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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Weekend Trailer Roundup

Get Him to the Greek (dir.Nicholas Stoller) – Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is back! He’s booked to perform in L.A. and its up to a junior record executive (Jonah Hill) to get him there. Not the greatest premise but I thought Forgetting Sarah Marshall was great so I’m excited about this one.

Hypothetical Film Festival #6 – Unusual Love Stories

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to compile a film festival of unusual love stories. Some of them are romantic, some of them are funny, and some of them are even deeply disturbing. Enjoy!


Belle et BĂȘte (1946, dir. Jean Cocteau)

If you enjoyed the world of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast then you have this 1946 French film to thank for it. Disney’s animators referenced this film in deciding what the Beast and his castle would look like. Cocteau was a poet, writer, and filmmaker who decided to adapt the original French folktale for the screen. There are some haunting images in this picture, in particular the hallways of arm-shaped candelabras that follow Belle as she first enters the castle. This film is the closest I’ve ever seen a fairy tale being captured on the screen. Composer Philip Glass was so moved by seeing the film that he composed a ballet based on it, and the Criterion edition allows you to watch with both the original score or Glass’ music.


Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Hal Ashby is one of two of my most favorite directors of the 1970s (the other being Robert Altman). This film cemented him as as an icon of the counter culture movement and served as the inspiration to many other filmmakers to come, in particular Wes Anderson. Ashby got folk singer Cat Stevens to write original songs for the film and they perfectly score the love story it tells. 18 year old Harold is a depressed aristocrat (sort of a prototype emo) who meets 80 year old Maude, a woman with more life than women 60 years her junior. Maude helps Harold to move beyond his forlorn nature and he falls in love with her. One of the best love stories ever told in film.


Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)

Brazil is not just a film about two people in love, but also about being in love with dreams. Sam Lowry (played by the brilliant Jonathan Pryce) is a cog in the machine of a surreal variation on Orwell’s Big Brother society. In his dreams he is an armored, winged hero fighting to save a damsel in distress. In reality the woman of his dreams is a mistrusting dump truck driver trying to find some justice in a corrupt system. When the two meet things hardly go well. But Sam learns to trust in his dreams, a decision that leads to a very bizarre and bittersweet ending for the couple.


The Crying Game (1990, dir. Neil Jordan)

One of THE most controversial films of its day because of the love story it tells. Fergus is a member of the IRA who is forced to interrogate someone his compatriots believe is working for the British government. The prisoner begs Fergus to visit his girlfriend in London, Dil. After the prisoner is killed, Fergus journies to meet Dil and what he learns about the woman is very shocking. Despite all the hub-bub made about the love story, its a very beautifully made film that has some interesting things to say about the British and Irish conflict in the U.K.


Audition (1999, dir. Takashi Miike)

Never thought Miike would end up on a list of love stories. This interesting picture is about Shigeharu, a widower whose friend encourages him to set up a fake movie audition for actress to find a date. Shigeharu meets Asami at the audition, a young soft-spoken woman who claims to have been on her way to a career as a dancer until an injury halted that. Shigeharu goes on one date with her and gets an odd feeling about the whole situation. As more and more is revealed about Asami the weirder things get, ending in one of the most intensely gruesome finales in film history. I remember being terrified simply from the trailer for this film.


Secretary (2002, dir. Steven Shainberg)

If you like your love stories BDSM-style, then this is the flick for you. Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lee, a young girl just released from a mental hospital and placed back in the midst of a horrendously dysfunctional family. Lee takes a job as a secretary at the law office of Edward Grey (James Spader) who she begins to develop feelings for. The two begin a dominant-submissive relationship that, while unlike traditional Hollywood romance, is filmed in a very beautiful way here. The thing to remember is that in such a relationships, the subtext is that the submissive is actually the one in control. Edward becomes ashamed of their actions and pushes Lee away and she decides to do whatever she can to convince Edward what they have is right.

