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Director's Cut

WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT. By Peter Bogdanovich . Alfred A. Knopf: 849 pp., $39.95

April 06, 1997|PETER BISKIND | Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Rider: The Rise and Fall of the New Hollywood," to be published next year by Simon & Schuster. He is also the former executive editor of Premiere magazine

Before Peter Bogdanovich became a famous director with a dazzling three-picture run in the first half of the 1970s--"The Last Picture Show," "What's Up, Doc" and "Paper Moon"--he was a pioneering film scholar. A decade earlier, he had conducted a series of interviews with some of the most distinguished directors of Hollywood's Golden Age and used some of these interviews as the basis of ground-breaking monographs.

When he wrote his studies on John Ford, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, there were virtually no film schools, no film sections in libraries and bookstores, no life achievement awards and, in fact, no American Film Institute. Hollywood was a closed system presided over by aging moguls; if you wanted to become a director, there was virtually no way to learn how.

Bogdanovich, a film nut from his earliest years who had seen a prodigious number of movies--5,316 screenings up to 1970 by his count--taught himself about directing by simply watching and listening. He visited film sets for Esquire and sought out and interrogated his heroes. Others with the same ambition learned from him. As director Robert Benton once told me, "Bogdanovich's monographs were the closest things we had to textbooks."

This was the feverish era of early "auteurism," the French invention that set out to privilege the director in the filmmaking process, claiming to discern distinct directorial signatures in studio movies even though scripts and casts were imposed by others. By deploying these ghostly traces of authorial personality as a standard of judgment, the auteur theory flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day and experienced tough going among people who cared about such arcane debate--New York intellectuals, students and a scattering of film buffs in pockets like Cambridge, Berkeley and Hollywood.

Everybody knew, as Alfred Hitchcock put it, that the studio practice was "to cast directors and writers as you would cast actors." Pauline Kael wrote a blistering essay called "Circles and Squares," in which she excoriated her then-archrival, Andrew Sarris, the leading proselytizer for auteurism in this country. Cineastes were quick to embrace the auteurial claims of foreign directors like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and French New Wavers like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but nobody seriously considered, say, Hitchcock or Ford to be great artists. They made genre movies, thrillers and westerns, and in Hitchcock's case, his English period was generally considered far superior to his more commercial (and therefore trashier) Hollywood phase. Sarris and Bogdanovich thought otherwise and championed the American directors nobody else took seriously.

Today, of course, auteurism is no longer controversial. Kael eventually became as much of an auteurist as Sarris, and it is difficult now to recall that the towering reputations enjoyed by many of the directors Bogdanovich interviewed are of relatively recent origin. Still, in recent years, there has been a bit of a backlash against auteurism that has given rise to nostalgia for the studio system. It is credited, along with the powerful producers who were its pillars, with creating many of the stylistic trademarks auteurists attributed to directors while at the same time providing directors with much more support than they had in the post-studio era, enabling them to be productive into old age, unheard of in contemporary Hollywood, where early burnout is common.

The interviews in "Who the Devil Made It" (the title is borrowed from a phrase of Hawks, who preferred movies that bore the personal stamp of the director) encompass nearly the entire span of motion picture history, from the early days of Allan Dwan, who began working in the D. W. Griffith era, to Sidney Lumet, who is still active. In between, we hear from blue-chip directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang as well as from a smattering of the so-called Hollywood professionals like Robert Aldrich, Raoul Walsh and Don Siegel; the "kings of the Bs" like Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer; and a couple of wild cards like legendary animator Chuck Jones, the formidable Otto Preminger and Jerry Lewis' favorite director, Frank Tashlin.

As Bogdanovich freely admits, most of this material has been published before (he made recent additions to some of it), but these interviews are as fresh and vivid as if they had been conducted yesterday. Bringing them together provides a real service for students and film buffs who may not have seen them in the obscure film journals in which they first appeared. For the general reader, they provide an invaluable one-volume view of cinema history from a director's point of view that serves as a reminder that movie-making did not begin with "Wayne's World."

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