Sunday, March 22, 2009

Targets (1968, Peter Bogdanovich)

According to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, when Bob Rafelson walked out of Targets he commented the picture was lousy, but Bogdanovich sure could direct the hell out of a movie. Rafelson had his own theatrical film premiere that year also, the unforgettable Head. Only if your first film is Head do you reserve the right to make such a backhanded compliment about such a startling debut, though IMDB also claims an uncredited turn by Bogdanovich on this Roger Corman title.

Rafelson's friend and collaborator Jack Nicholson got his start as one of Roger Corman's reparatory of actors, appearing as the Cry Baby Killer and in Little Shop of Horrors and the The Terror, shot for the few extra days Corman had sets left over from The Raven (also featuring Jack) co-starring Boris Karloff used as Targets' movie within a movie. His prescience for future greatness was correct here as well. Targets is constantly unnerving, sometimes shocking, and ultimately compromised by Bogdanovich's own ego. That's hard to avoid that when you, the writer-director, cast yourself as the writer-director of a movie within your own movie in a subplot that goes nowhere. Either way this film established him as an auteurist force, oddly carrying the weight of self-referentialism that plagues post-new hollywood bubble gum card auteurs.

Roger Corman being the greatest unsung talent scout Hollywood ever unofficially had, he spotted Bogdanovich and offered the job on the condition he re-use footage from . Bogdanovich uses Corman's prerequisite in a post-modern way, casting Karloff as a veteran horror star at the end of his career. Boggy's character is himself as well, trying to rope the retiring Karloff ("Orloff," as in the count from Nosferatu,) into a role unlike the tired old gothic tropes of his past. This new role, says the director-as-himself to the star-as-himself, is about a real world terror. Karloff/Orloff will be a leading man in a serious film, for once.

Bogdanovich's assertion that the old world horrors were dead by 1968 makes Targets an explicit statement of what horror movies of the day had begun to subtext, that there is horror living next door as well as Transylvania. What made this film unintentionally more horrific in its day was how quickly a seemingly isolated tragedy duplicated itself in America. The psychotic antagonist Bobby Thompson, played with mild mannered opacity by an obscure good looking TV actor named Tim O'Kelly, was primarily modeled on Charles Starkweather's 1965 murder spree which the New Hollywood film Badlands was also based. This film's premiere had the amazingly appropriate bad luck to premiere the month after MLK's assassination and the month before RFK's. The only other film that decade to be so unluckily was, incredibly, The Manchurian Candidate for depicting a political murder by sniper rifle the same year JFK was killed and was subsequently vaulted a few years by star Frank Sinatra. Deliberately, Targets has a bravura sequence in which Bobby snipes slow moving drivers on a highway.

Starkweather's deranged lack of motivation for his random killings is there in O'Kelly, although he cannot help some silent critique upon the easy availability of firearms in America and the culture of gun ownership. The Thompson family is functional and seemingly so is Bobby, eschewing liberal hysteria about guns themselves as the cause of madness (the father owns them too) and conservative hysteria about the juvenile mind rot of horror entertainment. Prior to watching Targets I'd assumed for years that the killer was a fan of Karloff's character who'd methodically stalk him and kill along the way. In actuality their plotlines are totally separate and converge only by coincidence in the final act. This feels like something of a cheat, since there would have been so much to explore thematically. Senator's wives were not yet screeching about Satanic backwards messages in heavy metal records and England was a long way from their "video nasties" campaign, but there had recently been self-appointed guardians of young peoples' minds who crusaded against EC Horror comics of the 50s. Regardless of horror entertainment, the issue had at least exposed itself to public debate in the form of the Warren Beatty Bonnie & Clyde's timely New Hollywood youth oriented violence. A lot of this films' imitators throw the media card into a story like this gratuitously, Rafelson either doesn't care or pardons his contemporaries.

Karloff has a precious couple of remarkable scenes where his stone temple features are maximized; a telling of the ancient Arab joke about meeting the angel of death in Samaria and the denouement of O'Kelley, who's practically been in another movie up until those last few minutes. The consequence is that a memorable moment is robber of deeper resonance since Karloff was busy being in a sitcom with Bogdanovich as himself sitting around watching clips from Karloff movies with Karloff right there in the room. This shameful hermetically sealed mugging is bizarre when the sniping scenes are so perfectly chillingly realized in all their over the shoulder informality and location shooting. In comparison to every following imitator, ignorant or not, there's no stylization to or glorification of the killer's crimes or even his psychology as in Taxi Driver. Only the simplicity of queasy, quasi-documentary American assassin tactics.

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