Rightwing Film Geek

Against inclusiveness

My expectations for THE NATIVITY are hereby lowered. From a commenter at Barbara’s (she was underwhelmed herself), here’s what the director said at the Vatican premiere.

“There were some things he (Gibson) did that maybe were a little controversial. We wanted our film to be uniting and make the public see the similarities between religious instead of the differences.”

— Director Catherine Hardwicke

Sorry, but I prefer my religion true, which is to say sectarian (error has no rights, etc.). Further, why would anyone think that the Nativity story is a particularly good vehicle for ecumenism. If you take away Who this is … there’s nothing interesting here, except a generic tale of a family fleeing a nasty dictator or the birth of a (possibly) cute baby. Why should the Three Wise Men give gifts and pay homage to *this baby,* say, unless he’s distinguished from other babies in some unique way? What would the urgency be that *this baby* escape Herod’s wrath, etc.

What’s so special here, in other words, if Christianity isn’t true in some privileged sense denied to other religions? And, in the words, of THE INCREDIBLES … if everyone’s special then nobody is. But if this baby is somehow different, then religions aren’t similar.

November 28, 2006 Posted by | Catherine Hardwicke, Religion in movies | Leave a comment

Life inspires life


If the art didn’t exist, life couldn’t have inspired life — I think that’s the point.

Last week, I watched an old (1991) Bill Kurtis documentary on the movies and copy-cat crimes, on one of the history/documentary channels. I started retching at the end, with all the talk of “positive role models” and whatnot. Still, there were plenty of examples, and I don’t think it’s possible to deny that violent images encourage violent behavior, however mediated.

But one example was really very very VERY ill-chosen. Jaw-droppingly ill-chosen. There was a whole segment devoted to a French-Belgian couple who bilked people selected from lonely-hearts ads out of their money and killed them. They were supposedly inspired by the movie THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. Except … that the film follows a true story, even giving the characters the same names as their real-life counterparts. How can you blame life on art, when that art imitated life in the first place?

November 28, 2006 Posted by | Documentary | Leave a comment

TCM Underground


Speaking of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, I’m looking forward to seeing it for the first time next weekend, Dec. 8, when it plays as part of a new feature on Turner Classic Movies — TCM Underground. Hosted by Rob Zombie, the weekly late-night Fridays feature, shows cult, low-budget and exploitation films. Jim Ridley might think it hopelessly passe (its first week was an Ed Wood double feature), but, as a non-grindhouse fan, I’m enjoying the opportunities it gives to expand the notion of what Quality is.

A few weeks ago, I watched a Russ Meyer double feature of MUDHONEY and FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL — an experience I’ll never forget. Never have I seen such skill and (frankly) love, devoted to such obviously prurient hokum (some truly brilliant and brilliantly-directed sequences in MUDHONEY aside). But partly because Meyer has long been left behind in the explicitness sweepstakes, I found both films really worthwhile, despite being considered porn in their time, the mid-60s. I once wrote the following about Billy Wilder (who made a C-for-Condemned movie at about the same time) that I think applies to Meyer:

Wilder was the director who best straddled the Production Code era and its collapse. He had the craft and professionalism of the studio era without its oft-absurd comstockery of not showing toilets or having to have Lucy say she’s “expecting.” Here, in Wilder, is the director who handles bawdy subject matter … without collapsing into American Pie territory or pomo decadence, who shows that double entendres are most fun when they were kinda naughty—neither unspeakable nor all-too-speakable.

November 28, 2006 Posted by | Russ Meyer | Leave a comment

More offense for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan

BoratHeadBorat apparently already has caused one breakup — Pamela and Kid Rock or whatever rock star she was doing that week. And speaking of morally dubious pleasures, here are some ideas for extras on the DVD for BORAT, from the “New Yorker,” though I’m guessing the writer didn’t like the film as much as I did.

