By Brandon Irvine
You might have the feeling, watching Targets, that director Peter Bogdanovich has welded together two unconnected movies. I’m not talking about the intercutting of two plots – a ubiquitous storytelling technique – but the weaving together of two narratives that feel starkly dissimilar. We begin the movie following Byron Orlok, an aging actor who resembles, in almost all ways, Boris Karloff, the actor playing him. Orlok is sick of being an actor, tired of the same-y scripts and the inanities of being a thespian in slow decline. His back-and-forth with the various facets of the Hollywood machine trying to get him into another picture is a farce, setting the tone for half the movie.
But the other half of Targets is unnerving, functioning not even as a thriller but more like a clinical account of psychological breakdown. Completely tangential to Orlok, we meet Bobby, a young man straight out of a Leave It to Beaver America, except that he’s buying a gun. Bobby seems innocent enough, but maybe so innocent that the narrative’s fixation on him implies a veneer that is about to crack. This is soon confirmed when Bobby goes shooting with his father; as he watches while the older man sets up the targets, he raises his gun, ready to assassinate the older man. We see Bobby hesitate, clearly struggling to reconcile his all-American identity with his urge to make good on the promise of his rifle. He doesn’t end up firing, but now we see what Bobby is, even if we don’t know why.
Bobby’s side of the movie is told as flatly as is conceivable, given the subject: The young man himself is affectless, and no music cues tell us to be afraid of him, somehow making him all the more sinister. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Targets is how Bogdanovich refuses to reveal Bobby. We are never told his motivation, never privy to his reasons, however distorted they may be. Behind Bobby’s eyes, there is a blankness, where more common movie villains are given at least notional reasons for their anti-social behavior. Bobby is, in many ways, not even a figure of horror but simply a function of the rifle itself, the instantiation of the action implied by the weapon, stripped of any inherent drama and acting like a natural force. Bogdanovich goes out of his way to downplay the drama, and gives us a monster that takes snack breaks while shooting random passengers on the highway. It’s a detail that both undermines the drama of the moment, but also makes it somehow worse.
Fascinating as this stuff is, Bogdanovich’s even more brilliant ploy is the juxtaposition of the above with Orlok’s story. The most striking moment here is when an up-and-coming director, played by Bogdanovich himself, argues with Orlok over whether the actor will do his next movie. The conversation goes pretty much verbatim the way you’d think the conversation might have gone between Bogdanovich and Karloff if they were debating whether to make the very movie you are watching. This arch self-reflection is punctuated by the young director reading a headline about a recent shooting. Frustrated, he laments that no work of cinema will ever capture the horror of the front page.
Here Orlok’s story is almost postmodern in its obvious reference to itself, but this kind of clever turn is cut with that other half of the movie, a stark, pitiless depiction of senseless violence that seems to comment on the former. You could read Targets as Bogdanovich indicting his own art form by showing its limits – which would explain the director’s own lines to the effect that art is never as scary as the modern newspaper. Another reading, and one that’s at least more interesting (if not more plausible), is that Bogdanovich contradicts himself, quite possibly by design: While denouncing the efforts of film artists to capture the true terror of living in an armed America, the director stages that horror in the same movie, implying, by the existence of the film itself, that his art can and should aspire to be as bloody and vital as the news. And yet, at the same time, Bogdanovich seems to be subverting our idea of what film horror is, by presenting not a man in black but the most clean-cut American you could wish for, a monster that only lurks in the shadows when he’s watching TV with the lights out.
The climax of Targets takes place, by no accident, at a drive-in, where Bobby takes position behind the movie screen to kill moviegoers, a scenario reminiscent of the climax of Inglourious Basterds, when celluloid film is used as an explosive to massacre a crowd of Nazis. Both Bogdanovich and Quentino Tarantino seem to be attempting to reach right out of the screen to grab viewers and shout, “Movies have consequences, dammit!” With Targets, Bogdanovich — pace his fictional counterpart’s lines in this film – seems to be saying that movies, as innocent as they might seem, will always be dangerous. I’d love to believe it, even if I’m not sure I do.
Brandon Irvine reads and watches with purpose and sometimes blogs at underplex.com.