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The Cat's Meow

By Peter Tonguette

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 age.

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 even clearer.

The Cat's Meow follows the trajectory of these pictures, invigorated by Bogdanovich's near constant obsession with mourning the past.

The Cat's Meow