Thursday, June 23, 2011

 

We need Bob — now more than ever


By Edward Copeland
I miss Robert Altman. The cinematic world became less interesting when he left this universe. Not every film he made was a masterpiece (in fact some bordered on the unwatchable), but you knew that whatever he directed, the end product would not be a something that looked as if he were just going through the motions. I had no plans to write a piece like this but Friday marks the 40th anniversary of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for which I will have a tribute. After re-watching the film, I listened to the DVD commentary by Altman and the film's co-producer David Foster, and it contained so many goodies, I knew I'd want to include them. Then again, Altman always recorded some of the best DVD commentaries around, this one recorded sometime after the release of Gosford Park. It gave so many great details not just about McCabe but about the business and, from Foster, Altman in general that I felt a separate post was required to prevent the movie tribute from becoming tremendously long. Besides, can there ever be too much written about Robert Altman?


Since this was a commentary on the making of 1971's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, much of what Altman and Foster had to say related to the making of the film and that in itself is fascinating. For Foster, who co-produced the movie with Mitchell Brower, it was the first film he ever produced — quite an auspicious beginning for a first-time producer to work with Altman, hot off the success of MASH on a film starring superstars and then off-screen lovers Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.

As for the movie itself, it provides plenty of interesting details for Altman and Foster to discuss. For starters, the Pacific Northwest mining town of Presbyterian Church that provides the setting of the film seems to grow as the film progresses and there is a very good reason for that: The production company built it from scratch. Under the supervision of production designer Leon Ericksen, who also worked with Altman on Images, Quintet and California Split, the crew built the various buildings of the town — McCabe's House of Fortune, the bathhouse, the ornate whorehouse — as the film was being made. It allowed the movie to be shot almost entirely in sequence. It also meant there were no extras in the film: the production crew (many of whom were Americans who fled to Vancouver to avoid the Vietnam draft) all dressed in period clothing so if any were caught on camera while they were building, they wouldn't look out of place. This black-and-white promotional shot by Warner Bros., of Presbyterian Church after the town was completed said that it stood for seven months during the filming of McCabe & Mrs. Miller but at the end of production, the entire set, which was used as housing for some of the cast and crew during filming, was destroyed. You can see at the center McCabe's gambling hall and in the distance the steeple of the church that gave the town its name.

When people discuss McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the one aspect that comes up most often, whether you love the film, hate it or have feelings that lie somewhere in between, is that magnificent look, conceived by renowned director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, the great Hungarian-born cinematographer. Foster and Altman both explain in the commentary the process Zsigmond used to achieve the look. The d.p. used a process called "flashing the film." It's a risky procedure that calls for care and precision to pull off, but the results amaze when they work as they did in McCabe. As Foster explains it, Zsigmond would shoot the film and then expose the negative for a few minutes, just long enough for light to hit it. If done wrong, it can ruin the negative. When done right, as it was here, it produces that beautiful "antiquated, turn-of-the-century Daguerreotype look." As Altman elaborated, by doing it to the negative, it also prevented the studio from complaining or firing him since to do so would require re-shooting the whole thing. You gotta love the man. He always was thinking one step ahead of anyone who would try to screw up his vision. As Foster says about Altman:
"He is fun to be around. I just think he's a genius. He works outside the system. He's just too smart. He knows what he wants to do and how he gets them financed.…He's had a really great life doing what he wants to do. Living in London for a year, living in Paris for a year, living wherever he's shooting a movie."

Amazingly, Zsigmond did not receive an Oscar nomination for his cinematography, something Foster blames in the commentary on Zsigmond not being able to join the American Society of Cinematographers union yet. He eventually would get nominated, winning for Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and being nominated for The Deer Hunter, The River and Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, though some of his other best work went unrecognized such as Deliverance, Altman's The Long Goodbye, De Palma's Blow Out and Jack Nicholson's The Two Jakes. Even more astoundingly, the only Oscar nomination McCabe & Mrs. Miller received was for Christie as best actress.

While McCabe ostensibly is a Western, it's not your typical Western by any means and when he was talking with the studio about wardrobe, he told them specifically not to send him any of those big cowboy hats you usually see because they weren't historically accurate. The wardrobe woman argued they were, showing him photographic "proof." He asked her if she knew how much one of those plates cost back then. He told her that they were so expensive they only took photos of the unusual. These people were European immigrants who came here with the clothes off their back. He used that attitude in terms of accents as well.

"These people are all European. They didn't develop a Texas accent. They didn't destroy the English language as much as it is until George Bush came along. It took years for that."

When they did get the wardrobe, he told the cast to pick out what they wanted and how much they could take in terms of shirts, pants, etc. The more experienced actors, he says, jumped on more interesting, character-looking clothes. Of course, those garments usually were torn with holes and rips. Once they were dressed and assembled, Altman pointed out to them that the clothes they had picked out probably meant their character all died of pneumonia or other conditions during rough weathers in the tough climate and then pointed them to where they had put out patches and sewing kits and watched as the actors spent hours repairing the garments they had selected for their characters.

Altman always provides great attitudes and he offers one about another great director who is no longer here to provide us with if not always great at least challenging films that we could really use — Stanley Kubrick. It seems that after McCabe originally opened, Kubrick called Altman up, wondering how Zsigmond got a shot of Beatty lighting his cigar in the rain before he crosses a rope bridge. Altman told him that he actually filmed that shot himself because Zsigmond had to go back to L.A. that day and he only shot it once. Kubrick obsessed over how Altman knew that he had the shot, but Altman told him that he didn't know — he just assumed he did and moved on. The answer didn't really satisfy the meticulous Kubrick, Altman says.

When the movie gets to the part where the representatives for Harrison Shaughnessy, a mining company seeking to buy out McCabe's holdings in the town arrive in the form of Michael Murphy and Anthony Holland, Altman gives a particularly great comment that relates to many ways of life, but he was speaking to the process of filmmaking itself.
"The enemies wear different disguises but they're always the same persons. They're always the accountants and the bankers and the people who do this for money as opposed to…the people who do it because they really want to. The actors, all the artists involved like what they're doing. It's what they decided to do in their lives. It's a shame it's such an expensive process. You see the spirit of all this in theaters around the world."

Altman also expounds on how he always resisted musical scores for his films, preferring to go with indigenous music, and his original plan was just to have no music except for fiddles or other music that might be played in town. At some point though, years before he'd even thought about making McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he'd heard Leonard Cohen's debut album The Songs of Leonard Cohen and subconsciously, some of the songs became stuck in his head. He was at a party during post-production when someone played the album and it clicked. He phoned his film Lou Lombardo and told him to place these songs in the film. Lombardo expressed skepticism since Cohen's album was released by Columbia and they were working for Warner Bros., that they'd be able to secure the rights. He phoned up Cohen and introduced himself and much to his surprise, Cohen expressed delight that Robert Altman was calling him. Altman assumed it was because of the success of MASH, but Cohen told him he didn't really like MASH but he loved Brewster McCloud. Cohen more than willingly agreed to let Altman use the three songs from the album — and at a reduced rate. As an additional part of the deal, Cohen even threw in that a certain percentage of any royalties from new sales of his album after the film came out would go to the movie. A letdown did come though. When Altman showed Cohen the completed film, Cohen didn't like it, but he kept his bargain, including recording a new guitar riff. Altman says it broke his heart. A couple of years later, he got a call from Cohen telling him that he doesn't know what was wrong with him that day, but he'd just watched McCabe again and he absolutely loved it. Altman counts it as one of his happiest moments.

Even though McCabe & Mrs. Miller came early on in the process of the growing Altman legend as a great filmmaker and a critical darling, he already had embraced one of his trademarks: using 8-track recording of sound so you heard everything and dialogue often overlapped though, as Foster points out, he didn't invent overlapping dialogue — directors such as Howard Hawks had been using that since the 1930s and '40s. Altman's technique wasn't quite the same. He didn't just have people talking over one another he had other conversations going on simultaneously and background noises — you had to pay attention. As Foster says, "People perk up and strain to listen to try to hear." The subject gets Altman going passionately, not only for its truthfulness as a technique but about how little studios and exhibitors expect from audiences.
"You don't hear everything everybody says, but that's the way life is. The audiences have been spoiled…by television. A guy can…get up from a murder mystery…and come back (and ask)_'Did he kill her yet?' because he knows he won't miss anything because they are going to show it to him in closeup about three times. He can't miss anything because they just throw it in his face. The thing I like is to put them on warning very early that if you aren't going to pay attention, you're not gonna get it so you may just as well leave. It's like trying to attract the wrong audience. Many times, I go to a great extent to get an R rating that keeps the 14-year-olds out of the film. If the 14-year-olds come in, they don't like it.…It's very hard to get distributors to put their money up because that's their audience and they want the kids in. Well, I don't want the kids in, unless it's for kids."

While it's not uncommon for movies to begin filming without a finished script, with Altman it's because he viewed a screenplay, even if his name is on it, as something similar to a blueprint for a house. It gives you the idea, but the final product doesn't really look like that, Altman says, and that was the case with McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which was based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton. Its "screenplay" is credited to Altman and Brian McKay. "I really don't care very much about the story," Altman says, admitting that most stories end up being pretty much the same, so the viewer will know them going in. "I think of it more like a painting, then I can mess around in the corners with the details." Also on the commentary, Foster says about Altman, "He told me something I've never forgotten. He used to say, 'Whatever an audience expects in a scene or the next scene, go in the entire opposite way just to throw them off.'" Years ago, when I was on the film junket circuit, I was lucky enough to meet Altman. It's hard when you are there as a working journalist not to be in awe in the presence of one of your idols (even if the junket was for Ready to Wear). He said something that stuck with me as well. I imagine Altman had that effect on a lot of people. He said he thought it always was better seeing a movie for a second time, because then you relax and stop thinking about what's going to happen next and just concentrate on the details. Hey, seeing McCabe twice worked on Leonard Cohen. Altman summed it up again at another point in the commentary.
"It's not the words that are important. That's too related to theater where you are trying to advance plot by the words. When you have closeups of people and faces that you can push right up into the audience, it's just better that the word comes from the moment or from the actors themselves."


Foster admits that the lack of box office success for McCabe & Mrs. Miller still puzzles him, despite all its critical acclaim. He does admit that part of him now wonders what would happen if they re-released it today, but he also confesses that he'd take box office over acclaim now, which makes sense when you look at his post-McCabe resume. His next feature after McCabe was Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, but after that: John Carpenter's The Thing, Short Circuit, Short Circuit 2, Running Scared, The Getaway remake, The River Wild, The Fog remake. In the planning stages, Foster plans to produce remakes of Short Circuit and The Thing (a remake of a remake) as well as T.J. Hooker: the Movie (I wish I were kidding).

The only thing Altman ever made that could be called a sequel was his Tanner on Tanner followup to Tanner '88. He never remade anything (and anyone leaping up to say The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, that was the play he filmed for television, not a remake of the movie The Caine Mutiny.) There just aren't enough artists out there anymore who just don't give a rat's ass what anyone else thinks and make the films they want to make. I miss you Bob, I really do. Altman says in the commentary what he would say in almost every commentary or interview in some variation. In my interview, he said, "I find that all of these films are like your children and you tend to love your least successful children the most" and he says something similar on this DVD. He also says, "To me the most successful film isn't any better than the least successful."

At the end of her glowing review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the July 3, 1971, issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote:
"Will a large enough American public accept American movies that are delicate and understated and searching — movies that don't resolve all the feelings they touch, that don't aim at leaving us satisfied, the way a three-ring circus satisfies? Or do we accept such movies only from abroad, and then only a small group of us — enough to make a foreign film a hit but not enough to make an American film, which costs more, a hit?…Nobody knows whether this is changing — whether we're doomed to more of those 'hard-hitting, ruthlessly honest' that are themselves illustrations of the crudeness they attack. The question is always asked, 'Why aren't there American Bergmans or Fellinis?' Here is an American artist who has made a beautiful film. The question now is 'Will enough people buy tickets?'"

Where are the new American Altmans? Is it possible to even have another one in this corporate-run and dominated America? Or have all the creative forces migrated to cable television, finding it the last oasis of artistic freedom that remains?


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Comments:
I miss Altman, too. There doesn't seem to be anyone who is doing what he did. I guess maybe Paul Thomas Anderson comes closest.

I'm ashamed to say that MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is one of the few Altman DVDs I don't own, which I really need to rectify soon. Excellent look back at this film and Altman's thoughts on it.
 
This is actually just part one. My post on the film itself runs tomorrow, but the commentary ended up being full of so much stuff that I had to divide it or the 40th anniversary tribute would be insanely long. As for Paul Thomas Anderson, I think he's a pretender to the throne. The only film of his I liked was Boogie Nights and I still think he botched that ending. I would vote possibly for Linklater except for his more commercial instincts that rear their head from time to time such as remaking Bad News Bears and School of Rock, even though I love School of Rock.
 
You raise an interesting question at the end, Ed. I think a lot of the talent is migrating to television. I know that Paul Thomas Anderson is the heir apparent since he worked closely with Altman, but I think he's a little too indebted to the Tarantino generation -- he can't let a film just sit like Altman could. He does remind me of Altman in the sense that he got his foot in the door in the second wave of American Independent Filmmaking, but his style is just too hyper. I don't know if that makes sense, but I see Altman-types wanting to not even mess with the beast that is the American film industry and instead just exist in the comforts of HBO, FX, and AMC (to name a few) because there aren't those studios financing small, quiet films anymore like there were in the 60s and 70s the 90s. And it's not just that they aren't financing those type of movies anymore, it's that they (the studios AND American audiences) don't have the patience for them.

One of my favorite films of Altman's is Cookie's Fortune, and I can't imagine a contemporary of his making that same movie. It's a movie that never once feels contrived, and its simplicity should not be mistaken for easy or lazy filmmaking. Sure, it's a "minor" film, but there's nothing minor about the complete control and mastery that Altman had of the ensemble picture. I actually prefer it to Gosford Park, and it's the one recent Altman film I always return to. I would have to think long and hard about who a current Altman would be.

Anyway, great piece, Ed, and I look forward to part two tomorrow.
 
I preferred Cookie's Fortune to Gosford Park as well. I've wanted to watch A Prairie Home Companion again becaus it really did feel as if he were filming his own eulogy and it came out before he died.
 
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