“GANGSTA” SECTION: The scene where Borat says something intentionally offensive to the inner-city black guys—where is that scene? I have been unable to find it. Here I definitely suggest a reshoot. In the attachment, I have provided a list of common racial slurs that Sacha could try out on “the brothers,” just to see what they do to him. My thought is, that seems to be the ethos of the rest of the film—i.e., Sacha saying/doing the most offensive things possible, in order to elicit a reaction—so I sense a little inconsistency here. Thoughts?

PENTECOSTAL SECTION: The scene where those wacky Pentecostals offer to take Borat into their homes, as Jesus would have done, and as, in fact, per Josh, many of them actually did? And also, didn’t they, like, take up a collection on Sacha/Borat’s behalf or something? Guess they really walk the walk! This moving-in-with-some-Pentecostals would be good, especially if, once in their home, Sacha could mock one of their children for, say, his/her overly prim table manners. That would really go a long way toward puncturing the sanctimonious posturing of the neocons.

November 28, 2006 Posted by | Sacha Baron Cohen | Leave a comment

♫ On the first day of The Exclusionary Offensive Holiday ♫

When Christians talk about a “War on Christmas,” THIS kind of crap is what we mean …

CHICAGO (AP) — A public Christmas festival is no place for the Christmas story, the city says.
Officials have asked organizers of a downtown Christmas festival, the German Christkindlmarket, to reconsider using a movie studio as a sponsor because it is worried ads for its film “The Nativity Story” might offend non-Christians.
New Line Cinema, which said it was dropped, had planned to play a loop of the new film on televisions at the event.

Now, let’s be crystal-clear what we’re talking about. We’re NOT talking about a permanent monument. We’re NOT even really talking about an act by the government itself. No. We’re talking about the government telling a private group the terms under which it has access to public space. (Maybe the German festival organizers should rename themselves the Ku Klux Klan — then they’ll get the ACLU to be solicitous of them.)

Also, we’re NOT talking about legislation favoring one religion. We’re NOT even talking about prayers at a secular event like Memorial Day or a high-school graduation. No. We’re talking about a specifically religious holiday with a specifically religious meaning.

And, finally, what is supposedly offensive is NOT someone yelling verses from Leviticus at the Gay Pride Parade or staging the Oberammergau Passion Play or playing the security tape from the bar where Borat and Mel Gibson tied on a few. We’re talking about showing a movie that is about *exactly* the event the festival is supposed to about (i.e., “Christkindl,” which I think is German for “Christ-child”¹).

What this IS is a clear case. It is not a close call. Sure, the state hasn’t actually forbidden anything. Merely made its opinion known to the organizers. The term for this is “chill,” one that free-speech liberals understand quite well when the subject is, let’s say, libel law or restrictions on political speech or reporting.

And for what end? … to de-religionize a private party’s actions with respect to a religious holiday. Like a St. Patrick’s Day with no reference to St. Patrick, or a Thanksgiving with no reference to the Pilgrims (although neither of those examples are actually THAT much beyond what has already gone on). It’s just knee-jerk burbling for anyone to say there is no war against Christmas, no attempt to cleanse Christianity from the public sphere, however successful. The degree of success this war is having or whether it’s a good or bad thing … those things we CAN debate meaningfully. But that there is a broad-based assault is not a serious topic any more.

Here’s the question I immediately asked myself when I saw this story on the newswires.

An executive vice president with New Line Cinema, Christina Kounelias … said she finds it hard to believe that non-Christians who attended something called Christkindlmarket would be surprised or offended by the presence of posters, brochures and other advertisements of the movie.
“One would assume that if (people) were to go to Christkindlmarket, they’d know it is about Christmas,” she said.

One would assume that. And in a sane world, one could. If you’re of such delicate sensibilities as to be offended by THE NATIVITY STORY, a real city official or jurist would laugh in your face, ask “what the colorful are you doing at an event called ‘Christ-Child Festival’,” and tell you to “get a frickin’ life.”

