Altman, Robert (Vol. 16)
Robert Altman 1925–2006
With the release of M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, Altman won critical praise for his innovation and his artistry. However, the very techniques which brought him this acclaim, such as obscure themes and meandering plot lines, have also kept his films from wide audience appeal.
For ten years Altman directed, produced, and wrote for television, working on episodes for such popular series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza. In 1967 he directed a film called Countdown, starring a relatively unknown actor named James Caan. Even though he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film (and for this reason has subsequently disavowed it), it is generally considered far better than most of the other science fiction films of that era. After he directed That Cold Day in the Park, which also drew lukewarm notices from the critics, producer Otto Preminger asked him to direct M∗A∗S∗H. According to some reports, however, Altman was chosen after fifteen other directors declined the offer. The popularity of M∗A∗S∗H, an anti-war film brimming with satirical one-liners and dedicated but zany army doctors, was Altman's means to artistic and financial freedom. His later films have been praised for the qualities that are typically Altman: overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light humor, an iconoclastic view of traditions, and a camera which, moving constantly and recording from a distance, keeps the viewer somewhat emotionally remote from the characters.
Altman's popularity with actors is largely because of the artistic freedom he allows them. Much of the dialogue is improvised, either in rehearsals or during final shooting. In Nashville his actors and actresses wrote the songs they were to perform. It may be this personal attitude towards the actors, or his multitextured sound tracks, or his off-balance characters, or his iconoclastic attitude which has made Altman famous. For whatever reason, he has the admiration of film critics. As Andrew Sarris has written: "[Altman is] considered by many critics to be the quintessential director of the '70s." Yet although he speaks eloquently of the decade to the critics, the meagerness of his public following has always cast a shadow on that distinction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
[The James Dean Story] breaks new ground by its purely documentary approach; the way with show-business life-stories has always previously been to avoid using the least fragment of authentic material…. Apart from a few staged details (most of them unsuccessful) all the material in this film is documentary—stills of Dean at various stages of his life, shots of the places in which he lived, interviews with the people who knew him and worked with him, a tape recording he made of a conversation with his family, a screen-test for East of Eden. The weakness of the film arises from the attempt to spin out this material—enough for a good thirty-minute short—to feature-length. In its repetitive analysis of Dean's personality and problems, its overlong interviews and excessive use of stills, the film becomes from time to time tedious, and is forced into pretentious over-writing….
The film really convinces you that it is a serious attempt to probe the character of this extraordinary, talented and undoubtedly tormented young man, with his self-confessed longing for someone to love and for flamboyant success, his sense of isolation and of parental deprivation. If it rarely gets further than a lot of words, it is probably because Dean's real problems, socially and psychologically were at once too involved and too familiar for this sort of discussion.
David Robinson, "'The James Dean...
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Say one thing for "Countdown."… It makes the moon seem just as dull as Mother Earth.
[It] is simply stultifying. The bulk of it is a slack, cliché-ridden prelude to the climactic space ride, as we see the conditioning of three astronauts at a simulated Cape Kennedy. The lads bound home to their worried wives. "Hey there, give us a smile," is a sample of the dialogue. Finally, one of the men buckles in and roars aloft, thanks to some documentary footage, as the music rumbles ominously and the rest of the cast hang around a winking control board.
By then slow death has already set in, since Robert Altman's direction is almost as listless as the acting of a dreary cast.
Howard Thompson, "'Countdown'," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1968, p. 57.
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Obscure dramas, laden with opaque relationships, carefully developed (yet still incomprehensible) motifs, latent themes, and inexplicable deeds, seem to be the newest cinematic fad…. The latest and by far the worst specimen is That Cold Day in the Park…. Altman's direction runs to fancy reflection shots, blurry transitions, and ponderous camera movement. He strains to be ornate but cannot relate his devices to his heroine's subjectivity. Whereas Losey gave us uneasy comedy, Clouzot compassionate dissection, and Chabrol cool elegance, Altman supplies logy murkraking…. [To] become a good director he must stop mistaking half-baked mannerisms for psychological profundity. It is one thing to stylize emotions or to seek metaphors, outlandish or otherwise, for their terrifying extremities; it is quite another to make freaks of your characters, as though loneliness were an exotic disease.
Michael Dempsey, "Short Notices: 'That Cold Day in the Park'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Fall, 1969, p. 56.
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Mash (as I'll call [M∗A∗S∗H] for short) is a comedy at which you may very well do not just a double but a quadruple take…. (p. 38)
What makes Mash outstanding—and as something more than a wacky comedy—is the richness of its texture. The characters stroll, run, interweave among the tents of their unit; dust swirls around them; the camera pans and cuts to seemingly random details. Meanwhile, on the sound track, lines of dialogue overlap or are casually tossed away; the PA system continually breaks in with an odd announcement or the Japanese version of an American popular song. Many films these days impose quick cuts and overlapping dialogue on what are basically four-square, linear scripts, and thus produce an irritating effect of contrivance. Mash stands out because—with the exception of the fake suicide and Japanese sequences …—the incidents and dialogue in [Ring Lardner, Jr.'s] script are ideally suited to the dense, elliptical style with which Altman has put them on film. (p. 39)
The dialogue has an almost Proustian richness, with asides and fragmentary exchanges which may easily be missed at a first viewing. In a rapid throwaway line, the general refers to "the dark days before Pearl Harbor."…
With one or two exceptions, even the most broadly conceived characters are something more than stereotypes, and they create a sense of living their own lives...
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[In] their efforts to give [That Cold Day in the Park] what they believe to be contemporary audience appeal the makers have injected a vast dose of ill-assorted spices into what could have been a small, well-observed and unsentimentalised modern Marty. Included are the apparently essential ingredients of: nudity and sex, with a detailed examination at a birth control clinic, hints of incest, and prostitution; contemporary stock characters such as a draft dodger and hippie type drop-outs; and of course a pot smoking sequence. All these ingredients are in this context unnecessary embellishments which add little to the story and seem to have been included solely with an eye to the box office—a gesture which hasn't paid off. (p. 85)
Despite the weaknesses of the script the American director Robert Altman … keeps one's attention from wandering; although he is unable to create the necessary sense of tension and claustrophobia to make the plot's wilder flights of fancy believable. A number of his stylistic touches, including the unnecessary use of the hand-held camera and self-conscious and laboured crosscutting in the scene of the doctor's proposal to Frances, are irritating; but he uses colour intelligently to create atmosphere…. (p. 88)
David Hutchison, "'That Cold Day in the Park'" (© copyright David Hutchison 1970; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol....
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[If there's one moral that can safely be drawn from the succession of gags and incidents which provide M∗A∗S∗H's] sprawling narrative structure, it's that inflexible attitudes to war (chauvinistic, religious, bureaucratic or heroic) lead straight to the strait-jacket. (p. 161)
[Much of M∗A∗S∗H's] ironic tension derives from the contrast between the life-saving activity of the doctors and the destructive impulse of war. And this idea comes closer than most to being spelled out when two recalcitrant surgeons commandeer a Japanese military hospital to treat a local whore's baby: 'We stumbled on him. We didn't want him, but we couldn't back away from him.' But stronger though less explicit than the contrast between medicine and militarism is that between soldier and civilian…. And one suspects the real source of official displeasure with the film is the way its enlisted characters obdurately persist in behaving like civilians. (pp. 161-62)
It's not just the rhetoric of Church and Army that receives the considerable weight of the script's satire, but also that of traditional war films. Throughout the proceedings an incompetent Tannoy (the most fully developed machine-character since the 2001 computer) announces such movies as Halls of Montezuma, whose inflated publicity blurbs stand in sharp counterpoint to the matter-of-fact realism which even shifts from irony to caricature cannot obscure: the...
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Disconcertingly, after the tuneless rendering of the Star Spangled Banner that introduced Brewster McCloud, or the 'Tokyo Rose' transmissions that lent an insane kind of musical continuity to M∗A∗S∗H, it is Leonard Cohen's gentle ballad 'The Stranger' that both introduces and accompanies Robert Altman's latest film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller…. Disconcertingly but appropriately, to the point where one suspects Altman of extrapolating his scenario from the song rather than from the Edmund Naughton novel on which he and Brian McKay based their script. The film stubbornly defies analogies or easy pigeon-holing; but its mood is closer to that of Cohen's writing, with its transitions from obscenity to finely wrought metaphor in the evocation of fear, tentatively raised hopes and final impenetrable loneliness, than to anything one had come to expect from Altman….
The jovial black absurdity of Altman's earlier films, with their chaotic depiction of both licensed and unlawful lunacy, here darkens into a virtually existentialist notion of the Absurd. Though the jokes still fall as thick and fast, it is the film's muted but unanswerable sadness that predominates….
Despite the stock characters of itinerant gambler and tough madam, both perversely refusing to conform to type, and the climactic gunfight that in the event proves disturbingly anti-climactic (photographed like much of the film through a...
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[What] is Altman's Brewster McCloud really about? The most obvious idea of the film is, of course, the fantasy of flying. As the Lecturer intones at the film's opening, "… the desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind of Man…. Was the dream to attain the ability to fly, or was the dream the freedom that true flight seemed to offer Man?" This question is the "score," or major leitmotif, of the film—the main theme upon which subsequent variations are orchestrated. From the opening sequence, throughout nearly every scene of the film to its finale, the ideas of flight, freedom, and constraint are developed, each with its own further variations. (p. 46)
Even granted [the] asides on contemporary society and its ills, it would be easy enough to dismiss Brewster McCloud as an entertaining fantasy. It is that, of course, but it is more than that; the ultimate effect of the film, which emerges from the comedy itself, is serious. The fantasy of flying/freedom touches a yearning which we all share, in its promise of physical release and freedom from psychological restraint as well. Yet Brewster himself is a victim of his own cage…. His obsession with flight deludes him into believing that there are no social or ethical restraints upon him—that he is a kind of superman for whom murder is no more than removal of obstacles in the way of his goal. And, beneath the social implications of the film, one finds...
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The "spoof" … is only one form of American movies' film-consciousness. Somewhere this side of burlesque, connected to it, lies a distinctively American kind of film which also works with conventional film-styles but instead of deflating or inflating them tries to domesticate them. A stock plot and stock characters, even stock editing, are set forth with a wealth of gritty, sometimes squalid detail. At their best, these films set up a resonance between the ideal values of the convention and the homely ordinariness of their settings, properties, and dialogue…. The film convention thus enclosed is not shown up, debunked, burlesqued, or otherwise patronized: it is, if a word must be found, actual-ized—i.e., supplied with actuality….
The comic strain is always important in the genre, and it is always a threat to the director's equilibrium. At best, two attitudes toward the characters are juxtaposed and kept in balance in a way that informs and complicates both of them…. (p. 49)
Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a near-perfect example of the type. (p. 50)
Every image is an homage to the "it-ness" of life, to the feel and look and use and enjoyment of physical existence: rarely has the weather and the progress of the seasons been more meticulously attended to in a film without investing it with some symbolic or sentimental importance, and the same matter-of-fact...
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McCabe and Mrs. Miller tells two interrelated but recognizably distinct stories, each bearing some relationship to … [a Western theme]. One is the story of the founding and growth of a frontier town. The second is that of McCabe's personal struggle for survival. These two parts of the film can be separated and discussed individually to show how Altman creates a work which uses the forms and themes of the conventional Western to systematically undercut the meanings traditionally associated with them. (pp. 269-70)
Until the mid-point of McCabe and Mrs. Miller Altman seems unconcerned with characterizing the end toward which the town is moving. Upon reflection it can be seen that the town's progress has been measured by vast material changes. But here in the middle of the film Altman begins to analyze and evaluate the morality of the towns-people. The arrival of the representatives of the mining company signifies that Presbyterian Church has finally advanced enough to draw attention to itself from outside the community. The business monopoly, with its depersonalizing organization and concomitant financial and political power, has come to incorporate. For the first time we see the goal toward which the town is headed. The sympathy we feel for the town's progress throughout the first half of the film becomes suspect, for we see that the townspeople make no attempt to oppose the mining company's invasion. (p. 273)...
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[Images] is a modern variant of the old The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ploy—the world as seen through a mad person's eyes. A classy schizo (Susannah York) duplicates herself, confuses the living with the dead, and can't tell her husband … from her lovers…. Miss York's madness has no roots, no nourishment; it is a matter of tinkling wind chimes, slivers of glass, windows, lenses, mirrors—"images." To be effective, the movie needs to draw us in to identify with Susannah York's hallucinations, but the cold shine of the surfaces doesn't do it…. This is a psychological thriller with no psychological content, so there's no suspense and the climax has no power. We know from the heroine's dashingly casual clothes and the exquisitries of the super-modern décor that this film is concerned not with why she is going mad but with the coquetry of madness; that is, with suggestive objects (eyeglasses, camera, binoculars), with fragmentation, and with the bizarre situations a rich, sexy schizo can get into…. Altman is a fantastic technician; the rhythms of the cutting are seductive, and there are inventive moments…. Altman could probably turn, say, a Daphne du Maurier novel into a stylish screen terror, but he himself doesn't seem to have the gothic sensibility to make the scare effects matter. You stop being frightened as soon as you know that he takes it all seriously, and that it will be a hollow puzzle, a moviemaker's show-business view of...
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[The] good guys of M∗A∗S∗H are not just a bunch of merry pranksters on a spree. They are best understood, I think, as Robin Hoods of rationalism, robbing from the rich stockpiles of madness controlled by the people who make (and manage) wars and doling it out in inoculating life-saving doses to the little guys caught up in the mess. They may be vicious in their persecution of the pompous, the petty and the paranoid, but they have a wonderful tenderness with outcasts and underlings and innocents. (pp. 284-85)
I have nothing but awed admiration for the way Altman has managed what is obviously a precarious project, one which could have gone all black on him. Or, more likely, have been betrayed by a lack of courage on his part. The thing has a loose, improvisational quality about it—as if his actors were encouraged to be as inventive as possible. But it is never slack, careless or indulgent of their whims or the director's. Every scene is both tight in execution and rich in detail. (p. 285)
Richard Schickel, "'M∗A∗S∗H'" (originally published in Life, February 20, 1970), in his Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies, 1965–70 (copyright © 1972 by, Richard Schickel; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation), Simon and Schuster, 1972, pp. 283-85.
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Conceivably, schizophrenia is a malady to which all Robert Altman's major characters have been prone. Their behaviour is of little interest analysed on the level of clues or symptoms, but compelling where it gives evidence of large and dangerous attempts to comprehend an irrational world through personal experience, of minds which escape from the trap of an insane situation by going promptly, appropriately, healthily insane. Broad Laingian concepts of madness as socially conditioned, as a valid experience of a given situation, are as closely worked out in Altman's tragicomedies as in the explicit psychiatric challenge of Family Life. And perhaps just as such a theory opposes the psychiatric treatment of schizophrenia as a personal, functional disorder, so Altman has always opted for revealing his characters through complex situations rather than psychological puzzles. A precise and restless talent for experiment is evident in his switching through original combinations of comedy and drama, creating each time a complete universe, dense in detail and mood yet transparent to the passage of his characters from some rearguard delusion to eventual resignation and absorption. Self-destruction seems the inevitable conclusion, with the single exception of M∗A∗S∗H, where a best possible adjustment is made through more vigorous comedy.
Confronting an absurd situation, Altman's heroes plainly have a right to their schizoid view...
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Charles A. Baker
[There] is in Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as well as in That Cold Day in the Park and M∗A∗S∗H, an underlying view of life and the world which, bypassing differences in subject matter, links these four films together as the work of a consistently serious and perceptive critic of certain conditions of contemporary society…. In the four films which are the subject of this study, Altman reserves his strongest disapproval and censure for those characters who, rather than maintaining their freedom of choice and action and a flexibility which permits them to alter their conduct according to the contingencies of a given situation, fall back on a structure, an established set of values, which, whether self-invented and self-imposed or applied by some outside agency and found to be acceptable by the characters involved, causes them to lose their options, become fixed in their response, no matter what the circumstances, and normally leads them to a disaster of varying degrees—whether it be failure, defeat, insanity, or death. (pp. 243-44)
A pessimistic film, That Cold Day in the Park is a chilling illustration of the tragic madness which can result from allowing oneself to become enmeshed in a structure imposed from outside and too readily and unquestioningly accepted. The result is a waning in one's ability to break loose from the habits of a lifetime, even when one most desires to do...
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Robert B. Meyers
[In his "'McCabe and Mrs. Miller': Robert Altman's Anti-Western" (see excerpt above), Gary Engle's] purpose is to praise [Altman] for having succeeded in producing the best Anti-western of a current outpouring which includes films such as Doc and Little Big Man. Engle does not elaborate on the worth of the Anti-western as a genre. He seems, rather, to assume that the reader will recognize the sense and value of having produced an anti-something. (p. 301)
[Engle is also] so preoccupied with making all the parts he mentions subordinate to the theme of social progress that he gives short shrift to the film's sensual immediacy and the impact it makes. For one thing, he neglects the leisureliness of the opening. The film is several minutes old before the characters engage in intelligible social intercourse which reveals who they are and how they are related. The delay creates a kind of suspense which is uniquely cinematic in that the audience is deprived of fundamental social information but thoroughly engrossed at the same time in the visual wealth which sets the initial mood of gloom. Giving an adequate verbal account of this richness of existence and how it functions is one of the overwhelming difficulties of adequate film criticism. But the difficulty is surely not rectified by reducing all the visual detail to a meaning, to a proposition in the development of a theme. Engle also neglects to mention the haunting Cohen song...
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Philip Marlowe's back and the Seventies got him. Raymond Chandler's private eye, who survived threats from gangsters, gamblers, karate experts, cops, treacherous women, sadistic killers, has finally been defeated—by his own code and an age that doesn't need it. At least, so says Robert Altman in the latest Marlowe movie, The Long Goodbye….
Altman's ambition … was more sweeping than most of his audience realised, for Marlowe and his fellow shamuses, gumshoes and dicks are not the only target for the director's satire and anger. An entire genre of tightlipped, cynical but grimly romantic films is being criticised and parodied in The Long Goodbye. The plot and characters come, albeit loosely, from Chandler's 1953 novel, but the characterisation and the ambience come from films like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, Scarlet Street and the like, as well as from the 1940s private eye movies. (p. 155)
What particularly bothers Altman is Marlowe as hero, the defiantly poor individualist surviving in a corrupt world…. Altman has survived the sixties by learning to distrust heroes and heroics; his romanticism takes a different direction. The overwhelming competence and control of Marlowe is too much for him, because his vision does not include the possibility of control. The moment is all that survives in his work….
Altman's pre-release publicity...
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M∗A∗S∗H is a marvellously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It's a sick joke, but it's also generous and romantic—an erratic, episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected. I think it's the closest an American movie has come to the kind of constantly surprising mixture in Shoot the Piano Player, though M∗A∗S∗H moves so fast that it's over before you have time to think of comparisons. (p. 92)
What holds the disparate elements of M∗A∗S∗H together in the precarious balance that is the movie's chief charm is a free-for-all, throwaway attitude. The picture looks as if the people who made it had a good time, as if they played with it and improvised and took some chances. It's elegantly made, and yet it doesn't have that overplanned rigidity of so many Hollywood movies…. The throwaway stuff isn't really thrown away; it all helps to create the free, graceful atmosphere that sustains the movie and keeps it consistently funny. The director, Robert Altman, has a great feel for low-keyed American humor…. Altman has made a real sport of a movie which combines traditional roustabout comedy with modern attitudes. As in other good comedies, there's often a mixture of what seems perfectly straight stuff and what seems incredible fantasy, and yet when we try to say which is which we can't....
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In other Altman films, there is always something that people can complain about; they ask, "What's that there for?" In Thieves Like Us, there's nothing to stumble over. It's a serenely simple film—contained and complete. You feel elated by the chasteness of the technique, and the film engages your senses and stays with you, like a single vision. It's beautiful right from the first, pearly-green long shot. Robert Altman finds a sureness of tone and never loses it; Thieves Like Us has the pensive, delicate romanticism of McCabe, but it isn't hesitant or precarious. It isn't a heady, whirling sideshow of a movie, like The Long Goodbye; it has perfect clarity. I wouldn't say that I respond to it more than to McCabe or that I enjoy it more than the loony The Long Goodbye, but Thieves Like Us seems to achieve beauty without artifice. It's the closest to flawless of Altman's films—a masterpiece.
Altman breaks the pattern of what American directors are commonly supposed to be good at; this picture has the relaxed awareness that we honor Europeans for and that still mystifies Hollywood…. The movie has the ambience of a novel; it is the most literary of all Altman's films, yet the most freely intuitive. Thieves Like Us is so sensuous and lucid that it is as if William Faulkner and the young Jean Renoir had collaborated. (pp. 268-69)
You can see that Altman doesn't...
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[The close-up of the body at the end of Thieves Like Us] and the choice of the puddle are typical of the heaviness, the fundamentally mawkish fatalism with which Robert Altman has loaded this film. (p. 263)
[The book by Edward Anderson, on which the film is based,] does exactly what Altman's film does not do: it fixes its hero and heroine, Bowie and his girl Keechie, as creatures of circumstance, helpless and overpowered, grasping frantically for some truth—a paradox of the possibility of spirit in a drastically degraded moral landscape. We accept Bowie's values, given his conditioning, and accept the fate of Bowie and his girl as Zola-Dreiser specks of human grit bursting into flower for a few moments before the juggernaut of society rolls over them.
Almost all of this is missing from Altman's film. His only attempts to connect Bowie with society are in terms of minutiae…. (p. 264)
[Altman's script is so far removed from any social or Freudian motivation] that we almost get two cleaned-off clinical specimens. We cannot feel that these two are products of the Depression or of environment, only that Bowie is a moral idiot and that Keechie is a mollusk clinging to him. Then Altman the director emphasizes the script's coldness and bareness by going exactly the opposite way in execution; he and his cinematographer Jean Boffety have worked with wistful visual sentiment from the opening shot. He...
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Altman is a director who works on the periphery: he can take a tired motif and move around it with such precision and freshness that the very form seems altered, expanded. He looks at his subjects sideways. His talent is an original one, but it's probably the most erratic now at work in American movies. The technique can jell to extraordinary effect (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or get lost in muddle (The Long Goodbye) and occasionally even fall apart completely (Brewster McCloud), Thieves Like Us is one of Altman's more successful movies, coherent and rich in detail, and it plays without a hitch. It has the rhythm of a hazy Mississippi heat cut with flashes of rain and it's so firmly set in its period that it can't be accused of cashing in on the nostalgia run. (p. 115)
Thieves Like Us isn't condescending about its characters, though it scores a few laughs off the dumb redneck Dee Mobley (who can't find the wrench before his eyes)…. The people here are not so much mean-spirited as mindless—they don't have the brains to be, say, the Snopeses…. It's as surprising to them as Keechie's pregnancy or the door that falls off its loose hinges—they can't leap from cause to effect, they just take things as they come. But neither are they victims, except in the most general sense…. [We're] not meant to respond to the characters as victims of social upheaval. They're more like victims of social inertia....
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Like gambling itself, the impulses of Altman's characters [in "California Split"] seem a matter of luck or catastrophe, resting on choices ungoverned by rehearsal. The film gives us the sense that it is being improvised. We catch at events and personalities by the ends of threads. Everything seems to be going on in some tight corner of life that is off the direct route, inhabited by something musky, dangerous, and surprisingly poetic. The characters suffer the fierce aloneness that Altman identifies in American living. His film is an implacable and minatory one. It is sometimes very funny, in a mood of not caring whether you find it so or not…. Using the overlapping talk that has always been so potent in his movies, Altman again shows that he has a mysterious feeling for the low-toned energy of American humor. His films have a supple genius for the awkward in speech. It is the kind of awkwardness that makes small kids giggle about riddles, or newcomers to English who live here suddenly express the heart of America in a one-legged phrase….
The imagery of risk in the film works like a spell. One is drawn into the heroes' universe, where they are sometimes opiate-lidded with fatigue, sometimes pepped up by a redhot winning streak and superstitious that the streak can be broken as though by an evil eye if an onlooker gets too interested. (p. 78)
[Multiple] conversations crowd the film with a peculiar vivacity, which...
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Robert Phillip Kolker
[In Thieves Like Us] Altman re-creates the depression Thirties …, but despite the clothing, cars, buildings, the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottles, and the 1930s radio programmes that Altman uses almost as a music track, he has not made just another 'evocation' film. Rather, by using the basic plot of the novel, he has made an alternative to [Nicholas Ray's film noir, They Live By Night, based on Edward Anderson's novel Thieves Like Us] in which the entrapment and destruction of innocents takes place in the open country, in the light instead of the dark, in a world that appears to be free and pure. Altman's distancing effect is therefore quite different from Ray's. They Live By Night is contemporary in time, and its film noir elements remove us from any intense identification with its characters. Thieves Like Us is a re-creation of a distant time, but a re-creation done with such a high degree of stylisation and self-consciousness that we cannot be absolutely sure how far our sentiments and sympathies should extend. (p. 238)
Ray guides our affections and sympathies all the way. If we can't 'identify' with his Bowie and Keechie, we are at least certain that they are the central characters and certain of our own sense of their despair and isolation. But Altman feels affection for, or at least an attraction to, almost all his characters. He is too much like Jean Renoir, and since he condemns almost...
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Apart from their intrinsic quality (often very high indeed) Altman's films are interesting by virtue of their centrality to the development of the American cinema, their synthesis of contemporary tendencies. First, Altman is very conscious of his legacy; a number of his films are overtly retrospective, establishing their significance through their relation (half-homage, half-sardonic critique) to the Hollywood past….
Second, that awareness of the European cinema that marks one of the decisive differences between the American cinema of today and the Hollywood of the studio/star/genre system—the increase in artistic consciousness or self-consciousness and the rise of the director as the recognized prime determinant of quality—is especially strong in Altman. One can recognize an Altman film as one can a Fellini or Antonioni—from its stylistic self-assertion.
Third, an equally conscious contemporaneity, a desire to capture impressionistically the mood of the age, dominates those films (MASH and California Split) that one guesses Altman takes least seriously (though we need not necessarily follow suit). If several Altman films are critiques of past genres, California Split belongs very plainly to a currently fashionable one, the "male duo" picture initiated by Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider….
Every new development in a collective art form produces its...
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[An assorted array of cranks] populate McCabe and The Long Goodbye, each riding on an autonomous wavelength that runs at an oblique angle to everyone else's. Consider, for instance, Harvey in California Split, an old friend whom Bill looks up in a paint store:
Harvey: Wait a minute! Don't tell anybody you came, I'm getting a flash. You see, I have a good amount of ESP. I'm blessed with it—my wife kids me about it—but you should catch it when I get these flashes. Let me see how close I can get to what's goin' on here. I get—I get that you're probably back with your old lady … an-n-n that you probably want to paint your garage door—perhaps even the whole front of your house—I'm gettin' the colour … it's a greenish colour. Right, how close did I get?
Bill: I need a loan, Harvey.
Harvey: A loan?
And that's all we ever see of Harvey. Like some of the Flemish peasants in Brueghel's landscapes and certain topics and individual chapters in Tristram Shandy, he emerges briefly in apparent non-relation to his immediate surroundings, but retrospectively blends into an overall pattern of awkward everyday cussedness that comprises an appropriate setting for absurdist-humanist drama….
The pathos of these characters—and countless other examples could...
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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
I have often hoped that the arts could be wonderfully useful in times of trouble. I have seen few examples of that. Nashville, however, fulfills my dream. It is a spiritual inventory of America, splendidly frank and honest.
The movie shows us a system of yearnings and rewards and punishments and physical objects which we have tacked together over the years….
Mr. Altman implies that our understanding of our curious civilization must come from ourselves. He has an actress portray a British documentary filmmaker on a visit to Nashville, fresh from Israel and darkest Africa. She confidently misinterprets all she sees. She has European brilliance and sophistication which, when applied to the city of Nashville, render her asinine. She says of a country-music star's mansion built of logs, "It's pure Bergman." And then she adds, "But of course these are the wrong people for Bergman."
And I must say that, when the movie was over, not only did I want to cry but I was thunderstruck by how discontinuous with the rest of the world our culture is. It is pure and recent invention, inspired by random opportunities to gain money or power or fame. Even the past is faked. And those who partake of that culture, especially the weak or simpleminded, feel compelled to invent personalities as novel and arbitrary and commercial as the inventions with which they hope to harmonize….
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Paramount Pictures has, I suspect, done Robert Altman a grave disservice in not releasing his Nashville in some longer version…. From an eight-hour version to a six-hour one to be released in two parts, from a three-and-a-half- to its present two-and-a-half-hour version, the film kept shrinking with nothing reaching us except rumors of its decrease…. What has finally been vouchsafed us strikes me as highly interesting but ultimately insufficient….
In a sense, the film resembles Joyce's Ulysses: more or less interconnected, self-important but essentially humdrum lives strutting in a brief time span against the more important backdrop of an exceptionally raucous but second-rate city, and the whole thing functioning on two levels. But there are two sizable differences: the non-literal level in the book is mythic, not merely allegorical; and the novel is a work of genius, the film only of talent.
Still, this is an absorbing film, Altman's best so far, and look what the drastic cutting has done to it. We encounter, for instance, a mismated married couple: an elderly farmer husband … and his flighty young wife … who keeps eluding him to take stabs at becoming a country-and-western singer. We see so little of their relationship … that the surprise climax, in which [the wife] against all probability gets a sensational start on the road to stardom, lacks the petty beginnings against which to resonate....
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Joel E. Siegel
[Nashville is] a bloated, slapdash, simplistic effort, full of hollow attitudinizing about the Emptiness of American Life, an enterprise concocted of equal parts arrogance, condescension, and gall….
Some say you have to be stoned to see Altman's films properly, and I suspect they're right. The director's best movies (M∗A∗S∗H, California Split) and his worst (Thieves Like Us, Brewster McCloud) are marked by faintly narcotic stylistic similarities—muzzy, soft-edged camerawork, mumbly, overlapping dialogue tracks, limp, somnambulant pacing. Altman has drawn an analogy between how he makes a movie and the way jazzmen improvise. Journalists have bought this one, but the analogy is faulty. True, jazz musicians improvise within the harmonies of a song's structure, but their work remains abstract, consisting of sounds and moods. Altman's work is moody all right, but essentially mindless; language and ideas cannot be manipulated as freely as musical tones. The director's films aren't really thought out or fully imagined. (p. 1)
His screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, admits to having spent only a few days in Nashville prior to writing the script and says that Altman knew even less about the place than she did. In the normal run of things, an artist has an experience, discovers that he has something he wants to express on the subject, and then settles down to the job of creation. Altman and Tewkesbury,...
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F. Anthony Macklin
A Robert Altman film is an experiment in audacity. Nashville is about American success—its costs, humiliations, and incredible spirit. Despite some failures in its storytelling, its ambience is tremendous. Altman has used the Mecca of country music to place his episodic film, and he shows what Americans have assumed as their values. In doing so he has created a movie that is provocative, comic, and gaudily melodramatic….
What is so exciting about Altman's movie-making is its many levels. Altman is one of the very few directors whose work deserves more than one experiencing. Mere viewing is not sufficient; in an Altman film, sound is supremely important. He has frustrated audiences previously by having several conversations going on at once. Altman is trying to smash out of the confines of cinematic conventions. (p. 6)
One has to mine an Altman film for its insights; but they truly are there. Colors, like yellow, coordinate throughout the film, and themes, such as the media-crazed world and what it is doing to us, cohere. In almost every scene there are tape recorders, TVs, radios, microphones, and other media paraphernalia. When Opal … wanders through a car burial ground and through a lot full of buses creating her ridiculous "poetic" soliloquies, she is startled by one man and is oblivious to another shaving. Humanity means nothing to her, though she doesn't realize it. In all of her grandiose speeches,...
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[It] is impossible to evaluate Altman's artistic decisions … without some sense of the vision which those decisions attempt to clarify. California Split is perhaps the most literal, explicit treatment to date of Altman's perennial concern: the relation between risk and belief.
In one way or another, all of Altman's movies are about the necessary risk involved in any attempt to enact an imaginative vision and, thereby, to extend the limits of the "real." The sliding fluidity of reality, its status as a reflector of consciousness, is probably most apparent in his "gothic thriller," Images. Altman's premise is that reality is a function of consciousness: if we feel imprisoned, an act of consciousness, a risk of the imagination, may set us free. But such a risk demands belief: therefore his movies are also about the single-minded, committed faith which transcendence necessitates. (pp. 11-12)
[Altman's heroes] are all at work acting out their imaginative versions of themselves, living their visions. Their impulse is to impose their imagination upon the intractable context, the convention-bound cultural reality which imprisons them and from which they seek release. Put another way: his heroes try to draw the world into their movie in order to break through the deadening limits of the conventional movie in which they find themselves. In this sense, Altman's heroes resemble their...
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One feels, and before Nashville it seemed a very grave limit, that Altman is in love with surfaces, that style is the essence of his work. And that if his dominant vision is that human life is absurd and fragmented, it is merely a shallow intuition, not deeply felt or thought through. Altman is hip and cynical, but his detachment is of that comfortable variety which often passes for iconoclasm and radicalism in American film. Altman's world is one where dreamers are destroyed (Brewster McCloud), friends betray and murder (The Long Goodbye), and every relationship is tainted by money (McCabe and Mrs Miller). But for all this sense of human corruption, his films gave off little genuine pain. The sum of his perceptions was that since everything is meaningless, you can only survive by being cool, mocking, and uncommitted. (pp. 97-8)
In Nashville, Altman can again be faulted for being unwilling or incapable of taking intellectual risks which parallel his formal ones, and for lacking a coherent social and political perspective. The charges cannot be easily dismissed, but this time his intuitions and images convey genuine feeling. This is more than a work of formal display, it is a film which transcends its limits, and is the best and most fully realized of his works. (p. 98)
In this film Altman … has moved remarkably beyond his characteristic filmic treatment of women as either dumb or...
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The two hours' duration [of Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson] achieves nothing that could not have been done just as well in 90 minutes, and what sustains us much of the time is not so much lack of boredom as the assumption that so much artful quaintness must have something up its tasseled sleeve. In vain; this film makes me think that the center of Altman is made not of ideas, insights, visions, but of attitudes. And attitudes are not quite good enough. (p. 70)
There are two sides to almost everything: William F. Cody was also a Pony Express rider, Indian scout, hunter, and entrepreneur of remarkable skill, however little you and I may value these talents…. Altman's sitting duck of a Buffalo Bill, this all black-and-white—or, rather, all red-and-black—history lesson with its consistently noble Indians and dependably ignoble whites will not wash. Not even if it is presented as madcap satire that is at times ingenious and amusing; there is, after all, more than one way of forking a tongue. (pp. 70, 73)
[It] is not only the improvisational incoherences of the script that are problematical; there is also the notion that texture is all that matters, while structure can be allowed to shift for itself. It is not that I crave the overtailored plots of yesteryear; I do, however, want to see certain concepts worked out in dramatic terms. Let us call it a progression with...
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[My] biggest problem with Altman has arisen with his anti-genre derision in "The Long Good-bye" and "Buffalo Bill." I am not saying that Altman or any modern filmmaker should revere genre or even narrative. One may bypass it, but it is futile and unseemly to ridicule it. At times Altman evokes late Bergman's skepticism toward all forms of dramatic discourse, but in "Buffalo Bill," particularly, Altman has not devised an adequate substitute for the dramatic discourse. The result is that the grin of the Cheshire cat has frozen into a fashionable grimace of perpetual disenchantment….
What I find lacking in "Buffalo Bill" is any genuine affection for its subject….
Altman's relentlessly roving camera overcomments on the spectacle from such a cold distance that one wonders why anyone ever attended these Wild West Shows. The fault is more in the conception than in the execution. I feel that Altman did what he set out to do. Where he may have miscalculated was with his audience, not politically, since it is always open season these days on America's treatment of the Indians, but emotionally, since audiences around the world are still more interested in the plight of real Indians than in the show-biz image of the Redskin.
Yet though I disapprove of "Buffalo Bill," I thoroughly respect and even grudgingly admire it for its artistic integrity…. The ugliness of the film's palette of dull reds, browns, and...
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Robert J. Cardullo
[Altman attempts in] his Nashville to evoke on screen what he perceives to be the dominant quality of American life today. It is one man's tragicomically exaggerated vision of contemporary American society, and by implication western civilization as a whole, that is the real subject of this film, the timeless universal to be conveyed through the particular vehicle of spatially defined Nashville. Altman's method in building and equipping such a vehicle is to be compared with that of character or the writer of comedy. Unlike the dramatic novelist or the tragedian, he is never at one with any of his characters, never at pains to pursue each's fate as he or she comes into being. Their dialogue is anything but profound, they themselves nothing if not ordinary. We do not identify with them as they move linearly from a beginning to an end in time and come to some insight about their lives. The particular actions of the people of Nashville are not intended, in this way, to evoke the complete range, the absoluteness, of human experience, and hence to work as Altman's personal, boundless metaphor for or selective aesthetic vision of the character of human life in general. As the polar opposites of "round" introspectionists, these seemingly "flat," self-presenting characters, having sprung full-blown from the mind of their creator, have their fates (or want of them) imposed on them from the start. They exist spatially rather than temporally,...
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Robert Altman's 3 Women is such a stimulating achievement in cinematic art that it makes one rethink the whole aesthetic of motion pictures…. There is something so utterly unusual about 3 Women that its like may never materialize again, even from Altman. It seems to be located at a fleeting intersection of two awarenesses—the artist's and society's. It is both a dream and a document, a set of facts and a cluster of myths. But the mixture of ingredients produces a very strange concoction, one difficult to describe in terms of the rhetoric of contemporary criticism….
In all of Altman's films, but most decisively in Brewster McCloud, Images, and now 3 Women, his feelings are filtered through a mystical-aesthetical framework that limits a reviewer's sociological speculation. Since I do not find self-consciousness in an artist, even a film artist, to be a crippling disability, Brewster McCloud, Images, and 3 Women are among my favorite Altman films. It is perhaps my latent, some would say blatant, antipathy to realist aesthetics that makes me react so warmly to what has been widely publicized as a literal "dream" film. (p. 40)
That [Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall] are virtually interchangeable, and [their] two characters virtually inseparable, gives 3 Women a passing resemblance to Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Of course, the extraordinarily vivid sensuality of...
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Doubling the number of featured players in Nashville from twenty-four to forty-eight while shrinking the time scale from three days to one, A Wedding offers an extension rather than an expansion of Robert Altman's behavioral repertory. Variations on the same dirty little secrets, social embarrassments, and isolating self-absorptions that illustrate his last ten movies are trotted out once again—articulated as gags or tragicomic mash notes, molded into actors' bits, arranged in complementary or contrasting clusters, orchestrated and choreographed into simultaneous or successive rhythmic patterns, and strategically timed and placed to coincide with unexpected plot or character reversals.
The execution of these pirouettes has never presented critics with much of a problem, for the level of craft is pretty consistent. (Some gags are funnier than others, but all get the same careful/offhand inflection.) What remains a bone of contention is their justification, which shifts more discernibly from film to film….
What's the subject of—and justification for—A Wedding? It's hard to say precisely, but it seems perched somewhere between weddings in general … and one wedding in particular, i.e., Southern nouveau-riche bride marries groom from established Midwestern aristocracy, a Catholic ceremony followed by a reception and party at the estate of the groom's family…. [I] would be quite happy to...
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Judith M. Kass
Altman likes show-business motifs, which appear regularly in his films, or bits of activity related to shows, and this derives, at least partly, from being comfortable with his performers. Donald Sutherland's and Elliott Gould's behavior in M∗A∗S∗H is a show in itself—theatrical, mannered, and even artificial in its heightened, cool relaxation. And there's the spoof of John Schuck's "suicide," a play in itself, complete with music and a grand finale. Brewster McCloud takes place at the Houston Astrodome, an arena devoted not only to sports but to shows as well. (p. 19)
Altman's "show" relates to another branch of the arts, painting, which he constantly refers to when talking about his movies. "I look at a film as closer to a painting or a piece of music, it's an impression," says Altman….
Altman's films are all shot in Panavision, which has an aspect ratio shaped like a rectangular painting, and this increases the force of his analogy. The complete control he exercises over the look of his films, as a painter does over his canvases, is another facet of Altman's preoccupation with painting. (p. 21)
All of Nashville is a canvas; it was part of Altman's filmic conception that most of the time the screen would be crammed with action and people, giving the impression of a postcard overflowing its borders. Buffalo Bill follows the same visual scheme, with its panoply...
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Up to a point, at least, Robert Altman's celebration of the celebration of matrimony in A Wedding … is irresistibly and uncomplicatedly funny. Eavesdropping at precisely the right moment, his camera is invariably well placed to pull a plum out of the surrounding chaos of socially amplified intrigues, obsessions, eccentricities, gaffes, resentments and pretensions…. [The] wedding gradually becomes a looking-glass into which one peers, fascinated, at a minor key counterpart to the nine circles of Dante's inferno….
[One] realises, as the film progresses, that the 'naturalism' (comically heightened, of course) is gradually being abandoned for—in the phrase annexed by Jonathan Rosenbaum in defence of Nashville—a 'dialectic collage of unreality' No one wedding could credibly throw out quite so many sins and situations as this one does. Yet Altman keeps on turning the screw, ever more outrageously, until the bones and ligaments of reality snap and, as in Nashville, one finds oneself confronted by an almost abstract microcosm which can be interpreted any way one wants….
As in Nashville, the socio-political caps left lying around fit very comfortably indeed, with even the wedding guests who fail to show up suggesting the bankruptcy of America's policy of goodwill. The trouble is that, whereas the characters in Nashville obstinately maintained lives and wills of their own, often...
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[The burden of A Wedding, Altman's] very black and very funny new movie is to make us laugh at our romantic, sentimental, pretentious absurdity. We are, in the Altman canon, certainly the oddest creatures on the face of the earth, and he looks at us with astonishment, as if surprised to discover that an animal so ill-equipped for living has managed to get by for so long. One of our chief drawbacks is the yawning abyss between what we think of ourselves and what we are, and it is into this abyss, with ungentlemanly relish, that Altman jumps with all his troops….
Altman believes in pushing his observations on film as close to lifelike experiences as the medium will stand without boring us to tears. So he fills the screen with action and character, floods us with information, breaks up our perception of it into forgettable gobbets, buries important revelations under trivial gossip, and altogether tries to make us do the work, so he says, of making the film.
Of course, there is a deal of double-talk, in the other sense, in all this. While he pretends he is offering us a cheerful chaos, the image of life, his selection processes are ruthlessly imposing: he takes us where he wants, and if we do not see what is there, it is our loss and our failure, not his.
There is a special pleasure for English viewers in seeing an American film so aware of class. The groom's family appear to be grand old Middle...
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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.
In all his recent films, including A Wedding, Robert Altman has made the kind of satire that delivers a big, round-house right to the whole society. Only a director capable of great economy as a story-teller—Orson Welles is another—can do satire on this epic scale. Just as Welles was able in Citizen Kane to describe the entire course of a marriage in a few snippets of conversation at the breakfast table, so Altman can neatly create the personalities of a half dozen characters at a time. Both directors are masters of the vignette. When Altman's wedding party returns from the ceremony to the reception at the house, for instance, Altman just sends everyone off to the bathroom. As people cue up to use the facilities, in that little tension between a formal occasion and everyone's bodily functions, Altman can establish in a gesture or exchange of pleasantries what another director would need a whole scene to get across. (p. 18)
The more people your satire includes, however, the more trouble you are going to have with one person who must necessarily be in it: yourself. If you are sending up the whole world, you somehow have to admit your own place among the victims…. After all, what makes Citizen Kane great is that Welles played Kane himself. Altman's solution to the problem is not to act in his film, but rather to project onto one of the roles in it a parody of his own role as maker of it. In A Wedding, as...
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In the past I have been up on Altman when everyone else was down, and down on Altman when everyone else was up. I have always found it strange that so somber and so pessimistic an artist has managed to be so productive in an industry dedicated mostly to the manufacture of cotton candy.
Part of the answer may be that he was regarded for a long time as a realist and an iconoclast…. No one seemed to notice the stylization and absurdism in [his] works. But when Altman went completely abstract in Brewster McCloud, Images, and Three Women, most reviewers found no outlet for their anti-establishment rhetoric and turned thumbs down on these violent ruptures from all realistic conventions. For my part, I have come to appreciate Altman more and more as a thoroughly eccentric and resourceful artist. His art remains hard edged at a time when much of the cinema is becoming sickening soft.
The Altman films I like least—The Long Goodbye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and The Wedding—are the ones in which he seems to be smirking. Some of his erstwhile admirers are beginning to gossip that he has been taken over by a shifting array of young sycophants and that all his recent films have suffered from script trouble. Yet as I look back over the 14 films he has turned out in the past dozen years, I find an unusually distinctive body of work making up a very personal landscape.
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Robert Altman is like the little girl in the nursery rhyme who had a curl right in the middle of her forehead. When he is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad—well, did you happen to catch "Quintet"?…
In what may be the swiftest rebound in cinematic history, Hollywood's most prolific film-maker has vaulted out of the metaphysical pits to create a wry, engaging, wonderfully perceptive romantic comedy. It is called "A Perfect Couple," and it is far and away Altman's most bracing, most satisfying movie since "Nashville."…
Integral to the movie's structure is the use of counterpoint to call our attention to contrasting but parallel elements in the principals' styles of living. And like the contrapuntal technique, the film itself is musical in conception.
Sheila, of course, is into rock; Alex is into the classics. Altman exploits their divergent tastes to create a set of overlapping musical transitions. The songs reflect the technical and thematic concerns of the film, and Altman uses them with dazzling ingenuity….
The contrapuntal musical structure is underscored by a number of recurrent leitmotifs, the best of which involves a second amorous twosome who show up at convenient moments and fortuitously advance the plot. Altman turns these unctuous lovebirds into a delightful running gag, a double-edged device that emphasizes the movie's artifice while making us believe...
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[A Perfect Couple] has the usual Altman assets: technical deftness, idiosyncrasy, unexpected subject. But the deftness rattles around in a vacuum, the idiosyncrasy—because unsupported in theme or dynamics—degenerates quickly into egotism, and the unexpected subject is so poorly developed that it quickly becomes sterile….
The story is too strained to support comment. The jokes include: trouble with a car's sun roof in a rainstorm; the woman's taking a swing with a poker at two struggling men and hitting the wrong one; and a silent Gorgeous Couple—a running gag intended as a comment on [Alex and Sheila]—who of course end up badly while the homely pair don't. Beauty is only skin-deep, you see. We hear (spurious) classical music every time we go to the man's home and rock every time we go to hers, just so we can tell one from the other.
Altman's admirers are now advising him to slow down and take stock. Of what?
Stanley Kauffmann, "Alive and Otherwise" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1979 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 180, No. 18, May 5, 1979, pp. 24-5.∗
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A Perfect Couple, which pursues the bitter-sweet progress of a love-affair based on the attraction of opposites, is [Altman's] most conventional entertainment to date, a mild comedy with lots of music and a happy ending….
Somehow, more sheer gusto, a Thirties breeziness, is needed to override our awareness of schematisation. [Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, who play Alex and Sheila,] play well but without that old black-and-white magic that could have us swallow a dozen unlikelihoods. When, after ups-and-downs, Alex becomes a male groupie ('The people in this bus are my kind of people'), we know it can't last and suspect it would never have happened. He goes home, to discover his beloved younger sister dead, himself disowned by his black-garbed family. So back to the Bowl, with the group and the Philharmonic sharing the platform, and big kisses from Sheila over a picnic basket. Inevitably, typical Altman touches keep one intermittently amused, intrigued, waiting about. Once again, we have to work out who's who in Alex's clan and Sheila's gang for ourselves, gradually, and this ensures some complicity…. The observation's there, as always, but a sustained gag or device involving an elegant parallel pair, credited as 'The Imperfect Couple' (the end divulges why 'imperfect'), only adds to the sense of an unusually reined-in Altman twitching his figments into a pattern. After the marvellous scatter-effects of films as...
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