Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
I didn’t know that What’s Up, Doc? was filmed in San Francisco. I live near San Francisco, and anytime I see the city onscreen I become obsessed with determining the shooting locations of any given scene. I even felt like I couldn’t concentrate and was having a slight panic attack when I recognized the Bay Bridge in the background and Grace Cathedral. I was do distracted by this, and it made me realize that any movie set in San Francisco seems to be about San Francisco to some degree.
Now, this might be completely wrong because a movie like Blue Jasmine isn’t exactly about San Francisco, but there are so many movies set in Los Angeles and New York that they feel like Springfield in The Simpsons. I feel like I know New York because of how often I’ve seen it in movies. Then you have cities like Chicago that make it into a number of films, and then I think there is a big drop off afterwards (among U.S. cities) until you get to something like a tie between Seattle, San Francisco and Boston.
Anyways, What’s Up, Doc? is a slapstick comedy that makes use of San Francisco in ways you would expect a slapstick comedy to make use of San Francisco. There is a long, wild car chase (apparently a parody of the car chase from Bullitt, though I haven’t yet seen that film) that takes place all over the city. The characters rush through the famous hilly streets, speed down Lombard St., steal a newlywed couple’s car outside the church in what I think might be the Mission, crash through a parade in Chinatown and then finally drive themselves off a pier. In the final sequence of this incredibly long sequence, there’s even a shot of a few seagulls watching the chaos unfold.
None of this really matters (unless you love San Francisco) except to illustrate how physical comedy like this uses its surroundings. In a film like this (or the Naked Gun films), so much comedy comes from the environment in the form of props and physical comedy that interacts with the production design of the film.
I’m not sure if I know what I’m saying. The point is that the location felt like it mattered. This isn’t to say the movie couldn’t have been set in Phoenix, but it just would have been a different movie. Instead of the car chase heading down Lombard St., it would’ve sped by some cacti.
There are two driving forces in this film: two separate spy missions revolving around a common piece of luggage and Judy Maxwell (Barbara Streisand). The film opens with the bag, a red checkered item, containing top secret government files. A man tails the taxi of the man with the bag. What we see right away, though, is another man with the same bag. This is Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal), a musicologist whose bag contains rocks.
There are several other bags. One owned by Judy and one owned by an old lady containing expensive jewelry. Everyone stays at the same hotel and on the same floor no less. Judy, though, isn’t a paying guest of the hotel. She notices Howard and appears to be attracted to him though it’s not clear why because he’s incredibly dim witted, obedient like a dog and when he goes senile, no one’s going to notice. Howard is bossed around by Eunice, his fiancee, but Judy forces her way into his life, pushing out Eunice.
At a banquet that night celebrating the two finalists for a $20,000 grant (Howard and another man), Judy pretends to be Eunice, and she impresses the man in charge of the grant, forcing Howard to go along with her plan or else risk losing the grant. Things escalate wildly as Howard pleads for Judy to go, but she refuses. Judy brings trouble with her wherever she goes. This is shown immediately as she causes three separate traffic accidents when she crosses the road (of course she never notices). She is like an alien or a leach. She latches onto Howard and manipulates him into doing what she wants even as he actively tries to push her away. It’s unclear what her motives are and if she even has any. Sure, it might be that she really is attracted to Howard, but Howard is really dumb. If Judy is an alien, Howard is a robot. Though he is made out to be an intelligent man, he has a tough time participating in a casual conversation. Eunice knows this, and she coaches him on how to introduce himself to the man who controls the possible funding of his work. To make him more boring, his work is literally the musicology of rocks (or something like it). The fact that he is so easily taken over by Judy shows how weak-willed he is.
Everything clashes in the extremely long chase sequence I discussed earlier. Instead of there being an actual clash among everyone furiously looking for their baggage, everyone ends up in the San Francisco bay. The scene fades to black momentarily before introducing us to the courthouse where each character is brought to be arraigned. The judge asks what happened, and Howard begins to describe the entire plot of the movie in appropriately but also absurdly complicated language (again proving how inept he is at conversation). The judge asks to see Judy (who has been hiding) since she seems to be the root of the problem. When she reveals herself, we learn that the judge is her father.
This doesn’t actually solve anything in the scene, but it’s a slapstick comedy so we were never looking for answers, just comedy. The scene ends simply, and we’re with Howard and Judy at the airport as he prepares to head back home to Iowa. All the loose ends are tied up. Howard lost the grant (because of the problems he caused everyone), but the old lady gave them a $20,000 reward for getting her jewelry back except that all the damage from the car chase takes up all but $50 of that money. Then the second-place finisher for the grant is exposed as a plagiarist, and Howard gets the money. He then tells Judy that he loves her.
