When Corman Taught Bogdanovich How to Mine the Past

Peter Bogdanovich built his best works on the sturdy shoulders of nostalgia. Titles like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and (March’s Movie of the MonthWhat’s Up, Doc? all gaze backwards to cinema’s cobwebbed past for their tragic, romantic, and comedic thrills. To be able to earn the opportunity to go on that major studio hot streak, though, Bogdanovich had to pay his dues under the wing of a producer who jump-started the careers of many New Hollywood hotshots, living legend Roger Corman. Corman found Bogdanovich while he was a young film critic & historian and eased him into filmmaking as a craft through the editing room before affording him the opportunity to direct his first two features in dirt cheap productions that eventually became Targets & Journey to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. While films like What’s Up, Doc? find Bogdanovich working unrestrained in his nostalgic love letters to the past, Targets asks what happens when he’s pressured into making a violent, exploitative thriller in a contemporary context. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women asks even more of the director, having him cobble together a barely coherent picture out of premade Soviet sci-fi films. The resulting discomfort Bogdanovich shows for his material in both cases might be antithetical to the spirit of his usual M.O., but they do bring an interesting contempt for and disinterest in modern culture to the surface, a seething, disgusted anger that in part informs his usual choice to live & work in the past.

“To whom it may concern: It is now 11:40 A.M. My wife is still asleep, but when she wakes up I am going to kill her. Then I am going to kill my mother. I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.”

One of the most immediately interesting things about Targets is the boundaries Roger Corman put on the project from the outset. Bogdanovich was instructed that he could make any movie he wanted as long as he cast horror legend Boris Karloff, who owed Corman two days’ work, and used footage from the (utterly incomprehensible) Corman production The Terror. Knowing the way Corman used to plan & promote his films at the time, I assume Bogdanovich was also expected to include some kind of exploitative element, of either the sex or violence variety, to get some coveted butts in seats. The fact that Targets is even half as great as it is, despite these parameters, points to a tremendous talent on Bogdanovich’s end. Corman was no stranger to cannibalizing scraps of his own work to squeeze a quick picture out of little more than thin air (which is largely why The Terror exists in the first place), but the results were rarely, if ever, as good as the minor miracle a young Bogdanovich pulls off here. Karloff was so impressed with the film’s script that he put in an extra three days’ work unpaid to see it to completion (which would sadly be his last appearance in a widely-distributed Hollywood film). Instead of distributing the film independently through AIP, Corman pushed to have Targets picked up by a major studio player for a wide release, a decision that paid off wonderfully. Bogdanovich turned the crumbs of films he seemingly didn’t even like into an enduring work that’s still discussed favorably decades later. And he did it with an open contempt for a culture he seemed to see as spiritually bankrupt.

Targets is essentially two films running simultaneously, but separately, until they violently clash in the third act. One film is the recognizable Peter Bogdanovich work that drowns in its own rose-tinted nostalgia for the past. The director himself plays a young filmmaker begging Boris Karloff’s aging horror actor to make one last film before retirement. Within this meta context, the two old-timers (one in his 70s and the other in his 20s) spout nostalgic platitudes about why cinema is dead and how modern culture has gone to shit. You can hear background characters exclaiming things like, “Antonioni is a genius.” Bogdanovich himself complains, “All the good movies have been made,” and goes out of his way to point out 1931’s The Criminal Code as it plays on TV, declaring, “Howard Hawks made this! He really knows how to tell a story,” a precursor to his full length love letter to Hawks in What’s Up, Doc?, I suppose. Karloff, who appeared as an actor in The Criminal Code, echoes these sentiments, lamenting that his style of old school horror is now treated as high camp and that Vincent Price had more or less replaced him in the public consciousness (which would become especially true once Price also started starring in meta works like Madhouse Theatre of Blood). The second, competing film that runs in tandem with this Back In The Day gab fest is a cold-hearted gun control thriller about a Vietnam veteran who snaps and calmly murders his family (once leaving the note transcribed above) before moving on to murder large numbers of complete strangers, seemingly just because he can. It’s a dialogue-light subplot that deliberately recalls then-recent national tragedies like the University of Texas sniper & the assassination of JFK, while addressing both gun control laws & the mental toll of war on the nation’s youth. While the Karloff/Bogdanovich half recalls a culture that supposedly used to be robust and nostalgia-worthy, the titular half of Targets (excuse the expression) takes aim at exactly why modern culture is such a sickly, inferior alternative.

“The motion picture you are about to see can be called today a fantasy of the future, but one day, maybe not too far distant, audiences will be able to look back on it in the same spirit in which we view pictures about the first covered wagons crossing the plains.”

