Paper Moon

I’m all done writing top five lists for the Reader. Last week was my final week on the job, and I’ve had a lot of fun concocting these posts for the last couple years. Hopefully one or two of you enjoyed reading them. If you’d like to go back and see the others, they’re archived here.

She’s Funny That Way, Peter Bogdanovich’s new film and his first theatrical release since 2001, is in the midst of a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s another screwball escapade, full of bubbly dialogue and narrative crisscrossing, and it’s a strong reminder of the director’s grasp of classic Hollywood. His run of similarly themed films in the 70s—The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon—maintained a certain tradition while his New Hollywood peers emulated the then-fashionable modernism of European art cinema. 

But Bogdanovich was anything but behind the times. His commitment to past styles had a sort of contemporary combativeness—less stubborn than passionate, more celebratory than sentimental. However much classic-Hollywood grammar remains viable today, it’s largely due to his enduring influence, particularly in an age when breaking the norm had itself become the norm. Today, he’s a something of a controversial figure, known as much for his personal tabloid dramas and tumultuous relationships with his filmmaker idols, but the films endure. Here’s my top five.

5. Daisy Miller (1974) Henry James filtered through a screwball lens. This is a handsome film, one of the most visually satisfying that the director ever made, and the mood is remarkably light for a James adaptation. It’s a period piece, but the themes are pointedly contemporary, as much concerned with 70s youth culture as the 19th century’s nouveau riche, like a Merchant-Ivory production of American Graffiti.

4. They All Laughed (1981) It’s hard to separate this flawed but fascinating film from the various real-life dramas surrounding it, but alongside Heaven’s Gate and Cruising, it’s one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned relics from New Hollywood’s last gasp. Using La Ronde as a template, Bogdanovich deftly orchestrates a loopy, romantic story line whose various ins and outs make Ophuls’s carousel structure look like child’s play.

3. Targets (1968) A low-budget, down and dirty film, partly made up of leftover footage from Roger Corman’s Napoleonic-era thriller The Terror. There’s no whimsy or romance here, just an uncharacteristically sleazy grindhouse style and plenty of references to German expressionism and old monster movies, not to mention Corman’s filmography. It’s the Bogdanovich film that’s least like the others, which is probably why I like it so much.
2. Texasville (1990) More than just a sequel to The Last Picture Show, this comedy is the director’s reevaluation of his own style and career. In revisiting the familiar sights and sounds of his most famous film, Bogdanovich conveys unique feelings of longing and nostalgia, rendered in wholly cinematic terms. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his capsule, there aren’t any obvious references to other movies here, but the film’s socially conscious depiction of women in control and men struggling to keep up make it the stuff of Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey. 

1. Paper Moon (1973)  Bogdanovich’s heroes are all over this comedy—Ford’s poetry, Welles’s chiaroscuro, Hawks’s jokes—but there’s a depth to the characters and a reverence for the Depression-era setting that’s unique to the director. Even in his mostly ambivalent review, Dave Kehr notes the film’s heart, which clearly derives from the director’s graceful collaboration with real-life father and daughter pairing Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Their infectious interplay and charismatic rapport have a deliciously affected screwball flavor, but their gestures and behavior are quite natural, qualities that cut through Bogdanovich’s generic fixations.