Hold Your Own Retrospective: Peter Bogdanovich Style!

January 28, 2010

Mr. Pickle’s last post on bar construction got me thinking about film spectatorship and how we collect media. For most of us, going to the theater is hardly the predominate form of movie watching. Movies are more often a homebound, domestic activity; in the 1980s there was even a genre of film criticism devoted to random TV viewings of classic movies. (See, Geoffrey Hartman on North by Northwest). 3D films like “Avatar” are designed to heighten the public spectacle and bring back the communal aspects of film-going, but the other major developments in film technology (digital film, digital distribution, iPod videos) are all designed to further miniaturize the viewing experience, putting more movies in your home or pocket. DVD collecting never actually made much sense as an activity; with very few exceptions, these were mass produced, easily acquired. But in an era of increased on-demand, Netflix streaming, Surfthechannel, and puppet show re-enactments (Ok, I made that up; but just imagine trying to recreate “Being John Malkovich!” Would you need to cast people as the marionettes? What layers of meaning and textuality!), it makes even less sense than it did before.

And yet, there is a strong limiting factor in acquiring media: time. The standard completist model of watching everything by a given director, or every movie on the AFI top-100 list, or every movie ever nominated for best picture and best director (who would do such a thing? oh wait…) is a commitment that most of us can’t make. Watching movies conflicts with other parts of domestic life and causes domestic conflicts. Shall I write thank you notes, or focus on the nuances of Renoir? Improve my meatloaf recipe, or discover the hidden aesthetic of Michael Bay? Better: McG. We need a system for generating viewing lists. Think “Man and Fish,” Mr. Pickle tells us.

So let’s say that you want to catch up on the work of a given director. You need a way to catch only the fish. Last week the Brattle did a one day program on Robert Altman. They aired two movies unavailable on DVD (“Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”; “Brewster McCloud”), one cult classic (“The Long Goodbye”), and one widely recognized masterpiece (“The Player”). Coming from different time periods, it’s a pretty fair sampling of Altman’s work. Is it missing his magnum opus? Yes, but that makes it all the more interesting. This is a workable template for a director digest–minus the films not on DVD, of course.

Let’s try this with another director. In a couple of weeks, the Harvard Film Archive is putting on a Peter Bogdanovich retrospective, showing almost all of his movies. Hardly “Man and Fish.” Instead, here’s a YS “Peter Bogdanovich Home Edition,” featuring four movies modeled on the Altman paradigm:

  • 1 recognized masterpiece: “The Last Picture Show” (1971) (Ok, I’m cheating here since this is the Magnum Opus)
  • 1 very early film: “Targets” (1968)
  • 1 late and popular film: “Mask” (1985)
  • 1 Film X: “They All Laughed” (1981)

Basically, I put this together by making a spreadsheet of Bogdanovich movies with 5 columns: name, year, IMDB rating, Box Office Data, and an X-Factor for quantifying your subjectivity. Use this column to mark something especially interesting to you. “They All Laughed” is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, so it certainly sufficed for my purposes, while Tatum O’Neal fans might want to include “Paper Moon.” I defined “late” as being later than the median movie, which in this case is “Saint Jack.” Actually, “Saint Jack” is the median movie by both date of release and IMDB rating. It is, in other words, the most Peter Bogdanovich movie out there, Bogdanovich’s Bogdanovich, Unicorns’ Unicorn.


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