“I Have a Jest to Execute, that I Cannot Manage Alone”: Peter Bogdanovich’s SAINT JACK and THEY ALL LAUGHED

(This piece originally was published at whatchareading.com on May 8, 2017)

What brought Hollywood traditionalist Peter Bogdanovich, low-budget drive-in messiah Roger Corman, experimental European cinematographer Robby Muller, method acting Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara, classically trained British actor Denholm Elliot, acclaimed expatriate novelist Paul Theroux, and scoundrel Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner together? The film Saint Jack, no mere commercial enterprise; history has shown nothing else like the one-two punch of Bogdanovich and Mueller’s richly visual cinematic arabesques, the Singapore-based Saint Jack of 1979 and its Manhattan-based follow-up They All Laughed of 1981.

It is only cosmic justice that the all-but-forgotten Saint Jack is finally out in a lovely blu-ray release from Scorpion Releasing, stocked with extras and finally presenting this near-forgotten, major film in high-definition and its proper aspect ratio.  Bogdanovich shot the film entirely in Singapore, in secret, under the working title Jack of Hearts, as any adaptation of  Theroux’s novel Saint Jack, a story of pimps and prostitution, was sure to be banned in the country (and Saint Jack ultimately was, for 30 years!)

While Bogdanovich is an auteur in every sense of the word, the success of these two masterpieces is largely in their pluralistic, communal nature; he was enthusiastic to utilize local resources, taking suggestions from his adventurous Dutch cinematographer (who has worked with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch), his actors, and the  populations of both Singapore and Manhattan, using many non-professionals in featured roles.

Saint Jack bears a resemblance to the classic Hollywood expatriate melodrama, such as Casablanca, with its noble loser protagonist and striking, exotic milieu.  But Jack is intensely complex and unique (while unflashy) in its staging and photography, and tackles multifaceted themes of male friendship, regret and optimism, and sexual honor, as brilliantly as I’ve ever seen. Yet the film, like its companion piece Laughed, is unscored (you can always tell which films Bogdanovich had final cut on by their lack of a traditional music score) and unrushed, never telling you when or how to feel.  Bogdanovich is entirely and disarmingly relaxed here, and one can only wonder where he (and co-conspirator Muller) would have gone next if tragedy did not strike after the wrap of Laughed, when costar (and Bogdanovich’s love) Dororthy Stratten was murdered, sidelining Bogdanovich for several years.

Bogdanovich’s ceaseless strengths as a filmmaker (and they are mighty ones, if not attention-getting) are his empathy and interest in exploring community, his genuine respect and love for women (very much at odds with most of his 1970s men’s club filmmaking brethren), and his disinterest in violence, thundering hooves and gunplay.  While both films are now historic documents, detailing a Singapore and Manhattan that no longer exist, the fresh, uncooked photography utilized by Bogdanovich and Mueller makes both feel like everything is happening now, in the moment, and we are there.  In Jack and Laughed, for four hours of total cinema unlike any other, Bogdanovich proves a master of creating a unique, breathing environment filled with charismatic and memorable characters and settings.

Saint Jack and They All Laughed are simultaneously light and serious, with “plot” a secondary concern; the films are endlessly suggestive rather than explicit, and as voyeuristic as the best De Palma, but not stalkerish and nihilistic; Bogdanovich is in love with urban topography, women, and slightly damaged guys who are loyal and honorable.  Filled with free-spirited characters, who are never far from personal disaster, both films play subtle games of lost and found, and can seem rather gracefully impertinent (plot developments seem largely beside the point). As they are energetically unconcerned with traditional narrative they might come off “aimless” if you are feeling uncharitable. But, no, the films are poetry, and the characters no chess pieces — Bogdanovich cares about them, and they are real enough you would hope they exist in real life—they will stay with you long after the films end.  Both Jack and Laughed capture an “ephemeral reality” that is gone as soon as the credits roll and the filmmakers thank the people of the islands they filmed on.

With Saint Jack and They All Laughed, Bogdanovich and Muller as a team were on their way to carving out an identity as the masters of something unique, naturalistic-genre film-making; there is a generosity in spirit and a sense of anarchy that never loses the thread because of Bogdanovich’s classic storytelling instincts, sharply tuned in his earlier Hollywood successes Last Picture Show Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc?.  One wonders if his commercially unsuccessful but wildly underrated Nickelodeon, about the first renegade silent filmmakers on the west coast plying their trade, inspired him, as it was his last studio film before these two independents; in Jack and Laughed Bogdanovich shows a fresh pirate anything-goes spirit that wasn’t evident in his earlier work, and since has really has shown up only in the free-spirited (but stagebound by design) Noises Off — these films are about emotional ambiguities, and a straightforward narrative line would not serve them well.  

Bogdanovich and Muller shoot locations that had never been shot, whether the legendarily carnal Bugis Street in Singapore or Times Square in Manhattan, in such a free, open way, and it all cuts together wonderfully; Saint Jack is a film about brothels and  colonialism and the Vietnam war, but it is ultimately a work of genius about love, decency and regret.  They All Laughed is about private eyes employed by untrusting husbands, and also is ultimately a work of genius about love, decency, and regret.

In their discreet ways, these perfectly realized films are two of the most passionate films I’ve ever seen, witty arabesques about the joy and tragic fragility of life. They took nerve, talent, and chances (that did not pay off in initial releases), and deserve every bit of late recognition they have been receiving.

A great book detailing Jack’s oddball production was written about a decade ago by Ben Slater, a Singapore resident and film scholar who interviewed all the major players, local and international, involved in the Singapore shoot, a location where there was no local film industry; Jack still is the only U.S. film shot entirely in Singapore. Slater currently sells copies of the impressive book directly; if you’re interested, contact him at gonetopersia@gmail.com.  Just last year, Bill Teck did similar righteous work bringing the story of the making of They All Laughed to life in his intimate documentary One Day Since Yesterday, available from Warner Archives on DVD.  Scorpion Releasing has itself done well in its release of Jack; Laughed received a quality DVD release a decade ago, and is overdue for a Blu-Ray release of its own.

To again paraphrase the Bard, “shaping fantasies” such as Jack and Laughed apprehend something more than “cool reason” could ever comprehend. Give them a chance.

2 thoughts on ““I Have a Jest to Execute, that I Cannot Manage Alone”: Peter Bogdanovich’s SAINT JACK and THEY ALL LAUGHED

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