Neal plays Chicago lawyer Leo Harrigan (“H-A-double-R-I-G-A-N. Like the man in the song.”) who literally stumbles into working for motion picture producer H.H. Cobb (Brian Keith) in the fledgling industry and after spending time writing up synopses to be shot, is packed off to California to take care of a unit that has been left without a director. Meanwhile, southern boy Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds) has similarly stumbled into working for the Patent Agency, the group that is enforcing a monopoly on the theater circuit, and is sent out west to take care of this rival film shoot. But when everyone finally meets, Harrigan thinks that in Greenway he may just have found his new leading man and the two men have to work out their differences regarding each one’s attraction to the beguiling, and blind as a rat, Kathleen Cooke (model Jane Hitchcock).
For much of the time NICKELODEON really does put a smile on my face but I can sense a few of the problems that are there from the beginning. Instead of O’Neal/Reynolds/Hitchcock the director had in mind the younger John Ritter, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd in the leads but for a variety of reasons these choices were not acceptable to Columbia (Shepherd wound up in TAXI DRIVER for the studio at that very same time). As enjoyable as it is at times, it often feels like the film is trying just a little too hard to be madcap, unlike in WHAT’S UP DOC where it all seemed effortless and this feeling of bending over backwards does begin to be felt by a certain point. The script by Bogdanovich and W.D. Richter isn’t always the strongest with certain things like a running thread involving Stella Stevens, playing another actress in the company, that is done with mostly looks just winds up being not particularly satisfying in any tangible way. The effectiveness of certain sections varies—a setpiece involving a hot air balloon works pretty well in its intricate construction but a fancy dress party that devolves into a huge food fight winds up feeling forced. Much as I like NICKELODEON, there’s a serious structural flaw that for me it can’t overcome: divided into two sections making up the first two-thirds and final third, the film drifts along amiably for most of its running time, then around the eighty minute mark seems to climax and restart as O’Neal & company split from Keith and go off in an attempt to film his own feature-length opus. It’s like beginning a different movie with the characters late in the game and the story isn’t strong enough to hold it. In all honesty, I can remember tuning out at this point when I saw the film several years ago and I tuned out at the very same point this time. The story is coherent and it all makes sense which makes me think that there has to be a solution to this, but I’ve never come up with it. The film rebounds near the end for an affecting conclusion but this third act issue is something that it can’t quite overcome. That finale, set at the premiere of BIRTH OF A NATION, is something that in his commentary Bogdanovich admits is a little problematic today, but the importance of that event does come across. When we glimpse D.W. Griffith come out to acknowledge the cheering crowd who has just viewed his epic, it truly feels like we’re witnessing a moment in history and the entire film is somehow justified. Brian Keith’s impassioned speech about the possibilities there are in the pictures is something I love hearing the actor say and an expression that is so earnest in its love for where the movies came from is tough for me to dislike. Enough of the film succeeds in being entertaining and the long takes, well-executed slapstick and interplay between the ensemble cast is much of the time a good example of what the director could do at his best.
One point of interest involving this DVD is that not only has the film been expanded by Bogdanovich for several minutes to make it a directors’ cut (providing, among other things, some clarification for the Stella Stevens storyline), he has also had its look altered from color to black and white using an extensive digital process that goes beyond just turning the color off—for comparisons’ sake, the shorter, color version is on the disc as well. For the most part the experiment is successful, particularly during the barren Cucamonga sequences which make it seem an ideal companion to the images in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON. It also helps the film seems more like a melancholy look at a time long past as opposed to a film made in the seventies, one which in the color version seems cheaper and less resonant. It’s almost as if it finally gives the movie a purpose with this added layer of depth. Some of the details in the comedy are helped too, like how Don Calfa’s performance as one of Keith’s assistants is much more obviously a Buster Keaton homage, something that doesn’t work nearly as well in color. It’s not a perfect experiment, simply because it’s impossible to make it look completely like it was shot in black & white and some sections, particularly during interiors, just look like a color film with the knob turned down. But at least it’s something and ultimately, an improvement.
On the audio commentary the director speaks more than once about the compromises he had to make with this film, mostly referring to shooting it in color and the actors he had to accept (coming off of DAISY MILLER and AT LONG LAST LOVE, he wasn’t the golden boy anymore). Watching the film it’s hard not to wonder how it would have played with Ritter & Bridges instead of O’Neal & Reynolds—possibly better, if you ask me. The two leads we get aren’t bad at all—Reynolds is particularly good at times, truth be told—but like everything around them, you can feel them straining to achieve the light tone a little too much and it never sells the needed feel that these two guys become indispensable to each other. I couldn’t help but picture the two of them going off to their respective trailers between setups without interacting. Jane Hitchcock, who never appeared in another movie, is cute and has a few endearing line readings but she ultimately doesn’t make enough of an effect (and, in truth, I’m not sure I can picture Cybill Shepherd in the role either but I’ll assume that Bogdanovich knew something that I don’t). With these three points of the film’s triangle never fully connecting it feels like a flaw in the movie’s construction that seriously prevents it from being as good as it might have been. Some of the supporting characters making up the film company work better—Brian Keith’s bluster as the studio chief is very enjoyable, Ritter’s eagerness as the cameraman in the role he did get helps numerous scenes throughout and Stella Stevens is able to bring something to all those meaningful glances even if the thread never feels like it pays off to complete satisfaction. Tatum O’Neal’s role isn’t all that different from her PAPER MOON character, but there are points where it feels like she has more energy than anyone on screen. Amusingly, except for the several times her real-life father Ryan refers to her as “little girl” she’s treated no different than any of the adults, making her age a complete non-issue.
Even though it’s not perfect I have a soft spot for NICKELODEON at least partly because of its eagerness to entertain and the love it displays for the myth of the birth of movies as we know them. What it tries to do may not have been enough—maybe part of the problem is by this point its director may have already been a little too disillusioned by the business to make something as nimble as it should have been and the issues I have with the third act are worth mentioning. But it’s an endearing piece of work, flaws and all, and is worth a look for anyone who might be interested. In all honestly, it’s a hard film for me to dislike.