1975 – 1979
It could never be said that Robert Altman wasn’t experimenting with his work. After using a very naturalistic style in the early 1970s, Altman decided to transition into a more abstract and more artificially stylistic mode. This period of his career marks one of his most influential works (Nashville), responsible for inspiring present day director P.T. Anderson in works like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
Starring Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Shelly Duvall, Geraldine Chaplin, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliot Gould, Julie Christie, Keenan Wynn, Ronee Blakely
Nashville was definitely Altman’s most ambitious project to date and was planned as his commentary on the “rah rah” patriotic celebration of America’s bicentennial going on at the time. The director choose to focus his film around the country music industry, a musical genre undergoing a renaissance at the time and representative of classic American values. The plot of the film is tremendously disjointed, even for an Altman picture. Every character’s arc seems to intersect with every other character’s.
There are some obvious analogues for a few of the characters (Henry Gibson plays a Conway Twitty type, Ronee Blakely plays a Loretta Lynn type) and other characters represent more general types of people you encounter, not just in the country music industry, but in all levels of the entertainment industry. Beyond that, Altman uses show business as a metaphor for the American dream and human condition in the country. The Haves (successful musical artists) live lives of parties and special events. Then you have people all along the steps below them simply trying to survive or fighting to become part of the upper echelon.
If you are familiar with Nashville (as I am, being that I live here) there are many familiar sights including the Exit/In and the Parthenon, where the film’s big finale takes place. Altman had all the actors playing musicians write all their own songs and Robert Carradine’s “I’m Easy” won the Oscar for Best Original Song. The performance of that particular song is one of the great highlights of the picture. Carradine plays a member of a folk-rock trio and is performing the song solo onstage at the Exit/In. In the audience are his married co-performer, a married gospel singer, a music reporter, and a groupie, all of whom believe the song is about them and their relationship with Carradine’s character. Altman shoots this sequence skillfully by employing multiple cameras mounted all around the room and keeps them distanced from the actors. From offstage he can control the zooms of each camera to set up interesting juxtapositions of the women and their reactions. Lily Tomlin in particular is amazing in this scene.
3 Women (1977)
Starring Sissy Spacek, Shelly Duvall, Janice Rule
While The Long Goodbye is my favorite Altman film, this one is a close second and surely his most overlooked work. Everything that the audience has come to expect from an Altman film up to this point gets completely turned on its head. If they didn’t include a director credit there is very little chance anyone would have guessed he was responsible for this work. While his other films are in line with a naturalistic view of the world, 3 Women takes a surrealistic look.
The plot focuses on Mildred (Spacek) and Pinky (Duvall), two young women who meet while working a physical therapy facility. Mildred convinces Pinky to let her move into the latter’s apartment and things don’t work out very well. Pinky is obsessed with being a perfect hostess and interior decorator despite her lack of any sense of refined style. Mildred is a naive country bumpkin who seems unable to keep Pinky from becoming infuriated with her. The third woman, Willie (Rule), is an intense and introverted muralist who creates images of strange lizard-human hybrids. Mildred is involved in an accident that serves to cause a shift on the axis of personalities in these women. Suddenly, roles change with no rhyme or reason and hierarchies are usurped. The rest of the film plays out in an increasingly otherworldly manner where it seems reality is being rewritten.
Even if you have seen Altman’s work and written him off, I strongly encourage you to watch this film. Altman revealed interviews that the plot was based on a dream he had and 20th Century Fox bought the film simply based on the reputation Altman has built up at this time. Pretty impressive and something we will probably never see again in the studio system. The director has confessed that he isn’t sure what the ending of this film implies, but has developed theories of his own. Now, this might be frustrating to filmgoers that like clarity and closure, but for myself I find this refreshing. It makes the film truly feel like art because it is something that can be re-examined and reinterpreted over and over.
Starring Paul Newman, Fernando Rey
The end of Altman’s golden age in the 1970s came to end with a whimper. This subversive science fiction picture plays with some interesting ideas but seems to be even less cohesive than 3 Women, which was based on a much looser idea. The premise follows Essex (Newman) a whaler living in an Ice Age ravaged future. He and his bride make their way to a Northern facility where Essex’s brother Francha lives. While Essex is out of the apartment, a mysterious man sets off a bomb that kills Francha, his family, and Essex’s wife. Essex follows the man to a backroom where he discovers Francha was involved in a board game that is literally life or death. He becomes absorbed in the game and ends up in direct conflict with the top player, Grigor (Rey). The film is ultimately a let down and not one of Altman’s best
The 1970s will always be remembered as Altman’s best period of work, however he was still to make films just as strong as this period of work, but never again so prolific.
Up next: The 1980s and early 90s