Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part Three

1980s, 1990 – 1992


Popeye (1980)

Starring Robin Williams, Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley
This film is a perfect example of what happened when Altman was tapped to do a studio project. At the end of the day, Altman got the movie he wanted and the studio lost. It was his bullheadedness that made such a thing possible. The studio wanted a film based on the Popeye cartoons, with Popeye wolfing down spinach mixed with Hollywood style musicals. Altman said no and based the film on the original Popeye comic strip where the character was born. The original Popeye had no taste for spinach and the series of populated with all sorts of odd characters. Altman agreed to make it musical but hired singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, famous for his incredibly quirky music and infamous for his alcoholism. Altman also had a crew build the city of Sweethaven over the course of seven months and both cast and crew actually lived in the set where the film was made. Popeye was met with a terrible reception; most critics and most audiences hated it. Even though I am a big Altman fan, I understand why they hated it. Altman doesn’t like following traditionally narratives and character arcs and if that’s what you expect when you go to see a film it can be frustrating. Needless to say, Altman never really did a studio developed picture like this again.


Secret Honor (1984)

Starring Phillip Baker Hall
In a major depature, Altman sold his studio, Lion’s Gate and became a film professor at the University of Michigan. It was only a short tenure, but while he was there he and his class filmed what is basically a one-man play about Richard Nixon. The setting of the film is contemporary (1980s) with Nixon in his home office late a night recording his memoirs. Playing into stories of his paranoia, he has a display of closed circuit monitors in front of him, helping keep an eye on his home. The film consists of Nixon rambling on about events in his presidency, his contempt of JFK; Kissinger; and Eisenhower, and about the vast conspiracy at work against him. As Nixon drinks and rambles, his monologues trail off into the mutterings of a mad man. This madness is the focal point of the film, with the cinematography and score accentuating it. While not remembered as a major achievement in Altman’s career, it is one of the most unique of his films.


Vincent & Theo (1990)

Starring Tim Roth, Paul Rhys
Altman came out of a lull in the 1980s swinging. The 1990s became his renaissance which would lead to finally get major recognition from his peers in the 2000s. It began here with a biopic of the painter Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Theo was an art dealer who encouraged Vincent’s madness somewhat because he saw the great work it produced. The film focuses mostly on Theo and his guilt at living a life of such wealth and prominence in the community while his brother falls further into dementia. Their family has a history of mental illness and as the brother’s parallel lives continue, Theo begins to show signs himself. There are few films that capture painting better than this one. The modernist score highlights the dissonance in Vincent’s mind as he’s effected by medicines and failed relationships. The final sequences of the film almost raise into the horror category.


The Player (1992)

Starring Tim Robbins, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Sydney Pollack, Lyle Lovett
Altman returned to prominence with this film which skewers the self-involved and self-interested motivation of Hollywood executives. Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin, follows producer Griffin Mill (Robbins) finds his job deciding which scripts get made into films threatened when a young hot shot 20th Century Fox exec (Gallagher) shows up. At the same time, Mill is receiving threatening postcards and learns they are from a screenwriter whose work he has rejected. Mill and the screenwriter meet up, a scuffle ensues, and Mill accidentally kills the man. From there things go downhill, with starstruck detectives visiting the lot and Mill’s girlfriend becoming increasingly suspicious about what he’s been up to. The Player is definitely a dark comedy and afforded Altman the opportunity to poke fun at a lot of the absurdity he encountered in the studio world. The opening sequence is a 8 minute, one take shot of the camera following one pair of execs then switching to another as they discuss scripts, all of which are real and include a sequel to Casablanca. The film also includes over 60 cameos of actors and actresses as themselves.
Next: 1993 – 2006
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Film 2010 #36 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner


The Loneliness of the Long Distance (1962, dir. Tony Richardson)

Starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave
Film across the world was undergoing a transformation in the early 1960s. It began with the French New Wave movement of directors like Godard and Truffat and spread across Europe. Eventually, it hit England and corresponded with the coming of age of the first group of post-war children. The films produced in this period are referred to as the Angry Young Men, as they focused on teenagers and men in their 20s for whom the drudgery of blue collar life, that their parents so readily accepted, was considered a living death sentence.
This particular film focuses on the life of a Nottingham youth named Colin Smith (Courtenay). The picture opens with Colin being transported with a group of other juvenile delinquents to Ruxton Towers Reformatory. At the same time, the administration of the facility learns a nearby public school (in the States it would be a private school) wants to have their boys compete against Ruxton’s in a track and field event. The governor of the school (Redgrave) eyes Colin with the potential to win the long distance race after a tryout and begins loosening the restraints on the boy to ensure he will feel dedicated to Ruxton when the day of the race arrives.
Throughout the film we’re given glimpses of what led Colin down this path. At Ruxton, he is a humorless and dour young man, but in his life before he possesses a yearning to escape the factory life of Nottingham that kills his father. It becomes apparent that all Colin has been given in life are a series of expectations to live up to. His father’s former employer expects Colin will come work for them. Colin’s mother expects him to get a job once his father dies. The authorities figures in his town expect him to fall into a life of crime. The pressure of these expectations slowly grows inside Colin in both the flashbacks and during his time training for the race.
The most wonderful moments of the film come when the Governor allows Colin to run outside the gates of Ruxton. As soon as Colin is past the gates a soundtrack of period jazz music kicks in and the camera becomes very loose and documentarian in how it captures the runner. These moments of joy when Colin is by himself, simply running till he can’t breathe are played against his confrontations with fellow boys at the reformatory and regular sessions with the nervous and ineffective counselor. The loneliness mentioned in the title ends up playing both a joyous and bittersweet role. The film has two endings in effect, the one where Colin is “victorious” and then a sort of epilogue which causes us to question the cost of that victory.

Film 2010 #35 – Shutter Island


Shutter Island (2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas

My immediate reaction after seeing the first trailer for Shutter Island was that it would be interesting to see Scorsese tackle a film with horror elements. After thinking about this for a little while longer, I realized he already had in Taxi Driver, a film I think of as an urban horror picture more than anything else. Upon further contemplation, I realized we found similarly paranoid protagonists in many Scorsese pictures: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and of course, The Aviator. This is why Shutter Island, while stylistically a departure for the directing legend, is thematically at home in his body of work.
The premise brings U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on Shutter Island. Rachel Solando, a patient at the asylum has vanished so Daniels, and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) have come to investigate. Daniels is introduced to the facilities by Dr. John Cawley (Kingsley) and eventually meets the head of the hospital, Dr. Naehring (Sydow), a German who brings back Daniels animosity for the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during World War II. This combined with strange nightmares about Daniels’ late wife intensify his paranoia while on the Island and he begins to formulate what he believes is the real horror going on behind the scenes on Shutter Island.
What hits you first about this film is the score. The music was designed and chosen by long-time friend of Scorsese and former member of The Band, Robbie Robertson and he proves he has an ear for some powerful modernist compositions. There are elements of Bernard Hermann yet never played to the point of absurdity. Because of the strong musical elements they create a balance with the unscored moments. An encounter in a cave among the cliffs of the island goes unscored, despite there being revelations made there that would have received a crescendo of strings in an older picture. It’s those choices of presence and absence that strike the right balance in the film.
At its core, this is simply a variation on the haunted house trope. What sets it apart from a B-movie are the very powerful artistic masterstrokes Scorsese uses. The dream/nightmare sequences Daniels experiences, whether they be in sleep or in the middle of the day, inform the audience with the clues the investigator fails to find in the conscious world. I was particularly intrigued by the cultural paranoias of the day that seeped into the fiber of the film. We have Daniels haunted by the sights of Jews frozen to death at Dachau and his unit subsequent expunging of the camp’s guards in an era where PTSD was not something remotely thought about. In addition, characters mention the fears of atomic annihilation as a result of the Cold War, the idea of Nazi scientist-torturers being granted pardons for service to the US military, and brainwashing techniques of HUAC. This constant atmosphere of not-knowing and being watched makes Shutter a perfect companion piece to The Aviator.
Shutter Island may not end on the most satisfying of notes, but there really is no other way for it to end. Such a story can’t deliver any true sense of justice and still remain true to its film noir and horror roots. From the first time we see Daniels, hunched over a toilet as the ferry rocks around him, it is apparent this character is in bad shape. An odyssey to an island of madness can never make such a condition better.

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

Hypothetical Film Festival #7 – Not Happy Endings

There are “crowd pleaser” films, meant to deliver an upbeat tone to the audience and make sure everyone leaves the theater smiling. And then there are films like the ones on this list. These movies are pretty bleak from the start and any one in the audience can tell things will not end up alright for the protagonist. But as “down” as their endings might be, they are worth watching and will stay with you for days.


A bout de souffle/Breathless (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

The film follow Michel, a young man modeling himself after the images of Hollywood gangsters he’s grown up seeing. Michel shoots a policeman in Marseille and goes on the run to his American girlfriend, Patricia’s flat in Paris. The plot is non-existent at this point and wanders aimlessly, following Michel and Patricia play house and wander the streets of Paris. Breathless is considered one of the films that birthed the French New Wave of the 1960s and was the first feature from Jean-Luc Godard with screenplay by Francois Truffat. Both men were major players on the film criticism scene who turned their cinephilia into a historic movement in film. As Breathless moves closer to its finale, it becomes more and more apparent that the aimless Michel will atone for his crimes in a tragic way.


12 Monkeys (1995, dir. Terry Gilliam)

Based on the heart-breaking French short film La Jetee (1962), 12 Monkeys is a schizophrenic and ever metamorphosizing film. James Cole is a criminal living in a future where humanity has been forced underground because of a super virus. A group of scientists offer Cole a pardon if he will travel back to 1996 where it is believed the virus was released by a terrorist organization known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Once in the past, Cole is thrown into a mental asylum where he befriends a female doctor and meets fellow inmate Jeffery Goines. Goines is completely insane and Cole believes he is a key component of the viral outbreak. As Cole’s consciousness leaps back and forth between past and present he is plagued by strange memories from his childhood. All of these elements begin to interweave until the ultimate tragedy of James Cole is revealed.


Dancer in the Dark (2000, dir. Lars von Trier)

Pretty much any von Trier film could be put on this list as he is a filmmaker not known for feel good flicks. This particular film is his reinvention of the musical film genre. The picture stars Bjork as Selma, a factory worker in the Pacific Northwest who struggles to raise her son while her vision is becoming increasingly worse. Selma’s mode of escape from the pressures of life by pretending she her life is a musical. The film frames these two tones by filming the “real life” moments in a very loose documentarian style and the musical interludes being very tightly planned and storyboarded sequences. Selma is eventually forced to commit an act that put her in a terrible position and causes her to make a decision about who she will save. The final ten minutes of this film are an emotional hell; there is nothing gory about them, instead it is pure devastation on the viewer. I have literally never cried harder watching a film than the this one.


The Pledge (2001, dir. Sean Penn)

It begins with a man alone mumbling to himself and then travels back in time. Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is retiring from the force but at the last minute is pulled into the murder of a little girl. Black swears on a the cross to the girl’s mother that he will find whomever killed her and this begins his descent into madness. Black loses himself in the mountain, eventually buying a gas station and beginning a budding relationship with single mom Lori. Eventually, Black learns Lori’s daughter is possibly being stalked by the killer and attempts to keep her safe no matter the cost. As the opening of the film foreshadows, Black ends up in a place of despair. The irony of the film is that justice is served, yet only the audience knows and Black is left to believe he has failed the woman he loves, the mother he pledged himself to, and the profession that defined him for most of his life.


The Mist (2007, dir. Frank Darabont)

My first suggestion is watch the Black and White version of the film on the DVD, as this is how Darabont intended the film to be released. The picture is based on a Stephen King novella and focuses on the customers of a grocery store who become trapped inside after a mysterious mist fills their small town. Out of the mist come horrific creatures, inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. I admit, when I first saw the film I was feeling very negative towards it. A lot of the character interactions feel like they come from the same Stephen King hackneyed toolbox. However, the last 20 minutes of the film completely turned my opinion around and presented an otherworld that is rich with details and glimpses of macabre things. The finale of the film serves as a metaphor for human reactions to tragedy and as a cautionary tale about never letting go of the hope that darkness can be overcome.



Funny Games (2008, dir. Michael Haneke)

A shot by shot remake of Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film and, as with most of Haneke’s work is meant to directly address the voyeuristic and sadistic nature of the audience. A happy family arrives at their lake house and soon after are met by two strange young men asking for help. The two young men are nicely dressed in tennis whites but it is obvious there is an unsettling air about them. The moment one of the young men breaks the husband’s leg with golf club we know things are getting bad. Haneke fools us into believing this will follow the traditional revenge film with the villains winning for the majority of the film and then being overcome by the family. However, the moment one of the the young men steps outside the walls of the film’s reality we know the rulebook has been thrown out and this will only end badly.

Film 2010 #34 – The Red Shoes

Since 2005 I have kept a list of every new film I have seen. With this film I have hit the 1000 mark. Before long, I’ll probably be hitting 2000.


The Red Shoes (1948, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Starring Anton Walbrook

This was a film long on my list of ones to see and said to have been an inspiration to directors like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. That’s not to say its plot or screenplay is similar to their work, rather the way the directors utilize the camera and art direction to create a lush and amazing world. The story comes from the Hans Christian Andersen fable of a young girl who acquires a pair of magical red slippers that cause her to dance and, unable to stop, she begs an executioner to chop of her feet. He does and gives her a pair of wooden feet, yet she is haunted by the disembodied dancing feet.
Powell and Pressburger were a directorial pair in the United Kingdom, as well respected as Hitchcock or David Lean, yet their work has faded from the larger collective memory in the following years. For The Red Shoes, they took the Andersen fable and set it in contemporary (1940s) Europe. Boris Lermontov runs a prestigious ballet company and encounters two young up and coming artists: Victoria Page, a company ballerina and Julian Craster, a budding composer. Lermontov goes on to commission an adaptation of the The Red Shoes. Around the same time, the company’s prima ballerina announces her engagement which infuriates Lermontov who immediately lets her know she is no longer a part of his works. To replace her, he promotes Victoria Page, and this is where the trouble begins.
Lermontov is dangerously obsessed with his ingenues. His original prima announcing her engagement turns him into a petty, spiteful man who takes glee in letting her go. As similar things begin to develop with Victoria, we see Lermontov’s role as a metaphorical evil wizard take hold. He is jealous of any one who might break a dancer’s devotion to his will alone.
The most spectacular piece of the film is the 17 minute long ballet sequence that comes smack dab in the middle. The first half of the film is about the three individual strands of Lermontov, Craster, and Victoria coming together and the second half is about how the lives of these three are eventually torn apart. And what ties it all up is a visually stunning abbreviation of The Red Shoes ballet that will cause the viewer to ask some questions. From the start of the sequence, it is apparent that this is simply a dress rehearsal, yet then it starts incorporating what might be seen as subconscious thoughts of Victoria (the villain of the ballet flashing into Craster and then Lermontov suddenly), as the sequence continues Victoria moves into impossible landscapes that could in no way actually be on stage. And finally, everything pulls back to reveal the actual performance on opening night. This one sequence both serves to expose subconscious ideas and transition our characters through time.

Weekend Trailer Roundup

Earthling (dir. Clay Liford) – A small budget film about a woman, Judith who is having complications with her pregnancy. Meanwhile, a crew of astronauts in orbit discover a strange object floating through space. A brown out is cause globally and upon waking Judith and others begin having strange visions and make a discovery about a very important truth.