Saturday, March 20, 2010

cinema obscura: Altman's "H.E.A.L.T.H." (1980)

Garner, Bacall and Ann Tyerson trying to be witty
Robert Altman was already something of a Hollywood veteran when he made his breakthrough film, "M*A*S*H" (1970), at age 45. As rebellious as the young audience to which it appealed, "M*A*S*H" restlessly defined the New Hollywood of its time, and with both that film and the one that followed, "Brewster McCloud" (1970), Altman perfected an improvistory style driven by a lot of rapid, energetic, overlapping verbal outpouring.

What he created was a cinematic riff, a cool-jazz style to which he would invariably return during his up-and-down career, arguably hitting something of a peak with "Nashville" (1975).

"Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," "A Wedding," "Quintet," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Prêt-à-Porter," "Dr. T and the Women," "Gosford Park," "The Company" and his final film, "A Prairie Home Companion," all followed the same formula and were all over the map in terms of hits, misses and in-betweens.

But the formula turned truly rancid in "H.E.A.L.T.H." (1980), a hugely condescending, painfully unfunny jab at health-food fanatics holed up at a convention. Seeing it again recently on the Fox Movie Channel (on 18 March at 3 p.m.) - apparently, the only place where one can see it these days - I was struck by how much I dislike Altman's taste in actors (his ever-changing "stock company" always left me cold); by his misuse of his occasional celebrity players (in this case, Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson, James Garner and Carol Burnett) and by how self-conscious, obvious and shrill Altman could be when attempting decidedly "odd" touches.

Case in point: The wildly annoying strolling singers in "H.E.A.L.T.H." who warble inane numbers while wearing ridiculous "vegetable" costumes.

It was around this time that I started to seriously question my enthusiasm for Altman, a fascination that started in my youth but dwindled as both he and I aged. Towards the end, I found his films as annoying as those singers. Anyway, I realize that Hollywod rarely remakes bad films, but given how health-conscious that present-day society pretends to be, "H.E.A.L.T.H." should be an exception. It's definitely ripe for a revamping. Perhaps Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne could get it right.

Just a suggestion.

"H.E.A.L.T.H." screens again on the Fox Movie Channel 27 April at 4 p.m. The film originally clocked in at 105 minutes, but for some reason, the Fox Channel library print runs 100 minutes.


Jeff said...

I always found Altman condescending and superior towards his character, except possibly for the guys plays by Gould and Sutherland in "Mash." I think Altman identified with them. You know, counterculture.

wwolfe said...

I have the same problems with Altman. As Lou Reed once said about Bob Dylan, "He's the kind of guy you'd tell to shut up at a party." Given my opinion of him, I was surprised by how enjoyable I found "Gosford Park." Maybe it was the structure and empathy supplied by Julian Fellowes' script - two qualities too often lacking in Altman movies - or maybe the cast made up mostly of very experienced and skilled British actors that kept Altman in line, but this movie managed to put the director's talents to work, while keeping his shortcomings in check. That, unfortunately, was the exception to the rule.

joe baltake said...

Bill! I think you hit on it. Those British actors in "Gosford Park" must have intimidated and humbled Altman because their individual performances aren't nearly as annoying at what the Altman regulars tended to deliver. And, yes, it's the only time Altman exhibited any empathy for his characters. -J

J. Kaiser said...

You forgot "Popeye". One of my favorites of Altmans. He was able to create a whole other world without a 300 million dollar budget. Plus it had some catchy tunes.

joe baltake said...

Hye, John, I love "Popeye," a truly great original screen musical - and definitely a strech for Altman. He adapted himself to the material.

joanna said...

The only Altman film I've ever seen was "A Wedding", and I really loved how he played there with humour, the idea of different strats in society, not to mention some shakespearian elements I think everyone noticed. Anyway, your review made me consider watching H.E.A.L.T.H too, because I'm curious about just how bad it is, it has always fascinated me seeing how a director as good as I thought he was can fail like that.