Video Essay: “Pray for Mama”

“Pray for Mama”: Circumvented Trauma in Paper Moon

Paper Moon (The Directors Company/Paramount 1973) is a lovely little film. Set in the Depression-era Midwest, it features charming performances by Ryan O’Neal, Madeline Khan, John Hillerman, and nine-year-old Tatum O’Neal (Ryan’s daughter). László Kovács’s black and white cinematography is stunning, Polly Platt’s lovingly meticulous production design is highly evocative of the mid-30s, and it’s all directed with crisp efficiency by Peter Bogdanovich. The film received mixed reviews on its release, but was a box office smash, and Tatum O’Neal went on to win an Oscar for best supporting actress (although she’s the star of the film), still the youngest ever winner of an Academy Award.

As I’ve been researching the work and career of Polly Platt over the past couple of years, I’ve become a bit obsessed with this film. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best work in her filmography (or in Bogdanovich’s), but I do think it’s a lot better even than its pretty good reputation. Part of what makes it work is that it’s a film that’s very concerned with its surface – not just the striking cinematography and design, but the beautiful actors and the slight, rapidly paced script that hops from one set piece to the next with a refreshing buoyancy that is part of what makes the film still hold up remarkably well today.

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Video Essay: Polly Platt – Authorship by Design

As I’ve discussed in detail in earlier blog posts, Polly Platt was a key Hollywood figure for decades. She’s mainly remembered for her production design on a variety of films, in both credited and uncredited roles, between 1968-1987. But she also played significant roles as a writer, costume designer, location scout, and, later, producer, in a career that lasted until shortly before her death in 2011.

Much of the history and critical scholarship of creativity in 1970s Hollywood has been written about the decade’s larger-than-life men – directors like Altman and Scorsese, or producers like Bob Evans. However, the decade also saw an explosion of new talent behind the camera, in roles like cinematographer, designer, editor, and writer. And much of that creative force included women like Platt, who performed tremendous amounts of labour in creating the look, feel, and potential meanings of their films.

In this video essay, I briefly outline some of the signature components of Platt’s design work in the 1970s, and try to show how significant her contribution was to the films she worked on – the ways that, as one of the primary creative talents on her films, acted as one of their authors.

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Teaching Film Studies after Weinstein

This is my take on the recent disclosures about Harvey Weinstein. It is not meant to replace or supersede or in any way silence the many more heartfelt, eloquent, painful takes that others – mainly women – have been offering. I’m writing both as a male and as a film scholar and educator who considers himself an ally of women. I have a feeling most of what I have to say is obvious on the level of duh! to most of the women I know, so maybe there’s an implied male audience here. In any case, I welcome any feedback, criticisms, or suggestions for improvement from women or men who might read this.

Harvey Weinstein is not an exception. Not an outlier or an anomaly. Harvey Weinstein is the rule. This is not to say that every man in America or every man in the 21st century is a sexual aggressor or abuser (and let’s just get #notallmen out of the way – we’re engaged in an examination of deeply rooted cultural trends and systemic abuse here, which necessitates a broad approach. If that offends you, you’re behind the curve – maybe take a sociology class).

But modern culture – with whatever other qualifiers you want to use (American, Western, human, etc.) – is designed to allow and perpetuate sexual abuse. Particularly by men and most especially against women. It’s an inherent, fundamental part of the glue that makes patriarchy stick. It’s in our institutions, our languages, our politics, our education, our sport and leisure, and most definitely in our art.

And it fills in the cracks where all those different parts of life and culture intersect.

I study and teach film and other screen media. To do so, one needs to have a language of art, but also of commerce, of industry, of history. And to do justice to any of those fields and their intersections, you have to understand gender.

I’m not an expert in that field, but here are a few things that are clear if you look closely enough at film studies as an academic discipline. Continue reading

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Remembering Tom Petty

“Rock & roll songs are just cheap shit – nothing deeper than that.”
– Tom Petty

As anybody reading this knows by now, Tom Petty died this week, on Monday, October 2. I’ve been a pretty big fan of Petty’s music for a while now. A few thoughts.


I got my license. I was 16. It was probably too young to be bombing around the streets of my hometown of Bangor, but man, did I love those rides. Like a lot of American teens, I drove to alleviate boredom. Often I’d pick up a friend or two and we’d see what sort of trouble we could get into – there were donuts, sure, but also that little hill on Palm Street that if you hit the crest of it going fast enough, the car (well, at least my mom’s little Renault) would leave the ground (my kid’s never getting a driver’s license, by the way!). Drive out to Glenburn, smoke a joint, tromp through some woods, drive back home in the afternoon sun.

