Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Or Simply A Shock
Over the years I’ve maintained a continued interest in the career of Peter Bogdanovich and the various roads it’s gone down through the decades from famous director to struggling director to becoming a somewhat familiar face in character roles, particularly on THE SOPRANOS, as well as his self-imposed lifelong function as a film (and Hollywood) historian. In addition to being fascinated by some of his life I suppose I also kind of relate him to my own obsessive love of film and it hasn’t helped how there’s an old friend of mine who for years has insisted on referring to me as ‘Peter B.’ whenever I see her. The obvious affection in her voice at least tells me that it’s meant to be a compliment. I hope. So my admiration for the man continues, whether it’s the amount of times I’ve reread parts of his books of essays and interviews or my love for some of his own films, most especially my latter day love affair with his romantic comedy THEY ALL LAUGHED, one that I’m becoming more and more convinced really is a masterpiece.
But as it must for all men, I suppose, his retro-musical AT LONG LAST LOVE is famously where it all came crashing down for Peter Bogdanovich as Hollywood player and while the director had numerous films to come in the years that followed it’s probably fair to say that the state of his career never quite recovered from this failure. A box office disaster when it was released as well as the subject of massive evisceration by the critics, the film is known now by its ‘one of the worst films of all time’ reputation more than anything, with only scattered TV airings over the years and never released on video in any form. Recently when the title turned up on Netflix instant and in the rotation on the Fox Movie Channel I noticed some alerts reporting this posted via Twitter so there’s obviously at least a slight bit of interest out there from people who have long been curious, probably because the director’s rise and fall plays such a large role in the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” recountings of that era.
The hatred aimed at the film, its director and female lead Cybill Shepherd when it was released in 1975 was apparently so intense within the industry that Billy Wilder reportedly said when it flopped "champagne corks were popping and the flags were waving all over town". Both the director and star went on to privately refer to it as “the debacle” in the years that followed with it going on to be one of the subjects skewered in the Bogdanovich-inspired roman à clef IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES although these days the film does have its defenders. And, to be honest, I can’t really see anything wrong with anyone wanting to defend it since, after all, over thirty-five years after it was released what sort of harm is a tiny little musical like AT LONG LAST LOVE really doing anyone? Keeping an open mind now that I’ve finally seen the entire thing, I’d say that the film does have enough qualities for me to state flat out that the most extreme criticisms of the film are unwarranted and, honestly, there have probably been worse films released over the past month let alone all time. But as charitable as I might be willing to be towards it and as much as I can see how what the director is going for fits thematically with a few of his other films I think my own defense of it can only go so far. Yes, there is something kind of endearing about how much the production wants to make all this singing and dancing work. Yes, I found myself continually impressed by how well much of it was put together with some particularly good camerawork. But where a few of the director’s best films of his career feel like they effortlessly glide along almost as if on air AT LONG LAST LOVE never quite pulls this off when it badly needs to, instead lumbering along like an elephant from scene to scene, from song to song, with no real pace, no momentum to carry it through. It does have its own quirky charms but too much of it just seems like a miscalculation, a case of someone who knew what they wanted to accomplish but there was no way to get it to work. Still, part of me does want to return to it somewhere down the line to see if it all can click for me somewhere in my brain--I can’t remember a print ever turning up in any of the Los Angeles revival houses but I would go if it ever did, partly to try to will it to work better than I think it does, partly out of curiosity to see who else would show up, also curious to scratch the itch. But right now it just sort of makes me want to put on THEY ALL LAUGHED once again.
Some time in the 30s wealthy and bored playboy Michael Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds) meets showgirl Kitty O’Kelley (Madeline Kahn) and they begin seeing each other. Meanwhile, broke and desperate heiress Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd) meets gambler Johnny Spanish (Dulio Del Prete) who isn’t quite as well off as he presents himself and they begin seeing each other. When they all meet up at Kitty’s show one night it turns out that Kitty and Brooke went to school together. The four hit it off immediately and make their way together out to the gigantic mansion owned by Michael to drink and cavort as well as all heading off to various nightclubs together. But soon enough Michael finds himself falling for Brooke just as Kitty finds herself falling for Johnny. In the meantime, Michael’s valet and chauffer Rodney (John Hillerman) finds himself dealing with Brooke’s wisecracking maid/companion Elizabeth (Eileen Brennan) who has definitely set her eyes on him.
