Sunday, September 27, 2009
Blinded By These City Lights
“It’s a beautiful Monday here in the Big Apple,” says a disc jockey heard coming from a car radio just a few minutes into Peter Bogdanovich’s THEY ALL LAUGHED. That the voice we hear actually belongs to Bogdanovich himself makes a lot of sense. Released in 1981, THEY ALL LAUGHED really is set in a beautiful fantasy version of that city, one of the writer/director’s own making and it is unfortunate that the film has rarely been able to be seen as such. It never really had a chance to be judged on it’s own terms, marred by the horrific murder of star Dorothy Stratten by her husband soon after its completion (leading to a prolonged period of troubles for Bogdanovich, who had been involved with the young actress and emerged emotionally shattered) but in more recent years it’s been hard to watch the film and not focus on the numerous lingering shots of the World Trade Center, not to mention thinking about the now-gone Audrey Hepburn as well as John Ritter, also someone who died prematurely and on the date September 11th no less. It’s almost too much tragedy for this light, airy film to be saddled with but it provides it with a few extra layers nevertheless. I found myself slipping the DVD into the player on September 11th of this year as a small token of respect for those tragedies but also for this film which always deserved better. Looking past its looseness reveals a record on film of the Manhattan that existed at the time that is rather moving to looking at all these years later, but it’s also a fantasy version of that city where everything that happens, even the sadness, seems to flow smoothly and correctly with your own life.
The loosely plotted film—focusing on three private detectives (Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Blaine Novak) and the women (Audrey Hepburn, Dorothy Stratten, Colleen Camp, Patti Hansen) they get mixed up with for reasons due to their job or otherwise—can be a tough one to get a hold of on first viewing. You’re trying to figure out the film’s proto-Hawksian universe not to mention the issues of who knows each other, who doesn’t know each other and just what the heck is going on. Bogdanovich wants you to pay attention to these things as you watch it to sort it all out for yourselves and if you just relax, letting that New York flavor seep into you, THEY ALL LAUGHED becomes a breath of fresh air, in some ways almost as hopeful a movie as I could imagine. Moving on from some of his earlier films which seemed to openly be about his own worship of the likes of Ford and Hawks THEY ALL LAUGHED finds its director, maybe for the first time, fully taking these influences and merging them with his own preoccupations of life, love and how these things work their way into relationships. The looseness of how we move through the city going from one character to the other reminds me of the films of Jacques Demy as well, particularly LOLA and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (punching the two names into Google reveals that I’m not the first person to make this connection), and like that director’s work it can be left up to the individual viewer just how wistful or joyous you wish to view some of this.
There’s also the film’s own vision of New York which is a few times weirdly familiar to me as it is was shot pretty much at the time I first ever really knew the city—the scenes along Fifth Avenue ring a bell in my own memory as does the brief jaunt through the theater district near Times Square—the Music Box Theatre that Dorothy Stratten exits is playing DEATHTRAP even though we never see the marquee but it is clear that the Royale down the block is showing A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD, A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE which I actually did see during its run there. This world is one where those mail chutes in an old office building are probably always in use (Wes Anderson interviews the director on the DVD and I can’t help but think that’s the sort of touch he responds to) and everyone who meets each other hit it off almost immediately as if they’ve been friends their whole lives. The free-wheeling nature of the camerawork and pacing combined with the apparent springtime shooting provides the film with a wonderful record of what these parts of the city looked like at the time, though in its quest to be what I imagine is Bogdanovich’s ideal representation of the city he comes from very little is ever seen that manages to date it.
Even the music we hear coming from car radios and the roller disco is all “Sing Sing Sing”, Frank Sinatra (all from the “Reprise” album including “You and Me” which also turned up in the Bogdanovich-inspired IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES a few years later) and a lot of country music which is tied into Colleen Camp’s character, a successful country singer in the club that figures in prominently. I freely admit that my own dislike for country music sometimes makes me wish it were something else that fit in more with the New York feel but the upbeat nature of these songs along with how hearing them here gives the world of this film its own unique feel. Or maybe I’ve just seen the film enough times by now that I’m used to it, but by this point I wouldn’t have it any other way. Anyway, very little ever dates the film aside from maybe Audrey Hepburn’s Yoko Ono sunglasses (that she looses them as her character softens up seems to make sense) and it really does succeed in being set somewhere out of time, in a version of this city where even heartbreak is accompanied by a sharp-witted blonde cab driver who is ready to drive out to Brooklyn for a day of raising hell. In that sense, no one ever has to encounter the sort of pain any of us ever do and the people involved in this film certainly did.
Gazzara, the world-weary but content Bogart in all this, provides the center of the film and the hopeful weariness of his increasingly touching scenes with Hepburn, in which each person seems to know exactly what’s going on without needing to say it, run counterpoint to the more frenzied activities of the younger cast members. Ritter, in what is pretty much the Bogdanovich surrogate role, is terrific throughout and his scenes with Stratten, who couldn’t be cuter, are very sweet but it’s spitfire Colleen Camp as country singer Christy Miller who really takes no prisoners in her scenes (“Why, you got a date?”) doing what has to be the best work of her career. Even the people in here who aren’t the big names the headliners are, like Patti Hansen’s cab driver and George Morfogen’s frazzled boss fit in perfectly with the ensemble (Hepburn’s son Sean Ferrer has a rather large role, in his only film appearance) and even somebody who turns up briefly for some snazzy dialogue, like Joyce Hyser in a fast-talking bit with Blaine Novak, seems like somebody in the middle of their own story. This is a New York where even someone just walking by at one point is somebody a character knows, making it the ideal version of the city that we wish were really there.
Watching it now we also have not only the losses of Stratten, Hepburn and Ritter, but every store location that Bogdanovich says on the commentary "isn't there anymore" and of course the Twin Towers which are all over the film. It makes viewing it that much more poignant and me much happier that this movie exists with a record of this New York. The portrayal of romance as Bogdanovich views it in THEY ALL LAUGHED is a hopeful one but it’s a dance that lasts only as long as the running time (“I knew that all this was too good to last.”). There’s sadness in viewing the film, which is unavoidably a result of our own awareness of what happened around its production, but there’s a degree of sadness in our own romances as well. They so rarely go the way we want them to, yet we find ourselves trapped in the dance they’re a part of anyway. The very title of the film implies that the good times are in the past, that where we are now in life once the laughter has ended is nowhere near as joyous. But we keep trying to get back to that feeling anyway in our sometimes fruitless attempts to recreate it. One thing this film is able to do while watching it is make it seem as if the happiness isn’t quite so far away.