Thursday, January 12, 2006


Quick takes on Altman works

By Edward Copeland
Granted, I haven't seen every single thing Robert Altman has done, but I have seen quite a few and while he is indisputably one of the greats and one of my favorites, there are a lot of missteps and clunkers on his resume as well. Thought I'd go chronologically and I'm only including the things I've seen.

MASH: 1970
One of the first of what I like to call "perfect but flawed" when referring to a movie, especially Altman's. It beautifully set the template for the later series, but it was harsher and more brutal (and lacked a laughtrack, thank God). The performers are all excellent and it really only goes astray for me in the third act with the football game and whatnot. Still, it's one of Altman's most rewatchable films.

Trivia note: The day after McLean Stevenson who played Col. Henry Blake on TV's M*A*S*H died, Roger Bowen who played Blake in the movie died. It's like he figured that was the only way his obituary would get noticed.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller: 1971
This is a film that has really grown on me over the years. When first exposed to it, I found it rather drab and dull, but on repeated viewings, I've liked it more and more both for Warren Beatty's performance and Julie Christie.

Images: 1972
I just watched this not too long ago on DVD and this is definitely one of Altman's missteps. He seems to be trying to ape Ingmar Bergman here and it's the phase of Bergman I can least stomach. Susannah York does her best as the lead, but it's really an incomprehensible bore.

The Long Goodbye: 1973
This is a really fun outing with Elliot Gould playing Philip Marlowe in a way you'd never expect him to be played. Really, it's a lost treasure that more people should seek out.

Thieves Like Us: 1974
This is a close call. There is a lot to like here, but it still seems familiar with very little new to offer. Like many of his offerings on DVD, the Altman commentary track is more interesting than the film itself.

California Split: 1974
A strong look at gambling that I recently revisited, in the midst of my poker obsession no less. It holds up fairly well. Not one of his masterpieces, but a good diversion.

Nashville: 1975
I'll resist the urge to write pages upon pages about how much I love this film. It's in my Top 10 of all time. I was fortunate enough to see a restored print once at the theater in Lincoln Center in New York, and it was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. The cast is impeccable and he juggles the multiple characters with ease and you are never bored (contrast that with the juggling in Syriana). The movie only gets better and better with each passing year. While I like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, how it beat this, Dog Day Afternoon and Jaws mystifies me.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians: 1976
It probably isn't fair of me to even comment on this one since I saw it in a drive-in when I was in second grade and don't really remember much of it. I'll get to the DVD eventually.

3 Women: 1977
Now here is where Altman is again playing with styles like he did in Images, only this time it works thanks to excellent work of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall. I had the good fortune of speaking to Robert Altman once and he said something that always stuck with me. He said that you should always see a film twice, because the first time you are too worried with plot and what's going to happen next. With a second viewing, you relax and watch the film at work. That's definitely the best way to approach 3 Women.

A Wedding: 1978
I've come to think that I'm one of the few defenders of this one. It boasts a cast twice the size of Nashville, but I loved it. I wish they'd give it a proper DVD so I can see it again and see how it holds up.

H.E.A.L.T.H.: 1979
This was a real misfire, but there are some good performances within it.

Streamers: 1983
Altman's adaptation of David Rabe's play still feels like a play, but it really works thanks to an excellent ensemble cast.

Secret Honor: 1984
Now here is a play adaptation that doesn't work quite as well, though Philip Baker Hall is excellent playing what is an essentially a monologue by a drunken crazed Richard Nixon.

O.C. & Stiggs: 1987
I caught this one by accident late one night on HBO. It's really nothing to write home about, but what caught my attention was the return of Hal Philip Walker, the candidate in Nashville.

Aria segment "Les Boreades": 1987
A better idea than a movie: 10 directors make what are essentially music videos of classic opera pieces. Altman's is a bore. Really, only Franc Roddam's tale set in Las Vegas and featuring a young Bridget Fonda really works.

Tanner '88: 1988
Granted, this isn't a movie, but it was HBO's first great original series with a great script by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau. Having rewatched it recently, it still holds up. It's amazing how many real politicos agreed to appear.

Vincent and Theo: 1990
This was actually the first Altman I saw in a theater — and I was bored silly. Tim Roth was great, but the movie left me cold. In fact, it's my contention that there has never been a really good movie made about a real-life artist. So far, no one has shown me something that dissuaded me from this theory.

The Player: 1992
An absolute satiric masterpiece with a strong cast, oodles of cameos and one of the funniest payoffs ever put in a movie. I can still think about its ending and start laughing. Probably the best fictional film ever made about moviemaking.

Short Cuts: 1993
This is another example of one his "perfect but flawed" films. He really just used Raymond Carver's stories as a launching pad, only sticking close to one of the stories, and the one Altman events from wholecloth involving Annie Ross and Lori Singer is the weakest and most conventional of the bunch, but you really need it so you can have those great jazz songs, I suppose. The earthquake might be a bit much at the end, but it works.

Ready to Wear aka Pret a Porter: 1994
Another complete misfire. There are some good performances, but the movie is pretty bad and never goes anywhere.

Kansas City: 1996
Another misfire, despite a good performance by Harry Belafonte. It just never pulled me in.

The Gingerbread Man: 1998
The first film based on an original screen story by John Grisham is a slight diversion. It's fine while you are watching it, but you forget it almost immediately once it's over.

Cookie's Fortune: 1999
I enjoyed the hell out of this movie and it boasts another great cast, including a really good turn by Patricia Neal.

Dr. T and the Women: 2000
A complete misfire from top to bottom, including Altman returning to the earthquake-like Short Cuts well with a tornadic ending that is ludicrous.

Gosford Park: 2001
Again, a strong cast, and while I liked it, it didn't bowl me over like it did a lot of critics.

The Company: 2003
About an hour into this, I realized a plot was never going to develop. It had some interesting stuff, especially Malcolm McDowell, but it is essentially a bore.

Tanner on Tanner: 2004
Altman and Trudeau return to TV for an update on the 1988 presidential candidate, in the form of a documentary made by his daughter (Cynthia Nixon). While it has its moments, it's mostly a wash and doesn't come close to matching the brilliance of the original.

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Greatest unseen Altman movie, and one of his career best in my opinion: THE CAINE MUTINY COURT MARTIAL, made for television, set in a high school gymnasium with rain drumming on the roof the whole time. Brad Davis plays Queeg, and his performance is different from, but equal to, Bogart's in the original. Ditto Eric Bogosian in the Jose Ferrer role, who's just as forceful but much funnier; Altman restores the cut dialogue from the final telling-off scene, letting Bogosian's character, a Jew, rail about how his people were being turned into lampshades in Nazi Germany. Altman deliberately mimics camera placement from live TV coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings, and accentuates the connection by casting Davis, a ringer for Ollie North, complete with high-and-tight jarhead haircut. A masterpiece.
I quite liked Vincent and Theo, though that's not the reason for my post.

No really good movie about a real-life artist? I'm hoping you've never seen Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh or Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch. The former treads much of the same territory as Altman's version, but is somewhat richer and more complex emotionally, and delves somewhat deeper into Van Gogh's personality. Watkins' Edvard Munch is, nevermind the best movie about an artist, but surely one of my favorite films, period. Its fragmentary, elliptical editing and pattern-like structure is used to explore Munch's art, working process, personal life, and the social and political context around him in the most probing and evocative way. I have never seen another film quite like it.
I haven't seen either of the films you mentioned, but it's been my experience that something is lacking in just about all films about real-life artists. Not sure why that is.
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