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Five Lessons Peter Bogdanovich Taught Me About Art (And Life)

Photo by Gino Mifsud

Peter Bogdanovich passed away this week of natural causes. He was one of the great American directors, of course. His three picture run of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc, and Paper Moon has seldom been equalled, and although his work after that (without his brilliant collaborator Polly Platt) was uneven, it contained some great work unjustly overlooked by critics and fans who adopted an easy narrative about his decline. He was a genius. He never stopped being a genius. That’s evident not only in his films, but also in his criticism, his interviews, his documentaries, and his curation.

He was also my friend. We met at a film festival and immediately hit it off. His multi-hyphenate career lined up nearly exactly with what I was trying to do myself, and I think he got a real kick out of my seeing myself as following in his footsteps. Our friendship deepened when his daughter Antonia, my friend and collaborator, asked him to play a small role in my scripted directorial debut, Six LA Love Stories. From that point on, whenever I was in Los Angeles, I’d visit him and we’d have the kind of conversations most film buffs can only dream of having with a legendary director.

Peter and I weren’t intimates by any measure. But he was my friend and mentor, and I loved him. I’d be honored to share a few of the lessons he taught me about art, and about life.

Humility and Collegiality

Peter was well known for having a massive ego, and for never being shy about telling people when their ideas were foolish. But I never, ever saw that side of him. Perhaps he had mellowed with age, or perhaps I passed his internal test of someone whom he could take seriously, or perhaps he just saw me as too much of a sweet puppy dog personality to hurt. But from about two minutes into our very first conversation, once I had crossed some mysterious threshold, Peter Bogdanovich treated me as a real colleague. And not even as a junior colleague. He spoke to me as a filmmaker and critic at his level.

Which I was not, of course. And likely never will be. But the point is, he treated me that way. I’d say that his humility and collegiality and warmth were the heart of our friendship, in fact. I’m not at all convinced that any of my ideas actually helped him in his work—at most, perhaps, my perspective may have prompted him down alleyways of his own that he wasn’t exploring yet. But there’s something to be said for approaching one’s friendships with that level of equanimity. Maybe especially when your reputation is for the opposite.

Less is More

“Less is More” is such a clich√©, when it’s tossed off lightly. But for Peter, it was a real aesthetic. Take his use of black and white in so many of his great films, for instance. It’s difficult, and a little painful, to even imagine The Last Picture Show in color, to take one example. Peter loved to tell about how he called his dear friend Orson Welles to tell him he had been green lit to make that film. Welles said, “Well, I certainly hope you’re going to make it in black and white.” Peter asked him why, and the great man bellowed back, “Because black and white is the actor’s medium! There’s never been a great performance in color. I defy you to show me one!” (The only thing better than hearing Welles himself was hearing Peter imitate him).

Peter took Welles’ advice, of course, to his and all of our immeasurable benefit. I asked him once what he loved about black and white cinematography, and he said, “Orson was right. It brings out the actors’ performances. Color is so distracting. It’s too… loud.”

Sometimes, in order to say the most important thing you’re trying to say, you need to stop saying so many other things too.

Respecting Your Elders

That Peter called Welles to tell him the news about The Last Picture Show was no coincidence. The great Orson Welles was Peter’s close personal friend, and a sort of father figure to him. He was also friends with Alfred Hitchcock. And John Ford. And Howard Hawks. Mount Rushmore-sized giants, those were his intimates.

Understand, his New Hollywood contemporaries were directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, William Friedkin. He knew them, too. But he’d really light up when he talked about the old guard. It was to them that he truly looked for inspiration, and for approval.

We’ve recently had a much-needed reckoning with the behaviors and attitudes and beliefs of many long-admired figures from the past. Those issues are beyond the scope of this little remembrance. But as a source of artistic inspiration alone, it’s difficult to imagine better places a young filmmaker could turn than to Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks. Peter was fully aware of those men’s foibles (some of which foibles he shared himself). But he knew enough to learn at the feet of the masters.

Promoting Others

By nature, many great artists tend to be of the lone wolf persuasion. Sometimes they’re so dogged in their pursuit of their vision that they don’t have the time or emotional energy to even become heavily invested in the work of others, much less work to promote it. Filmmakers especially tend to this model, because unlike artists in many other fields they’re also rallying hundreds of collaborators around their vision for each project. It’s not a moral failing, this heightened self-focus; it’s often a necessity.

Peter was different, though. Partly because those great filmmakers of the past had become his friends, and partly because it was just the way his mind worked, he wrote astute film criticism, wrote books of interviews, organized archival screening programs, and even made documentary films championing them. So much so that it could be argued that he himself helped form our opinions of those artists. Among major American directors, only Martin Scorsese even approaches Peter as a champion of other filmmakers’ work.

So he made a difference out in the world, in our appreciation for those filmmakers. But how could that immersion in the work of past masters have not also guided his own creative vision? His own vision of life, for that matter? I know I was partly inspired by Peter when I began my own documentary about Richard Linklater, and I can tell you firsthand that I have been fundamentally shaped, as an artist and a person, by my deep dive into Linklater’s masterpieces. I could say the same about my career directing film festivals, or about my teaching. Considering, exploring, and championing the work of others, it turns out, is fundamentally formational.

Listening To The Accidents

I’ve saved the shortest and most mysterious for last. I was telling Peter about a problem we’d run into shooting a scene in Six LA Love Stories, and how in fixing it, we actually ended up with a much stronger scene than we otherwise would have. (If you approach it with an open mind, this is why directing can be the most inspiring and most humbling job in the world.) Peter got that little sly half-smile on his face and told me, “Michael, you always have to listen to the accidents. They may be the picture telling you what it wants to be.”

I was stunned in that moment, and I’m stunned even now in recounting the story. What a beautiful bit of wisdom from a man who had been there and experienced it. And not a man prone to talking in mystical terms, for that matter.

But Peter was like that. Every time you thought you had him figured out, he’d surprise you with something new. Neither I nor any of us can learn from him face to face now. But there are treasures yet to be mined from the ocean of ink and the bins of celluloid that he left behind. I know I’ll be grabbing my pick and heading down to that mine regularly in the years to come.

MICHAEL DUNAWAY is is the Editor at Large of Paste Magazine, a Founding Partner of Poitier & Dunaway Motion Pictures, and the Creative Director of the Rome International Film Festival. His documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater was a New York Times Critics Pick. In addition to Paste, he has been published in the New York Times, Playboy, The Atlantic, Esquire, The Bitter Southerner, and elsewhere. Current projects include a novel, Bob Dylan Slept Here; a book of interviews about self care for creatives; and a major television series about the civil rights movement, The Movement. He lives in Atlanta.

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