On the set of a playwright's new project, a love triangle forms between his wife, her ex-lover, and the call girl-turned-actress cast in the production.
Let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. It’s a good thing to share a planet with Peter Bogdanovich. He’s made it slightly better. He was an integral part of that bubble of filmmaking— late ‘60s, early ‘70s—when American films became an art form, comparable to great American novels, comparable to the redefinition of drama by the post-war playwrights. (Sort of like what cable television is doing now.) In the late 1960s the old, classic studios were moribund: anti-trust violations had decimated the monopolistic structure of Hollywood and television had hacked the audience in half almost overnight. Also, the studios were pretty much finished after the disintegration of the Star System, where studios outright owned their actors and could do anything they wanted with them—including surgically altering their looks and changing their heritage. But the fatal blow, the pillow over the sleeping face, was the crusty old studio heads themselves. Tastes were changing rapidly and the old guys didn’t have a clue. They knew what people liked, damn it, and they’ve known it since 1924! But what people liked in the preceding decades—good guys in white hats, women with unbreached hymens, apple pies and flags—was not what people liked in the 1960s: LSD, the Beatles, Woodstock, free love, and Brigitte Bardot’s nipples.
So out went the curmudgeons and in came the hippies and yippies—and, for the first time, the film school geeks—to redefine American Cinema. They didn’t emulate their own illustrious Hollywood past, but instead the French New Wave and the other European zeitgeists—in Germany, Italy, Scandinavia—who, ironically, were themselves influenced by the Hollywood the new brats eschewed: the movies of the New Hollywood were not inspired by American myths, but European fever dreams of the movies about the American myths. Gone were the glamorous movie stars— with the new free-for-all regimes, actors could now reflect reality, with ordinary looking people, like Gene Hackman or Jack Nicholson, and actors who didn’t have to hide their ethnicity, like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. Before then, if your name was Bernard Schwartz, you changed it to Tony Curtis, and if you needed, say, a Native American, or a Mexican, you slapped the dusky make-up on Natalie Wood or Charlton Heston.
These are the films where America grew up— Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Chinatown, The Last Detail, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Conversation, Nashville, Five Easy Pieces—and were the origins of the American Independent film movement now epitomized by the Sundance Film Festival. In a departure for Hollywood, the nuanced storytelling drew from the world at the time, and it wasn’t a happy world. No dances down white marble staircases during the depression or tap-dancing Negroes when lynchings were as common in the South as meth labs are now. The promise of the Summer of Love in the 1960s was over, musical heroes had all overdosed, and cultural saviors—John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King—had been assassinated. And now a crook was in the in the White House, and gasoline was being rationed, and life looked bleak. And the films reflected this. And it was glorious! But this time was short-lived, only a parenthesis in Hollywood, chronologically bracketed by the demise and decay of the old assembly line, on one end, and by the start of the Blockbuster era and the enshrinement of accountants instead of filmmakers as the heads of the studios on the other end. The new transglobal purview of these accountants gave us cartoons instead of characters, archetypes instead of actors, and the flourishing careers of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Van Damme and Chuck Norris; the films, with their shock and awe budgeting and promotion (not to mention subject matter), were akin to siege warfare—their impact had to be brief, expansive, and incendiary, as opposed to the necessary gestation and nurturing required for art and sophisticated storytelling. Bogdanovich made three seminal films in the New Hollywood years: The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon. But then something happened to him that can’t be blamed on the New Hollywood bubble bursting.
But let’s not dwell on the bad. Interesting, though we won’t dwell on it, that his newest film, She’s Funny That Way, is about a muse (Izzy from Brooklyn—played luminously by Imogen Poots—another daffy, kind-hearted hooker, the furrowed linoleum of well-trodden clichés), since Bogdanovich’s rapid descent from being any good seems directly related to the loss of his own muse, his wife and production designer, Polly Platt. The films he made before he dumped her are his triad of near masterpieces. Immediately after and ever since, for the most part, the films have bombed. According to Peter Biskind in Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, ‘Platt sat next to him behind the camera and some people would whisper that she directed the movie as much as he did.’ David Newman said, ‘The word on the street was that Platt had been the power behind the throne, and without her, he was nothing.’