More often than not, though, I’d end up driving around alone. Bored at home, homework finished, no practice that afternoon, whatever, and, “hey, mum, can I go for a drive?” “Sure, be back for dinner.” And I’m off, to wherever. Drive out route 15, see where you end up. Check to see if a friend’s home. Sneak past Michele’s house (just one last time, seriously).

But with friends or alone, always music in the car. I was into classic rock, so it was often a Zepplin or Doors tape, maybe the Police. But I’ve also always loved the radio. Yeah, commercial radio (although I hate the commercials) – top 40, oldies, classic rock, alternative. Whatever. I love the lack of choice of it – to an extent, I mean, you can always change the station, but the lack of control means a lack of predictability. Sure, on some stations, you have a good idea of what you’re likely to hear, but maybe you’re in the mood for some J. Geils or Cyndi Lauper, so top 40’s going to work for you. And then the dj’s like, “check out this new song,” and “Fight for your Right (to Party)” comes on and you’re, like, what in the hell is this? I’m turning this up!

The thing is, whatever station I might throw on back in ‘87, there was a good chance a Tom Petty song would come round eventually – top 40, indie, classic rock, hell, by that point Petty had songs that might slip onto one of Maine’s many country music stations. I knew who Petty was by then of course. “Refugee” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” were MTV staples, unavoidable even on those after-school half-hour music video shows that local networks were throwing on in the mid-‘80s. And I knew a ton of Petty songs because they’d been ubiquitous on the radio for a decade. I just didn’t know that all those Petty songs were by the same guy (or, I should say, the same band because the Heartbreakers are a helluva band).

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Call For Papers



Women and New Hollywood
Maynooth University, Ireland
29-30 May 2018

Recent decades have witnessed no shortage of critical or academic writing on the industrial upheaval and creative innovations of New Hollywood (1967-80). But as scholarship has shaped the era, it has done so around a very narrow set of concerns, the overriding one casting New Hollywood as an era of great directors, which, by default, has meant an era of “great men.” Such a vision relies on the kind of identification of creativity with masculinity that Geneviève Sellier has discussed in relation to the French New Wave, and its construction has required a marginalisation, erasure even, of the creative labour of countless women practitioners.

In reality, the late ‘60s and ‘70s saw women begin to re-enter Hollywood production in numbers never before seen. While achieving nothing close to real parity, women nevertheless wrote, edited, designed, and produced many of the era’s most influential films. Most of these contributions have been, at best, paid lip service, but more often overlooked almost completely.

For example, one of New Hollywood’s iconic films, Bonnie and Clyde, is regularly recognized for its innovative editing – Dede Allen arguably changed the style of Hollywood filmmaking forever. And yet, Allen is marginalised within discourses that discount women’s contributions and privilege the roles of men like Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty.

Media Studies at Maynooth University and the Irish Research Council are happy to announce the conference Women and New Hollywood, to be held at Maynooth Unversity on 29-30 May, 2018.

The conference will endeavour to excavate and reassess the various roles that women’s creative labour played in shaping the New Hollywood era across all facets of production and within the broader cultural context. We hope to challenge the dominant discourse around New Hollywood, which is, among other things, heavily gendered in its bias towards a creativity, an innovation, and a labour that continue to be framed as almost entirely male. Continue reading

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Searching for Polly in the Bodanovich Papers: Reflections

In July of this summer I spent two weeks at the Peter Bogdanovich collection at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. I went searching for material – particularly production-related material – on Polly Platt, who was married to Bogdanovich for nearly 10-years and had two daughters with him, but, more importantly who worked on four films with him and other film and film-related projects as well. Platt doesn’t have her own archive, so I thought the Bogdanovich papers might be the closest approximation I could find. The Lilly Library is a fantastic resource with a lovely and helpful staff and the papers are a treasure trove of Bogdanovich material (some of which I wrote about mid-way through my visit). But while I found quite a number of Platt-related papers – professional documents, memos, script notes, personal letters, etc. – overall, the amount was pretty thin. Below are some of my reflections on how the material has been useful and what its limited scope might mean.

Polly Platt is a palimpsest.

I mean, of course not. That’s ridiculous. Platt was a real person, a woman, mother, lover, friend. She lived an incredibly fruitful and creative life (1939-2011) that influenced nearly everybody she worked with. From her iconic production design on films like The Last Picture Show, The Bad News Bears, and The Witches of Eastwick to her production of films like Say Anything and Bottle Rocket, Platt played a major, decades-long role in shaping the look of a particular type of Hollywood film, straddling the line between arthouse and commercial.

Just one example: describing her work on Say Anything, director Cameron Crowe said: “She knew, heading into Say Anything . . . that I would need the support of a great cinematographer. She went out and got a master, László Kovács. I think she had talked to him about it, sent him a script, and then she saw him at a restaurant and pounced on him. She got his agreement to do the movie on the spot, standing there in the restaurant.” Crowe, as a first-time director, then relied heavily on Kovács’s guidance in crafting the look of the film, a late ‘80s Gen-X classic.

