Gun Play
Michael Joshua Rowin on Targets

Cinema and guns share a long, strange history. A forerunner of motion-picture photography, le fusil photographique, the photographic gun, was created in the 1880s by Etienne-Jules Marey, a French physiologist whose invention took the shape of a rifle and contained a sight and clock mechanism for producing rapid exposures. Marey initially studied avian flight with this device—instead of hunting, the pioneering chronophotographer captured movement with the click of a trigger. Of course, standard camera and projector designs—developed at the turn of the century and not much altered since then—didn’t resemble firearms, which were instead incorporated into early narrative experiments that extolled the weapon’s likeness to recording equipment. The legacy of guns in film starts with the birth of filmic narrative itself in The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter’s groundbreaking 1903 Western. Its medium shot of a bandit firing his pistol directly at the camera perfectly matched content to form: the firing and its desecration of the illusory fourth wall (legend has it that audiences shouted and ducked for cover at this shot/shot) was an attack correlative to the explosive meeting of the cinema of attractions and cinematic storytelling. As narrative codes solidified into a common grammar, the similar violence enacted by guns and cameras—in each case, of taking something from the aimed at subject—could no longer be expressed in such technical or confrontational terms but became displaced metaphorically onto the diegetic level to sustain the invisibility of the apparatus and the audience’s vicarious relationship to comfortably viewed carnage.

Meanwhile, running counter to this dominant mode, Porter’s exemplary formal reflexivity has been echoed for purposes both subversive and adaptable to mainstream aesthetics, from the jump cuts of Breathless to The Matrix’s “bullet time” action sequences. Such reflexivity became one of the hallmarks of the emerging New Hollywood in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when a young generation of film lovers expressed the conflicting values of their generation through homage, reference, genre play, and out-and-out experimentation. Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film, 1968’s underappreciated and rarely discussed Targets, thus stands out among these histories of violence both cinematic and topical as a true anomaly: as an investigation into America’s firearms obsession and modern suburban malaise rooted in patriarchy, as a meta-cinematic treatise on the duplicity of image-making and the ascension of New Hollywood in place of the irrelevant old one, and as popular entertainment confronting both strands and reflecting each in the other’s mirror.

Targets begins De Palma-style, with a movie-within-a-movie, in this case 1963’s The Terror, a Roger Corman Victorian horror entry complete with cawing ravens, lightning-illuminated castles, and a Fall of the House of Usher finale. As the opening credits wind up we’re taken from the fantasy of The Terror to a Hollywood projection room where it’s being screened for the film’s director, Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich himself), and star, Byron Orlock (Boris Karloff). The finished product is deemed disappointing (a good natured ribbing of Corman by one of his protégés), and to everyone’s stunned dismay, the aged horror movie legend announces his retirement. In an effort to get him on board for a role in his newly developed “work of art” screenplay, Michaels tries to talk Orlock out of it. Standing outside the facilities in the sunny Los Angeles afternoon, Orlock decries his uselessness in a changing time and business: “I’m an anachronism. Look around, Sammy, the world belongs to the young. Make way for them, let them have it.”

CUT TO: Orlock in the sights of a riflescope (a brilliant shock tactic as suggested by the uncredited screenplay co-writer—none other than Samuel Fuller). Then a clean-cut, fresh-faced young man clicking the trigger on the unloaded weapon in a gun shop, a transition even more jarring than the Terror/Targets “mise-en-abyme” just moments before. The contrasting values have really been set in play—old romantic horror/new modern violence, reel horror/real horror, cinema’s illusionistic shadow play/the imagistic nature of the shooter’s remote view of his targets. The young man with “an honest face” is Bobby Thompson who, after testing and purchasing the gun, brings it to his car, where he opens the trunk to reveal an arsenal sufficient for a small militia. Bobby drives home and in a series of long takes accompanied only by diegetic sound (the film is most unsettling in its refusal to employ a score) walks through his house as if a stranger, detachedly studying the photographs and gun racks on the walls while, off-screen, his mother and wife, in another room unaware of his arrival, guess at his whereabouts. Bobby’s father then comes home, Bobby joins the family, and the young man returns to his chipper self as a long, hectic tracking shot follows the movement of the Thompsons as they settle down to dinner in what Bogdanovich describes as a Norman Rockwell four-shot. It all appears so normal, but of course it’s not at all. From a few clues and their atypical cinematic presentation, we can be pretty sure something terrible looms.

The character of Bobby is molded on Charles Whitman, the infamous ex-marine who, on the first day of August, 1966, after killing his wife and mother, climbed atop the observation deck of the Main Building Tower of the University of Texas at Austin and, using three different rifles, shot to death and wounded more than forty people. Arriving between the 1963 of assassinations of President Kennedy in and the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitman performed perhaps a more foreshadowing act of violence. His was one of the first major spree killings in United States history, part of an alarming trend slowly developing in American society: young white males armed to the teeth and, for often inexplicable reasons, driven to kill at random. An Austin resident provided an accurate summary of Whitman’s legacy: “He was our initiation into a terrible time . . . we grew numb. He was supposed to be an all-American boy. The sad thing is, maybe he really is.”

