Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Sometimes we outgrow films and filmmakers, even those we adore.

At least, I did - and still do. As a working critic, this often put me at odds with some of my colleagues who, from my perspective, harbored a blind loyalty to their favorites. This may sound harsh, but there's really no place for loyalty in film criticism. Only hardcore honesty.

Case in point: Robert Altman. As a young pup, I lapped up, devoured, memorized and repeatedly viewed his films. I couldn't get enough of "Brewster McCloud" (1970). But as I aged, we grew apart. I became less titillated by Altman's penchant for overlapping dialogue, cluttered mise-en-scène and trendy contempt for his characters - a cinematic style that reached its nadir (for me, at least) with 1978's nasty "A Wedding," which has become something of a staple on the Fox Movie Channel.

But there are contemporaries who still swoon at the mention of his name and, when I'm in their company, I know to keep my mouth shut about Altman and about my own sacrilegious flipflopping tendencies.

Even guilty pleasures can become less, well, pleasurable.

Taking inventory recently of my home entertainment collection and purging, I finally tossed out my DVD copy of Randall Kleiser's "Grease," a loud, rather unwholesome movie musical - also from '78 (if that means anything) - that, for some unaccountable reason, I once thought of as engaging and fun but that I now find mirthless and unwatchable.

As I placed it in a giveaway bin, I remembered the enthusiastic review I wrote in 1978 and also realized that, almost unconsciously, I had slowly evolved - or should that be "devolved"? - into an avowed flipflopper.

Throwing away "Grease" felt cathartic, liberating and healthy.

There were no regrets or rancor.


jbryant said...

It's funny about Altman -- I liked M*A*S*H, THE LONG GOODBYE, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER and THIEVES LIKE US, loved NASHVILLE, but have never seen BREWSTER MCCLOUD or IMAGES, and haven't gone out of my way to catch his generally derided films such as A WEDDING, QUINTET, etc. I didn't really get all the praise for THE PLAYER and SHORT CUTS, but ended up really liking his last few films: GOSFORD PARK, THE COMPANY, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.

I last saw GREASE when they rereleased it (20th anniversary, I think) and still thought it was a lot of fun. I've never kidded myself that it's any kind of masterpiece, but it always leaves me smiling.

joe baltake said...

Jay! I liked “M*A*S*H,” of course, and I still love “Brewster” and, of Altman’s other films, “California Split,” “Ready to Wear” and especially “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.” “HEALTH” is sort of a sick fascination for me. (Those late ‘70s films of Altman are pretty nasty.) I’m afraid that I’ve seen “Nashville” one time too many, becoming aware of all the narrative holes as time went on. (Knowing that it originally ran eight hours, or so the legend goes, doesn't help.) Still, it’s enjoyable. I like “Prairie Home Companion” but loathe “The Company.” Re “Grease,” it ceased to be fun for me after my 13th or so viewing. Only a few of its musical numbers hold up, most notably the dance in the gym.

wwolfe said...

I have to confess that I never liked "Grease." I love the music of the 1950s, so I have a tough time enjoying work that treats that music as dumb or campy. The one good thing to come from "Grease" was the hit single, "You're the One That I Want," which sounded (and still sounds) great on the radio. I think it's telling that this song was not in the original score for the stage show.

Beyond my personal problem with work that takes a condescending view of 1950s music, I have a larger problem with work that views the past as campy. To me, that's disrespectful of the people who lived then. Those people weren't dumber or sillier than me simply because they happened to live before my time. That misconceived notion seems to be the basis for work, like "Grease," which finds the past and its people campy, simply by virtue of being the past. That just doesn't sit well with me - after all, we're all going to be part of the past someday, and I'd like to hope we're treated by future filmmakers with more respect than the makers of "Grease" treated the folks in the 1950s.

joe baltake said...

Bill! A feeling of superiority, alas, makes insecure people feel better about themselves. What particulrly drives me up the wall about "Grease" is the cruel, condescending "Sandra Dee" song. What's wrong with Sandra Dee (who was 15 when she made "Gidget")? What's wrong with Doris Day? Nothing. I resent when hacks belittle people who are clearly better than they are.

Jeff said...

Familiarity breeds contempt.

jbryant said...

I dunno, the Sandra Dee song just seemed in character to me. A girl like Rizzo would be into Dee and Day about as much as a James Dean worshiping guy of the time would be into Pat Boone or the Mouseketeers (and don't get me wrong, I'm not drawing a direct parallel; just talking about perceived levels of contemporary 'coolness').

Can't say I see condescension in the music either, even though all the songs except "You're the One That I Want" are clearly inferior to the hits of the era. I thought it was done with affection. Sure, a lot of it is silly and emotional (as were a lot of the songs back then), but so are teenagers. And some of the old songs WERE dumb and campy, which was part of their charm.

I think GREASE gets away with a lot by virtue of being a silly teen musical. A more thoughtful, serious approach, like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE set to music, might be interesting but probably impossible to pull off successfully.

John Kaiser said...

While I'm glad to see that Joe has finally seen the light in regards to "Grease", I am wondering why J Bryant or anybody else failed to mention one of Altman's true gems, "Cookie's Fortune". One of the most delightful movies I have ever seen.

As for Altman altogether, he was very hit and miss. I think, like Kubrik, he was overpraised at times.

Also, why is there a picture of Sigourney Weaver (not sure from which film) at the top of this post, yet no mention of any of her movies?

joe baltake said...

John! "Cookie's Fortune" is indeed a gem. Love it. Re the photo at the top of the post, that isn't Sigourney Weaver. It's Lauren Hutton (with Amy Stryker) in a scene from "A Weddding."

jbryant said...

I enjoyed COOKIE'S FORTUNE, too, but my post was already a bit too much like a laundry list, so I didn't try to be comprehensive.