His ’68 film Targets haunts Bogdanovich

— Everyone is busy with the regular routine

The sniper just takes his aim

Everyone is window shopping, no one is amazed

Even if he hit you, you’d still think it’s just a graze

You go to a movie, you go to a show

You think that you’re living, you don’t really know

  • Elvis Costello, “Big Tears”

In the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., a couple of weeks ago, The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece by Peter Bogdanovich lamenting whatever part he may have had in desensitizing Americans to violence. The first movie Bogdanovich directed was Targets, a movie that I’d have no problem describing as an “exploitation film.”

“We made Targets 44 years ago,” Bogdanovich wrote. “It was based on something that happened in Texas, when that guy Charles Whitman shot a bunch of people after killing his mother and his wife. ... It was meant to be a cautionary fable. It was a way of saying the Boris Karloff kind of violence, the Victorian violence of the past, wasn’t as scary as the kind of random violence that we associate with a sniper - or what happened last weekend. That’s modern horror. At first, some of the people (at the showing of The Dark Knight Rises) thought it was part of the movie. That’s very telling.”

Bogdanovich is right - modern horror isn’t ghettoized in sketchy neighborhoods, it isn’t constrained to catacombs or gaslighted 19th-century London alleys. Modern horror is the well groomed stranger beside you, the disappointed former Eagle Scout, the virus out-flying the quarantine, the unbalanced grad student who aspires to arch villainy. We can no longer pretend that we are safe anywhere - not in our schools or in our workplace. Not on planes, in movie theaters and certainly not in our homes.

If Bogdanovich genuinely regrets making Targets, he shouldn’t. I think it is very nearly a great movie, one of the best and most resourceful low-budget films of all time. After The Last Picture Show,it’s probably Bogdanovich’s best movie. (I’ve written about it before, though I can’t find any evidence of that in our digitized archives - so forgive me if I’ve changed my mind.)

If you watch it today, you might understand just a little bit better about what it was like to be alive in 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, when the world seemed to be unspooling and doomed.

Karloff is in the movie - he owed Roger Corman, Bogdanovich’s mentor, two days of work - playing a version of himself, a veteran of Hollywood horror who wants to retire because he senses that people “aren’t shocked” anymore by his kind of scary. The film opens in a Hollywood screening room, where a group of people, including Karloff’s character, are watching a scene from a movie they’ve presumably just completed. Karloff is being pursued by Jack Nicholson through a dark and cobwebby castle. (The scene is actually from The Terror, a 1963 low budget quickie directed by Corman.)

The lights come up and Karloff - called Byron Orlok here - reiterates his decision to retire, in part because he understands his brand of terror doesn’t cut it anymore.

“This does it,” he says, holding up a newspaper with a headline about a massacre in a supermarket.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a fresh-faced cipher - actor Tim O’Kelly, who allegedly was cast for his resemblance to Whitman (he looks like Matt Damon) - named Bobby Thompson, who lives with his pretty wife in a neat California suburb. Bobby is outwardly polite and All-American - but he has built up a stockpile of weapons. Which he’s about to put to use.

One morning, Bobby shoots his wife and mother (as Whitman did) before sniping at cars on the freeway (a scene that might have been inspired by 16-year-old freeway sniper Michael Clark, who killed three people before committing suicide near Orcutt, Calif., in 1965). When the cops show up, Bobby flees to a nearby drive-in theater (where Orlok just happens to be making his last public appearance) and begins firing through the screen.

“People go to a movie to have a good time, and they get killed. … It makes me sick that I made a movie about it,” Bogdanovich wrote in his Hollywood Reporter piece. “Nothing’s changed. … I’m not sure what the solution is. I just know that the violence in this country is out of control. And the fact that guns are so easy to get is chilling. But nobody wants to blame the movies. Nobody wants to blame guns ... I’m not too eloquent on the subject. I’m just too angry about it.”

When I started thinking about this piece I wondered how Targets was received when it was released. I knew it hadn’t been a box office success, though it allowed Bogdanovich the opportunity to demonstrate he could make a movie. He impressed some important people who gave him a chance to make more movies.

But I didn’t know what contemporary critics thought about it. So I looked up The New York Times review from Aug. 14, 1968. It was written by Howard Thompson. This is how it begins:

“WHY? The invariable question of today’s headlines about the random sniper-murder of innocent people is never answered in Targets. This is the only flaw, and a serious one, in the original and brilliant melodrama. ... Except on this one count, which simply can’t be ignored, this admirably-spun and gripping little movie, whose only ‘name’ is Boris Karloff, marks a most auspicious feature debut for young Peter Bogdanovich, a former film writer and historian, who has now taken the plunge, camera in hand. He should never let go.”

That’s a rave.

And I respectfully disagree with the reviewer that the film’s failure to answer the casual question is a flaw - we don’t, we can’t, know why a Charles Whitman, a Bobby Thompson, a Michael Clark or a James Holmes does what he does. So we say they are mad.

An artist’s job is to raise questions, not attempt to answer them. That’s the job description. The life Bogdanovich has chosen.




MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 08/10/2012

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