On Craft

The Art of Control

Peter Bogdanovich’s masterful restraint

Jason Guriel

Peter Bogdanovich on the set of "The All Laughed" (1980). As a filmmaker, Bogdanovich was known for his old-school feats of restraint. Photo by Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images

Late in his little-remembered picture They All Laughed (1980), the director Peter Bogdanovich places his camera at the top of a flight of courthouse steps. A man and woman, laden with luggage, ascend the steps, pass the camera, and move out of shot. Next, a cab pulls up, and releases John Ritter. Ritter, playing a private eye, nearly forgets to pay his fare, he’s in that much of a hurry. He takes the courthouse steps in several strides, but this time, the camera swivels, following him inside. Finally, Bogdanovich cuts—to a bird’s-eye view of Ritter in the courthouse lobby—and you can be forgiven if you’ve forgotten you’ve been looking at a single piece of film, unbroken; forgetting is the point of long, immersive takes.

After the bird’s-eye-view shot, Bogdanovich cuts to Ritter’s pained face in close-up. As his actor swivels about, Bogdanovich cuts to what Ritter’s eyeballing. Different hallways. Different paths his quarry might’ve taken.

“I really love the way it was shot,” said the director Wes Anderson, when he discussed the scene with Bogdanovich for the film’s twenty-fifth-anniversary DVD. Anderson liked how the scene gave the impression of precision, of a filmmaker in command of his medium. Clearly, the man who’d made They All Laughed knew how the footage would fit together.

“I like movies where I feel the director, the storyteller, is taking me somewhere,” Bogdanovich replied. “I have faith that he’s got a strong grip on me, and he’s taking me somewhere.”

Bogdanovich might as well have been talking about himself. The late poet and critic Clive James once described him as “[e]xtraordinarily concerned in his films with the integrity of his technique and the burden of what he was saying with it.” What a refreshing, nourishing thought for our post-truth moment—that being clear is a burden we ought to be concerned about!

Bogdanovich—who recently passed away and whose most acclaimed pictures include The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973)—started making films in the late ’60s. But his heart was in the ’30s and ’40s, the Golden Age of Hollywood. Like his heroes Howard Hawks and John Ford, he was obsessed with the most efficient way to put a story over. He strove for long, unbroken takes, avoided shooting a lot of coverage, was conservative with close-ups, and kept dialogue to a minimum. Above all, he wanted to be in control of his message.

Being in control has never been a particularly good look for an artist. Entertainment that grips us—the “gripping read”—tends to be associated with the baser outputs of Hollywood and genre fiction. The desire for control can feel obsessive, even paranoid. Think of Phil Spector, rock’s Ur-autocrat, relentlessly driving session musicians through take after take in search of his Wall of Sound, while micromanaging every detail of the life of his spouse, the singer Ronnie Spector, down to her shoes. Too much craft can seem too controlling, too conscientious. We like our artists a little rumpled.

So, as virtues go, control is underrated. And yet when it’s present, we feel it. See, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s trademark tracking shots, which are so distinctive we might as well be peering through the director’s very pupils. Even behind a stormier surface—a Jackson Pollock canvas, say, or a Sylvia Plath poem, or a David Lynch film—we sense a presiding intelligence: an adult in the room, even if the room has been upended by gale-force winds. The work may look messy and yield many different meanings. But the adult knew what they were doing. We have something like Bogdanovich’s “faith” that we’re in good hands.

The absence of control, too, is almost always felt. The rebels who really do lose control—who submit to psychedelics or chance techniques, scissoring the page and setting the ribbons aswirl—usually go too far. They might have had some high-minded goal of unseating the authorial “I” or toppling capitalism, but the results aren’t always fun to endure. See language poetry. See the hot mess at the open mic.

Like his heroes Howard Hawks and John Ford, Bogdanovich was obsessed with the most efficient way to put a story over.

