Seventies Saturdays – The Great White Hope

The Great White Hope (1970, dir. Martin Ritt)
Starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Lou Gilbert, Joey Fluellen

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Great White Hope is a “names changed” version of the career of Jack Johnson, an African-American boxer during the early 20th century. Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion and was known for patiently waiting for his opponent to slip up, then barraging him with a series of incapacitating blows. Johnson was a figure of great controversy, not just because he was a threat to the white male ego in the boxing ring, but because all of the women he became seriously involved with were white. Johnson showed little sense of humility about his dealings and was one of the first public figures to really use controversy as a way to promote his own celebrity.

In the film, Jack Jefferson (Jones) has just defeated the heavyweight champion and is celebrating this achievement with much bravado. The African-American community is divided about Jefferson though. While those around him immediately after the fight revel with him and dance in the streets, there are others who see Jefferson has creating negative image for their people because of his brazeness. Another group see Jefferson as being nothing but an “uncle tom” by consorting with white women and embracing what they see as a white way of life. Jefferson has an interesting take on all of this. In a scene early on, after he is weighed in before the big bout, an older black gentleman mentions that the young men will be inspired and “proud to be colored” when Jefferson wins. The boxer replies that they should already be proud and his winning or losing should have nothing to do with it. An interesting idea when thinking about the role of athletes as “role models” in contemporary society.

Jefferson and his fiancee, Eleanor’s relationship is played very well, but we don’t get enough background to understand how they came together. They are very much in love, but we’re never shown how, despite the social stigma of their relationship, they would defy it and stay together. The film also has some problems with how broadly a lot of characters are played. The white establishment villains literally “bwahahaha” at one point in the final scenes, and it would have been interesting to see them played with more internal conflict. Jane Alexander’s performance as Eleanor is also ruined by the pointless turn her character is forced to take, mainly to serve as momentum to move Jefferson forward to the finale. The one standout performance is James Earl Jones as Jefferson; he plays the character as incredibly multi-layered. Jefferson is charming and intelligent, but also selfish and arrogant. He loves Eleanor deeply but is resentful when he realizes she’ll never understand the limitations put on him.

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Seventies Saturdays – Johnny Got His Gun


Johnny Got His Gun (1971, dir. Dalton Trumbo)

Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland
Here we have a film directed by the author of the novel on which is based. This author, Dalton Trumbo was investigated by the FBI as a result of the novel’s publication, and later blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. While blacklisted, he was given his widest recognition as the screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. And it was during the twilight of the Vietnam War he decided to adapt his controversial novel. While on the surface, the film is condemnation of war by how it treats the men on the frontlines, Trumbo is expanding his theme to comment on the fragility of life and man’s right to die with dignity.
Joe Bonham (Bottoms) is introduced as a body under a sheet. He’s not dead, but was shredded by shrapnel from a mortar shell fired on the last day of World War I. The doctors maintain an unrealistically upbeat outlook and have Joe put in a utility room so as not to upset the other wounded men. We learn who Joe is through the meanderings of his consciousness now in this eternally paralyzed state. The horror of Joe’s condition is unfolded to us gradually: first they take his arms, then his legs, ultimately he learns his face has been scooped out. All that exists is a screaming mind in a paralyzed frame.
As Joe tries to make sense of this in his mind, he returns to moments with his late father (Robards) and consults with a Jesus of his own invention (Sutherland). His memories begin as real events in his past and morph into surreal fantasies about his loss. One of the most touching moments of the film comes early on. On Joe’s last night before shipping out, he and his teenaged girlfriend decide to have sex for the first time. This scene is played with such beauty and tenderness. Every nervous movement is captured perfectly, and the scene aches with a bittersweet sense of how these characters are experiencing such great joy, a joy that inevitably will die.
The genius of the film is that it never takes political sides. In essence, it truly supports the troops, because it is all about them. Joe is a child who was sent off by old men who use their children to fight wars. He did his duty and suffered great wounds. And now, with no future besides being a lump of meat locked in a closet, he is denied a basic right to have his life ended. Joe eventually figures out a means of communicating with those around him, only to find his new voice stifled and the realization that the people around Joe, because of their own fears of death, want to simply forget that he ever existed.