Film 2010 #30 – The Secret of Kells


The Secret of Kells (2009, dir. Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey)

Starring Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
When the 2010 Oscar Nominations were announced I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered “What the hell is The Secret of Kells?” Well, it’s an independently produced Irish film that played for a week in L.A. to qualify for the Academy Awards. The nomination will definitely garner attention for the film when it receives an expansion on American screens on March 12th, but is the picture deserving of the nom? A million times yes, and while Up will probably win because of its notoriety and box office, The Secret of Kells brings a style drastically different from the Disney formula that dominates American animation.
The story of The Secret of Kells is based in the history of Ireland circa 1006 A.D. The Vikings are massacring and raiding any village them come across in the hopes of amassing gold. The Abbey of Kells has become a sanctuary for many monks whose island homes have been burnt to the ground. Now, surrounded by the deep forest, they have gone back to creating gloriously intricate illuminated texts while the Abbot Cellach works to finish the wall before the Vikings arrive. Cellach’s nephew, Brendan befriends Brother Aidan, the monk who has been working on the Book of Iona, believed to be the most beautiful illuminated manuscript ever made. Aidan enlists Brendan’s help in gathering the supplies needed to finish the text by gathering inkberries for him in the forest. Brendan sneaks away, meeting the fairy Aisling, who introduces him to the wonders of the world outside the walls of the abbey.
The intricacies of the animated work in this film are astonishing. From the moment of the prologue, narrated by Aisling, there is no doubt that the love put into the picture is remarkable. The clever reasoning behind the level of detail is a direct nod to the craftsmanship put into illuminated manuscripts by monks. The same swirls, flourishes, and Celtic crosses seen in the texts can be found hidden amongst the gnarled roots of trees and clusters of leaves and flowers. The subtext here is that Brendan can only rise to the level of his hero, Aidan, by journeying beyond the walls of his limited experience. Someone like Aidan has been able to create such a beautiful piece of art because he has confronted his fears and conquered them.
While Brendan’s story does follow closely to the accepted hero’s journey archetype, there are many story beats that separate this film’s plot from others. The unblinking look at violence at this period of time and this part of the world is very much there. When the Vikings rear their ugly heads it is apparent that they leave few alive in their wake. There is also tragedy of other sorts in the film’s climactic sequence involving the unfinished abbey and its weak scaffolding. But the subtext throughout is telling us fear will be your end. Running frightened and unthinkingly at the sight of your fear leads you into destruction, but those characters who use their wits and remain calm are able to escape.
My own personal opinion is that the originality of content and artistic achievement of The Secret of Kells earns it the Best Animated Feature. However, the Academy Awards is usually more reflective of a mix between artistic elements and public awareness, meaning Up is the most likely candidate. Not to take away from Pixar, they would probably argue in favor of Kells as well, but I am excited for this film to reach a wider audience and gain more enthusiasm like mine.

Film 2010 #28 – King of New York


King of New York (1990, dir. Abel Ferrara)

Starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi
When I was a child, I noticed a bleak tone in many films and the music of the era. I think of Nirvana and other grunge artists and films like Terminator 2. It felt like there was a darkness over all these things. Now, many years older I look back and realize that it was in part a response to the downturn of the self-indulgent 70s and greedy 80s. This is why Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is such a excellent culmination of this sense of burning out after decades of success.
The story opens with the release of Frank White (Walken), a crime boss who has finished serving his term in prison (We’re told he’s been gone for years, but never given an exact number). Frank’s lieutenants on the outside begin a systematic execution of rival bosses as a signal that Frank has returned. Frank’s new outlook on life has him redirecting his criminal enterprise into helping keep a hospital for low income families open, an admirable goal indeed. However, Roy Bishop (Argo), the cop who took him down originally is keeping an eye on Frank. Both men, Frank and Roy, have metaphorical children, young soldiers who were raised in their service and owe everything to their “fathers”. And both sets of children are the victims of their fathers’ legacies in the end.
Walken plays things in his trademark bizarre way. Frank never approaches anything remotely human, he is forever emotionally distanced from everyone around him. His devotion to saving the failing hospital is admirable but he has no strong reaction when he own men are gunned down around him. On the flip-side, Roy is shattered when his “boys” are gunned down. It’s regret that separates these two men, Frank stance summed up nicely in the line, “I never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it.” Frank is able to justify his actions because he is so distanced from them, he assuages any guilt by taking up a cause in the community like the local hospital.
The film is much more about style than substance though. The soundtrack and visuals are all meticulously crafted to generate a very specific tone. The picture never feels like it could take place in reality until the final sequence. For the majority of the pic, Frank and his crew’s actions are incredibly over the top, specifically a shoot out in Chinatown where every single person on the street seems to have access to an automatic assault rifle. What this picture does best is create palpable tone, from the opening frames you have no doubt about the type of world you are entering and get a feeling for the bleak, hopeless finale its heading toward.