And that about does it for plot. Instead of story development much of what goes on is taken up by the endless warbling of (sixteen) Cole Porter melodies, some making multiple repeat appearances throughout, going from one person singing a rendition of the title song to another for example with much of it ultimately all blending together. Now, it’s not a subject that I’m a real expert on but I think there is something of interest to be found in the study of musicals that take a sort of alternate approach to the genre, disposing of old Hollywood perfection as if in pursuit of the imperfections that can be found in people actually singing and dancing, as well as the sadness and regret that can sometimes be located in such songs. Jacques Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT is as beautiful as it gets for me but there are other examples through the years whether Woody Allen’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, John Turturro’s ROMANCE & CIGARETTES, the Herbert Ross film of Dennis Potter’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN or even Godard attempting one on his own neorealist terms with Anna Karina when he made A WOMAN IS A WOMAN. I sometimes look at these mutant musicals as deliberately attempting to present their own stylized world in a way that is the opposite of the glossy, impeccable approach of the MGM school, using the inherent imperfections of the approach to their advantage. It’s as if these directors are trying to reveal something of themselves and what these musicals really mean to them deep down.
With AT LONG LAST LOVE Bogdanovich isn’t doing a tribute to the famous Astaire-Rogers musicals (good or bad, references I’ve seen out there to this being such a homage seem to be missing the point) so much as a riff on Lubitsch-directed early thirties romantic comedies and just like in those films all the singing was done by the actors live on set—an approach not taken since that era—with all the limitations that doing it that way implies readily apparent. Like in those films the framing is kept simple throughout with many scenes played out in single takes allowing the actors to bounce off each other and there’s a definite ‘black & white in color’ look to the film with Art Deco set design keeping the visual palette as elegant as possible. So much of AT LONG LAST LOVE seems like it should work and frankly in moderate doses some of it really does. There’s some wonderful camerawork by Lazlo Kovacs, such as one entire sequence in a nightclub is done in a single shot that eventually pulls out into a full dance number and on occasion all the elements seem to come together so you can feel the charm, the blitheness of what they were going for. But as it moves from one song to the next with very little variation it quickly becomes clear how there’s not enough going on beyond the principal gimmick so it all just becomes constricting and forced, as if the film itself is waiting for screwball developments in the plot that never really happen. The cumulative effect of it all is that it just becomes wearying. The musical numbers aren’t performed intentionally badly, just intentionally imprecise (sometimes in imprecise musical settings like when Reynolds and Shepherd cavort in a swimming pool) and there’s something in that which should be charming, totally exhilarating, but the movie seems to miss something in order to pull that off on a consistent basis. Some bits do register like a cute game of musical chairs as several of the characters are stuck behind several tall people at a stage show and everyone joining in on “Friendship” while crammed into a car together plays just as loose as it needs to almost as if they just made up the scene on the spur of the moment. But for something that clearly is always trying to be frothy and sparkly the desired effect doesn’t happen often enough. It’s like watching somebody who’s trying way too hard to convince you of what a wonderful mood they’re in so there’s just something about all this would-be cheeriness which just feels a little too forced. It would help if it played zippier but it would also help if it were shorter too—movies like this were never meant to be two hours no matter what decade they were made in and by a certain point every second of that running time is felt.
Considering some of what’s been written about him I also can’t help but think that this story of the idle rich is meant to play as Bogdanovich’s cinematic dream of his own tony lifestyle of the time lounging about with paramour Cybill, living the high life as the toast of Tinseltown. “The movie was my fantasy of divorce. Everybody remains friends,” he’s quoted as saying in Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” no doubt making reference to his marriage to Polly Platt that had ended by this point and when he made an appearance at a screening of the film in San Francisco a few years back he stated, “It was really about a bunch of frivolous people who couldn’t talk to each other so they sang lyrics that were made up by somebody else.” A promising thesis, yes, and I can see the traces of that in the four lead characters who are all hiding something, eventually brought together by this music but I’m not sure that the concept he speaks of ever fully comes across. Bogdanovich is credited with the script himself (the main titles have a boastful “written, produced and directed by” credit) but maybe to do something with the basic idea he needed to bring in someone else to work on the script with him and give some real life to things, maybe even provide it with an actual story along with all that patter between the numbers. The vibe of characters meeting and within seconds acting like the best of friends is a constant in some of his work, so the sense of camaraderie leading to changing partners within a dance that can’t go on forever causes me to now look at what he would do several years later in THEY ALL LAUGHED as a very loose remake or at least a recapitulation of some of these themes. The difference between the two is that in the latter film it feels like the director has become a little bit more a part of the world again, or at least a part of his own stylized take on the world, so that sense of both longing regret and exhilaration comes fully across with an emotional resonance. You can feel AT LONG LAST LOVE going for the effect, but it just winds up hanging there.
