George Hickenlooper's "Dogtown" rests in the long, lean shadow of Peter Bogdanovich's classic "Last Picture Show." Since Hickenlooper's substantial splash with his first release, "Hearts of Darkness," the documentary he co-directed about the making of "Apocalypse Now," the 33-year-old writer-director has made several films on low budgets and fast schedules, flying under the Hollywood radar.
In "Dogtown," Trevor St. John plays Philip, a young actor who returns to his Cuba, Missouri, hometown after flopping in Hollywood and becomes a minor celebrity -- as Hickenlooper did in St. Louis after "Hearts of Darkness." Philip's high-school friends have led lives as cockeyed as his, among them a hairdresser played by Mary Stuart Masterson, on whom he always had a crush; "Swingers"' Jon Favreau as Masterson's troubled boyfriend; and Rory Cochran as Favreau's equally messed-up co-worker.
Hickenlooper's work has a ruefulness, an appreciation for sorrow unusual for a contemporary young director. He dares the audience to appreciate the melancholy and disappointment in his characters' lives. "As long as I'm fortunate enough to continue to have my films financed I'm perfectly happy to continue making films at this level," Hickenlooper says. "I'm making the kind of films that I want to make. Of course, it would always be nice to deal with slightly larger budgets. If that happens, great. If not, that's fine, too."
Like Bogdanovich, the subject of his first film, "Picture This," a documentary about the making of "Texasville," Hickenlooper bows to an earlier generation of filmmaking. Where Bogdanovich drew on the studio product of the forties and fifties he grew up watching, Hickenlooper harks back to the late sixties and early seventies American renaissance. "My father would drive me to movies then. I saw `Wild Bunch,' which was pretty brutal for someone six or seven years old. `Last Picture Show.' `2001' was the first movie I saw on first release."
Although still a relatively unknown quantity, Hickenlooper sets his sights high: "It's those films that I aspire to, like John Schlesinger's `Midnight Cowboy,' Robert Altman's `Nashville.' Those films are true American classics. There's no filmmaker coming close to that level of cinema today. There's a lot of bad independent filmmaking [in which] the characters are contrived or the movie has some gimmick or hook that somehow is seen as an esthetic merit. A lot of movies that are ideologically and politically correct which are considered artistic triumphs, in reality are cinematic gimmicks."
What's best about working on a modest level, outside of those constraints? "Orson Welles said something like, the virtue of cinema lies in the strength of its limitations. On `Othello,' he had no money and felt he did his best work. On `Dogtown,' we had the luxury of two weeks of rehearsal. But we had to shoot quickly. When you have a lot of money, the brain tends to atrophy and a lot of larger movies seem to become self-indulgent because there's no strong point of view. When you have limited money? You have to have a strong point of view."