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.
When I was five years old or younger, I remember going over to my Uncle Wallace’s house around Christmas and everyone was sitting around watching the film version of Popeye. I have faint memories of recognizing a strangeness in that film even at such a young age. I don’t have pieces of plot from back then, what is floating around in the mist of my young brain are the way the characters spoke. They mumbled and talked over each other. The language was what made it strange. I wouldn’t realize until years later that this was how I met Mr. Robert Altman.
Robert Altman passed away in November of 2006, leaving behind one of the most prolific bodies of American film work. It’s said a lot that certain filmmakers are uncompromising and eventually they take a film and follow the studio’s demands, but Altman was a director who truly held fast to his ideas about cinema. There were films, that on reflection, he didn’t feel was his best work, but he always made them how he felt they should be made. He was vocal about his political beliefs, which definitely didn’t make him many fans, and he was very explicit with sexuality in films, but always in an honest, realistic way. It was that desire to capture fiction as close to reality as possible that makes many of his films somewhat uneasy to sit through.
With this four part essay, I plan on taking a look at his filmography and highlighting those signatures that make a film Altman-esque. In addition, I want to look at periods in his career where he veered dramatically from his traditional style and experimented with different modes of storytelling. I’ve seen 18 of his films but that still leaves many others I’ve yet to see. My hope is that you discover a film whose description intrigues you enough to seek it out.
The Box (2009, dir. Richard Kelly)
Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
It was October 2001 and had become intrigued with a film trailer I came across online. The film was Donnie Darko and the picture looked to have a quirky, creepy vibe that brought up memories of David Lynch for me. The film opened at the Belcourt, I convinced some friends to go to the opening night showing and was duly impressed. I saw it a few more times in the theater and bought it on DVD and listened through the director’s commentary multiple times. It was a film that was enigmatic but seemed to have an answer to its own puzzle if you paid close enough attention. This was the first and last time Richard Kelly would impress me.
The Box is based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button”, which was adapted for the various incarnations of The Twilight Zone and has one of those plots that seems very archetypal. It’s 1976 and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and Mardsen, respectively) live in Richmond, Virgina. Norma works as an English teacher for a private school and Arthur as an engineer for NASA. Their lives change one day when a mysterious box ends up on their doorstep. The box contains a large red button set in a finished wood casing and covered with a locked glass dome. Inside the box also contains a note letting them know a gentlemen will be by to explain that evening. Cue Mr. Arlington Steward (Langella). Steward explains that if the couple presses the button they will receive a million dollars and someone in the world, whom they don’t know will die. Steward gives them a day to decide.
You don’t have to have read the short story to know where this is going and it wouldn’t make for an interesting film if our characters chose honorably. And it is at this point that the movie goes completely off the tracks, but damn its beautiful as it does! Kelly is no slouch when it comes to cinematography, he knows exactly how to frame a shot and give us gorgeous images. With this feature, he’s evoking lots of classic Kubrickian techniques (i.e. tightly framed shot with action coming in and out of them, cold imagery). There’s the Twilight Zone vibe, that’s to be expected and interesting nod to Hitchcock, particularly in the musical score.
Kelly’s weakness lies in his inability to shape a tightly written, comprehensible plot. With Darko, he could cheat a bit and the film still stands as a nice piece of cinema. He displayed a considerable lack of restraint with his follow up, Southland Tales, a film I am fairly certain even the actors couldn’t have understood. Part of me admires Kelly for attempting such large, cosmic and transcendental themes in his work, yet I can’t give him a standing ovation till he shows he has the ability to pull it off semi-successfully. The Box ends up getting bogged down in, what are becoming, Kelly’s signatures (water imagery, portals, scenes intentionally left out). From an atmospheric point of view Kelly is a genius, but as an overall film this fails from a mixture of way too out there and a sort of adolescent allegory that clunks you on the head in the finale. A wonderful experiment, but a disaster in the end.