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From the Wire: Bogdanovich's Card File

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by Matt Singer
March 29, 2013 1:30 PM
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"The Shop Around the Corner."

In 1952, a twelve-year-old film fan named Peter Bogdanovich started keeping track of every single movie he watched on 4x6 index cards. He continued the practice for almost two decades, until shortly after production of his second feature, "The Last Picture Show." By that point, Bogdanovich's card file contained thousands of entries -- many of them revised multiple times as he watched and rewatched the films he enjoyed.

Bogdanovich stopped updating the card file in 1970, but he didn't get rid of it, and since last year, he's been sharing parts of it on his Indiewire blog Blogdanovich -- which, I think we'll all agree, is the greatest blog name in the history the Internet. So far he's posted his files for directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock; currently he's making his way through his Ernst Lubitsch File. Here are the contents of the index card on Lubitsch's 1939 film "Ninotchka," with comments from Bogdanovich in 1962, 1966, and 2013:

NINOTCHKA (1939; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1962: (Not Lubitsch's best, but still a delightful and wonderfully done comedy romance about the coming-to-bloom of a lady Soviet agent during an assignment in Paris, where she meets a charming white Russian. Garbo has never been better --- indeed it is her most personable performance --- and she receives fine support from the other actors.)

Added 1966: Very good (A trifle too long perhaps, and not as personal as a good many other Lubitschs, but still a very lovely film, handsomely done, well written, and not dated --- surprising for a picture with so many political jokes.)

Added 2013: The film's initial release was marketed with the slogan, "Garbo Laughs," and indeed that scene is a remarkable highlight in the de-icing of a cool lady Communist. Greta Garbo is really wonderful all the way through, kidding her own image of stoic despair. If the last act is not quite as funny as the first two-thirds, it is still an utter delight.

For film nerds born after 1990, who don't remember life before the IMDb, Bogdanovich's files gives you a great taste of what cinephilia was like before computers. If you wanted to know who directed something, or what year a movie came out, there were certainly books and some magazines you could  -- but if you wanted the information instantly at your fingertips, you had to keep that information yourself. It was a very different time.

I also admire the way Bogdanovich reassesses films -- his take on "Ninotchka" brightens with each successive viewing -- and the way the cards allow for multiple opinions to exist side-by-side. The 1966 comments don't replace the 1962 ones; they enhance them. Some film lovers never want to admit that they might have gotten a movie wrong (or even that they've changed their mind about something). Bogdanovich's system gets it right.

Now movie geeks have endless ways to keep movie journals online; I'm quite fond of the new website Letterboxd, which I use in a similar fashion to Bogdanovich's card file (and which also allows you to revise your reviews and ratings). Sites like Letterboxd make it easy to do what was once an extremely difficult labor of love.

Read more of "THE LUBITSCH FILE - Part 1" and "Part 2."

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