Rightwing Film Geek

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.

http://www.video.simplystreepmedia.com/view/180/78th-annual-academy-awards-2006/

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

Good night … and good luck

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PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman, USA, 2006) — 6

Ten minutes into the movie, I was mentally climbing up the wall, convinced I was watching another Altman snark-fest turkey. Kevin Kline is playing the clueless investigator who isn’t quite there — like Geraldine Chaplin in NASHVILLE and Stephen Fry in GOSFORD PARK. He is named Guy Noir, in case the voiceover of “hard-bitten dialog” like “the show had been running since Jesus was in the third grade,” the Edward Hopper diner and the rainswept night streets weren’t enough to clue you in. You also get the line “Midwesterners think if you ignore bad news, it’ll go away.” (Ick.) And jokes about the call letters WLT. (Groan.) Given my known dislike for Garrison Keillor and “Prairie Home Companion,” I was ready for a miserable experience.

But I began to turn around at a precise moment … when Virginia Madsen entered the screen, very quickly obvious as an angel of death (I was actually kind of annoyed when PRAIRIE made that explicit). As a curvaceous woman clad in a long white coat, Madsen’s iconography was so precisely the opposite of Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL that it could not be coincidental. And, like Bengt Ekerot’s famous icon (or even Satan in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), she mostly (and for a while “only”) interacts with Kline, leaving the players to run through their performance, oblivious to her shadow hanging over everything. In other words, she’s an observer. And even though THE SEVENTH SEAL (which also was about performers) was my entree into PRAIRIE being about something other than sniggering at the rubes, the pretentious European art film I wound up thinking most about was Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE, which is about angels who can’t interact with the world and long to join it (WINGS also has a movie-star presence who can interact with the angels). Only here, the world (i.e., the show) is ending, so the question of the angels becoming men never comes up.

But then there’s the performers within the show. Lindsay Lohan is too pouty-little-emo-girl for my tastes, and Tommy Lee Jones is just playing a caricature of Brutal Texas Billionaire. But Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin proved that their mastery of Altman’s overlapping dialog style went beyond being the highlight of the Oscar night. They play two singing sisters, Ronda and Yolanda, with an ease and familiarity with each other, and their songs, and the stories that they know how to finish for each other. John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson play a couple of crusty cowboys with a flair for bad dirty jokes (if you can’t laugh at “Why do they call it PMS? Because ‘mad cow disease’ was already taken,” you’re a hopeless fuddy-duddy). The coda gets spine-tingling when Madsen returns to the diner and sees Keillor, Streep, Klein, Tomlin in a booth — and the drama ends with them looking into the camera, as if wondering which one the Angel of Death will take next.

So Altman’s PRAIRIE is obviously about death (what was so hard for Stanley Kauffmann to see about that?), but more than that, it’s about seeing God as one is on the brink. Madsen assures us that “every sparrow is remembered”: a very specific allusion to perhaps the most famous Gospel verse on the breadth of God’s Providence, Matthew 10:29. Several of the songs are overtly religious meditations on death –the invocation in “Goodbye to My Mama” of the new Jerusalem and being in Jesus’ arms; “In the Sweet Bye-and-Bye” and “Let Your Light Shine on Me” get sung (and Altman swells the latter up on the soundtrack at one particularly delicate moment). Even the film’s imperfections give it a kind of enfeebled dignity — think of the performance of “Arrayed for the Bridal” of John Huston’s THE DEAD; the whole film of PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is like that. It’s a postmodern version of that ol’-time religion, as if Altman is seeing the other side of the Jordan and accommodating himself to the Almighty in the only way he (tho’ not He) knows how.

Not that Altman sustains this mood; he’s too crass for that. There is a death scene that could only have been made more tasteless by being “in flagrante”; Altman insists on showing a pregnant woman’s belly, just to show how fearless he is; Reilly cries in a way so fake it would disgrace pro wrestling; and don’t think Altman doesn’t give us jokes about bodily functions. It’s Beavis & Butt-head without the ironic distance, i.e., from the boys’ own POV. So I don’t think the film is an unqualified success — Klein, the fart jokes, the inherent unfunniness (to me) of “Prairie Home Companion.” But since I’m generally not the biggest Altman groupie in the world, I liked this film a lot more than I had a right to. In other words, everything that was Keillor, that was “text,” I didn’t like. But everything that was Altman, that was “subtext” (plus the named performers) was fun or interesting or kinda moving in places.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

TIFF Day Six, first part (with grades from Days 9 and 10)

No time to write more than a couple of capsules right now, but first my grades for the final two days at Toronto (with one film from Day 6 I had forgotten about):

FREE RADICALS (Barbara Albert, Austria, 2003) — 3
CLOUDS OF MAY (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2000) — 5
THE MERRY WIDOW (Erich Von Stroheim, USA, 1925) — 7
THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES: PART 1 (Peter Greenaway, Britain, 2003) — 0
DALLAS 362 (Scott Caan, USA, 2003) — 9*
CONFESSION (Zeki Demirkubuz, Turkey, 2001) — 2
ZATOICHI (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 2003) — 7

*Best American film of the festival and does not (as of yesterday morning) have a distributor. This film could be an Indiewood smash if handled well. (What is it with the children of people involved with THE GODFATHER?)