Seventies Saturdays – A Wedding


A Wedding (1978, dir. Robert Altman)

Starring Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin, Mia Farrow, Paul Dooley, Desi Arnez Jr, Lillian Gish, Lauren Hutton
The old money and the nouveau riche come together when Dino Correlli and Margaret “Muffin” Brenner get married. And while the film may be called A Wedding, the majority of its two hours take place in the reception. Of all Altman’s comedies, I don’t think I ever laughed as harder than I laughed at this picture. All of his stylistic flourishes are there (zoom ins, overlapping dialogue, language play) yet they are delivered with such madcap humor. I kept thinking of classic 1930s farces as the confusion and misunderstandings increased during the film. And it’s a amazing that with 48 characters I never felt like anyone was ignored. Every personality is apparent and you feel like you are sitting in on a real reception where the groom and bride’s families are hiding some major dislike.
The Correllis are a mix of an Italian businessman, Luigi, who married into a rich Floridian family of all daughters. He is made caretaker of the estate by his mother in law, Nettie on the condition that none of his family, whom are in with the mafia, are allowed to step foot in the house. The Brenners are from trucking money, Liam “Snooks” Brenner (Dooley) having made a fortune on coast to coast trucking. From the get-go there are numerous cultural clashes involving wealth, ethnicity, and class. It’s also apparent that there has been some illicit trysts going on between the maid of honor, Buffy Brenner (Farrow) and the groom as well as many other guests at the reception.
The best parts of the film are where information in exchanged but with the context completely misinterpreted. Early on in the film Nettie passes away and her other son in law, Dr. Jules decides to keep it secret so as not to ruin the festivities. Of course the information leaks and dozens of family members relay it a real life version of the Telephone game. The wedding planner (Chaplin) runs the show with an iron fist, making sure both staff and guests follow strict and traditional wedding protocol, assigning ludicrous acronyms (Father of the Bride becomes FoB, Mother of the Groom is MoG) to be more efficient. Snooks Brenner is uncomfortably close to his daughter Buffy and ignores his wife, Tulip (Burnett) so that he can spend more time with his pride and joy. The best moment comes when Tulip is seduced by Corelli family member, Mac, who convinces her to join him in an excursion to the family’s greenhouse. This is interrupted by the arrival of the half-dozen children of Burnett’s born again brother-in-law.
The film is never completely a comedy, none of Altman’s movies are ever one genre, but it is apparent that there was much silly joy in making this film. Altman developed a system of wireless microphones that allowed him to not interrupt large scenes, but rather pull volume up and down on the conversations he wished to focus on. It’s this genius move that makes it so the director never interrupts the flow of productive acting and works with Altman’s naturalist intent for his films during this period. I would say that even if you have passed Altman over as a director you might enjoy, this is one of his few films that I believe could appeal to a larger audience.

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part Two

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.


Nashville (1975)

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.


Quintet (1979)

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

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part One

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.


M*A*S*H (1970)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, Rene Auberjonois

If your familiarity with this concept comes purely from the long-running sitcom then you are in for a surprise with this film. The humor here is much less sitcom-oriented and a thinly veiled swipe at the madness of the Vietnam War, something Altman opposed strongly. The novel the film is based on was about the Korean War and the film makes certain to say it is set in that conflict, yet everything being said on screen is about Vietnam. The plot is a very loose series of episodes featuring Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper John (Sutherland, Skerritt, and Gould respectively), a trio of doctors drafted into the war and helping tend to the devastation. Throughout the picture, Altman doesn’t miss an opportunity to skewer authority, whether it be the daft commanding officer Col. Blake or the disturbingly religious Maj. Frank Burns (Duvall). What M*A*S*H is most noted for are the gruesome surgery scene where the humorous banter between doctors and nurses is played in contrast to the sounds of saw scraping through bone.


Brewster McCloud (1970)

Starring Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Shelly Duvall, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, Bert Remsen, Stacy Keach, Margaret Hamilton
Altman continues his subversive assault on authority, this time focusing his sights on the police. This film also introduces some playful elements that would pepper the director’s early work and take more prominence in the 1980s. A framing device is used where Rene Auberjonois plays a bizarre birdlike professor telling the story of the reclusive and eccentric Houston youth Brewster McCloud (Cort). McCloud is feverishly working to build a pair of mechanical working wings a la Leonardo da Vinci. Simultaneously, a series of murders occurs around the city that all have an odd bird motif to them. Altman diverges at a few points and the story can be a little hard to follow, but overall a wonderful early picture. Be on the look out for Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West) in the opening credits.


McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Shelly Duvall, Keith Carradine
This is widely considered the first of Altman’s naturalist films. In these types of pictures he took a common film genre and instead of subverting, in what might be called an experimental fashion, Altman would try to present the genre as realistically a possible. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was Altman’s spin on the Western and it is unlike any Western made up to that point. There is no glamor in this interpretation, everything is intentionally dirty and bleak. McCabe (Beatty) is an opportunist who arrives at a mining town in Washington and proceeds to open a brothel. Mrs. Miller (Christie), a successful madam arrives and negotiates a partnership with McCabe which leads to a very profitable enterprise and McCabe assuming leadership of the town. Eventually, a larger mining company comes in wanting to purchase the town and its businesses and a very atypical showdown occurs. The film also features a beautiful original soundtrack by Leonard Cohen.


The Long Goodbye (1973)

Starring Elliot Gould, Henry Gibson
This is most definitely my favorite Altman film from this period and possibly of his entire body of work. Elliot Gould plays iconic detective Phillip Marlowe (a role originally made famous by Humphrey Bogart). True to Altman’s form, this is a total subversion of the detective genre. Marlowe is not the cool and collected direct gumshoe Hollywood cultivated in the 1930s and 40s. This Marlowe is a man who almost stumbles into the clues and leads for his case. This Marlowe is a smartass who intentionally taunts the cops at every turn. The soundtrack for the film was composed by John Williams and consists only of variations of a jazz tune title “The Long Goodbye”. There is something so satisfying to me about how this picture plays out, most likely because it doesn’t happen like every other mystery film. There’s also a wonderful subplot involving Marlowe’s finicky cat whose appetite plays a key role in how the detective ends up in the predicament of the film.


Thieves Like Us (1974)

Starring Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall, Louise Fletcher, Tom Skerritt
Check out my thoughts on this film in my full review.


California Split (1974)

Starring Elliot Gould, George Segal
This was Altman’s attempt to take on the gambling/poker genre. Two men (Gould and Segal) meet and immediately click over their love of gambling. Underneath it all, I believe the film is actually a love story between these two men. When they first meet sparks fly and they are caught up in the thrill of the risk. Gould’s character becomes more and more immersed in their antics while Segal remains realistic about it all. Eventually, Gould’s debt forces them to travel to Reno where Amarillo Slim appears as himself in a high stakes game. The film ends on a bittersweet note, not with a huge loss and lesson learned, but with the risk fading as they just keep winning. In another way, nothing changes except how they see their relationship. What used to be exciting is now dull and so its inevitable that things will end between them.