It’s been thirteen years since Bogdanovich’s last film. Though we weren’t exactly waiting for it. Like the world isn’t exactly waiting for a new Leo Sayer album. We were happy with him playing the psychiatrist’s psychiatrist on The Sopranos, or writing about John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock. But though he was leader in that watershed era of American movies for a short time, he was always something slightly else, and that slightly else has become, in essence, his mature totality. He is a film scholar. He is a historian. His soul has always been a bit of a textbook: you see echoes of Zinnemann and Ford in, certainly, Paper Moon and Picture Show, and archetypes of slapstick in What’s Up, Doc? (‘The Last Picture Show was my Ford picture,’ he said, ‘What’s Up, Doc? was my Hawks’), but those films were still engaged with the time they made, not the time they were set. The echoes were clever. He looked back, utilizing past genres, influences, and transformed them, like the master of generic recycling, Quentin Tarantino (or the more subtle P.T. Anderson). But now, sadly, the echoes are mimicry. She’s Funny That Way is less homage than Luddite imitation. The author, the auteur, is in every mouth in the film. From hooker to reporter, from Broadway impresario to Brooklyn nebbish, they all speak like Bogdanovich, all—old, young, educated, impoverished—speak like cineastes with encyclopedic contextual knowledge of who seem like they once had Orson Welles living in their guest room. Like Bogdanovich did. There’s even the footage of a whole scene he lifted from Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946) to explain the running joke, and original title, ‘squirrels to the nuts.’ It seemed, I don’t know, pompous. And self-congratulatory. Like the shots of Bogdanovich himself acting in The Sopranos. She’s Funny That Way seems like a graduate film on genre. And as such it gets an A+. But academic enterprises don’t usually succeed by being enjoyable. The slapstick is not original, and atavistically silly—smashing up restaurants and falling on the floor, all the characters coincidentally and continually winding up at the same place: restaurants, hotels, elevators, theatres—and the jokes aren’t funny but old-fashioned. So A+ academically.
Even the title seemed like an academic exercise. She’s Funny That Way? Is it an erudite example of shitty titles that are completely forgettable? Like Because I Said So or How Do You Know? or Are We Done Yet? or Say It Isn’t So. Does anybody remember those films? Or who was even in them? It’s what happens when you use discursive—the strain to not say ‘trite’ is overwhelming, and ultimately unconquerable— trite colloquialisms that could have been lifted from vapid conversations heard in a beauty parlor in a mall, or at some dinner party in the suburbs serving hors d’oevres made with seaweed butter. The kind of title that doesn’t bring anything to mind, because they are disposable and have the gravitas of sea foam. In the real world they barely mean anything; they’re ersatz thoughts, placeholders. So why do we keep seeing them? A title is a chance to, you know, like write a poem in a word or two. Paper Moon is a terrific title. The Last Picture Show is a terrific title. High Noon. Day for Night. Carnal Knowledge. Great titles.
So, She’s Funny that Way: we have a hooker with a golden heart, innocent and wise, whose clients are sweet and decent, without venereal diseases or body odor or even ear hairs. They all are ‘empty of magic’ and she ‘breathes life into them.’ They’re empty of good blowjobs is what they’re empty of. In the real world. In good-hearted hooker world, they’re stumbling goofballs who are actually cute if they stop being so uptight. Like The Owl and Pussycat. Like Risky Business. Like Pretty Woman. Or all the way back to Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (at least the heart o’gold bit). The sweet goofball here is played by a fine Owen Wilson, a theatre director stuck with just weeks to go before opening night (because plays, in movies, magically just sort of happen at the last minute and don’t take months or years of intricate planning) who just needs to, you know, lighten up. There’s the loveless wife, here played by Kathryn Hahn, there for pre-feminist justification of his cheating, and another intransigent female archetype, her therapist (the very good Jennifer Aniston), who’s brittleness and need to castrate men comes from the fact that she has to ‘change her tampon’ (sexual sophistication harkening back to the 1950s or the prepubescent confusion of a 12-year-old boy). People peek around corners. Gumshoes bumble. Everyone’s wacky, and nice, and New York is delightful fairy tale land that’s clean and has nothing dangerous in it. The dialogue is full of clichés, like ‘in a New York Minute’ and ‘who pissed in your Corn Flakes,’ so, again, in an academic compendium of trite clichés, this scores high. In an art form, not so high. So, that’s it: good-hearted hooker gets a chance in the big apple and becomes a big star. Uptight alpha male gets a little uptight. And then happily ever after.
Peter Bogdanovich is a terrific human being and we should all be glad he’s here. He is keeping the flame and knowledge of cinema heritage alive for his and future generations. But historians—and might as well mention film theorists here as well—make shitty filmmakers. He stopped being inspired and became pious. He has given us a lot, we should be very happy—well, I am, anyway—we have the triad. But She’s Kind of Funny That Way is not his legacy.