Before Bogdanovich could move onto the big studio successes that followed Targets, Corman squeezed one more rapid fire production out of the director. With an even cheaper production budget and even more ludicrous restraints & conditions, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is likely the most passionless effort Bogdanovich has ever put in as a filmmaker. It’s a quick, dirty job, far from the spirited political skewering of modernity in Targets, that only helps to define the then-budding auteur as someone completely disinterested in genre films & camp. When Corman first hired Bogdanovich, he employed the young critic in the editing room for Soviet sci-fi pictures he purchased for distribution in American drive-ins. Bogdanovich & then-nobody Francis Ford Coppola would re-edit the Soviet schlock to remove any obvious anti-American sentiment from its Space Race imagery and retell their central stories through drastic editing & dialogue-dubbing. It’s through this process that Corman asked Bogdanovich to direct his second feature. The young filmmaker was tasked with combining footage from two Soviet pictures, Planet Bur & Nebo Zovyat, into a single narrative and then adding new footage of attractive women to the formula, since AIP refused to distribute it otherwise. The result is a tamer version of Nude on the Moon by way of the incomprehensible production The Terror, a compromised mess so dispassionate Bogdanovich wouldn’t even accept credit for the work, billing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women as being “directed by Derek Thomas.

Here’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women‘s plot synopsis according to IMDb: “Astronauts landing on Venus encounter dangerous creatures and almost meet some sexy Venusian women who like to sun-bathe in hip-hugging skin-tight pants and seashell brassieres.” The reason the astronauts almost meet the Venusian beauties, of course, is that the women’s scenes were filmed & inserted after-the-fact. There was no danger of them ever coming in contact with the astronauts in a shared space. Like Targets, this work feels like two entirely separate films running their course simultaneously, except in this case they’re afforded no opportunity to collide for any thematic significance. In the futuristic space exploration timeline, the 1998 space travellers fight a wide range of alien terrain monsters (with some legitimately cool special effects work backing them up), which eventually include a pterodactyl. This flying dino is the talisman meant to connect the film’s two disparate storylines, as the sunbathing Venusian babes worshipped the now-dead pterodactyl as a god. They declare the invading Earth men to be “demons” and vow their revenge for that rude-at-best faux pas of god-killing, but they obviously never follow through on that impulse. Lead by Marilyn Monroe knockoff Mimie Van Doren, the women mostly just lounge on a seaside beach in their clam shell bras & cheap blonde wigs, patiently waiting for the film to end & looking cute doing it. Corman initially didn’t want to pay for sound mixing in the picture, so Bogdanovich had the women communicate through body language & facial expression, a choice that reportedly turned the film into incomprehensible garbage. To help make a clear storyline at all intelligible, the director later added voiceover “telepathy” to their communication dynamic as well as an overall narration track (recorded by Bogdanovich himself) that often plays simultaneously with the film’s dialogue. Overall, it’s a half-hearted mess of a picture Bogdanovich barely imprinted any of his own personality on (outside his voice and love for young, busty blondes), but obviously took a lot away from in terms of how to build a story in the editing room and how to assemble entirely new pictures out of the scraps of already-produced media.

Bogdanovich is not at all subtle about his distaste for modernity and his nostalgia for The Good Old Days in Targets. Nor does he attempt to hide his disinterest in sci-fi schlock in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. When passionately singing the praises of Bringing Up Baby in What’s Up, Doc?, he lovingly conjures images & comedic tones of the past with such a soft hand it could nearly go unnoticed that his Barbara Streisand comedy is practically a beat for beat remake of the Katherine Hepburn classic. With Targets, he’s much less tactful. He announces himselfon camera, that Howard Hawks was a great filmmaker and then proceeds to deliver a slice of self-loathing exploitation cinema where a young, handsome, square-jawed killer snipes unsuspecting movie-goers at a drive-in theater. Shots of the killer’s guns & ammo are directly juxtaposed with images of whirring film strips in the projection booth. And if his feelings on the subject weren’t already clear, he directs a literal specter from the Old World, Karloff, to stop the killer by physically slapping some sense into him, thus saving the day. Targets finds Bogdanovich young & angry, ready at a second’s notice to throw a punch at a culture he felt he was decreasing at value at an exponential rate. It’s fascinating to see someone who usually works with a much softer hand lashing out within the confines of a genre he likely has no personal interest in: the ultra-violent thriller. Instead of making the violence of his film tantalizing or entertaining, he delivers what must have been uncomfortable trip to the drive-in, considering the location & the cold brutality of Targets‘s bloody climax.

It’s amazing that Targets is even watchable, taking into account the limitations of its production, but the film was so good that it launched Bogdanovich’s career, making works like What’s Up, Doc? financially possible. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is much less successful in its triumphs over production restraints and finds Bogdanovich in the rare position of uncaring workman filmmaker. Besides the obvious novelty of the director of What’s Up, Doc? having ever made a violent thriller or a sexed-up sci-fi adventure pic in the first place, both films are interesting in the way they likely informed how Bogdanovich would continue to mine past, already-established works for a new, recycled purpose. The Roger Corman film school process was infamously a sink or swim, learn by doing affair and it’s fascinating to watch Bogdanovich learn how to put his obsession with the past on film through the lens of two especially-cheap Corman productions before he even knew how to tread water.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at how it found inspiration in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and last week’s discussion of why it’s the spiritual inverse of Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968).

-Brandon Ledet

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