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THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, USA, 2003, 6)

Fellow TIFF Geek (and roommate) Charles Odell said this film, about a season of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company, was Altman’s best since SHORT CUTS — an assessment with which I agree, but which means rather less coming from me than from him. Though his two masterpieces (NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER) mean I will never be wholly uninterested in him, Altman is just not one of my favorite directors. Still, this is obviously The Man doing what he does well, and that will be enough praise for some folks, and even semi-skeptics about Altman should try to check it out.

The ready comparison film is READY-TO-WEAR, Altman’s portrayal of the fashion industry, and the difference in tone is immediate and obvious. Yes, some of the hyperstylized ballet costumes look silly, but there’s a complete absence of the contempt and misanthropy that made the earlier film just so unpleasant to share a room with. With the director’s greatest weakness somewhat reined in (we still get some of those Lettermanesque end-the-shot punch lines), the movie is free to rock. Altman can do his characteristic overlapping, sound-mix-dependent dialog in his sleep, but the backstage setting and all the chaos that surrounds putting on a show of any kind means that here it feels fresh and appropriate.

Still, as always, he uses the ballet subject matter as a side-angle approach to his real concern — the relationships between the “ins” and the “outs” and the efforts of the latter group to become the former. There’s not much plot, and he handles the little there is in a rather perfunctory manner. Two or three threads threaten to take over the movie — the rehearsals, a backstage love affair — but never for long and as usual an Altman is weak in the narrative, but strong in a sense of place, and there are other compensating virtues — Malcolm McDowell performance as the company’s director is pure ham, but in the service of playing a ham.

For the second time this year, my lack of ballet knowledge gets in the way of judging one aspect of a movie with any confidence, but to my layman’s eye, star Neve Campbell did just fine (she certainly didn’t wreck the film by appearing untrained in a field of pro dancers) I won’t say there are definitely none, but I can say (sitting, jogging my memory a few days later) that I don’t recall a single cheap “ballet dancers are homos” joke. Which is good.

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LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE (Sylvain Chomet, France/Canada, 2003, 7)

A nice refreshing dousing with Perrier in the midst of a pretty sombre day. I had trepidations about this feature-length cartoon going into the festival, because of reputed America-bashing a la frog. There’s a little of that (the city of Belleville has some resemblance to New York and has a statue in the harbor that looks like the Statue of Liberty, only it’s fat and holding up a hamburger. But how insulting could such a joke be from the country that actually produced the Statue in the first place? More seriously, it’s just about three or four moments, and frankly they’re more than outweighed by the film’s jokes about All Things French (and how they’re crap). I mean, what’s not to love about a movie that features the French Mafia (demonstrating those famed Surrender Monkey martial virtues) missing every gunshot while using a fleet of 2-cylinder 1960s Citroens to chase a two-horse-drawn vehicle with no wheels … and losing.

TRIPLETTES begins with a TV show of a WW2-era trio of singers and their hit “Belleville Rendezvous,” the original title of the film. It then centers on three viewers, a boy who wants to be a cyclist, his implacable trainer-mother and their dog. During the Tour de France, some stuff happens and mom and dog have to rescue the now-adult boy from bondage in Belleville. It’s perfectly airy and silly, and is really just an excuse for a series of carefully set-up comic gags (there’s one that doesn’t pay off until after the closing credits).

TRIPLETTES also showcases a style of animation I’ve never quite seen before — a kind of retro-grunge Tex Avery. I’ve seen some French animation/comics in the past (BABAR, TINTIN, MADELINE, and the style of those pre-1960 movie posters), and TRIPLETTES seems to have some family resemblance (the flat 2-dimensionality of the animation e.g.) while also finding a new style (probably inspired by the Jeunet/Caro films like AMELIE and DELICATESSEN and the explicitly-acknowledged Jacques Tati films). This style, though it also owes something to Avery’s work at Looney Tunes, tends toward grotesquery, outsized caricature, elaborate gags, and outrageous and impossible physical movement.

I’m not sure how broad this movie’s appeal will be. Fun though it us, it clearly can’t appeal too broadly to American children, because, not only is its subject matter so alien, there’s almost no dialogue but a few lines of garble. It may be more intelligible in snatches to Francophones, but clearly there was nothing essential or requiring subtitling.

September 14, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment