What if the true monsters on earth don't have fake fangs or wolfman makeup? What if they look like many of us, live their own lives like so many in a fairly mundane, unexceptional manner, before they finally reveal themselves to be "the other"? And what does link those true-life monsters to the fantastical creations of lore we partake in enjoying? Peter Bogdanovich's debut work, Targets, is a film that sneaks up on you. It's a little distancing and quite poignant, a bit exploitative and thoroughly compassionate, slightly weightless and remarkably sober. There are numerous incontestable points, however: it's a measured picture, no matter how tonally dysfunctional some would contend it is. Bogdanovich would make films after Targets that received vastly greater critical receptions, but Targets demonstrably showcases many of his more deceptively sly, somewhat fastidiously playful qualities.
If Targets sounds like a self-contradiction, so be it. It's a film about unchecked malice, and derangement, but it's equally a melancholic and weary picture. Bogdanovich allows his message to organically play out, though it's admittedly unquestionable where things are headed by the end of the first third of the picture (which runs at a brisk ninety minutes). Nevertheless, Bogdanovich's initially sub rosa scheme ensures that the film, while finally something of a cinematic determinative, finds its destination through a natural narrative propulsion, marked heavily by Bogdanovich's early mise-en-scene technique. This is a precise, lean film engendered with marvelous control and pacing by its fledgling director.
Bogdanovich's wonderful first film has the strangest and unlikeliest of backgrounds. In the mid-1960s he was working for Roger Corman, that indispensable movie land shepherd, as a technical assistant. For his big break, Corman told Bogdanovich that he had the rare opportunity to make any film he wished to, with two caveats (aside from working with a miniscule budget). Firstly he had to utilize stock footage from Corman's 1963 Boris Karloff-Jack Nicholson movie The Terror, and secondly he had to use Karloff for two days of filming, as Karloff, under contract, owed two days to Corman. In the end, Karloff was so impressed by the screenplay--which was worked on extensively by Sam Fuller--that he decided to work on the film for a longer period of time than those two contractually obligated days.
Based in part on the event that finally crushed the capability of most Americans to be shocked, the inexplicable, horrible August 1, 1966 shooting spree of Charles Whitman from the University of Texas Tower, Bogdanovich's film must have packed quite the scintillating, white-hot punch to the face when it was released a mere two years later. As one Austin, Texas merchant is quoted as saying after that awful day when speaking of Whitman, "He was our initiation into a terrible time." Arguably the gutsiest thing art can do is remind people of the worst of times. Bogdanovich's Targets, with its emphasis on the dualities of real-life and silver-screen horror shows, pushes us into the casualness of a madman going out and for no reason in particular executing random civilians with shocking verisimilitude.
The film stars Karloff as essentially himself, merely with a changed name (Byron Orlock), an elderly horror star who wants to retire after the release of his latest movie (which is in actuality represented by the stock footage of Corman's The Terror). Bogdanovich plays a young writer-director (Sammy Michaels, gratefully named for script-doctor Sam Fuller, whose middle name was Michaels) who thinks he is just coming into his own, making substantial artistic progress with his latest screenplay, which he believes in so thoroughly he begs Karloff's Orlock to not retire. Scenes of Michaels extolling the storytelling virtues of Howard Hawks ring out so sweetly. Bogdanovich would communicate his undying admiration and love for the giants of American cinema with greater tacit implicitness in his future films, but even with the humorous scenes of Michaels (truly Bogdanovich) sitting in awe of the Karloff-breakthrough, Hawks-directed The Criminal Code (1931), Bogdanovich captures the dramatic essence of the communicative, vital filmmaking he completely adored.
Much of that is committed to the brilliant etching of Bobby Thompson (Tom O'Kelly), a mild-mannered, dissatisfied married man who, after slowly finding himself repeatedly thinking about shooting someone, including his father while they shoot cans together, decides to go on an unplanned killing spree beginning with his wife and mother. He writes out plainly his intentions. He knows he will be caught, but others will be taken down before he dies. A bravura sequence in which he randomly picks off people in cars on a freeway is chilling; the ghastliness of it captured without unnecessary, extraneous effects, deeply haunting.
Orlock, meanwhile, verbalizes the disintegration of society while Thompson enacts it. In defending his decision to retire, he shows Michaels a newspaper headline. Murder is everywhere. The real monsters are lacking in fangs, claws and mummy outfits. They look like your next door neighbor. The all-enveloping perniciousness of evil was taking greater form than before, Orlock seems to contend. And worst of all, apathy is ascending. The more beaten we become, the more pusillanimous and lost we become. It is often the marginalized "B-movies" that most eloquently state the times, and Targets is one of those. With this film one can experience a fascinating melange of Bogdanovich's interests and whimsies, as well as the saddening fading of an iconic actor giving one of his best performances. His reciting of "Death in Samarra" alone makes this film worth a look.
One of Bogdanovich's subtle themes is the Mephistophelean yearning for greater knowledge, always reductively personal. His sociopathic mass murderer and elderly, reflective horror movie star were the first two examples. When Thompson speaks of the "funny thoughts" he's been having recently, the portal into his mind isn't the cliched quasi-psychological analysis that is often peddled in movies such as these. Bogdanovich keeps it simple. Thompson discovers his life is meaningless. The first person the Thompsons and Whitmans of the world usually despise is themselves. The grotesque statuary is not simply mirrored (which it also is), yet firstly and more importantly inverted. The epiphany that concludes the film rests somewhere between being colossally triumphant and ponderously doleful. And that is where Bogdanovich would find his characters resting at the conclusions of his films. Wistful but resiliently hopeful.
Targets deserves to be mentioned when the subject is films that concern themselves with the cinema's role in violence, and violence's role in the cinema. The climax of the picture almost spells it out, even if you are too involved to particularly care at the time. Thompson shoots through the back of a movie screen at unsuspecting drive-in patrons. This in the year of the assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy). In the wake of others; five years after JFK's slaying. Cinema has certainly become its own recording device of times, events, cultural memories and the explosiveness of violence, like one massive, opaque parallel history with a more seductive veneer. Films like Rear Window and Taxi Driver, Peeping Tom and The Bride Wore Black, Psycho and Minority Report fundamentally operate as films within films: because in each case, the audience is given the role of the spectator, and the spectator in any film like these is some kind of victim. Targets almost gives the game away--perhaps it does--but how ironic that the first film by the great custodian of the American cinematic tradition feels positively postmodern.