But no. In these interesting times where even the dumbest and most paranoid and self-righteous have the right to become “ACLU clients,” such a response who invite municipal ruin. Government officials nationwide, based on how the courts have set up the incentive structures, are now well-trained to think doubleplusgood-thought: Christianity = “controversial”; other religions = “celebrate our diversity.”
UPDATE 1: Dom actually has the best analogy, better than the Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day ones I could come up with last night.

That’s like holding a D-Day commemoration on June 6 and banning a poster for the movie “Saving Private Ryan” because it might offend pacifists.

UPDATE 2: Jeff in the comment field noted a fight over the divisive symbol of cemetery crosses in “Baghdad by the Bay” (Hey … them’s his words. He live there.)

I note from the San Francisco Chronicle he linked to, the following lead.

Scores of emotionally charged citizens praised and denounced Lafayette’s controversial display of stark white crosses during a City Council meeting Monday that filled every seat in the chamber and lasted more than 2 1/2 hours.

As I say … “Christianity=controversial” … stated as a fact in a news story lead. Still, ya gotta love the fact that here’s one example of liberals finding crosses an acceptable thing to show in public space.
UPDATE 3: Here’s something from the same festival, taken by Amy Welborn when she was there in 2003.


What jackanapery. Apparently, that’s NOT going to offend anyone. It’s just a celebration of our diversity, etc. As someone in Dom’s comment field said: I wonder why during cities’ observances of Ramadan, there are no ‘equal time” crosses and menorahs.
¹ I think, but I’m not sure. I was too busy in grad-school studying Hegel’s “Zeitgeist” and Heidegger’s “Seinsvergessenheit” to get to the really difficult German translation issues like “Christkindl.”

November 27, 2006 Posted by | Religion in society | Leave a comment

Hier sitze ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir

I spent a large chunk (and I do mean “large chunk”) of yesterday surfing around what has to be the greatest similar act of conceptual genius in the world of film criticism since Vern (even though I don’t know how many in the world of film criticism will get how funny this site is … Donna?)

martin_lutherLadies and gentlemen, I present … Luther at the Movies. No, not Mr. Campbell. Brother Martin, the Augustinian monk who went a bit funny in the head in his later years.

Now even though Herr Luther should have been burned at the stake in 1521, the tough old bird has taken up a new profession — film criticism, where he is much better than as a theologian (he also appears to be a boxing fan and doesn’t like the French … yeah¹). He doesn’t have a Top 100 Movies of All-Time, he has a Top 95 Movies of All-Time, and he has Luther’s style down pat here, for just one example.

In fact, those are the ideal tests. If you don’t get that joke and that post, you won’t find Luther at the Movies as funny as I did. But if you did, mosey on over for the endless garden of earthly delights, similar to those pleasures in the name of which Herr Heretic spat on his holy vow of celibacy.

Some of my other favorite posts at the Lutherische Kirche des Kinos:

Orson Welles is the greatest of directors because he’s fat and a German expressionist.

AMERICAN DREAMZ demonstrates the Lutheran theology of the two kingdoms.

● His priceless review of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and his takes on his takes on Biggest Hollywood Disasters makes Luther sound like a soulmate of mine, if only he would abandon his church-rending pride for his true home in the one, holy Catholic church.

● Luther ventures into literary criticism and the job hunting market.

On a not-so-happy German note: I found out yesterday that I’m among the “englisch” film links at the German film site Jump Cut. But then I read how the link described me “Unless you can’t even spell the word ‘liberal,’ you will hate the lad quickly.” Well, Jump Cut, in the spirit of Herr Luther, your weak attempts at wit are mere blows of asswind before the Lord’s work that I do.
¹ There’s a little part of me, based on this post, that wishes, hopes, that “Luther” is actually Father Neuhaus. There are frequent references to a “miserable assistant” who is Anthony Sacramone of First Things (more likely “Luther” is Sacramone himself).

November 25, 2006 Posted by | "Martin Luther" | Leave a comment

Betty Comden 1915-2006


ComdenGreenOne of the last links to the great MGM musicals died today. Betty Comden co-wrote the lyrics and scripts to SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, ON THE TOWN, and THE BANDWAGON, among others. She did other work, both in Hollywood and on Broadway, most co-credited with Adolph Green. But just those three titles are enough — quite possibly the three greatest musical films ever made.