The key word here is “boy”—in Targets Bobby-as-Whitman exemplifies the new American man as an emotionally dysfunctional child, unable to assimilate to the rule of the Father but unable to find a constructive way around it. Made during the year the Summer of Love signaled the emergence of youth culture values in the artistic and political arenas, and released a year before Woodstock established the hippie as the defining image of counterculture rebellion, the film represents Bobby as a far more common—and thus widely ignored—flipside to the “free love” generation. Plain, unassuming, and equipped with a winning smile, actor Tim O’Kelley was chosen by Bogdanovich for the part of Bobby exactly because he looked like that “all-American boy.” The film depicts Bobby and his like in explicitly Oedipal terms in a sequence soon after the family dinner. Bobby and his father shoot target practice using empty tin cans. As Thompson senior puts them back in a row, Bobby raises his gun and, similar to the earlier shot of Karloff, places his father in his sights. The father comes into close-up as he reprimands Bobby for such a glaring lack of safety, this shot alternating with a long shot of Bobby from the father’s POV. The last shot is peculiarly high-angled, with a shamed Bobby appearing submissive and cowed. The contrast in size and stature between father and son in these carefully constructed shots expresses not just the dynamics of their relationship, but that of the generation gap they exemplify.

Bobby Sr. and Jr. embody a repressed Oedipal rift; Orlock and Sammy, meanwhile, openly discuss the changing values that have ushered in a new era neither can fully comprehend. In Orlock’s hotel room late at night Sammy pays the actor a visit and, watching Howard Hawks’s 1931 The Criminal Code (starring a younger Karloff in his first important role), resignedly states, “All the good movies have been made.” Orlock more poignantly admits his obsolescence: “Do you know what they call my films? Camp, high camp. My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore. No one’s afraid of a painted monster.” They both study a newspaper headline that reads “Youth Kills Six in Supermarket.” The comfortable, contained violence of classic films and classic wars has faded into the American night. The chaotic present and the difficulties of its representation weigh on Sammy, who feels his own impotence in the shadow of older generations, and haunt Orlock—both wish for the safe categories (and possibly even “safe” violence) of the past.

The scenes that sandwich Sammy and Orlock’s conversation aptly demonstrate the banality of this new violence. In the first, the Thompsons watch the late show, huddled in the dark. Bobby’s wife gets ready to leave for her job (she’s a telephone operator working the late shift), and after a failed attempt to tell her about his bottled up “funny ideas,” Bobby sits alone in the den, his parents having gone to sleep and the television still glowing. What’s impressive about this scene is not that it shrouds Bobby in almost complete darkness, but that the inane chatter of the television set is the more oppressive element. Similarly, after Bobby has armed himself and shot to death his wife, mother, and brother (his Whitmanesque typed letter: “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: IT IS NOW 11:40 A.M. MY WIFE IS STILL ASLEEP, BUT WHEN SHE WAKES UP I AM GOING TO KILL HER. THEN I AM GOING TO KILL MY MOTHER. I KNOW THEY WILL GET ME, BUT THERE WILL BE MORE KILLING BEFORE I DIE”) the action slows to an eerie crawl, with Bobby and the film, Psycho-style, spending far more time on the clean-up than the crime. In deceptively placid long takes that dwell on the house’s ice cream pastel décor, Bobby wipes away smeared blood and lays his loved ones gently on their beds. Environmental noise once again dominates: birds chirp, dogs bark, children play, ice cream trucks innocuously sound their tinny carnival sirens. The point here is not just that such marks of bourgeois comfort produce this carnage, but that this carnage is now taking place in previously unthinkable settings. Bobby has announced an invasion—of gun violence into the domestic space, the nearly invincible lone nut using modernity’s anonymous conditions against the society that manufactured them.

The ensuing killing spree is a chilling prediction of the Beltway sniper shootings—Bobby climbs atop a Chevron plant, untouchable and with an unimpeded view of the freeway. After calmly wolfing down lunch and randomly killing motorists, the young Thompson outwits a police car and, like Lee Harvey Oswald after the shootings of President Kennedy and Officer Tippit, hides out in a movie theater, in this case a drive-in that happens to be (in one of those twists of fate hinted at earlier in Orlock’s dramatic telling of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Appointment in Samara”) where the premiere of The Terror is taking place: Byron Orlock has reluctantly agreed to do a post-screening Q & A. As dusk approaches, viewers arrive in their cars, children leave the drive-in’s playground, and, eventually, the film begins. Bogdanovich spends an inordinate amount of time on the theater’s projection apparatus, with the projectionist threading the celluloid and running the machine. Lights go off—The Terror has commenced. The camera with which we view the action—as run on another projection apparatus, the one in the theater where we sit—draws closer to the screen on which The Terror is being projected, until it at last reveals Bobby behind the screen in a close-up of his gun sticking out of a hole, aiming at the spectators, and us.

This astounding, self-reflexive visual metaphor—of something being shot not at but from the screen, of someone crossing that dividing line that allows film viewers vicarious experiences of violence—works on two levels. Of course, it’s a shocking set-piece that captures the true terror of one of those random acts of violence that were becoming common occurrences starting with Whitman. But perhaps more importantly, in 1968 it was a Molotov cocktail thrown to the film’s real-life audience—New Hollywood’s arsenal would now include examinations not just of violence but of the way we view violence and how the various forms of mass media present it to us. This is made even more apparent at the climax when Bobby, now out from behind the screen, confuses the giant projected Orlock to the one angrily approaching him, firing at both clad in tuxedoes. When Orlock corners Bobby and knocks his gun away with a cane, Bogdanovich doesn’t reinsert patriarchy—the daddy-hero—as the answer to our contemporary nightmare. “Was that what I was afraid of?” Orlock asks himself as Bobby collapses to the ground, sobbing like the wounded little boy he is. Indeed, is this what we are afraid of? If we’ve learned anything at this point it’s that the cinematic heroics briefly on display in Targets have little bearing on the complex real-life problem the movie represents and subsequently undermines as objective representation. The new cinema, it might say, is just as duplicitous as the old one, only more honest about its sleight of hand. Godard, as usual, put it best: “Contrary to what is often said, a camera is not a gun, and a gun is not a camera: if it were, they wouldn’t still blindfold those that are about to be shot.”