The Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon has officially begun! This piece is linked to Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door, which is Ground Zero for all items Altman-related this weekend. If you're interested in contributing a piece to the blog-a-thon, or if you just want to keep up on all the new pieces being added to Matt's list of links, keep an eye on Matt's site for updates as they happen. Matt also would like to encourage anyone who has any links to interesting Altman-related sites or other items to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org so he can feature those as well. Matt's own piece is scheduled to be posted today, That Little Round-Headed Boy has his Popeye analysis already up and running, and I know there are a plethora of other bloggers who have already posted or are struggling with their schedules in order to get articles posted throughout the weekend. (Matt has a preliminary list of links listed here to get you started.) As Matt has suggested, the rather loose schedule of posting-- whenever, whatever-- has ended up becoming an inadvertent tribute to the master director's own notoriously flexible and intuitive style and should result in some great reading-- something to do to fill up all that time before and after the presentation of Altman's honorary award on that TV show everybody's all in a lather about Sunday afternoon.
NOTE: This is part three of my personal retrospective on the films of Robert Altman, in honor of the director's 81st birthday and his upcoming honorary Oscar, to be presented during the telecast of the Academy Awards on March 5. You can access part 1 of this article by scrolling down this page or by clicking here. Part two of this article can also be found by scrolling down the page or by clicking here.
It's hard to fathom that there was a brief period in Hollywood history when a film by Robert Altman-- Popeye-- would be touted as a studio's big Christmas movie. But that's exactly what it was for Paramount in 1980, and it's not hard to imagine the suits turning themselves inside-out with worry over the film's prospects (and perhaps even their jobs) in the post-Star Wars/Superman marketplace. If we're to believe the Internet Movie Database (and at this late hour, why not?), the movie was budgeted at $20 million-- not exactly a cheap date, especially for Altman--but then again Heaven's Gate had opened just the month before and redefined box-office disaster, and every studio was now suddenly hypersensitive to the fallout from the notorious making and aborted release of that film.
Popeye went on to gross nearly $50 million, clearly not a Heaven's Gate-style debacle. Yet Altman's corrosive relationship with Paramount and producer Robert Evans, coupled with the movie's nearly unanimous negative reviews, ensured that the movie would be perceived and remembered as a much bigger financial flop than it actually was. Thanks to a convenient linguistic similarity that made good fodder for lazy headline writers and entertainment journalists, Popeye became known in some circles as Evans' Gate. (A solid and evenhanded accounting of Popeye's production can be found in Patrick McGilligan's book Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff.)
The making of Popeye and its subsequent "disappointing" box-office returns were the last straws for Hollywood regarding Robert Altman. He had been painted as a pain-in-the-ass for most of his career in Hollywood by a brush partially of his own making, and the skittishness and paranoia in the wake of Heaven's Gate helped make it easier for the already none-too-adventurous studios to sever their ties with the director. Conversely, Altman believed that Popeye was mishandled and underappreciated by Paramount executives (whose taste he didn't trust anyway), as well as by critics on whom he'd not been able to rely since the release of the none-too-highly-regarded Buffalo Bill and the Indians. It was a perfect opportunity for the maverick to sever ties with Hollywood as well, and retreat he did for the next 12 years-- roughly the length of the Reagan and Bush administrations-- remaining creative and always working on the films he wanted to work on, and on a scale that would not attract the harsh spotlight and bedeviled scrutiny of the corporate moneylenders. For Hollywood, Altman had disappeared into the wilderness, the dark forest of a low profile that made it easy for people who were perplexed and annoyed by him to forget he existed. (This, of course, also made it harder than ever for people who cared about his films, especially those residing somewhere other than in one of the major metropolitan areas, to see them.) For Altman, it would be a period of ups and downs, of creative recharging, and, wouldn't you know it, of almost constant work.
COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN (1982) After directing a TV movie called Two by South, Altman turned his vision toward a film of Ed Graczyk's critically lambasted play about the reunion of a society of James Dean fans in the town where Giant was filmed. The cast-- Sandy Dennis, Karen Black and, in her first dramatic performance, Cher-- would reunite from the disastrous Broadway production (which Altman directed) to appear in the film, and it was initially supposed that Altman's perverse streak still held sway-- few could imagine the film of a play considered so derivative and thuddingly written would be appreciably more bearable than it was on the stage. But the director worked a miracle with the film-- in fact, Pauline Kael equated him to a magician and suggested that, whatever one thought of the material Altman chose to engage, his artistry had inarguably outclassed Graczyk's hamfisted text. Shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm (a process that the director would repeat several times in the 1980s), the movie is a marvel of camera movement and devices of artifice (mirrors, false perspectives, overly theatrical monologues) used to illuminate and to disguise, to criticize and to empathize with the small-minded obsessions of these women and their desperate need for layers upon layers of secrets. And the film's flashbacks-- seen from "inside" the giant mirror hanging above the counter of the five-and-dime, with no tricks to make the actors appear young other than their own facility as performers-- may be among the best staging and ultimate use of this well-worn narrative device I've ever seen. Watching this film in a theater, just after having graduated from college, having spent so much time with Altman's films, and having come to the belief that the director's career was probably washed up (!), was, to put it mildly, a revelation. It was a perfectly odd kick-start to a period of films that would separate the true Altman enthusiast from the hanger-on who shows up only when the pendulum looks to be on an upswing (see The Player).
STREAMERS (1983) Altman's adaptation of David Rabe's prize-winning play about race and sexuality in an army barracks during the time of the Vietnam War is a film that I need to see again. My memory of it from my one theatrical showing-- I had it on VHS for years but never again revisited it-- is that it was a work of apparent integrity but one without the sense of the director stretching himself, as he did in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, to use his technique to amplify the meanings of the text, or in some instances create the meaning. My recollection is that Streamers is a rare film where Altman steps back a bit and lets the spoken words, Rabe's culturally sanctioned words, take center stage, which may be why I don't have as strong a sense of it as being an Altman film. I've no doubt that, upon a second viewing, it would be recogizable as such, but the impression it made on me was one in which I felt the director working just to be working-- the emotional connection I expected from Altman never sparked. I'd love nothing more than to see it again and have that experience invalidated.
SECRET HONOR (1984) I remember the Village Voice, in full moral offense mode, being appalled by Secret Honor. The reviewer for that standard-bearing paper felt that Altman, a cynical liberal whose style, attitude and recurring themes betray more than just a little awareness of and engagement with aspects of American life and culture that have been tainted by the lingering effects of the Nixon presidency, had somehow sold out with such a relatively sympathetic portrayal of the disgraced politician. (There was no value placed by the Voice at that time, I suppose, on bittersweet irony.) Objections by alternative weekly newspapers notwithstanding, it is the depth and resonance of Altman's work here, as a director of images as well as a facilitator of and collaborator with Philip Baker Hall as Nixon, that allows for such unlikely sympathy (not to be confused with absolution) and, even more surprising, empathy with the rage and paranoia of Richard Nixon in the film.
