Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman: 1926-2006

A few quickly dashed-off thoughts, following a brief R.I.P. for Gary Graver, the key figure in the late works of Orson Welles (in addition to Oja Kodar and, obviously, Welles himself). The way he worked, and the results he achieved, should be, and should remain, a prime inspiration on how any of us chiefly interested in beauty and truth -- the dignities of the intellect and the soul -- go about this business of cinema-making.

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Rivette on Altman: "Altman failed with 'Prêt-à-Porter' (1994) but at least he followed through with it, right up to an ending that capped the rock bottom nothingness that preceded it. He should have realized how uninteresting the fashion world was when he started to shoot, and he definitely should have understood it before he started shooting. He's an uneven filmmaker but a passionate one. In the same way, I've defended Clint Eastwood since he started directing. I like all his films, even the jokey "family" films with that ridiculous monkey, the ones that everyone is trying to forget - they're part of his oeuvre, too. In France, we forgive almost everything, but with Altman, who takes risks each time he makes a film, we forgive nothing. Whereas for Pollack, Frankenheimer, Schatzberg...risk doesn't even exist for them. The films of Eastwood or Altman belong to them and no one else: you have to like them."

There's no doubt that all of the tributes soon to follow will single out 'M*A*S*H,' 'Nashville,' 'The Player,' and 'Short Cuts' as the career milestones of this extraordinary filmmaker. But I'd take this tiny Tuesday-afternoon moment to single out a few of the maybe less-spoken-about Altman films that have meant a lot to me, and which I'd rate among his best works. (With the exception of 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller,' which is a masterpiece -- but I assume everyone has already seen it and, therefore, knows that.)

-'California Split': Which just ended a brief revival at New York City's Film Forum in a new 35mm print. The DVD for this film, released by Sony/Columbia and now thankfully out-of-print for the time being, excised (at least) two scenes as a result of the studio's unwillingness to pay video-exhibition clearance for (at least) two songs, one of which was "Happy Birthday." Hopefully Sony won't spit on the icing of future editions. (Words of Chris Morris come to mind: "...in an effort to snuff his very -naff- little candle.")

-'Secret Honor: A Political Myth': A tremendously flawed film, but maybe the most courageous one Altman ever made. If the picture goes on for a half-hour too long, it's because Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon is unstoppable. It's a performance that transcends valuations of "a great performance" or "an awful performance" and instead becomes its own self-medication, existing outside any tawdry claims to presenting an accurate "impersonation" of Nixon; -- existing purely as the claim to its own right-to-exist. In the process the depths of the actor -- and Philip Baker Hall specifically -- are laid bare. Crazily-somehow, and just plain crazily, given Altman's computer-regulated surveillance-cam apparatus. 'Secret Honor' is Samuel Beckett meets Coppola's 'One from the Heart.' (We should note it's because of 'Secret Honor' that PBH first came to P. T. Anderson's attention. As a result, the former's unforgettable casting in 'Sydney' (Hard Eight), 'Boogie Nights,' and 'Magnolia.')

-'Tanner '88': The magnum opus masterpiece. Not only does it contain Altman's most powerful purely dramatic moments, and not only is it the finest cinematic treatment of campaign-trail machinations, it also completely reframes the aesthetics of video technology as they had previously existed in (a) American television (b) cinema. All the glassy obfuscation within the frame seems a permeation of the spin of the political world and the two-truths, three-truths of the real world, our society, to which politics would not simply react but also, trying its damnedest, attempt to counteract, to neutralize. At something like five hours long, it has the pure duration-depth of a Feuillade serial or Rivette's 'Out 1: Spectre,' but, although it's just as scary and heart-breaking, it really deserves no comparison.

-'Vincent & Theo': The best film about Van Gogh, next to Pialat's ('Van Gogh') and Minnelli's ('Lust for Life'). Unfortunately, the "long version" of the film only exists on DVD somewhere in Europe, and with the Scope frame cropped to 1.33 at that. So I wonder: Was this authorized by Altman? Does the long version exist only (and integrally) as a television-work, with all framing intended and intact? I have no idea. The two times I did see the film (the short version, which is out on DVD in the US) were both on The Sundance Channel many years ago -- total sunshine and blood-on-the-walls by turns in maybe the best performance Tim Roth's ever given.

-'Cookie's Fortune' and 'Dr. T & the Women': Altman plunges into myth x 2 -- tackling Salomé in the first film and fertility-cults in the second. That said, all this only makes perfect sense given that 'Cookie's' takes as its setting swamp-town rural America, and 'Dr. T' the Texan suburbs of pre-fab McMansions. Two horribly underrated films which yield more rewards (and reveal more complexities) with every viewing.

-'The Company': Maybe the most radical thing in American movies in 2003 was Altman presenting a no-frills storyline (another of his troupes stages another of its shows; Neve Campbell -- at her finest -- falls in love with a boy and the boy loves her back, naturally and without complication; The End.) to create a film (shot in HD) that extols (and makes as its subjects) breathing-space, bodies, time's passage, bodies relating in space. It also contains the only David Lynch hommage that is NOT embarrassing to watch: the "blue dance," scored by none other than Angelo Badalamenti. In 'The Company,' Altman reminded us that he's the only major American filmmaker besides Abel Ferrara among whose principal questions to the self is: "How is a human body positioned within the frame?"

-'Tanner on Tanner': An unwatched television film that became a $5 discount DVD -- but what an unwatched discount flick it is!! Hardly an 'AfterM*A*S*H' to 'Tanner '88,' the new film concerns itself with the here-and-now: the 2004 presidential campaign (ending still unwritten at the time); pro-sumer DV technology; the "documentary craze" in American movies -- and American life. Episode 3 in particular is one for the record books: Altman (via Michael Murphy as before) gets the politicos to drop their guard (to the extent they're able) behind the scenes at the '04 Democratic Convention and presents something like a clear consensus opposition to the "war" in Iraq. A clarity of protest that, in the multifarious web of media coverage and before all the "official" broadcast cameras, was... glassily obfuscated.

-'A Prairie Home Companion': Whispered rumination, quiet elegy. A cork on the water. Altman returned to the narrative pare-down of 'The Company' but here put forth a sort of state-of-the-union address: on American culture as a whole (outside of the "news-narrative at this hour"), and on the director's own mortality. The troupe in 'APHC' are like heavenly bodies set in motion by a great Creator, revolving inward on the inescapable black-hole. The big run-out-groove, in other words -- at least, that's maybe how the director of 'Kansas City' and -- lest we forget -- 'The Long Goodbye' might have thunk it.

craig.

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