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.
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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.

Film 2009 #185 – The Box

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.