Film 2010 #27 – Wise Blood


Wise Blood (1979, dir. John Huston)
Starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Dan Shor, Ned Beatty, William Hickey

I first became aware of the author Flannery O’Conner during my Freshman Comp II class with Dr. Greg Carpenter. We read the classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and was shocked and happily surprised at how bizarre and quirky the piece was. I would continue expand on my knowledge of the late Southern writer in American Lit II, Southern Lit, and a short stories class all with Dr. Greg’s wife, Dr. Dana. In her Lit of the South class I read Wise Blood, the novel that serves as the basis of this film and found some deep insights and themes that are woven into the fiber of everyday life here in the South.
So, how did Academy Award winning director John Huston do when it came to adapting the novel? Good and bad. If you are one of those people who hates for a film to deviate too far from its source material then I guess you’ll be happy. In my own opinion, Huston stuck so close to O’Conner’s novel that you see how poor of a film it truly makes. The book benefited from the omniscient narration of O’Conner to talk about the psychology of our characters and provide backstory. Here we just have characters speaking the author’s words but with no idea of who they are beyond that.
The biggest problem with the film are the stylistic choices Huston chooses to make. The Southern Grotesque that O’Conner brought to all her work is all but absent here. The film is so bright and the score is horrendous. The music definitely pulled me out of the film on multiple occasions. It’s a bizarre mix of synthesized folk tunes and doofy Hee Haw-esque musical cues. While watching, I couldn’t help but think how the film would have benefited to have been filmed in black and white and to have had no musical score at all. I anticipate a lot of people who love O’Conner disapproving of the film’s contemporary (late 70s) setting. While there are elements of her work that could be argued to be set in a specific time in the South, her stories are equally without grounding in a specific era. Huston’s decision to make it contemporary though, seems to reflect budget constraints rather than artistic choices.
The one character who was used terribly was poor Enoch Emery. The young man who steals a shrunken head doll and dresses as a gorilla is played in a strange way. We aren’t quite sure if he is simply a religious simpleton or has serious mental issues. My own opinion was the latter, but his portrayal in the film feels very uneven. Amy Wright does a great job as the Sabbath Hawkes and Harry Dean Stanton does an adequate job for the small role he is given. The weight of the film rests on Brad Dourif’s shoulders as Hazel Motes and I can’t criticize him too much. The problems with the film come down to a strict adherence to the novel and a lack of strong cinematography.

Film 2010 #25 – Thieves Like Us


Thieves Like Us (1974, dir. Robert Altman)

Starring Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall, Louise Fletcher, Tom Skerritt
Much like the rest of Robert Altman’s work, Thieves Like Us is a subversion of genre. The premise is that a trio of bank robbers, Bowie; Chickasaw; and T-Dub (Carradine, Schuck, and Remsen respectively) escape a Mississippi chain gang and go back to the old trade. They hole up with a gas station owner (Skerritt) and Keechie, his young daughter (Duvall) who becomes smitten with Bowie. As it is to be expected with men on the run, life become very complicated very quickly and the men must split up after a heist gone wrong. Bowie ends up in the care of Keechie; the two fall in love and decide to start a life together.
Altman loves creating a human universe that works in direct opposition to our expectations seeded by traditional cinema. The action in this film is incredibly muted and when violence does occur it is either off camera or intentionally unglamorous. Characters never undergo arcs and rarely behave as if they are somehow aware of the screenwriter’s intentions of them. These characters just exist and live their lives and Altman just happens to have a camera to record them. One way he achieves the sense of the mundane while stylistically flipping cinema on its head is by an absence of the standard film score. Instead, music is provided by the ever present radio of Depression-era America. For the most part, its standards of the day but in a few scenes the radio is used to underscore the action. As the men prepare to rob a bank a car radio plays the introduction of a true crime radio drama. In yet another scene as love blossoms between Bowie and Keechie, we can hear the a radio version of Romeo and Juliet.
Characters are never more intelligent than they would typically be in a comparably real situation. The three men never achieved much of an education and neither did Keechie so their dialogue reflects that. There’s very little conversation and what there is of it is intentionally inconsequential and uninteresting. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, where there’s meant to be a weight to the moment when authorities gun the pair down, a similar scene in the finale of this film has its drama emphasized but also a restraint is felt not to make it rise to any mythic proportion. The very final scene of the film also strips away any sense that Altman is making these men into heroes and ends up raising Keechie, who appears to be a dull girl, into the one character in the film with the strongest sense of honor and decency.