My transformation from casual movie enthusiast to full-blown cinema addict occurred during the summer of 1989, between my 1st and 2nd years of college. Clichés exist because of their inherent truths, so it should come as no surprise that my entry into this obsessive world occurred while working at a Blockbuster Video in San Francisco.
I was still primarily a theater snob at the time, but that changed that summer. The store had this huge catalog listing all the movies "in print" on video, and one section was organized by director. When I wasn't at work, I was watching movies, taking full advantage of the six VHS tapes I could have out for free at any one time. I worked my way down the lists and discovered Wilder and Sturges, Ford and Kazan, Lumet and Scorsese and so many more.
Before my Blockbuster tenure, my foreign-cinema exposure was mostly limited to lyrics from the song "Manchester, England" in the musical Hair: "Finds that it's groovy/to hide in a movie/Pretends he's Fellini/And Antonioni/And also his countryman Roman Polanski/All rolled into one." I knew those names, but I hadn't yet seen any of their films.
I enjoyed watching a filmmaker's work in chronological order, so I watched Boxcar Bertha and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn before I ever got to Taxi Driver or On the Waterfront. And so about midway through that summer, I decided to embark on Peter Bogdnovich, and rather than start with The Last Picture Show, I took home Targets.
I don't remember much from that viewing nearly 25 years ago, and until The Dissolve picked Bogdanovich's debut feature as last week's "Movie of the Week," I'm not sure I had ever considered watching it again. Once I did, I was first struck by how well I actually remembered it; how so many scenes vividly stuck with me all these years later. I could not reconcile that whatever impact it had on me nearly 25 years before was an unconscious one, and now I felt floored by this young filmmaker's astounding love-letter to cinema and Hollywood; one of the best I've ever seen.
My appreciation for Targets is grounded in a reality that didn't exist when I was barely 18 years old -- for me or for the world. The contextual lens through which I now saw it made all the difference. Now I know much more about Boganovich and his career. Now I know much more about the history of American cinema and the important role of low-budget horror films to its development. Now, I see how a film that was shot as the Vietnam War was dominating the nation's consciousness and was released within four months of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy is such a representative document of its time. Enhance this context even further simply by paying attention to 2013 when the physical medium of film nears extinction, drive-in theaters are (mostly) long-gone and gun culture and terrorism are at the forefront of the national conversation, Targets becomes even more astounding in ways that couldn't have been anticipated when it was made, let alone in 1989.
Drive-in culture may have begun its decline since peaking in the '50s, but it remained a popular way to attend movies. Bogdanovich beautifully dwells on the seeming safety of suburban America, where families can attend a drive-in together, allow their kids to play before dark on the swings and slide beside the swing and then watch a scary movie together from the comfort and safety of their own cars; or where the couple that doesn't care about the movie but wants some hard-to-find privacy can steam-up their windows in relative anonymity.
Bogdanovich captures this sociological shift from Leave It to Beaver innocence to the turbulent, divisive and often dangerous period beautifully, even though he never could have predicted the events of the next decade: The Tet Offensive and eight more years of Vietnam; King & Kennedy; Watergate and a Presidential resignation; the Munich Olympics; airline hijackings and the Iran hostages; and in 1967, a developing counterculture that over the course of the following years would ironically bring about, rather than stave-off, the Reagan revolution.
Boris Karloff's Byron Orlock stands-in for old Hollywood and a soon-to-be-lost era. One lovingly depicted by Bogdanovich through genre-rooted, B-movie horror at a drive-in rather than Grauman's Chinese Theater glamor. When I watched Targets in 1989, I didn't know about Bogdanovich's background: that he began his career as a film critic and historian; that he developed relationships with his own idols and mentors, greats like Orson Welles, John Ford and Samuel Fuller (who according to Bogdanovich rewrote the entire script for Targets but refused to take a credit); that he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood, old and new.
Through that lens, I can't imagine seeing Targets as anything other than a gushing paean to cinema; a film that shows the businessmen and fans alike not appreciating the old Hollywood in the manner or with the reverence it deserves. Bogdanovich cast himself as the young idealistic director Sammy Michaels (although he originally did not intend to do so; he named the character after Fuller). In one of the film's best scenes, Sammy and Orlock watch one of the aging stars first movies – directed by the great Howard Hawks – that happens to be on TV. Fixated on the screen, Sammy says of Hawks, "He really knows how to tell a story," before lamenting to himself, "All the good movies have been made."
Just a few years later, Bogdanovich would be a central figure contributing to one of the most dynamic and fertile periods of Hollywood filmmaking ever. And in Targets, from his mouth – not just his screenwriter's pen, comes that idea, that "all the good movies have been made," as he sits next to the star of the movie to which he refers, an elderly man who considers himself a relic and plans to quit acting.
Bogdanovich doesn't seem to fond of 1967-68 Hollywood or America in any respect. As the film's climax begins, Orlock heads to a big event at a drive-in located in Reseda in the San Fernando valley. This is no glamorous premiere on Hollywood Blvd. – which by then wasn't too glamorous either. From the backseat of the car, Orlock stares at an endless stream of auto dealerships, department stores, diners and other ugly retail establishment and groans, "God what an ugly town this has become."
Targets depicts a broken American youth, but one that doesn't even realize how bad things have become. Some have returned from war not hailed as conquering heroes, but troubled due to the unspoken, unreported experiences they've had over in Vietnam. (Although the film never explicitly states that Thompson served in Vietnam, a photo of him in military gear in his home implies as much.) Others are vacant and stupid, like the radio DJ who will interview Orlock at the drive-in but has no idea why Orlock can't tolerate his vapid, boring, uninteresting questions during a rehearsal.
During the spectacular drive-in denouement, set in an enormous open space, Bogdanovich elicits a feeling a staggering claustrophobia. Trapped in their cars, the drive-in audience becomes aware that someone is shooting at them, but they have no idea from where. The sniper sits perched on the scaffolding behind the screen, aiming and firing through a small hole that can't be seen with the mammoth moving image projected onto its other side.
In 2013, it's impossible to watch this sequence without thinking of the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, just over a year-ago. One of the opening scenes features Thompson buying a new rifle in a real gun shop located on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood. (It's no longer there.) The casual ease with which Thompson buys his new gun (with a personal check, natch!) and then proceeds to toss it in the trunk of his car with several other firearms couldn't be more terrifying.
Finally, I couldn't watch Targets now without considering the "death of film." I don't refer to any philosophical determination as to the quality of modern cinema, but rather to the physical material and its method of projection. Other than his mother and wife, Thompson's victims throughout the film are random, anonymous people who serve no other functional characteristic. Yet, when Thompson targets the projectionist – albeit for purely logistical reasons as he can see in to the lit projection room and not any of the darkened cars – he makes it impossible for the film to play to completion.
Now, one rarely sees a professionally trained projectionist operate multiple projectors, seamlessly changing reels so the film can continue uninterrupted – unless you're at a museum or repertory venue watching an archival print. Most theaters switched to continuous platter systems requiring no reel change years ago. Over the past five years, even those have been removed from most multiplexes in favor of digital projection. In fact, now theaters that haven't switched over to digital projection stand to go out of business because the major distributors are no longer shipping film prints.
(A brief aside: San Francisco's independent Balboa Theater in the Outer Richmond near where I grew-up opened in 1926 and is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign ending on Sept. 22. As of today, it's almost $6,000 short of a $75,000 goal that will allow the Balboa to install a digital projector in one of its two theaters, fearing that without it and the ability to show current releases, it will have to go dark.)
Digital projectors usually require little attention after pressing play until a movie is over. But once the projectionist in Targets goes down, when the reel empties with nobody to handle the changeover, the film is done even if the movie isn't over. Bogdanovich repeatedly returns to the projector reel, showing its bulk quickly diminish. I don't claim that the director was making a comment on the medium's exhibition technology, but Thompson's attack on the projectionist could be seen as young America's attempt to extinguish old Hollywood. Even more importantly, it stands for an idea that the youth of the era – within and outside Hollywood – doesn't even realize or care how their actions will impact themselves. Thompson, for example, doesn't consider that by targeting the projectionist, he could hasten his own discovery. Still, half-a-century later, its unintentional symbolism regarding the "death of film" may prove even more profound.
And yet, Targets is not an elegy for all that Orlock – and of course, by extension, Karloff himself – represents, even if it is unenthusiastic about its present and future. If anything, the film ends on an optimistic note, with the great star defeating the thoughtless, selfish modern youth through sheer will and lack of fear. The end of the film proclaims that old Hollywood will never die; that figures like Orlock will remain great and never disappear, certainly not at the hands of this new generation.