The disastrous initial reception is presumably part of the reason why there have been several different cuts of the film with various running times listed--“the recut version is a tiny cult favorite” offers Bogdanovich in his phenomenal book of directors’ interviews “Who The Devil Made It”. Without knowing the specifics of the variants I can’t be certain of exactly what is running on FMC right now but it times out at 121 minutes which seems to be the longest version out there but apparently a print that screened in San Francisco several years ago was not only shorter it also contained some different footage. To make this slightly more frustrating, I actually remember catching some of a cable broadcast in the 90s which had a slightly different ending that seemed to offer more of an acknowledgement of how all this is really just a fantasy (since there’s no way to confirm that, I’ll allow my memory could be faulty) and now I’m wondering how that version played. Vincent Canby in the New York Times wasn’t quite favorable with his initial review (still, it’s practically a rave compared with how vicious some other critics were) but even within his negativity he still somewhat acknowledged the film’s own audaciousness. “It's a movie compounded of nerve and a lot of cinematic intelligence, which is no substitute for fun,” said Canby. That’s what occurs to me. An attempt to directly ape early thirties musicals is admirable, just as some of the elegant camerawork it offers is as well and there’s certainly nothing wrong with Cole Porter (one film that might be interesting to compare it to is the Agatha Christie mystery EVIL UNDER THE SUN directed by Guy Hamilton, which is also completely scored with Cole Porter tunes). But the film needs to provide its own distinct spark beyond just the one-liner that insists on what a great time we’re supposed to have. I would love to be one of those people who insist that the world is wrong and that this is really a sparkling wonder of a modern-day interpretation of what a musical could possibly be. But the film needs to meet me halfway to do that and so far except for a few minutes scattered throughout, enough to make me wish I liked it better, it really hasn’t.
You can’t say that the actors aren’t energetic and they’re clearly trying but because the script doesn’t give any of them much in the way of characters to play beyond one-line descriptions they never take any sort of hold. Maybe because they’re so obviously making the effort I don’t even want to say that much against them. There does seem to be a slight emphasis on top-billed Reynolds and Shepherd who maybe don’t quite go with the period setting but are likable and seem willing to do whatever the film needs of them. Burt seems to freely act his way through his songs as if he knows there’s no way he’s actually going to cut an album on his own after this—interesting that seven years later he sang again in THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS—and he does offer his own sort of effortless charm, with his timing and screen persona going just right with the occasional ‘why is somebody singing?’ joke that gets tossed in there. Cybill Shepherd was always more of a Carole Lombard than the Miriam Hopkins which would be more appropriate here and it wouldn’t be until her MOONLIGHTING days that she would really be able to play this sort of thing but at least she’s clearly trying, eager to do whatever’s needed, and is very clearly enjoying herself immensely. Madeline Kahn does fit in just right with the period, I’m just not sure she always seems like she seems to go with some of her co-stars and maybe it says something how her best moments, the ones where she totally goes with the setting, are when she’s onscreen by herself. John Hillerman and Eileen Brennan also seem totally appropriate for the period setting as well and they seem absolutely right for the movie. Brennan is tailor made for this sort of wisecracking best friend role while the ultra-dry Hillerman is particularly good with his comic timing. More than anyone else in the film he seems brave and willing to change a song’s tempo to whatever the heck he wants it to be and it gives his bits that much more life. Given a fixation on Little Orphan Annie as practically a lone character quirk, Dulio Del Prete, also in DAISY MILLER for Bogdanovich, gets a little lost in all this with an accent so thick he’s often unintelligible as well as seemingly disappearing even when he’s front and center during scenes. Mildred Natwick plays Michael’s mother in a few scenes but the musical number she once apparently had was cut out and M. Emmet Walsh turns up as a doorman doing a W.C. Fields impression.
Throughout his career Peter Bogdanovich has made movies about what the movies meant to him and how he was able to tie those feelings in with his own life and worldview. As ambitious as it might be I still wish I thought that AT LONG LAST LOVE worked better, a feeling that doesn’t entirely account for the vehement response the film received but maybe I just would have had to have been around at the time to fully understand whatever was in the air. Maybe it was his own over-confident persona and his insistence that he could make this new-old type of musical work in the seventies, maybe it was just the wrong post-modern approach at the wrong time. The end of AT LONG LAST LOVE has the two couples finally paired off the way they should be, deciding they all like each other better now that they’ve finally wound up with the right one. And, maybe appropriately, this is a movie that doesn’t work, that I can’t fully open up my arms to, yet I find myself gazing at it with a certain amount of affection anyway. Like it is with many films that both fascinate and frustrate us as we desperately try to find a way to somehow love them, maybe that’s the way it should be.