Or see social media, which allows anyone to be a creator, a ghastly noun that seems to mean a writer without an editor: a self-publisher, really. (We used to frown on self-publishing.) Controlling the message is devilishly hard when you’re typing at the tempo of, say, Twitter. I’m not even thinking about the ill-advised tweets that capsize careers. I’m thinking about run-of-the-mill tweets that betray their authors’ ulterior motives: boasts disguised as “professional news,” or pleas for attention that come suspended in the jello of jokes. I’m thinking about tweets that don’t have a handle on their tone, that don’t come with a properly functioning guidance system.

That hastily launched missives so often go awry isn’t surprising. It’s always been the case that writing is hard work. It’s such a feat when you think about it. Every sentence—every word—presents a fork. Make the wrong choice and you wind up at a dead end, maybe with a mob after you, the villagers armed with gardening implements or, worse, memes. You have to be constantly vigilant as a writer. You have to have a strong grip while exercising the lightest touch.

Consider An Atlantic essay by caitlin flanagan—a close reading of Meghan and Harry’s exile and, specifically, their blockbuster interview with Oprah last year. (It was such a blockbuster that none of the participants needed surnames.) Flanagan is good on Meghan, but hilariously precise when it comes to Harry:

When Harry was allowed into the conversation, he sat beside his wife looking like he’d been shot from a cannon. Before he met Meghan, he was a prince of Europe—almost a crown prince—a young man whose life was part of a continuation from Excalibur to Afghanistan, where he fought with valor in the manner of Prince Hal finding within himself Henry V. Now, however, he is like Antonio: tempest-tossed and thrown up upon the wide beaches of the brave new world.

Where to start here? There’s the obvious excellence of the details: the explosive simile (“looking like he’d been shot from a cannon”), the pocket history (“from Excalibur to Afghanistan”), and the samples from Shakespeare (“tempest-tossed,” “brave new world”).

But there’s something else, too, a sense of calm, of cool—general as Joyce’s snow—in Flanagan’s prose. Nowhere does she commit to a definitive opinion about Harry; her essay isn’t a “take.” A take, of course, is Internet-speak for a very, very specific thesis. It’s a narrow position, a small patch of turf: “What Homer Gets Wrong about Sirens.” It’s a little like the prosaic, bare-bones ’55 Chevy in the road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), which has been stripped of aesthetic luxuries and rebuilt for street-racing: it has to get somewhere, and very quickly.

Flanagan obviously has opinions. (She has written about private schools, HR departments, an Instagram influencer, that Woody Allen memoir, Melania Trump, the perils of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and so on.) But she doesn’t write takes, and anyway she’s too smart to come out and say, “Harry is in over his head, and quite possibly unhappy, and the podcast thing is doomed, and the chicken coop he now keeps with Meghan is probably problematic.” That would be no fun for us. Flanagan takes her time and marshals her resources; she has to be subtle if she wants to hold the reader. Take that opening—“When Harry was allowed into the conversation”—and note the passive construction, how carefully and quietly it brings poor Harry to heel. Or take the sentences that follow on from Flanagan’s initial sketch:

Once, he led men into battle, as his forebears had done for generations. Now he is a Californian with a Spotify deal, charged with thinking up some podcasts, which could be a heavy lift. For Harry, the situation is evolving.

Flanagan knows she doesn’t have to do much more than set the facts beside each other, so long as she uses words with maximum polarity: there was a leader of “men” who had “forebears”; here is a “Californian with a Spotify deal.” The choice of that word “charged” is especially savvy, yet more proof of an unhorsed prince no longer holding the reins. So, too, is the qualification, “which could be a heavy lift” (italics mine, obviously; Flanagan rarely mallets a point). The paragraph’s ironic last line, in very precisely chosen present tense—“For Harry, the situation is evolving”—is far more damning than any conclusion Flanagan herself might’ve drawn out and left at our feet.

