Peter Tonguette was Staff Critic for The Film Journal from 2002 to 2005. His writing has also appeared in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, Contracampo, and 24fps Magazine.
Many of Peter Bogdanovich's films deal with lost eras and forgotten
places. The dying Texas town of The Last Picture Show
(1971) and the vanishing old Singapore of Saint Jack (1979)
are one and the same to him: civilizations slowly giving way not
to progress or modernity so much as the ravages of age. His debut
film, 1968's Targets, looks at the inadequacy of Hollywood
horror movies to deal with the horrors of an increasingly horrific
real world. His highly interesting and underrated sequel to Picture
Show, 1990's Texasville, takes its subject in the vanishing
youth of the characters and the onset of a crazed, lonely middle
Bogdanovich's latest film, The Cat's Meow takes its lead
from his previous films, presenting an elegy for the decadence
and corruption of the Jazz Age. To be sure, this is scarcely a
novel concept. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby --
the defining document of the Jazz Age -- as an eulogy for a time
that had barely just concluded. But Bogdanovich's sensitivity
towards his characters and outright insistence that we see even
the most gluttonous and poisonous among them as human beings is
rare, and commendable, indeed.
For Bogdanovich and his writer, first-time screenwriter Steven
Peros (who adapted the film from his play of the same title),
the era can be encapsulated by one fateful night aboard newspaper
tycoon William Randolph Heart's yacht where, it is speculated,
a murder occurred. On board were, among others, Heart's mistress
Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst); Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard),
who has his eyes on Davies; future Hearst paper gossip columnist
Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly); and the purported murder victim,
Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), a once powerful film producer and director
who has fallen on hard times. The novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna
Lumley) is also on board and serves as the audience's ears and
eyes, providing expository narration at the beginning and end.
The official version of events, of course, has no mention of
murder, but the mystery surrounding Ince's death and the ingredients
present--power, money, jealousy, the scent of corruption looming
everywhere--seem too tantalizing and suggestive for their not
to have been wrongdoing of some kind. Whatever its basis in fact,
this story has been circulating in one form or another for decades,
and Bogdanovich's version--while admittedly speculative territory
for a screen biography purporting to recount true events--is as
plausible and grounded in what is known as any.
Hearst himself is portrayed by Edward Herrmann. Herrmann plays
him as a man defined by control and restraint who, at a crucial
moment, loses control when it comes to his feelings for Marion.
Having become convinced that Davies loves Chaplin over him, Hearst
is overcome with jealousy. He flies into a rage and, mistaking
Ince for Chaplin, fires a bullet into his neck, killing him instantly.
The way Bogdanovich allows the audience to maintain sympathy for
this powerful man reduced to desperation is remarkable: Hearst's
actions are monstrous, but his love for Marion--and Bogdanovich
makes clear that it is indeed love, not simply an old man's mindless
infatuation--runs deep enough where you can almost begin to understand
it. Because he's as well known as a film historian and popularizer
of classic films as he is a film director, critics love fishing
out movie references in Bogdanovich's work. But the critics seem
to have missed the biggest influence present in his latter year
films, perhaps because it's tonal, not stylistic: Jean Renoir,
whose empathetic "everyone has his reasons" view of
life finds expression in nearly every frame of The Cat's Meow.
The film opens in black-and-white at Ince's funeral in Los Angeles,
although Bogdanovich--a classicist when it comes to narrative
construction--doesn't reveal Ince to be the deceased until he's
actually murdered by Hearst 2/3 of the way through the picture.
But--for film fans familiar with the Ince saga, at least--the
film plays best not as suspense, but as a portrait of a doomed,
lost time. The film returns to B&W with Ince's burial, as
Chaplin and Davies say good-bye, and the fates of the other characters
are revealed. However, Bogdanovich chooses to end the film in
color, with a "dream" Glyn recounts to the audience:
all of the characters on board Hearst's yacht alive and full of
life, dancing and singing the night away as if for the last time.
Rarely has Jazz Age excess seemed so tragic.
The Cat's Meow provides a wonderful opportunity to see a film craftsman schooled in the grammar of old Hollywood flex his considerable cinematic muscles. The film is full of rich and subtle touches, such as the surpassingly elegant dissolve from Ince's casket in the B&W prologue to Heart's yacht--in color--and the beginning of the body of the film. Bogdanovich's silent crosscutting between close-ups of the characters as looks indicating love, ecstasy, or mournfulness appear on them helps to shorn the film of its theatrical origins: Chaplin and Davies looking silently at each other as the film opens says more than any dialogue possibly could. But, as always, Bogdanovich knows when to hold a shot and not cut, to let the actors perform unhindered by directorial intervention and to let the emotions flow.
I know that this film is being treated in the press as something
of a comeback for Peter Bogdanovich. But we need to clarify what
precisely is meant by this. If we're speaking in terms of making
theatrical features, it's most assuredly a comeback: it's his
first in nine years. But if we're
speaking in terms of moviemaking, things are predictably cloudier
than the critical community would like to have it: Bogdanovich
has directed half a dozen films for television over the past nine
years. What's more, he has consistently made clear that working
in television--with television paced
schedules and television sized budgets--prepared him for The
Cat's Meow ; the film, he says, couldn't have been shot in
31 days and for $6 million without his recent flurry of activity
for the small screen.
The term "comeback" is loaded with other assumptions.
Do critics really mean to suggest that this is Bogdanovich's "comeback"
artistically, as in it's his first good film in years? This view
would seem to be easily refutable, but it's surprising how many
critics insist he hasn't made a worthwhile film since Paper
Moon --nearly thirty years ago. But, to those who actually
pay attention to Bogdanovich's films, his recent body of work
may be sporadic, but it's impossible to dismiss.
If he hasn't directed a genuinely great film since 1981's
They All Laughed, his last three films have all been in their
ways quiet triumphs. Texasville is one film sequel which
meaningfully contemplates life's own sequels, missed opportunities,
and potential for reinvigoration. 1992's
Noises Off... cunningly preserves the theatrical verve
of Michael Frayn's acclaimed stage farce through use of Bogdanovich's
trademark long takes and The Thing Called Love (1993)
demonstrates as surely as The Last Picture the director's
un-condescending sympathy for troubled youth. Both Texasville
and The Thing Called Love were not released in Bogdanovich's
preferred cuts; they are good films--and Texasville has
moments which surpass The Last Picture Show --but I suspect
director's cuts of each would make the quality of his recent work
The Cat's Meow follows the trajectory of these pictures,
invigorated by Bogdanovich's near constant obsession with mourning
|The Cat's Meow