Hypothetical Film Festival #5 – Presidents on Film

In honor of Honest Abe’s birthday I whipped up an eclectic list of great films in which presidents (both factual and fictional) are key characters in the stories.


Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, dir. John Ford)

Henry Fonda portrays a pre-presidential Lincoln in this John Ford classic. Ford chooses to focus on a fictionalized case from the future president’s days as a lawyer. During an Independence Day celebration a man is murdered and two brothers are blamed. Lincoln takes the case and fights against popular opinion to prove that these men are innocent. Along the way he impresses the young debutante Mary Todd and showcases his Solomon-like wisdom. The film is a highly fictionalized account and a mish-mash of events that occured years apart. It’s still a great film that showcases a kind of president who doesn’t feel the pressure to act before looking at the facts and using reason.


The Manchurian Candidate (1962, dir. John Frankenheimer)

This is the granddaddy of all political thrillers, directed by one of the most overlooked craftsmen in American cinema. During the Korean War, a group of American soldiers are drugged and taken to a Communist Chinese lair where they are brainwashed. One of them, Raymond Shaw, is programmed to be a sleeper agent. Back in the States, Shaw’s mother (played by Angela Lansbury) has married a McCarthy-esque senator who is making a bid for the presidency. Secrets are revealed that slowly, but surely, connect Shaw’s experience in Korea with the political goings on in America. An amazing achievement that was originally pulled from release after the Kennedy assassination.


Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)

Classic. Simple as that. While the president isn’t THE main character is one of three played by the brilliant Peter Sellers. The highlight of his role as President Merkin Muffley comes when he must dial Russian Premier Kisov and let him know that he’s accidentally order the launch of a nuclear strike on Moscow. Muffley’s deadpan “my bad” tone raises the film into the comedic heavens. In addition, this is one of the sharpest satires ever made and it was very ballsy on Kubrick’s part to release a film about global nuclear destruction a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and at the height of the Cold War. This would be the equivalent of someone making a comedic film in 2003 about bumbling terrorists onboard an airplane.


The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)

Robert Redford stars in a film that encapsulates the disenfranchised feelings of many people towards politics in the 1970s. Redford plays Bill McKay, the son of a legendary California senator, who is lured into running as the Democratic candidate for the Senate against unopposed, popular Republican. Yes, there really isn’t a president in this one, BUT it so perfectly tells the story of a campaign in the modern American system it very well could be. McKay was happy working as a pro bono lawyer for low income communities, and only agrees to run because he is guaranteed he won’t win and it will give him an opportunity to have a larger platform for the liberal issues he finds important. However, McKay ends up being more popular than expected and he finds his values being whittled away.


Warm Springs (2005, dir. Joseph Sargent)

Kenneth Branagh and Cynthia Nixon star as the young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in this HBO original film. The picture tells the story of FDR as he was coming to terms with his debilitating polio (in 2003, a study was done that suggested he was actually suffering from Gullian-Barré syndrome). He travels to a well-known therapeutic hot springs in Georgia where he struggles more with his humility than with the disorder. So much attention is paid to details here with the entire film being made on location at the actual Warm Springs, as well as Branagh driving the same car that was modified for FDR. A great picture about a wonderful president at a dark time in his life.


Idiocracy (2006, dir. Mike Judge)

The most accurate prediction of the future in our country. We also get two presidents for the price of one: Terry Crews an an ex-pro wrestler prez and Luke Wilson as the dim-witted time traveler who wins the following election. If you haven’t seen this unfinished masterpiece from the creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, let me fill you in. Luke Wilson is the dumbest man in the modern Army, he’s put in a cryogenic capsule to test the technology, forgotten about for 500 years, and wakes up in a world where he is now the smartest man alive. He must tackle such issues as “why won’t the plants grow?” (Spoiler: They’re watering them with Gatorade). It’s not the smartest satire ever written, but damn its funny.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part Two

SPOILERS BELOW, if you haven’t seen the Alien films and being surprised is important to you don’t read.


