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George Hickenlooper, the maker of the terrific docu on the filming of Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness, took on another famous production with this look at The Last Picture Show, roughly twenty years after the fact. Short and to the point, it's a pleasant enough examination of the subject, but doesn't have the tall-tales to tell that Apocalypse did. Hickenlooper's candid commentary on this DVD helps fill in some gaps in the fabric of this docu.
Peter Bogdanovich in person may be the most soulful, sincere man on the planet, but his on-camera persona has not served him well, especially back in the middle 70s when he deemed himself the personification of the New Hollywood. His abysmally egotistical stints as guest host on the Johnny Carson show presented a pompous fellow who couldn't say ten words without mentioning his personal relationship with Orson Welles ... in contrast to the honest and clear-headed filmmaker who brought all three of his first movies for us to see at UCLA, and charmed us all with his lack of pretense.
He comes off even better in this rather laid-back docu, not once mentioning Orson and instead reflecting on the job of being a director. He's still prone to want the center of attention, but when he tells the stories of the major trials of his life - some problems of his own making, and a tragedy he couldn't avert - you get the feeling he finally has some perspective on himself. He admits he's no longer the 'gotta direct' nervy firebrand of his early years, but when he works now he's found balance in his direction and his life. 1
The Last Picture Show made the careers of almost every cast member and got an Oscar for good 'ol Oklahoma boy Ben Johnson; Bogdanovich began a short string of hits that ended, not because of industry jealousy, as we hear in this docu, but because he lost all sense of proportion when he put Cybill into Daisy Miller, and completely lost touch with his audience in At Long Last Love. Everybody's jealous of everybody in Hollywood.
Hickenlooper's interview with Bogdanovich is thorough and all-encompassing, and the complimentary footage spent with his first wife Polly Platt is remarkable in that we find out she continued to work on the film and support her husband's work - even doing Cybill Shepherd's hair every day - after the on-set affair began. Ms. Platt comes off as ethical, intelligent and self-possessed, and by far the most admirable person in the show.
For most everyone else, the coverage leans toward the superficial side, just slightly more incisive than a featurette interview. Ellen Burstyn, for instance, looks like a fascinating opportunity for a deeper look, but she mostly just comments on the director. Randy Quaid says how he was hired out of the blue, and Jeff Bridges mentions a broken romance that happened to help him with his part. We do see author Larry McMurtry, rather remotely. His mother talks about his early ambition to write. There are some good moments with townspeople, some of whom may have been models for the randy teens pictured in the movie. But other portraits of the locals don't add up to much, unless we want to jeer at the obnoxious guy who thinks he ought to be in Texasville because, "I really live here!"
The main theme, that the turbulence of the story of Last Picture Show spilled over into the private lives of the filmmakers, goes only so far. Hickenlooper has the good judgment not to force the isue, but the film seems unfocused just the same.
The docu spends far too much time with the moody Tim Bottoms. The actor becomes petulant over the fact that he had a big crush on Cybill Shepherd back in 1970, and now she's not paying any attention to him. When the credits roll, it's revealed that Bottoms and his younger brother Sam were the producers of the film. This tempts us to jump to conclusions as to why there's so much of Tim Bottoms on view. Because it was instigated by one of the actors, and depended on clearances from Bogdanovich and Shepherd to even be allowed to be shown, we wonder how much of Picture This was self-censored, just to get finished. These problems come with every 'documentary' made about films from major studios ... when the major studio is the producer, there's usually not much freedom to express any viewpoint but theirs.
Vanguard Cinema's DVD of Picture This - The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas is just a so-so presentation. The interview photography is variable but not very attractive. The behind-the-scenes action on the streets of Archer for Texasville looks fine, but all the film clips appear to have been transferred from film to video and back to film again - or from video to film and back? They don't look very good.
George Hickenlooper's deceptively intriguing audio commentary tells the full tale of how he gravitated to Hollywood after Yale and basically got going through a personal relationship with Tim Bottoms while working for Roger Corman (who conned him into doing gardening). We can see where Hickenlooper's adroit handling of the Bogdanovich - Platt relationship attracted Eleanor Coppola to hire him for Hearts of Darkness, another docu where the subject controlled the content. 2 Hickenlooper's since gone on to a busy career in narrative features (Dogtown, The Big Brass Ring). When he says in his commentary that documentaries are harder than fiction, I think he has good reason. I recommend his commentary to anyone contemplating a 'Hollywood' career, even in small docus. Hickenlooper isn't that dynamic a raconteur, but what he says is right-on: "Trying to make it in Hollywood, is a strong lesson in Social Darwinism".
The two extra short Hickenlooper docus are about directors as well. The Monte Hellman piece appeared before on the Anchor Bay Two Lane Blacktop; it's a nice career piece that presents Hellman as an overlooked master. The second short on Dennis Hopper is a crude video interview that gets better toward the end as Hopper warms up. Its titles say it was shot for and produced by Image Entertainment in 1988; it's Hickenlooper's first effort, made after he talked Image into letting him try his hand at early 'added value' content.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Picture This - The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas rates:
1. In contrast to the other film-school directors of his generation, Bogdanovich
took to directing as had the French New Wave film critics - first starting as a respected critic of classic
directors. But it took plenty of moxie and gall to propel himself into the director's chair. He was a
production associate on Roger Corman's The Wild Angels. At MGM they keep bound keysets of all the
photos released to promote the old AIP films, and the book for Angels has a fat section of on-the-set
pictures. Looking at them, it becomes obvious that Bogadanovich roped the still photographer into his
corner, because in every still with Corman, Peter is nearby acting more 'directorial' than the
director, and a number of other bts stills show him as if he's directing!
2. Even to the extent of hiring another writer to finish the job. I met Fax Bahr
around 1990 through another writer friend; he said that he had been brought in to 'give Hearts of
Darkness some shape'. I'm glad Hickenlooper's credit wasn't reassigned as well ... a typical thing that
happens in this town.