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CRITIC AT LARGE

Double-feature Salute To Peter Bogdanovich

February 27, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

On Saturday at the County Museum of Art, the Directors Guild of America, as part of its ongoing 50th anniversary observances, will show a Peter Bogdanovich double feature.

"The Last Picture Show" screens at 1 and 8 p.m.; "They All Laughed" is shown at 3:10 p.m. and again following a brief question-and-answer session with Bogdanovich which starts at 10 p.m. The presentations are in the museum's Bing Auditorium.

Few film-making careers have been so suffused with the movies themselves as Bogdanovich's--movies as homages to film genres, movies about the movies. It's also hard to think of many film-making lives that have themselves looked so much like the stuff of a turbulent and rocketing romantic drama.

In the latest reel, Bogdanovich has filed for bankruptcy, largely the consequence of his costly efforts in 1981-82 to distribute "They All Laughed" personally, as an homage to Dorothy Stratten. She was the stunning and engaging blond, a new love in his life, who was brutally murdered by her estranged husband only a few days after the film was finished.

Bogdanovich now has two new film projects in negotiation and seems about to resume his career in a happier mode. The two films on view Saturday (which he chose) thus effectively bracket the gee-whiz rise and the temporary eclipse of a unique career.

The owlish, young film journalist who became a celebrity with "The Last Picture Show" has traveled a long road since 1971.

Movies about the movies are a little more frequent now, and Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo" constructs a sad and brilliant dream around the dream-life the movies have provided us all.

But Bogdanovich's remarkably assured translation of Larry McMurtry's novel, filmed when we were all 15 years younger, had the feeling of a double elegy--first, for a small-town past that was eroding, and then for the movies and the movie house itself as they were in the years before television.

One critic compared it to "Citizen Kane" as an important work by an important young director, and indeed "The Last Picture Show" revealed Bogdanovich as a skilled image maker, a sensitive evoker of performances, an alert discoverer of talent, a lover of films who had seen everything and forgotten nothing.

There is in fact in "The Last Picture Show" the curious sense that what you see is not so much an imitation of life as an imitation of life as the movies imitated it. The retarded boy, futilely sweeping the street in a dust storm, is very much a cinematic figure.

"The Last Picture Show," and its strong, salon-like black-and-white images, was poignantly affecting not simply because of its story but because it evoked old dreams that we had experienced at other picture shows. It summoned feelings of inexpressible loss, in that blurry realm where memory and dream are inextricable.

The last sadness of "They All Laughed" is that it was overshadowed by the notoriety of Stratten's death.

(The film's difficulties were compounded by the fact that Time-Life, which had financed it, elected to leave the feature film business.)

I watched it again the other afternoon (lately it has been on cable TV but I was seeing it on the big screen) and it is a delightful work, one of the best and most confident things he has yet done.

Its plot is cryptic and complex to the point of incomprehensibility, but it hardly matters. What count are the characterizations, the relationships and the sometimes zany happenings.

The brief encounter between Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara has a bittersweet maturity (as well as an unmitigated romanticism) that can be read as a kind of coming of age for Bogdanovich the writer. He often has seemed to be shielding his private feelings behind film conventions, but here you sense a man newly daring to come closer to his own experience.

Bogdanovich asked Stratten to do little more than look very beguiling and innocently sexy, which she did to perfection. It is melancholy to gaze upon her now, because she was a pretty picture indeed. (Bogdanovich said he can't stand to watch the film alone, but it's all right when he's part of a large and enthusiastic audience; then he is uplifted by the enthusiasm for her.)

All the linkages in the film--John Ritter and Stratten, Colleen Camp and almost everyone, Gazzara and Hepburn, a dyspeptic boss private eye and his loyal secretary--constitute a kind of anthology of romance. There are moments, as of Bogdanovich's own young daughters with Gazzara, who plays their father, that have a funny and endearing warmth going well beyond the cool and stylish cleverness of the earlier films.

At this point, "They All Laughed" has reverted to Time-Life, and it is not certain how soon it will be available again theatrically. But the film has an undated charm, and will be worth seeing long after the news and the confusions that surrounded it have faded like old papers.

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