Monday, April 28, 2014

A Wedding

A WEDDING                                      A-  
USA  (125 mi)  1978  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman 

“You know, weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of — and yet somehow, when they’re over, it’s always so sad.”               
—Rita Billingsley (Geraldine Chaplin)

“I like to allow for accidents, for happy occurrences, and mistakes. That’s why I don’t plan too carefully, and why we’re going to use two cameras and shoot 500,000 feet of film on A Wedding. Sometimes you don’t know yourself what’s going to work. I think a problem with some of the younger directors, who were all but raised on film, is that their film grammar has become too rigid. Their work is inspired more by other films than by life.” 
—Robert Altman from Roger Ebert interview June 12, 1977,  The Chicago Blog: In memory of Robert Altman 

A sprawling mess of a movie that couldn’t be more fun, one of Altman's funniest films, where what seems like that holy day disintegrates into pure mayhem and turns into the marriage from hell.  Altman offers no hints in the opening half hour, playing it straight with a few minor glitches, where the pageantry of a church wedding, including the choir of the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois, by the way, seems glorified by the sacred music and formal attire, as an endless parade of family and guests are introduced, where it’s impossible for the audience to keep track of them all, but therein lies the intrigue. By the time we identify the bride and groom, Amy Stryker as Muffin and Desi Arnaz Jr, as Dino, and the Bishop stumbles over their wedding vows, they seem almost like an afterthought, swallowed up by the more scandalous affairs of others.  Altman revisits the loosely defined Nashville (1975) formula of a dozen things happening simultaneously, only expanding the base of main characters utilized from 24 to 48, eventually creating a farce like atmosphere where events spin out of control, not the least of which are the characters themselves who succumb to the pressure of having to continually put on their happy faces at an elite social gathering of high society.  Adding to the high drama is the corpse of the groom’s grandmother (Lillian Gish) in an upstairs bedroom, who dies just seconds before the wedding party arrives at her palatial estate, an event that is one of the worst kept secrets throughout most of the evening.     

By the time the guests arrive, Altman can’t wait to expose them as hypocrites, scoundrels, cheats, backstabbers, drug addicts, and hell, why not throw in very likely connected to the mafia for good measure?  By the time we hear a painfully amateurish and neverending rendition of the song “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” the kind of off-key version sung in the piano lounges of motel conventions all across America, no one is left unscathed, including the groom who has apparently impregnated the bride’s sister Buffy, Mia Farrow, who doesn’t seem the least bit ashamed, while her mother Tulip (Carol Burnett) is having the ultra dramatic slow dance of her life with late night comic joke master Pat McCormick, something of a balding gentle giant, who is not only putting the moves on her but declaring her to be his lifelong soul mate, suggesting they meet for a private moment outside in the greenhouse in ten minutes, leaving the overwhelmed Tulip in a state of flux.  On the groom’s side, Vittorio Gassman is the alleged mafia father figure who designed an exact replica of his favorite Italian restaurant in his basement.  Easily his best scene is the unexpected arrival of his brother from Italy, where the two of them go into an unsubtitled rage of venomous Italian words, which of course goes on for several minutes and no one has a clue what the hell they’re arguing about before they eventually embrace in brotherly love.  Before the night is done, Mia Farrow is in the pants of the brother.         

Where all this is leading, no one knows, as this is simply a roller coaster ride of strange and mysterious events, where the audience is continually caught off-guard and challenged by the multitude of characters, which is not at all uncommon at large wedding receptions, where people fade in and out of one’s radar with some obviously creating more of a lasting impression than others.  When the uninvited bride and groom’s best friends arrive, Pam Dawber (Mindy from Mork and Mindy) and the party animal Gavan O’Herlihy, both are subsequently seen openly making out with the betrothed, as if there is some unfinished history.  The open-minded morals of the younger generation are seemingly excused by their parents as the dalliances of youth, while the adults are all too busy covering up their own affairs behind closed doors.  Geraldine Chaplin is the straight-laced, can’t-veer-from-the-program party planner, the one always announcing what the various party activities will be, but also summarily left out of all the activities herself, apparently without a friend in the world, leaving her lost and alone in the middle of all this “happiness.”  She provides an unintended narration of the festivities, usually blatantly ignored, treated with disdain like some of the hired help.  It’s interesting to see how this film lays the groundwork for a later Altman work that actually highlights the distinctive viewpoints of the upstairs and downstairs social classes in Gosford Park (2001).  This film only begins to shed light on the class divisions, preferring instead to go for broad comedy, where by the end, the wedding party is a train wreck waiting to happen.  For years this film was unavailable in any format except old VHS copies, but was eventually released on a composite DVD of 70’s films called The Robert Altman Collection.  

1 comment:

  1. As with "Nashville," all the actors were miked, all the time, and there was a lot of filming going on from different angles, so no one knew if they would eventually be important in a scene or not. Watching the 159-minute "Nashville," one can, with an effort, keep track of who and where all 24 characters are; watching the 125-minute "A Wedding," it is impossible to do the same for 48 characters, and in fact, many of them are barely there. This is as far in the direction of chaos as Altman would ever allow himself to go; in later work, he pulled back to a greater level of control. But "A Wedding" is fascinating for precisely that reason, that the viewer is inevitably as confused as she would be if attending the actual event. I think the coup de theatre at the end, involving the Dawber and O'Herlihy characters, is unusually effective and thematically apt; certainly I have never forgotten it.