McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) movie poster

director Robert Altman
viewed: 02/28/2016

My favorite Robert Altman film is either McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us (1974).  I’ve not seen all of Altman’s films, so I’m no pure expert, but I’d stand by those two choices.

Watching movies the way I do, writing about every single one I’ve seen over 13-14 years now, I’ve tended toward new films, ones I’ve never seen, and haven’t done as much re-visiting as I might if I hadn’t painted myself into this particular corner.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one that I’ve wanted to re-watch for years, just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is sublime.  The movie set, a small town built in the rugged hills of the Pacific Northwest (actually filmed in Canada), is one of the most striking and apt, a work-in-progress, built during the duration of the filming of the movie, really captures the sense of the frontier town, rapidly constructed to serve the needs and purpose, with the raw materials of the place, amid the timber.

It represents the characters and ideas of the piece, the American ideal of the individual building business on the frontier, taming the wild, building commerce, establishing social structures.  Of course, Warren Beatty, who plays McCabe, lays the groundwork for his fancy bar, restaurant as a brothel out of a tent.  It’s prostitution that forms the basis for business and commerce (“the world’s oldest profession”).  But it takes an English woman, Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), to clean and class the place up, varnishing the surfaces and adding quality to the product, which takes them into bigger profits.  It doesn’t hurt that she actually knows how to run a business.

The upshot, of course, is that big business already owns everything.  Or has the right to own everything.  The rich send in their minions to buy out the greenhorns, but what McCabe thinks is his right and prerogative, to hold out for more money or even just keep his own business turns out to be the quickest way to find out who really runs things in America.

The pessimism of the film’s ending, which is a really incredible sequence, drawn out over nearly twenty minutes, is what makes the film so revisionist.  In Westerns of earlier times, those villains might exist and with the same motives and representations, but here, they win out.  And the business in question might not necessarily have been trafficking in sex.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a remarkable film.  Beautiful.

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 08/19/08 at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA

The most novel thing about going to see Robert Altman’s interpretation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye was that it was in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive, the hallowed ground of Bay Area cinema to which I had never been before.  Whereas some cinemas (like the Castro) offer the character of place and charm, the PFA is all about the movies.  Their schedule, which was just running out, was jaw-dropping in comparison with any other cinema around here.  Would that it was in San Francisco!  I may have to change my ways and venture out there more often.  I really should.

I’d seen The Long Goodbye back a few years ago at the Castro.  It’s a modern (1970’s modern) take on the character of Philip Marlowe and the noir world of Los Angeles.  Instead of Humphrey Bogart, we’ve got Elliott Gould, mumbling witicisms and wisecracks like Popeye the Sailor.  He’s not hard-boiled, he’s a smart-aleck.  And the Los Angeles he inhabits (in a crazy apartment way up on a hill) neighbors some drug-addled, topless hippie chicks who do non-stop yoga and meditation and drugs (apparently).

Not only is the physical Los Angeles different from the 1940’s, even though Altman uses many locations that would have fit of that era, but the filmic style is a stark contrast to the Hollywood style of the era.  The point in contrast is Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) with its luminous black-and-white, classic Hollywood style.  Altman’s pacing, camera-work, entire approach is looser, sloppier, and somewhat improvisational.  The style has some of the distancing qualities of the French New Wave, but echoes again with the time of the film’s present.

It’s an active discourse in the film, the aging edifices and traditions of Hollywood, played with in enumerous ways throughout the film, from the opening and closing quips of the song, “Hooray for Hollywood” to its use of its own freshly composed theme song “The Long Goodbye”, composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, a jazzy retro number that Altman plays throughout the film in a multitude of versions, lush vocal renditions, a mariachi death march, hummed by the film’s villain…  It’s everywhere.  It’s misty.  But it’s de-mystified.

Altman also features a security guard who specializes in mimickry of old movie stars.  The whole of Hollywood has been reduced to these odd job quirks.

The film is actually quite funny in many places, filled with running jokes like Elliott Gould striking matches off of the scenery and lighting cigarettes constantly.  Even in its humor, there is an air of sadness, the dying relationship of the famous author and his wife as he strives drunkenly toward suicide.  There is tragedy and deceit and a villain who is vicious for no good reason.  Gould’s Marlowe is almost effected by what he sees.  He, like the traditional Marlowe, is a moral center in an off-tilt world and is motivated by rectifying things.  But he’s also pretty carefree.

The film comes from Altman’s richest period when he made MASH (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1973), and Nashville (1975), among others.  It’s an odd film in looking from a noir tradition.  Not really a send-up, per se, but a definite re-working, though working with some of the traditions, even with screenwriter Leigh Brackett who had also co-written the 1946 version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, another reconnection with the Hollywood of the past within the Hollywood of its then-present.

A Prairie Home Companion

A Prairie Home Companion (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 07/30/07

Part two of my Lindsay Lohan arrest double feature actually took me nearly a week to get around to seeing.  This film isn’t so much a “Lindsay Lohan” flick as it is a typical Robert Altman ensemble cast in which screen time is pretty equally distributed.  This is, of course, Altman’s swan song, the last film he completed before passing away last November.  While Altman certainly had a number of excellent films to his credit, including Thieves Like Us (1974) & McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), A Prairie Home Companion, a strange narrative set against the pretended final performance of the long-running radio show, is almost criminally boring, clunky, and, while not devoid of charm or moments, feels like a pretty big waste of time and effort.

No real discredit to Garrison Keillor or any of his strange, laconic amusing creations, which I have never been particularly partial to myself, but can appreciate from afar, but the biggest problem is probably the rambling, boring script, featuring the most tepid of narratives about the show and theater getting bought by some bloodless Texas firm simply to shut it down contrasted against the charm and talents of the performers and the traditions that they have carried on and parodied throughout the years.

The most oddball part of it, the ghost/”Dangerous Woman”/Azrael character played by Virginia Madsen doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  Again, this is maybe due to the weakness of the script.  The film is largely about death.  Madsen comes as the angel of death to take away an aging singer, there is the death of the show, the death of tradition, Lohan’s feebly suicide-obsessed poetry…  There is an aura of death, for sure.  But frankly, I don’t know what the whole point is.  It’s not really a meditation or anything clear, and the film keeps cutting back and forth between performances and the back-stage story so much that it’s hard to figure out what’s supposed to be important.

Kevin Kline is amusing in his delivery and slap-stick moments, but it seems like he is supposed to be in some other film.  No one else acts like him in it.

Lohan, as Lola, a character so named by Keillor after the great song “Whatever Lola Wants” since apparently Lohan got herself into the film when there wasn’t even a role for her, is barely different from anything else she’s been in.  Less flat-out comical, I guess, but still just a teenager.  Whatever.  I still want to see I Know Who Killed Me (2007), especially because of the bad reviews.

And as for Altman, this is not an embarrassment, just lame.  He’ll be remembered for a lot of things, a lot of films, but hopefully not this one.

Thieves Like Us

Thieves Like Us (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 01/24/07 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I’d seen this movie years and years ago on cable.  I’d stumbled on it largely because the title of the film was used for a New Order song, so I thought it would be worth investigating.  I don’t know that I even knew who Robert Altman was at the time, but the film made a real impression on me.  Some of the images just stayed with me all this time. This was about 16 years ago.  A long time.

When I was living in England, I discovered They Live by Night (1948), Nicholas Ray’s first film and was totally blown away by it.  Though I am not 100% sure all the significance of the statement, I would have to agree with Jean-Luc Godard that “Nicholas Ray is cinema” and this film is amazing.  They Live by Night, of course, is adapted from Edward Anderson’s novel, Thieves Like Us, the same source material for Altman’s amazing film.

The novel I later discovered and read and it is brilliant.  I believe that it was Anderson’s only book.  It’s a dust bowl noir, sort of like David Goodis meets John Steinbeck or something.  Tremendously good.  Of course, it’s been a while since I read that book, too.

With Altman’s death last November, the recognition of his contributions to cinema has been widely praised, and the Castro Theatre showed some double features of his films for a week and I took the opportunity to revisit this film, which I hadn’t seen in so long, but had kept in mind all that time.

It’s completely brilliant, to be honest, from the very opening shot of the chain gang on a truck on the road that pans over to the two escaped criminals.  What struck me so strongly was the tonal similarities to my favorite Altman film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), the Western set in the Pacific Northwest.  Though, that film I think addresses different issues than this one.

There is a lot going on that I don’t totally get.  The radio broadcasts that play over much of the film and the action are interesting commentary on the events being played out, sometimes in contrast, sometimes in tune.  It’s an interesting aspect of the first form of media communication that brought information in real time across large distances.  It also created a great deal of the culture of narratives and news information.  Radio pervades the film, set largely in small towns and outskirts of towns in and around Mississippi.

The other pervassive thing was the coca cola drinking in this film.  It’s like the only product in the world at times.  Bottles are carried around, beverages are offered and sought, it’s everywhere throughout the film, even in the final sequences.  Is it perhaps another comment of the growing globalization that radio began to offer.  A pervasive product that everyone drinks?  Is it product placement?  It’s strong and bizarre.

Shelley Duvall is amazing as Keechie, her quirky as hell beauty and dim-witted charm.  Though I have never been a fan of Keith Carradine, he also really is the character of Bowie, a good guy who only knows how to rob and steal, and hardly knows anything else.  Actually, the whole cast is excellent.  The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the southern landscape and the small towns in their dull, muted beauty.

Altman was a master.  He has many excellent films to his name and this is absolutely among the best.  It’s an amazing fact that two such different films have been adapted from one novel, by two important American directors of different generations, who created utterly unique, yet true to the novel, adaptations, masterworks.  And the novel itself is a largely lost classic.  It had been out of print for nearly 30 years after this film was made.  It’s as good as anything out there.

Gosford Park

Gosford Park (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 08/11/02

Gosford Park is a witty, entertaining film, both as a lightly comedic take on the English drawing room mystery and as a loose study of social class in 1920’s England.

Altman, an auteur with associated with more genuinely “American” subjects, is clearly an outsider to the world that he portrays in this film. It does seem that period, setting, and character were developed with attempted accuracy, leaning, I am guessing, on screenwriter Julian Fellowes for some English authenticity. I certainly wouldn’t be able to argue any of its short-comings in that area. The humanist perspective that characterizes Altman’s films is present here, too, showing particularly in his sypathetic portrayal of the working class servants.

The character of Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) seems a self-reflexive “apology” to the English. He is an American director/producer who has come to the stately home to witness a big dinner party as research for a Charlie Chan film that he hopes to produce, which is to be set in just such an English country manner. He is even more myopic than the police inspector (Stephen Fry) who comes to solve the crime (yet utterly ignores both clues and the servants). The American sees only caricatures and surface details, totally oblivious to the murder mystery around him. He dictates his perception of the people and surroundings via overseas phone call, unaware of the events that are taking place around him.

If Weissman’s character is literally self-reflexive, how does that comment on Altman’s “American” perception of the people and environment that he is attempting to describe? Is the character an apology? Or just an attempt at self-deprecating humility?

The film reminded me quite a bit of Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), so much so, that I would be shocked if it was not somewhat conscious, especially given in social class subject matter. It’s been a while since I have seen La Règle du jeu, so I can’t really say more than that on it…just that I recognized it.