SOURCE: "Show-Offs," in Partisan Review, Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974, pp. 273-74.
[In the following mixed review, Baumbach complains that, "what's finally wrong with The Long Goodbye is that for all its artistic pretensions, all of them, the film is not quite serious, not serious enough to carry the freight of its pretensions."]
Seeing movies, writing about them is a more subjective business than the authoritative voice of most reviews admits. One runs into a good deal of self-deception and cant among reviewers who try to make the fleeting reality on the screen seem unequivocal. There is so much fantasy invested in moviegoing that movie reviews tend to tell us more about the reviewer than the reviewed.
This is prelude to saying that Robert Altman's odd version of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, which has many incidental virtues, disappointed me and that my disappointment may have as much to do with false expectations as with the weaknesses of the film. The movie I witnessed didn't so much demythify the private eye, as reviewers advertised, as offer him to us as something else altogether—a version of the Elliott Gould persona, a wisecracking, crude, and shy New York Jew displaced in a futuristic California. Updating the Chandler novel to the seventies, Altman's The Long Goodbye is an exercise in self-revealing style, a showcase for the director's impressively eccentric cinematic manner.
Gould's Philip Marlowe is one of those devious schlemiels who fends off vindication by pretending to be less formidable than he is (or secretly thinks he is). Although he seems ineffectual and vulnerable for a man in his profession, Gould's shamus is cool under pressure (as cool as any of his Marlowe predecessors) or, depending on how you want to read him, oblivious to the world outside him. The wisecrack helps him to keep his distance from others and, more importantly, from his own feelings. Living alone with his cat, seemingly uninterested in women, this Philip Marlowe leads a lonely, empty, and violated life. Yet since the Gould character (like the movie as a whole) has an improvised quality, we don't really believe that Marlowe has an existence beyond the moment of the film. Altman makes us aware that we are watching Elliott Gould impersonating an unlikely, mumbling private eye—everyone mumbles in an Altman film—comically out of step with the world he pretends to inhabit. Gould wears a fifties vintage bar mitzvah suit and drives a forties vintage Lincoln. Altman's attitude toward his protagonist as toward his material in general seems to me loosely defined, and what's finally wrong with The Long Goodbye is that for all its artistic pretensions, all of them, the film is not quite serious, not serious enough to carry the freight of its pretensions.
The visual richness of The Long Goodbye and the exhilarating, tricky ending in which Gould's Marlowe kills his one-time friend, Terry Lennox, leads one to expect more from the work than it actually delivers, which may further explain my dissatisfaction. Most impressive about Altman's distinctive film, even more impressive than its sharply observed detailing of a dehumanized California, is the work's elaborately sustained rhythm. Altman is a master of a highly controlled frantic pace as if some volcanic nightmare of chaos (or hysteria) were just below the surface of his world, threatening to explode. Altman generates tension in his film not through plot, which seems to exist as an afterthought (you almost feel copies of the Chandler novel ought to be given out to the audience in advance), but through movement and image. The Long Goodbye is a...
(This entire section contains 618 words.)
disturbing and abrasive experience—Altman's best film to date, two hours of variations on his signature, a highly subjective and private work.
Robert Altman 1925–2006
The following entry presents an overview of Altman's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Robert Altman enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success with his film M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, but he is known more for his cult following than for his box office smashes. His signature techniques, including multiple voices, meandering plots, and obscure themes, have garnered him critical acclaim for his innovation, but have prevented him from gaining overwhelming popular success.
Altman was born February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, to German immigrant parents. He attended several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wentworth Military Academy, before entering the Air Force to become a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. In the 1940s and 1950s Altman wrote several B-movie screenplays in Los Angeles and then returned to Kansas City to direct documentaries. In the late 1950s Altman tried his luck in Hollywood once again, this time in television. For the rest of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Altman wrote, produced, or directed episodes of popular shows such as Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and U. S. Marshall. His first feature film was Countdown (1968), but he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film. Although many consider Countdown a fine science fiction film, Altman disavows the movie and has insisted on complete artistic control of his subsequent projects. Altman was chosen to direct his breakthrough feature, M∗A∗S∗H (1970) after several (according to some reports, as many as fifteen) directors turned the project down. After M∗A∗S∗H, Altman made a series of offbeat films that received mixed critical reception and were by no means commercial successes. Altman's Nashville (1975) brought the auteur back into Hollywood's good graces for a time, garnering Altman the New York Film Critics Circle awards for best film and best director, as well as multiple Academy Award nominations. Altman experienced a third resurgence in 1992 with The Player, another commerical and critical success for which Altman was again nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
M∗A∗S∗H is an anti-war film centered on a group of zany army doctors who, though compassionate and skilled surgeons, survive the war through alcohol and humor. Set during the Korean War but released during the Vietnam War, the black comedy contains many of the elements typical of Altman's other films, including improvised lines and scenes, overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light and irreverent humor, no standard plot, and a moving camera which records from a distance. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is a western and love story that subverts many of the conventions of each. In The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Altman tackles the detective genre and one of its mythical heroes, the detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is out of place in his 1970s surroundings, enabling Altman to make a social commentary on the times. Nashville (1975) analyzes the nature of power and opportunism. The story revolves around a cast of 24 characters, mostly singers, aspiring stars, and politicians in the capital of country music. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) criticizes commercialism, opportunism, and the making of a celebrity. The title itself sets up a dialectic between two versions of history, and the film makes it difficult to discern historical fiction and historical reality. Vincent and Theo (1990) is Altman's only biographical film. Altman takes the unusual approach of making Vincent Van Gogh's art peripheral to the main plot. Instead, the film traces Van Gogh's relationship with his brother Theo and the pain he suffered in his life. The Player (1992) is a satiric look at the Hollywood studio system and the role writers play in the system. Short Cuts (1993) is another sweeping film with multiple plot lines and a large cast of characters. The film is based on slice-of-life stories by Raymond Carver. Ready to Wear (1994) follows another multitude of characters, this time through the fashion world. The film analyzes many topics, including the nature of womanhood, relationships in American society, and the human condition.
Much disagreement surrounds the critical discussions of many of Altman's films. M∗A∗S∗H was Altman's breakout film, becoming both a critical and popular success. Many of the techniques which made M∗A∗S∗H popular, however, left critics and audiences uneasy in his subsequent films. Many reviewers criticize Altman's use of sound and overlapping dialogue; others assert that the technique lends a sense of reality to his films. Altman's The Long Goodbye created a storm of criticism, but several reviewers attribute this to Altman's alteration of the end of the Raymond Chandler novel, which made Marlowe devotees uncomfortable. Nashville was another critical and popular success for Altman, but his style still drew complaints. Some critics felt that despite Altman's finesse in juggling multiple story lines, Nashville's separate plots lacked substance individually. Most reviewers agree that plot is not the central element in Altman's work. Jonathan Baumbach asserted that "Altman generates tension in his film not through plot, which seems to exist as an afterthought …, but through movement and image." Despite individual criticisms of some of his techniques, many reviewers appreciate Altman's unique and innovative style. While he has failed to achieve consistent box office success, many critics and fans describe him as one of the best directors of his generation. Todd Boyd asserts that, "Altman remains one of the few independent voices in a sea of repetitive Hollywood mediocrity."
SOURCE: "Altman: The Empty Staircase and the Chinese Princess," in Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 5, September-October, 1974, pp. 10-17.
[In the following essay, Dempsey discusses pivotal scenes in Altman's Thieves Like Us and McCabe and Mrs. Miller which cause the films to fall short of greatness.]
Two moments in Robert Altman's movies may hold the key to their true nature. In one, the conclusion of Thieves Like Us, travellers in a railroad station climb a staircase to a train. The film goes into slow motion, and Father Coughlin gives a populist speech on the sound track. Finally, the people disappear, leaving only the stairs. In the other, an episode of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a few cardplayers have heard that a contingent of whores on its way to the remote Northwestern town of Presbyterian Church includes one Oriental woman. Some declare that she is an "authentic Chinese princess" who, like all others, is deliriously sexual. Others scoff, but one man clinches it with a story about a friend who paid five dollars to find out, "and it's true."
Most American directors, when they have a multi-megaton hit like M∗A∗S∗H, try to detonate a series of still bigger blockbusters. Instead, Altman has made a group of offbeat, personal films which explore the genres—fantasy, Western, psychological melodrama, thriller, romance—that they nominally inhabit. Brewster McCloud throws its bird-boy hero into hard, gleaming Houston instead of yellow-brick Oz. McCabe and Mrs. Miller turns a straightforward Western into a wispy mirage. Images makes us lose our bearings inside the mind of a schizophrenic woman. Philip Marlowe is bemused and dreamy in The Long Goodbye, lost in a city and a crime too labyrinthine for him to understand until too late. Thieves Like Us almost totally denies us the kiss kiss bang bang that we expect from stories of lovers on the run.
These thumbnail sketches probably explain the commercial failure of each movie, not to mention the sharply contradictory responses they have aroused in critics, who generally call them mishmashes or masterpieces. Everyone agrees on their M∗A∗S∗H-derived techniques: improvised lines and scenes, overlapping dialogue, roving camera, avoidance of standard plots, throwaway humor. But no one has investigated what meanings they convey, or how.
Equally persistent is the figure of the dreamer who, cut off from the community by accident or by design, spins a web of fantasy in which to live. Brewster, Cathryn, the thieves, Marlowe wool-gathering through a stoned reprise of Bogart, Roger Wade suicidally caught up in a parody of Hemingway—all trap themselves in destructive illusions. Even M∗A∗S∗H has its dreamers, Hot Lips and the chief surgeon, two pompous hypocrites who play authoritarian games as if they were back in boot camp instead of swamped in blood. M∗A∗S∗H and Thieves Like Us stand aside stylistically from their fantasizers; visually they are plainer, more depoeticized than the other films, which try to show the world as their beleagured dreamers experience it.
The most effective scenes of Brewster McCloud center on the Astrodome, from the outside a UFO designed by an interplanetary Bucky Fuller, from the inside a cavernous cage in which Brewster's wings flap pitifully. Every phantasmagoric landscape, every jagged cut in Images is filtered through Cathryn's disorientation. The soft, hallucinatory colors, the white nights redolent of smoking joss sticks in The Long Goodbye reflect Marlowe's spaced-out confusion as much as they do a recognizable aspect of Los Angeles.
Quite a few of these dreamers—from the chief surgeon freaking out over taunts about laying Hot Lips, to Chickamaw growling manically because Bowie's press is better than his—end up losing their minds. Altman's easygoing, naturalistic techniques, which use realistic details for impressionistic effects, sometimes make people think of him as a tender humanist, much as Jean Renoir's comparable methods have also won this praise. Yet Altman has a preoccupation with the destruction of humanity's most vulnerable members, whom he offers little solace.
Not every Altman character falls into this category; others cast the cold eye of the realist on the delusions of the dreamer. These hardnosed realists—the squabbling flatfoots of Brewster McCloud stumbling over corpses and analyzing birdshit for clues, the hoods and plotters who bamboozle Marlowe—swarm around the besieged fantasists. In M∗A∗S∗H they take over completely. Hawkeye, Trapper John, and the other madcap medics waste no time disposing of Hot Lips and the chief surgeon; they are too professional to worry about chains of command in the midst of chaos.
The other movies provide secondary characters whose sophistication or mundaneness mocks the quirks and eccentricities of the dreamers. Cathryn's husband, Hugh, patronizes her; Mattie listens scornfully to the gleeful babbling of the robbers; Keechie curses Bowie for not abandoning crime. Her contemporary cousin is Brewster's girlfriend Suzanne, her eyes garishly made up like those of Clockwork Alex with spiky claws of mascara, her tongue wagging with plans for parlaying the wings into a fat fortune and a mansion on River Oaks Boulevard. These realists never lose touch with ordinary life and its day-to-day concerns. They serve as lightning rods for the audience's skepticism about soaring like a bird or wandering in a realm of ghosts.
Although just tracing the themes common to these films will not serve this purpose, it is a necessary starting point. Their characters, in one way or another, are always looking for some kind of community or trying to protect the one that they already have. Many of the best moments in Thieves Like Us occur in the hide-outs of its three bank robbers, Bowie, T-Dub, and Chickamaw, where they bide their time after breaking out of prison or plan their next heist. Instead of showing them knocking over the banks or careening off in getaway cars, Altman concentrates on their homey life in between jobs. They catnap, drink, lounge around, chortle and bicker over descriptions of their exploits in the papers, tell corny jokes, join in the family life of T-Dub's sister-in-law Mattie, her obnoxious son James, and her baby-moll sister Lula. Mattie's household oscillates between numbing respectability and quirky outbursts like the robbery that Chickamaw makes them enact.
But beneath everything flows a persistent undercurrent of running men desiring shelter and stability. Affable idiot T-Dub marries dummy Lula, who enjoys parading around in dime store sheaths like a cloning of lean Harlow. Chickamaw, a borderline psychotic, grows restless amid domesticity but still dreams of settling in Mexico. Bowie, the youngest thief who stumbled mindlessly into crime while an impoverished teenager, takes up with placid, unimaginative Keechie out of a yearning for the ordinary romance and home life which his criminal record denies him.
The other films follow parallel routes through settings far from Depression-bound Mississippi. The Long Goodbye meanders through the glittering basin of Los Angeles, the classic non-community of major American cities. Yet, unlike the Houston of Brewster McCloud, it tantalizes us with the possibility of a new kind of community. By night from on high, its blinking constellation of colors can seem like an enchanted realm capable of making the old lures of sun, wealth, ease, and stardom come true. As the film progresses, characters apparently unrelated to one another—pretty boy Terry Lennox; bellowing blocked novelist Roger Wade; his queen bee wife Eileen; Marty Augustine, the slick-agent show biz thug masterfully updated from Raymond Chandler's slimy "hard boys"; Dr. Verringer, a steely blond runt of a psychiatric quack; even the cops—turn out to be linked, while goofy, dazed gumshoe Marlowe tries in vain to fathom their malignant menage.
In Brewster McCloud the cops tracking the hero, who has strangled several expendable bit players for interfering with his scheme to build outsized dove wings and fly away, form a ramshackle group. So does their quarry with his mysterious guardian angel and his two odd girlfriends. The emotionally isolated Cathryn of Images works up a dream world for herself of husband, real and imaginary lovers, and a young girl who resembles her. M∗A∗S∗H pivots on a community of Army doctors and nurses struggling to save lives in a fragile tent city three miles from the Korean front. Sometimes genuine, sometimes false, always precarious, these communities are the persistent centers of movies that, at first glance, seem bewilderingly varied.
But only M∗A∗S∗H allows them a clear-cut victory; alone among Altman's movies, it celebrates the realists unambiguously. Hawkeye and Company are the Good Guys, Hot Lips and the surgeon are creeps, and that's that. M∗A∗S∗H remains funny, but its sentimentality about military camaraderie sticks out now that its wisecracks amid spurting arteries no longer seem so startling. Without for one minute going along with Hot Lips and her mania for the rulebook, we can reasonably view Hawkeye and the others as bastards for the way that they expose her naked in the shower. They are quite self-righteous in their determination to reform her, but the movie never questions them as it does the myopic Catholic chaplain, Dago Red. Hot Lips' unconvincing flipflop from martinet to good old broad gives the show away. Nobody connected with the movie seems to have imagined that some people might not fall in love with its cuddly cutups.
The other films have more resonance (without necessarily being better) because their lines of demarcation between dreamer and realist are not so rigid. Brewster McCloud satirizes its gang of stumblebum cops, fashion plate sleuths, dimwitted flunkies, and narcissistic politicians. Bubble-brained Suzanne sends the hero to his death by tipping off the police, yet Altman retains a measure of affection for her saucer-eyed effervescence and her giddy vulgarity.
Keechie comes through similarly, affecting in her wary attraction to Bowie, depressing in her scorn for his attempt to spring Chickamaw from jail, an adventure that leads to his death when Mattie sets him up for an ambush. Their undeceived, illusionless approach to life, untouched by imagination or spirit, seems drab and mean, as limited in its way as the criminals' childish fantasies. In both Images and The Long Goodbye, the principal realists—fusty, boring Hugh and chrome-plated, cynical Terry—fall to vengeful dreamers, and the audience certainly sheds no tears over them. Realism is not an unalloyed virtue in Altman's films. If fantasy leads to destruction, realism may result in amorality, with hardly a greater guarantee of survival.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that Altman's dreamers generally end up dead or crazy. We leave Brewster and Bowie crumpled on the ground, one splintered amid the wreckage of his wings while a circus swirls around his body, the other hidden in a quilt with his blood leaking through it into the dirt. The others live on but at a murderous cost. Chickamaw brutally destroys a harmless old prison official; Cathryn knocks her husband down a waterfall, derangedly supposing that she has annihilated her alter ego. In the controversial ending of The Long Goodbye, Marlowe finally learns how contemptuously Lennox has used him under the guise of friendship and responds by killing his betrayer. This climax may be questionable, yet more harshly than any other Altman conclusion it does deliver his basic message to dreamers: kill or be killed.
These concerns are implicit in Altman's production methods and techniques. An intuitive director, he relies heavily on whims, the chemistry of his casts, sudden inspirations, the unexpected qualities that an actor (or a non-actor) brings to a part. Preconceived concepts, grand designs, tight scripts, and rigid shooting schedules go by the boards as much as possible. Very likely these procedures create a sense of community among the actors, technicians, and aides, one that is heightened by Altman's practice of retaining many assistants (cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond, film editor Louis Lombardo, production designer Leon Ericksen, composer John Williams, assistant director Tommy Thompson) and an irregular stock company of actors (Elliott Gould, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Sally Kellerman, John Shuck, Bert Remsen, Rene Auberjonois—among others) from film to film.
As happened with Godard before his political phase, making and finding a movie become almost synonymous; you sometimes sense that the process of filmmaking means as much to Altman as the end result. It is as though he were trying to soften the feeling of transience that goes with gathering a company, making a movie, then watching the participants all go their separate ways. At the same time, improvisation, casual comedy, and overlapping dialogue express the free-and-easy give-and-take of a lively, thriving community.
Altman's movies—particularly McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and Images—are seductive, diaphanous visual slipstreams. But their sound lends them their peculiar distinction. Plenty of directors nowadays have their performers all talk at the same time without bothering to sort out the lines. But for most of them it is only a chic mannerism.
For instance, Cinderella Liberty (on which Zsigmond, Ericksen, and Williams worked) uses throwaway lines in the Altman manner (its director, Mark Rydell, having agreed to play Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye to learn Altman's ways), but pointlessly because the throwaways are just ordinary movieish quips. Altman's technique plays a complex role in the creation of his vision. Most obviously, it creates a sense of swarming life, capturing the tetchiness and energy and mulishness of people ricocheting off one another. Loosening the actors' tongues lets them interact more spontaneously; they make us believe that they really are a community instead of a bunch of hired hams reciting memorized dialogue.
A prime example of this occurs in McCabe and Mrs. Miller when McCabe gingerly enters Pat Sheehan's ratty saloon for the first time. The gamblers and barflies buzz and mumble all around him; though we can't make out their precise speech, its tone conveys their suspicion of him, as it does the dissolving of their wariness when he stands the house to drinks and breaks out his orange poker-tablecloth.
Meanwhile, we do hear what we need to hear, as when McCabe goes outside to piss and some drinkers discuss his Swedish gun. In an instant, we realize that McCabe's pistol causes comment because no one in this godforsaken hole is armed. This points up the isolation of the town, foretells McCabe's hold on the collective imagination of its citizens, foreshadows their terror at the giant rifle slung on the horse of the hired killer Butler, and undercuts the audience's idea of a traditional Western, in which everybody packs guns. Plot, theme, and mood advance quickly and obliquely, without elaborate dramatic contrivances.
This sequence also indicates how Altman's use of sound gives his comedy a light touch that none of his imitators can match. McCabe's affable manner helps him win over the townspeople, who have heard vague rumors that he is a dangerous gunfighter and would steer clear of him if he stood around hardselling his jokes like a sleazy comic in a night club. His quips, like the one about squaring a circle by shoving a 4×4 up a mule's ass, must have had whiskers even in 1906, but his charm makes them seem witty.
Altman generally avoids milking jokes. Whether it be Painless, the M∗A∗S∗H dentist, saying, "Well, big day, got two jaws to rebuild," or Marlowe trying to flimflam his cat into accepting a new brand of food (two examples out of dozens), his actors touch our funnybones deftly and move on. They never slaver and sweat and shout, "Laugh, you schmucks, this is funny!" the way Mel Brooks and his cast do in Blazing Saddles. Altman's people never fall into this trap, which is fatal to either comedy or communal sentiments.
Besides this, Altman's sound, especially dialogue, has a more elusive, less pre-plannable effect: reverberation in our minds like a memory. Quite often, particularly in McCabe and The Long Goodbye, a line will be less important than the way an actor speaks it. The vagueness of much Altman dialogue, the way that the speakers don't worry about well-timed pauses or bell-like enunciation, often gives it a mysterious echoing vividness, even though it may have no literary content.
For instance, in McCabe and Mrs. Miller one whore gets sick of another's bitching and cries, "Oh shut up, Eunice, you're always bloody well complaining!" The line, perhaps improvised, does not advance the plot or develop the whore's character; since she is hidden in a crowd, we can't even be sure who speaks it. Yet the sound of her voice leaping suddenly out of the squabbling gives it an impact all out of proportion to its literal meaning.
Or take the moment in The Long Goodbye when Marlowe, called "the best neighbor we ever had" when he buys brownie mix for some candle-dipping, yoga-practicing, seminude beauties, mumbles, "Got to be the best neighbor—I'm a private eye." Naturally, this tells us Marlowe's racket, but who needs to be told how Bogey's mutant son earns his living? It's Marlowe's tone of voice, conveying both confusion and zany delight in his own cleverness, that makes it funny and beautiful.
Techniques like these are incredibly risky because they leave the audience unusually free to respond or not. More controlled styles may miss the freedom and spontaneity of Altman's approach, but they also guide the viewer with a firmer hand. Directors as different as Hitchcock, Bresson, Kubrick, and Russell leave practically nothing to chance in their movies, the good ones or the bad ones; Altman leaves just about everything to chance. As a result, if passing moments and details fail to be fresh and exciting in themselves, all we have left is a lifeless skeleton of "themes" or "texture."
The ideas and emotions of Hitchcock, Bresson, Kubrick, or Russell movies can survive local inadequacies that would destroy an Altman movie, which depends more than they do on moment-to-moment life. Lately, Pauline Kael and Norman Mailer, writing on Last Tango in Paris, have exalted improvisation as the highest form of filmmaking, and obviously the more controlled approaches can become cold, manipulative, and rigid. But Altman's films, like Bertolucci's, often display the pitfalls of improvisation. As Jay Cocks remarked in his Time review of Thieves Like Us, they sometimes fall into "a casualness and vagueness about ideas."
Brewster McCloud is an all too obvious example. Thematically, the movie may hang together. Yet it obstinately refuses to work. For one thing, Altman's improvisory touch has clearly deserted him. Most of the performances are mechanical, one-joke cartoons, and awfully tired ones at that. To cite a pair, Michael Murphy and William Windom parody Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn in Bullitt, a waste of time if there ever was one. Worse, the central figure, Brewster, is so nebulous that the film ends up flying apart in all directions, like a centrifuge crumbling as it spins. C. Kirk McClelland's diary of the production reveals that Altman did not seem to know what kind of movie he wanted to make. Evidently he never found out.
This is also partly true of Thieves tike Us, even though it is Altman's quietest, most austere movie so far. The film is tender and funny, yet a little flat. It lacks the almost magical resonance of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, even bits of Images, not to mention the tortuous complexity and brooding power of Faulkner, to whose work Kael inexplicably compared it. Actually, Thieves is Bonnie and Clyde minus the banjo music, the hopped-up acting, and the mythic overtones. Paper Moon also resounds in its sound track, a pastiche of snippets from such radio serials as "Gangbusters" and "Steve Gibson of the International Secret Police." Barring a lapse or two, Altman avoids the machine-tooled gags and the push-button hearttugs that Peter Bogdanovich dotes on, but he still doesn't bring the movie to full life.
The characters, their situations, the observations of quirky Americana, moral atrophy, and rural banality are a trifle shopworn, and not simply because Edward Anderson's novel had already been filmed in 1949 as They Live By Night. With simple camerawork and limpid color, Altman undercuts the tenebrous romanticism of Nicholas Ray's film noir. But he doesn't find enough to put in its place. Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall are better actors than Farlay Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, yet their brief idyll is less moving. It never equals Night's tight close-up of O'Donnell as she reads a letter from her dead lover and then turns sorrowfully away from us, her flowing hair filling the screen. Altman's muted style will not allow for lyrical touches like this, yet without them his characters are too attenuated and his set pieces—especially a blazing nocturnal car crash—too self-contained.
Images, on the other hand, is intensely lyrical. Its throbbing music, its rococo narration, its eerie shots of a blood red lake, an incandescent house glowing in the twilight, an enchanted storybook meadow, a sunstruck valley traversed by cloudshadows in procession are utterly mesmerizing. In fact, their strangeness becomes the movie's true subject when Cathryn's psychology turns out to be barbershop Freud: she wants a baby to save her marriage, simultaneously does not want one, feels guilty over this and her promiscuity, therefore assumes that Hugh must also be involved in extra-marital sex, retreats to reveries of her lost childhood, her "soul."
This schematic characterization recalls Pabst's Secrets of a Soul; the film's muddled romanticism of derangement suggests A Safe Place; and there are parallels to Repulsion (a knifing), The Whisperers (bizarre voices), and The Beguiled (many lovers in one bed). In Ms., Phyllis Chessler perceptively wrote that Cathryn's confusion of the men in her life certifies her insanity, although many men treat women this way without being thought loony. Beyond this, why does she pick these stiffs? Why did she marry a dolt like Hugh? Wind chimes and colored lights replace the answers to these questions.
Compare this to Kenneth Loach's Family Life which, whatever its possible oversimplifications and special pleading, creates a shattering depiction of a woman's slow immersion in madness. Beside the anguish and terror of this film, in which Sandy Ratcliff resembles Susannah York and far surpasses her portrayal of schizophrenia, Images is just a fancy finger exercise; intricate psychology, like the botched car chase in Brewster McCloud, requires the sort of scripting and planning that wars with Altman's methods.
The Long Goodbye poses a more slippery problem because, however simple-minded its attack on contemporary immorality may be, it is also a mercurial, free-flying, virtuoso performance. Limited space forbids a thorough study of its imagery, which would have to include Roger Wade's death in the nighttime sea while Marlowe and Eileen madly try to reach him from the shore, and the fascinating use of the picture windows in the Wade beach house to create effects oddly similar to certain moments of Playtime.
For a long time the film's visual richness made me resist Charles Gregory's criticism of the film's revision of Chandler's Marlowe, particularly in the ending. Gregory feels that Altman has destroyed a hero without understanding him. Yet Marlowe is almost as ineffectual in Chandler's Long Goodbye as he is in Altman's. The cops do more to solve the mystery than he does; they even fool him into serving as a decoy so that they can catch some gangsters off guard. Obviously, Chandler had come to see his hero much as Altman sees him, as a pawn and a loser, however admirable. But Marlowe never really finishes last in the book; in the end he does unravel the crime, vindicate his code, get his $25 per day.
Chandler merely dabbles in the romance of being a loser so that Marlowe won't seem slick and phony, like other hard-boiled shamuses. His remark that style "can exist in a savage and dirty age, but it cannot exist in the Coca-Cola age" is glib and sentimental beneath its ersatz social comment. If this were true, then Marlowe's style, such as it is, could not exist either. Gregory praises Chandler for doggedly upholding the virtues embodied in Marlowe, and certainly he was right to do this. But he was wrong in how he did it, through an appealing but basically pulpy figure of fantasy utterly irrelevant to defending these virtues in the real world—of the Fifties or the Seventies.
The movie goes wrong because Altman loses control over the connotations of his conclusion. He seems to intend Marlowe's action as a gesture of rage, one that he shares, against the dehumanizing slickness of people like Lennox, whose manufacture is almost an industry in Los Angeles. Yet it also suggests, not that Marlowe stupidly gave his loyalty to one obviously unworthy of it, but that loyalty to friends is stupid. Perhaps this second implication was accidental; the final "Affectionate remembrance for Dan Blocker," cast as Roger Wade before his death, and the film's generally affectionate treatment of Marlowe both contradict it.
The confusion arises because Altman did not think through one key change that he made in the story. The novel stresses that Marlowe puts himself out for Lennox even though they hardly know each other. Throughout the book, people express astonishment that he would endure three days in jail and risk a murder charge for a virtual stranger; one hood jeers at his "cheap emotions." Chandler's affirmation of his hero's loyalty was linked, it has been suggested, to the McCarthy-HUAC witch hunts; it constituted his tacit rebuke to informers, a point underlined by having Marlowe stand up for a mere acquaintance instead of a longtime friend.
Updating the story to 1973 eliminates this element and thus requires of Altman what he fails (and Chandler had no need) to supply: an explanation of Marlowe's friendship with Lennox. We are clearly not supposed to question their bond in the film, yet right from the start Lennox is so repulsive, so incapable of genuine friendship, that we wonder why Marlowe cannot see through him. (Repressed homosexuality won't do for an answer in this case.) Marlowe may be romantic, but he isn't dumb. As a result, the movie blurs at the outset and, by the time the ending arrives, has grown fundamentally incoherent.
In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman pulls all his gifts, themes, and techniques together. More directly than the other movies, it focuses on the possibility of establishing a true community in an indifferent world. Altman sets this up by repeatedly showing isolated individuals forming a group or outsiders joining the town. McCabe's arrival at Sheehan's is the first example. Later, when he leads his first three whores into a clearing in the woods where miners are building up the town, the men gather round uncertainly, afraid to expose their desire. By the time that a similar gathering greets Ida Coyle and Mrs. Miller upon their arrival in Presbyterian Church, the onlookers also include the women of the town.
The film plays variations on this chord at Bart Coyle's funeral, with the second wave of whores helping to sing "Asleep in Jesus"; after their arrival, as they splash and laugh together in a wooden tub; at the end, when a disorganized mob becomes an efficient bucket brigade to put out a fire in the church. These episodes are not unqualified celebrations of the community. The men staring avidly at the three whores also expose the cruelty and exploitation of the arrangement. Ida would not even be in town if she had not been a mail order bride, bought like whores.
Barf's funeral and the ending foreshadow the disintegration of the community. Still, the ideal haunts the movie as more and more strangers arrive, and Presbyterian Church gradually replaces its tents and shacks with the fresh-cut planks of new buildings, particularly the whorehouse, which becomes the heart of the community.
Along with the movie's sound track, its color and camerawork develop its themes almost subliminally. The basic contrast between the snowbound exteriors and the warm, glowing, orange-yellow, honey-brown interiors states the nature of the community: beleagured people huddled together against an inhospitable landscape. In addition, the colors are so lulling that we experience the sensuality of their life and envy them.
Several camera movements from enclosures to open spaces form a motif too consistent to be entirely accidental. The credit sequence, showing McCabe riding to town through a trackless forest, is a subtly orchestrated series of crane shots which, like the lofty angle that later shows him bringing the three whores to town, works directly on our emotions, makes us feel the exhilaration of finding rest after a harsh journey or clearing out a haven in a desolate wilderness.
Throughout the movie, isolation threatens the community, which never quite embraces everyone. The Chinese mineworkers live in the town but the town will have no part of them. From time to time, we glimpse their placid, opaque faces and their squalid Chinatown. Other strangers the town warmly accepts; these strangers remain outsiders even though they already live in the town—with one ironic exception, the "Chinese princess."
The town's minister, baleful in his black cloth and saturnine scowl, also peers at the life of the community from the fringes of shots; isolation from it is driving him mad. But, unlike the Chinese, he isolates himself, stewing self-righteously because nobody goes to his church. Bart Coyle's death pleases him as the just punishment of another sinner, and he avoids the funeral. He drives McCabe out of the church with a shotgun, pontificating about the "house of God" and vengefully refusing to help defeat the killers. If the community took him seriously, he would poison it with his purism and powerlust. Yet his contorted, lurking figure, reminiscent of the hunched drug addict in Alice's Restaurant, expresses an anger that the communal ideal cannot assimilate.
But all of the townspeople are isolated from one another for a deeper reason: their community is based more on business than on fellow feeling. Presbyterian Church would not even exist without its zinc mines; McCabe comes to town to make a killing on whores, gambling, and booze; Mrs. Miller arrives with even more ambitious schemes in mind; and finally the mining company takes over to get control of the zinc.
Money taints every relationship. The whorehouse, even humanized, still sells flesh; McCabe must buy his way into Mrs. Miller's bed; Sheehan plots to take a cut of all new businesses and ends up yielding immediately to the mining cartel, leaving McCabe stranded. The human connections possible among the characters have been curtailed in advance by the premise on which their community is founded.
The townspeople, dimly realizing this, depend on illusions to numb the malaise. The principal one is McCabe's "big rep." Everybody "knows" that McCabe killed Bill Rowntree; some even claim to have known Bill Rowntree, or at least friends of his. Of course, none of them did, any more than any of them personally investigated the sexual magic of Chinese princesses. But somebody somewhere along the line saw both—or something else—and passed the story along. Now, almost like an oral tale of Anglo-Saxon times, it has become a virtual myth, embellished with each repetition.
Even when McCabe proves to be only a pleasant, gabby bumbler, the townspeople's image of him as a top gun persists. They want it to be true. The glamour of it, the possibility that one day McCabe will confirm its truth right before their eyes, adds a pinch of excitement to their bleak lives.
In his offhand way, Altman seeds the movie with other, more individual illusions and teases those that the audience brings to a Western. Some are innocuous, amusing pretensions (a man solemnly pondering a new style for his beard, a fatuous miner strutting like a master builder); others turn out to be perilous (Butler lording it over the locals, his feral young sidekick waiting to kill someone, a blabbermouth lawyer sucking McCabe into his daydreams of "busting up these trusts and monopolies").
Altman casually violates Western conventions, as when McCabe approaches a horseman for the classic fastdraw show-down only to find a gawky kid looking for the whorehouse. Altman's parodies of clichés like this parallel the ways that, in the movie, life destroys illusions as illusions destroy lives.
But the movie also honors the needs that illusions fulfill, without ever preaching like the O'Neill of The Iceman Cometh. The fantasy of the Chinese princess, spoken as they splash and sing in their bath, turns lumpy, bedraggled whores into beguiling creatures. In the same way, the church which the bucket brigade struggles to save from fire may not really be an important part of the community. But the townspeople, although they are unreligious, implicitly think that it is, and the force of their belief beautifully affirms the communal dream.
The techniques of McCabe and Mrs. Miller—the qualities of the images, the editing, the camera movements, the sound—suffuse it with the evanescent beauty of illusions. The entire movie is a long reverie and, within it, certain individual shots stand alone as emblems of dreams, transience, pain, loss: a riderless horse galloping softly through deep snow, reflected dancers gracefully misshapen on the glass of a player piano.
Others—a lone man on a footbridge, a horse's hooves piercing the ice of a frozen stream, a shy girl facing some miners—are less overtly dreamlike. They affect us more because the rhythm of the editing takes them away so swiftly; like the sound effects, they resonate in our minds like epiphanies. The movie's concentration on snow, wind, rain, and ice helps give it a softly flowing tempo that gently pulls us into its world, like the strangers drifting in to mingle their dreams with those already present there.
When McCabe enters Presbyterian Church, he immediately becomes the center of attention; we are drawn to him, too, as we never are to Bruce Dern's similar character in The King of Marvin Gardens. That movie fails partly because Dem's dreamer is never anything but a cloddish, two-bit hustler. But McCabe charms and intrigues us; he is childish, but also childlike, a pimp but never a scoundrel.
His motormouth is always racing with gnomic sayings about frogs and eagles and money and pain and "butternut muffdivers" and girls trickier than "a goddam monkey on a hundred yards of grapevine." He enjoys playing silly games and putting on airs; with his damsen preserves, his derby, his gold tooth, and the stogie that he twirls in his mouth and wraps a nutty grin around, he is a tinhorn to his bone marrow, yet a stylish prancer-dancer as well. It is completely believable that the townspeople project their fantasies onto him.
But his cockiness barely conceals his fears, and so he also plunges into illusion. He gets caught up in the town's fantasy of his being a fancy dude and a flashy gunslinger, even though he mutters "businessman businessman" when Sheehan probes him about his occupation. He cultivates the town's ideas, plays with them, tries to live up to the big rep, while the town humors him, hopes that the big rep is true, and plays on his vanity.
But his illusions run deeper than the town knows. Even when menaced by the killers, he can swallow the lawyer's pretentious rhetoric. He tries to dazzle Mrs. Miller as he does the town, and again illusion cripples him. He wants her to live up to an adolescent fantasy of dainty femininity, even as he watches her wolf down a meal in a most unladylike manner and then knock him out with her rapid spiel on all that he doesn't know about operating a high class sporting house. He can down a double whiskey and a raw egg in one gulp (drawing gasps of amazement from the audience) but, though he doesn't mind her profession, he cannot get over her matching his etiquette or outdoing him as a "businessman businessman" by unscrambling his ledgers.
Fatally dependent on fantasy, he makes a sad, comic spectacle of himself in his efforts to win fame and love. In one especially moving moment—when he disarms a hysterical whore, his arms twisted brokenly around her, his grin bent into a queasy crinkle as he fastidiously takes a knife away from her—Warren Beatty brilliantly captures the vulnerability and the contradictions of his character, just as he does in Bonnie and Clyde when Clyde defends himself against Bonnie's sudden anger at his impotence by weakly raising his arms to his chest.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller are an almost schematically polarized couple; if we warm to him because he is so charmingly foolish, we focus on her because, alone among the townspeople, she seems to have no illusions whatsoever. It is almost an inversion of John Korty's The Crazy Quilt, in which "the illusionless man and the visionary maid" form an improbable, unstable alliance.
That is more than McCabe and Mrs. Miller ever do, because she is too tough and intelligent to conform to his sentimental view of womankind. Unlike him, she understands the hard truths of life. She tells him bluntly that "you have to spend money to make money" and assures Ida, upon recruiting her for the brothel after her husband's funeral, that sex means nothing, that whoredom compares favorably with marriage as a superior business arrangement. Her intelligence and realism, which connect her with contemporary attitudes without making her an anachronism, consistently challenge McCabe's posturing.
Yet they do not render her any more capable of ruling fate than he is. "Take your hat off the bed, it's bad luck," she orders him (like Catherine in Jules and Jim), an odd thing for an illusionless person to say. And, in fact, she does have a personal route to comforting fantasy: opium. Only when drugged does she finally sleep with McCabe and share his optimism about worming more money out of the mining company for his property.
At another time, she uses opium to escape a birthday party because she cannot endure its joy; her very toughmindedness gives her an unbearable vision of how transient it is. In one of his subtlest strokes, Altman enriches the movie by gradually associating the soothing browns and oranges of its interiors with opium, as though their warmth and festivity and humanity were illusions seen through the mind's eye of someone deep in a drug-induced daze.
During the concluding sequences, details and motifs that earlier portrayed the birth of the community become ironic witnesses to its death. The three killers are also strangers, but they don't join the community—they shatter it. The townspeople separate apprehensively when the gunmen appear. Even the concluding slow zoom to Mrs. Miller in a dope den reverses previous camera movements. McCabe learns how wrong he was to imagine himself as "businessman businessman"; compared to the killers and the invisible corporation they represent, he is a ridiculous amateur.
Mrs. Miller faces a deeper reckoning. The ruthlessness of the mining company shocks even her, yet it underlies their similarities, for what is "you have to spend money to make money" if not a classic businessman's motto? Like the corporation, she has tried to base all human relations on money, but the sadness of the community and the needs of others pierce her defenses; she cannot escape her ultimate vulnerability to them. What formerly highlighted her cool intelligence now reveals the fear of intense involvement with others that accompanies it. She comforts McCabe on the night before the gunfight, as much to deny how moved she is by his plight as to ease his pain.
This gesture, the central moment of Julie Christie's performance, captures the instant of Mrs. Miller's awakening to her own illusions about herself. One of the things that makes her a compelling character is that we cannot condemn her fear of involvement with others; it is all to justifiable in a world like hers. But we realize, and so does she, that her illusionless realism is as futile as McCabe's romantic dithering. Neither attitude can save them; the dreamer and the realist are one.
McCabe fights for his life, vainly and alone. So it is doubly ironic that he proves to be an inept gunfighter and yet manages to take all three killers with him. He vindicates his big rep when no one is around to see him do it; the townspeople are too busy celebrating the rescue of the church and Mrs. Miller is too far gone on opium.
The concluding gunfight, a messy and protracted affair that debunks the chess-like stalkings and duels of most Westerns, expresses the victory of isolation over community, the film's fundamental illusion. During it, a blizzard begins, and the falling snow makes the images grainier and grainier, as though they were being blown up, as though they were slowly dissolving, disintegrating, drifting away. Soon they, too, come to resemble Mrs. Miller's opium reveries until the boundaries between them blur and, like Franz in Godard's Band of Outsiders, we no longer know whether the world is becoming a dream or a dream is becoming the world.
This conclusion is Altman's most open acknowledgment of what his complex of stylistic devices ultimately means: life is only images, beneath whose surfaces lies nothing. Comparison with Renoir only underlies this point. His films resemble Altman's in their rich profusion of images, sounds, events, details, characters. But (however oversimplified this critical standby may be) they evoke the richness and fullness of life. Altman's work evokes its final emptiness, a truth which he tries to disguise by making his images and sounds as mysterious and alluring as possible.
Still, each film has at least one moment when the disguise falls away. In M∗A∗S∗H, Dago Red tries to give Extreme Unction to a dead patient; a doctor calls on him to help operate on another casualty; he hesitates, since Catholic dogma teaches that a person dying without last rites risks eternal damnation; the doctor barks, "That man is dead, this man is still alive; now that's fact." In Brewster McCloud, a circus pitchman reads off the names of the cast, ending with "Mr. Bud Cort" as the camera zooms to the hero's corpse. Death and water preoccupy The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs. Miller; we see two characters of each floating lifeless, and water spreads ominously across the screen after the murder of Terry Lennox. Brewster McCloud reminds us that its dead hero is only a posing actor; the others emphasize corpses as matter. In either case, they are only "images," which could be the title (or the subtitle) of each Altman movie.
Altman may be trying to disguise this vision of life's hollowness from himself as much as from his audience; it certainly seems to spring from intuition more than thought. Novels like Camus' The Stranger and Gide's The Immoralist express this consciousness through characters whose intense awareness of death awakens them to the magnificence of physical reality. But the novels articulate this consciousness intellectually, whereas Altman appears to stumble onto it unconsciously.
Perhaps this is one reason why, despite their measure of common ground, the books are compact and his films are sprawling. When he does try to be comparably spare, as in Thieves Like Us, he achieves nowhere near their depth because he has not really thought it out. Similarly, McCabe and Mrs. Miller falls short of greatness because McCabe's illusions are not deep enough to touch us as profoundly as the illusions exposed in these novels do. The film's blemishes, especially the overuse of Leonard Cohen's sometimes beautiful but just as often forced songs may be traceable to this "casualness and vagueness about ideas," as though Altman were not sure of his meaning.
Yet his meaning is plain; his films are arabesques around voids, in which (to quote Godard once more) "Life is sad, but it is always beautiful." The slow-motion evocation of "the people" in Thieves Like Us is unconvincing, because Altman does not believe in "the people" but in the empty staircase. But he also believes in the Chinese princess.
The Delinquents [writer and director] (screenplay) 1955The James Dean Story [writer and director] (documentary) 1957Nightmare in Chicago [director] (film) 1967Countdown [director] (documentary) 1968That Cold Day in the Park [director] (film) 1969M∗A∗S∗H [director; adapted from the novel by Richard Hooker] (screenplay) 1970Brewster McCloud [writer and director] (screenplay) 1970McCabe and Mrs. Miller [with Brian McKay; writer and director] (screenplay) 1971Images [writer and director] (screenplay) 1972The Long Goodbye [director; adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler] (screenplay) 1973Thieves Like Us [with Calder Willingham and Joan Tewkesbury; writer and director] (screenplay) 1974California Split [writer and director] (screenplay) 1974Nashville [director] (film) 1975Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson [with Alan Rudolph; writer and director] (screenplay) 1976Three Women [writer and director] (screenplay) 1977A Wedding [with John Considine, Patricia Resnick, and Allan Nicholls; writer and director] (screenplay) 1978Quintet [with Frank Barhydt and Resnick; writer and director] (screenplay) 1979A Perfect Couple [with Nicholls; writer and director] (screenplay) 1979Popeye [director] (film) 1980Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean [director] (film) 1982Health [with Barhydt and Paul Dooley; writer and director] (screenplay) 1982Streamers [director] (film) 1983Fool for Love [director] (film) 1985Beyond Therapy [with Christopher Durang; writer and director] (screenplay) 1987Vincent and Theo [director] (film) 1990The Player [director] (film) 1992Short Cuts [with Barhydt; writer and director; based on the short stories of Raymond Carver] (screenplay) 1993Ready to Wear [also known as Prêt-á-Porter; writer and director] (screenplay) 1994Kansas City [with Barhydt; writer and director] (screenplay) 1996The Gingerbread Man [director; based on an original story by John Grisham] (film) 1998Cookie's Fortune [director] (film) 1999
SOURCE: "The Delinquents (Robert Altman) (1974)," in Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1975, pp. 215-19.
[In the following review, McCarthy states that, "Decidedly a minor work by a major artist," The Delinquents proves that Altman can tell a straightforward story without stylistic mannerisms.]
A reasonable number of people must be aware that Robert Altman directed films before M∗A∗S∗H, but most would probably be hard pressed to come up with many titles. Some may have seen That Cold Day in the Park and a few watchful airplane passengers and television viewers might have noticed that Altman directed Countdown (with some uncalled for assistance from Jack Warner). The elongated Kraft Suspense Theatre episode Nightmare in Chicago, a definitive documentary of the city's Edens Expressway if nothing else, can claim a few partisans on the underground Chicago-Madison critical axis, and if Altman's and George W. George's distinctive and evocative The James Dean Story were rereleased today, the combined Dean and Altman cults might even help Warner Brothers turn a profit on the film (it was a dismal flop when originally released in the summer of 1957, two years after Dean's death).
But the real skeleton in Altman's closet is another film that was released in 1957, but was considerably more successful. It's The Delinquents, which Altman, ever the auteur, wrote, produced, and directed in his hometown of Kansas City during the summer of 1955 on a $63,000 budget. As Altman puts it,
Well, this guy back there said he had the money to make a picture, if I'd make it about delinquents. I said OK and I wrote the thing in five days, cast it, picked the locations, drove the generator truck, got the people together, took no money, and we just did it, that's all. My motives at that time were to make a picture, and if they said I gotta shoot it in green in order to get it done, I'd say, "Well, I can figure out a way to do that." I would have done anything to get the thing done.
Altman may have been glad to get the thing done, but today he doesn't seem all that glad to have people see the film. At the 1973 San Francisco Film Festival tribute to Altman, an enthusiast asked how The Delinquents might be seen today. The director replied that he possessed a print, but that, if he had anything to do with it, the young man would never see the film. Although delivered offhandedly, this is quite a severe judgment on a work that, although by no means a great, undiscovered classic, is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about, even for one of the greatest American film-makers, Altman: "I'm not embarrassed about it. But nobody knew what they were doing. I don't think it has any meaning to anybody."
He probably didn't know what he was doing, but in those five days that he wrote the script, Altman was unobtrusively laying the groundwork for a vast number of the teen problem (or problem teen) pictures that were to follow. By the time The Delinquents was finally released, of course, everyone from Sam Katzman to AIP to Jerry Lewis had jumped on the j.d. bandwagon, but in early 1955, The Wild One and The Blackboard Jungle had only just been released and Rebel Without a Cause was still in the shooting stage. (The Delinquents was even pre-rock 'n' roll, and part of its score consists of some smooth Kansas City black jazz, with some on-camera work by the late singer Julia Lee.) The youth exploitation field was untested and uncharted and, if he wanted to, Altman could lay claim to having invented, in one picture, many of the conventions (and, soon afterward, clichés) of this subgenre.
The setting is WASPville, U.S.A., that clean-cut community small enough to get by with only one drive-in and one high school, but big enough to have two sides of the tracks. On right side of tracks, good, straight but troubled boy and sweet, innocent but ripe girl are very much in love but her parents stand between them since she's "not ready to go steady" and he "hangs out with the wrong crowd." Forbidden to see his sweetheart, boy implores hot-rodding pal to pick up his girl for him. Pal gets duded up, leads girl out from under noses of suspicious parents, and whole teen crowd meets for party at abandoned mansion outside town. Filter cigarettes and 3.2 beer cause party to get out of hand, reunited lovers leave to be alone, fuzz mysteriously appear and break up drunken free-for-all. Apprehended toughs suspect boy of snitching, kidnap him next day and force him to gulp down whole bottle of Scotch when he won't admit to being informant. Taking besotted boy for ride, toughs bungle gas station holdup and speed off, leaving boy behind with cash and dead attendant. Boy finally staggers home, learns gang has abducted girl, tracks down and beats up toughest tough, learns girl's whereabouts, saves her from clutches of gang, and walks off to confront police, who will surely clear him of gang's crimes.
The Delinquents is framed with sanctimonious narration about how "This story is about violence and immorality," and how "We are all responsible. Citizens must work against the disease of delinquency by working with church groups, community groups," ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Altman claims that this was added by United Artists when the company picked up the film for release (UA paid $150,000 for the film and grossed nearly $1,000,000 with it), but it is curious that a preachy narrative is also the prime weakness of The James Dean Story. Aside from this, however, and an occasional line, delivered by the girl friend to her parents, such as, "Why can't you leave him alone?" (perhaps the definitive line of all 1950s teenpix), the film is relatively passive and undidactic in its attitude toward the spectacle of youth led astray. Even then, Altman seemed drawn toward an improvisational approach, and the casual sound of the dialogue reduces the frequency of overblown melodramatic moments. And although not withdrawn to the extent that it is in Thieves Like Us, the camera normally records the violence in The Delinquents from a distance, often from a high, overhead angle, thereby implicating neither the viewer nor even society-at-large in the misdeeds of the characters (even so, critics at the time felt that The Delinquents was an extremely violent film).
The players, who include Altman's daughter and then-wife, were all found in Kansas City, with three major exceptions. The film gave Richard Bakalyan his first stab at playing the greasy punk who makes life miserable for everyone in town, and he did it so well that he was typed forever. Peter Miller, fresh from The Blackboard Jungle, was also brought in from California. Tom (Billy Jack) Laughlin, who apparently had a considerable James Dean complex, played the troubled young man and the mere mention of his name makes Altman cringe even today:
Tommy Laughlin was just an unbelievable pain in the ass. Unbelievable. He's a talented guy, but he's insane. Total egomaniac. He was so angry that he wasn't a priest. Big Catholic hangup. I found out that this Laughlin Kid was doing all the things he'd heard about James Dean doing. Like he'd run around the block when he was supposed to be exhausted and he'd say, "OK, I'll sit down there on the fireplug and when you hear my whistle, you start rolling your cameras." Otherwise, he wouldn't do it. In fact, he did the last half of the picture under protest. He'd say, "OK, tell me what you want me to do." And I'd say, "Well, I want you to …" He'd say, "No, tell me exactly what you want. I'll do it just the way you want it. I'm not going to act in this picture. I'm just here because I have to be." And I said, "OK, I want you to fall out of the car like this," and I'd fall out of the car. "Then I want you to take your right hand and move it up and put it on the gravel. Then I want you to look up a minute …" He couldn't remember it, but that served his purpose and he'd do it. And he was as good at doing that as when he was really working in the first part of the picture.
Although extremely mannered (he couldn't keep his eyes fixed in one place for more than two seconds), Laughlin gives an adequate performance and manages to make his relatively thankless character somewhat less bland than it might otherwise be. In movies of this sort, the scenes involving the romantic leads are usually so vacuous that, after initial laughter, one begins counting the minutes until the toughs return to liven things up. In The Delinquents, there is at least a modicum of concern generated for the admittedly pasty lovers; even in the campiest of moods, one cannot wish total degradation upon them.
In what so far must sound like a perhaps passable but hardly distinguished film, there are two notable features—its technical excellence and its paradoxical relationship with the director's subsequent work. Altman served his apprenticeship making industrial films and documentaries in Kansas City and his know-how in lighting and in photography is impressively evident in his first dramatic film. The quality of the black-and-white image is brilliantly sharp and rich, far better than any produced in similar fare (under studio conditions) by AIP, Allied Artists, or Columbia, and astonishing in a film made independently for so little money.
One need take little more than a casual look at Altman's recent work to realize that the director is fascinated with the conventions of genres. Today, particularly in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, he works within established generic frameworks, but subverts and plays upon the conventions, simultaneously expressing his feelings about his characters and the history of the genres' development. In The Delinquents, he plays it straight. Foreshadowing, to a remarkable extent, his attitude toward the hoodlum's violence in The Long Goodbye, Altman says of his first film, "My main point was to say that kids like this don't plan anything. They don't say, 'Tomorrow we're gonna go knock off the filling station.' They say, 'Hey, there's a filling station, let's go in there and mess around.' And it happens. It's not a premeditated kind of thing. It's just a restlessness kind of thing, I think."
It's this restlessness, principally expressed through the edgy, nervous performances, as well as a fatalistic ambivalence about the plight of the lovers, and a reluctance to implicate society too heavily in the misguided lives of the characters, that sets The Delinquents apart from other examples of its genre and reveals that at least some thought went into its creation. Like much of Nicholas Ray's work, it leaves one unsettled and off-balance emotionally. Decidedly a minor work by a major artist, The Delinquents could nonetheless furnish proof to those still skeptical of his abilities that Altman can, if he wants to, tell a straightforward story without stylistic mannerisms. Happily, he's doing a lot more than that today.
Bush, Lyall. Review of Short Cuts: The Screenplay. Studies in Short Fiction 33, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 145-48.
Briefly discusses how the script of Short Cuts by Altman and Frank Barhydt differs from the short stories by Raymond Carver.
Dick, Bernard F. "Film Editing." In his Anatomy of Film, pp. 48-51. St. Martin's Press, 1978.
Discusses the editing in Altman's Nashville.
Edgerton, Gary. "Capra and Altman: Mythmaker and Mythologist." Literature Film Quarterly XI, No. 1 (1983): 28-35.
Compares the different mythologies of America created by Frank Capra and Robert Altman.
SOURCE: "Trashville," in Commentary, Vol. 60, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 72-5.
[In the following essay, which was reprinted in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter traces Altman's portrayal of America in Nashville.]
Why make a film about—and full of—country music, if you don't like it? I ask this not as any devotee of country music myself, well over nine-tenths of what I've heard of it striking me as a pile of lachrymose slop. But any film crammed with some 25 country-music original numbers ought, statistically, to hit on one that's better than pathetic. Even a nonentity like W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings (whose principal characters are involved with a country-music band) manages to pull one attractive original tune out of its hat for its finale.
Nor do I ask the question rhetorically. There is a reason to make a movie about country music when you don't like it (and don't like the people who create it, and don't like the people who like it), and that reason is exemplified in Robert Altman's Nashville. It's a reason for which even a knowledge of the country-music milieu isn't required: Altman has himself admitted he wasn't familiar with the Nashville scene before he decided to do this job on it (his method of remedying his ignorance consisting of dispatching a hench-person, Joan Tewkesbury, to Nashville to write the script, and then casting almost all the singing roles with non-musicians who were allowed to compose their own songs). For it's not the music that this country-music epic is after; what it's after is the country that's microcosmically revealed in America's (at least, Middle America's) "music capital." ("You get your hair cut! You don't belong in Nashville!" one of Nashville's leading citizens barks at a young musician early on.) The true locale and subject of this film—which begins with a song declaring, "We must be doing something right / To last 200 years," and ends with a crowd singing, "You may say, I ain't free / It don't worry me" following an assassination—clearly isn't Nashville but nothing less than America itself: America as it really is, stripped of myth and idealization, on this eve of its bicentennial celebration.
The subject is one almost all of Altman's previous films can be seen as leading up to, from the anti-militarist, "anti-war" jibes of M∗A∗S∗H through the anti-capitalist ironies of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and that film's debunking of romantic myths (and the similar myth-puncturing of The Long Goodbye and Thieves Like Us) to the depiction of a rootless society in California Split. And as befits a work of such vast ambition, Altman's new film seems to draw stylistically as well as thematically on elements of all his films before. A sound truck, broadcasting speeches by a Presidential candidate, wends its way through Nashville, and its use as a motif reminds one of the public-address system announcing the showing of war movies in M∗A∗S∗H, while that earlier film's closing announcement of itself as the camp's coming attraction is echoed in this one's clever, self-referential, TV-commercial-style opening credits; a Brewster McCloud's many-stranded plot line and cross-section view of the life of a Southern city now seems to adumbrate the use of such things in Nashville. From The Long Goodbye and Thieves Like Us comes the busy detailing of the inundation of American life with the debased currency of our popular culture; from a California Split, Nashville's rapid tempo and subtly garish visual style, and the evocation by such means of its characters' lives of transience and anomie.
Nashville, as its publicity loudly proclaims, portrays the lives of no fewer than 24 characters in the course of a five-day period during which they go their various ways and their fortunes occasionally intertwine within the contours of the city's music industry. Much has been made of the virtuoso accomplishment of the juggling of so many story lines, but, though the purely technical feat of keeping them all in motion without much confusion is impressive, their actual substance is something else again. Tom (of the folk-rock trio Bill, Mary, and Tom) is having an affair with Mary, Bill's wife, while at the same time trying to seduce Linnea, the gospel-singer wife of Delbert, a lawyer whose clients include some of Nashville's biggest stars, one of whom, Barbara Jean, only just released from her hospitalization for burns from a "fire baton," seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and is watched adoringly from afar by Glenn, a young soldier whose mother once saved Barbara Jean's life in a fire, and so forth, and so on, as the Nashville world turns.
One can, of course, synopsize almost any plot to the point of banality; but, in Nashville, it's not a case of the transcendence of such banality by the work's imaginative freshness but of a concealment of the banality by the restless and incessant cutting away from one banal plot to another. Zero in on any half-dozen of Nashville's 24 characters' stories, and their impoverishment would be obvious; once again, a bill of goods is being sold on the dubious principle that the losses incurred on each item can be reversed by volume merchandising. And indeed, despite all the ballyhoo about Nashville's audacious originality in featuring 24 leading characters, one could as easily maintain that the film has no leading characters, only 24 actors doing their turns (all doing them well, without in the least extending themselves), much as one might say the same of a film like California Split, whose leading "characters" number two. In any case, what might be truly audacious would be not this Grand Hotel-ish engineering but the kind of freedom in moving from one character to another, following them and then leaving them behind as they enter into the work's development, that one sees in Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberté. Nashville may seem refreshingly free of rigid plotting as it's unfolding, but by the time virtually all of its characters have been assembled and their stories converge for the O. Henry-like denouement, one is struck less by the film's freedom of movement than by the ingenuity of its preparation for its payoff.
But for all the noises to be heard about Nashville's Joycean complexities, the extraordinary critical acclaim which has greeted the film has, I think, really very little to do with such things. And the barrage of media hype elicited by Nashville (which may well exceed that for any other film since Last Tango in Paris) is exceptional, even given the semi-hysterical masterpiece-a-month mania with which film reviewing is afflicted. This month, Nashville; last month, Shampoo; the month before, part two of The Godfather. What these widely differing films have in common has nothing to do with a like degree of artistic achievement, or stylistic mastery—but they do have something in common. Nor is it Nashville's artistic superiority which accounts for the extravagant heights to which it has been praised (though I could myself argue a preference for the fleet fluidity and lightness of Nashville's style to Godfather II's monumentality). Rather, Godfather II wears its heart, a bit too earnestly and exposedly, on its sleeve, while in Shampoo one can't entirely shake nagging questions as to whether there's any necessary relation between the personal and the political. But what Altman has constructed in Nashville is an all but perfect vehicle—resembling nothing so much as a work of pornography which sanctimoniously (but sincerely) preaches against pornography—for simultaneously feeling superior to "America" and exploiting the appeal of everything he invites us to join him in feeling superior to.
What in fact Nashville amounts to specifically, with the spectacle of its horde of hayseed characters seen in all their malice, venality, and scrambling opportunism, is the movies' biggest bout of hick-baiting since A Face in the Crowd (a film with which Nashville shares such other features as its crude "satire" of commercials—"Goo-goo Candy Clusters," hawked at the Grand Ole Opry—and the way its loathing for the yokels' stars is exceeded by that for the stars' audience, seen, in Nashville, to turn angrily on Barbara Jean, its erstwhile favorite, when, obviously distressed, she falters in a performance). Strictly as a depiction of corruption in the country-music business, there's nothing in Nashville that wasn't done at least as trenchantly and knowingly (if with less stylistic virtuosity) in Payday of a year or two ago, with its portrayal by Rip Torn of an egomaniacal Country and Western singer. But what distinguishes Nashville from such a genre study is the later film's scope; and lest one imagine that the corruption of Nashville's characters has no larger relevance, a message which issues from the sound truck that weaves through Nashville informs us early on that we're all deeply involved with "politics," whether we know it or not, in whatever we do.
That sound truck broadcasts statements by Hal Phillip Walker, a kind of all-purpose third-party (the Replacement party) candidate for President (the truck emerges from a garage whose door bears the cryptic legend, "Walker-Talker-Sleeper"), at a rally for whom the film's climactic assassination takes place. (The rally is held in front of an actual replica of the Parthenon, originally constructed out of plaster of Paris for Nashville's centennial celebration, which has earned the city its appellation of the "Athens of the South.") Though the assassin, an Arthur Bremer-like loner, is presumably gunning for Walker himself, he settles instead for the troubled Barbara Jean, who is entertaining the crowd in preparation for the candidate's appearance. (Why the assassin chooses this target is left unexplained, though those with lively imaginations may speculate on the possible relation between the killer's domineering mother and the singer's just having finished a paean to "My Mommy and My Daddy and My Idaho Home." Or perhaps since, as the candidate's advance man explains, "The thing with these country people is they've got grass-roots appeal; they're the one's who'll elect the next President," one might as well shoot the entertainers as the candidates.) In any case, no sooner do the shots ring out than Nashville's leading star steps forward to forestall panic with assurances that "This isn't Dallas—this is Nashville!" as indeed it is. Nashville is Dallas plus Memphis plus Los Angeles plus Laurel plus … By now, that is to say, assassinations have become so routinely woven into the fabric of American life that we can immediately close ranks (as the show goes on, a new star is born, and a Patton-like monster flag waves conspicuously) to affirm, "You may say, I ain't free. It don't worry me."
Now whatever my reservations about the version Nashville presents of "America," it's not primarily here that my deepest reservations about the film reside. For just as one can appreciate a work of art whose vision of the world one doesn't share, so, too, can I without difficulty conceive of admiring a film whose view of America is different, even radically different, from my own. (I assume, for the sake of argument, that I hold some stable and statesmanly "view" of America rather than the volatile bundle of violent contraries which my feelings actually comprise.) Indeed, the body of work—Sam Peckinpah's—which I find most interesting in the contemporary American film offers a vision of America a good deal blacker, if also more ambiguous, than anything that's implied by Nashville or in any of the other films of Altman. Insofar as Nashville is engaged in an act of trashing America, I feel no compulsion to defend anything against it. To the extent that America is equitable, as the film would have it, with chauvinistic and pathetic country music, crunched cars, plastic motels, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, the movie's targets can fend for themselves; to the extent that it isn't, such derision as Nashville's will hardly undo it.
But when one populates a work of art with numerous characters toward whom one's salient if not sole attitude is a contemptuous condescension, one is involved, I think, in trashing of a different and more deeply offensive sort. To be sure, there are a few of Nashville's characters in whose depiction one might discern some warmth of feeling: the much abused Barbara Jean ("I don't tell you how to sing—don't you tell me how to run your life!" her manager-husband snaps at her); a talentless, would-be singer whom we see stuffing tissue paper in her bra as she perfects her stage manner in the mirror amid a clutter of religious figurines, and whose fantasies of a career lead her to having to perform a humiliating striptease at a political smoker; a (white) gospel-singing mother of two deaf children (who presumably gets points also for singing not country music but gospel, with a black back-up chorus, though her voice wouldn't pass muster in the most meager storefront-church choir). Here as elsewhere one sees that streak of morbid sentimentality in Altman's work which allows him to extend compassion only to the damaged and doomed, and which seems related to the ritualistic slaughter of an innocent with which so many of his films end. (To be fair, he didn't specify that Nashville end with Barbara Jean's death when he commissioned Joan Tewkesbury's script; he only requested that it end with the death of someone.) The deaf children, in particular, are produced by the film with all the perfunctory piety of Verdoux's family. And as if they didn't in themselves convey pathos enough, they're stuck with a father who, in contrast with their mother, hasn't even bothered to learn the sign language needed to communicate with them.
What was for me the single most affecting moment in Nashville drew, I suppose, on a pathos of such sort: the look on Keenan Wynn's face when he's offhandedly informed by a disinterested nurse that his hospitalized wife has "expired" during the night (though it's hard for me to distinguish how much I was moved by Wynn's portrayal of the character's reaction to the situation and how much by the shock of seeing Keenan Wynn himself looking so genuinely old and frail). Wynn begins to utter a cry of grief, when Altman cuts abruptly—the effect is like a slap in the face—to the supercilious laughter of the cast's two "outsiders": an asinine BBC interviewer, in Nashville to gather material for a documentary, and the clean-cut, buttoned-down advance man for the third-party candidate, rounding up local talent for the rally because "this redneck music is very popular now." These two characters are, if anything, portrayed with even more scorn than Nashville's inhabitants, as if to disarm any criticism that Altman's view is, in fact, indistinguishable from theirs. At one point, Altman stages a multi-vehicle freeway pileup, and has the interviewer exclaim of the collision, "I need something like this for my documentary—I need it! It's America—those cars crashing!" At another, she visits an automobile graveyard, and, later, a school-bus parking lot, so that Altman can milk these things for their symbolic worth while at the same time mocking the interviewer's fatuous commentary on them. (The implicit values and level of sophistication from which the film looks down its nose at the Nashville world are more undisguisedly embodied in the figures of Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, who make guest appearances playing themselves as visiting celebrities, with the natives either fawning on them laughably or, what's worse, not knowing for which film the latter won her Oscar.)
But despite the smoke screen with which Altman habitually surrounds his work—his appealingly modest claims that his films aren't "saying anything," their slightly stoned air of "partying," and his letting the individual participants work out their own contribution for themselves—it clearly is no one else, least of all the BBC interviewer or the advance man, who, to score a cheap irony, shunts aside Wynn's grief-stricken outcry; it is Altman himself. And when you thus trash not just your subject but your own characters and their emotions, you lay yourself open to criticism which goes beyond questions of stylistic virtuosity and artistic finesse. What's revealed in such a moment is a coarseness of sensibility, an ugliness, of a kind one glimpses at moments in a number of Altman's films: in the mob's humiliation of the priggish nurse in M∗A∗S∗H, the intimidation of the transvestite in California Split, the mocking radio adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Thieves Like Us. At moments such as these, and others like them, questions of artistic finesse tend to recede before purely human considerations. This isn't to say that such things cancel out the considerable talents which Altman's films display; nor would I want categorically to dismiss his films on the basis of such deficiencies in feeling, though to do so would be, I think, a more honest acknowledgment of what his work is about than to gloss over such things in the stampede to praise its artistry. But if one can hardly hope at this late date to head off the stampede, one can still choose, at least, not to join it. To the extent that one sees everything in Nashville as at once cheapened by easy ridicule and rife with a hypocritical exploitation of the "grass-roots appeal" of "these country people" and their "redneck music" for purposes of Altman's own vote-getting campaign, one can choose to turn away and vote, "No."
SOURCE: "A Merging of Mythologies," in Midstream, Vol. XXI, No. 10, December. 1975, pp. 56-9.
[In the following excerpt, Sultanik compares the view of America presented by Altman in Nashville to that presented by E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime.]
It comes as no surprise, amidst the festivities kicking off the celebration of our bicentennial, that our cultural gurus have focused on two works of art as the definitive summing-up of the way we were and what we are about today.
Though most important books and movies are appreciated only by highbrows and aesthetes who perceive motifs that forever remain obscure to the big public, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Robert Altman's Nashville have been acclaimed by the critics, and both are selling faster than 59-cent replicas of the Statue of Liberty.
There have been few occasions recently in which an "important" novel or film has met with such approval from all sectors of the American community. Gravity's Rainbow and Something Happened, probably the two most ambitious novels of the 70s, are not likely to be cuddled up with like Jacqueline Susann's and Agatha Christie's bedwarmers. On the other hand, such box-office hits as The Exorcist, The Sting, or Jaws, will surely not figure in any museum retrospective of the major artistic successes of the 70s. But Ragtime-Nashville has reconciled critics and public in a way rarely achieved by two works from different media.
Ragtime-Nashville explores the way the private, unpublicized lives of our political and intellectual heroes interact with the fantasies of the American public; both Doctorow and Altman emphasize a singular popular from—ragtime and country music—as the variable that brings together our leaders and the public whose subconscious dreams they project.
Ragtime concerns an American family, a black musician, and an immigrant "Tateh" and his daughter, in the opening years of this century, and their interrelatedness with a group of epoch-making figures—Freud, Houdini and Emma Goldman. Though Nashville takes place some 70 years later, in a cross-section of its stars, conmen, wastrels, groupies and residents, it gives Doctorow's novel a startling complement. The two works not only explain how we got where we are, but offer poignant insights into the history the bicentennial celebration attempts to exploit on a shabbier, more superficial level.
Like Ragtime, Nashville works best when it remains faithful to the city's raucous surface. While Doctorow worked towards the eventual coming together of the American family—Tateh and his daughter and Coalhouse Walker's child—as symptomatic of the basic historical thrusts that gave time its march, Nashville, with its lively, self-conscious, raffish figures, its lumpish, maudlin, saccharine music, becomes the most vital and happily superficial city in present-day America. As in Ragtime, Altman and scriptwriter Tewkesbury do not emphasize any one character or diminish the energy and intensity of this pocket of popular culture. They interrelate the lives of 24 people—some famous country-western singers, others aspiring stars, and those groupies, hangers-on, and plain simple folk who like the "unimportant" figures in Ragtime contribute a great deal to the myth of their era. Characters like Keenan Wynn's demure melancholic townfolk and his groupie-niece, played by Shelly Duvall provide the emotional chemistry that keeps the Grand Ole Opry hopping.
One of the few negative reviews of Nashville (in the New York Review by Robert Mazzocco) criticized Altman for banking on the despair and death-wish that seem so chic and logical today. But while Altman's earlier films (Mash, McCabe and Mrs. Miller) struck me as too coolly dispassionate to effectively probe the inner realities that produced the chaos in Mash and the picturesque, commedia dell' arte appeal of the American West in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, his fluid camera-eye in Nashville has settled on a most resilient community. Here Altman does not have to probe beneath the facade to provide some sublime truth about the city and its inhabitants. Rather, the meaning of Nashville as the mecca of a singular American popular form, as an example of one part of the Southern sensibility, is revealed in the artifice, guilelessness and exuberance of the music and moods of the many people whose lives intersect.
This sense of Bergsonian continuity, where there is an overlap of the emotions and experiences of a great many people, is handled with unusual simplicity, exact in detail, yet seeming to play as an unaffected documentary (very strong credit must be given to Altman's entire crew). One is bound to agree (with Pauline Kael and John Simon) that the original eight-hour version be released. But what the film does suggest, in 145-minutes, is the intense, interminable interaction between the naiveté of a would-be star like Barbara Harris, the ignominy of Michael Murphy's political advance man, and the innocuousness of Gwen Wells's daydreaming waitress. A rich, overripe canvas is drawn that gains by having the conversations, emotional clashes and fantasies of these 24 people overlap.
The way the dream imposes on reality is apparent in two scenes, involving Gwen Wells's waitress, who dreams of singing at the Grand Ole Opry, and Keith Carradine's country-western singer, who "needs" to "score" with every woman he meets. While she goes through a strip at a political smoker in order to sing at a concert, her quest remains as true and well-intentioned as the affectionate look that passes between Lily Tomlin and Carradine when, after they have spent a few hours in bed, he calls another girl as Lily prepares to return to her family.
But in the final scene Altman offers the large, profound statement he has avoided throughout the film and thus refutes the experience detailed by the film in such a loving, unbiased way. A young man boarding in Keenan Wynn's house, who has seen how cruelly Wynn has been treated by his groupie-niece, kills country-western star Barbara Jean at a concert held in Nashville's pseudo-Parthenon. With one loud bang Altman attempts to dismiss Nashville as a breeding ground for the violence, past, present, and future(?), that has plagued our country. As a tragic metaphor it is pitifully wrong.
For Nashville itself, like its heroes and self-eulogizing ballads, is a shrill, open town that like Las Vegas must be met on its own terms. One does not compare Las Vegas to Monte Carlo anymore than one would place Nashville alongside Salzburg; both Vegas and Nashville provide a uniquely American experience whose crassness and two-dimensional starry-eyed appeal create their own logic and rhythm.
This warm, unprejudiced point of view is followed until the last scene. Altman has taken us inside the skin of the Grand Ole Opry, its heroes, hillbillies and hustlers, and like a modern Breughel, has invited us into a world that constantly gives new meaning to its fantasies. But in his final, sweeping overhead shot he admits a foreign viewpoint: the logic of a popular form like country music, and the city whose industry and intellect are given over to it, are, finally, completely misunderstood.
Unlike political leaders and their rhetoric, cultural heroes and fantasies are neither created nor destroyed by guns. Barbara Jean falters when the myth she represents no longer works for her audience. At an earlier concert she manifested her emotional instability as those who had dreamed her up booed her off the stage because her myth was shattered and no longer represented the fantasy of Southern purity perpetuated by her presence and songs.
The Ragtime-Nashville phenomenon that both the critics and the public cheered not only proves that not much has changed between 1900 and 1975, but that what foreign observers like Dickens and De Tocqueville said more than 100 years ago about the "confraternity" of the American system, of the proximity of the people to their leaders and heroes, remains relevant today. The myths that sustain Americans become our soon-to-be-realized history; we are involved in an inexorable give-and-take between what the people dream and what our leaders perceive as our mythic resources. This certainly constitutes a large part of what we mean by the "American Experience."
It is what makes the two works part of the same phenomenon we are now in the midst of celebrating. It is why the campaign of Hal Phillip Walker in Nashville, the man-on-the-horse candidate, which echoes the '72 campaigns of both Wallace and McGovern, parallels not only the songs of the country-western singers but their life styles….
Henry James once noted in despair that America was "all foreground." Our ceaseless urge for experiment and change caused our celebrated aesthete and cultural curator unending grief. Yet if one approaches the American Scene from the other side of the coin, the constant flurry of activity—our undiminishing appetite to gorge ourselves on an uneven but prodigious cultural smorgasbord—can be appreciated for its energy, for the confluence of people and events that interact so furiously across the American landscape. For the most part this is the American Scene celebrated by Ragtime-Nashville.
Yet at some moment we question the direction of this constantly changing American experience. Where, one wonders, are the myths that will continue to sustain this glorious and violent dream—the "American experience"? In Ragtime, in two or three instances, Doctorow presents an overview:
What bound them to each other was a fulfilled recognition which they lived and thought within so that their apprehension of each other could not be so distinct and separated as to include admiration for the other's fairness.
The writing is verbose, an attempt at a distilled poetic sentiment as flat and platitudinous as the "theme" of one of Have Hamilton's songs in Nashville. But this freakish, literary novelty, which has attracted readers from Gone with the Wind to Ulysses, concludes with a classic image, one that ends the most truly cyclical of 20th century novels.
Tateh observes the playing of the three children; this inspires one of the myths that will sustain Americans in the 30s. "The Little Rascals" was a mixed ethnic group of kids whose daily ups and downs paralleled the hard times American democracy was then going through. And if the reader thinks this is not a sufficiently powerful or illuminating myth to see us further along this century, I suggest that Doctorow could have done worse than focus on the most singular and sage of the Little Rascals, Buckwheat.
Buckwheat was the elevator operator in a hotel I once lived in, and I invited him to my room to join a small party on November 7, 1972. While my friends and I were sitting around the TV listening to the latest reports of the Nixon-Agnew landslide, Buckwheat came in after his afternoon shift. Asked what he felt about the election he said: "Don't mean nothing. Things going to keep going on."
Exactly. Doctorow could not have said it better. Mr. B, as he liked to be called, took a clean shot of Chevas Regal and bid us good night.
SOURCE: "Altman,Chabrol, and Ray," in Commentary, Vol. 62, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 75-8.
[In the following excerpt, which was reprinted as "Buffalo Bob and an Indian," in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter discusses the ways in which Airman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is similar to his McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and he enumerates the ways in which the former film falls short of the latter.]
There's a sense in which, had Robert Altman's new film been better, I probably would have liked it less. Nashville was "better": it dumped a truckload of city-slicker's scorn for "down-home" America at our doorstep, and yet covered its tracks so well that its enthusiasts were able to claim it was actually (if ambivalently) a celebration of the grit and fortitude of our vulgar country cousins. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson comes equipped with no such cagey defenses. The American flag (which figured so prominently in the conclusion of Nashville) is raised, and from then on there's not a single shot that isn't bathed in the yellowish, "autumnal" light of decrepitude. (The film does, in fact, seem to have been photographed entirely through yellow filters.) Nor could one easily find two lines together without at least one of them smacking of some point of instruction in the film's own "history lesson." Once again, the doors are thrown open for Robert Altman, your genial host, to give another of his famous parties, but this time it's unmistakably a didactic moralizer who bursts out of the closet to greet you.
And what his lesson consists of is this. Buffalo Bill, prototype of "America's national hero," is a corrupt fraud (we're introduced to him hassling over commercial rights with an associate who assures him, "Everything historical is yours"). As "father of the new show business," Buffalo Bill purveys, via his Wild West show ("America's national family"), a fabricated image of his legendary prowess and derring-do in fighting Indians, palming off this pack of lies (on a receptive and gullible public) as the historical truth. ("The truth?" Buffalo Bill exclaims. "I'll tell you what the truth is! The truth is what gets the most applause") But when the real Sitting Bull is signed on to enact a role in these charades, he throws a wrench in the myth-making machinery ("History"—i.e., white-man's "history"—"is nothing but disrespect for the dead," he declares), and demonstrates that, far from being the villainous savages that the show has depicted, Indians are actually beings far superior to their victors in nobility and wisdom, and mystically in touch with forces of nature and the realm of dreams. (Sitting Bull joins the show because he's had a dream that, through doing so, he'll meet and be able to make a request of the "Great Father"—Grover Cleveland—who, to everyone else's surprise, does come to see a performance, but, needless to say, flatly rejects the chief's request without even hearing him out.)
Indeed, the innate dignity of Sitting Bull is such that (much to Buffalo Bill's astonishment) the Indian is applauded even by the show's brainwashed audience, when, without any theatrical flamboyance, he merely rides into the arena. But, in the end, the show-business lies prevail. The real Sitting Bull returns to the reservation where he dies, and his place in the show is taken by his former interpreter, another Indian who demeaningly enacts a fictitious version of Sitting Bull's death at the hands of Buffalo Bill. And that such lies only meet the audience's need for them is clearly implicit. ("Is he sitting on that horse right?" an aging Buffalo Bill addresses a portrait of himself during a drunken reverie in which he imagines the dead chief present. "If he's not sitting it right, then how come all of you took him for a king?")
In any case, the show goes on; and, at the end, we see Sitting Bull "killed" by Buffalo Bill, the Indian-fighter's teeth flashing in a smile of manic glee and a look quite as mad as that of Little Big Man's Custer in his eyes—they are, in fact, (he perfect teeth and blue eyes of Paul Newman, as America's reigning star portrays its original one. Moreover, the suggestion is plainly made that show business is only a metaphor for business as usual in America, past and present: that the lies of the Wild West show are continuous with those of the larger society. "Welcome to Buffalo Bill's Wild West," the show's manager greets Sitting Bull. "You'll find it ain't all that different from real life."
Such, then, is the history that the film expounds: the standard demonology of venal white devils trampling noble red men underfoot, envisioned as the paradigm of "America." ("God meant for me to be white," Buffalo Bill declares. "The difference between a white man and an Indian is that an Indian's red, and for a real good reason. So you can tell us apart.") To the general rule of white iniquity, the film offers only two exceptions: Annie Oakley, depicted as a sensitive, "artistic" woman exploited for profit by a manipulative husband (essentially, the Ronee Blakley role in Nashville), and Ned Buntline, the writer who "invented" Buffalo Bill, and who functions as a sententious chorus of one ("That's when the show business flourishes, when times is bad," etc.). But in a way, and especially given that a real historical injustice is tangled up with the film's simplistic recasting of bad cowboys against good Indians, it's the treatment of the Indians that is more objectionable. For the portrayal of the red man as Noble Savage is just another way of "not seeing" the Indian (despite his appropriation by radical chic, still the most invisible of America's minorities): of denying him his own identity to serve one's sloganeering. For all the usual Altman-film, revisionist air of seeing through conventional generic stereotypes, there's more real respect paid to Indians in the depiction of their unknowable otherness in such a conventionally "old-fashioned" Western as Ulzana's Raid than in all of Buffalo Bill and the Indians' facile idealization of them.
And yet, repugnant as the new Altman film may sound when paraphrased on paper, its effect on the screen is, in fact, surprisingly benign, even, despite all its potential for hate-mongering, good-natured. Part of this affability seems attributable to the presence of Paul Newman, who may be a star, but is precisely the wrong kind of star—one indelibly associated with anti-heroic roles and liberal causes—to give the film that extra layer of irony which seems intended; for the film's conception (that of one manufactured image portraying another) to have bite, a John Wayne seems called for, though probably a younger John Wayne than the one now trading shamelessly on his "legend" in The Shootist. (The Wild West-Hollywood connection is pressed still further by the character of the show's producer, a figure given to such Goldwynisms as "futurable" and "disimproved," who at one point proclaims his intention to "Cody-fy" the world.) But more important, perhaps because the film's point-making is so emphatic and pervasive, and the points themselves so blunted by familiarity, one can more or less ignore such things (rather as one may automatically filter out the sound of surface noise in listening to some poorly recorded music) and direct one's attention elsewhere: in particular, to several deft comic touches, some nicely turned performances by a typically eccentric Altman cast (one of my favorite funny people, Pat McCormick, plays Grover Cleveland), and, above all, to the recurrent, densely textured scenes of the show people as they mill or rush about in a Saint Vitus's dance of incessant activity.
Indeed, these latter scenes seem virtually self-sufficient in their hold on one—seem almost to have a rooted life of their own quite apart from the shaky superstructure of statements erected on them. For if, on its surface, Buffalo Bill and the Indians is a collection of flimsy ironies about the fraudulent myth-making of American "history," there is also, as in the best of Altman's other films, something far more compelling at work beneath, much as a McCabe & Mrs. Miller is "about" capitalist rapacity, but draws its power from some more deeply buried source. Buffalo Bill and the Indians expounds its text, but, like Altman's other films, it also has a subtext—and though this new film is among Altman's least substantial ones, it's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, his deepest work, of which it most reminds me. (Never more so than when, like the whores in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Sitting Bull stands in wonderment before a prototypical juke box—in which, however, he soon loses interest.) Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the work's emotional core seems to reside not so much in its action, in what happens, as in its evocation of the life of an isolated community at some outpost of civilization, with the Wild West show's compound resembling less a fairgrounds than a frontier fort. (Both films were, in fact, shot in relatively isolated conditions in Canada.) And though this community's population is composed, is composed, far more exclusively than McCabe & Mrs. Miller's, of buffoons, it's remarkable that, even in the case of Buffalo Bill himself, the characters are no worse than buffoons, and rather gently drawn ones at that. And it's this sense of a communal outpost—of some isolated group banded together to create a refuge from the harshness of the world outside—that underlies almost all of Altman's best films, and radiates a warmth through them despite their overlay of cynical myth-debunking. One may even come to suspect that what these films are about is ultimately the experience of making them: about that fragile, transient, harmonious community that Altman gathers around himself for the making of his movies. And if his lesser work has the air of a convivial party, the best of it seems more like a celebration of some warmly felt gathering of family.
Yet if Buffalo Bill and the Indians is reminiscent of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one is struck no less by the two films' dissimilarities. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a veneer of irony coats but ultimately doesn't conceal the resonant depth of feeling below; in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, a shallow substratum of feeling can intermittently be sensed beneath the top-heavy edifice of meanings on the surface. Nor is this just a case of one film running deeper than another in the way that any artist's work may vary in quality from one creation to the next. Rather, it seems increasingly likely that, with the extravagant overpraise that's been lavished on his work since McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman is now locked into the role of oracle, committed to telling us, in ever-widening arcs of indictment, that we're living a lie, and all our heroes have feet of clay. And the shame of that is really less that we're likely headed for other Altman films as thin as Buffalo Bill and the Indians (or, worse, more Nashvilles), than that we may never again be given an Altman film as rich, reverberant, and mysterious as McCabe & Mrs. Miller….
SOURCE: "Floating," in Film Comment, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1977, pp. 55-7.
[In the following essay, Greenspun asserts that, "3 Women ranks with the best Altman, though it has the pretensions of some of the worst—Brewster McCloud, Images—and it divides, as just about everyone has noticed, between a wonderful first half and a highly problematic second."]
Quite by accident, the day I last saw 3 Women I also screened John Ford's 7 Women and the recent Looking Up. For the neatness of this introduction, and for lots of other reasons, I could have wished my third film had been, say, Four Daughters, or at least Two Gals and a Guy. But Looking Up offers the symmetry of having been directed and produced by women (Linda Yellen and Karen Rosenberg), and in its abysmal slice-of-pastrami pseudo-realism it offers a sobering corrective for anyone—like me—inclined to lose patience with Robert Altman's desert swimming pools or his well-publicized immersion in the collective unconscious. Ford's last masterpiece, on the other hand, stands almost as a reproach to Altman's loose structures and his indulgence in portents in place of meaning. 7 Women looked old fashioned when it was released in 1966, and now of course it looks classic, while the fashion of 1966—A Man For All Seasons? Blow-up?—grows insignificant by comparison. Altman has always been a modernist director, and the classical resources—the repeating metaphors and meaningful image patterns, such as the kerosene lamps, the torches, the blazing conflagrations that light up John Ford's long night in Hell—would for him represent access to no such traditional range of significance as that which sustained Ford in the late summit of his career. Perhaps his films embody a pessimism as strong as the late Ford's. But if so, it is less tough and less deep. Where Ford in 7 Women, keeping his heroine in view, resolutely puts out the lights, Altman only fades or—more likely—tracks or slowly pans away.
3 Women ranks with the best Altman, though it has the pretensions of some of the worst—Brewster McCloud, Images—and it divides, as just about everyone has noticed, between a wonderful first half and a highly problematic second. That really isn't anything new. M∗A∗S∗H falls down in its conclusion, and so does Thieves Like Us, while California Split simply falls apart. The difficulties Altman has in ending his movies sometimes extend pretty far back toward the beginning. Many of his happiest films consist of a succession of new faces and fresh starts. Or else, he will diffuse his energies over a broad spectrum of vignettes (which are meant to come together to make sense) or, rather than actually develop character or situation, he will submit his people to some form of magical transformation.
3 Women belongs with the magical transformations. It is fortunate in its first seventy-odd minutes of, essentially, exposition. But you can't properly accept that and merely reject the changes that come after. The film keeps acting as if it were about something. If, as some critics have suggested, it is really at its most serious about nothing much, then the value of everything you can like about it is called in question.
I assume that anybody reading this will by now know the film's story, how Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), fresh from Texas, comes to take over the persona and the place of Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) at the Purple Sage Apartments in Desert Springs, California; and how the third woman, Willie Hart (Janice Rule), in the trauma of giving birth to a stillborn baby seems to effect the re-birth of herself and the other two into a self-sufficient pioneer matriarchy that steps back into the style of the old west. Just about everyone and everything has a double or a shadow image: Millie—Pinky, Willie—baby, Willie's husband Edgar and the TV western's star he once stood-in for, even the California desert, which Pinky notes "sure looks a lot like Texas." The geriatric center where Millie and Pinky help exercise the old folks is staffed with twins, or best pals who look amazingly alike, and to watch the old folks themselves wade through their therapy pool, each accompanied and assisted by a young girl, is to sense the theme of replacement that keeps moving (if not exactly motivating) the film. When Millie cheerfully talks to herself, which she frequently does because nobody will listen to her, she is perhaps invoking her own ideal match. Her own ideal match moves in on her soon enough.
Cycles of death and birth—old folks and young folks, the death of Willie's baby and her own rebirth into a new persona, Pinky's swimming-pool suicide and her rebirth out of a fetal dependency on the fluid-carrying tubes of a hospital life-support system into a sluttish parody of Millie (she comes out of her coma just after we see her ancient parents make love in Millie's bedroom)—these must connect somewhere. Perhaps they connect with some other cycles, the motor cycles that circle in apparently endless dirt-bike races behind the Dodge City roadhouse that Edgar and Willie run, and that seem to end up as a too-ominous pile of discarded tires in the final panning shot of the film's conclusion. At least there is the reinvention of "Dodge City" itself, with the ersatz Edgar, the phoney cowboy removed, presumably shot by one of the three women he has wronged, and the investment of Millie as the new proprietress (complete with neat yellow-topped tables and flower arrangements in the bar) and the other women around her as dependents. I'm tempted to see Dodger City as a new recognition of the frontier, though I doubt the film allows any such specific formulation. In any case, we do end with Millie, the pre-packaged, time-tested, processed food girl, boiling whole potatoes for the others in the Dodge City kitchen.
Reviewers of 3 Women have generally noticed and either cared or not, that they couldn't make much sense out of half the movie. Stanley Kauffmann, who hates the film, attacks Altman for being "middle-class," which I had never thought was a category of film criticism before, and for imitating the manners of his European betters. In the New Yorker, Penelope Gilliatt, who seems to like the film, mainly summarizes the plot, getting some of it wrong in the process. And Andrew Sarris, if I read him correctly, comes close to saying that parts he didn't understand are profound because he didn't understand them. However, Sarris has written the best review the film has had, and one of the best general considerations I've ever seen accorded Altman. He acknowledges, interprets, and puts to rest the self-evidence relations between 3 Women and Fellini and Bergman, and he actually notices what happens on the screen. Thus:
I could do worse than try to evoke Shelley Duvall's stride as she walks from one social Calvary to another. There is so much spiritual grace in that stride, and so much wisdom in Altman's decision to follow that stride to the ends of his scenario, that one is enobled simply by witnessing the bonds of compassion between the director and his actress. Nothing else in 3 Women is quite so overwhelming as the cumulative gallantry under stress of Shelley Duvall's Millie. It makes everything Fellini ever did with Giulietta Masina seem patronizing by comparison.
If I were to isolate what matters most for me in 3 Women, Sarris' "spiritual grace" would be part of it. And although I am finally more impressed by the dimensions of Sissy Spacek's performance than by Shelley Duvall's, the simultaneously idiotic and valiant presence of Duvall's Thoroughly Modern Millie from almost the first shot until almost the last is surely the saving buoyancy of the film.
Considering what lies beneath the surface, whether in Bohdi Wind's brutally sexual pool murals or in the underwater visions and dreams with which Altman periodically invests the scene, floating may be the greatest good his world can offer. Pinky shows a real (and disquieting) talent for self-immersion, right from the start when she blows air bubbles into her Coca-Cola glass and then dunks herself completely in the geriatric center's therapy pool. Pinky shows a talent for mimicry too—for picking up Millie's time card (by mistake), her house coat, her Social Security number, her car, her diary, her name, her life. In these terms, cannibalism is the sincerest form of flattery. Indeed, each suggestion of procreation or annexation—from Willie's bloody stillbirth, to the half-reptilian sharp-toothed creatures in the pool murals, to Pinky's slavish attachment, to the symbolic sources of amniotic fluid that seem to abound in this desert landscape—each of these carries a component of nightmare so intense as to make the light stride Sarris admires an expression of the finest, albeit unknowing, heroism.
The first half of 3 Women celebrates that heroism even while it prepares for something else. Millie descends from a long line of Robert Altman satirical portraits, in which the satire is typically relieved by an understanding so rich and so benevolent as virtually to reshape our awareness of the world it helps us see. That was the special gift of Nashville and California Split, but it exists as well in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and even in M∗A∗S∗H. There is no condescension in this portraiture, and nothing shields Millie from appearing both as ridiculous and as fine as she is. Her marvelous apartment, decorated to the teeth in tones of yellow, rust brown, and white, may be the fullest appreciation ever of how a lonely bachelor girl without much money or real sophistication orders her existence in a world that offers no hint of sympathy from the outside. That women's-magazine dream of perfectibility is not without its poignancy, and Altman, to his credit, never pretends the dream is merely an ignorant lie. Pinky's momentary awe of Millie's far-ranging accomplishments, the rather simple sequence in which she enters Millie's apartment, overwhelmed by the bright decor and perfect convenience, while Millie beams in well-earned satisfaction—may add up to the loveliest passage in all of Altman. It is not so far below that gracious gentle conversation between two beautiful sisters by a Kyoto lake at the center of Ozu's transcendent End of Summer.
The power of the sequence derives not only from its benevolence, one of Altman's best qualities as a filmmaker, but also from its fragility, the inevitability with which it must succumb to the passage of time. Pinky will begin to take over the apartment, even before her rebirth through attempted suicide. And no one will come to Millie's dinner party with the store-bought shrimp cocktail and the canned chocolate pudding in the pre-baked sponge-cake shells. The dinner party is a joke, but not the impulse behind it. Millie's pathetic pretenses come as close to true civility—and thus in a sense, to civilization—as any values in the movie. Remember that never far from her, pregnant Willie kneels, painting another nightmare vision on the bottom or the sides of the pools that generate the movement of life in 3 Women.
Between nightmare and benign delusion, there is nothing much except the background chatter of the Purple Sage swinging singles, the administration of the geriatric center (two perpetually furious disciplinarians), perhaps a few hospital nurses. Where, except to "Dodge City" and along the "Santa Fe Trail" (the derelict miniature golf course next door), the film is finally going, leaves me mostly in the dark. I don't find that an acceptable state of affairs. But how it is going, and what it has to work with, I think I somewhat understand, and understand that anyone's "spiritual grace" within it becomes a kind of dancing on the edge of the abyss.
It may be for Altman, as for the late John Ford, that women can face the abyss with greater fortitude than can men. But I doubt that, as in late Ford, they see it more clearly or that they help create it. Nothing in 3 Women suggests that anyone really sees or comprehends anything. The characters enact, but they don't direct the film's design. It is their destiny but never their decision, and it means little to point out that they lack the element of choice. The Altman films work like great machines tending usually toward some arbitrary dissolution, often through either violent death or outright disappearance. John Ford's abyss—at least in 7 Women—is a hell. Altman's is a void. This may be why his movies contain so much preliminary exposition and why that exposition will often be the best part of them. Everything that precedes the cataclysm is not only clearer but also infinitely precious. The beautiful encounters and introductions that open 3 Women are not an accident. Given what he knows must happen, he is being as kind to us as he can.
SOURCE: "Wish and Power: Recent Altman," in Chicago Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, Summer, 1978, pp. 34-51.
[In the following essay, Di Piero discusses Altman's Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, and 3 Women, and asserts that, "His career may prove eventually to be the most cogent, and tenacious, of any America director."]
Public controversy contaminates perceptions, and sudden notoriety often smudges the profile of a newly famous thing. In the past several years Robert Altman, a latecomer in American filmmaking, has become the most conspicuous victim of public misperception. Although his films have inspired lively polemic, they have also drawn forth more opaque, muddled opinion than any other films of the period. Critics and audiences have been dazzled, angered, and frequently baffled by his innovative style, above all by his eccentric narrative strategies. Instead of relying on the centripetal forces of conventional narrative, whereby plot details gravitate toward nuclear characters and events, Altman has exploited a kind of centrifugal style: incidents and characters spin away from the narrative axis, the camera brushes past significant events, the sound track overlaps or truncates "meaningful" dialogue, the editing fragments conventional character exposition. It's a cunning, peripheral style, and one of the few real advances in storytelling method since the innovations of the French New Wave. In his films since M∗A∗S∗H Altman has dramatized reality at speeds quite different from those we are used to in narrative cinema, and he has liquified and refashioned traditional fixed point of view. Alan Spiegal describes this new cinema as "a decentralized system in which discrete elements of style and drama float freely in shifting suspension, in which elements confront each other in glancing discord and irresolute debate." Altman casually insists that we train ourselves to see his films in a new way, that we adapt ourselves not merely to a new point of view but to a new method of seeing.
Because of his restless, exploratory methods, Altman has continually undermined and blasted critical expectations. He has moved nimbly from the flashy, jabberwocky profanity of M∗A∗S∗H to the dreamy pessimism of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, from the looney-tune fable of Brewster McCloud to the puzzle theatrics of Images, from the bitter dizziness of The Long Goodbye to the lush melancholy of Thieves Like Us. Yet he never makes an issue of his own virtuosity. The elliptical cutting, the eight-track sound recording that mimics and revises the babble of reality, the irreal lighting that shapes character, the peripheral events that lunge into the foreground to determine dramatic action: these are Altman's obvious "trademarks," but he is intelligent and vital enough not to have allowed them to harden into mannerism. His versatility, however, has in some quarters undermined his authority. Newspaper critics especially are immediately suspicious of abundance—Altman has made eight films in seven years—assuming that anyone who works quickly must also be brilliantly facile. In this instance, the scaled-down expectations and attenuated sensibilities of reviewers simply are not equal to Altman's enterprise: his amplitude defeats and embarrasses their reluctant generosity.
Nashville was responsible for bringing Altman to the attention of the public at large. Unlike his earlier films, it became a full-fledged media event. Disregarding for the most part the spinning lyric noise of the film, and its fierce ambivalence, critics preferred to seize on what seemed to them an accessible public issue—Altman's vision of America. Nashville was discussed in the most unlikely places, from the oped page of the New York Times to the Johnny Carson Show. The topic of public discussion was not really the film itself but rather the commentators' misperceptions of it. Although Altman denied in interviews any intention of making Nashville a critical portrait of America in the seventies, critics inevitably misread the film as a pillorying of America. Yet Altman, in a Playboy interview, was quite explicit about his intentions: "When I make films like Nashville it's not to say we're the worst country in the world, or what awful people these are. I'm just saying we're at this point and it's sad." Instead of fierce, righteous satire, Altman was offering a portrait of American melancholy, a study of personalities under stress, rendered in carrousel narrative. The overheated competitiveness of the country-music industry was an ideal context; the brinksmanship and power struggles that characterize all show business become all the more ambivalent, and poignant, when the music in question sings about Big American Themes. This too was much on Altman's mind: "Another thing Nashville signifies is that we don't listen to words anymore. The words of a country song are as predictable as the words of a politician's speech…. Nashville is merely suggesting that you think about these things, allowing you room to think. Many people, I guess, want to know exactly what it is they're supposed to think. They want to know what your message is. Well, my message is that I am not going to do their work for them." While Altman continues to operate by suggestion and insinuation, many of his critics still hear only soapbox rhetoric, which presumably is what they want to hear. Altman's responsibility, as he himself sees it, is to vex his audience into thought and feeling. He prefers revelation to mere explanation. Instead of handing down Polonian criticism of the American way, he was in Nashville dramatizing—and often mourning—the vicious operations of chance in a country celebrated as the land of opportunity—political, financial, and sexual opportunity. Nashville is abrasive rather than critical, seizing as it does on the dark confusion between opportunity and opportunism.
Altman is certainly curious about the American character and the eccentricities that we have normalized. He wants (and needs) to reveal those things found only in America, the emotional contours and cultural habits that distinguish us from others, the imaginative history that makes us what we are. His attitude is one of curiosity, not pontification; of exploration, not proclamation. Like any honorable artist, Altman is a skeptic, never entirely trusting the appearances of things; but he is at the same time celebrative, eager to sing in the presence of what moves him. This tension between skepticism and celebration gives his films their peculiar disarming ambivalence, their brilliant unease. One of the most unexpected moments in Nashville comes when Barbara Jean, arriving at the airport to begin her comeback, is greeted by a high school band and a crowd of scrubbed, chunky baton twirlers. Here surely was a chance for Altman to poke low fun at American hokum, at provincial middle-class culture. But, unexpectedly, Altman has a young peachy twirler, cradling flowers for Barbara Jean, march directly into the admiring and embracing eye of his camera. There is genuine affection and a startling absence of irony in this celebrative image. And at the end of the film, although we are not spared the abrupt horror of the shooting of Barbara Jean, the hysterical lady in white, neither are we spared the cold and accurate irony of American Opportunity: even as the great democratic masses so celebrated in nineteenth-century America offer the young assassin his dramatic opportunity, the tragic event at the same time offers another opportunity, that of instant stardom, to the aspiring singer Albuquerque. In his inspiration and the realization of his vision, Altman is kin to Whitman: his art is ample and inclusive, he wants to see and say everything, to get it all down. The result, as in Whitman, may sometimes have the look of chaos, but this is finally a strategic mask for the symmetries of plenitude, for generosity straining at the tether of common sense.
Nashville is about rituals of power, both public and private. The singers and hangers-on who frequent Nashville all act upon the need to be close to power sources. Most of them seize every opportunity to draw power from the presidential candidate Walker, guided not by serious political loyalties but by career opportunism. The Nashville patriarch Haven Hamilton, the frail convalescent Barbara Jean, the haughty inarticulate trio of Bill and Tom and Mary, all insist they have no interest in politics, yet in the end they all agree to sing at the Walker rally. The sympathetic magic of song might allow them to borrow some of the raw political power of the event. Within this large context of public power, however, Altman also sets in motion a number of mini-dramas about professional and sexual power struggles, games of brinksmanship that infect personal relationships. Barbara Jean's position as country music queen is threatened by the glamorous hustling of Connie White (Karen Black); Albuquerque's husband chases after her in order to "save" her from Nashville; the young assassin, of all the characters the most isolated and solitary, suffers from his own high-strung wish to draw attention to himself. Each character, in effect, wants an increased sense of self-importance, and the most direct and dramatic way of achieving this is by stepping over the fallen or faltering bodies of others.
Power struggles, whether public or private, thrive on pragmatism: a person may do whatever works best to serve his personal designs. But the most manipulative and ruthless characters turn out to be not Nashville country and western singers but the outsiders, the rock group Bill and Tom and Mary. The Nashville people, especially Haven Hamilton, do indeed believe in the values celebrated in their songs, though their belief is by now blunted by the grinding repetition of sentiment. They are not cynical in believing America to be still a land of milk and honey. Although the lyrics of their songs are often anemic and hokey, they express more or less genuine sentiments. The rock group, on the other hand, are hypocrites in every way. Alienated from each other by sexual drifting and self-servingness, they sing songs that have no real basis in belief; the music is mannered and thin, the lyrics hollow slogans left over from the radical sixties. The mellow truths they celebrate, about loneliness and love, are glamorous instruments that earn them a good living. Tom, the most obnoxious yet most complex of all the characters, is also the most cowardly and self-serving. He is the show business Don Juan, making bedside phone calls to set up his next assignation even while his most recent bed-partner listens on. He is full of canned antiwar sentiments, and his songs are sweet, convincing falsifications of his own feelings. But his arrogance is so apparently self-effacing and understated that it seems almost attractive; he is the perfect rendering of the "sensitive man" so popular in the sixties, soft and pliant manners masking arrogant weakness.
Altman sets the opportunistic rock trio, with their sliding scale of values, against the more sympathetic and conventional character of Haven Hamilton. Hamilton, the gaudy embodiment of Nashville traditions and in his way a smug self-righteous man, bears himself with reserve and dignity. Somehow he ennobles even the flamboyant costumes he wears. Like any hard-eyed businessman he values tradition, yet we learn that he supported both Kennedys. Most importantly, when called upon to act, he makes his choices simply and bravely. When Barbara Jean is shot, it's Hamilton who immediately uses his own body as shield to protect her from further gunfire. Although he himself is wounded, his instincts are to protect another, to preserve Nashville's angel. He is morally outraged that a nearly hallowed place should be profaned by the kind of irrational violence that should be foreign to Nashville. His sense of decency, which runs deep, and of traditional values carried on in public rituals, is outraged by the brutal disturbance of communal peace. "This isn't Dallas," he assures the crowd. "This is Nashville." This instinctive defense of his hometown as a locus of value stands out in sharp contrast to the equivocal values voiced not only by the Walker campaigners, but also by most of the other Nashville singers. His courageous gesture transcends pragmatism, cultural sloganism, and brute careerism; transcends, in effect, the most obvious appearances which generally are identified with Nashville. Hamilton's action is a selfless, almost self-transcendent gesture, and an instinctive defense of the radical traditions of the town.
Altman's tone, however, and his attitude toward his characters are often ambivalent. Even though Haven Hamilton performs more than one admirable act, we are never allowed to forget that he is also an arrogant businessman. And Tom is allowed some of the cool bemused sympathy we reserve for ruthless Don Juans. Altman's tone, then, can be at once abrasive and affectionate. We have become so accustomed, however, to the generally explicit, flattened tone of American movies that we tend to feel not only uneasy but also defensive when confronted with something more ambiguous and expansive. We do not expect a film so overrun with familiar American images and attitudes to treat them in a new way. Too often our tendency as viewers is to protect our own ritualized responses and to make the darkened theater a place of safety rather than of menace. By embracing a broad range of personalities in his films and by allowing them to pursue their own destinies without the blunt intervening hand of the filmmaker, Altman is close in sensibility to Renoir. And like Renoir, Altman resists making political and moral judgments. Nashville offers no explanation of America to itself, but it does render a very singular vision of the complexity of American experience. And I think that Altman's intelligent affection for his characters is tied to his ambiguous affection for American diversity. He is much taken by the peculiar blend of the wild and the forlorn which gives the American character its rough edges, the chattering, expansive, speedy smugness that seems built not only into our behavior but into the environments we surround ourselves with. For instance, everywhere we go there is music—in supermarkets, offices, restaurants, houses, automobiles, factories. The music is meant to be ignored: this is its proper nonpurpose. Altman picks this up as an aural cue to one aspect of the American experience, and he uses it as a unifying element in Nashville. The people in the film do not really listen to music, they behave in its presence. Finally, the music does begin to seem like organized noise.
Altman's art, like Whitman's, is first of all revelatory, often interpretive, seldom explanatory. His work is too sensuous to be explanatory, too full of the messy, half-realized, inarticulate experience that gives his films their special numinous quality. Because of its amplitude, Nashville yields its own apparent contradictions, its own nonexplanations. For these reasons, the closing sequence deserves its mixed fame. Rather than a neat, summative, programmatic vision of contemporary America, it yields instead a vision of the heterogeneous elements of American experience and of the tensions that bind and enliven them. The pure unreason of the violence against Barbara Jean remains crucially unexplained: the young killer, who has the clenched ascetic look of a young Trotskyite, may be shooting up at the American flag, or at Haven Hamilton. The shooting itself is underplayed, since Altman is more concerned with what happens afterward. We have a moment of unexplained violence followed immediately by Hamilton's act of traditional bravery. The disorder allows Albuquerque her long-awaited opportunity to sing before an audience. Disaster, in effect, creates opportunity and this sudden realization of opportunity, insofar as it reaffirms a crucial American value, is also a provisional restoration of order.
More important than the lyrics of the closing song (with its ambiguous refrain: "You may say that I ain't free / But it don't worry me") is the self-referential incantatory power of song, of organized noise, with its primitive power to soothe and manipulate, to turn benign or malevolent: song as democratic redemption and fascist appeal. While the crowd chants, the camera pulls back slowly. The colorful throng seems shrunken against the hulking modern Parthenon ("made of poured concrete and steel: the Athens of the South"). On stage, isolated from the crowd, are the cheery blond newcomer and a black back-up choir. Above looms the covering presence of the flag, the symbolic organization of all the mixed elements that stand, slightly dazed, beneath it. In this bold context, the theme of the stars and stripes—its tri-color harmonies, its pluralism set against a fixed field—ceases to be ironic. The flag suddenly seems an appropriate metaphor, though certainly at best a working metaphor, for the mixed vision the film has offered us. But the film does not, as many critics seemed to think, end here. Intercut into this generalist vision are spastic, isolated close-ups of the crowd: babies, rednecks, freaks, elders, and two conspicuous police officers, one of them female, winding alertly through the crowd. These shots remind us that the generalization "society" exists only by virtue of its discrete parts, its anonymous human units; society is before all else an aggregate of personalities. Once we have absorbed this large, expanding picture, the camera makes another decision. Tilting upward away from the crowd, it leaves both crowd and flag behind and fixes its gaze on the blue and innocent sky. The music finally, mercifully, fades out. Moments later, in silence, the sky too fades. This final progression of images does not resolve the film according to the rather melodramatic conventions of American narrative cinema. Instead of a vision of provisional order and harmony (the standard resolution of Hollywood films), and instead of the false consolation of political or moral platitude, the camera eye enacts transcendence, lifting itself above the crowd, above the diversity of the human toward the oneness of sky. It is a powerful enactment of the will to dream, the decision to transcend the appearances of pluralism and emerge into a transcendent, unified reality, an alternate world. It is Altman's instinctive equivalent, I think, of Emerson's aspiration toward the oneness of the Oversoul, a coherent wish for transcendence. Altman of course thinks his way toward this possibility through images, through his round-robin metaphors of plenitude and unity. Like any narrative filmmaker, he tells his story with pictures and sound, but the narrative poetry lies deep within the self-contained metaphoric story. Altman does not so much tell a story as he tells metaphors, tells a poetry of deeply related images, and his films after Nashville continue to tell this poetry of guarded aspiration and promise.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, begins precisely where Nashville left off, with a vision of sky and mountains and the American flag flying high. The camera eye descends slowly, once again into show business, but this time the show is a dusty historical spectacle of Missouri settlers battling Indians. From the pure presence of Nature we slide down into the staged artifice of entertainment, of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where a revised version of history is being rehearsed so that it may be sold to willing audiences. Altman's vision descends quickly from silence into noise, into the glib speech of commerce, the marketplace of American wish and power. Based as it is on the legends of Buffalo Bill, the Wild West Show is grounded in falsified history, and it uses the American Indian, the fixed center of native culture, as its main ploy; it takes culture and distorts it to serve Bill's ends, to become "civilized" entertainment. In the interests of progress, culture may be falsified, too. Civilization is more important, since it promises greater profits.
The linguist Edward Sapir distinguishes between culture and the civilization which is its vehicle. It is quite possible, he says, for an advanced intelligent civilization to be a very poor culture-bearer. America certainly possesses high civilization, conspicuous material wealth defined almost exclusively by advanced tools, a society where leisure is the highest ideal. Culture, on the other hand, depends not on tools but on a homogeneous mythic truth that must underpin the psychology and actions of an entire people, truth which results from a passionate desire to refine experience, to understand pious communal origins. Culture depends on an understanding of the sky and of man's residence on earth beneath such sky. Civilization places its trust in less permanent things. Moreover, genuine culture is not graduated, is neither high nor low. "It is merely inherently harmonious, balanced, self-satisfactory. It is the expression of a richly varied and yet somehow unified and consistent attitude toward life, an attitude which sees the significance of any one element of civilization in its relation to all others." The Wild West Show is certainly a mode of advanced civilization; not only is it efficient in its entertainment (it even has an "Inventions Department") but it is self-conscious about its materials and impious in the presence of inefficiency. Progress is whatever works. Everything is judged according to its appearance—it is, after all, the show business. What it lacks, however, is what Sapir calls "spiritual essence," a belief in something that is not itself, that stands over and against man-made products. Bill's show may be a success, but it lacks spiritual mastery, lacks the historical abundance and unselfconscious permanence that inhabit the mountains and sky. It is not numinous. Altman's film, perhaps the only truly contemplative American film of the past several years, explores these distinctions, dramatizes the sadness that emerges from supercivilization when it lacks culture, broods on the suppressed envy that lies just beneath the surfaces of American experience, which so often is grief disguised as plenitude.
Show business is high civilization, a world of well-tooled artifice and illusion, the greatest being the illusion of history, a dream of Buffalo Bill as great Indian fighter. The show is indeed well-designed, convincing in its appearances. But it lacks spiritual essence, lacks the one historical truth that might have given it real culture: Bill's identity is not an historical truth but the crude product of Ned Buntline's hack imagination. Far from being a great buffalo hunter and Indian fighter, Bill was above all an illustrious manufacturer of illusions. And the legends that began to cluster around his name were mostly dreamed up by a dime novelist visiting from the East. In order to preserve both his image and the show which markets that image, he must live up to the personality created for him. But in trying to honor his artificial public identity, Bill has become a civilized paranoiac who fears his own legend. He already suspects that his show, his dream, is very dandy waste, but waste nonetheless; it may be civilized entertainment, but it is not culture. It derives not from natural piety or the wisdom of the heart, but from businesslike cynicism and media hype. In Altman's version, Bill is beginning to distrust his own pulp greatness.
Into this hermetic, voluble world comes the threatening stranger, Sitting Bull, silent as a mountain, needing no hype to validate his great spiritual power. Bull really does have visions; he sees what other men do not, because his soul is great. Everything he says or does has its roots in the creation myths of his tribe, the primal piety of man in the presence of his gods, acting out of radical motives. As a man, he comprises culture. Unlike Bill, whose world is wildly contaminated by Nate Salsbury's pseudolanguage, Bull needs no words to explain or rationalize his existence. Bill, the civilized creation of literary gossip, feels almost morally obliged to explain himself and to exercise (as flamboyantly as possible) the power of his position; Bull, son of the silent earth, now dispossessed of the means and tools of his own civilization, is pure revelation. From the moment Bull enters, Bill is on his guard, cautious and envious of this unlikely American. Each claims a history drawn from the same historical context, but Bill knows that the Indian is the real thing and hence the only dangerous thing.
Buffalo Bill's main power source is self-esteem. He has assumed the manufactured image of himself; since it is so useful, so profitable, it must be true. Sitting Bull threatens Bill's self-esteem, his control over all aspects of the theatrical production which is himself. Bill thinks he has scored a huge success in acquiring Bull as an attraction in the show, but it turns out that the Indian has come only because of a dream which told him that he would there meet the Great White Father, President Cleveland. To Bill's mind, this is a very spurious "reason," since it has no practical grounding. Bill cannot understand because he does not have such power-dreams. Certain that he is matching Bull's game of brinksmanship, Bill agrees to let him stay, but reminds his nephew Ed that "the difference between a white man and an Injun in a situation like this is that an Injun don't know the difference between a question and an answer. That's why they ain't ever sure when they get what they ask for." Duped by a man of power, Bill can only resort to paleface rhetoric to preserve his self-esteem. Question-and-answer is the most convenient kind of business discourse: the language of exchange and bargaining. Sitting Bull, however, speaks the more direct language of need; his words are impelled by the destiny his dreams dictate. Bull's culture demands that he interpret fantasy, dream-stuff, as one of the power sources behind his spirituality. Buffalo Bill and Salsbury, on the other hand, take the facts of history and rearrange them into palatable illusions; they manufacture historical fantasies as something quite divorced from their own spiritual essences. They deal in titillation, not inspiration. In staging Custer's Last Stand, Bill has Custer scalped by Sitting Bull. When someone objects to the historical inaccuracy, Salsbury justifies it according to show business pragmatism: "We're in the goosebump business." Halsey, Sitting Bull's interpreter, also tries to correct Bill's staging: "Sitting Bull was not present on the battlefield. He was making medicine and dreaming. Sitting Bull will allow you to show his dream. He saw many horses upside down and blue skeletons floating to the promised land." Not only does this not coincide with Bill's idea of the show business, but more importantly Bull's dream exists in a cultural context totally alien to Bill's own. Bill must have big American entertainment, explicit and goosebumping; Bull's oracular dream would not make for good pulp. Moreover, the Wild, West Show is not, as Salsbury says, "in the yesterday business"; the past exists not as radical memory but as raw material for future deals. Salsbury refers to Bull's contract as "the most futurable act in our history." Historical fact exists in order to be packaged as a future commodity. Thus it is possible for civilization to flourish even while it is culturally impoverished.
All of these materials lend themselves easily to satire, but in Buffalo Bill Altman again adopts an unexpected tone. Rather than characterize white men as malicious fools or show business sharks, he allows each character to stand close to the shadow line of grief, to the collapse of self-deception (and hence of self-esteem). If Buffalo Bill is a satire, it is elegiac satire, steeped in sadness and uncertainty. Ironically, and painfully, the only person to whom Bill can confide his fears is Sitting Bull. The most seductive scene in the film is the one in which Bill, delirious on whiskey and lack of sleep, hallucinates the presence of Sitting Bull. Provoked by the Indian's astonishing self-containment, he spills out some necessary but disarming truths and reveals some of his own hysterical wisdom. "God meant for me to be white!" he exclaims. The white man's birthright is different in kind and degree from Sitting Bull's; his legacies are different, too, and in their own way terribly burdensome. Bill is aware of the choice he himself has made and the responsibility he has taken on as a paleface showman: "It ain't easy…. I got people with no lives living through me! Proud people! People to worry about." He knows it's too late to make up for that which was missing in the first place, a sense of piety and of historical memory. The white man's dream is, and always has been, essentially different from the Indian's dream, and white America has had such little time to do so much that we should not, according to Buffalo Bill, be held guilty for cutting corners on history. Civilization, in effect, is a different kind of aspiration than culture; its power must be evident in appearances, the clout of artifice and utilitarian rhetoric. And white America made its choice long ago. Bill goes on to confess his own urge to immortality; like an Indian, he wishes to be remembered by his children's children, but the source of his immortality, unlike an Indian's, will not be rooted in great deeds or spiritual power. "I do what I do for me. Because when you do that, you're gonna live a little longer. It makes me true! Because truth is whatever gets the loudest applause." Bill draws his power, his truth, from living for others. Public acclamation of an artificial identity is the soundest confirmation of meaning in his life, and it promises some kind of immortality.
The show business is perhaps the most commonplace ritual of American civilization, and as Ernest Becker says, "ritual is a technique for giving life," conferring the power to outlive oneself. The difference—a tragic one—is that Bill sees himself as the source of his own power. Sitting Bull, too, obeys a set of rituals, but his strategies of immortality depend absolutely on a source of power which is other. Bill is a paradigm of American civilization in that he recognizes no numinous power, no spiritual authority beyond his own. In his impoverished desire, he is a figure of American grief. Here too, Becker's formulation is appropriate: "Man needs self-esteem more than anything; he wants to be a cosmic hero, contributing with his energies to nothing less than the greatness and pleasure of the gods themselves…. Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself." When the power source is oneself, and when one's rituals are those of the show business, one must then live not for oneself but for others. This too is a cause of Bill's melancholy. Pointing to a heroic portrait of himself, Bill asks Bull: "Ain't he riding his horse all right? If he ain't, then why did all of you mistake him for a King?" He suffers from the discrepancy between what he knows himself to be and what he knows the crowd expects of him. Whenever he rides into the show ring, mounted heroically on his white charger, Brigham, he barely manages to stay in the saddle. He is, literally and figuratively, slipping, about to lose his image, and he knows it. Obtuse as he may seem, and certainly no visionary like Sitting Bull, Bill still sees enough to suffer. Lacking culture, however, he lacks a spiritual system that might help him organize the disparate perceptions he has of himself and others. Ned Buntline says that Bill "likes to think he's a dreamer, but he's really just a sleeper." Bill's sullen American yearning, cast in the darksome and honky-tonk moods of this film, is directed toward the radical culture he knows he lacks. But his yearning, too, is anxious and uncertain, since he isn't sure he even needs or wants such culture. He has already acquired great material power, but somehow this power has still not satisfied a deeper wish that civilization lacks the language to express, let alone realize. The film, for all its peculiar half-suppressed comedy, is finally a meditation upon lost origins and the histories of power.
The power relations in Nashville and Buffalo Bill are largely public, practiced by civilized discontents whose anxieties are acted out before large attentive audiences. In both films the protagonists are entertainers, media heroes, fabricators of civilization. In 3 Women, however, Altman withdraws (once again, unexpectedly) from public to private zones of power. 3 Women is very much about the anxieties and densities of power, but the drama here is reclusive, and the conflicts are suffered not by public fabricators of civilization but rather by its anonymous consumers. Altman again carefully modulates the American context. Instead of the swarming vitality of American plenitude, he concentrates on a more controlled vocabulary of metaphors, all carefully designed and placed, which makes 3 Women stylistically a more poised and fragile film than the earlier two. If the poetry of Nashville and Buffalo Bill is public, abundant, open-aired, and utilitarian, the poetry of 3 Women is cloistered, ascetic, self-referential, aesthetic. In the patterns of emotion dramatized in its (often oneiric) metaphors, 3 Women is a very clear-minded film about impingement, emotional sabotage, and violation of personality. In the earlier films personality was the battlefront of power, where identities were left battered but intact. In 3 Women, impingement causes actual changes in personality, normalized monstrosities.
The worst victim of impingement is the woman who at first seems most aggressive. Millie (Shelly Duvall) works at a geriatric health spa. We first see her wading in a heated pool, steering along an old disabled woman. Altman places his metaphors at the very beginning, for Millie walks half immersed in water, half distorted, half "drowned." If the finale of Nashville was Altman's expression of Emersonian wish, in Millie he gives us a contemporary misversion of Emerson's self-reliant American. She is a cheery monster of American consumerism, prattling about microwave ovens and new fast-food recipes. Her ferocious sense of self-esteem, aggressive but dull-witted, puts people off. Her self-assertiveness is so obtrusive and overstated that she seems all surface, a tissue of TV and supermarket values. And yet she is fiercely protective of these values, since they do comprise her selfhood. In her rush to be as contemporary and as independent a woman as possible, she estranges herself from her own context: she becomes the author of her own separateness.
Millie's tidy world is invaded by the stranger Pinkie (Sissy Spacek), who comes to work at the spa. Pinkie is a Texas girl (like Millie) and her freckled innocence somehow combines both the cheer and menace of small-town American life. She seems at first Millie's opposite, homely, withdrawn, uninformed, with one pair of panties that she rinses out nightly. The seed of personality-doubling has already been planted, not only because the two women come from Texas, but because Pinkie's real name is Mildred. These coincidences will soon turn into compulsions, and Altman already begins to establish metaphorical symmetries. Pinkie's quick and strategic attachment to Millie is mocked visually by the presence of identical twins who work at the spa and who hold a spooky attraction for Pinkie. They become a model for Pinkie's own behavior; this innocent from the country will patch together her own personality from the scraps and remnants taken from others. If Millie borrows her personality from TV, magazines, and supermarkets, Pinkie takes hers from the personalities that surround her. Millie takes her as a roommate, and soon Pinkie is reading Millie's diary, wearing her clothes, mimicking her speech patterns, and generally insinuating herself into Millie's private world.
The two frequent a desert bar called "Dodge City," a tacky Old West saloon run by Edgar (once a stunt stand-in on the Wyatt Earp Show) and his pregnant wife Willie. Here Altman again reveals his ability to define a special kind of brash American vulgarity. Willie (Janice Rule) is an artist who bears herself with the silent, closed dignity of Sitting Bull, and as in Buffalo Bill silence here is a sign of self-containment and hence of personal power. Willie drifts through the desertscape like a wraith, leaving behind power signs, paintings of scale-armoured humanoids. She paints her demons on the walls and floors of swimming pools; her creatures seem ravaged by their own isolation and by their cumbersome sexuality. Some have elastic striated male torsos and flat drooping breasts, others have huge phalli. Their predatory look and sexual menace call to mind Albany's lines from King Lear: "Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep." Pinkie shows the same attraction to Willie's monstrous doubles as to the twin sisters, and when she later attempts suicide she does it by leaping into a pool, going to meet the monsters whose shapes rhyme just as the names of the three women rhyme.
In 3 Women style itself is the narrator. Altman builds the movie on a suspended, coherent poetic design, and it cannot be understood without attending to the story as it is narrated in its metaphors. The film's visual coherence depends on two metaphors of place: desert and pool. Each personality is identified with a natural element. Millie is the desert princess, her wardrobe and apartment interior bright with sun colors; the brilliant yellow of her dresses imitates the piercing yellow of the desert cacti and yucca (desert flora is pale and bright, of course, but not the banana yellow we see in the film; Altman is quite consciously designing his metaphors). Pinkie, on the other hand, sees reality most often through watery distortions. Very early in the film, prefiguring her attempted suicide, she dunks herself in the spa pool. When she spies out her apartment window, her gaze passes through a fish tank. Willie, the most self-possessed of the three, passes easily from the dry depths of pools to the cactus landscape: when Pinkie attempts suicide, it is Willie who lunges into the water to rescue her. As the women impinge upon one another, they swing through shifting planes of light, from the slippery greens and blues of the spa to the brittle pastels of the apartment complex to the glaring yellows and browns of the desert. The images to which the characters are drawn also enact the interpenetration of identities, of natural functions. Willie's pool monsters are obviously desert creatures, scaly, saurian. Blurry underwater perceptions and duplications of image are played off against the violent parched clarity of the desert. Altman dramatizes not merely figures in a landscape, but also the landscape itself as an imitative figure of the spiritual contest waged among the three protagonists. As they move through these zones of lucidity and distortion, the zones of self-knowledge and living for others, the three women begin to stake provisional claims on the selfhood of one another. Pinkie takes on Millie's effusiveness, whereas Millie begins to learn from Willie's silences.
When Millie, anxious for the self-esteem that sexual conquest brings, returns home one evening with a drunken Edgar, Pinkie is stunned by her roommate's "borrowing of Edgar," a sexual betrayal of Willie. Suddenly, borrowing is no longer a harmless game; Pinkie feels great sympathy for Willie, and her pleas to Millie not to sleep with Edgar grow out of her fear of harm done to Willie. Rebuffed by Millie, her games now darkened terribly by the subversive reality of sex, Pinkie seeks a way out. In keeping with Altman's poetry of oblivion, she seeks death by water, plummeting into the pool to meet the sexual monsters at the bottom.
When she emerges from the coma induced by her fall, Pinkie is changed. Having surrendered herself to the dark creatures, she now begins her doubling in earnest. While convalescing, she begins to claim more fragments of Millie's personality, even asks to be called by her real name, Mildred. She paints her toenails, appropriates Millie's car (another yellow extension of her personality), picks up Millie's friends, flirts with Willie's husband. Pinkie also suffers from partial amnesia, and here Altman deals with one of his favorite themes: forgetfulness. In Nashville, the characters remembered only what they wished to remember, and these were usually memories of power, of the Kennedy campaign and the end of that world in Dallas. Buffalo Bill Cody manages to cope mainly by forgetting his own drab origins, soaking them in whiskey and power dreams. In 3 Women, Pinkie in her loss of memory is free to wield power; she has no memories to define her own personality (which is always shaped by memories and past experience). To be absolved of identity is to be liberated, cleansed for the future. In her presence, Millie becomes unusually timid, deferential, obsequious. The waters of the pool have brought on enforced forgetfulness. Pinkie, like William Cody, thus knows only her wish for power.
The power does not last long, however. One night a dream comes to claim her, a dream filled with images of the past, the hallucinatory reality of doubles, twins, monsters, and Willie, all twisted and warped by the opacity of water, the dream medium. The montage sequence that dramatizes Pinkie's emergence from forgetfulness is, in Altman's rendering, a stunning figuration of the way stored images fuse, collapse, and percolate in the subconscious, as Pinkie makes her bizarre journey from unknowing and mystery into clarity. In effect, she swims up into the provisional clarity of self-possessiveness. This change is immediately challenged by yet another. As the stunned Pinkie climbs into bed to be warmed and consoled by Millie, Edgar barges in to announce that Willie is in childbirth, alone, about to bring forth her own double.
Altman uses the childbirth sequence as a poetic fulcrum where the balance of power among the three women is finally tilted and decided. This scene, like Pinkie's suicide attempt, is glazed by the memory of water, of sexual depth and unknowing. Our view is flexed and smeared by the water line that floats so unnaturally up and down the frame of vision while Willie is in labor. Once again Pinkie is being tested by water, and she fails the test, shrinking back from the primal event. Unexpectedly, Millie, who spends her days wading in pools for the aged, is the one who endures the initiation by water into full selfhood. Pinkie's idle games of doubling collapse under the pressure of real circumstances; her fabricated identity cannot survive this traumatic experience in which the fanciful adolescent "freakiness" of doubled images becomes an adult reality. To Pinkie the innocent, the issue of one human from the body of another is the most terrifying event of all. It is finally too real. The scene turns matter-of-factly tragic when the infant emerges from Willie bearing her own chilling silence. Millie, unaided, is left with the stony child on her hands, and her personality is tempered, fired, by the experience. Here, Altman suggests, is terminal impingement; after this crib death, this grieving enactment of stillborn selfhood, the lives of the three women can never be the same.
The underkeyed moral and physical bravery revealed in this scene reminds one briefly of Haven Hamilton's moment of instinctive bravery; Millie's courage is also instinctive, but it is intensely private. When Willie plants her feet on Millie's shoulders during the birth, the two seem fused into one embattled, courageous, pained woman. Their dealings with human predators (Millie with Pinkie, Willie with Edgar) lead finally to this encounter with that general predator, death. Altman's tale thus comes full cycle in its poetry; a film about power relations and identity-thievery evolves into—turns a revolution into—a tale about generation. The tale told by the metaphors is finally this: Until it is tested by mortality, all identity is provisional, makeshift, expedient. Once mortality has brushed its cool hand past us, personality hardens, selfhood becomes fixed, and identity drives down permanent roots. We recall the opening scenes of the film, the wrinkled deteriorating elders wading so carefully in the pool at the spa—the aged awaiting death, attended by the young who themselves act as midwives to the yet unborn. In the symmetry of its poetry, the film embodies memories of itself.
The film's closing moments are stern, serene, imperious. The gleaming promise of yellow now belongs to a huge Coca-Cola truck that rears up from the desert to make a delivery to Dodge City, now operated by the three women. Edgar has died of a gunshot wound, clearly the victim of one of the women. Dodge City, in its new version, is a tribal village without men (a bitter inversion of the manly Dodge City of movies). The three women comprise a family. Pinkie, now called Millie, calls Millie "Mom"; she sits at a cashier's desk popping gum and reading fan magazines, the eternal adolescent eternally dependent. Willie, still silent, still paints. But Millie, the poetic center of the film whose "color value" has been the key to the film's figurative tale, is changed utterly. Once the creation of other people, a conflation of popular tastes and vibrant self-esteem, she is now very much her own woman, self-contained, domineering, unsmiling. Although the three now comprise a household, they are ruthlessly three, each an individual possessed of selfhood, each distinct. A new power balance has been achieved, and this time it seems awfully permanent. The permanence is nearly inanimate, locked in the middle of the desert, still brutalized by the insistent yellow sun. There are no pools in sight now, none of the watery opacity and sexual menace that have brought about this final condition. Instead, the most conspicuous element in the landscape, which also is the last vision Altman offers us (so unlike the final transcendent vision of blue sky at the close of Nashville), is a heap of worn-out tires, synthetic utilitarian materials finally discarded to bake in the sun in a state of pure inanimate repose, hopelessly earthbound.
Given the deep narrative told in these three recent works, and keeping in mind Altman's previous films, there are at least a few provisional conclusions one can draw about the dynamics of his imagination. He is obviously intent on exploring skyward wish and earthbound power, dramatized alternately in public and private contexts. His style easily accommodates both purity of aspiration and vulgar American reality, both the rarefied world of 3 Women and the gritty arena of Buffalo Bill. He is certainly a self-conscious director, but his sense of his own virtuosity has not yet paralyzed his inspiration. In his middle age he is still full of promise and seems to have a clear vision of his own career, and he is one of the very few American directors capable of surprising intelligent audiences. At this writing, Altman has completed a new feature, The Wedding, said to be a spirited treatment of this very public ritual. While The Wedding awaits release, Altman is already on location filming his next work, Quintet, which promises to be another private film like 3 Women. He is evidently aware of writing his own history on film, embodying a memory of himself in his work, and of thus filming a future that shall be neatly continuous with his past. The history thus far of his inspiration and achievement is impressive. His career may prove eventually to be the most cogent, and tenacious, of any American director.
SOURCE: "Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson: A Self-Portrait in Celluloid," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 13, No. 1, Summer, 1979, pp. 17-25.
[In the following essay, Bernstein analyzes how Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson examines the film medium itself including the genre of the western and the making of a superstar.]
In the last decade there has been a proliferation of films which are reflexive; that is which examine the medium in terms of film making itself or the impact of film on society. Some do it directly, like Francois Truffaut's Day for Night, while others do it indirectly, as in Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up and Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (both of which deal with visual media other than film, but do so on film). These three directors, as well as several others, display an increasingly apparent and important McLuhanesque sensitivity to and intelligence about the medium with which they work.
So too do a group of directors responsible for films which are reflexive about a particular film genre, The Western. Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, for example, is one of the most successful attempts at deflating, sometimes humorously and sometimes grotesquely, the many myths engendered by the very film genre of which it is a type. Others not only expose (and sometimes ridicule) the myths generated by The Western, but actually seek to redress the historical inaccuracies perpetuated by them, as in Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue. As a group these films are concerned with the political consequences of an intrinsic phenomenon of The Western most clearly articulated at the end of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: when a myth becomes a reality through the impact of the media, or as a journalist in the film succinctly expresses it, "when a legend becomes a fact, you print the legend." No single aspect of American history has been more influenced (and distorted) by media than Western history, and no medium has been more influential with regard to popular concepts of Western history than film. These reflexive films are thus significant because they represent a new direction in film making, the self-portrait in celluloid, the picture not only about a given subject matter but also about the very form by which that subject matter is communicated.
The most ambitious self-portrait in celluloid is Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, a film which is concurrently reflexive about 1) the film medium, 2) The Western and 3) the creation of a super-star (in this case Buffalo Bill) serving both the medium and history. In this film the subjects are merged in the word "show," which represents both The Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill and the movie show about Buffalo Bill. What makes this film so difficult to comprehend, yet so brilliant, is that Altman focuses on all three subjects simultaneously where other directors (like those mentioned above) focus on but one or two. Moreover, Altman does so, outrageously at the very time when Americans are so willing to commemorate and glorify those many myths which he seeks to reveal as distortions of history. For lest we forget, 1976 was also the Centennial of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, probably the one episode most symbolic of all that The Western has come to stand for in the popular mind.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson not only examines The Western and Western history, but it develops by a historical dialectic. The "or" in the title, though quaintly reminiscent of the late nineteenth century period which the film depicts, more importantly serves to suggest the opposition between the white man's history and the red man's, as represented by heroes from each culture. The alternative views of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull confront us not only with two versions of the same historical phenomena—as in the humorous but troubling exchange between Buffalo Bill on the one hand, and dime novelist Prentiss Ingraham and Indian spokesman Halsey on the other—but also with two interpretations of what actually constitutes history.
In this respect, the film is not unlike John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; in both we are teased out of thought by a silent historian, in the former Sitting Bull himself (who never speaks a word throughout the film) and in the latter the urn (the original "silent historian"). Like the speaker of the poem, Buffalo Bill (as well as all white men) seeks to reenact history and in doing so grossly distorts it, turning history into entertainment, both verbal and visual, which makes full use of dramatic license and has but a dubious claim to authenticity. For Sitting Bull, on the other hand, this kind of history is a sham dishonoring the dead, and so he offers instead a silent protest against the theatricality of the Wild West Show. The differences between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull result in what might be called an aesthetics of history since the former seeks to commemorate and glorify history at a special time and/or place while the latter reveres and lives it every day, everywhere. These antithetical views give rise only to the tension in the film when, for example, Sitting Bull makes his only appearance in the Wild West Show. Emcee Nate Salsbury introduces him as "the wicked warrior of the western plains, the cold-blooded killer of Custer … the untamed scavenger whose chilling and cowardly deeds created nightmares through the West, and made him the most feared, the most murderous, the most colorful redskin alive … the battling chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux … Sitting Bull." Then, Sitting Bull, attired only in a plain cloth garment and simple beads, rides quietly around the ring to the derisive calls of the audience, calls which rather abruptly change into a thunderous ovation for a man obviously too full of pride and dignity to participate in such a grossly distorted fraud. Like the Grecian urn Sitting Bull's silence speaks a history more convincingly than Buffalo Bill's inflamed words, yet as we shall see, like the urn it too raises many troubling questions.
In a sense Sitting Bull exposes Buffalo Bill as an imposter of what he was, and in a similar sense the film exposes the distortions and untruths perpetrated by other movies about the wild west, as did Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. (So too, incidentally, does M.A.S.H. parody other war movies, and Thieves Like Us other gangster movies.) Yet at the very same time this film is uncovering certain myths and fallacies about the West, it is perpetuating, if not creating others. If Buffalo Bill was too good to be true before the film, Sitting Bull is after it. This may be a brilliant touch of irony by Altman or it may be part of the swing from thesis to antithesis, or it may be a flaw in the film, depending upon your interpretation. In any case, both alternatives are oversimplified: where Buffalo Bill comes across as selfish, vain, pompous and inane, Sitting Bull is equally selfless, altruistic, simple and profound. While neither portrait is convincing, together they offer parameters within which we can struggle with our own sense of history. The film itself attempts to synthesize the two extremes: on the one hand it tries to be as entertaining as Buffalo Bill would have it, and on the other it is as serious and important as Sitting Bull would desire. (So too does Keats' poem synthesize between the hot passion of the speaker and the cool indifference of the urn.)
Were Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show to limit themselves to entertaining, though, the film would lack the symmetry which provides its very raison d'etre. Not content to entertain, producer and emcee Nate Salsbury, star Buffalo Bill and press agent John Burke steadfastly maintain that they are faithfully recounting history, despite their consuming lust for profits and publicity. "We're trying to show things as they really were beyond the Missouri," claims Salsbury near the beginning of the film, "so you can't have anything that isn't authentic, genuine and real. There will be nothing fake about us," he insists.
But the very structure of the film almost defies us to identify the authentic and the real since we are looking at a film about a show: at times characters are playing parts in the Wild West Show, at other times they are playing parts in the movie show. In the end it is impossible to segregate the role from the person. We begin to appreciate more acutely Plato's concern with artistic imitation as a double remove from reality. In the opening sequence, for example, a weary settler and his son trek home only to be attacked and killed by raiding Indians who also kill his wife and carry off his daughter. While the film audience first assumes that this is simply the film itself, they soon realize that this sequence is merely a rehearsal for the show as Salsbury yells "cut," reinforcing the tie between the Wild West Show and the movie show. What we have witnessed is a rehearsal of a reenactment through the film medium.
In addition to this triple remove from reality—the scene in the show being the first, the rehearsal being the second, and the film the third—the last two are also historical events in and of themselves. This point is driven home by the violence attending upon the rehearsal when one of the raiding Indians is accidentally clotheslined off his horse and trampled to death by another. Neither is such a death historical nor is it an act; it is for real. So too is the painful wound suffered by Annie Oakley's husband, dapper Frank Butler, while she is performing increasingly gimmicky trick shots to titillate the audience. Both the Show and the film are recording one history even as they are making another. But as the Show and the film progress, which of course they do concurrently, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern historical fiction and historical reality, which may be precisely the point, as we shall see.
This difficulty does not result from a lack of clarity in the movement of the Show/film, however, which is structured around three major confrontations between the white men and red (much as Keats' poem revolves around three major scenes on the urn). The raid on the homestead is the first such sequence, and represents a fairly "realistic" portrayal of what undoubtedly happened to settlers, though probably not so often as we are wont to think it did. This cannot be said of the second sequence, which takes place near the middle of the show, a reenactment of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. This scene is full of deliberate distortions concocted by none other than Buffalo Bill himself. When Prentiss Ingraham informs him that the battle took place at the Greasy Grass River, not the Little Big Horn, Bill retorts, "I already got the programs printed." And when Prentiss corrects him again by pointing out that the Cavalry ambushed the Sioux, not the other way around as the Wild West Show records it, Buffalo Bill ignores him altogether. Dramatic license even permits Bill to add a cannon to Custer's arsenal, as well as a face-to-face confrontation between the General and Sitting Bull in which the latter kills and scalps the former. All this is rather amusing and serves an important function in the structure of the show, for while Buffalo Bill envies Custer his hair and wears a wig just like it, he will also avenge Custer in the final sequence of the show by fighting Sitting Bull head-to-head, killing and scalping him. But more important is the fact that these details represent deliberate distortions by Buffalo Bill, who at one point claims that "It's about time history took a lesson from us!"
Although the protests of Ingraham against the dramatic liberties are futile, those of Sitting Bull's spokesman, Halsey, are not. He points out that Sitting Bull was not present at the Battle of the Little Big Horn; that instead he was dreaming and making medicine. Thus if the Sioux Chief is to have a part in the reenactment, he will act out his dream rather than participate in the battle. This is but one of the situations in which Sitting Bull defies and humiliates Buffalo Bill, just as his version of history defies and ridicules Bill's. From the very first time they meet, this dialectical opposition is clearly established. As a group of Indians come riding to the village where the Show is housed, all eyes (including those of the film audience) rivet on the biggest, fiercest looking Indian, assuming that he is the Chief. To the stunned surprise of those greeting the party, and especially Buffalo Bill, who has made a gala appearance and has begun a grandiose welcoming speech addressed to the big Indian, we find that he is but the spokesman for Sitting Bull. The Chief, in fact, very small and frail looking, is simply attired in a cloth and some beads.
This scene establishes not only the fatuity of Buffalo Bill and his entourage, all of whom judge things by appearances, but also their defensive posture in dealing with Sitting Bull. When, for instance, they inform the Chief that he is to be housed with the other Indians in the camp, Halsey informs them that Sitting Bull will establish his own camp across the river on a bluff overlooking the Wild West community. This spatial relation becomes, in effect, a metaphor for Sitting Bull's continual dominance over Buffalo Bill. In addition, even as the entourage are laughing at the thought of the old Chief (and the women and children accompanying him) fording the river which has already claimed the lives of six horses and three Blackfoot braves. Sitting Bull's tepees are going up on the other side of it. Amidst the astonishment and incredulity of the men, Buffalo Bill coolly explains, "Boys, on the bluff is exactly where I want him. Then I can keep an eye on him, real easy, from this chair, here." (Whatever else he is not, Bill certainly is an accomplished counter-puncher.) But Sitting Bull continues to control Buffalo Bill and retains complete autonomy over his own actions despite the efforts of those who would dictate to him.
On the literal level, then, Sitting Bull's history lesson is composed of two things: setting historical facts such as those about the Battle of the Little Big Horn straight, and setting forth an altogether different interpretation of what constitutes history, namely, a past which lives in the present rather than being reenacted in the present. Annie Oakley is one of the few whites who appreciates these truths, and who understands the precarious position Sitting Bull is in, for if returned to Standing Rock both she and he know that he will be murdered despite his non-violent ways. She quits the show when Buffalo Bill fires the Chief, and protests: "But he wants to show people the truth. You can't allow that just once?" "No," Bill replies, "I got a better sense of history than that." It is this sense of history which makes a travesty of Salsbury's claim that "we're the first people to ever show the red and white without taking sides."
But even more important than the literal lesson is the figurative one taught by Sitting Bull. His silence and simplicity make a sham of everything his counterpart, Buffalo Bill, attempts to do so as to assure his legendary status in history. Where Buffalo Bill wears incredibly garish jackets, Sitting Bull appears in basic cloth; Buffalo Bill rides a strapping mare, Sitting Bull a small pinto; Buffalo Bill carries elaborate guns (which are loaded with buckshot to enhance his marksmanship as one quick, but deft camera shot reveals), Sitting Bull carries only holy beads. In short, Buffalo Bill, constantly primping himself in mirrors and admiring himself in portraits, is so totally caught up in his image that there is no real person beneath the surface, whereas the reality of Buffalo Bill only begins below the surface image in his dreams and visions, all of which come to pass. His sense of history is making the present live up to the future, not, as for Buffalo Bill, the present up to the past. Even when Buffalo Bill has a dream, in which he speaks to Sitting Bull in a Browning-like dramatic monologue, he fails to comprehend what is happening. This contrasts sharply with the dreams of Sitting Bull in which he envisions the President of the U.S.A. visiting the Wild West Show and a massacre of Indian women and children (Wounded Knee?), both of which establish a continuity between present and future.
In the film Buffalo Bill fails to live up to his past and his legendary greatness because they are so hyperbolic. Nowhere during the course of the film do we see him do those things for which he is renowned, except within the Wild West Show, which is more entertainment than history. Much of the film's humor derives from his failure to track down Sitting Bull and his entourage when they abruptly break camp one day and go up into the mountains, his failure to seduce the opera singer Nina Cavalini (who visits the Show with President and Mrs. Cleveland), and perhaps most humorously, his failure to shoot Mrs. Ducharmes' pet canary after returning empty-handed from the search for Sitting Bull.
The canary is another of the overdetermined metaphors in the film, as is the spatial relationship between Sitting Bull's tents and Buffalo Bill's village. Like both opera singing mistresses who own one, the bird symbolizes the alien world in which both it and its owner are caged. But increasingly as the film progresses and in direct proportion to the erosion of Buffalo Bill's legendary status, the birds come to symbolize Bill himself, for he is figuratively trapped in a legend from which he cannot escape. Like the bird he is caged, not by bars but by grand portraits of himself and huge mirrors which hang all about the Mayflower—a name itself rich with historical connotations—constantly entrapping William Cody in the image of Buffalo Bill, superstar. Thus, Cody's inability to shoot Ducharmes' frantic canary despite his close range to it seems to symbolize his growing impotence as man and as legend: he is seen to be as much a failure in the sexual saddle as he has just been in the literal one when tracking Sitting Bull. Understandably, then, he despises the canary that represents both those women with whom he is inadequate and that legendary reputation against which he is equally inadequate.
While it is Annie Oakley who empathizes most closely with Sitting Bull, it is the legend-maker Ned Buntline who seems to best understand what is happening to Buffalo Bill. And after all he should, for Buntline created the legend. "I only brought attention to the man," Ned explains. "He supplied the talent. No ordinary man would have had the foresight to take credit for acts of bravery and heroism that he couldn't a done. And no ordinary man'd realize what tremendous profit could be had by presentin' the truth as if it was just a pack o' lies with witnesses." Comparing him to other directors of the Wild West Show, Ned concludes: "No, Bill Cody can only trust himself and what he picks up with his own senses. And when they fail, he might just see things the way they really are." The humility should not fool us; these are the words of a man who is busy exculpating himself from the monster he has created, much as Victor Frankenstein flees his own creation. And, having established an uneasy truce between his legendary creation and himself, Ned Buntline rides off into the night bound for California; no doubt he is heading for Hollywood!
Buntline's departure for California reinforces the connection between the Wild West Show and the film industry, as does the emphasis on the word show. But an even more vital and explicit link between the two is the way in which the cast of characters is introduced at the beginning of the film not by name, but by function—they are not real people but players, actors. Paul Newman is the star, as he is in so many other Hollywood films, and his ineptitude parodies William Cody before he entered "the show business." Similarly, Joel Grey, playing the producer and emcee, parodies his most well-known Hollywood role, the emcee in Cabaret. So too does Burt Lancaster, as the legend-maker, parody his roles as the Rainmaker and Elmer Gantry.
But the biggest parody, and the most perplexing, is that of Halsey, played by Will Sampson. Known to audiences as the "Chief" in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a role in which he did not speak for nearly two-thirds of the film, he is easily mistaken at first for Sitting Bull because of his massive size, a mistake made not only by those in the Wild West show but by the film audience as well. But contrary to his role in Cuckoo's Nest, Sampson is neither the chief, nor is he silent; in both instances he parodies his earlier role, and he indicts the viewing audience as well. We are almost as culpable as Buffalo Bill and the others of judging the man by the image. The difference is that the showman creates the image, we simply retain and perpetuate it.
In a sense, then, it is altogether fitting that in the final sequence of the show, Halsey is playing the part of Sitting Bull, since "Halsey looks more like Sitting Bull than Sitting Bull." This sequence represents the third major confrontation between white man and red. Unlike the first, which was a realistic reenactment of something which actually took place in which the Indians triumphed, and unlike the second, which was a deliberate distortion of something which actually took place in which the white man triumphed as slain heroes, the third sequence is a complete fabrication of something which never happened in which the white man is totally triumphant. This completes the structure of the show and reaffirms our sense of history, but though Buffalo Bill wins the battle—a face-to-face struggle with Sitting Bull in which Bill kills the chief, avenging Custer—Sitting Bull wins the war. Because the sequences have regressed from reenactment to distortion to fabrication, the film audience can no longer abide what is happening, though the Show audience is ecstatic. So too is Buffalo Bill, whose senses have not yet failed him, and who therefore does not yet, see things as they really are. The last action shot in the film is a zoom-in on Buffalo Bill in a triumphant posture, intoxicated by both the roar of the crowd and the booze at which he was nipping before the scene began. His is a total triumph of shorts: the show, the fiction, has first altered and now successfully fabricated history altogether.
As the Show and the film end, the cast of characters is superimposed on a still photograph of the Wild West Show Company. A silent shot, it too is eloquent without words. In this photo Sitting Bull and Halsey are standing next to Annie Oakley. Buffalo Bill had not wanted it this way when the group was posing for the photo, but again Sitting Bull prevailed. Despite Bill's casual rationalization that he will change the picture to suit himself, we now see that he has failed once again, just as in the end, the historical picture he has arranged via the Show has failed. One is tempted to conclude, then, that Buffalo Bill's failure is Sitting Bull's success since the film is structured along a dialectical confrontation. But this will not do.
In the end the film is deliberately ambiguous. A surrogate Sitting Bull has replaced the real one in the arena and is being scalped as news of the real Sitting Bull's assassination arrives over the telegraph. Can we trust Halsey, who throughout has been spokesman for the chief, but has now sold out to the blandishments of "the show business" rather than remaining faithful to the proud vision of his leader? We must not only question Halsey, who first speaks for Sitting Bull and then acts for him in the Show but the film itself as well. As oversimplified as it is in presenting the extremes of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, it does succeed in destroying one myth about the past, even if at the cost of possibly creating another. What are we to make of histories that seek not only to inform, but to entertain as well, histories such as the Wild West Show and this movies show? Where are we to draw the line with dramatic license?
Questions haunt about this film as they do Keats's Grecian urn, and in the end resolution of them escapes us. The film audience, unlike the Show audience, now sides with Sitting Bull, but Buffalo Bill's dream of legendary immortality has triumphed over reality through his creation, the Wild West Show, while Sitting Bull's life has ended ignominiously by savage assassination. The division between show and film audience raises yet another question, this time about the influence of the audience on the historian's work: what kind of audience can he assume he will reach? how will they react? can he tell them things they may not want to hear, as I believe is the case with this film? Finally, what possibility is there that a self-portrait born out of reflexive examination—whether it be William Cody's picture of himself as Buffalo Bill, Robert Altman's depiction (and parody) of the Western, or the historians look at his own history—can "set the record straight?" Perhaps the greatest achievement of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is that it acknowledges what other recorders of history can loathe to admit, that the record can never be set straight, it can only be added to by new portraits of ourselves.
SOURCE: "An Interview with Robert Altman," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 44-55.
[In the following interview, Altman discusses the course of his career and his critical reputation.]
In the Fall of 1982, film director Robert Altman visited the University of Michigan as Howard R. Marsh Professor of Journalism in the Department of Communication. He gave seminars on filmmaking, participated in workshops, and directed a stage production of Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress for the School of Music. Frank Beaver, Professor of Communication at the University of Michigan, interviewed Altman for MQR.
[Beaver:] What attracted you to a career as a motion picture director?
[Altman:] I was a movie fan when I was a kid. I got punished many times for going into a film and not coming out, seeing it four times consecutively. I remember I had the mumps when King Kong first played at my neighborhood theater, in the early 30s. My mother was away and I told the housekeeper not to come into my room, she'd get the mumps for sure. And I snuck down to the theater with the mumps and probably contaminated the entire audience.
When I went into the Army during the second World War, I was trained in Southern California and became more a movie fan than anything else. I had a cousin who was a secretary to Myron Selznick; she said "You should be a screenwriter, your letters are so cute." So I decided I wanted to be in the movie business.
And for a brief time in the 40s and 50s you were a screenwriter.
I started writing short stories when I was overseas and when I came back I stayed in Los Angeles and wrote with another fellow. I sold a treatment called Christmas Eve for $750. That was made into a film with George Brent, Ann Harding and Randolph Scott. Then I wrote a treatment of a film called Bodyguard, with the same guy, and we sold that for $5000, but they wouldn't let me do the screenplay, even for free, and they wouldn't let me on the lot while they shot it. These were notorious B-films.
So you left Hollywood and for a time in the 50s and 60s directed documentaries in Kansas City, then network television programs. Did these experiences influence your more recent work as a feature film director?
I think every experience that you have forms you. It gets into your computer and it's there.
I always objected to the way things were done as I saw them being done. I was very rebellious and had no patience in those days. I guess I was arrogant.
Was the immediacy, the spontaneity we see in your films of the 70s due to the experiences of working in television?
Yes, I think it was the experiences with television, some of the early half-hour shows I did like Whirly Birds and U. S. Marshal. You had two and a half days, no overtime, and at the end of that time—by noon on Wednesday—the picture was finished. You couldn't shoot anymore. So we had to get everything in within that time element. There wasn't any preparation time. We had a blueprint and then everything happened spontaneously. I'd see something and say "Quick, let's get it in that way."
How did you get from television to the theatrical motion picture?
I did television for many years and I turned down a lot of motion pictures, because by the time scripts came to me they had been through all the qualified feature directors. They were usually bad scripts and I knew there was just no reason for me to do them. I got very comfortable with my failure at achieving the status of feature director. When I was in television, I was considered one of the top directors and I was offered the best assignments. I was mostly doing pilot films for new series and creating series.
The first feature I accepted was called Countdown. Warner Brothers was making a group of low-budget films in the million dollar range. They offered me about four of them, but I didn't take them. I took Countdown because it was from a book by Hank Searls called The Pilgrim Project, which I had tried to develop into a screenplay…. When I finished shooting The Pilgrim Project I was barred from the lot, because Jack Warner saw the footage and said, "That fool has people talking at the same time."
M∗A∗S∗H, made in 1969, was the film which suddenly catapulted you to international prominence. How did you come to direct that film?
I got in with a man named Don Factor and we developed a script called That Cold Day in the Park, from a short story. We arranged the financing through Commonwealth United, a small distributor, and went to Vancouver to make the film with Sandy Dennis. When I came back, M∗A∗S∗H was offered to me after fifteen or sixteen other directors had all turned it down. The producer, Ingo Preminger, saw Cold Day in its rough-cut stage and liked it very much.
I took M∗A∗S∗H, because I'd been working on another project for about five years called The Chicken and the Hawk, a comedy about World War II fliers—about the ridiculousness of death and war, and containing a large supporting cast. When I read M∗A∗S∗H, I realized I could do everything with it I intended to do with The Chicken and the Hawk. So I had five years of background preparing for M∗A∗S∗H.
M∗A∗S∗H showed you to be a superb satirist, a black humorist. Would you say that satire and black comedy are interests which have found their way into most of your feature films?
I think my outlook finds its way into all the work I do. I don't think of myself as a satirist or black humorist. You don't really use those words while you're working. But in retrospect, through my film and TV work, that does come out.
Did you intend M∗A∗S∗H to be a statement with allusions to Vietnam?
Totally! In fact, I didn't put one reference to Korea in it, and when I finished they said you have to put in the titles that it was Korea. That's when we put in the statement of Eisenhower's.
How do you feel about the long-running television series, M∗A∗S∗H?
I hate it! I deplore its existence. I think it's the most insidious propaganda. They've taken the sting out of the original concept. We made people pay for their laughs with the position that nothing could be in worse taste than people with bullets in their bodies and being blown-up. The TV show may be well acted and written and I'm sure the people are all fine craftsmen, but it oversimplifies the emotional and political issues and purports that there's an Asian war going on now and that the Asians are the enemies.
You are well known as a director who likes to approach the filmmaking process in an improvisational manner. It's even been said that once you secure the backing for a motion picture you throw the script—or partial script—away. Is this true?
I don't throw away the script. I feel the script is the sales test; it's the basic artist's rendering in an architect's building. I say, this is the script, the idea, the kind of picture I want to make, and then I try to honor what I've said and if it means deviating from those original words in order to get that effect, I'll do it.
How much of M∗A∗S∗H was created spontaneously?
I'd say 75 percent.
Can you give an example where actors made contributions to M∗A∗S∗H?
In every situation where the characters relate stories that are not important to the plot of the film. For example, when the men talk about committing suicide and come up with the idea of the "black pill." This dialogue was invented by the actors themselves. And this happened throughout M∗A∗S∗H.
Were the actors allowed to participate in building their characters?
Oh, sure. Most of the actors, Elliot Gould in particular. I purposely went to San Francisco and got improvisational theater people who could work on their feet: Carl Gottlieb and Corey Fischer and Danny Goldman. People like that who were nearly stand-up comedians.
There have also been many rumors about the spontaneous creation of Nashville—the role played by screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and the large cast of actors in developing the script. How did Nashville get made?
Nashville was a bribe. I wanted to make Thieves Like Us and United Artists didn't. They wanted a movie about Nashville, because they had a country music company. They had a script with Tom Jones and they said if I did it, they would finance Thieves Like Us. I said I wouldn't do their script, but I would do a film about country western music, so we made the deal and we went down to Mississippi to do Thieves, for which Joan Tewkesbury did the screenplay.
I threw the Tom Jones script out and told her to go to Nashville and keep a diary. Neither of us had ever been to Nashville. She went for eleven days. The first thing that happened to her was a traffic jam after leaving the airport; she was stuck for three hours. This appears in the film at about the same time we introduce our characters. It provides an excellent way to introduce people who are in the same proximity, but don't know one another.
Years before I'd had a film idea for a similar story of people whose lives intermingled, but who never knew each other and if they had been back-to-back and turned and met, it could have changed their lives.
I used these elements in Nashville. So again, Nashville didn't just happen overnight; it came after years and years of thinking out certain kinds of ideas.
It's a structure along the lines of John Schlesinger's adaptation of Day of the Locust, which to me didn't work as well as your film.
I think the book Day of the Locust is marvelous, but there too you are dealing with specific characters who mingle and jostle in an exotic locale. To pull that off in a film you have to disguise your characters in crowds and hide them, so that they seem to just be passing through, rather than attracting your attention. We tried that with Nashville, but United Artists didn't like the final script, so we sold it to ABC which produced it.
Isn't it true that you allow your actors to draw from their personal lives—from events important to them during the making of a film—in order to shape their fictional screen characters?
I try to insist on and encourage that because there are a great deal of truths which come out, that they don't even know about. If I'm trying to show behavior patterns in a certain scene and tell Shelley Duvall, "Here, I've written this marvelous monologue about how you felt the first time you saw the Coliseum in Rome," and she's never seen the Coliseum, it's ridiculous. If these things have nothing to do with the behavior pattern I'm trying to show, I'll try to find out what impressed her and if it turns out it was the first time she flew from Dallas to Houston, I use that.
So, you strive for a kind of credibility of character, even though your films happen in a very spontaneous way?
In order for them to appear spontaneous, you must have credibility and the best way to get this to let the actors use what is natural to them, so they can get into those rotes better and express that behavior.
It seems to me that this is one of the strong elements in your films. It's mesmerizing for audiences to see Shelley Duvall in Three Women going through routines that seem so real to her and so real to us.
That's the idea of it. I try to encourage the actors to become equal as artists with everyone in the audience, because I believe they are.
Nashville concludes with the assassination of a celebrity—a country western singer. This was somewhat ominous, wasn't it? And, why that ending to a film about the entertainment world?
There has been a tot of criticism of that scene. Most people said, "Why did you have him kill the singer rather than the politician?" My answer was, "You've just answered your question." You would accept a political assassination, that is, you condone it as a part of our culture.
I believe that people commit those types of assassinations because by killing someone at that level, they rise to that level themselves. By assassinating a politician they feel there will be a lot of people who will like them for it, because they hear so much against the politician.
The country western singer, or Barbra Streisand or, as it turns out, John Lennon, is the same thing. It did happen, I'm sorry to say.
The coming together of the politician as a celebrity and other types of celebrities—until the two meld into one—was another phenomenon we were trying to deal with in Nashville.
How is Nashville representative of your cinematic interests? It seems to me that one characteristic which appears in one Altman film after another is the setting of a familiar American film genre on its ear: the so-called success story in Nashville; the western and gangster myths in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us; the romantic film in A Wedding and A Perfect Couple. Do you see yourself as a genre revisionist, as many critics have claimed?
I don't think it would have occurred to me, if I hadn't read it so much. I have never set out and thought, "What haven't I attacked?" It's not calculated. When I see what's happening in life I'm always amazed that everybody's very beautiful in a film. The best corrective to a worn-out formula is a clear vision of how people really live. I think that everybody has the same feelings. In A Perfect Couple, Marta Heflin was anorexic at the time and you'd say, 'My God, who'd want to get involved with her?" Well, the character that Paul Dooley played wanted to get involved with her. Her sense of love and feeling is certainly as real as Faye Dunaway's or Loni Anderson's or Burt Reynolds'.
One critic has called you a pessimistic modernist. Is this a fair label?
I don't know what a modernist is. I guess I'm an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist. I think that everybody is pretty much that way. People who advertise what they are, are't that at all.
People ask why in A Wedding I put in the awful car accident, because they hated it. I hated it too. It makes me sick that something like that happens, but it does. The audience reacted in the same way the families in the film did; they were crushed by it, until they found that the bride and groom weren't in the accident. The audience was uplifted and they left the theater and said, "Wait a minute! There were two people dead and we were laughing at the end of the picture." That's the point of the film; life doesn't always work out the way you'd like.
It's been widely publicized that you dreamed one of your most interesting films—Three Women. Is that true?
I dreamed that I was making the film, but I didn't dream the plot of the film. I dreamed who was in it. I'd been looking for a film for Sissy Spacek ever since she appeared in a film by Alan Rudolph called Welcome to L.A., which I produced. I love Sissy's work and I thought it would be terrific to get her and Shelley Duvall together.
So I dreamed this and the title occurred to me in the dream. I had a hard time trying to find out who the third woman was.
How is it that a film based on a dream can succeed in a country where conservation and escapism—the well-made melodrama—seem to dominate filmmaker and audience interests?
I don't think it did succeed in engaging a wide audience, for all the reasons you mentioned. People want to see the same things over and over again. They desire and get the same experiences and forget the films the minute they've left the theater. It's like doing crossword puzzles.
That's why I keep coming to universities like this and going to film festivals and places where people are interested in film, because I want to expand my audience or at least make people curious enough to want to see some of these films. They find out that it's really exciting.
Whom do you see as your primary audience and what role do you see yourself playing among American filmmakers?
I can tell you who my audience is now: a cult, and a cult isn't even enough for a minority. It's people who have seen films of mine or like mine. They don't necessarily enjoy all of them, but they are stimulated.
I don't think of one particular audience when I make a film. I'll make one film and the gay community says, "Altman's the greatest." Then the next film they say, "You double-crossed us." I don't try to reach any one audience. I feel the audience is as collective as my subject matter. I wish the whole world were my audience.
All of your work seems to generate either great praise or damnation, especially among film critics. How do you feel about the critics?
I think if there are twelve critics, they'd fit on a scale of 1 to 12. I think they're necessary and desirable. Critics give us fill space in newspapers and on television and draw attention to our work. They help communicate that a film is there and that it is playing a particular night.
I can't argue with critics about my films anymore than I can with a member of the audience. They perceive what they perceive. I think they rise and fall with the same tidal properties as the making of a film itself does.
Vincent Canby in the New York Times recently listed you among the greatest living film directors, placing you beside Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, and Ingmar Bergman. When you read a critical comment like that, what do you think?
I can't help but be pleased by it. No way can it not affect my ego. Stanley Kauffman once said I should be destroyed. It was funny, but I think he meant it. So, I've had equally bad things said.
I find I'm treated the same by people with like or dislike, respect or disrespect for me. I would rather have a little piece like Canby's in the paper than seventeen Academy Awards. It's nice to know you're appreciated.
What is your opinion of contemporary Hollywood?
I don't think it exists. What people perceive as Hollywood. I don't like it at all. I think it's a business; an accounting factory. It's a place that makes comic books.
Do you foresee any future for innovative filmmakers like yourself?
I see a great deal of hope for them, primarily because there are more outlets and avenues opening up all the time. Network television and the major studios in Hollywood have made this kind of art a "closed shop" for many years, and now, because of pay television, cable, art houses and an increasing interest in films in universities, that monopoly is suddenly cracking. Also, the majors and the networks have brought the level of their work so low that the average audience doesn't even follow the films anymore. They're going to lose the audience altogether.
It's been a great seedtime and I think the spirits are coming up out of the ground. It's a great time for artists.
What for you would be the ultimate motion picture experience?
This is theoretical, but I think you must use the intensity of an image and put it before a person, so you engage their attention emotionally rather than intellectually. Not that the latter shouldn't be done also; but divorce the motion picture more—get it away from theater and literature, so you can start dealing with it as an arena of feelings and emotions…. The viewer might not even be able to articulate why he felt a certain way about a cinematic experience.
I always wonder how a tiger feels when it looks up through a rain forest and there's a spectacular sunset. I wonder if he calls the other tigers and says, "Hey, look at this." I don't think that happens, but it does with people. For eons, people have been saying, "Wow, look at that sunset." That means they feel something they can't articulate. That's what a film should do.
Recently you've branched out into theater directing and now opera. What have these experiences meant to you?
They've been very challenging, but I think the work is fundamentally the same. You're taking content and through the medium of actors and images and sounds, transmitting it to an audience.
I'm glad I did it and I wish I'd done it earlier. I'm going to continue to bounce back and forth as much as I can. I think the next work I do on film will be greatly influenced by what I've done on stage.
My latest film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, was translated from my stage production, so it has a different look than my other films.
I've never done a film in such a linear, closed-in manner. And this was because I was adapting a stage play. I became aware during the stage production that Jimmy Dean is about the inner psychology of the women characters. So I decided to keep the film action in one location—and not open it up to exterior locations. We kept it entirely in the dimestore, as on the stage, and concentrated on the actors' faces—using the camera and closeups to give the women the poignancy that had to come through the dialogue in the theater.
You seem to be at a new juncture in your career—to be moving in new directions, creatively and geographically. At this point in your life and career how do you personally assess the total body of your work?
I've been very happy and I don't consider I've ever had a failure. All the films are what we set out to do. I feel very emotional and warm about the people I've worked with and I think I probably stole a lot more of the spotlight and thunder than I deserved and they less. But, these people realize that too and they seem content. None of us is looking for great recognition. If I had a choice that when a film was released they would put someone else's name on it, I'd jump at the chance to hide my authorship. I don't believe I would have done that twenty years ago, but now I believe the work is the most important thing.
More important than that, is doing the work. When we finish the opera, I'm off to two other things and that's where my energy and ideas will go.
So work is what you live your life for?
Yes, it's the most pleasure that I have. It's the feeling of being worn-out at the end of the day and knowing that you've accomplished what you set out to do. It's back to the sandcastle syndrome. Buying a sandcastle for your kid doesn't mean anything; they have to build it themselves and it washes away. I think that's what's going to happen to all of this.
SOURCE: "Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a Classic Western," in New Orleans Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 79-86.
[In the following essay, Merrill analyzes Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a classic western, instead of its typical depiction as an anti-western.]
My title must seem an oddity, for Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller is almost always taken to be an "anti-western," that is, a film largely devoted to severe satire, even parody, of the classical westerns. Viewed in this fashion, McCabe and Mrs. Miller will almost inevitably seem a minor, somewhat quirky example of what other filmmakers were doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the conventions of the John Wayne-type western were sabotaged in such films as George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Frank Perry's Doc, Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and Arthur Penn's Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Viewed instead as that rarest of western subgenres, a genuine love story, McCabe and Mrs. Miller comes into proper focus as a film that rejects many classical conventions while refurbishing others. Indeed, I want to argue that Altman reinterprets the social story commonly embodied in the classical western while still managing to tell a moving tragicomic tale of star-crossed (if extremely fallible) lovers.
Judgments about the major westerns obviously vary. The most perceptive recent critic of the form, Philip French, does not include McCabe and Mrs. Miller among the twenty post-World War II westerns he likes best. My own view is that McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of the best westerns ever made, surpassed only by Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, John Ford's The Searchers, and Howard Hawks' Red River. To justify such a lofty evaluation, I obviously need to explore Altman's film in some detail. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, my strategy will be to take up the issues addressed by Gary Engle in the most emphatic case for McCabe and Mrs. Miller as an anti-western. Engle argues that Altman's film tells two stories: the founding and growth of a frontier town, and McCabe's personal struggle for survival. I do not think these "stories" are discrete plot lines, nor do I believe that McCabe's story can be separated from Mrs. Miller's; but I do agree that Altman's treatment of the frontier community and his handling of McCabe (and Mrs. Miller) should be the major topics in any serious analysis of the film. My aim will be to point out what is overlooked or misrepresented when McCabe and Mrs. Miller is read as a film that simply inverts the clichés of the classical western. Having done that, I want to comment briefly on a more general matter: the formal possibilities of the western.
John Cawelti has shown that the classic western is concerned with "social transition—the passing from the old West into modern society." Set in the remote Washington mining town of Presbyterian Church in 1902, McCabe and Mrs. Miller tells this story in richer detail than even such famous westerns as Ford's My Darling Clementine and George Stevens' Shane. Unfortunately, those who see McCabe and Mrs. Miller as an anti-western have taken Altman's treatment of his frontier community to be altogether hostile. For example, Engle sees Altman as using Presbyterian Church to dramatize a negative, even truculent view of social progress. Emphasizing the town's refusal to intervene in the killing of first the cowboy and then McCabe, its "sheepish" submission to Jake Butler and the other hired killers who serve the Harrison-Shaugnessy mining company, Engle concludes that Altman portrays his society as "hypocritical, often childish, morally vacuous, insensitive, able to be manipulated and exploited with relative ease by both McCabe and the mining company." There is much in what Engle says, but his reading is finally reductive and illustrates the distortions that result when Altman's film is seen as essentially satiric. Altman's townspeople are in fact a fascinating mixture of the depressing features noted by Engle and qualities much more endearing.
At first it might seem that Engle's reading of Presbyterian Church is the right one, for the town does betray its primitive origins throughout the film. In the opening scenes, as McCabe arrives, the men of Presbyterian Church are presented one by one in isolated shots that stress their extreme slovenliness. Like the town itself, which is no more than a tent camp at this point, the men seem to be vagabonds for whom the concept of community is meaningless. Altman quickly introduces a representative selection of these men, their nominal leaders, the slimy Sheehan and the lachrymose Smalley, and such "average" miners as Bart Coyle, who obtains a wife through a mail-order service, and Jeremy Berg, who constantly echoes McCabe as though the gambler were some kind of absolute authority on life. Indeed, all of the men seem dazzled by McCabe's adolescent humor and the fact that he wears a gun; they treat him as a hero, someone with a "big rep," because he killed Bill Roundtree, a man they have never heard of but somehow understand to be legendary. Later in the film the men band together for economic purposes, but they never lose their initial credulity. In a key scene Jake Butler lectures them about the use of Chinamen in recent mining experiments, in which the Chinese are effectively sacrificed at the cost of $50 a head! The large group surrounding Butler listens respectfully, for the Chinese population in Presbyterian Church means no more to them than it does to Butler or the mining company.
As Engle says, the men follow Butler as sheepishly as they once followed McCabe; they have no moral scruples that might lead them to question either "leader." They are far more interested in McCabe's whorehouse than in Mr. Elliott's church. Perhaps it is to the point that almost everyone calls Elliott "Mister" instead of "Reverend"; that Elliott is not present when the town buries Bart Coyle; that the church is finally revealed as little more than a shabby storage room where no religious services have been held. Even more to the point are the overt acts of violence that belie Robert Meyers' characterization of the townspeople as "innocent"—the stabbing that McCabe must put a stop to soon after he brings his first whores to Presbyterian Church, and the fight in which Bart Coyle is accidentally killed. Presbyterian Church is not the lawless frontier town of so many standard westerns, for no one even carries a gun except McCabe; but it is raunchy and amoral, the sort of place that has no lawman and whose leading citizen is a pimp.
The only communal ties that seem to matter in Presbyterian Church are economic, the ties that bind the men to the zinc mines, McCabe to Mrs. Miller, and the town to Harrison-Shaugnessy once McCabe is out of the way. Therefore it might seem ironically fitting that the town's physical and moral center is a whorehouse, first McCabe's flimsy tents and then Mrs. Miller's "proper sportin' house." But Altman presents the whorehouse without such irony. In fact, the house comes to seem "a haven and refuge, an oasis of warmth and cleanliness from the inclement world that rages outside." It is first presented as such when Mrs. Miller's "girls" arrive from Seattle and spend the day playfully cleaning up in the newly-built baths. Soon we see the whores breaking in a huge new music box as they dance in the most genteel fashion with their customers. The dance is followed by a surprise birthday party for one of the whores, Birdie, for whom they have baked a special birthday cake. We see the same civilized camaraderie at Bart Coyle's funeral, where almost half of those present are the whores who sing "Asleep in Jesus" with surprising gusto. When the youthful cowboy comes to visit and stays for several days, the whores take him in as though he were family; when he finally leaves, four of them wave goodbye. And as the church burns at the end of the film, virtually everyone from the whorehouse pitches in to help put out the fire.
Altman's treatment of the whorehouse has encouraged a number of critics to emphasize the division between the rowdy townspeople and the "convivial," "helpful" prostitutes, but this is rather too simple a contrast. Often childish and insensitive, the men also display genuine emotional depths at a number of points. After all, the men also dance to the new music box and participate in Birdie's birthday party, and a fiddler plays at Sheehan's bar well before the whores arrive. Indeed, one of the film's most haunting moments depicts one of the men dancing on the ice to the fiddler's music while the other men encourage him. And of course it is the men as well as the whores who save the church at the end. Whatever we may think of this act, it is truly a common effort.
Altman is sometimes cited for sentimentality in handling the whores and their clientele, but I think he means to honor the human desire for connection even in its most primitive manifestations. At the same time, he hardly suggests that the world itself—natural or social—honors such desires. The film's many touching moments are invariably surrounded by scenes that undercut any facile optimism concerning frontier life. When McCabe arrives with his first whores, the men begin to preen in an adolescent but affecting manner; within a few moments, however, they are scuffling with the prostitutes as if engaged in a barroom brawl. Birdie's birthday party is intercut with several events of a very different order: the fight that leads to Bart Coyle's death; McCabe's negotiations with Sears and Hollander, Harrison-Shaugnessy's representatives; McCabe's drunken preparations at the baths; Mrs. Miller's withdrawal to the comforts of her opium pipe. At the end of this sequence Sears and Hollander renew negotiations with McCabe at the whorehouse, and McCabe sleeps with Mrs. Miller after being reminded to pay for her services. By this point Birdie's birthday party seems an extraordinary but quite isolated gesture. The whores' sentimental fervor at Bart Coyle's funeral is engagingly human, but it must also be understood as confirming Mrs. Miller's cynical advice to McCabe that the girls will turn to religion if allowed to sit around on their "bums." Moreover, it is at the funeral that Mrs. Miller and Ida Coyle make eye contact that eventually leads to Ida's recruitment for the house. Later, the idyllic moment in which the man dances on the ice is broken by the arrival of Butler and his associates carrying rifles; within five minutes of leaving the gaily-waving whores, the cowboy is senselessly murdered by one of Butler's men; and as the townspeople and the whores band together to save a church they never attend, McCabe and his three pursuers track each other through the streets of Presbyterian Church, unattended and unaided.
These juxtaposed scenes dramatize "the paradox of a community founded upon illusions and exploitation." The more positive moments offer an ideal of community that "haunts" the film, as one critic puts it, but this ideal is apparently undermined at every turn. Such is Alan Karp's view when he refers to the film's final sequence: "by intercutting McCabe's struggle with the town's efforts to put out a fire in the church, Altman shrewdly debunks the myth of the frontier society's ability to band together in the face of crisis." For Karp, Engle, and others, this "myth" is exploded throughout a film that cynically depicts the evolution of Presbyterian Church from a tent camp to the sort of town Harrison-Shaugnessy would want to take over. Indeed, Altman's distrust of "social progress" is unmistakable, especially in his relentlessly hostile presentation of Harrison-Shaugnessy. It might even seem that Altman presents the townspeople as somewhat sympathetic—as "lovable clods"—so that we can pity them when they confront their corporate future.
My own view is that Altman's social commentary is far more complex. It is no accident that the townspeople are shown to be almost equally sensitive and obtuse, sympathetic and powerless. In fact, the film is haunted by both the ideal of community and the premonition that such ideals are altogether beyond human nature. In this respect McCabe and Mrs. Miller is more complex than many major westerns. In My Darling Clementine, for example, Ford depicts a desire for community that is obviously exemplary. Symbolized by the community's efforts to build a church, this desire is so pervasive it even transforms the violent Wyatt Earp. The famous Sunday Morning sequence, highlighted by the dance in which Wyatt and Clementine participate, is an unqualified paean to Ford's notion of what true community might be like. At the other extreme we have Fred Zinnemann's bleak perspective on the communal ideal in High Noon, a picture in which the townspeople are truly portrayed as cowardly and hypocritical, capable of assisting the hero but unwilling to do so. I would suggest that the world of Altman's film is neither as nostalgic as Ford's nor as dark as Zinnemann's. Altman does not so much debunk the myth of the frontier society as present a world in which Ford's ideals and Zinnemann's ironies are deeply intertwined.
This means that Altman portrays the growth of Presbyterian Church as a thoroughly ambiguous process. The physical signs of this growth are everywhere: the various buildings that are built in the course of the action; the steam engine that comes from Bearpaw; the arrival of Bart Coyle's mail-order bride; the socialization that centers on Mrs. Miller's whorehouse; the invasion by Harrison-Shaugnessy. Notice that this brief list is open to quite differing interpretations. The steam engine may symbolize the undesirable intrusion of "modern" life into a frontier community, but it is also quite useful in saving the church from fire; Bart and Ida's mail-order marriage may seem a parody of courtship, but the marriage appears to be successful; life at a whorehouse is hardly ideal, but life at Mrs. Miller's seems as close to real civilization as the picture ever gets. Even saving the church is a more positive act than Karp suggests, for the men and women of Presbyterian Church are for once shown working together for a common goal. That they cannot achieve greater good simply measures their limitations and the power of such companies as Harrison-Shaugnessy. Indeed, the mining company is presented as the one truly evil presence in Presbyterian Church, the one reality no one can do anything about—thus the scenes involving the cowboy and McCabe, respectively, in which the townspeople do nothing to challenge the company's representatives. The presence of this irreducible evil in modern social life perhaps tips Altman's balance toward the tragic in his tragicomedy, but his film walks the narrowest of lines most of the time. Those of us who like the film no doubt take this line to be something like life itself.
Altman's "line" falls very much within the formal boundaries of the classical western. Altman seems to acknowledge this when he speaks of wanting to take a very standard western story and do it "real." To do the classical western real is to do a less stylized version in which some conventions are qualified or even undermined; most obviously, the part of McCabe is not written for John Wayne, James Stewart, or Gary Cooper, and the social evolution of Presbyterian Church hardly celebrates the western movement. But I have already argued that the story of social transition told in McCabe and Mrs. Miller falls between such classical versions as Ford's and Zinnemann's, and I hope to show that Altman takes his hero—and heroine—as seriously as most famous western directors take their protagonists. Altman's purpose is not to mock the western but to offer a "critical" perspective on the optimistic myths embodied in other westerns. To be critical is not to attack a tradition from without but to redefine it from within. It is to present a realistic version of the western community, not a parody of one. Indeed, Altman's achievement in fashioning such a community is almost always overlooked by those who see his film as an anti-western.
I would add that Altman's success depends very much on his repeated use of overlapping dialogue and his reliance on actors who constitute his unofficial repertory company. The dialogue is hard to follow, but it does work to establish a real community, one composed of people rather than actors, as Michael Dempsey first remarked. And the supporting cast is uniformly excellent: René Auberjonois as Sheehan; Bert Remsen as Bart Coyle; Shelley Duvall as Ida Coyle; John Schuck as Smalley; Corey Fischer as Mr. Elliott; Michael Murphy as Sears; Hugh Millais as Jake Butler; Keith Carradine as the cowboy. The sense of reality created by these actors is so great, I must wonder what people can possibly mean when they argue that Altman's film is satire or parody. To be fair, such remarks are usually directed at the principal characters, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, who are often taken to be comic variations on the typical western hero and heroine. Given my claim that McCabe and Mrs. Miller is essentially a love story, it is no doubt time that we turned to these primary figures.
"The heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and McCabe and Mrs. Miller … behave more like characters transported from the pages of a novel by Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud into the legendary West than they do like the traditional western hero. They win our interest and sympathy not by courage and heroic deeds but by bemused incompetence, genial cowardice, and the ability to face the worst with buoyancy and wit. They are six-gun schlemiels and existentialists in cowboy boots." I quote Cawelti at such length because he expresses so cogently the common view concerning McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But however accurate this passage may be concerning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I think it seriously misrepresents Altman's lovers, who are not cowards, who do not face the worst with buoyancy and wit, and who should not be called existentialists even in an age in which almost everyone is an existentialist.
It must be admitted that McCabe's bemused incompetence is a major subject in the film. At first it seems that he exercises a kind of comic control over life, as his engaging if boyish humor distracts the men sufficiently for him to raise the stakes in their poker game from 5¢ to 25¢, a move that makes possible his trip to Bearpaw to buy prostitutes. But McCabe's control over life is as fragile as his humor, as we begin to suspect while watching his comical efforts to deal first with his whores and then the more formidable Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller quickly diagnoses McCabe as "another frontier wit," someone who wants to be taken for a "fancy dude" but who tries to run a whorehouse with no real knowledge of what is involved. She sees that McCabe is in fact rather "dumb," as Altman once remarked of his own hero. This stupidity is relatively harmless so long as McCabe sticks to his quarter-limit poker games and the easily dominated world of Presbyterian Church; but it is extremely dangerous when McCabe and the town move into bigger financial worlds, signalled by the $5 bets that now occur in no-limit poker games and by the arrival of Harrison-Shaugnessy. We may laugh at McCabe's favorite one-liner, "If a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his ass so much," but the film's major irony is that McCabe himself is such a frog.
Financially speaking, McCabe is the victim of preposterous illusions. He tells Sheehan that he has come to Presbyterian Church to avoid "partners," but it is absurd to suppose that he can build up a profitable enterprise without entangling himself with others, both friends and foes. His struggles to make do with the Bearpaw whores suggest what would have happened if Mrs. Miller had not come to run the business. (The same point is made more comically when McCabe struggles to balance his books without being able to add eight and fourteen.) Later, McCabe's negotiations with Sears and Hollander more or less seal his fate, and it is to the point that here he tries to do without Mrs. Miller's assistance. Even after the negotiations break down and Butler arrives, McCabe persists in insisting that he is in control. He feels sorry for Butler and his men, he tells Mrs. Miller, because they have been sent to deal with a "mule" like himself. This folly is matched only by McCabe's ridiculous repetition of the lawyer's view that McCabe is busting up trusts in his fight with Harrison-Shaugnessy. McCabe's perplexity when one of his whores says she has to go to the "pot" is what he should feel whenever business is discussed. "I know what I'm doing," he insists to Mrs. Miller, but the man from whom McCabe buys his first whores knows the truth of the matter: "You don't know what you're doing, McCabe."
The victim of economic forces he neither understands nor controls, McCabe emerges as a lovable fool, if not a lovable clod, so far as his business aspirations are concerned. What makes him more than this is his love for Mrs. Miller. This love is presented in utter seriousness, though McCabe's efforts to "control" Mrs. Miller are almost as comical as his attempts to outmaneuver Harrison-Shaugnessy. By referring to Mrs. Miller as a "chippie." McCabe seeks to assure himself as well as others that she is simply one of his underlings. In fact, however, we see him several times at Mrs. Miller's door, courting her after his fashion (though he must always pay for her favors!). McCabe needs Mrs. Miller to do more than balance his books, for he comes to love her deeply. When he enters the whorehouse to lecture Jeremy Berg about a business matter, McCabe is distracted by the sight of Mrs. Miller going up the stairs with a customer; angered, he turns and leaves the house. Later, McCabe comes to deliver the mail and offers to take Mrs. Miller a package, but he is told that she has "company." Hurt and perplexed, he mutters something and again leaves. These scenes are far more eloquent than McCabe himself. He finally expresses his love in the wonderful soliloquy that follows his interview with Butler. Here McCabe struggles with the fact that he loves a whore, his fear that Mrs. Miller is "freezin' [his] soul" by dominating their relationship, and his frustration that she will not acknowledge his supreme fiction: that he is master of his own fate. This remarkable monologue precedes McCabe's direct declaration that he has never tried to do anything but put a smile on Mrs. Miller's face, a speech as close as McCabe will ever come to articulating his love.
McCabe's follies perhaps justify one reviewer's assertion that McCabe falls "mawkily" in love, but McCabe's feelings for Mrs. Miller should be respected in the world of Altman's film. As Gerard Plecki notes, McCabe's efforts to win Mrs. Miller are "in the best of western traditions." Indeed, McCabe's decision to stay and face Butler recalls Robert Warshow's definition of what a true western hero fights for: "What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image … he fights not for advantage and not for right, but to state what he is, and he must live in a world which permits that statement." The McCabe we first see could not possibly fit this description, but the McCabe who struggles to be worthy of Mrs. Miller's love is a genuine candidate for the role of traditional hero (all limitations noted, by Altman as well as by his critics). I think we should take seriously the fact that McCabe is able to kill all three of his enemies; that he struggles alone, by what lights are available to him; that his motives for staying are more sympathetic than those displayed by the other characters and have nothing to do with busting up trusts, making a fortune, or maintaining his "big rep" amongst the yokels.
Karp suggests that McCabe has "the stature of a tragic hero," but this seems excessive even for those of us who find McCabe's fate poignant. If there is a tragic figure in Altman's film, it is Mrs. Miller rather than McCabe. Intelligent, determined, and apparently unillusioned, Mrs. Miller is fully aware of the world around her as McCabe is not. She recognizes at once the danger McCabe is in from Harrison-Shaugnessy and its envoys ("They get paid for killin'—nothing else"); her efforts to get McCabe away from Presbyterian Church are as realistic as her step-by-step transformation of McCabe's business. Yet Mrs. Miller is more sensitive than McCabe, no less loving, and finally even more painfully the victim of her own dreams. If she cannot learn to trust McCabe, as he asks her to do, she can learn to love him. And loving him, she must suffer the terrible pain of separation and loss when McCabe dies defending his conception of what her lover should be like.
Not everyone has felt that Mrs. Miller loves McCabe or even cares about his fate. She herself denies caring about anything except her share in the business. She advises Ida Coyle that prostitution is more honest than marriage; her arguments with McCabe always turn on maximizing their economic opportunities; and she forces McCabe to pay to sleep with her so that their affair will remain on a firm financial footing. Yet Altman's whole effort with Mrs. Miller is to reveal the sensitive woman beneath the rocklike exterior. On this point Lillian Gerard's feminist reading of Mrs. Miller is exemplary: "she chooses to build up the facade of a cold, detached, unloving woman who is unmoved by McCabe's fumbling attempts to reach her." Mrs. Miller's demeanor is a defense mechanism as profound as McCabe's corny jokes or Marlowe's endlessly repeated "It's okay with me" in Altman's The Long Goodbye. Mrs. Miller knows all too well what happens to those who fail to protect themselves against an unfriendly world. She is alone in a world that recognizes only one kind of woman, a world to which she will not expose her real self lest she be turned to stone.
As Gerard suggests, however, Mrs. Miller's real feelings are everywhere apparent. The care that goes into her transformation of the whorehouse and her treatment of her "girls" points to Mrs. Miller's true character. Her concern for McCabe is both genuine and deep, as we see most clearly in her almost panicky attempt to get McCabe to flee in a wagon. When McCabe finally declares his love the night before he is to be killed, Mrs. Miller responds with the terse but poignant "You don't need to say nothing" and what is apparently her first invitation to share her bed without payment. She has been accused of deserting McCabe because she exits before he awakes, but her expression as she walks away suggests that she cannot stand to see him killed. Nor can she help him. Mrs. Miller's plight is that she knows what McCabe and the others in Presbyterian Church refuse to acknowledge, yet her feelings are if anything more intense.
Mrs. Miller's stony facade is one response to her situation; the use of opium is another. Her opium habit suggests that she has her dreams like everyone else in Presbyterian Church. Her special desire is for respectability (a boarding house in San Francisco rather than a brothel in the wilderness). If she is a traveling lady, in the words of Leonard Cohen's song, it is because she knows that her dream is hopelessly at odds with life in general and her own life in particular. It is against this bitter knowledge that we must weigh her intense concern for McCabe and her frantic efforts to save him. When she withdraws at the end to an opium den, it is the act of someone who knows the tactics of survival but also the immense pain that will visit the survivor.
Alternately amusing and profoundly moving, childish and thoroughly adult, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie offer remarkable performances that testify to Altman's genius, for neither performer has done anything remotely as good before or since. Moreover, the parts they play are very much Altman's creation, as even a casual reading of the source novel suggests. At the very center of Altman's western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller try to enact the same dreams that haunt their fellow townspeople, but they suffer disproportionately because they carry their dreams through to an end in which their illusions are shattered either literally (McCabe) or figuratively (Mrs. Miller). The film's somber conclusion is untypical of the classical western but hardly unprecedented. What is most "real" about this film is the sense of life it conveys in every detail, but especially in its lovers, perhaps the most memorable couple in the history of western film.
To remark on the excellence of Altman's direction (as scenarist, director, and guiding spirit) is to reengage the question of what makes McCabe and Mrs. Miller a classic western. For one answer is simply that the film is remarkably well done. But the phrase "classic western" also implies that the film in question displays structural and thematic patterns that we identify with Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah, and the other major western filmmakers. Is McCabe and Mrs. Miller a classic western in this second sense?
For many viewers Altman's film cannot be grouped with the classic westerns because the gap between its hero and the traditional protagonist is too great. I have shown that McCabe evolves into a far more admirable character than he seems at first, and Mrs. Miller is remarkably resourceful throughout, but these figures hardly embody traditional frontier values. Anyone who requires that a classic western focus on a Wayne, Stewart, or Cooper will never be reconciled to Altman's adaptation of the form, I think this point of view defines the classic western as a formula, a single mode that can only be endlessly repeated as again and again the stalwart, incorruptible hero clears the way for that social transition Cawelti identifies as the basic western story. And of course this pattern has been repeated endlessly, in such classics as My Darling Clementine, in the literally thousands of westerns that can only be defined as pale copies of the original model, and yet again in such recent westerns as Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado and Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider. But this should not blind us to the virtues of artists such as Altman who reconceive the formula and so demonstrate by example that the form is more flexible than we had thought.
In a very real sense, of course, it does not matter what we call McCabe and Mrs. Miller so long as we respond appropriately to it. I have resisted the label of anti-western because I think it distorts Altman's film, which does not debunk or devalue its characters and is far more faithful to the standard western story, as Altman calls it, than such true anti-westerns as Doc and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. Unlike the anti-westerns, McCabe and Mrs. Miller presents characters to whom we respond with sympathy if not full approval, people who elicit those comic and tragic responses Altman points to in the comment quoted at the beginning of this essay. As we watch these people discover their fates, the standard western story comes alive for us in new and compelling ways. This has always been true of the best westerns, from Stagecoach to The Wild Bunch, and is the best evidence that Altman's film is simply the most realistic of the classic westerns.
SOURCE: "Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye: Marlowe in the Me Decade," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 87-90.
[In the following essay, Ferncase discusses Altman's retelling of the story of Philip Marlowe in his The Long Goodbye.]
In the popular culture, few artifacts are guarded with the kind of reverence that is commonly reserved for old movies. Defenders of Hollywood's silver screen legacy are frequently vociferous over perceived indignities to which the films are submitted. A figure no less than Martin Scorsese has raged over the fugitive dyes in Eastmancolor prints (which reduced hundreds of 1950s films to faded ghosts of their former selves); strike the practice of colorizing black-and-white movies for video release continues to provoke howls from film academics and movie buffs alike. The brouhaha seems to have less to do with preserving films as art objects than it does with protecting the myths that these motion pictures enshrine.
Perhaps the most popular and enduring myth is that of the detective film genre, which has appeared in endless variations from the Thin Man serials to the Miami Vice series. It was Raymond Chandler who created the archetypal investigator Philip Marlowe, a cynical but idealistic sleuth who doggedly upholds a code of loyalty, honor, and duty. Chandler's last novel, The Long Goodbye, sees Marlowe becoming weary and increasingly, "a man out of his time." Director Robert Altman takes the myth to its logical end and systematically subverts it in his film The Long Goodbye, wherein his intent is "to put Marlowe to rest for good."
The Long Goodbye was greeted with extremely mixed reviews. New York critics gave the film mostly positive notices, while Los Angeles reviewers and others were generally more critical. Moviegoers were either openly hostile or indifferent; the film was pulled from release after poor attendance in Los Angeles, and did only mediocre business when it was re-released some nine months later.
Marlowe aficionados were not pleased with Altman's vision of Chandler's last novel, mostly because of the altered ending. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who also wrote the script for the more orthodox The Big Sleep) noted that "the film was greeted, by some critics, with the tone of outrage generally reserved for those who tamper with the Bible." Altman himself speculated that a possible reason for the film's poor showing was due to the fact that "audiences are disturbed because it raises questions about their own moral hypocrisy."
Much of the film's subversive quality comes from the odd casting: a hulking, disheveled Elliot Gould as Marlowe, former baseball pitcher Jim Bouten as the slippery Terry Lennox, director Mark Rydell as the maniacal Marty Augustine, and Henry Gibson as the sinister Dr. Verringer.
Marlowe, as played by Gould, retains some characteristics of the Bogart archetype, which serves to distance him from his contemporaries. The only character to appear regularly in suit and tie, he drives to his appointments in a late 1940s Lincoln, and lights his unfiltered cigarettes with strike-anywhere matches (a la Walter Neff in Double Indemnity). Even though Marlowe seems to blunder through much of the film in a daze, he remains true to the fundamental hard-boiled virtues: honor and loyalty. Gould's Marlowe never violates the detective's code of sexual ethics to bed down with a client, as Marlowe does with Eileen Wade in Chandler's original novel. In fact, Marlowe is anything but a lady's man (as Bogart was par excellence in The Big Sleep.) His motivations lie primarily in exonerating his friend Lennox, and this leads to most of his troubles. His unswerving fidelity earns him the derision of the other characters, including Lennox, who sums him up as "a born loser." This incarnation bears out Chandler's own assessment of Marlowe: "that any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or foolish." In the context of the Seventies. Marlowe's anachronistic demeanor is a metaphor for his own outdated code of honor, and his fatal flaw.
The photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is unlike the heavy chiaroscuro of traditional noir. Venetian blinds cast no slatted shadows in this detective film. Instead, post-flashing technique creates a diaphanous ozone of pastel hues, blue shadows, and highlights of shimmering gossamer. The effect, rather than one of inscrutable darkness and menace, is more like the insidious glare of a smoggy Los Angeles afternoon. More remarkable is Zsigmond's restless camera, which prowls nervously throughout the film. The camera dollies almost imperceptibly around the characters, often zooming in to seemingly inconsequential details while the main action continues to play offscreen. In contrast to the rock-steady oblique compositions of older noir works, this unmotivated camera movement has a subliminal effect on the viewer, one of instability and uncertainty.
An animal motif recurs throughout the film. Unlike the original novel, the film begins with Marlowe attempting to fool his finicky cat into eating an off-brand cat food. Instead, the cat runs away, a loss which haunts him to the film's end (Altman has stated "that the real mystery of The Long Goodbye is where Marlowe's cat had gotten to"). Dogs, like most of the characters in the film, are either aggressive, indolent, or indifferent. Marlowe is repeatedly accosted, chased, and held at bay by the Wade's normally well-behaved Doberman pinscher, and his forays into Mexico are prefaced by images of sleeping and copulating canines.
Altman debunks not only the myth of the private eye, but the Hollywood myth machinery itself. A number of self-reflexive references allude to classic films of the genre. Marlowe's right-of-way is blocked at one point by a scruffy mongrel, which he addresses as "Asta" (the manicured terrier from The Thin Man). An eccentric security guard subjects visitors to movie star impressions including Barbara Stanwyck (from the Chandler-penned Double Indemnity) and Cary Grant (Chandler's original choice to play Marlowe) before he lets them pass. When police interrogate Marlowe, he mocks the old third-degree clichés when he wisecracks "This is where I say 'what's this all about' and you say 'we ask the questions.'" When he sneaks out of his hospital room after recuperating from an accident, Marlowe tells his fully-bandaged roommate, "I've seen all your movies, too."
The traditional Hollywood musical leitmotif is spoofed as the movie theme, a torchy pop ballad, plays throughout in numerous variations. It surfaces as a meandering jazz riff when Marlowe is onscreen, becoming a smoky blues wail for Terry Lennox. When Marlowe journeys to Mexico it appears in Spanish guitar and mariachi versions, is sung by various characters throughout the film, and provides background Muzak in an all-night market. The theme repeats without actually ending, never achieving resolution. The film opens and closes with a scratchy version of "Hooray for Hollywood," which further undermines the filmic illusion.
Thus, Altman effectively bids his own farewell to Philip Marlowe and the detective genre in general. His The Long Goodbye is "a goodbye to that genre—a genre that's not going to be acceptable anymore." If "lovers of Chandler regard it with ontological loathing" as one critic suggests, perhaps they do wish to not see the character the creator envisioned. Chandler himself acknowledged that "… Marlowe is a failure, and he knows it …" The film's detractors may also know it, but they might not want to relinquish their cherished myth. As Chandler also observed, "to say goodbye is to die a little."
SOURCE: "Robert Altman: After 35 Years, Still the 'Action Painter' of American Cinema," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1992, pp. 36-42.
[In the following essay, Tibbetts discusses Altman's relationship to Kansas City, the course of his career, and his films through Vincent and Theo.]
"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from Mayor Richard Berkeley. "They used to throw away the key. Now, they're giving me one!"
Altman lived in his native Kansas City, MO, for his first nineteen years. As a boy he raised quite a ruckus, as he puts it; and he made his first movies there (which is perhaps the same thing). Now, an acclaimed world-class filmmaker, he has returned to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Kansas City Film Commission in the ballroom of the downtown Crown Center Westin Hotel. There is a sense of euphoria in the air that has been growing during the three days of nonstop screenings of sixteen Altman films, press conferences, workshops with area filmmakers and reunions with family members. Altman and his hometown are both on a roll these days. He is fresh on the heels of his latest triumph, Vincent and Theo; and Kansas City itself is basking in the glow of the successful completion of two recent theatrical films that had been shot in the area—the prestigious Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and the forthcoming Article 99.
"This town and I will have to get together again," he told a press gathering earlier that day. "I haven't shot a film here since The Delinquents in 1955—which I'd rather not talk about! But the future of filmmaking is here in communities like this. We help each other. Companies have to figure things now down to the split penny. We go where it's cheapest and where the artist can get the most return for his time. When I leave here I'll have a whole box of scripts under my arm." He paused with an air of mock drama. He waited a few beats, then—"We'll have to see."
Altman is relaxed, accessible and talkative. His Buffalo Bill beard is neatly trimmed. A white shirt and tie peek out from his zippered navy-blue jacket. He hardly seems the same hard-charging, hard-drinking maverick that barnstormed his way through movie after movie in the early 1970s. With M∗A∗S∗H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, he was a prime architect—with other young filmmakers like Paul Mazursky, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese—of what Diane Jacobs has called the "Hollywood Renaissance." He was called a "prairie Buddha" by his associates. He referred to himself as the "action painter" of American films. Controversies, disputes, awards and brickbats trailed in his wake. College students appointed him their Vietnam-era voice. Critics debated his unorthodox, looping and elliptical style. While Stanley Kauffman called him a pretentious blunderer, Pauline Kael praised his idiosyncracies: "Altman has to introduce an element of risk on top of the risks that all directors take," she wrote in 1981. There was always something protean, even relentless about him. After the failure of Popeye in 1980, the big studios rejected him, but he kept going, staging operas at colleges, shooting modest projects like Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 16mm, and filming plays for cable television. Meanwhile—although Altman wasn't counting—the awards were piling up. There were numerous "Best Film" and "Best Director" awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review and the Venice Film Festival (a Grand Prix for Streamers).
"I haven't been back to K. C. in almost 15 years now, I guess; and I come back and don't see the same city." We are talking together in the Presidential Suite on the 17th floor of the Crown Center Westin Hotel. The rooftops, spires and glass ramparts are spread out below us in the late afternoon sun. We have an hour to spend before he greets a sold-out house for a filmmaking workshop. "But I smell it and I feel it," he continues. "This is where I got my 'chips,' my attitudes. I lived on West 68th Street and went to several schools—Rockhurst, Southwest High School, Wentworth Military Academy, and then did a hitch in the Air Force, where I was a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. Restless, I guess." He takes a drink from a tumbler filled with club soda and a slice of lime. That's all he's drinking today.
"Somewhere along in there I saw my first movies at the old Brookside Theater. Those movies just seemed to happen—nobody made them, you know? And I guess that's the way I still see movies—I want them to be occurrences, to just seem to be happening."
We reminisce for a moment about the fate of the Calvin Film Company, a Kansas City landmark. Established by Altman's grandfather at 15th and Troost, the company had been "home" for every film student and filmmaker in the area for more than 40 years. The building had been razed in 1990. "Actually, I came back to Calvin several times after the war," Altman muses, rubbing his bearded chin. "I'd go to California and try to write scripts, but then return, broke, to Calvin. Each time they'd drop me another notch in salary. Like some kind of punishment. The third time they said it was like the Davis Cup—they were going to keep me!"
In the early 1950s Altman participated in every aspect of filmmaking. "I don't remember actually learning anything," he says; "it was more by a kind of osmosis." For $250 a week he made promotional films for Gulf Oil and safety films for Caterpillar Tractor and International Harvester. "They were training films for me—stuff like "How to Run a Filling Station." They weren't a goal for me, just a process to learn how to do entertainment and dramatic films. It was a school, that's what it was." During these years he met several other young filmmakers who were to form the core of his filmmaking team—writer Fred Barheit and editor Louis Lombardo.
After returning to Hollywood and clicking in the late 1950s and early 1960s on television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gallant Men, Bonanza and Combat! (for which he directed fully one-half of the episodes), he was ready to tackle feature films.
"There's always been a sort of division between the feature film business and the television business," he continues. "It's hard to step from one to the other. And that still is the case. But it was a great training ground. I was lucky; it kept me in California. I developed a nice reputation there and learned to stay in budget. But when I did my first movie, Countdown (a science fiction thriller) in 1967 for Warner Bros. everything went wrong. Jack Warner fired me. I got a call Sunday night from the studio warning me not to come in because the guard would stop me. I'd been locked out. Warner had looked at the dailies and he said, 'That fool has everybody talking at the same time!' So I went to the studio gate and got my stuff in a box from the guard. Somebody else edited it. 'Since that and another picture, That Cold Day in the Park, you've never seen a film of mine that I didn't keep total control over. And that's why I don't work a lot." He laughs outright.
The criticism about Altman's unique use of densely textured sound and dialogue has always aroused controversy. "But, you know, last Saturday night the Audio-Engineers Society—they are the Hollywood sound people—awarded me their own Lifetime Achievement Award." Altman smiles. It's a Cheshire cat smile. If he were to vanish, that knowing grin would still hover there in the air. "This was the first time it's ever gone to a filmmaker instead of some inventor or process, like Dolby. And that very day I had read a review of Vincent and Theo complaining of the same thing—that the soundtrack was so muddled you couldn't understand anything. Like all the characters were played by 'Mumbles' in Dick Tracy. Look, what I'm trying to do is—" he pauses, groping for the right words. "I don't want you to understand everything—not the sound, not the images. What I'm trying to do—and this is what the engineers understood (which pleased me)—I'm trying to present something to an audience where they have to work a little bit. They have to invest something. You don't hear everything somebody says in real life, do you? Maybe you're not really listening or distracted or something. That's the illusion I want. It's a way to get the audience involved and participating in the thing." He spreads his hands philosophically. "But some people don't like it." Another pause. "Anyway, I really worked this out the first time in California Split. I used 8-track sound. I said, 'They do this in music recording, put a microphone on every different instrument and try to isolate them as much as possible then mix it afterwards. Why don't we do that with the voices on the soundtrack?' So, we developed 8-track tape machines and individual microphones. Which means recording everything and then mixing it later. I can take a person's sound down or push it up. That way, I don't have to go back for post-synching, looping of lines—you know, bringing the actors back in to match their lip movements. When you do that, the acting is gone."
Clearly, Altman still relishes the role of iconoclast. That memorable spurt of movies in the early 1970s took the cherished genres of war story (M∗A∗S∗H), western (McCabe), detective thriller (The Long Goodbye) and the caper film (California Split) and turned them inside out. "When I look at a subject and see how it's done, I think, it doesn't necessarily have to be done that way. Like McCabe. What a collection of stereotypes! There was the gambler down on his luck, the whore with the heart of gold, the three heavies (the giant, the half-breed and the kid). Everything there you've seen all your life in westerns. The audience can supply most of the story already! That left me free to work on the backgrounds and the atmosphere and the details. The same thing with The Long Goodbye. That was a Raymond Chandler story. To this day I've never finished it. I could never figure out what was happening! And I didn't much care. I thought, Raymond Chandler used his plots the way I do—just as an excuse to hang a series of thumbnail sketches on. I had fun dropping the 1940s character of 'Philip Marlowe' into the attitudes of 1973, into a time of marijuana and brownies and health food. He was out of place and that was a great chance for some thumbnail essays of our own of what the culture and society at the time looked like."
One genre that he tried to avoid—and couldn't—was the biopic, or film biography. "Vincent and Theo was offered to me and I didn't even want to read it," admits Altman. "I didn't want to make that kind of picture. I don't like those biographical things. I just don't believe them, for one thing. But they kept pressing me to make it and I said, at last, "OK, you let me have artistic control on this and do whatever I want to do and I'll make it.'"
The results have been spectacular. As Variety reported April 27, 1990, "Seldom has an artist been so convincingly or movingly portrayed on screen." Although it got no Oscar nominations (a grievous sin of omission) it has found the largest, most enthusiastic audience for an Altman film since Nashville. For Altman, the movie was a process of avoiding traps. (He frequently describes filmmaking as avoiding hazards and traps.) "For example, at first I didn't want to use any of the Van Gogh paintings at all," he explains. "I wasn't going to show them. And I wasn't going to show him actually painting, either. Finally, I realized I had to show them, but I decided to show them as a kind of 'evidence.' We'll treat them roughly (like he did). We'll have them lying around, people stepping on them. Vincent himself destroys some of them. I wanted the audience to say—'Oh, that's worth $82 million dollars!'—and then somebody steps through the canvas! That's great!"
Our laughter attracts the attention of a young man who has just wandered in from the hallway. He has chiseled features and curly dark hair. He is Altman's son, Stephen, who was the production designer on Vincent and Theo. Stephen was born in Kansas City in 1956 and, although he was reared by his mother, Altman's second wife, he began working with his father (he calls him "Bob") on sets and props at age eleven. Stephen claims he can look back upon his father's films and discover his own "fingerprints," evidence of his own presence—like the pay telephone he managed to insinuate into every picture (and which now adorns a wall in his Paris apartment). He describes himself as part scavenger, part prop master and part set dresser. ("Anything an actor touches is a prop," he explains. "If he drives a tank, it's a prop. If he eats cornflakes, it's a prop. If it's something just sitting on the set, then it's set dressing or background") It was he who arranged for all the reproductions of Van Gogh paintings and sketches seen in the movie.
"They were all done by students at the Beaux-Arts in Paris or in Holland," explains Stephen, whose research into the ateliers and galleries of Van Gogh's time has made him into something of an art historian himself. I ask him where the paintings are now. "Oh," he looks sidelong at his father. "The producer has a lot of them. I know somebody else who keeps some of them in his office." He pauses meaningfully, still grinning at his father. "But I don't have one."
Altman pushes his way into the pause. "Those darned paintings—I'd find the sets would look just like them—the sort of thing you see in the Vincente Minnelli picture, Lust for Life. I didn't want that kind of competition. So, I'd come on the set and I'd say, 'I've seen this before'—and then I'd move the chair and shoot the room differently. I didn't want exact copies, just the—just the smell of things." Stephen nods. "On all the Dutch scenes, we wanted a kind of lighting with an 'Old Masters' look—with the light from above, northern light. When we went to Paris, we wanted a gray, impressionistic feel. And when we went to Arles, we had to have a bright shining light."
Altman's eyes twinkle as he leans forward. "Although, if we'd have had to shoot a rainstorm in the sunflower fields, we'd have done that, too. I'd read a lot of stories about David Lean waiting weeks for snow in Dr. Zhivago; but in my experience, you're lucky to get the crew together at all. So if you're out there and it's raining, you just change the script from 'sunshine' to 'rain.'"
Robert Altman's laugh fades after a moment. He continues, more seriously. "I wasn't so much interested in showing Van Gogh's creativity as in showing the pain that this guy went through. You have to remember that nobody ever smiled at Vincent Van Gogh. But there was some compulsion to just keep doing what he did, until he finally couldn't stand it anymore and just shot himself. Only in combination with his brother, Theo, was Vincent a complete person. They were connected in some way. That's the story I was trying to tell. You know, people expect movies like this to blow trumpets when a painting is made. But Vincent did not have a great deal of talent. He was not a great draughtsman. It took him a long time to learn how to draw and paint. He taught himself and he worked hard. He copied other people and didn't start any schools. He couldn't paint from his own imagination, just from what was in front of him. He had a lot going against him. If anybody was going to make book and ask which of these painters at the time would sell paintings for millions, like I show at the London auction at the beginning of the movie, nobody would have voted Vincent." He pauses again. His next words come slowly. "I'm sure my film is not factual," he says, "but I hope it's truthful."
I ask about the final sequences in the movie. Rarely has a person's self-destructive impulses been more harrowingly portrayed on film. "I think that when Vincent mutilated his ear, it was a cry for help, for attention," says Altman. "When he went to the asylum for a year, he met the daughter of the man who ran it. But when he rejected her advances, he realized he didn't belong, that he couldn't make it in life, and by that time he abdicated and wanted out."
"There was a dramatic, unexpected moment on the set during the ear mutilation scene," volunteers Stephen. "You know it's a moment that audiences have been waiting for. But when Tim Roth (the actor portraying Van Gogh) cut the ear, suddenly he did something none of us expected. He held on to the razor and suddenly brought it close to his tongue. We just shot it once and Tim surprised everybody with that. I guess he didn't know what to do at that moment, but he felt he needed something else. He didn't tell anybody in advance. It was scary."
"Maybe not so unexpected, though," growls Altman. "I get a lot of credit for having the actors improvise all the time. When we go into rehearsal, I encourage as much improvisation as I can get. And we find out what works and what doesn't work. But by the time we actually shoot the scene, it's very well rehearsed. The secret lies in letting the actor give the good performance. That's what Tim did. I can't teach anybody to act. My job is like a cheerleader's, really—trying to set up an atmosphere and a focus of energies so the actor becomes the most important part of the collaboration. Get them to trust you and take some chances. Get them to know that you won't make them look bad. If they can't say a line in the script, we'll change it."
Our conversation is interrupted by a ringing telephone. It's time for Altman and his son to repair downstairs to the hotel lobby for a workshop with area filmmakers and students. For the next two hours Altman's high spirits continue unabated. As he mounts the platform to the applause of the crowd, he jokes, "I think I forgot my lines!" Peering out at the crowd, he mutters, "You know, the actor's nightmare is to find himself in a play and not know his lines. Hell, I don't know this play!" But he fields the questions beautifully. It is obvious that he loves audiences and respects them.
At times the give-and-take is rapid-fire. Examples:
Question: "Are you really a control freak in your movies, like they say?" (The questioner is too young to have seen Altman's first pictures during their first run.)
Altman: "Let's put it this way. Making a movie for me is getting people to work for you who are shooting the same film you are shooting. In Fool for Love we started with a wonderful cinematographer named Robby Müller. After six days of shooting I fired him. I said, 'I can't do this. I'm sure you're shooting a beautiful movie, but it's not the movie I'm making.' So we started over again. Next question!"
Question: "Have you ever tried to make a movie somebody else's way?"
Altman: "I can't do anything but what I do. If I tried to, I'd fail. Next."
Question: "Do you have a particular style?"
Altman: "I don't know what my style is. I'm the last one to say what it is, I think. What I secretly think about myself might be wrong. I didn't know what anybody was talking about when they said my first seven films had 'the Altman signature.' I was just trying to do things totally different from one film to another. Now I look back at them and see my fingerprints all over them. You can't keep your hands clean."
Question: "What do you think of critics?"
Altman: "A lot of people see my films and say, 'I don't get it.' But I've created at least a cult following. That's not quite enough people to make a minority!"
Question: "What is your favorite among your films?"
Altman: "I won't fall into that trap. They are all your children. You can't choose."
Later, while he's surrounded by the crowd for some last questions and pictures, I steal away to the coffee shop with Stephen. I tell him I'm amazed at his father's easy amiability. This is not the same Altman, I tell him, that stormed through critics, press and audiences alike twenty years ago.
"He's mellowing out a little bit," Stephen admits, stirring his coffee. "He used to be a hard drinker. He never drank on the set, but he'd drink a lot and rip into people. Usually they deserved it. But I think it's better now. He's looser. He's not trying so hard. He's had a lot of experience. Hey, he's done more films consecutively now than anybody else working today. I think he's the best director I've ever worked with. He's very tough and very difficult and at the same time can be the easiest and nicest. Anybody can disagree with him on the set, but he'll tell you, 'Anybody can make a suggestion, but only give it once.' He won't easily admit it if he's wrong. He has some funny quirks. People might sit around and talk and it won't seem like he's listening; and then the next day he'll come up and say, 'I had this great idea. We'll do this and that.' And everybody will sit around and say, 'Good idea, Bob!'"
After the ceremonies that night, Altman rejoins me for a wrap-up of our interview. He has to leave early the next morning, he explains, to return to his editing studio in Malibu, CA. He describes the studio as a kind of support environment. "I have lots of people there to help. Primarily, I can get into an environment where I have everything I need. Like being in a submarine. We have a cook who comes in. That way I can keep everybody there. We'll work six days a week, 12-13 hours a day. I like the intensity. I just can't do it leisurely. It's the process that's the real reward."
There are many projects in the works. He will begin immediately editing footage, for Japanese television, he has shot backstage during a performance of the Broadway musical, Black and Blue. "Like I first wanted to do with Vincent and Theo, I decided to ignore the show itself and get the fatigue on the faces of the dancers as they come back offstage. All those smiles and energy would collapse as soon as they hit the black. I'm dealing here with errors and frailties."
Another project is the long-cherished L. A. Shortcuts, a script he and Frank Barheit adapted from stories by Raymond Carver. There have been problems lately in getting the financing, but Altman hopes at last the project is in the gate. It sounds like a kind of West Coast version of Nashville: "There's a big cast, 27 main actors, who all lead different lives. They don't necessarily affect one another, but their lives all criss-cross. You know, Frank Lloyd Wright said that Los Angeles was made when the continent tipped and all the people without roots slipped into the southwest corner!"
Even more tantalizing are hints at other movies. His highly praised television film, Tanner '88, made in collaboration with comic strip guru Gary Trudeau, may have a sequel just in time for the next presidential election. "Let's run Tanner again in 1992," cracks Altman. "Somebody's got to run against those guys!" And he confirms something his son Stephen had told me—that he plans to make a movie called The Player. "Oh, yes," he grins, "that's another thing about an artist at work. It's about a studio executive who murders a writer. And gets away with it. We'll get in some shots and make the producers hate us! That's all I'll tell you."
He pauses a moment. The ballroom has almost cleared and some members of the Altman clan still living in Kansas City—a whole contingent of cousins, uncles and nephews—are waiting for him. Doesn't this man ever get tired??? "But with all these projects there are still those that fail, that don't get made," he continues philosophically, apparently in no hurry to leave. "Like Rossini, Rossini." I start in amazement. Robert Altman making a movie about the great Italian opera composer …? "Sure," he says, as if reading my thoughts. "This was to be our 'big' film, not Vincent and Theo. Vincent was going to be just a warm-up for it. Stephen and I worked on it for over six months, travelling through Italy, scouting locations, dressing sets, hashing out the script. Then, things got very strange. We'd be called back to Rome several times; and finally we were told the movie had shut down. Then I got fired. Somebody else finished it."
Clearly, the aborted project meant a great deal to him. It's the sort of disappointment and pain that tempts me to compare Altman's career with his most recent subject, Vincent Van Gogh. But no. Altman rejects—almost peremptorily—the association. "I can't summon up the fortitude of somebody like Vincent. I've had a good deal of personal adulation in my life and a great deal of success. But I think if I ever made a film and people got up and walked out of a theater before it was over, I'd never make another one. I couldn't change my films to anything else. I don't make mainstream, 'shopping mall' kinds of films, like Pretty Woman. I'm not an 'in demand' commodity. If I stepped down off this stage we're on and went straight downhill to the end, I'd have to look back and say, 'I had a great roll.' Some people liked my work—I can at least find a couple. But the minute I don't find anybody, then I'm stepping off."
No compromises. No prisoners. After more than 35 years of making films, he still can thumb his nose at the naysayers. He can still say brashly, "There's them and there's us." There's no question that "them" still means the Hollywood establishment, the grownups, the crowd; and that "us" means those who grew up loving his movies—those who felt young and special just watching them.
SOURCE: "Reimagining Raymond Carver on Film: A Talk with Robert Altman and Tess Gallagher," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, pp. 3, 41-2.
[In the following interview, which took place in July, 1993, Altman and Gallagher discuss the adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories in Altman's film Short Cuts.]
Raymond Carver, who died all too early—at 50—of lung cancer in 1988, left a remarkable legacy of 11 volumes of short stories and poems, among them Where I'm Calling From, Cathedral, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water. It is a body of work that brought him international acclaim while he was alive and that has now been translated into more than 20 languages.
It was his stories in particular, with their stark evocation of America's urban and small-town blue-collar world, that made the greatest and. perhaps, the most lasting impact. He'd come from there himself—a world of old factories and sawmills, of truck stops and diners, of bars, of run-down frame houses and the frayed nerves of the families inside; in short, a kind of life in the desperate zone, where the one thing one needs is a job, any job, but where all one does is stare at the tube and hang on, scramble, come up empty.
The appeal of Carver's stories lies in their raw, spare truthfulness, their grasp of what Freud, in his old age, liked to call "the foul realities," or what Carver himself might have thought of as just plain bad luck Yet it would be an error to dismiss the strains of hope or the theme of surviving against the odds in his work, for these, too are central to his far-reaching popularity.
To the millions of Carver readers here and abroad, one must now add the American film director Robert Altman. His list of films includes M∗A∗S∗H, Nashville, A Wedding, The Player and now the soon to be released Short Cuts, based on nine stories and a poem by Carver, which will open the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Oct. 1….
In July I met with Robert Altman and Carver's widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, in Los Angeles to talk with them about their thoughts on the transformation of Raymond Carver's work into a film.
[Stewart:] How did the idea for Short Cuts first get started?
[Altman:] In the early winter of 1990, I was in Rome planning to make a film there about Rossini. But the situation got very ugly and my life was actually threatened. I told my wife that we were going back to America right away, and I asked my secretary to give me something to read on the plane.
I always keep collections of short stories by various writers around, because they often make good film material. I had heard of Ray Carver, of course, but I had never read him, and now there were four or five of his books in the pile put together by my secretary.
What were your first impressions?
[Altman:] I loved the stories. I read a couple of them during the flight. You have to understand that I was in a fragile state. I was coming from an aborted picture and a big defeat. I got off the plane, and I remember walking down the ramp and thinking. "There's a movie here." I think what I did is I made "Carver soup" out of these stories.
Can you remember what happened next?
[Altman:] I went to Tess Gallagher, who owned the rights, and I made a deal to option the stories. Frank Barhydt, a wonderful writer with whom I had worked before, started working with me. I went to Paramount, sold the idea to them. They gave me money to develop a screenplay. We bought some colored 3-by-5 index cards and put scenes from the stories down on them and pinned them up on a big board. When we finished, Paramount hated the script, turned it down, sent it back to us. But I had sent the Carver script to Tess. I was scared to death about what her reaction would be. I had no idea of what she would think.
What was your initial response, Tess, not only to the script but to the idea of Bob Altman wanting to do a film based on Ray's work?
[Gallagher:] I had seen other scripts based on Ray's stories and they had been very flat-footed. Their approach to his work was to copy Ray's dialogue exactly, copy the character's movements exactly. You couldn't really tell what was going to generate the film's energy in those scripts. But I thought that Bob was really a perfect match for Ray, because he wasn't coming out of literature, in a sense.
Do you mean by that that Ray came out of literature?
[Gallagher:] No, actually, Ray was very awkward in the halls of academe. He was a literary man by virtue of his writing and his reading. He was extremely well read. But the lives of the people he was writing about were the lives of pretty ordinary people and, in fact, that's what everybody was so excited about—that through Ray's stories these people started entering into the literature of the country.
So of all the others, Bob seemed to be the right film maker?
[Gallagher:] I thought if anybody could do it, he could. I thought he was doing something very new. He was using the stories as a kind of sourdough, a starter, like yeast. It was generative. It was very interesting to me that he broke the frames of the stories in such a way that the characters began to interact with each other and to glance off each other.
You're known to be careful about Ray's material. Were there reservations?
[Gallagher:] Well, there may have been one thing. I had seen The Player, and I knew that one of Bob's great gifts was his irony, that it was a great tool of his. I was very well aware that Ray eschewed irony, that he didn't distance himself from his characters or their dilemmas.
[Altman:] Yes, Tess made me very aware of that. I agree that real art is without irony. I think that irony is a product of something. It's not the reason for doing something. Irony is a cheap shot. But I can never get rid of all of it, because that's who I am.
Can you give an example from Short Cuts?
[Altman:] After I had cut the picture, Tess made a negative comment about the ending. It's from the story "Tell the Women We're Going." A young girl is brutally assaulted by a sex-starved, violent character named Jerry Kaiser. He beats her to death with a rock. The scene is followed by an earthquake, and it is reported on television that the only known casualty of this earthquake was a teen-age girl—the one he'd killed—caught in a rock slide, which, of course, has its measure of irony. And this was what Tess was responding to. So I immediately went back and recut the picture, the ending of it. I felt I was doing the right thing. Then I had another screening, and it went flat, and I said it's got to go back. When I took it out, it didn't give the audience an out, a way out of the picture somehow. If you just looked at that one moment, Tess was right. I should have taken it out. But if you looked at the picture as a whole, I needed it.
You said earlier that you had made "Carver soup" out of his stories. What exactly did you mean by that?
[Altman:] I meant that I thought of all of Carver's stories as one story. You know, I feel that all of Edgar Allan Poe's stories are really one story. I think of Shakespeare's plays as one big piece. That's the way I look at these things.
[Gallagher:] You saw Ray's world.
[Altman:] Yes, I saw his world. It was as if I was inside of an eggshell, his eggshell. I was inside of this kind of three-dimensional thing. Even the stories that we fabricated, the ones that didn't come from Carver's work, are of his work. Of course Carver is much, much purer. I love the work in the film and I'm not apologizing for any of it—but I don't think it has the power or the truthfulness of Ray's work. I think it has to do with the medium more than anything else.
In what way do you think it has to do with the medium?
[Altman:] When you read these things yourself, you are taking this information, this simple information that Carver is giving you, and you're taking it in and adding it to all the information that already exists in your brain; you are applying it to your own personal experiences, to things that you have seen, done, read, felt, thought before, and it's all judged and filed according to the information you already have.
Now a film audience does exactly the same thing. Except that we're hitting the film audience with visual material; we're hitting them with familiar or unfamiliar material, which is the actors. When you look at Tim Robbins on the screen, whether you like it or not, your mind is judging everything you've ever seen him do before. So if you've seen The Player, that's rubbing off on you.
So how would you describe what you do when you take one medium and put it into another?
[Altman:] I translate what I saw in Carver's work. I'm trying to use what was written and the effect it had on me. My authorship is shaky and doubtful in this. I'm trying to take an experience that I had in reading these stories and use elements and pieces of them to give a similar experience to a film audience.
[Gallagher:] It's a new experience. A fusion of the two consciousnesses, really, and visions—yours and Ray's—to create an entity which didn't exist before. What you do is move Ray's vision into the time in which we are living, the 90's. It's the difference between the vitamins the girl sells in Ray's story "Vitamins" and Jennifer Jason Leigh selling telephone sex in your film. Whereas Ray was considered a realist—and even called a "dirty realist"—you're showing us how much over the fence into fantasy we really live. There are any number of those instances in which fantasy is serving to prop up a reality which is spiritually bankrupt. Ray really had perfect pitch in the soul and the spirit department. He knew what was coming down. And you're saying it has come down and this is what we're living now.
[Altman:] I think that he and I see life from a very similar window.
[Gallagher:] A lot of randomness and luck, but striving too. Many of Ray's characters tried to do better, really struggled against chaos and bad luck.
[Altman:] The whole thing about lady luck is that she has to pick a side. You can say it's the toss of a coin, but lady luck has to pick the side of the coin that lands face up. The poem "Lemonade" is the basis of the whole picture for me. I think the film, the whole film, has more to do with the idea of the chain of events—call it luck or fate—in "Lemonade" than it has to do with any of the individual stories.
[Gallagher:] It's a poem about a child's accidental death and about how sequences of actions cause other actions.
[Altman:] Yes, but it's not that those actions cause those actions, it's that, in looking back, we blame those actions. And the idea of calling it Short Cuts. From the very beginning people kept saying: "Now is that a very good title?" "Why do you call it Short Cuts?" "What's it mean?" I couldn't defend it very well at first, but now I can, because when I look at a map, something happens. A child dies and it's devastating to the people who are close to that event. So they say, "Why did that child die?" But instead of retracing the steps that led to the child's death, as in "Lemonade," you can just look at the map and you say, well, there's 16th Street, Mulberry Street, the Pacific Coast Highway, Main Street. It's a kind of sign language that has nothing to do with the cause of the child's death, and yet it's the only thing you can trace.
[Gallagher:] Maps are like an aerial view of blame. It's a short cut to understanding what happened.
Ray said that he was a paid-up-in-full member of the working poor. And in the movie you moved the stories to suburbia, sort of raised them up in terms of class structure. Was that intentional?
[Altman:] In the way that I'm retelling Ray Carver this class thing is not necessarily an element that is making things happen.
So you didn't try to consciously change from a poor working-class environment to a qualitatively different one?
[Altman:] No, but I probably consciously, and unconsciously, changed it to something that was more familiar to me. To do a whole thing about people who are out of work would give some sort of meaning to this picture that I didn't want to give to it.
You didn't set out to reconfigure the class structure and bring it to Los Angeles, perhaps to appeal to a broader audience?
[Altman:] Oh, no, au contraire. My first reason for shooting the picture in Los Angeles was a practical one. I had a limited budget, and I knew I just couldn't go on location. Most of Ray's people were dislocated anyway.
[Gallagher:] Yes, from somewhere else, or going somewhere else.
[Altman:] I was also very conscious of trying to show that this isn't the Los Angeles of Bel Air or of Brentwood. Every house we used in every neighborhood was for sale. Across the street houses were for sale, cars were for sale. So there was an idea of transition, nothing was permanent.
I have a question about a different issue. When I reread the fishing story, "So Much Water So Close to Home," I realized that the woman is telling the story, that Ray used the woman as the narrator. In the film, it's told from the point of view of the men. Did you do that on purpose?
[Altman:] Well, I thought a lot about that story because that story presented a moral dilemma to me. We sat there and I said, I don't want to take sides in this. I don't want to load this thing one way or the other. So Frank Barhydt and I and my son Steve, who was the production manager on the film, would just sit there and we'd talk. And we'd say, "O.K. we are just three guys, now let's really talk about this. Here's where we are. We've walked into these woods. It took us four hours to get there. It's close to nightfall. We find this body. What are we going to do about it? Are we going to fish, or are we going to report the body to the police right away?" Now Barhydt still contends that he would not have gone fishing, that he would have addressed the situation of the body. And I said I would do the same thing if both guys agreed to that. But if they both said, "Oh, we're gonna fish," I wouldn't argue with them. I'd go along with them, which is what happens in the story. I could easily have done what those men did and not feel guilty about it. Now when he gets back and tells his wife about it, there's not a question in her mind about the moral irresponsibility of what he did.
[Gallagher:] Yes, and if you had had four women going fishing, it would have been different. It couldn't possibly work out the way it works out here.
[Altman:] You're probably right. And if it's true, Tess, then something of great value has been said in this story.
[Gallagher:] You have told us something we didn't know about the difference in the sexes.
Does that mean that you shifted the narrator from the woman because you didn't want to get into sex differences or feminist issues?
[Altman:] Yes. I didn't want to make any judgment whatsoever. I even had the guy take a leak on the body—and my wife, Kathryn, said, "Why did you have to do that, that's disgusting"—and I said, I know it's disgusting, but the point of it is that all he did was take a leak in the water. There happened to be a body there, and when you see that you think, "Oh, there's something revolting in that, that's a violation, that's a terrible thing." But I kept that in on purpose, because I didn't want to make it easy on anybody.
Do you worry that some critics may find your handling of the story sexist?
[Altman:] I don't care about that. When I made M∗A∗S∗H there were a lot of accusations. A woman stood up in a 5,000 seat auditorium in Ann Arbor, Mich., and said, "Why do you treat women the way you treated Hot Lips?" She hated me. She called me a misogynist. "Why do you treat women that way?" I said, "I don't treat women that way. I don't think women should be treated that way. This is the way I see women being treated. You make the moral judgment, I'm not going to make any moral judgment. That's propaganda."
[Gallagher:] I think Ray's story avoids propaganda, but he still manages to show that woman's revulsion at what her husband has done.
[Altman:] I think we did that in the film. And that's why I had Claire and Stuart make love that night when he comes back from the fishing trip. I thought that was a good balance—nice, loving, happy—they made each other happy. She says after they separate in bed, "Oh, you make me so happy." And then he says, "Claire, we found a dead body up there." And two minutes later she's in there and she's saying, "You're making me sick." And she's washing the slime out of her. The next day she gets in her car and she drives 75 miles to be at the funeral service for the dead girl.
[Gallagher:] In the story. Ray made more of a point of the man not telling his wife about the death of the woman until the next morning, until he had his "sexual welcome" so to speak.
[Altman:] I think we did that, too.
[Gallagher:] I guess I mean that you feel the delay more in the story. Time somehow collapses in films.
In the story "A Small, Good Thing." in which the child gets hit by the car, Ann ash her husband to pray for the boy. I was just wondering, Tess, if Ray ever thought in religious or spiritual terms, if he believed there was some kind of higher power in the world?
[Gallagher:] Well, Ray was a recovering alcoholic, and I think he did adopt the attitude of a higher power as a help to us. But he never articulated this. And he never preached to anybody, and I don't even know if he believed in a hereafter, really. He pretty much thought you had to do it all here. But he believed in right action.
I'm curious about the element of classical music and jazz that you've added. And you've created this character, Tess Trainer, a faded jazz singer, whose husband has died and whom you've named after Tess.
[Altman:] I did that simply because I wanted to have a reason for the music I didn't want the music to come from a sound studio outside and amplify the emotions. And yet I know that music does that. I knew I couldn't do this picture without music. That's tough for an audience. But I didn't just want to apply music.
Whatever the reason, you succeed rather well in creating a story that doesn't disturb the rest of the film.
[Altman:] Actually, it's the least Carveresque of the stories. Most of the people who have criticized the film have said, "Oh, you can do without that story."
What do you think of your namesake, Tess Trainer, Tess?
[Gallagher:] Well, widows don't get much applause in America, and there's a lot of applause built into this film for Tess Trainer. She's a real gift to me. I love her stamina, her wry courage, even her loneliness. "She's seen some things," as Ray would say. I certainly recognize some of the widowhood things from my own life, the painful quality that seeps into things because of how they used to be. I think you even poke fun at her—in the way that you make her so nostalgic. I mean I can even laugh at myself through her in the film, the way she's always looking over her shoulder at the past. Am I wrong?
[Altman:] Well, no, how can you be wrong if you're telling me what you received? But about the nostalgia. I think that's what music is. I think it comes from singing those same songs every day in bars and clubs. My feeling is that the music made her what she was, and the music made her daughter commit suicide. I think it was the sadness of the music.
If you were asked to review this film, Tess, how would you deal with this question of the adaptation of Ray's work?
[Gallagher:] I would be very careful about the comparative, in the way that I'm careful about metaphors. What I mean is that to say that something is like or unlike something else is already a kind of invasion. I would try to protect the integrity of your and Ray's vision. At the same time, I would say that I missed a certain inferiority of the characters in the film. The suffering in Ray's stories is more palpable; the empathetic qualities in Ray's characters are more present. I also think you're more societal than Ray was in his work. Ray got inside the individual, and any societal ideas that Ray may have had were very much a byproduct. But you actually make that more your terrain.
Do you think one of the things that might come out of this film is that more people will start reading Ray Carver?
[Gallagher:] I hope they are going to discover the great richness in Ray's work. And the interiors are going to stand out a lot more in the stories because so much of the film is action. Now they're going to go inside in a new way. They're going to take a story like "So Much Water So Close to Home" and wonder about those choices.
But despite the differences, Tess, the sense I have of it is that Ray and Bob would have gotten along extremely well.
[Gallagher:] Oh, absolutely.
[Altman:] I kind of think so. I think we would have argued a lot, but a kind of "discussing" arguing, the way I do.
[Gallagher:] I'm sure you would have laughed together, too—and told a lot of stories like the one in a poem of his in which a man goes walking by the river and an eagle drops a huge salmon right at his feet.
SOURCE: "The Role of the Writer in The Player: Novel and Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1994, pp. 11-5.
[In the following essay, Sugg traces the role of the writer in Altman's The Player as compared to his role in the novel of the same name.]
Though the novel The Player was written first, the film precedes the novel in most of the audience's consciousness, for few who see the film will have read the novel. So let's consider how the writer is presented in the film, and how our understanding of these changes from novel to film helps us see more clearly Robert Altman's ultimate purposes and their achievement in the film. Three sequences are of especial importance to establishing the role of the writer in the film. The first is the opening eight-minute-long shot, which satirizes the Hollywood image production system as well as the marginal role of the writer-author within it. The second sequence is the murder of the writer Kahane by Griffin the producer. And finally, perhaps the most important sequence for understanding the role of the writer is the film's conclusion, presenting a very revealing power dynamic involving the writer, the producer, the audience, and the film's auteur which has been revised significantly from the novel. An understanding of each of these three sequences, including an awareness of how each has been revised from the novel, will enable us to understand the importance of the role of the writer in both the novel and film.
The Player's opening declares that understanding the role of the writer is central to understanding the film on all levels—not only the personal conflict between Griffin and the postcard writer, or the socioeconomic conflict between commerce and art. but also the philosophical conflict between image people and word people. The vignettes of writers in the film's opening carry resonances for many important issues of the current critical debate concerning the status and relationship of the three elements of artist, artwork, and audience in the very different processes leading to the production of film's images and literature's words; and prominent among these issues is the concept of authorship and the role of the writer. From the early bang of the clapsticks on the slate board announcing "Le Jeux," The Player declares itself a self-reflexive creation and announces its intention to draw power from that stance—not merely from mimetic representation, the traditional source of film's power. Further, the film declares its historic consciousness of the medium's history, for the very first image on the screen is a shot of a painting representing a turn-of-the-century scene with a model posing in front of a painted backdrop for a cameraman, with a writer, pen in hand, sitting beside him; from this "birth-of-cinema" scene, the film then cuts to its famous eight-minute shot detailing the hustle and bustle of the contemporary studio production process at work.
Self-awareness in the service of originality is creative, worthy of an auteur; but self-reflexivity alone, without new vision or growth, soon becomes originality's inversion, self-parody. In Altman's The Player self-parody is the condition of today's Hollywood film industry, and many of the writers who seek to be players in it. This false, parodic self-reflexivity is abundantly evident in the film's opening sequence. Adam Simon, the first writer who buttonholes Griffin on his way in from the parking lot and "pitches" to him, dismisses film's traditional realistic/representational base by declaring that in today's cinema there's "no history, only mythology." Then Buck Henry, scriptwriter of The Graduate, seems to prove Simon right when he espouses an anti-historical "timeless star" mythology in his pitch for The Graduate Two—all the characters are twenty years older, but when played by the same stars, also twenty years older, as Buck suggests, could they possibly be as interesting as they first were? Then we see two women writers change their story in mid-pitch, chasing after Griffin's whimsical suggestions, only to end up pitching a Goldie Goes to Africa script in a spur of the moment sellout so ridiculous that it made the audience in my theater laugh out loud.
Over and over in the film Altman makes the audience become aware of itself, and at least subconsciously, through its laughs or its surprise, acknowledge its own taste for, and complicity in, the zany, self-parodic, sellout mentality that begets studio films and studio people. Sometimes Altman consciously turns the spectators' "laughter at" the satirical picture and deepens it into the surprise of self-recognition, as in the scene where the detectives chant "one of us, one of us," à la Todd Browning's Freaks, and then laugh so intensely and loudly at Griffin's squirming discomfort that he panics and looks straight through the camera at the audience—Altman's extreme close-up of this eye-contact shot had a jolting effect on the laughers in my theater. The film's opening vignettes satirically introduce themes to which the film returns often, including several key assumptions of the traditional concept of authorship: In this Hollywood system, film concepts are almost wholly audience-driven, and so the producer can vie with the writer for the claim of authorship; the success, even the very chance to create the artwork (aka "product") doesn't depend so much upon what the artist knows—either his genius or craft—but upon who he knows—it may be more important that he can produce a star like Bruce Willis than that he can write a believable character for Bruce to play (actually the film makes the point that Bruce is one of those stars who can only play himself). Originality of vision is decidedly secondary to ability to imitate previously successful film models (Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate), to knowledge of how much they grossed ("250 million before video release"), to awareness of possible publicity pitfalls ("does political scare you?"), and most of all to the story's need to mirror the fantasy values of the audience by delivering what the producer-players universally insist is the sine qua non, "a happy ending."
But where the film satirizes the writer from the outset, the novel begins explaining the systemic causes of the writer's sellout early on, thus preparing the reader to accept the postcard writer as a moral scourge and standard-bearer for all writers—not just the eccentric case he seems in the film. Soon after, Tolkin has an independent producer who has made five movies express the general anger of writers and film auteurs of all stripes toward the new breed of producer exemplified by Griffin, who is scorned as the studio "executive … the corporation man … not a moviemaker, not a showman" but rather the misnamed producer who doesn't actually make anything. In the film, on the other hand, it is only near the end that Griffin explains that out of thousands of scripts the studio turns only twelve a year into movies. Thus in the film the plight of the writer and the specific causes of it are less important to the story than the overall Hollywood psychology/mentality within which all would-be Hollywood authors have to operate. This mentality generates the hatred for the system of the player's film-long antagonist—and some would say ultimate conqueror—the postcard writer.
In the film his menacing presence is seen first when Griffin receives a common, drugstore variety picture-postcard of a movie audience, titled "Hollywood." The appropriateness of this first postcard picture is captured best in a quotation from the novel, one which expresses an important theme of the film. Griffin angrily declares that if the Writer "thought himself better than the movies, better than Hollywood, then Griffin wanted the last words the Writer would ever hear to be the player's credo: 'I love the audience, I am the audience.'" The postcard writer knows exactly how much of the producer's power and, from the point of view of the artist, his negative influence in the system comes from this total identification with the money-paying audience; and so the writer knows he can threaten Griffin on many levels by emending the original "Hollywood" postcard to read "Your Hollywood is Dead." Soon after, the postcard writer intensifies his menace with another card, which declares himself "Highly Dangerous." However, while the postcard word-and-image technique works well in the novel, in the film these cards are noticed by the viewing audience primarily for their sender's scribbled messages, not their images. What the film does offer for visual inspection and reflection, instead of Tolkin's postcards, is in fact Altman's pervasive use of cinematic style to present a satirical commentary on the story.
The murder of the writer Kahane is the second sequence important for delineating the role of the writer and Altman's concept of authorship within the film. Griffin's killing of Kahane is best understood as the middle scene of a triptych which begins with Griffin's visit to The Bicycle Thief and concludes with Larry Levy's executive meeting to discuss eliminating writers from the movie production process. The relevant facts about The Bicycle Thief, the first part of the triptych, are that it is presented here as an icon for all noncommercial art films, it has an unhappy ending, and it is a story about the difficulty of being sure of what one sees; in all these aspects it is the antithesis of, and challenge to, the Hollywood system Griffin represents. It is a scene that makes a subtle comment on the widely held notion that "seeing is believing," as applied to film audiences. Kahane seems to the viewer to be asleep when Griffin stumbles over his feet in the aisle upon entering the dark theater, yet later the writer demonstrates that he saw Griffin come in only ten minutes before the movie's end. On the other hand, the viewer sees that a wide-eyed woman in The Bicycle Thief audience, a character who later proves to be crucial to the plot because she declares to the police that she saw Kahane's murderer, actually has Griffin in her sight line several times (including once while he's talking with Kahane); but at the police line-up she fails to pick Griffin out of five men, "swearing" instead that the detective in the line-up was the murderer she saw.
The changes in the character of Kahane from novel to film are instructive as to Altman's intentions for his film. In the novel Tolkin presents Kahane as a wholly innocent victim. The murder scene in the book reveals the depth and pervasiveness of Griffin's sociopathic personality—he k ills without obvious passion, and completely without provocation, and afterwards he feels not remorse but an unnatural desire for his victim's mate. Both the murder scene and further events in the novel make the reader see Griffin as a sociopathic personality type whose deviancy is emblematic not just of the film production process he serves, but also of the cool, dispassionate, and detached relationship of the medium's images and the reality they represent (in the film some of this latter theme is picked up in June G's separation of sign from signifier in both mediums of words and images—she, like Griffin, is a manipulator of vision who refuses to acknowledge reality). But in the film's murder scene, the aggressive behavior of a very different kind of Kahane invites Griffin's attack—in fact, Kahane pushes Griffin over a railing before Griffin becomes enraged and strangles him. This crucial change from novel to film, from Kahane as a passive, reflective writer-victim to Kahane as an aggressive and action-oriented writer-challenger, changes the story emphasis, from the novel's analysis of the philosophical nature of the film medium to the film's analysis of the economic nature of the Hollywood production system. In this shift, the writer's role of moral scourge and moral standard dissipates, to be supplanted by the role of the film medium's true auteur—here Altman himself—the self-aware, creative, audience-challenging director.
Through these changes in character and story Altman is telling us that it is the maker of the cinematic story who is the auteur, the source of its energy—not the writer of a script, nor the executive producer nor the audience. Exceptionally persuasive in this regard are the auteur's demonstrations of purely cinematic technique, such as Altman's use of overlapping dialogue as a transitional device linking Kahane's murder with the final, "eliminate the writer" scene of the triptych. As Kahane's strangled corpse lies in the red-tinted water the screen fades to black, while on the soundtrack rises from the scene Larry Levy's voice citing Fatal Attraction as an example of the role of the audience in replacing the writer in film making, saying as Kahane's dead body disappears, "who wrote the ending?—the audience." This transition, and the equally subtle use of ironic, sotto voce off-screen commentary at the film's conclusion (where children's barely audible voices sing "Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na," undercutting the too-perfect film color and content of Griffin's "happy ending" with his new, pregnant wife June), are only two of the many times Altman's film challenges the intelligence and cinematic awareness of the audience (two other oft-cited instances involve the many movie posters Altman uses to both comment upon and, in their obviousness, mock and thus destabilize the film's claim to verisimilitude, and also Altman's pervasive use of film stars as "extras," to demystify and thus reverse the usual star/character relationship thought to be so important to a commercial Hollywood film.
The different endings of novel and film regarding the writer reveal the ultimate intentions of Altman. In the novel's "Epilogue," its concluding two-and-one-half pages set six months after the action of the first 190 pages, the postcard writer sends Griffin a note from Seattle apologizing, and also $1,000 to pay for the car windshield he had shot out (after Kahane had been killed). The reader interprets the note one way—as an honest, moral, grown-up understanding of the earlier misdirected anger the writer had felt toward Griffin's Hollywood. At first Griffin himself seems to interpret the note this way, and the reader is ready for him to signal his own corresponding increase of self-awareness, change, and/or growth during the past six months. Instead the novel concludes with Griffin deciding to hide the $1,000 so his new wife won't find it. Only at this point, at the very last word of the novel, do we find out who he married—not Bonnie the story editor (whom he sets up to have fired in the film), but the owner of Kahane's Saab—June. So, as the novel ends, Griffin is an unredeemed sociopath, having been no more affected by the writer's confession than he had been by Kahane's murder. In the novel he remains till the end as the continuing foil to the writer's higher moral vision.
In the film, however, the writer suffers a fall from grace along with Griffin. In a telephone call routed through Levy's office the writer agrees not to reveal that Griffin killed Kahane, and thereby to "rewrite" Griffin's story to ensure a happy ending, if Griffin agrees to produce his story as a movie. That the voice of the never-seen writer sounds like, and uses the same language (to wit, the distinctive adjective "shitbag") as the angry writer who spoke at Kahane's funeral and accused "society" of killing him, makes this change from the novel's realism to the film's "happy ending" all the more a sellout of the writer's role as moral authority in a corrupt Hollywood. One might argue that the writer's exercise of power in the film, albeit through extortion, to force Griffin to produce his script is meant to show that writers, rather than producers or audiences, are or should be the controlling intelligence of a film. But one need only consider that the writer is doing exactly what Griffin does—selling out, changing endings, separating consequences from causes to please a paying customer, rather than staying faithful to the laws of the imagination that require every story to move coherently toward some kind of liberating conjunction of aesthetic pleasure and moral truth—to see the fallacy of that interpretation. But the question remains: why would Altman change the novel this way?
Altman intends his filmic vision to encompass the story writer and move beyond, to celebrate the auteur—the film creator who can rise above, and in spite of, the inherent limitations of the film medium in which he works, especially in this case the limitations imposed by the economics of the film production process. The writer who runs away to Seattle can't be the hero in the story of a collaborative medium such as film, though he may still be the hero of literature's tale. In The Player Altman creates a rebuttal to the arguments against the auteur theory: he makes a film that satirizes but does not run away from the presence of the commercial film system, with its stultifying drive for mass-market products; indeed, Altman has said, "Everyone in The Player is as much me as it is someone else. All that shitty behavior is mine as well as theirs." Instead, he sets against the banal Habeas Corpus, that oft-revised yet increasingly stereotypical film-within-a-film, his own masterly film The Player—a work far more cinematically complex and subtle than Habeas Corpus. Further, The Player succeeds in being far more attractive and believable than Habeas Corpus precisely because of such demanding qualities (not in spite of them). Similarly, Altman's film addresses rather than avoids the key question of what should be the role of the audience in the film process. He satirizes the audience's limitations, yet also demonstrates its possibilities by challenging its curiosity and intelligence in The Player's tour de force of cinematic techniques, which are designed to make the viewing audience question every one of its conventional assumptions about the relationship of representation and reality—conventions that are formed and routinized through watching thousands of hours of visually unimaginative television and movies. Altman's display of cinematic possibility is the primary weapon of the film, even beyond the satirical content of the story; and it demonstrates the true film auteur's power in a way the triumph of the writer in the story never could. Thus the role of the writer in the film The Player, unlike the novel, is to allow Altman the auteur to transcend it—for only the film medium itself can provide the weapons strong enough to expose and slay Griffin, the medium's creature and manipulator—and only the medium's true artist and master can wield them.
SOURCE: "In the Time of Earthquakes," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 3, March, 1994, pp. 8-11.
[In the following essay, Romney discusses the daredevil nature of Altman's career, including his approach to Short Cuts.]
The last word spoken in Robert Altman's film Short Cuts is "lemonade". We hear it as the camera tracks out over a briefly shaken Los Angeles, as two partying couples toast to survival in the face of a minor apocalypse. As so often happens with Altman, who is famous for his habit of scrambling soundtracks to the limit of comprehensibility, the word is audible but not entirely noticeable, certainly not impressing itself on you as central to the film's meaning. Yet, in an oblique fashion, that is precisely what it is—an operational password for the entire film. For 'Lemonade' is the title of a poem by Raymond Carver, and the poem's subject is also the film's real subject, as well as its structural principle.
Short Cuts is based on nine stories by Carver, who died in 1988 aged 50, having established himself as the poet laureate of small, desolate, claustrophobic middle American lives. 'Lemonade' itself is not directly adapted in the film, although its theme—What if this had happened, rather than that? What then?—is foregrounded in the episode involving Jack Lemmon, and runs throughout the film, both in the narratives themselves and in the way they interlock. In the poem, a man ponders on his son's drowning; he is convinced he would still be alive if only he had not gone to fetch lemonade that day. The lemonade, he reasons, would not have been there if only there had not been lemons in the shops. So he tries to pick his way back causally to a prelapsarian moment: "It all harks back to first causes, back to the first lemon cultivated on earth."
Carver knows there is no first lemon, and Altman knows it too. There is no way of untangling the mesh of cause and effect, hence the gloriously unruly tangle of chance that governs Short Cuts. The credits divide the cast list conveniently into nine family sets of characters, plus supporting players, but in reality the groups are not separated neatly from one another: rather, they intermingle, meeting, playing, straying with seismic effect into each others' lives. Each group has its own story, but no story belongs solely to one group. Altman plays with an illusion of order by framing the narratives between two urban catastrophes during which all the characters are effectively united simply by virtue of being in the same boat. The sense of unity is illusory, though, imposed as it is by narrative contingency. There is no start or finish, no first or last lemon, only the all-pervasive smell of lemonade. Savour it, or balk at its bitterness, that's all you get in life, and you have to drink it.
There is no first lemon in Robert Altman's career, either. Looking back on the director's exceptionally diverse history, no clear thread is immediately apparent. We can impose an overall narrative on it, but only if we give in to the temptation continually to ask, 'what if?' There is the fact that after the international success of his 1969 film M∗A∗S∗H, Altman went on to make a number of movies whose eccentricity wilfully flew in the face of box-office logic—the flight fantasy Brewster McCloud, the dreamlike 3 Women, the bleak science-fiction vision Quintet. He also made some that worked over genres in a way that seemed to tap in directly to the sceptical Zeitgeist of the 70s—notably his brutal de-mystifications of the frontier Western and the Philip Marlowe myth in McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye respectively.
But what if Altman's career had been more coherent? What if his 1980 shot at a grandly fanciful comic-book epic, Popeye, had been the intended box-office smash? (Indeed, what if its star Robin Williams had actually been audible at any point in the film?) And what if the administration at Fox had not suddenly changed just in time to scupper the commercial hopes of his 1980 satire Health?
Pure speculation, of course, but all these factors contributed to one of the exemplary adventures in American cinema—the strange situation in which the most ambitious, wayward director of his generation (Altman, remember, preceded the Class of Movie Brats) suddenly found himself having to reinvent his career on a shoestring, having blown his luck not only with the major studios but also with his own ill-fated production company Lion's Gate. Hence an extraordinary spate of low-budget ventures into chamber cinema, often drawn from theatre: the remarkable one-hander for Richard Milhous Nixon, Secret Honor, which did for Tricky Dicky what Syberberg did for Hitler; Fool for Love, Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. There were other off-the-cuff projects for television, such as the adaptations of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and The Room, and a version of that creaky tub-thumper The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a small miracle of a film which testily jump-started that somnolent genre, the courtroom drama.
It's tempting to consider that had Altman's Hollywood fortunes been more consistent, this whole daredevil chapter might not have happened. Altman himself is sanguine about his whole story and aware of just how random can be the elements that impinge on his progress. Visiting Britain for Short Cuts' screening at last November's London Film Festival, he cited the example of his Buffalo Bill and the Indians, co-written with his protégé Alan Rudolph, and after McCabe and Mrs Miller his second scathing debunking of the legends of the Wild West.
"Buffalo Bill was released on Independence Day 1976, which was the Bicentennial of the country. Nixon had just resigned in disgrace, and the whole country was licking its wounds, and I come out with this picture and say, 'Hi folks, here I am, let me tell you what assholes you are and how America's myths are blah blah blah blah …' Nobody wanted it. At a different time in history, that film could have been a big hit."
Short Cuts too falls wonderfully into this schema of apparent randomness. Altman first read Raymond Carver's stories on a plane journey. Inspired by them, he started planning a Carver film, and got as far as selecting the locations and signing up a number of actors, including Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher and Fred Ward. But finally the finance was not available. While pondering his next move, he was offered a project called The Player. Those same actors found their way into that film, which in 1992 turned out to be Altman's first commercial and critical success in years—as well as a modish succès de scandale among the Hollywood mandarins, at once outraged and flattered to see their world lampooned. Short Cuts was financed on the strength of that film.
The Player was notable for playing an extreme version of a trick that Altman had used before, and fully intends to use again—the interweaving of real and fictional universes. In The Player, a host of familiar Hollywood faces played themselves, raising the interesting question of what being 'oneself' might mean in a city predicated entirely on performance. But the most cunning variation on this effect came in Altman's television series Tanner '88: The Dark Horse, in which real-life US politicos including Robert Dole and Pat Robertson were drafted in to be encountered by Michael Murphy's fictional Democrat presidential hopeful. Altman intends to push the method further in his next production, Prêt-à-Porter, which he is filming this year in the Paris fashion world.
"In Prêt-à-Porter, we're using much more reality. There's not much reality in Short Cuts, except the presence of the game show host Alex Trebek [who appears early on in a concert scene]. In Prêt-à-Porter, I will probably push the mix between reality and fiction as far as I've ever pushed it. I'm dependent on it, because I can't recreate the amount of people in that world—especially when you get into the fashion shows, the press, the photographers. So I have to use a lot of reality."
Unlike The Player, Short Cuts plays less on reality per se than on the real. Carver's low-key, minimally stylised portrayals of the doldrums and zero moments in blue-collar living led him to be counted as a leading exponent of that amorphous school known as 'Dirty Realism'. He wrote about dead marriages, dead-end jobs, typhoons in teacups, minor misunderstandings that blow up into little household apocalypses—but apocalypses in aspic. What's remarkable about these stories is the way they merge explosiveness with absolute stillness. A typical story, one of those in Short Cuts, is 'Jerry and Molly and Sam', in which a fatigued father contrives to lose the family dog, then has to retrieve it. When he finally finds the dog, he simply contemplates it, and the story ends on a suspended moment: "He sat there. He thought he didn't feel so bad, all things considered. The world was full of dogs. There were dogs and there were dogs. Some dogs you just couldn't do anything with."
Altman and his co-writer Frank Barhydt take a very different approach. The episode becomes a source of high farce, the dog a benign comic focus for the chaotic rage of Tim Robbins' blustering cop. There's clearly more meeting the eye—more energy, more incident—in Altman's version than the moments of cold, clear deadness that Carver's original stories are imbued with. Yet Altman claims that he leaves out everything that Carver leaves out—and precisely what that is, he says, is "judgment, in most cases. I make a little bit more judgment than Carver made. I have a tougher task in a way. It's very hard to do films as minimalism, because the audience is there and they see every square inch of that screen. They see wallpaper and they see rugs and they see shirts and expressions and weather—until all of the descriptive passages that you have in a book are there.
"Carver uses no descriptive passages, so I don't believe a Raymond Carver story can be literally translated to a visual medium. So I just tried to take the feeling from Carver, the type of incident he dealt with, and express that in a way that tells the same story for an audience. I don't think that I could take any one of his stories and make a film out of it."
How did Altman and Barhydt decide which stories to use, and which ones would lead into which others?
"They do it themselves automatically. You take one base story, you throw it up on the wall, and it's like vines—they grow where there's space to grow in and out of one another." The image of vines perhaps expresses what's most peculiar to the film. It's certainly true that, as some Carver specialists have pointed out, the film does not strictly adhere to the writer's spirit; it's at once too upbeat and too cynical for that. It only rarely displays the stoic empathy that the stories solicit for their characters; instead, Altman's characters redeem the claustrophobic quality of their lives by the energy and charisma with which they perform (to the extent that some of these lives look somewhat glamorous because they're incarnated by the likes of Tom Waits or Frances McDormand). But it is the connections between the episodes that make the film—the sense that they're all bunches of event growing on the same tangled vine. And it's when we become aware of the incongruity of these connections that the film transcends its merely anecdotal base.
There are moments of sublime embarrassment in Short Cuts, notably in the sequence where Jack Lemmon, as the estranged father of the son that he hasn't seen for years, turns up at the hospital where his young grandson is in casualty. It's a painful situation in itself, but the film pushes it further by having the father deliver a monologue recounting the banal indiscretion that years ago led to his banishment from the family. Here most of all, the spirit of 'Lemonade' (could Lemmon have been cast purely for a conceptual pun?) makes itself felt. The father's reminiscence represents a crisis in itself, but one that is totally inappropriate to the crisis happening in the hospital ward. It's as if he has wandered from one story into another, suggesting that life's most dramatic moments are the result of inadequate separation between different narratives.
"This is what happens every day of your life," says Altman, "but we don't recognise it so much because we can't take the involvement. Somebody gets hit by a car and you stop and look in the street, and you think, 'I don't want to see that,' so you go the other way. But people who don't go the other way see more of that story, and the people who are actually involved in that story have another story. These things go on all the time, and it's the juxtaposition of these lives that makes Short Cuts interesting."
The Carver stories operate on two levels. Each one is very much like a closed box, a miniature in which a single core of event, or lack of event, is to be contemplated—in the tradition of modernist short story narrative since Chekhov, Joyce, Mansfield. At the same time, however, the stories taken together, and the regularity of the themes and styles, make an overall human comedy made up of small mosaic pieces. Short Cuts, though, functions only through the concatenation of parts—the clash of micro-narratives sparking ironic parallels and negations off each other.
It's a technique that has formed the basis of what is probably the most celebrated strand of Altman's work. The idea of sprawling ensemble pieces made of varying, decentred dramas is one he famously perfected in Nashville. At one point he planned a follow-up, Nashville, Nashville, with some of the same characters, and Short Cuts could be seen as the pay-off of that aborted project (Altman plans eventually to make More Short Cuts). But there are variations to this approach. Nashville derived its unity from having different characters doing different business in one setting—a place that in its iconic status as an anti-Hollywood, America's great other dream factory, opened the film up to an allegorical state-of-the-nation reading. A Wedding similarly used a single setting, this time to follow the conventions of situation comedy to their extreme conclusion.
Short Cuts differs from Nashville in its relation to place—it is not primarily the portrait of a specific city, but simply uses Los Angeles as a convenient, anonymous venue to bring its various protagonists together. (As Frank Barhydt points out, "apart from the palm trees and the weather, there's nothing indigenous to LA, nothing in the characters of the people.") However, the city's anonymity brings its own meaning to the film. Where the city of Nashville forms an arena in which individuals intermingle, with politics and country music as the uniting factor, Short Cuts captures the cellular essence of LA, a city in which separate zones, separate homes, are linked by highways. You can imagine each segment to be equivalent to a family cell—and things start happening when characters step out of their own territory into other people's. The theme is seen in undiluted form in the episode based on the story 'Neighbors'. In the film, there is no life-transforming catastrophe as there is in Carver's story. A couple simply make free with the apartment they're caretaking; but our sense of unease is no less powerful, just because we expect the worst—we know they should not be there. As with the Jack Lemmon episode, we receive a sense of trespass: lines have been crossed.
Despite the sense of impending chaos that is perhaps inevitable in a film that juggles 22 lead parts, there are plenty of guide rails in Short Cuts to ensure that we know where we are. One is the use of familiar faces in the cast. ("I don't have to tell you too much about these people," says Altman. "You do the work for me by recognising them.") Another is the use of a nightclub singer, played by Annie Ross, to act as a chorus, casting a sardonic torch-song commentary throughout the film. And another is the way the diversity of incident is framed between the two minor apocalypses.
At the beginning of the film, the city is sprayed against medfly, a pest which leaves harmless blemishes on fruit (what could be more suggestive of the Californian obsession with cosmetic surfaces?). The end of the film—which, beware, this paragraph reveals in full—is rather more violent. At the very second that Chris Penn's repressed, brooding character Jerry unexpectedly smashes a rock down on a young girl's head, an earthquake erupts. It's a horribly suggestive moment. Perhaps Jerry's pent-up rage is the entire city's; perhaps, because of him, heavenly wrath is being visited on the community. But you could read it more cynically as a self-conscious sleight of hand, a playfully apocalyptic gesture in which Altman plays God and brings all the film's diffuse threads together, packing all his characters back in the narrative toy box.
"That's just coincidence." Altman says of the ending. "I'm sure that for every earthquake that's ever happened, some very strong, acute dramatic event has happened in somebody's life—I just happened to be there at this particular incident. I needed to polarise the beginning and end of the film—these people's lives never really came together, they just occasionally crossed in a very haphazard way, so that's something that was a common experience. I wouldn't be surprised if in More Short Cuts there'll be another two events. One of them might be the California fires."
This closing image of the all-powerful narrative deity suggests a director who likes to keep a tight rein on his creation. But, Altman says, only one type of control interests him: "the control to be able to change and let ideas come in from my collaborators. To have the ability to say 'Yeah' and turn the piece this way or that. Not say, 'Wait a minute, you said you were going to do this and you'd better stick to it.'"
Altman's list of recent and future projects may suggest a sense of multi-directional crazy-paving, but there's a flexibility and ambition there that he's always had, and that directors a third his age rarely evidence. Already chalked up: a stage opera version of the novel McTeague (the source of Von Stroheim's Greed), with composer William Bolcom; a short documentary recording the hoofers' musical Black and Blue: producing Alan Rudolph's new film Dorothy Parker, itself a multi-character sprawler in the Altman tradition. Planned after Prêt-à-Porter: a Mata Hari project; another collaboration with Frank Barhydt about Kansas City's boomtown years during the Depression; a two-film version of playwright Tony Kushner's Aids diptych Angels in America; a film called Cork with Harry Belafonte, "about blackface and entertainment from the turn of the century". Altman admits, "I'll never do all of those. It's like pommes frites—you throw the potatoes in and then whichever one pops to the surface is done first."
Altman also offers another, perhaps more apposite analogy, that applies just as well to his career as a whole—reckless, unruly, wilfully patchy—as it does to particular films like Short Cuts. "It comes down to what occurs to me. It's like doing art—I'm not doing Rembrandts or Corots, I'm doing Rauschenbergs. I'm doing collages. If suddenly I want to stick into my painting a photograph of a fiat-iron, it just goes in."
SOURCE: "Why the Birthday Party Didn't Happen," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 5, March 10, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following review, Wood shows how the stories Altman presents in Short Cuts differ from the Raymond Carver stories on which the film is based.]
Robert Altman's Short Cuts is a long, loose-looking movie, but the looseness is an effect, carefully worked for. Plenty of themes recur throughout—insecurity, chance, rage, damage, the long, bruising war between men and women—and although there are fourteen or fifteen stories here (based on, extrapolated from ten stories by Raymond Carver—the handouts and the introduction solemnly say nine stories and a poem, but the so-called poem is also a prose narrative), they are intricately stitched together, like a miniaturised Comédie hutmaine set in Los Angeles.
A doctor in a story of his own (about his delayed reaction to his wife's ancient infidelity) has dinner with a couple from another story (about the husband discovering the corpse of a young woman), and in yet another story he treats a child who has been hit by a car. The child's parents are the neighbours of an aging jazz singer and her difficult, cello-playing daughter. Both families have their pool cleaned by a character in another story whose wife specialises in talking dirty on the telephone for money. Two of the women in different stories are sisters, and speak to each other regularly. The husband in one story is sleeping with the ex-wife in another. The pool-cleaner is a friend of a joky fellow who is attending horror make-up school, learning how to convert human faces into images of disaster. This fellow in turn is married to a young woman who is the daughter of the couple who … You get the picture. There are helicopters at the beginning, borrowed from Apocalypse Now, spraying insecticide rather than napalm, flying over all the lives in the film; and everyone is shaken by the earthquake at the end.
The construction is elaborate but not obtrusive in the viewing, and it has an echo in the way Altman moves us from scene to scene—sometimes by sheer jumps, sometimes with cuts which are an elegant mockery of natty editing, from a slow zoom onto a glass of milk, for example, to a shot of a glass of milk being knocked over on television in someone else's house. There are marvellous connections in the soundtrack—a door slams on the beat of the jazz number to be played in the next scene, a song continues over a scene which has no narrative link to the jazz club—and the result is to make all the scenes potentially part of each other, however separate they initially seem. The film is casually artful, rather than just casual or just artful. This is something the title suggests too: these are quick takes on the slow messiness of life, but they are also elements of counterpoint, one take commenting quickly or obliquely on another.
Altman, in his introduction to the volume of Carver stories, says his film lifts the roof off different family homes and watches what happens—and it 'could go on for ever'. It doesn't go on for ever, and the roofs are not lifted off at random. Altman also says he sees 'all of Carver's work as just one story', which is entirely wrong about Carver, but a good way of thinking about this film. It doesn't have Nashville's berserk energies, but it is trying for the same kaleidoscopic feel, and it often gets it. It's a more ambitious, if less witty film than The Player, and when it goes wrong it's not because Altman loses control or strays too far from Carver; it's because he can't resist a certain sermonising gloom. Tess Gallagher, Carver's companion for the last 11 years of his life, and a great fan of Altman, says in her introduction to the screenplay that the finished film evokes 'a purgatorial world which is probably franker, even more lost than Carver's—and therefore more anguished for its unattended wounds'. That is a way of putting it. It seems to me that Altman has bought the Hollywood mythology he so brilliantly mocks in The Player. When he speaks of avoiding Hollywood and Beverley Hills for his setting, going for the 'untapped Los Angeles' of Downey, Watts, Compton, Pomona, Glendale, the very idea has Hollywood written all over it; and he really does think there is a gritty integrity in the very notion of the unhappy end—that unhappiness, unlike happiness or anything else, is meaning, you don't have to understand it or interpret it. Carver's hit-and-run driver, for instance, becomes nice Lily Tomlin, who stops her car, and is relieved to see that the boy seems all right. He can walk and talk, and he refuses the lift she offers him. Of course, he's not all right, he soon falls into a coma which lasts for most of the movie, and then he dies. In case we don't get it, there are scenes where Lily Tomlin keeps expressing her relief that the boy wasn't hurt. 'If I'd been going faster I woulda killed him. Imagine. How could you get over that? You couldn't.' In a related story, the only one which has no basis of any kind in Carver's fiction, the cello-playing daughter tries to talk to her jazz-singing mother about the little boy's death, but the mother is too busy rehearsing. The cellist kills herself. Incomprehension everywhere.
The great moments in the film—there are a number of them—have a quite different, far less dogmatic feel. They are all about violence, and often about incomprehension, but they don't have the flattened, that's-the-way-it-is tone that the film slips into when it loses its edge. Perhaps this was Altman's idea of a screen equivalent for Carver's prose deadpan. Tess Gallagher says she suggested to Altman that he restrain his irony, but he may have taken the hint a bit too far. 'Ray never raised himself above the plights of his characters,' Gallagher tells us she told Altman. Well, no, but he never treated the plights of his characters as just one of those things either, and still less as just one of those expected things, the lousiness you're always on the look-out for. Without his irony, Altman just seems morose.
Altman and Gallagher insist quite rightly on the freedom of the film from the prose fiction, it is 'based on the writings of Raymond Carver', the credit says, it's not the film of the book(s). In some cases—the story of the child and the accident (and the birthday cake that was not picked up), for example—Altman is very close to Carver's material; in others—the story of the couple who look after another couple's apartment is one—he takes the faintest starting clue; in others—say the story of the wife's old infidelity—the basic situation. This is straightforward, but muddled a little by the publications and publicity accompanying the film, which suggest a near-identity between film and fiction, as if we were getting special value here, the film, the book, and a film which is mysteriously the same as the book and different. The film trades on its association with the great dead writer, all the greater for being dead; the publishers get a new book by producing, as a collection, the stories used for the film (they come from four separate Carver works). So it's probably worth saying that Altman's virtues are almost always different from Carver's, and that there is also a sense in which the two men's views and practices are not just different but opposite.
I'm not sure Altman himself quite sees this; there is a Hollywood haze about his vision of Carver. Carver captured, Altman says, 'the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour'; but Carver's people are not wonderful or idiosyncratic. They are dreadfully ordinary, steady, predictable. Little cracks open up in their lives, bewilderment or pain seeps through, but then the story ends, the cracks close, life goes on. A man who feels his life is falling apart looks at his face in a mirror, and can see nothing of what he feels: 'A face—nothing out of the ordinary.' Carver wants us to see what that face won't show; what Grace Paley calls 'the little disturbances' lurking unseen in the ordinary. Altman, as he says, has always been interested in the 'mystery and inspiration' of human behaviour, and many of his characters in this movie start out pretty exotic: one flies a helicopter, one is a TV news commentator, another is a professional clown; a couple who are schoolteachers in Carver become a doctor and a painter in Altman. There's the cellist and the jazz singer; there's talking dirty on the telephone, the horror make-up school. The implication, also interesting but quite different from Carver's, is that people with strange trades have ordinary hang-ups; that ordinariness creeps up even on the seemingly extraordinary; or that ordinariness doesn't exist. The side-effect of this view, though, is that when the working classes or the unemployed do show up in the film, they look remote and exotic, as if they had wandered in from a world beyond the borders of our expectations. Lily Tomlin is a waitress, for example, and Tom Waits is a working and then an out-of-work chauffeur. Altman thinks highly of their performances, which were 'so superb' that he felt the other actors might have trouble in living up to them; but they are actually one of the weak things in the movie, talented people hamming up roles that offer them nothing but clichés. The actors who are superb are all those—Anne Archer, Madeleine Stowe, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Frances McNormand—who get a chance to underact, to play through despair and calamity as if they were just everyday weather.
There is a moment in the film which is pure Altman, as good as anything he has ever done. The man who is learning horror make-up practises on his wife, makes her look like a viciously battered and finally murdered woman, and takes photographs of her in this state. It is a game, but very close to all kinds of things that are not games. When they pick up the photographs, they arrive at the same time as a man who is collecting his fishing photographs, including several shots of the dead young woman he and his friends found floating in the river. The people fetching the photographs bump into each other, drop their bundles, pick up the wrong set. They glance at them and see: a battered woman instead of their own drowned corpse; a real corpse instead of the imagery of their own nasty make-believe. Each person thinks the other is weird beyond belief; experiences his/her own weirdness as normal. No one says anything, although each notes the licence-plate number of the other. None of these people has killed anyone or hit anyone; only found a body and made up an image. But of course someone killed the girl in the river, and many pictures of battered women are pictures of battered women. Altman's very playfulness is eerie here. Of course there's a difference between violence to women and the discovery or the imitation of such violence. But a difference is not a divorce or an unalterable separation, and we can ask how the discoverers of the body feel, and what they do; and about the nature of the pleasure found in imitation. The movie multiplies these questions by its relentless if sometimes comic images of male posturing and female complicity; of wreckage and far from comic sudden murder.
The questions are delicately posed in the film's most indirect and understated story, which concerns the reaction of the wife of one of the men in the fishing party. The men spend about four hours hiking to their fishing spot, find the body before they have even started to fish; decide not to hike back straight away and report their find; leave the body where it is; put in a weekend's fishing, then report the discovery. The husband comes home, makes love to his wife. It's more or less the only happy bit of sex we see in the film: 'this is healthy and attractive sex,' the screenplay says rather primly. Afterwards he tells her about the body. She is disturbed, but sympathetic, and then says what seems to me, in the blossoming of its implications, the most haunting line in the movie. 'What'd you do? After you got her out of the water.' She can't imagine they didn't get her out of the water, still less that they didn't report the death for a couple of days. She clearly feels an unspeakable outrage was committed in this response to the dead girl, and the fact that her husband is a nice fellow makes it all the worse.
There are dozens of things to think about here, and the movie lets us think. 'She was dead,' the husband says in self-defence in both the story and the film. What was he supposed to do? In the story the wife says: 'That's the point. She was dead. But don't you see? She needed help.' If we can't help the dead, perhaps we can't (or won't) help the living. Altman is close to Carver here, and the story is as amazing as this piece of the movie. But Altman can show us, as the text can't, what the wife's stunned unhappiness, a form of grieving, actually looks like. She drives miles to the funeral of a person she doesn't know. In Carver, her drive indicates to us how vulnerable she feels, at large in a world of men: she could be that girl, any man could be her killer. In Altman, the camera just watches her at the funeral parlour, moving about her house, going out to dinner; it invites us to do what we can with her occluded feelings. The suggestion, I think, is not that even decent men like her husband are potential killers of women, but that no man is likely to have a real idea of what the violent death of a woman means. What it means to women, of course, or even what it means to men, since all we can do, mostly, is fidget in embarrassment and avoidance. Innocent men are not the murderer's accomplices, but they are often his compatriots; they inhabit quite comfortably the gendered mythology he has turned to nightmare. Altman's irony plays a part here too, since the wife is the person who is a professional clown, who on other days wears a coloured wig and funny clothes and make-up, and entertains at children's parties. We catch the clown mourning on her day off, but more important, we see the short cut from clowning as work to mourning as private exorcism, understood by no one. It's shorter than we think, like the path from the birthday party that doesn't happen to the murder we don't see.
SOURCE: "A Fishy Lot, Mankind," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4745, March 11, 1994, p. 21.
[In the following review, Shone discusses the relationship between Raymond Carver's short stories and Altman's adaptation of them in his film Short Cuts, and asserts that "the union of writer and director is occasionally rocky, may in some cases have needed a little more guidance, but it has a weathered solidity."]
There is a moment in the first half-hour of Short Cuts, Robert Altman's adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, when a man on a fishing trip with his buddies, having set up camp by a river, flips down the hinged shades of his glasses with a casual flick of his forefinger. It's a brilliantly mock-heroic gesture—a grey old man is suddenly transformed into something mean, menacing and ready to do battle with trout. Among American directors, Altman is almost alone in getting such a thrill out of that sort of casual drill, and at moments like this—and there are several studded throughout his film's three hours—Altman and Carver seem a perfect match, a dream ticket.
They certainly appear to have a lot in common—a love of life's haphazard, messy edges and a delightfully come-off-it manner with melodrama. Carver apparently adored Altman's masterpiece, Nashville, and saw it several times. But whereas Carver's simplicity was born of a genuine distrust of sophistication, Altman's is born of intellectual nihilism, and the marriage of their sensibilities is a bit like a lunch between a Campbell's soup-can designer and Andy Warhol: you can feel Altman congratulating Carver on things he took for granted.
In the story of the fishermen—one of nine which Altman has chosen to shuffle—the differences between them begin to open up. Carver's original story, "Too Much Water Close to Home", has the fishermen discover a dead girl in a river, and records the domestic waves this causes when one of the men gets back home. Altman, however, has a cast of twenty-two to think of, correspondences to establish, points to make, and so he cuts from his American Ophelia to a shot of some goldfish in a plastic bag. This visual rhyme in turn forms part of a larger rippling of aquatic imagery in the film. Later, a similar cut links a girl floating in a swimming pool to a tankful of exotic fish, which float by to an accompaniment of spaced-out, new age chimes. The effect is one of glazed fascination; Altman seems to be gazing at his characters as if at another species—a fishy lot, mankind—which Carver, for all the iciness of his technique, never did.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; and in other instances, the liberties Altman takes with Carver's work are a positive good. In transplanting his characters from the Pacific North West to the suburbs of Los Angeles, Altman has, for instance, administered a healthy check to the febrile mythologizing of books like Carver Country, which reduced Carver to a series of aestheticized "dirty realist" trailer-park settings. Washing away a little of the dirtiness from his realism, Altman has spun the globe beneath the feet of Carver's characters, and softened their landing with healthier bank balances and occupations higher up the social ladder: concert cellist, painter, surgeon, TV anchorman.
The setting in LA's suburbs—a place where lives overlap, without connecting as they would do in a small town—has allowed Altman to have characters from different stories interact with one another, and thus make Short Cuts more than an exercise in cinematic channel hopping. For instance, the waitress wife from "They're Not Your Husband" is now also the driver who knocks down the young boy in "A Small, Good Thing", and the boy's resistance to her distraught offers to drive home ("mom told me never to get in cars with strangers") is a touching commentary on the city's capacity for snuffing out kindness. Altman is careful not to let this doubling, sometimes tripling, of a character's dramatic load bend the characterization out of shape, and it is this care that pushes his movie into its third hour.
In its first two, at least, the movie never once sags. Altman cuts back and forth between the stories with a sense of rhythm never less precise for its languidity, and the film mosies along with an unhurried curiosity for small details, reaching an emotional climax with the death of the young boy, Casey—a sequence graced by superb acting from Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, and a small miracle of dazed grief from Andie McDowell. Altman can't avoid fiddling, though. It was typical of Carver to stop "A Small Good Thing" just short of melodrama; Altman does the same, but can't help self-consciously congratulating himself on the trick. When Casey first goes into a coma, a glass of milk by his bedside, Altman cuts to a TV advert in which a glass of milk shatters on the floor. Look, he's saying, look what I don't need to rely on to make my film dramatic.
This isn't a heinous sin: at least Altman keeps his irony in the wings. But elsewhere, a mixture of fluffs—both characteristic and wholly uncharacteristic—dot the film.
The last third is less successful partly because Altman's predilection for casting singers, rather than actors—Lyle Lovett, Annie Ross, Tom Waits—begins to wear. In all these cases, Altman seems to be using the singers' ready-made associations as a substitute for on-screen motivation. Ross's torch singer—a character Altman has invented—comes with a prepackaged world-weariness: the songs she sings (and which we hear too much of). "Prisoner of Life" and "To Hell With Love", sound like the titles of bad doctoral theses on Carver. Tom Waits, as the obsessive husband of "They're Not Your Husband", is a rag-and-bone bundle of marionette jerks, drunken rolls across the screen, and B-movie barks. Waits's 3am bleariness is everybody's idea of a Carver parody to begin with, so what you end up with here is a parody of a parody: Carver2.
More surprisingly, Altman's eagerness to empathize with his women characters forces him into needless repetition—"he's a sonofabitch" says one woman of her ex-husband; "he was a prick" says another of hers; "he's such an asshole" still another of hers. But these lapses are isolated, and Short Cuts is characterized, on the whole, by a staunch refusal to be tugged into generality. In fact, like the marriages portrayed within the film, the union of writer and director is occasionally rocky, may in some cases have needed a little more guidance, but it has a weathered solidity.
SOURCE: "A Lion's Gate: The Cinema According to Robert Altman," in Film Comment, Vol. 30, No. 2, March-April, 1994, pp. 20-1, 24, 26, 28.
[In the following essay, Murphy discusses some prevailing images from Altman's films.]
In Provence, Vincent Van Gogh centers his easel in a field of glorious sunflowers. Robert Altman's camera darts about frantically, catching closeups of golden novas and overviews of entire restless constellations. Neither the director nor the painter can settle on framespace; like some sorcerer's apprentice, nature has generated a vertiginous profusion of forms, each potentially unique flower a momentary stop in a grid of pulsing yellow light. Finally, Van Gogh surrenders to chaos, smearing black pigment over his empty white canvas with a maddened hand, then tears a clutch of sunflowers out of the earth. Vased but still potent, these selected shoots become rich loci of thickly layered yellow-to-ochre pigment in painting after painting.
This extraordinary sequence in Altman's Vincent and Theo at once terrifies and intoxicates. Our vision is assaulted almost to delirium by the natural world's hot flux and largesse. Overcome and outcast by the sheer plethora of external phenomena, the artist-hero according to Altman must find some access to the heart of the matter. Racking focus, riding a slow zoom, framing a crowded, multiplaned field of vision, Altman's hungry eye can never get enough to contain the whole mystery. That unsatisfied appetite can feel like an abyss inside, dissociation or death.
The christs, madonnas, holy ghosts, magdalenes, and judases of Altman's mythology are all looking to take communion in some kind of company of saints. Though they fall far short of finding definitive food, family, and shelter—even in dreams and art—the director's high-flyers, private eyes, soul-snatchers, lovers and other strangers pattern a cinematic nervous system unparalleled in its complex vitality. Like some of his real and imagined communities (Lion's Gate, Presbyterian Church, Popeye's Sweethaven, Philip Marlowe's apartment building, La-La Land), this collection of eccentric synapses hangs on the edge of things, connected only by suspension bridges.
Altman's images work like poetic metaphors, each one webbing outward within and beyond its home-film, an ever-widening gyre that takes in his whole oeuvre. Tease out for a moment that thread of gold from Vincent and Theo: thirteen ways of looking at a field of sunflowers. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, islands of golden light signal a whole range of sanctuary for the eye, from McCabe's striking the match that starts a movie/town, to the proliferating lamps and fires that glow against wilderness gloom, to a cold-comfort church in flames that unites a community, freezing out the maverick soul who dreamed up Presbyterian Church in the first place.
Mrs. Miller's plates of scrambled eggs shimmer like soul food, but she's no fertile Van Gogh, whose blackened teeth ally him in taste to gold-crowned McCabe (Warren Beatty), done in by a restless scrim of sunlit snow-motes. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) is a conspicuous, tidily corrupt consumer who knows the value of food and keeps it locked up in her heart. Paul Gauguin's her crueler kin, a judas who deliberately designs his food into aesthetic forms that are meant to kiss off and madden his better half. When Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) lets wine flow out of his slack mouth, he is assenting to his degenerating mental health, but also flaunting the holy appetite that drives the way he takes in and passionately transubstantiates the world.
McCabe's an expendable auteur of lucrative mise-en-scène; Presbyterian Church's payoff will accrue to real moneymen after he's gone, just as, in modern-day auction, Van Gogh's sunflowers pan out in the millions. Mrs. Miller, McCabe's art director and accountant, focuses in on the brown bowl of an opium pipe until its curve becomes the molten edge of a sun. The poetry that McCabe had in him speaks out largely in warm shelters built of rich yellow lumber and his symbiotic attachment to his "Beautiful Dreamer," the whore with a heart of gold (literally), who sucks solar heat and sustenance into her very pupil as snow swallows him up. McCabe's crouched shape prefigures Theo Van Gogh's (Paul Rhys) naked form in a dark cell, his body bent, his face and arm upraised to moonlight, Constance made constant to the point of lunacy.
Van Gogh's struggle to find a way to look at his field of sunflowers falls on the same spectrum that carries BBC Opal's (Geraldine Chaplin in Nashville) skirmish with a screenful of yellow school buses she reduces to journalistic banalities. Further down the line, Three Women's Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) uses a little imagination to color-coordinate her apartment, clothes, and car in shades of yellow, as though symbolic sun might fill and warm the void of her ghostly existence—though it's Sissy Spacek's Pinky Rose who will grow large with Millie's personality: an embryonic stage in the evolution of a trinity of women into self-sufficient matriarchy.
"We are all alone … on parallel lines," raves Mrs. Hellstrom (Viveca Lindfors) during A Wedding, the ritual that is supposed to "merge the interests of community and nature." Presiding spirit over yet another flawed union, matriarch of family and the movies alike, Lillian Gish lies dead upstairs throughout the festivities. When one of Altman's Miltonian storms drives the members of his teeming anti-family down into the basement, a born-again Baptist leads them in a comforting chorus or two of "Heavenly Sunlight." Altman's camera eventually rises to the sky, as blue and noncommittal as Nashville's ending.
Gish is on the same wavelength with Nashville's country-music queen Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley)—they share sweet smiles, dreams of what "My Old Idaho Home" once was, and death. Neither can be sustaining angels; as with Louise (Sally Kellerman), explicitly angelic mentor to Brewster McCloud, scars are where their wings were. The antithesis to these sweet-faced patron saints is Three Women's Dirty Gerty, the witchy head that, spitting in the face of humankind, screeches a mocking death-rattle laugh. The only angel in A Wedding is a black, blank-eyed penates at the door of Gish's home—its frozen posture and lack of affect an echo of Barbara Jean-wannabe Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) and her paralyzed stance against a fake Parthenon pillar in the aftermath of a kind of ritual murder.
Let the sun go for awhile, and track blackbirds. Brewster's fairy godmother carries a raven as familiar; presumably its shit adorns the dead faces of those who would ground her protégé—and it must share in Louise's terrible birdcry of bereavement signaling Brewster's fall, his flesh now too much with him for flying. Her white witchery is no match for Dirty Gerty's miring of all human endeavor. In The Player, moviemaker Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) never aspires to flying; his white-robed gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) makes him at home in her blue cave of unfinished, self-reflexive paintings; and both of these beautiful dream-stealers rest comfortably in mud baths. Leaning back arrogantly on an ebon couch, black-clad arms spread wide, Mill judases his jilted girlfriend and acutest critic (Cynthia Stevenson): "You'll land on your feet. You always do."
Louise's birdcry of awful loss and incipient madness is echoed by Brewster (Bud Cort), who doesn't land on his feet, and the crows in Van Gogh's wheatfield, the violent black lines that slash his Provence sky. Self-wounded, Vincent disappears into the landscape he would have painted, loosing a coven of crows into the air, as though his soul had flown up in agony.
In Short Cuts, where Dirty Gerty mostly reigns, Dr. Wyman (Matthew Modine), just one among many cuckolds, turns his white-painted clownface to the camera, opens his mouth wider than a mouth should go, and shrieks an Invasion of the Body Snatchers version of Louise's heartbroken caw. He might be one of his wife's canvases, hyperrealistic variations on Munch's "The Scream." When faultlines finally fracture under and within pool cleaner Chris Penn and he beats down the hateful flesh that so unmans him, a flock of birds explodes out of the underbrush, madness on the wing. At the beginning of M∗A∗S∗H, wartime whirlybirds transported bloodied souls for healing; by Short Cuts, the blackbirds (camouflaged in patriotic red, white, and blue) spray America's City of Angels with a pesticide in the "war against the medfly." Maybe medflies are what we become after we've fallen so far from grace.
What refuge is there from blackbirds? Altman wheelers-and-dealers such as M∗A∗S∗H's Hawkeye and Trapper John (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould) and California Split's Bill and Charlie (George Segal, Gould) work desperately to be insiders, their cooler-than-thou shticks thin insurance against getting frozen out, disappearing, breaking down. Altman's eye so powerfully authenticates the illusion of community—among hotshot medics or gamblers on a winning streak—that when the house of cards collapses we're left with nowhere to go.
In the profoundly elegiac California Split, Bill and Charlie trip off to Reno's Land of Oz to rake in what they're missing—money and meaning. After Altman's rich movies take us in by offering food and shelter, they often conclude by striking the set and drifting off toward nothing. In the aftermath of his exhilarating run of play, during the final moments of California Split, George Segal's naked, utterly emptied expression reprises that of the tired boxer who much earlier gazed blank-eyed out at his energized audience: "It don't mean a fuckin thing." Altman's no warm-hearted wizard: When Segal, shattered, announces that he has to go home, fellow-player Gould nails him—and us as audience: "Oh yeah? Where do you live?"
Altman's isolatos partner at their peril; their projections and symbionts may be sanctuary or the death of them. McCabe's a "dealer … who wants to trade the game he plays for shelter" (a line from one of several Leonard Cohen songs that "narrate" McCabe and Mrs. Miller), but he's evicted from his House of Fortune—and every other refuge—by the efficiently business-minded whore and man-killer his less focused character cannot contain. Three Women dreams a fluid world in which twinning can anchor hollow men and women in increased visibility and co-dependent sanity. The murals painted by Willie (Janice Rule)—cannibalistic, lizard-like aliens, red of tongue and claw, poised outside an urban maze of sterile concrete boxes—are the nightmare aspect of McCabe's civilizing vision. They also preview the mute laughers? screamers? Marian (Julianne Moore) paints in Short Cuts, which ends with a pan from a party on the artist's patio out over a polluted city constructed on potential abyss.
Three Women's Millie Lammoreaux begins as an invisible soul who babbles self-aggrandizing formulas for living that no one listens to. Cast out of even the fragile shelter of personality, she takes final shape as mother superior of a convent house that might be the last standing structure in Altman's dissolving world. In the film's finale, this angular, American Gothic antithesis of a fairy godmother matter-of-factly warns her progeny—Pinky the tabula rasa and Willie the aborted artist—that "it's time to come inside."
There's comfort in that invitation, but also chilling cadences. At the beginning of McCabe, a long lateral pan follows the first coming inside of the postlapsarian poker-player, and Altman's promising trajectory draws us into his movie like any brand-new, privileged "Once upon a time…." By contrast, the six-minute-long shot that opens The Player gleefully touts itself as tour-de-force, piggy-backing on Touch of Evil, promiscuously attaching itself to anything that moves, and playing postmodernist peeping Tom at a studio window—framing insider Griffin Mill as he receives pitches for sequels, remakes, and rip-offs.
Mill—half Mrs. Miller—won't be frozen out of any picture that matters. Eventually masterminding the takeover of his Hollywood House of Fortune, he lives happily ever after in a blandly edenic movie, his celluloid dreamgirl by his side. This is heaven as imagined by those who would buy into the satanic recipe for art benignly recommended by the doctor-"angel" (Jean-Pierre Cassel) who tries to make a pet of Van Gogh: "People need shelter even in paradise."
What's inside can be as "deceiving to the eye" as movies, as empty or as pregnant. The shack at the end of Three Women might be only a false front, like the James Dean Disciples' cherished Riata, or as deserted and debris-filled as the last Woolworth's in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean. "Sincerely" is the song that finally unites and celebrates Jimmy Dean's trinity of 5-and-Dime dreamers: the de-breasted sex goddess (Cher), the deluded mother of a god's son (Sandy Dennis), and a Janus-gendered transsexual (Karen Black).
"If I could just walk into the painting, shut the door, and stay there forever," yearns Theo Van Gogh, just before the daughter of his brother's whore appears to try just that, squatting to take a pee in a panoramic, trompe-1'oeil beach scene that presages a wraparound Imax movie. Cut out of dead Vincent's imagination, blocked Theo can't make water—and is shut up first behind the door of his bathroom and then that of a madhouse cell, the fatally constricted space of a self divided from nourishing ideal. Much earlier, Vincent sketched like a man possessed when his prostitute-model settled down on a chamber pot, and lifted her lived-in face up to windowlight. All of Altman's froggy souls slide that line between shit and a fantasy of flying. (McCabe's metaphysic is the last word: "If a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his ass so much.")
Often Altman's shattering souls sojourn in glass houses, where epiphany seems as accessible as light: Images' Green Cove, where doors open and shutter like lenses; the much-windowed Wade beachhouse in The Long Goodbye; the 5 and Dime split by a Cocteauvian mirror; Laundromat's garishly neon-runed picture-window; the video-screened confessional in Secret Honor. Such Altman interiors are kaleidoscopes filled with bright shards of a past coterminous with the present, the most private and irreducible parts of ego and experience.
No other working director measures such depth in surfaces. Altaian's movies are one, a round-table banquet and mystery play celebrating the persistent aspirations of his low-down knights and unfaithful ladies. His vision does not finally diminish us, though this is a Swiftian artist who can document our every smallness. Altman's greatest gift is his genius for images that can be critically framed, but resist being frozen into stop-motion significance. They lodge in memory like land-mines that never stop detonating.
Short Cuts' Lady in the Lake is one of those images. Altman's male triumvirate (Fred Ward, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis) fishes around, pisses on, and Kodaks her submerged and violated flesh. Her cold corpse is no catch for their larder; it's just the shell of a downcast muse who will never gift an artist-Arthur with sword or wings. And yet in the pesticide-drenched City of Angles, a poolman has assured us from the start that "water's the safest place to be." Robert Altman's golden eye has never stopped reflecting on this and other mysteries in the lifecycle of the medfly.
SOURCE: A review of Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter), in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 35-8.
[In the following review, Hilferty states that, "Less about fab fabric than the tenuous fabric of society, Ready to Wear is an elaborate striptease of the human condition."]
First, the facts.
Robert Altman's new film is not a "behind-the-scenes" look at the fashion world. Nor is it a particularly fashionable treatment of that world. Nor is it a conventional narrative complete with audience-identification protagonist and tidy plot. Nor is it much like Nashville, despite its many characters and multiple vignettes.
That's why it disappointed so many. The movie flew in the face of all expectation.
Altman's new cinematic panorama should be seen on its own terms first—then you can throw knives at the screen if you see fit. Ready to Wear is an idiosyncratic odyssey, an odd essay film with its own peculiar pattern and design. Far from being "unfocused," "flimsy," or "vapid" (recent critical put-downs), every element in the film—even down to the dogshit everyone's stepping in—has a rhyme and reason, and builds up carefully to the sublime finale: designer Simone Lo's naked défilé.
Although the movie juggles about three dozen characters and their overlapping situations, there emerges, amid the hustle and bustle of the splintered narrative, a dominant story line—that of Simone Lo (Anouk Aimée)—around which all others revolve like illuminating satellites.
What gets things rolling is Sergei Oblomov (Marcello Mastroianni), a 70-something master tailor who leaves Russia after the collapse of Soviet Communism and heads west in search of the love of his youth, his abandoned wife Isabella de la Fontaine (Sophia Loren). To get to her, he has secretly contacted her present husband, Olivier de la Fontaine, who is head of the French Fashion Council. Olivier meets Sergei at the airport and brings him back to Paris, but during a traffic jam on Pont Alexandre III, Olivier unexpectedly dies a déclassé death: he chokes on a piece of ham. Panicked, Sergei hops out of the limousine, and the chauffeur screams murder. Sergei jumps into the Seine. Although he's been falsely accused, he's safe: the authorities can't identify him because the only evidence they have are photos of what he was wearing.
Everyone in the fashion world seems more pleased than saddened by Olivier's sudden demise. Apparently he wasn't such a nice guy, and despite several claims by TV reporters that his death has eclipsed Paris's most important fashion week, prêt-à-porter proceeds as usual without a morsel of mourning—not even from his wife. Isabella thinks her husband is no more than the dog turd she steps in at the beginning of the film.
Simone Lo (changed from the original Lowenthal) acts more the widow, and everyone treats her as one—it's no secret she was Olivier's lover. Although she readily admits that she didn't like Olivier either, Simone seems to have some depth, unlike the other designers, who come off as frivolous, trendy, and self-important. Simone stands out as a genuine artist. Simone's son, Jack (Rupert Everett), makes a witty remark to characterize his mother: "You know, my mother makes dresses for herself. Dressing for men has never particularly interested her, although she's certainly undressed for a few of them. The main difference between men and women in fashion is this: women make dresses for themselves and for other women … a man makes clothes for the woman he wants to be with, or in most cases, the woman he wants to be." This not-so-innocent comment, situating fashion on the gender battleground, inadvertently provides the key to the entire film.
These divergent—and possibly antagonistic—attitudes about fashion and its relation to women are played out on the body of supermodel Albertine (Ute Lemper). On the eve of the biggest show in Paris, she shows up pregnant. Albertine can't fit into the clothes earmarked for her, but on a deeper level, she now presents an image of womanhood totally unfit for the runway. Simone, however, is the only one who adjusts quickly and calls her pregnancy "wonderful"; someone like Cy Bianco (Forest Whitaker) thoughtlessly explodes at her because she's ruining his show. Albertine calls him "woman-hater."
Albertine's bursting belly raises two interesting questions which are at the crux of the movie: "What is the essence of womanhood?" and "Who's the father?" The first question is implicit in women's fashion. But clothing intended to enhance womanhood is usually in the service of some idea of "beauty," and the clothes may actually conceal, alter, or exaggerate the true woman underneath them. Women become fashion victims: they are trapped in an image of themselves that's not quite true, an image generated by male fantasy and anxiety over female sexuality. As Cher, who plays herself in the movie, says, "Fashion is about women trying to be beautiful, but none of us is going to look like Naomi Campbell … so in a way I think it's kind of sad … I'm a victim as well as a perpetrator." Albertine's pregnancy brazenly confronts and complicates the issue, as framed by the high fashion industry, and will ultimately be taken up in the final défilé.
The second question is, of course, the fundamental issue of paternity. When Jack Lowenthal asks Albertine, "Who's the lucky man?" she blithely answers, "Well, maybe it's you, darling." It sounds tongue-in-cheek, but the charge is a distinct possibility; Jack is a notorious philanderer (he's cheating with his own wife's sister). In fact, Altman creates an atmosphere of uncertain paternity: Jack doesn't even know who his own father is.
Altman's world is peopled with fatherless children and abandoned wives/mothers. The masculine penchant to flee the situation may be the basis of the warfare Altman sees being waged between the sexes not only in this film but in others as well (Images, 3 Women, Short Cuts). We eventually learn that Sergei abandoned Isabella on their wedding night to leave for Moscow.
"We were Communists," he says.
"You were a Communist," responds Isabella, "I was only fourteen."
Communism wasn't what it was cracked up to be, and Sergei ended up living in fear and poverty, making uniforms for Soviet officials. After Communism went out of fashion—Altman cleverly hints at the fad quality of political ideologies—Sergei tries to regain his lost youth. In trying to recapture their youthful passion, Isabella plays a sensuous Salome to Sergei's faltering Faust (in fact, "Salome" and "Faust" are the names of mirror hotel suites in the film). Isabella reveals a body that's scandalously well preserved—she's the spitting image of ageless Eternal Feminine—and does a tantalizing striptease only to discover that her first husband has fallen asleep. (This magnificent scene is ingeniously reproduced from a film Loren and Mastroianni made together over 30 years ago, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow.) She leaves a note on his chest: "Two husbands, two corpses."
Twice abandoned, twice betrayed.
Which brings us back again to the main story line. Simone Lowenthal, like Isabella, was probably abandoned in some way too—that's why her son has no father. Betrayal rears its ugly head again, in the form of another male close to home. Jack, without the approval of his mother, sells his mother's logo ("Lo") to a Texan manufacturer of cowboy boots, Clint Lammeraux (Lyle Lovett).
"You know, you're worse than your father," says Simone.
"Whoever that was," replies Jack.
"You sell and buy everything," Simone responds, "even your own mother."
In spite of Simone's protest, Jack sabotages his mother even further. Behind her back, he arranges a photo session featuring the boots. Imprinted prominently and gaudily with the "Lo" logo, these boots eclipse Simone's spring collection ("These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" plays on the sound track). Simone has been stepped on, not only as an artist but also as a woman (since her art celebrated the female body). She is powerless.
Or is she?
By sending her models down the runway totally nude, Simone is revolting. She is making an explosive statement, not only in defiance of her traitorous son, but also, symbolically, against the entire male order. To pull off such a coup, the solidarity of her models is necessary. Preceding Simone's final showdown, a confluence of new feminine alliances is forged in different corners of the movie but indirectly connected to Simone's plight. For instance, the three fashion editors, who have been fierce competitors throughout the film, eventually join forces against star photographer Milo O'Brannigan (Stephen Rea). Throughout the film, he has humiliated these women by taking photos of them in compromising positions with a spy camera. They gain the upper hand after seizing his negatives, which include, not insignificantly, the treacherous boot shoot. At the same time, Jack's power starts to wane when his estranged wife and her sister, with whom he had been cheating, reunite against him. They call him a rat to his face.
Accompanied by the haunting song "You Are So Pretty the Way You Are," Simone's models take the runway. This defiant défilé doesn't end up defiling the female body with eroticization or desexualization. Rather, Simone presents Mother Nature's getup: the naked female body. This anticlimactic gesture might be considered ridiculous, even mildly pornographic, if it weren't for the presence of Simone's daring centerpiece, her pièce de résistance: Albertine's pregnant body, an impregnable fortress. Formerly banned from the runway, Albertine now rules it as a nude queen-bride, a fabulous figure right out of Botticelli's Primavera. Literally bursting with life. Albertine represents the feminine essence. With her, Simone unveils the primal beauty, power, and mystery of the female body: its ability to bear life—which all the (male-dominated) fashion in the world can't contain or control. Simone liberates the female body from fashion fascism, the mechanism which dictates, regulates, and disseminates images of women. (Altman laces his film with subtle and subliminal references to the Holocaust.)
The effect of Simone's défilé is not shocking. It's sublime.
Simone goes beyond making a feminist statement: the Eternal Feminine (think again of Sophia Loren's vibrant 60-year-old body), the origins of the species, the very beginnings of culture are put on display. As the new announcer of FAD-TV says, "Simone has spoken to women the world over, telling them not what to wear, but how to think about what they want and need from fashion."
(Altman creates an intriguing cross-reference by crosscutting a crossdressers' ball across town. As Simone's women undress, these men dress up. This juxtaposition visualizes metaphorically what Altman feels is really going on in fashion: men are not really making clothes for "real" women but for themselves. Or, to paraphrase Jack, they make clothes for the "ideal" woman they want to be with or the woman they want to be. A gigantic ice sea horse sits in the middle of the transvestites' banquet table. Why a sea horse? It's the only example in nature in which the male carries the fertilized eggs, a fact which underlines the central mystery of gender. In the case of men, no amount of dressing up as a woman makes a woman.)
Ready to Wear is mythic narrative in the guise of satiric spoof. What Altman envisions here is women's revolt, a Trojan Women for post-modern times. Less interested in high fashion than in why humans, who are born naked, cover their bodies in the first place, Altman provides us with a menu of the uses of fashion—in concealing, revealing, or fabricating identity (ethnic, class, occupational, ideological, sexual, gender). And as one designer says, "Fashion is about looking good … it's about getting a great fuck." Therein lies the paradox: we dress up in order to undress (for sex). Joe Flynn (Tim Robbins) and Anne Eisenhower (Julia Roberts) certainly have no use for fashion: they spend the entire time under bed sheets.
In revealing the ironies and absurdities that result from the age-old conflict between culture and nature, Ready to Wear resembles A Wedding more than Nashville. Here, the omnipotence of nature asserts itself in two areas: sex and death. In A Wedding, Altman shows how a socially constructed ritual comes apart at the seams when realities which run counter to the order-defining myths associated with marriage constantly intrude on the party (infidelity, homosexuality, interracial desire, etc.). In Ready to Wear, it's also the body's desires and function which are at odds with the aims of high fashion.
Death frames both films. In A Wedding, it's the controlling family matriarch played by Lillian Gish; in Ready to Wear, it's the head of the Fashion Council. In both cases, death is presented as an embarrassment, an inconvenience, an obscenity, a reality that's not dealt with, ignored. That's the way of human culture. But the show goes on.
In the face of chaotic Eros and dead-end Thanatos, what the hell does fashion amount to anyway? This is a question Altman keeps on posing as he exposes the color-blind phonies, the glamour hounds, and the trend-trotting ignoramuses who dominate that world. Everyone has a fake name, nobody wants to be who they are, nobody knows who they are. Altman's world of fashion is ultimately as drab and unfab as what Cher (of all people) says: "It's not what you put on your body, but who you are inside."
In the last scene of Ready to Wear, Altman comes full circle and creates an ironic picture of the human life cycle. Seven naked newborns playing in the grass fill the screen. The camera pulls back to reveal that the toddlers are being photographed for a fashion ad. The campaign appears to be ripping off Simone Lo's "naked look." The slogan: "Get Real." As the fashion shoot takes place, Oliver de la Fontaine's funeral procession goes by. Isabella does not wear traditional black, but bright red. Perhaps this funeral is a cause for celebration: her liberation.
While Isabella may be making a fashion statement, Altman is not. Less about fab fabric than the tenuous fabric of society, Ready to Wear is an elaborate striptease of the human condition.
SOURCE: A review of Kansas City, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 12, December, 1996, pp. 49-50.
[In the following excerpt, Boyd calls Altman's Kansas City "aimless film-making."]
"Kansas City here I come!" These are the words of Big Joe Turner's classic rhythm and blues song 'Going to Kansas City', and it's also the mission of film-making elder statesman Robert Altman in this homage to his hometown. Set in a colourful 30s world, in which the city is an oasis for the political party bosses, gangsters and jazz musicians who ran the show, Kansas City is trademark Altman, a series of interconnected episodes all linked to one central theme: the uses and abuses of power.
The film centres on the evolving relationship between two social opposites, telegraph operator Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her rich, laudanum-soaked hostage Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson). They wander in and out of situations: the after-hours telegraph office at the railway station from which Blondie wires Carolyn's politically powerful husband, a bar where vote-rigging is being organised by Blondie's sister's husband (Steve Buscemi), a home for unmarried African-American mothers, and a cinema featuring Blondie's role-model Jean Harlow in Hold Your Man. But the only point to this somewhat aimless journey—other than for the two women to discover they have a lot in common once they get past their surface antagonism—seems to be to spin out the suspense as to whether Blondie's ploy will save her captive husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) from the vengeance of black gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte).
Yet the mundanity of the Blondie-Carolyn relationship by contrast at least elevates our awareness of the film's real virtue: its outstanding music. In 1934, Kansas City was a conservatory for jazz, especially the big band's of Count Basie, Jay McShann, and Bennie Moten. From these groups come many of the figures who would later become jazz legends including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker (each of whom appears as a character in the film). It was the pervasive wide-open lawlessness of this town that supported the creative environment, and it is this larger environment that Altman's film tries so hard to capture. Using many of today's top young jazz musicians—Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Cyrus Chestnut—as some of the original jazz greats, the many musical scenes jump with a rhythm that leaves the rest of the film searching for a pulse. Because here, the multiple stories that Altman is so famous for weaving, are curiously uninvolving. In fact it would not be a calumny to say that Kansas City seems like an elaborately constructed excuse for some great musical performances.
Hollywood has long maintained a sub-genre of film that uses jazz as a cipher with which to explore America's racial politics. Films like Young Man With a Horn, All the Fine Young Cannibals, Paris Blues, and A Man Called Adam recreated the jazz milieu to engage, directly or indirectly, with the racial undertones of the idiom. More recently, films like 'Round Midnight, Bird, and Mo' Better Blues, have likewise foregrounded race and culture in American society, but more overtly. Altman's Kansas City easily fits into this latter attitude. The racial politics of the 30s are mostly explored through the gangster character Seldom Seen. His Hey-Hey Club is a nexus which suggests that the city's colourful flavour is rooted in a perverted racial co-existence. Harry Belafonte is excellent as Seldom Seen ("but often heard"). He is a menacing presence who circles the room, smoking cigars, carrying his money around in a cigar box, and dropping words of wisdom in long lectures about the political situation. "White people are consumed with greed," he says to his captured white criminal Johnny O'Hara, who has tried to rob one of Seen's best gambling customers. He goes on to explain to Johnny that the Great Depression was because, "Y'all couldn't get enough."
Seldom's embrace of black political leader Marcus Garvey and his critique of the establishment are powerfully conveyed, especially with the music of a 'Coieman Hawkins' versus 'Lester Young' cutting contest playing behind him. But Altman does not seem to know what to do with him, spinning out the one basic scenario of him lecturing Johnny as to the white man's follies so that it lasts for almost the whole movie. The action is elsewhere, in gangster and election-rigging subplots, but whenever Seldom or the music is absent you feel the loss. At one point Seldom tells Johnny that the music of "Bill Basie's one of the reasons you ain't dead yet." This line could be modified to comment on the film. It is indeed the music that keeps Kansas City alive.
When Altman's The Player was released in 1992 many thought that this 70s Hollywood maverick had finally returned to form after a long hiatus. The Player was a provocatively satirical look at Hollywood's underbelly made from Michael Tolkin's wry script that made us realise how much we missed Altman's light touch with acerbic material. With Short Cuts in 1993, his ability to juggle multiple narratives and many characters was again transfixing, and seemed to suit the mood of the Raymond Carver stories it was based on. Yet the more ad-hoc Pret-a-Porter in 1994 lacked any real insight and Kansas City continues that film's pattern of aimless film-making.
This is highlighted by the grating performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the film's central role as the Jean Harlow-obsessed Blondie O'Hara, (she's a behatted brunette recovering from peroxide-induced baldness). Her trawl across the city with the equally irritating Miranda Richardson is pointless, a transparent excuse for showing off snapshots of the time and place. Out of the corrupt party politics of the Democratic bosses, the predictable self-indulgence of the wealthy liberals, and the blonde ambitions of O'Hara and her pathetic husband Johnny, fed by Hollywood. Altman weaves the tapestry of a city life that is long gone. But unlike McCabe & Mrs. Miller, MASH, or Nashville, Altman's finest movies, Kansas City never gathers its threads together. Nevertheless, Altman remains one of the few independent voices in a sea of repetitive Hollywood mediocrity. Films such as Kansas City at least attempt to focus on real people rather than computer-generated fantasies. And besides, any film that uses jazz as its source—America's highest art form—can never be given too much attention. For these things only, Altman and Kansas City are to be praised.
SOURCE: "Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City," in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 2, March-April, 1997, pp. 68, 70-1.
[In the following review, Combs discusses the lack of personal references in Altman's films, noting the exception of Kansas City, which is set in Altman's home town.]
In his biography of Robert Altman, Jumping Off the Cliff. Patrick McGilligan charts some lost territory in the Altman story—lost in the sense that there are whole areas of the director's life that haven't shown up in his work. Altman was born in Kansas City. Missouri, in 1925, of German immigrant stock. The family name was originally Altmann, the loss of the second n prompting Altman on occasion to refer to himself as a "closet German." But unlike others of his filmmaking generation—say, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, who are of different stock but have their Catholicism in common with Altman—he has excluded his personal, cultural, and historical roots.
McGilligan has counted the ways: "it is next to impossible to find Helen or B. C. [Altman's parents] explicitly evoked by a character in one of his movies."… "If Altman was touched at all by the mass despair, the unemployment, the protests, the riots and the Hoovervilles of the Depression era, that vivid backdrop is absent from his movies."… "In the one hour drive of some fifty miles from Kansas City to Lexington, one comes across markers for the Santa Fe Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the old overland stagecoach lines, and for Indian burial mounds. And one passes over land that Daniel Boone explored and Quantrill's raiders raided … all of it—with the exceptions of McCabe and Buffalo Bill and the Indians—curiously ignored in Altman's films."
With the release of Kansas City in 1996, some of that lost territory has been filled in. Altman has come out of at least one of his closets. This is cultural autobiography, a story set in the jazz milieu of Kansas City in the Thirties, eloquently pictured in a background article in Time Out magazine: "The Count Basie band came out of this regional style, taking the Blues uptown and jumping 'em. Those beefy Blues riffs and driving 4/4 beats came on like herding cattle across the plains … the city boasted the greatest conglomeration of clubs and sin since Storyville." Altman has said that by his mid-teens he was an habitué of the clubs: "I knew everybody, I felt welcome. I listened to Julia Lee, Baby Lovett, Bill Nolan, Jay McShann." He would have been 9 when the central event of the film took place—a cutting contest, during an all-night jamming session, between local boy Lester Young and the visiting Coleman Hawkins. Young was still on hand, though, to play at hops when Altman was in high school.
And Kansas City reflects more than cultural history. There are evidently personal memories woven into its texture. Altman has talked about the politician Henry Stilton, the vaguely presidential adviser played by Michael Murphy, as being in some ways a reflection of his father, B. C. Altman. Stilton's laudanum-addicted wife, Carolyn (Miranda Richardson), is "patterned after the mother of a kid I grew up with. I knew that she was on something, but I didn't know what it was." There may even be an explanation of why Altman's mother, Helen, has never been evoked in his films. "We had a black maid called Glendora Majors—I use her name in the film—who was responsible for my introduction to jazz. All my life, Glendora was more important than my mother to me. My mother was some other figure."
What is surprising, in fact, is that none of this background and these allegiances show up in Jumping Off the Cliff, although McGilligan devotes separate chapters to Kansas City, to Altman's family tree, his schooling, and his friends and lovers. In all matters of work, love, and play, McGilligan goes into detail on Altman's "whirling dervish" lifestyle. But this is not really to fault his book for missing out biographical elements he claims Altman has missed in his films. It might just suggest that there is more than one kind of biography—and more than one kind of biographical art that can be made from it.
A different Altman story could begin from different geographical and historical points. There is, for instance, the fact that there is not just Kansas City, Missouri, but Kansas City, Kansas—one city bifurcated. During the Civil War. this doubleness, or division, was a particular and turbulent feature of the region. McGilligan records, "Altman liked to point out that Missouri had supplied both sides in the conflict." Maybe Kansas City has to face two ways at once because, as Altman has also observed, it enjoys a special geographical status, which is what makes it so important in jazz history: "It had to do with the city being the center of the country. To go anywhere from East to West, you had to go through Kansas City, so it became a depot for trains and a stopover for planes. For musicians, it was the crossroads."
And from here we might take off into his movies. Doubleness, of course, is a fairly common movie trope, and doppelgangers and mirror images are the signature of more than one director—Joseph Losey, for instance, whom Altman has explicitly said he was trying to emulate in his first film to go into mirrors in a big way, Images. But Altman's looking-two-ways-at-once is something else, something both more fantastic and more concrete. In a sense, it's a mistake to think of it in terms of 'images' because it's not really a matter of reflecting surfaces. It's the basis of the real in Altman's world, a principle of dramatic construction and an effect as detonative as splitting the atom.
Think of the two halves of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean: two time zones back to back; two identical sets, one the reverse of the other, separated by a two-way mirror. It's a movie trick but not an optical one; it's done really, mechanically. Then there's the two families of Fool for Love, produced by one father, and also, as he puts it, out of one love: "It just got split in half." Twins proliferate, of course: within the mirages of 3 Women, but also in the conspicuously real-life Hollywood of The Player, whose screenwriter Michael Tolkin plays one half of a writing duo within the film with his identical-looking sibling Stephen.
In Kansas City, Carolyn Stilton is roused from her laudanum stupor at one point by something she notices about her abductor, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and the latter's sister Babe: "What I find fascinating is that both you ladies are married to men named Johnny." Blondie and Babe aren't twins, but then they don't need to be. In Altman, sisterhood alone, whether real or metaphorical, is itself a powerful matrix for the uncanny connections in life, and for generating new life. Again, this can run the gamut from the mixing and matching of personalities in 3 Women—around the still, silent center of Janice Rule, pregnant and an artist with a mission—to the more prosaic sisters of Short Cuts played by Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore (though the latter, too, is an artist).
Which is where Altman's treatment of doubleness, doppelgängers, and mirror images separates itself from cinematic tradition. His fracturing centers on female rather than male protagonists, and even where the stories come close to the obsessive, haunted, self-repeating conventions of the doppelgänger—in Images, say—they're not couched in expressionist or noirish imagery. There's scarcely a noirish shot in all of Altman. The mood is more one of drift and dream, the floating, drowned-world feeling of 3 Women. That film is set in a desert, but its medium is aqueous, an amniotic fluid in which new lifeforms, or transformations of the old, are waiting to sprout. The fracturing in Altman is also a giving-birth. It's what saves the self-repeating from being an expressionist doom.
Even in Kansas City, a tale of jazz clubs and gangsters, of violent scams and corrupt politicians stage-managing an election, a tale centered on a double abduction, the medium is somehow a female one. Pregnancy is again an issue: the baby that Blondie had and lost; the baby that another character, a black girl. Pearl Cummings, has come to the city to deliver under the aegis of the do-gooding ladies of the Little League (whose leader, Nettie Bolt, is named after Altman's grandmother). They misplace Pearl and she is taken under the wing of the young Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes). And for all that the story hinges on the contest between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young at the Hey-Hey Club, its mood is shaped by a succession of domestic interiors, a cross-section of Kansas City's interior life, as Blondie peregrinates about the city with her hostage, whom she dubs "Red."
This tale of two women is even broached in Altman's dream mode. The opening credits are broken up by Blondie's arrival at the Stilton home. In her gangster moll persona—a tough-talking snarling out of the corner of her mouth that she has modeled on Jean Harlow, even though she is temporarily bereft of the peroxided hair—she has decided on her own desperate scam. Her Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), a small-time hoodlum, has robbed an out-of-town gambler on his way to spend lavishly at the craps table run by the owner of the Hey-Hey, gangster Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Johnny's accomplice is Seldom's black driver, "Blue" Green (these color-doubling names go back to 3 Women's Pinky Rose). But Seldom figures out the plot and grabs Johnny, to toy with him through most of the film.
Which inspires the bereft, lovelorn Blondie—a woman who will do anything to hold her man, as the title of a Jean Harlow-Clark Gable movie tells her—to try to get him released by grabbing the wife of Henry Stilton. In this town, it's politicians who can deal best with gangsters. But all this is explained only later. For the moment. Carolyn Stilton is merely confronted with the nightmare vision of Blondie waving a gun while a thunderstorm builds outside. This storm never seems to be delivered, but then the self-contained melodrama of the scene might just be part—as it is in Images—of the womanly medium. Something is about to be delivered.
The scene ends with a slow zoom into Carolyn as she gratefully reaches for the laudanum bottle being held out by Blondie, and then a fade to black. The rest of the film is a product, in a way, of that blacked-out consciousness. It's an effect that seems to signal an end rather than a beginning—as it does with Mrs. Miller's retreat into an opium nirvana at the end of McCabe. But then, the slow zoom in with accompanying loss of focus is Altman's most characteristic camera move. It suggests a letting-go, a slipping-away, the blurring into an altered state. And it can be traced right back to the beginning of this Altman genre in 1969's That Cold Day in the Park, whose heroine was prone to it without apparent narcotic assistance.
Altman's fondness for telling his stories through his female characters has often been noted. Patrick McGilligan relates that even as a raconteur Altman would take the point of view of a distaff member of his family—one of his sisters or his mother. Jumping Off the Cliff contains a photograph of the 12-year-old Altman bracketed by his mother Helen and his two sisters, not twins but dressed identically. There's said to be little of his mother in Altman, but the descriptions of her—"like an angel … on another planet, an astral sphere"—and one thing she is quoted as saying, "I am just drowned. It's like I am a nobody," suggest that she is not absent from his films.
Altman is apparently more like his father, B. C: a demon salesman and great charmer, socializer, and womanizer. This, of course, is just the kind of male figure who is caricatured, treated as a sideline buffoon, in films like 3 Women. But it shouldn't be assumed from this that the dream films, the women's subjects, are some sort of crypto-feminist making-amends. It's the double structure coming into play again, the yin and yang sets bolted together. Altman the partygoer, the seducer, the organizer of elaborate meals and entertainments, the social animal who, as all his collaborators attest, just wants to have fun, is also the personality who directs jamborees like Nashville and Short Cuts. Even if these, in the end, might not be his most profound films.
Kansas City is the Altman dream film that occasionally resembles—in its social canvas, its treatment of the jazz sessions, and the background of party machine politics—one of the jamborees. Or it may be that this is Altman's subjective cinema given historical meaning and form. It adds one important dimension to his double structure, or another kind of doubling: the presence of blacks. Perhaps this, as much as the municipal twinning of Kansas City, was the original doubling in Altman's life. There's that elision of his own mother with the black maid who introduced him to jazz via Duke Ellington's "Solitude," which is the final extended number in Kansas City, when Altman turns the film over to his musicians. Through the story wanders Charlie Parker's mother, Addie, who reassures Blondie that she won't tell anyone what is going on, because no one will ask her anyway.
There's a more sinister conjunction here, a bonding of doubles. Altman has referred to the territorial tactics of the different gangs in the Thirties, and how the blacks only had access to knives as weapons, just as slavery had shaped their music by denying them musical instruments. It's chilling, then, when he places the contest of the two jazzmen so close to another "cutting contest," when Seldom Seen's henchmen vie with each other in slashing "Blue" Green to death. And how much should this language and weaponry put us in mind of other Altman scenes—those played by his cutting heroines, Susannah York in Images or Sandy Dennis in That Cold Day in the Park?
In this respect, there's one powerful, unmissable connection. In the penultimate scene of Kansas City, Johnny is restored to Blondie, but dying on his feet, with his abdomen slashed open and emptied, like a mangled abortion, a terrible stillbirth. Blondie frantically tries to stuff her Jean Harlow gown into the wound, while calling for help to Carolyn Stilton, who is too laudanum-stoned to do anything until the moment she puts a bullet in the back of Blondie's now perfectly peroxided head.
In the penultimate scene of 3 Women, Shelley Duvall attends at the messy still-birth of Janice Rule's child, while appealing to a traumatized, immobile Sissy Spacek. That scene was capped by the dream finale, the transmutation of all three personalities. All that is left for Carolyn Stilton is to emerge in the cool light of evening, to her waiting husband and no prospect of change at all. "You know what I didn't do today—I didn't vote."