Judy turns out to be incredibly smart. I mean, she was smart the whole time. She’s good with people, she can blend in anywhere, and she completely and utterly takes over Howard’s life. We also learn that she has been to a number of colleges (from which she’s then been kicked out) and studied something new each time. That’s why she can do quick, complicated math in her head and why she knows a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In fact, the banquet in the film celebrates intellectuals, but one of them turns out to be a fraud and the other one, Howard, is very clearly not that intelligent, and his project is completely uninteresting. Then you have Frederick Larrabee, the grant-giver, who is only interested in flirting with Judy. So of everyone in the film, Judy is by far the most intelligent. This probably doesn’t say anything about the film other than it’s a comedy, so it constantly undercuts anyone who does feel or might feel any kind of pride. It’s constant humility, not in the character’s mind but in the eyes of the audience. Characters mess up, fall flat on their face or hold a bag of underwear when they think it contains top secret government information. They’re all idiots.
I wonder how influenced by the political/cultural climate this story is. I have a habit of assuming that every early 70s film is influenced in someway by Richard Nixon’s presidency and the Vietnam War. Maybe there’s more cynicism in films of this time period? I expect that to be true, but I’m not sure exactly in what ways it manifests itself in movies.
In terms of Bogdanovich’s career, he had made two films before this: Targets and The Last Picture Show. Both films were dramatic. Targets maybe had some comedy, but not that much when you remember that it’s about a guy who snaps and goes on a killing spree. The Last Picture Show is incredibly bleak. It’s good, just also bleak as we see things decay more than grow. That film feels nostalgic for small town America (it’s set in the early 50s) in a way that suggests positivity. The dying town is meant to be sad, and it is because something has been lost. So maybe that contributes to a level of cynicism in the 70s culture (and definitely today). Things were better then but now that’s gone. We just have today, but there’s no reason to expect it will go well. That’s pessimism.
And maybe Bogdanovich isn’t that extreme, but those two films do portray a sense of life now (in the 70s) not being great. Targets shows a character who’s messed up by the war (suggesting turbulence under the serenity of consumer culture) and I already said what I think is important about TLPS.
So a comedy like What’s Up, Doc? makes fun of everything in the way slapstick comedies do. I think there is pessimism inherent in a film like this even though it comes across very innocently. The characters, while dumb, are generally likable and well-meaning. If anything, the villains are entrepreneurial more than they are bad.
So a comedy like this undercuts the imprints of everything. I think you could say it’s nihilistic because nothing matters. Since it’s a comedy, though, it ends happily. The characters get together, but if you take a step back and think about them, they’re both not very suited for each other. Howard’s still dumb, and Judy will probably get tired and look for something else (as evidence by her constant college-jumping).
Then again, I’m definitely overanalyzing (or just mis-analyzing) this aspect of the film. Peter Bogdanovich had made a hugely successful film with The Last Picture Show, and it’s possible he just wanted to try something knew. That’s something I admire from the directors of the New Hollywood (or American New Wave). Directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Ashby, etc. all seemed willing to try new things. Once they had accomplished something, they pivoted, maybe just once or maybe multiple times, but they had a willingness to challenge themselves and their audiences. Woody Allen has done this too, though later in the 70s. After the success of Annie Hall in 1977, he made his bleakest film he’s ever made, Interiors in 1978. That film has no humor at all. You could try to look for comedy, but it’s not there. Just like how comedies seem to create a universe that doesn’t quite feel like ours (because of how often funny things seem to happen), Interiors created a universe that is like ours, except that every character feels like they’ve had a partial lobotomy and spends their time angry or sad about that lobotomy.
So just to end with What’s Up, Doc? since this is a post about that film……. it was very funny, the performances were good, and Judy is Bugs Bunny. This is made very clear but the end of the film. It’s a departure from Bogdanovich’s previous work, but maybe, just maybe, the underlying tone of this movie world isn’t that far removed from the movie worlds of his previous two films. The world of Targets and The Last Picture Show are like the distant cousins of this film. It’d be like if What’s Up, Doc? had heard about The Last Picture Show in the news and was like “that’s a cool film, but that’s a celebrity film and I’m just a standup comedian. I’ll never be like that film.” And then WU,D? did some digging into its family tree and found out TLPS was its cousin. This is a horrible way to end this.