Employing University of Michigan students as a crew, and original stage director Robert Harders as "associate director," Altman reflects Hall's towering, flustered, hilarious and terrifying performance as Nixon with camerawork that, by turns solemnly, eerily and coolly, creeps about the set and takes in the details of Nixon's office like a distracted observer while the president rails against the Kennedys, Helen Gahagan Douglas, Kissinger and anyone else he can think of (and oh, yes, he thinks of plenty more), all punctuated by tumbler after tumbler of Chivas Regal. Secret Honor, filmed word-for-word, stammer for stammer, from the text of Donald Freed and Arnold Stone's play, posits a Nixon who would concoct, leak and implicate himself in the Watergate scandal in order to cover up a multitude of even more grievous political and moral sins, most of which originate from the bidding of the Bohemian Grove, a cadre of economic power brokers to whom Nixon genuflects as a paid lackey and perpetual outsider, tolerated and used but never accepted. Altman, to a large degree, turns the reins over to Hall's theatrically scaled performance, a strategy of deference to previous achievement with the text that I felt may have dampened Altman's approach in Streamers, but which provides plenty of grist for the vision mill here. And Hall is riveting. Yet his vocal rhythms and tics aren't meant to duplicate our image of Nixon-- this is not a feat of David Frye mimicry. Instead, we're offered a man who seems shrunken in on himself as the film begins, who constantly defies our attempts to settle into any kind of comfort or connect with him, who draws us in and makes us complicit in his madness as we observe him beginning to unravel. (Nixon, surrounded by a bank of TV monitors that keep an eye on the halls leading to his office and also provide us with multiple images of the man railing against his ghosts later in the film, is here seen forever fumbling with the simplest recording technology as he dictates to the unknown Roberto.)
But apart from the major work Hall turns in, and apart from the brilliant visual scheme of the film, which allows us to constantly examine Nixon as a man and as a component of his environment (all without egregiously "opening up" the play), Altman seals greatness in the film by turning the myth of destruction in on himself. The director draws a distinct parallel between this raving Nixon, holed up in an Oval Office that more resembles an underground bunker, and Robert Altman, once the toast of Hollywood in the afterglow of M*A*S*H, now a filmmaker without an industry, without a system of financing and distribution, railing against a system that thrives on product and routinely stifles creative impulses and artistic expression and has no place for someone who won't tell the powers that be what they want to hear. From the conflict wrought by this parallel rises a kind of empathy that is indeed unexpected, and even more powerful because of it. In Secret Honor, Altman looks the mortal enemy in the eye and sees a reflection that shakes him to his bones. It's easy to imagine the director, from the confines of the set on the campus of the University of Michigan, realizing this empathy and reluctantly embracing it, raising his fists in unifying rage with Hall's Nixon and joining him in a howl from the soul: "Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em!"
(Just a brief note of self-promotion: it has been my less-than-secret honor to have been a part of the creation of the subtitles and closed-captions on several DVD editions of Altman's films, specifically M*A*S*H, Nashville, A Wedding, Quintet, Pret-a-Porter, Gosford Park and the Criterion editions of Tanner '88 and Short Cuts. I usually had a partner in the creation of most of these subtitle and caption streams, but twice in my experience subtitling Altman's films I was lucky enough to be assigned the entire film to do on my own-- the first was, ecstatically enough, Nashville, one of the biggest challenges I've ever had in this work; the other was Criterion's recent edition of Secret Honor. Writing about film is wonderful, and I do it out of love for the medium and a desire to express myself, but when I get the chance to tear my hair out over a meaty, nutritious, tenaciously difficult project like Nashville or Secret Honor, that's when I really appreciate the opportunity to do what I get paid to do. )
THE LAUNDROMAT (1985) I remember seeing the promos for it on ABC-- an image of Carol Burnett peering through the glass of an opened front-loading dryer has stuck in my mind-- but I never got a chance to see this film. Anyone who has an old, flaky Betamax copy taped off the air and would like to contribute to my completist campaign concerning Altman's films is humbly encouraged to contact me.
FOOL FOR LOVE (1985) I saw this movie with an intriguing, volatile woman at the very beginning of what would be for us a very short-lived affair. Call it bad timing, if you will, but it struck me then as a more-than-a-little-heavy-handed-and-overwrought adaptation of what, according to my wife (the Sam Shepard fan in the household, and not she of the short-lived affair), is a very powerful play. The "star" power that served Altman so well in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean seems to subvert him here. Shepard is suitably insinuating, even as his own dialogue sounds at times beyond what he's capable of bringing to it as an actor, and not just as a stalwart and rugged literary Gary Cooper type. But I remember feeling embarrassed for Kim Basinger. I don't know if it's because I felt like she was out of her league, or whether Altman, with his claustrophobic staging and insistently close camerawork, left her too open for humiliation. (As a character, fair enough, but as an actress, I wouldn't expect or hope for that.) These are questions best left answered by another encounter with the film, one that perhaps will expand or illuminate the film for me, or perhaps even further dismantle it in my mind, but also surely one that can't help but be informed by the experience of the intervening 21 years and the blessings of relationships more successfully navigated and fulfilled than the one I was in when I first suffered through this film.
BEYOND THERAPY (1987) This is the first Altman film to receive a (BOMB) rating in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. (Any guesses as to what the other one is?) So when I finally got around to renting it-- its release coincided with my move from Oregon to Los Angeles, and in the shuffle I missed whatever brief theatrical engagement it had-- I was ready to work awfully hard to enjoy it. And I did enjoy it. I honestly thought Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Guest (in what seems like a dry run for his theatrical dandy from Waiting for Guffman) were delightful in it. Finding someone to concur, however, is a difficult proposition. I Googled the world over and found very few kind words for this movie. However, I did find some remarks from Christopher Durang, on whose play Altman's film was based, that didn't necessarily jibe with my experience of it, but which I thought were interesting enough to quote whole hog here. This is Christopher Durang on Altman's version of Beyond Therapy:
"A friend of mine who knew my play Beyond Therapy from Broadway saw the movie version and said, 'Well, it’s not much like the play. It’s sort of a jazz variation on the play.' Which is the nicest way of looking at it.
This film is based on my lighthearted 'comedy of manners and psychologists,' and it was directed by Robert Altman with a cast of wonderful actors: Jeff Goldblum, Julie Hagerty, Glenda Jackson, Tom Conti and Christopher Guest. Altman is a legendary director who has made many superb films – Nashville is my favorite, but there are many other ones of his I like and admire too. When he doesn’t make a good film, though, he goes very far off sometimes – and this was a very unhappy experience and outcome.
Altman wrote his own adaptation of the play before I even started to write mine – which certainly wasn’t the agreement. Then I wrote mine, which he pretty much ignored. And he was hurt I didn’t like his version. Eventually I requested that we have a shared credit (since his version still had chunks of the original play in it), and I secretly hoped that the actors would improvise a lot, as was known to happen in Altman films. However, the finished film is pretty close to what Altman wrote. His version, in my opinion, throws the psychological underpinnings out the window, and people just run around acting 'crazy.'
I think the play would have made a good commercial comic film if the track-able psychology from the play had been kept, as well as more of the play’s dialogue.
Plus the movie lost me when Jeff Goldblum started sucking Julie Hagerty’s toes in the restaurant in the first five minutes. Unpleasant, unlikely to do in a restaurant, and the action told you that you were in a fake world."
Sounds like another look at Beyond Therapy might be a good idea too.
O.C. AND STIGGS (1987) I dragged two pals of mine out to see this when it played for one week in some theater in Century City, and I'll always be grateful to them for indulging my Altman mania to this degree. (One, Blaaagh, knew of O.C. and Stiggs from their literary origins; the other, Mark, alas, did not.) I loved Altman's O.C. and Stiggs when I saw it then, and the next week too, when I endured a gathering rainstorm at a drive-in in Chatsworth to catch it on the bottom half of a double bill with Whoopi Goldberg in some abomination called Fatal Beauty. (Uh, yeah...).
As a fan of the National Lampoon story on which the movie was based, "The Utterly Monstrous, Mind-Roasting Summer of O. C. and Stiggs," I realized the movie was somewhat watered down and far less politically incorrect (though no less obnoxious) than the original text. But that didn't prevent me from enjoying it completely on its own level. (I'm not sure I could stomach a literal translation to film of that story anyway-- its grotesque humor is best left sifted and processed in the privacy of the mind.) My favorite comment about the movie, and a more perfect capsulization of O.C. and Stiggs I've never read, came from the L.A. Weekly, whose reviewer, in recommending the film, described it as a giddy cross-pollination of Animal House and Nashville which, if you can imagine such a mutant, is a perfectly apt description. Altman depicts the suburban Scottsdale, Arizona of the original tale as a hotbed of juvenile detachment and one-upsmanship, dressed up as a bitter satirical reflection of the prejudices and puerile foibles of the adult behavior that surrounds our "heroes" and offers itself as a tacit example. Here is suburban life eavesdropped upon in that perfectly Altmanesque manner, pranks and pissing matches and bedroom secrets dragged out onto the hissing summer lawns and exposed with a typically offhanded shrug.
It really is a kick to see the director unfold his style upon the familiar skeleton of the crass '80s teen comedy, and it gets funnier (for those who have followed Altman's career, anyway) when the Schwab family, familial nemeses of O.C. and Stiggs, turn out to be rabid supporters of political candidate Hal Phillip Walker, whose political advertisements and various other campaign appearances are interwoven into the films action in much the same manner as Nashville. (Here, however, with more blatant satiric overtones.) Altman also racked up points (at least back in 1987) by trumping Jonathan Demme and being the first to get King Sunny Ade up on the big screen in a performance context (I can easily imagine that KSA might have been a touch let-down when this movie didn't exactly turn out to be Stop Making Sense II.)
Like several of Altman's films of this period, I long to revisit O.C. and Stiggs, and the fact that I recently got the DVD as a Christmas gift should speed that process along nicely. Blaaagh recently saw it again and still liked it, although he too prefers the Lampoon's version. On the other hand, Peter Nellhaus over at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee was somewhat less enthusiastic in his recent appraisal of the movie, so perhaps there is reason to re-approach O.C. and Stiggs with caution. However it turns out, I look forward to a little mind-roasting courtesy of this Altman orphan in the near future, and I'll be sure to report on how it looks to me now, good, bad, but never indifferent.
ARIA (1987) I recall exactly one thing about Altman's segment of this opera anthology-- an overhead shot pulling back over an audience of lunatics ecstatic over the performance of one of the titular compositions. Otherwise, the director's work here has completely slipped out of my consciousness. (I'll make no assumptions based on that, other than a pointed observation about the sieve-like quality of my mental retentive capabilities.) I do remember other bits and pieces from this collection, however-- mainly, Bridget Fonda slicing her wrists open in a bathtub, and Buck Henry chasing Beverly D'Angelo around San Luis Obispo's bizarre tourist spot, the Madonna Inn. That's maybe five minutes out of 90-- not exactly a good ratio for recall, or for recommendation either.
Well, the hour is growing late. The first official moments of the Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon are now upon us, and I've got a long way yet to go. I had entertained hopes of being able to wrap this all up in part three, but now I see that a part four will be necessary, and considering some of the films yet to be talked about, it looks to be a lengthy undertaking as well. And I'm still under the impression that I'll have further comments, in the guise of a straightforward article, to make about Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson that I would like to serve as my official entry in the weekend festivities. (In my fevered mind, this retrospective doesn't really count because it was underway before Matt ever officially called for the Altman Blog-a-Thon.) So I'll leave Altman now, just before he unveiled the ambitious, politically and media-savvy project that put him back on the fringes of the mainstream radar and positioned him for his much-heralded, if brief, re-emergence as a relevant Hollywood presence. Stay tuned. There's still the rising from the ashes, another couple of Oscar nominations, another fall from grace and a potential career-capping comeback waiting in the wings, plus my nominee for the Best Robert Altman Movie Not Actually Made By Robert Altman (and in case you're already guessing, it wasn't made by either Alan Rudolph or Paul Thomas Anderson). Enjoy your Altman Weekend!