Auteurship is sometimes difficult to unpack quickly, and the obit quotes Comden herself as saying that she and Green worked very catch-as-catch-can rather than having precisely defined permanent roles (like say, Elton John’s music and Bernie Taupin’s words). But here are two numbers that can primarily be attributed to Comden, plus the only one I can find quickly from THE BANDWAGON. (Yeah, I’ve learned to use YouTube, and now I’m worrying about the Rule of Three.™)

The opening number “New York, New York” from ON THE TOWN

What struck me when I first saw ON THE TOWN was how the song just made the movie burst onto the screen (helped no doubt by counterpoint with the preceding moments of a lethargic “yawn” song). It was the exuberance spilling off the screen as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munchin took this impossible tour. I’ll also never forget the shock of seeing the cabbie and thinking “is that Irene Lorenzo and Mrs. Babish. It was — and she and her relationship with Munchin, the least-known of the three sailors, was the comic heart of the film.

And “Moses Supposes” from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN:

There’s a tendency, even in the very best musicals, to skrimp on the script. A big part of what elevated RAIN and WAGON was having good stories. Light, frothy, comic stories of show-biz, of course (in fact, the notion of Tragic High Art is deliberately mocked in both), and they wouldn’t be the masterpieces they are without their music. But the stories still generally stand up, and the very fact they’re about show-biz acclimates the musical’s conventions and also makes them feel “real.”

Some silent-film scholars slam on SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN as responsible for a number of myths about silent movies, that the stars had voices as bad as Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont, or that the early sound films were as bad as the test version of “The Dueling Cavalier.” Taken too literally, SINGIN’ would do that. But refracted and adjusted for the conventions of musical comedy, it’s accurate enough. “Moses Supposes,” for example, has fun with the convention of elocution coaches, which WERE a fad in the early days of the talkies that fed off the stage convention that a British accent was a mark of sophistication.

And here’s the melancholy wordless “Dancing in the Dark” number from THE BANDWAGON:

This clip doesn’t really belong to Comden artistically of course, but the tone of the number, which also suffuses her script with its fading old star (Fred Astaire) having a last hurrah, but then who-knows-what, is what I want to convey about THE BANDWAGON. It’s a much more melancholy film than either of the other two, and according to Roger Ebert, it wasn’t a happy shoot, for a variety of reason.

Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant in THE BANDWAGON are playing slightly fictionalized versions of Comden and Green, and Ebert points out that their frustrations in the film belong to their creators. The Supreme Court-weakened studios were in their twilight in 1953, with TV coughing offstage, ready to take over the lead role in the drama of the nation’s entertainment. “There are no auteurs in musical pictures,” Stanley Donen once said. And more than any other genre, musicals depended on the studio-factory approach, of having a stable of songwriters, lyricists, singers who could act, actors who could dance, cheoreographers, etc. Since THE BAND WAGON, most of the great or famous movie musicals have been imported into Hollywood direct from Broadway.

CamilleComdenI’ve mentioned both Betty Garrett and Nanette Fabray, who began their careers in Hollywood musicals and studio second-bananas and went on to TV and do the same there, providing texture and detail to some important 70s sitcoms. They were exemplars of something about the decline of pop culture in the last 15 years or so that Camille Paglia said at an AEI talk I went to last year, something made more poignant and highlighted by the passing of Comden, one of the surviving figures from the classic era of the movie musical.

There’s less interest now in the traditional forms of popular culture and mass media. There’s a slapdash quality. If you compare the quality of TV sitcom scripts from the late ’90s or even now to the quality of scriptwriting in the great period of TV sitcoms in the 1960s and ’70s like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the quality of performance, the tightness with which the script is done, the way everybody is on their mark. You’re still seeing in that period the influence of live performing arts and vaudeville.
The whole tradition of live theater once fed early Hollywood and early TV for a very long time. In 1920s and ’30s Manhattan, when there were hundreds of theaters, people could just come right from Iowa, Connecticut or wherever and get a job and watch and learn and absorb and so on. You could go into a vaudeville house in any provincial city and a guy would say, “OK, I’ll give you a chance, let’s see what you can do, kid. Go out there.” And you could do things like that. Now, today, kids can’t even afford to get into a Broadway show.

November 23, 2006 Posted by | Betty Comden, Musicals | Leave a comment

Overheard at the theater (or real-life IDIOCRACY scene)

One of my grad-school colleagues developed what he humorously called, and which became a bit of shorthand, “Old’s First Rule of Politics,” (His last name was Old. Still is, I guess.) Anyway, Old’s First Rule of Politics was “the people are stupid.”

Here is a conversation between two people, as related to me by a co-worker. Woman 1 and Woman 2 are both in their late 20s, in the bathroom after watching FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS at a Georgetown theater.

So, like, that movie was so depressing
That was, like, during World War 2, right?
Yeah, I think so. It was like 1937, wasn’t it?
Something like that. But I’ve never understood why we were in Japan
I think it had something to do, like, with the Japanese invading Hawaii or something
I so have to go home and look this stuff up on the Internet.

My co-worker’s words: “It made me want to weep.” I blame Old’s First Rule. Or Mike Judge.

November 22, 2006 Posted by | Humor | Leave a comment

Great Japanese highlights

There’s the lengthy pan inside the hut near the end of UGETSU MONOGATARI.

There’s the long-haired beauty Asami turning toward the camera in the bedroom near the point where AUDITION “breaks.”

There’s the dead-soundtrack assault on the castle in RAN.

There’s the smiling face of Setsuko Hara in TOKYO STORY.

And then there’s this:

… which is not only the most important Celtic goal in years, but also so obviously awesome that it was #1 on the Top 10 plays on ESPN’s SportsCenter early this morning.

But my most important question is — is Nakamura a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist? Good thing Pat Buchanan doesn’t read this sight — he’d see that clip and complain that it proves the Japanese won’t rest until they take away EVERY job that used to belong to the Irish Catholics.

UPDATE: Forgot to explain what makes this goal important. It got a 1-0 victory over Manchester United, which ensured that Celtic advanced into the knockout stage of the Champions League. It’s the “next step” in the return of Celtic (and Scottish soccer generally; Rangers did the same last year) to Europe-wide respect after some pretty lean years in the 90s.

And in the interest of equal time for the Proddy-dogs, I will note that Rangers got a 2-2 draw in France against Auxerre, ensuring that they would advance into the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup.

November 22, 2006 Posted by | Soccer | Leave a comment

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Actors loved Robert Altman. When he died earlier today, the tributes came pouring in from his thespians. From Meryl Streep:

“Bob’s restless spirit has moved on. I have to say, when I spoke with him last week, he seemed impatient for the future. He still had the generous, optimistic appetite for the next thing, and we planned the next film laughing in anticipation of the laughs we’d have.”

From Tim Robbins:

He’s “a great friend and inspiration to me since I had the honor of meeting him in 1990. His unique vision and maverick sensibilities in filmmaking have inspired countless directors of my generation and will continue to inspire future filmmakers.”

From Elliot Gould:

Altman’s legacy would “nurture and inspire filmmakers and artists for generations to come … He was my friend and I’ll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me.”

From Tom Skerritt:

“No one can match the sense of joy in filmmaking he gave. I’m sure others who’ve shared the Altman experience have longed for an experience the equal of what Bob gave us, that only Bob could give us.”

Regardless of how good or bad Altman’s movies turned out to be, the first thing you notice about them is that he habitually assembled dream casts (sometimes they actually got away from him), because he made the kinds of “actors’ films” that everyone wanted to be in. An Altman film wasn’t something an actor did for money (Altman didn’t have those kinds of budgets). For one measure of how much actors loved him, consider that Cher agreed to wear red, which she famously never does in real-life, so she could appear in a cameo as herself in Altman’s triumphant early-90s “comeback” film THE PLAYER. Neve Campbell even returned to her girlhood love and, after a tutu-free decade, retrained and refashioned herself into a passable ballet dancer (at least for the eyes of a nonspecialist like myself; not so much someone like Missy) in order to make THE COMPANY with Altman.

Even a middling or downright poor Altman film will have its moments. That’s what being a lover of actors will do. More films are saved from outright worthlessness by an inspired performance or a “holy moment” from an actor than by any other element of the cinematic art.

I hated GOSFORD PARK, but Maggie Smith was wonderfully tart as a Feisty Old Biddy epitomizing the British aristocracy. Judi Densch plays the same role every time, but seldom with the wonderful dottiness and cheerful girlish ridiculousness that Dame Maggie had in GOSFORD PARK (both have the imperious importance and sheer force of personality). I also hated READY-TO-WEAR, but there was one genuinely great scene — of Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren reprising the famous striptease they had done 30 years earlier in DeSica’s YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW (could any woman other than Loren convincingly play a sex-bomb at 60). With a twist. THE COMPANY was pretty good overall but it had a least one great scene — the rain dance — and a memorable character turn by Malcolm McDowell as the world’s biggest ham in a profession full of them. DR. T AND THE WOMEN was wildly uneven and finally petered out, but there was one moment, a fleeting gesture that if you blink, you miss. But like the girl on the ferry for Mr. Bernstein in CITIZEN KANE, it has never left my head. Altman gives us a lengthy track through a kids party, and the family Hispanic maid is trying to cope with all of them. At the side of the frame, she suddenly grabs a glass of champagne and quickly douses her thirst and her frustration with a sigh, an eye roll and a forehead filled with relief.

DR. T (I’m deliberately picking a noncanonized film) also showed another of Altman’s strengths. He really got the texture of Dallas down quite well (although not without some really nasty sarcasm, one of Altman’s downsides): the ritzy malls and upper-class neighborhoods are spot-on; the way the city has made an industry out of JFK conspiracy-mongering; the sudden, violent downpours; the “style” of the pill-and-booze-sodden upper-class Texas society women played by Laura Dern and Farrah Fawcett, defined by rituals as precise as the 100 families in Edith Wharton’s New York. Whether it was a Chicago ballet troupe in THE COMPANY or the L.A. suburbs in SHORT CUTS, he successfully “Altmanized” every world that he chose to film.

Altman was thus one of those directors both in and out of the Hollywood mainstream. Actors loved him but studios didn’t, because he was so insistent in doing things his way and never “went along to get along” when he thought, rightly or wrongly, that a studio or producer treated him badly. He was nominated for five Oscars as best director, but, though he did get an honorary Oscar for career achievement earlier this year, he never won, tying him with Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor and Clarence Brown for the unwanted honor of “Most Often a Bridesmaid.” Apparently, he was being treated for cancer at the time and knew that PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, which was in the can for a release several weeks later, was probably going to be his last film. Indeed, if the time lines in the later-run obituaries are correct, he knew this while he was making the film. Garrison Keillor got bulldozed about the subject of this PHC, which is about a theater’s final show before its scheduled closing and is suffused with images of death, passing and obsolescence, closing with several actors looking into the camera as a Death Angel asks “Who’s Next.”

But his masterpiece is IMHO unquestionably NASHVILLE. What sets it apart is that it’s both dense AND sprawling — in its sound mix, in its performances and in the way the individual moments and characters add up. It’s also *filled* with those kind of holy moments that Altman specialized in creating. I’ll never forget the scene of David Carradine seducing Lily Tomlin with his voice, singing “I’m Easy” while she looks numbed into the camera, moved beyond moving. Then comes the morning after. Gwen Welles’ attempts to be a singer were lump-in-the-throat inducing, between the mixture of her pathetic voice and sincere, loving personage. It made her final gesture of contempt to her audience curiously moving and not the snarkfest that it might have been if mishandled (cf. the dog-shit or the final scene in READY-TO-WEAR).

NASHVILLE is, most distinctively of all, a triumph of architecture — it has the most unexpectedly perfect epic film structure I’ve ever seen. The film seems so jumbled for so long, just seeming to follow 24 characters that share nothing but a setting and a few glancing commonalities, like ships passing in the night. And then the last scene happens and we see what structure the film had been following all along. We had seen a real community in its very creation before it even knew it existed. Wow.

In fact, NASHVILLE may be among the most influential American movies of its era. It was the first big American studio movie to have the apparently-unconnected-but-really-connected narrative structure (that I can think of anyway — Altman’s previous films had mostly been exercises in would-be genre deflation). You can see NASHVILLE’s influence most clearly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (more influenced by SHORT CUTS, obviously — Altman has used the NASHVILLE-structure several times since 1975) and Krzysztof Kieslowksi’s THREE COLORS trilogy, plus such recent award-garlanded or garlanded-to-be films as CRASH, TRAFFIC, BOBBY and BABEL.

In it dense sound mix, lack of a central protagonist, frequent musical numbers, and nonlinear and (apparently) unconnected narrative, NASHVILLE also anticipated the aesthetics of channel-surfing (it even starts out like a 70s TV show ad) and of multimedia net-surfing, long before any of those terms meant anything.

The Altman style from NASHVILLE also profoundly affected American television drama. In the years since NASHVILLE, there have been a score of large-cast ensemble dramas united by location or occupation more than by a single central character — think of LA LAW, HILL STREET BLUES, E.R. Large-cast “town” or “occupation” shows had existed before of course. But they had tended to consistently focus on one character or the same small group of characters rather than have a bunch of approximately equal characters with shifting focus from week-to-week. Also, they tended to have more tightly-focused plots, resolved in an episode, rather than the Altman-influenced technique of having “this week’s” plot off to the side, with the real point being how the characters interact and change over serialized time rather than episode time.

What Altman was probably best known for, style-wise, was what became known as “Altman dialogue.” It was present at the very beginning — in MASH — and at the very end — in PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. It involved people speaking in incomplete sentences or fully-understood fragments, finishing one another’s sentences, talking over one another, having simultaneous conversations — all in one sound mix. This had been done before somewhat (early Orson Welles comes to mind), but never with the extensiveness and conviction that Altman had. When Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin presented Altman with his Lifetime Oscar, they gave a clinic in how to do it. It’s the most eloquent tribute imaginable to a film artist and it was the high point of last year’s show.


I can’t pretend that I’m the world’s biggest Altman fan myself. I am not, for reasons not really worth rehearsing on this day. But even at 80 in works like A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (where Streep and Tomlin play with that style to just as great effect), Altman was still capable of lighting a fire under young cinephiles who could see, even in his IMHO relatively mediocre works, that Altman was a director worth caring about. Who made his films his way and created through a recognizable world, all his own. That came to me earlier today, when, on a film buff’s discussion board, 26-year-old Brett Buckalew of FilmStew.com said (quoted with permission):

Whenever I re-watch any of his films–and I was fortunate enough to catch PRAIRIE HOME four times before it left theatres–I always at some point have the excited thought in the back of my mind that sometime soon, I’ll get to take yet another trip into his immaculately designed, complexly human universe. No longer, and though I’m a fan of the younger filmmakers who’ve used his influence to form their own particular voices, there sure as hell will never be a replacement.

That ultimately may be the most important thing. Even apart from the specifics of his films, Altman himself was an inspiring figure — the man who made the movies he wanted. The lead quote in the early versions of the Associated Press obits was from the last Oscars, where Altman accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award:

No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop.

This isn’t to say his career didn’t suffer for it, or that he didn’t endure several significant spans in the commercial and critical wilderness. But he stuck to his guns, made the movies he wanted, in the way he wanted to. And that’s inspiring no matter what age you are.

November 21, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment