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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

HBO and the bane of 'edge'

Lena Dunham, HBO's poster girl

It came as little surprise to learn this week that Michael Lombardo is leaving his current post, or that his exit comes on the heels of his colleague Michael Ellenberg doing the exact same thing last January. And until this week, I had no idea that Lombardo and Ellenberg even existed.

I guess I should explain.

Ellenberg was HBO's executive in charge of drama, replaced in January by someone named Casey Bloys, formerly HBO's executive in charge of comedy.  (Got that?)  And Lombardo is/was HBO's programming president.  I'm not sure what these three guys do exactly, but from where I sit, none of them was doing an impressive job. For about two years now, I've been burdening my wife with complaints about HBO, specifically its erratic, largely unsatisfying programming and the anemic number of episodes aired for each show - usually 6 or 7, tops, for its comedies.

I'm using the word "comedies" loosely here because precious few HBO comedies of late have been funny.  They've mostly been "edgy," a quality which has become the new porn for the average TV viewer.  (But more about that later.)  Anyway, despite gobbling up umpteen undeserving Emmy awards every year, HBO has become a dim shadow of itself, coasting on the dusty credentials created in its heyday by "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" (and, much later, "Curb Your Enthusiasm") and pushing the "edge" envelope instead of anything remotely creative.

Its shows have become naggingly similiar.

It's difficult to pinpoint when the decline started but I trace it back to such shows as "Big Love," essentially little more than a trendy re-do of "The Sopranos." and "Hung," a puerile, one-joke affair about a guy's infamously huge penis which, for some reason, HBO refused to show. Yes, HBO!

But let's move to the present.  Beyond "Games of Throne," which has become something of a franchise (if there is such a thing in the world of cable TV), and the initial season of "True Detective" (which was terrific on every level), what else is there on HBO?  There's Bill Maher shamelessly pontificating (and, much worse, generally repeating himself), an occasional worthwhile film (the current "All the Way") and a collection of recurring sitcoms, each of which, at best, was worthy of one good season.

"Girls," by wunderkind Lena Dunham, got off to an edgy start (there's that word again) but has been stale for about three years now - although its enthusiastic depiction of nasty, dirty sex sets it apart from anything else on TV or even in movie theaters. (Virtually no one is modern film has sex anymore and, when they do, the woman usually wears a brassiere.  Huh?)  The Duplas Brothers' "Togetherness" was smart and had promise but actually disintegrated during its painful second and final season.  And the mercifully short-lived "Looking" only confirmed every bad idea that homophobes have about gay men. Did it really intend to do that?

Then there's "Ballers," a show whose humor is limited to that dubious title.  (Real mature, HBO.)  Mike Judge had a good idea with "Silicon Valley," but after season one, it went on an endless loop with the same storyline repeated ad infinitum (i.e., some heartless shark is always trying to steal the clueless techies' progressive ideas and bastardize them).  And "Veep" has been so reduced that it now exists as an excuse for the talented Julia Louis-Dreyfuss to end every lame joke with the word "cock," or "balls," or "pussy" or worse. This is Emmy-worthy? What happened to the sophisticated humor that "Veep" promised and delivered in its first season?

Laura Dern's now-forgotten "Enlightened" was a true original, a tiny gem, but even that went on one season too long. TV has yet to learn when to call it quits, a good case in point being CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," a once-oddball delight which has been neutered into a conventional sitcom success.

Aaron Sorkins' "The Newsroom" kept getting renewed, even though one season was quite enough, thank you.  And, this year, the much-touted "Vinyl" was an unwatchable mess, despite the behind-the-scenes, high-powered presence of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger (or perhaps because of it).

But it had "edge," something that AMC successfully introduced (and milked) with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," hooking viewers on bad behavior and rationalized amorality - and inspiring the three tired major networks to do the same with the likes of "Scandal" and "The Good Wife."

The negative result of the network's lazy preoccupation with edginess is that it has conditioned the average TV viewer to except and accept nothing less.

"Nashville," an exceptional, old-fashioned piece of serial storytelling which refreshingly eschewed "edge," never received much love from ABC, which continually showed its preference for the aforementioned "Scandal," and it was prematurely canceled this week. Its audience was reportedly smaller than "Scandal's" but I'd wager that it was a lot more intelligent and discerning. (ABC's earlier obsession was the overrated sitcom, "Modern Family," which despite a bit of diversity, isn't modern at all but rather retro and dated, what with its doofus dads and self-satisfied, know-it-all moms.)

Perhaps viewers picked up on ABC's disinterest. The Emmy voters certainly did, ignoring "Nashville" every year of its four seasons. But kudos to Connie Britton (pictured above with Charles Esten), Hayden Panettiere and their leader Callie Khouri for fearlessly remaining true to their mission, namely telling an on-going story straight, with no frills. Or edge.

The same Emmy disinterest seems to have plagued A&E's exceptional "Bates Motel," which, week-in and week-out, boasted world-class performances by stars Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore (pictured below), whose strange, intricate acting duet has very carefully prepared us for events that will take us (in its fifth and final season) to the Hitchcock film that inspired it, "Psycho." So, why has this show been ignored?

Perhaps because A&E lacks Emmy credibility?

Who knows. All I know is that both it and "Nashville" have acquired loyal cult followings that a more responsible, astute television executive would have nurtured and exploited to the advantage of both show and network.

But those days - and those men (yes, they're mostly men) - are gone.


Still it was a joy to encounter the intelligence and rare adventurousness of "Bates Motel" and "Nashville," both more satisfying than the edginess that the networks now covet to the extreme and that HBO sells as high art.

Note in Passing: The media have been deeply invested in the rise of "edge" on television, particularly the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, which provides recaps of only the trendiest shows, the usual suspects.  Can't get enough of "Scandal" or "Girls"?  Well, check out the Times, which has been complicit in the hasty elevation of such shows.