It’s a relief to read prose that’s the product of a sure hand, that doesn’t seem to have strong designs on us. Flanagan can be ruthless, but she also knows the windmill-power of a wink. She knows a daub of irony, here and there, does way more work than indignation. She is so obviously in control of her writing.

The same can be said of Bogdanovich, who was not just a great director, but a stylish writer, too, one who left behind a heap of essays, monographs, and full-length books. A savvy interviewer, he pressed his heroes on points of craft, but left the right quotes uncommented on. Here’s the director John Ford, holding forth in a 1964 profile Bogdanovich filed for Esquire:

“Producers don’t know anything about making pictures,” [Ford] said earnestly. “And that’s why I shoot my films so they can only be cut one way.” He puffed on his cigar. “They get to the cutting room and they say, ‘Well, let’s stick a close-up in here.’” Ford paused. “But there isn’t one. I didn’t shoot it.”

Ford was famous for the practice of “cutting in the camera”—basically, filming only what he needed. The dearth of footage forced his editors to work with puzzle pieces that fit together only one way. Cutting in the camera was control by other means. It pre-thwarted the potential whims of the studio brass.

Inspired by the example of craftsmen like Ford, Bogdanovich came close to losing his job over a fight scene in The Last Picture Show, his most celebrated movie. (Bogdanovich had refrained from filming a master shot, which would’ve provided coverage.) Nevertheless, Bogdanovich remained committed to the bygone practice, and used it throughout the filming of They All Laughed, nearly a decade later. “We cut it in the camera more than any picture I’ve ever done except maybe Saint Jack,” he told Anderson in that DVD interview. “There’s nothing left out. It was shot exactly the way it’s cut.” You can hear the pride in Bogdanovich’s voice.

As virtues go, control is underrated. And yet when it’s present, we feel it.

You can hear it, too, in the many audio commentary tracks he recorded for the DVDs of his movies—celebrated comedies like What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and lesser-known items like The Cat’s Meow (2001). Bogdanovich was always pointing out the long takes he managed to pull off, his hard-won use of deep focus cinematography, his ability to advance the plot without a word of dialogue, and other old-school feats of restraint, economy, and clarity.

Perhaps Bogdanovich’s greatest moment as a director—his monument—is the long take in The Last Picture Show in which Ben Johnson (playing town patriarch “Sam the Lion”) delivers an aching monologue about an old affair to young Timothy Bottoms (playing a high school senior). Johnson and Bottoms have been fishing some overcast water, and as Johnson dilates on his lost love—and as the camera zooms slowly in, creeping up on the sort of close-up Bogdanovich was careful not to overuse—sunlight breaks through the clouds and gilds Johnson. It’s an extraordinary moment of good fortune, a moment you could never plan for, as if the gods of cinema had approved the shot.

Then, disaster. Bogdanovich zooms out to bring Bottoms back into the frame, for Bottoms’ character has a question to ask about marriage. But during the filming of the scene, Bottoms forgot his line! Bogdanovich had to cut away so that his young actor could be fed the line, which you hear over a shot of the water. Then the film cuts back to Johnson as he resumes his monologue, which he duly nails.

It’s heartrending stuff—for the viewer, who is moved by Johnson’s words, but also for Bogdanovich, who didn’t want to have to splice a random shot of water into the middle of a tour de force. And yet it is a tour de force: a perfect performance (Johnson went on to win an Oscar that year) embedded in a near-perfect shot. It’s a collaboration between exquisite craft, sunny serendipity, and whatever trickster deity loots the minds of actors at the worst possible moment. It’s a reminder that a director, as Bogdanovich’s mentor Orson Welles once said, is a person “who presides over accidents,” a person who should want to go “fishing for accidents.” It’s a reminder that even great artists sometimes need to get a grip—and let go.

Jason Guriel is the author of the verse novel Forgotten Work. His writing has appeared in Air Mail, The Atlantic, Slate, Lit Hub, The Walrus, Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Toronto.
Originally published:
February 21, 2022

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