Alien3 (1992, dir. David Fincher)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite
When we last left Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens, she had defeated the Alien Queen and was back in cryosleep with her makeshift family (Hicks, Newt, Bishop). However, a couple months later a fire breaks out on board the space marine vessel Sulaco and the sleeping travelers are emergency ejected in a small capsule. The capsule ends up on the prison planet Fiorina 161. Sadly, all but Ripley are dead and she has an emotional collapse at this realization.
Alien3 is a great film is you like Ripley, but not necessarily if you like the xenomorph creature. The picture plays fast and loose with some of the franchise’s established rules with the creatures and moves at a much slower pace then the action-oriented Aliens. But, as I said above if you are interested in the evolution of the Ripley character then the film is quite interesting. I have to say, that after going back and re-watching this one I enjoyed it more than Aliens. It has a stronger story and I’m a big fan of when horror films take pacing seriously.
Ellen Ripley develops a love interest in the film, the prison doctor Clemens and I liked how the relationship played out atypically from most relationships in films. Ripley never takes a passive, traditionally feminine role and in fact behaves in a fairly masculine way with Clemens. Clemens doesn’t become passive either so it makes for a kind of relationship not seen much on screen. Ripley also undergoes her most severe trauma. She discovers that the fire on board the Sulaco was caused by two facehugging egg aliens (one of whom is responsible for the creature running around in the film). Ripley also learns she has been implanted with a queen. The realization that the species would have died off with the destruction of their planet in Aliens, convinces Ripley that she must make the greatest sacrifice.
If we play out the sexual/pregnancy/rape subtext of the first Alien film this makes it the pain Ripley’s situation even greater. The one violation she has fought off for decades has now happened. Sigourney Weaver plays the devastation of Ripley amazingly. The film comes to a climactic finale as Ripley races to destroy herself and Weyland-Utani rushes to Fiorina to try and claim the creature inside her for R & D purposes. In the end, Ripley makes a metaphoric fall backwards into a vat of molten lead, arms extended in an explicitly Christ-like manner, saving the universe from the xenomorph species.

Alien: Resurrection (1997, dir. Jean Pierre-Jeunet)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dany Hedaya, Brad Dourif, Dominque Pinon
Probably wondering how a fourth film starring Sigourney Weaver could be possible after the last one. Joss Whedon was brought on board to pen this truly final installment in Ripley’s story and sets the picture hundreds of years into the future. Blood samples taken in the infirmary on Fiorina 161 are gathered up by Weyland-Utani. Centuries later, the company has been absorbed as part of a bizarre government/corporate ruling body that presides over Earth. Ripley has been cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting the queen from her and in turn producing eggs and more xenos. The goal? To somehow train the creatures to become weapons in the corporate military.
Weaver plays Ripley 8, the eight and successful attempt to clone Ellen . Because of the mixing of blood, Ripley 8 also contains traces of xenomorph DNA, enabling her to have heightened sense and the trademark acidic blood. Because this character does not have the memory of the original, all the experiences and trauma are discarded. Ripley 8 is kept in a special chamber and watched over by the scientists whom are also trying to condition the xenos. This Ripley is a much less interesting character than Ellen Ripley. She fits a prototypical action hero mode, with no real emotional reaction or understanding of the consequences of her actions.
In essence, it feels like Whedon simply in enamored with the kick ass chick archetype and imposes it onto Ripley. If Buffy or River Tam is your thing, no prob, but to place that template onto the Alien franchise doesn’t feel like a natural fit. My personal preference was that having a mature, more adult figure like Ripley made for such a unique character in science fiction. The original Ellen Ripley felt like a real human being, truly scarred by her trauma with the xenomorphs yet not allowing to cripple her with fear. Her reactions felt real, she lashed out without thinking through completely, but from a purely survival perspective.
This last entry, serves as a disappointing capstone, despite having such a talented cast and crew behind it. I’m of the belief that director Jeunet decided to make a parody of all the action pictures he saw coming out of Hollywood, and if that’s true he nails it on the head. The gore is over the top to the point of being absurd and the dialogue has that clunky, smarmy style you see in any C-grade action flick. I also noticed a trend of European directors having characters in American action films cursing way too much, and has led me to believe they think this is an essential trait for blockbuster action cinema in this country.