Platt produced Say Anything and convinced acclaimed cinematographer László Kovács to shoot it.

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Video Essay: Pretty Baby: Faces

Pretty Baby (Paramount 1978) is a pretty drastic film. It’s beautifully shot, tragic, and incredibly difficult to watch because of its treatment of childhood sexuality. Part of what makes it work (if it does), is its total fascination with the human face. Director Louis Malle and cinematographer Sven Nykvist capture a range of human emotions with extended close-ups, many of which are dialogue free. They’re moving and unsettling.

A collection of them here, set to the old New Orleans jazz standard, “Careless Love” as performed by Bessie Smith.

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Searching for Polly in the Bogdanovich Archives: Week One

I’m not really sure about the permissions of posting archival images on a blog, so here’s a shot of IU’s very cool cinema.

I’ve reached the halfway point of a two-week stint at the Peter Bogdanovich archives at Indiana University in Bloomington. I’m going to save the “big conclusions” for after the trip is complete because I still have a lot of material to get through, but a pretty obvious truth seems to be emerging that would be silly to gloss over completely.

There’s not a whole lot of Polly Platt material in the Peter Bogdanovich papers.

Well, I should qualify that. The archives cover most of Bogdanovich’s life, but they really kick off in the late ‘60s with production materials on his first feature, Targets. There’s a fair amount of personal correspondence between Platt and Bogdanovich from this era through the mid-70s. It’s been fascinating to read, and there’s no doubt it’s deepened my understanding of the difficulties of Platt’s personal life as she was establishing and building her career in the ‘70s.

The Personal

For those who don’t know this well-told story, a quick re-cap: Bogdanovich and Platt were married from 1962-1971. They spent the first few years of their marriage in New York, working in the theatre and organizing film exhibitions at places like the Museum of Modern Art. They then headed out to LA – Bogdanovich wrote film criticism for Esquire, and they became friendly with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles, and Roger Corman, who hired Bogdanovich in 1967 to make Targets. Platt co-wrote that film and did production and costume design. The couple would go on to make three more films together – The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973), all critical and commercial hits. Platt did production design and a host of other uncredited work on all three. The couple had two daughters, Antonia and Alexandra (or Toni and Sashy, as their parents called them). But in 1970, during production of Picture Show, Bogdanovich met and fell in love with Cybill Shepherd. The relationship progressed in stops and starts throughout ’71 until Bogdanovich finally left Platt for a seven-year relationship with Shepherd. Both of them continued to work throughout the decade and beyond, although (with one possible exception) they never worked together again. Continue reading

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Video Essay: Hal Ashby and the Long Shot

I’d been contemplating an audio-video essay on Hal Ashby and the long shot for ages. It should have been easy. I write about it in a section of my book, and I had ripped the clips I wanted to use based on the scenes I write about.

But I’m still fairly inexperienced at constructing such essays, and the problem I kept running up against was how to properly contextualize these long shots and their use in Ashby’s films as something both part of and counter to Hollywood tradition.

My first instinct was to incorporate voiceover to explain my thoughts. But I was worried this might be too pedantic. Wouldn’t a short, simple collection of shots, perhaps with an elegant frame or introduction, better convey their effectiveness? I couldn’t decide.

In the end, my friend Barry Cullen suggested, why not both? Barry’s a scholar and experimental sound practitioner whose work often elicits surprise by incorporating unpredictable elements. He said, try it both ways and see how the different sets of conditions produce different essays.

So I did. And here they are. Continue reading

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The Other Side of the Director:
Polly Platt and Orson Welles’s Last Movie

Recent film and media news has been filled with excitement at the announcement that Netflix has acquired the rights to Orson Welles’s final, unfinished film project, The Other Side of the Wind. And rightly so! Wind was a labor of love that Welles worked on for over half a decade. From the clips that have been circulating for years and in-depth descriptions of the film by the likes of Josh Karp and Joseph McBride, it sounds like a fascinating endeavor: an ode to the life of a late-career movie director; a spoof of both pretentious art cinema and the rise of New Hollywood; a decades-in-the-making dig at Ernest Hemingway. The film seems like yet another radical departure for Welles. A gloriously shot film-within-the-film combined with a rapidly edited montage of shaky black-and-white footage, Wind has the potential to be a final great film from one of America’s foremost moviemakers.

And so the sense of excitement and anticipation that seethes from every write-up is understandable – I certainly share it!

Yet, as readers of this blog might guess, coverage of the film’s impending release interests me for other reasons as well. Continue reading

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