Tuesday, May 31, 2016

cinema obscura: annoyingly altmanesque

Robert Altman in 1978, directing Mia Farrow and Vittorio Gassman in "A Wedding."  Not good.

As a working critic, I was often in the minority on films and filmmakers, guided by a rather simple, but rigid, personal theory - namely, that there is no place for loyalty (actually, blind loyalty) in movie criticism.

I was embarrassed by a colleague who developed a crush on a movie or moviemaker early on and willfully refused to grow or move beyond that.

I was impossible.

Which brings me tone of my early heroes of the cinema - Robert Altman.

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.

I was half Altman's age (part of his target audience) and I was in love.

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), his most defining film.

"Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," "Quintet," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Prêt-à-Porter," "Dr. T and the Women," "Gosford Park," "The Company" and "A Prairie Home Companion," (his final film in 2006, the year he died) carefully followed the same formula - and were all over the map in terms of hits, misses and in-betweens.

But the formula turned rancid with two titles in particular - "A Wedding" (1978) and "Health" (1980), which is alternately known as "H.E.A.L.T.H." and "HealtH."  (Don't ask me why.)  These two films, both made for Twentieth Century-Fox, find Altman at his most condescending and most cynical, a filmic trademark of his that was starting to wear terribly thin.

His rancor, which was so bracing in "M*A*S*H" and so trendy in "Nashville," was beginning to leave a vaguely nasty aftertaste.

And the two are also painfully unfunny, with "A Wedding" serving as a rather snide, brutal attack on the titular event - which was already something of a cliché in movies - and "Health" aiming at the facile political correctness and hypocrisies of health-food devotés - an idea that was ahead of its time and very promising. But a missed opportunity here.

Both have huge casts, the usual ragtag Altman collection of disparate actors.  "A Wedding," a true narrative mess, details the coming together of two families - Eurotrash on one side (Vittorio Gassman and Nina Van Pallandt as the parents of the groom), vulgar WASPS on the other (Paul Dooley and Carol Burnett as the wannabe parents of the bride, named Snooks and Tulip, no less).  Neither is spared Altman's vitriol or judgment.

Lillian Gish, Mia Farrow, Geraldine Chaplin, Howard Duff, Dina Merrill, Viveca Lindfors, Lauren Hutton and literally dozens of other familiar actors come and go and bump into each other in the film's monied setting, a sprawling Oak Park mansion.  "A Wedding" is easily Altman's most (over-)populated movie, but no one here is companionable.

 James Garner and Ann Ryerson trying to resuscitate Lauren Bacall (and "Health")
"Health," meanwhile, takes jabs at health-food fanatics holed up at a convention in Florida. Seeing it again recently, I was struck by how much I've disliked Robert Altman's taste in actors (frankly, 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, again, Burnett) and by how self-conscious, obvious and shrill Altman could be when attempting decidedly odd/oddball touches.

Case in point: The wildly annoying strolling singers in "Health" who warble inane numbers while wearing ridiculous "vegetable" costumes. (FYI: "Health" originally clocked in at 105 minutes, but for some reason, the Fox-owned print of it that would unreel with some frequency on the Fox Movie Channel runs five minutes less - 100 minutes. Curious.)

It was the release of this film when 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, "Health" should be an exception. Time has caught up with it.

The material is definitely ripe for a revamping. Perhaps Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne could get it right. Just a suggestion.

Essential Altman: That said, there are a number of Altman films that mean the world to me, starting with "Brewster McCloud," which remains a vivid seminal movie experience from my lost youth.  Following closely behind it are "California Split," Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Popeye," "Fool for Love," "Cookie's Fortune," "Prêt-à-Porter," "A Prairie Home Companion," "Dr. T and the Women"and the very idiosyncratic "A Perfect Couple," not the usual Altman suspects.

And, yes, "M*A*S*H" remains a revelation.  As for "Nashville," it's addictively watchable, but knowing that Altman originally shot it as an eight-hour film, I'm way too aware of its many narrative gaps.


Jeff said...

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

john k. said...

"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...

Hey, john k., I love "Popeye," a truly great original screen musical - and definitely a stretch for Altman. In a rare case, 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.

Sheila said...

I agree with Jeff about Altman - his lack of empathy for his characters. I can't think of one Altman film (aside from "MASH") where he displays any affection for his characters.

Ian W. Hill said...

I believe Altman can have empathy for his characters, but that he has a very limited worldview that divides people into three categories: Predators, Whores, and Suckers. In Altman's world, the best thing you can possibly be is an honest Whore. He sometimes feels sympathy, or even venerates, Suckers -- the "nicest" people in his world -- but he always feels like "You poor dopes, you're just going to get it in the neck. Grow up." Altman's films are most interesting -- "work" best -- when they are about a character in transition between two of these categories, or one who thinks they belong to one of them but actually is another -- even with his limited worldview he has (almost annoyingly) created a number of masterpieces, as you note.

I do like Prairie Home Companion in no small part because for once Altman allows the Suckers to actually win in the end -- even if he has the Figure of Death still show up to make it clear that even when a Sucker wins, we all still wind up in the same place.

It's basically the worldview of a precocious 15-year-old boy who carries around philosophy books -- not unintelligent, but limited and a bit snotty (I was once that boy; I know the attitude well).

That said, I actually find A Wedding, for whatever reason, a little less off and snotty than some of his work, maybe because I grew up around families like both sides pictured, and they don't seem unreal or grotesque to me. But I agree with a lot of what you say, obviously, just with different examples.

joe baltake said...

Ian! Terrific analysis. You really nail Altman and both his appeal and his flaws. Thanks for sharing.

Marvin said...

Joe, this is one of the best articles that I have EVER EVER read on Altman. I do not agree with which films you like/don't like of his, but who cares? By the way, you didn't mentioned MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER in the article. Marvin

Kiki said...

As usual, I agree with you and your view of Altman. Wedding was so embarrassing to watch - you can imagine how the actors must have felt. I never saw (or heard) of Health. Maybe I was out of the country at the time.

W.V.H. said...

I was with MGM, and my boss told me I needed to fly to Vancouver, BC, where Altman was filming ' McCabe and Mrs. Miller', so I got picked up at the hotel, driven to the location, got to mingle with Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, and then the next day, Altman and his core acting group and I flew from Vancouver, BC to Houston, Texas, where MGM held the world premiere of ' Brewster McCloud ', on a huge 80' by 120' screen, inside the Astrodome.....
an event to remember.....

joe baltake said...

W.V.H.- Yes, I remember the Astrodome screening of "Brewster." I had been invited to the press junket that accompanied it but, for some reason, passed - something that I eternally regret. Thanks for jogging my memory. BTW, I recall that while the film was in production, its working title was "Brewster McCloud and His Sexy Flying Machine." -J

Brian Lucas said...

That Astrodome screening of "Brewster McCloud" sounds like it was a blast! I guess that because of the huge success of “M*A*S*H,” MGM decided to give Altman’s next film a legendary push

k. said...

You should get an award for insightful and entertaining film reviews but you'll never get it from the Academy! k.

Nick Patterson said...

No Long Goodbye mention? I think it's my favorite Altman.