Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part Three

1980s, 1990 – 1992


Popeye (1980)

Starring Robin Williams, Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley
This film is a perfect example of what happened when Altman was tapped to do a studio project. At the end of the day, Altman got the movie he wanted and the studio lost. It was his bullheadedness that made such a thing possible. The studio wanted a film based on the Popeye cartoons, with Popeye wolfing down spinach mixed with Hollywood style musicals. Altman said no and based the film on the original Popeye comic strip where the character was born. The original Popeye had no taste for spinach and the series of populated with all sorts of odd characters. Altman agreed to make it musical but hired singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, famous for his incredibly quirky music and infamous for his alcoholism. Altman also had a crew build the city of Sweethaven over the course of seven months and both cast and crew actually lived in the set where the film was made. Popeye was met with a terrible reception; most critics and most audiences hated it. Even though I am a big Altman fan, I understand why they hated it. Altman doesn’t like following traditionally narratives and character arcs and if that’s what you expect when you go to see a film it can be frustrating. Needless to say, Altman never really did a studio developed picture like this again.


Secret Honor (1984)

Starring Phillip Baker Hall
In a major depature, Altman sold his studio, Lion’s Gate and became a film professor at the University of Michigan. It was only a short tenure, but while he was there he and his class filmed what is basically a one-man play about Richard Nixon. The setting of the film is contemporary (1980s) with Nixon in his home office late a night recording his memoirs. Playing into stories of his paranoia, he has a display of closed circuit monitors in front of him, helping keep an eye on his home. The film consists of Nixon rambling on about events in his presidency, his contempt of JFK; Kissinger; and Eisenhower, and about the vast conspiracy at work against him. As Nixon drinks and rambles, his monologues trail off into the mutterings of a mad man. This madness is the focal point of the film, with the cinematography and score accentuating it. While not remembered as a major achievement in Altman’s career, it is one of the most unique of his films.


Vincent & Theo (1990)

Starring Tim Roth, Paul Rhys
Altman came out of a lull in the 1980s swinging. The 1990s became his renaissance which would lead to finally get major recognition from his peers in the 2000s. It began here with a biopic of the painter Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Theo was an art dealer who encouraged Vincent’s madness somewhat because he saw the great work it produced. The film focuses mostly on Theo and his guilt at living a life of such wealth and prominence in the community while his brother falls further into dementia. Their family has a history of mental illness and as the brother’s parallel lives continue, Theo begins to show signs himself. There are few films that capture painting better than this one. The modernist score highlights the dissonance in Vincent’s mind as he’s effected by medicines and failed relationships. The final sequences of the film almost raise into the horror category.


The Player (1992)

Starring Tim Robbins, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Sydney Pollack, Lyle Lovett
Altman returned to prominence with this film which skewers the self-involved and self-interested motivation of Hollywood executives. Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin, follows producer Griffin Mill (Robbins) finds his job deciding which scripts get made into films threatened when a young hot shot 20th Century Fox exec (Gallagher) shows up. At the same time, Mill is receiving threatening postcards and learns they are from a screenwriter whose work he has rejected. Mill and the screenwriter meet up, a scuffle ensues, and Mill accidentally kills the man. From there things go downhill, with starstruck detectives visiting the lot and Mill’s girlfriend becoming increasingly suspicious about what he’s been up to. The Player is definitely a dark comedy and afforded Altman the opportunity to poke fun at a lot of the absurdity he encountered in the studio world. The opening sequence is a 8 minute, one take shot of the camera following one pair of execs then switching to another as they discuss scripts, all of which are real and include a sequel to Casablanca. The film also includes over 60 cameos of actors and actresses as themselves.
Next: 1993 – 2006
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