As obsessed with film history as his fellow American New Wavers during their 1970s heyday, Peter Bogdanovich differs from them in purpose and method. Not so much a modernist as a neo-classicist, his fondness for traditional Hollywood trappings can make him seem cozily conventional next to his more questioning colleagues: While Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese dismantle film genres like bedeviled mutineers, Bogdanovich approaches them with the reverence of a courtly antiquarian. Yet few contemporaries could match his anachronistic gracefulness or his tenderness toward characters. A complete box set of his films might have shed some light on this director’s paradox; restricted to extended versions of The Last Picture Show and Nickelodeon, the two-DVD Director’s Cut Double Feature nevertheless illustrates how the same sort of nostalgia for cinema’s ghosts could lead equally to an artistic peak and to a disaster.
It’s strange to think that Last Picture Show could have been considered naturalistic when it came out in 1971. A veritable panoply of nods to the medium’s grand old oxen according to Cahiers du Cinéma, it visualizes the dusty, tiny Texan burg of Larry McMutry’s novel by pilfering John Ford’s elegies for frontier values, Howard Hawks’s deadpan camaraderie, and Orson Welles’s bulbous camera angles. More importantly, Bogdanovich lavishes deeply felt compassion on the variously alienated characters—directionless teen pals Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd’s calculating tease, Cloris Leachman’s lonely homemaker, Ben Johnson’s expiring mentor—struggling to connect in a town (and, by extension, a way of life) that’s watching itself become extinct. The film contrasts interestingly with McCabe & Mrs. Miller, released that same year. Both are aching westerns about thwarted dreamers in a shifting world, yet the genre conventions that entrap and destroy Altman’s characters are what supply Bogdanovich’s with a guiding, if quickly vanishing, light. Even if Bogdanovich ultimately seems to be responding more to the passing of a cinematic age than to the foibles of the people on the screen, his wistfulness remains wired into the upheavals of a culture entering a new era of disconnection, loss, and self-inquiry.
This link to the epoch is what’s missing in Nickelodeon, an amiable but fizzless ode to the toddling days of the film industry. Culled from interviews with rough-and-tumble veterans like Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan, the richly promising material is flattened by Bogdanovich’s misjudged insistence on slapstick to evoke the innocence of pre-Birth of a Nation cinema. For a project that’s so obviously close to the filmmaker’s heart, it’s a bizarrely detached film emotionally: As the romantic triangle involving a bumbling lawyer-turned-director (Ryan O’Neal), a near-sighted ingénue (Jane Hitchcock), and a cowboy stuntman (Burt Reynolds) scampers on, the viewer is invested less in grasping cinema’s burgeoning mixture of art and commerce than in figuring out which anecdotes came from John Ford and which came from Leo McCarey. That Bogdanovich’s cinephiliac nostalgia is more successful chronicling the medium’s mournful last shows than its peppy origins attests to the fact that, despite his own stabs at genre resurrection, he can’t escape being part of a generation of auteurs who came to bury old Hollywood, not to praise it.
Both pictures receive a sharp presentation, with The Last Picture Show's harsh and crumby black-and-white contrasting pleasingly with Nickelodeon's considerably softer monochrome. The older film's carefully arranged aural layers (howling wind, the songs emanating from omnipresent radios) are robustly reproduced, though Nickelodeon is a bit on the faded side.
Bogdanovich's commentaries tend to be livelier on other director's films than on his own: His recollections on both films often lean toward the forlorn, yet his mix of technical detail, production back story, and film history fluency remains an appealing listen. Last Picture Show gets most of the extras, including a trio of featurettes which repeat much of the same info, but benefit greatly from comments from other cast members. A look into the differences between Nickelodeon's theatrical version and the extended director's cut, both included here, would have been useful; instead, the film only gets a theatrical trailer.
A limited but revealing look at Bogdanovich's remembrances of cinematic things past.