Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fool for Love

FOOL FOR LOVE       A                    
USA  (106 mi)  1985  d:  Robert Altman 

If you ain't a cowboy, you ain't shit.               —Eddie (Sam Shepard)

Having written award winning plays for nearly two decades, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child in 1978, Sam Shepard never directed any of his own plays until Fool for Love in 1983, when he directed Ed Harris and Kathy Baker in the lead roles of a small production in San Francisco before opening off Broadway in New York a few months later.  Robert Altman spent the first half of the decade working in smaller budget movies outside the Hollywood studios, choosing to film a series of modern theatrical works in a naturalistic setting, where often the entire shoot consisted of a single set in a solitary room.  The director’s focus in these works is more restrained due to the cramped space, where the dramatic power of the performers unleashes itself with a flood of emotions that can barely be contained by such a restrictive environment, giving the impression that the characters feel straightjacketed.  Shepard seems to share this sense of confinement in his own life, as just two years earlier on the set of FRANCES (1982) he met lead actress Jessica Lange, effectively ending his own fifteen year marriage for this new lifelong companion.  His play Fool for Love seems to contain elements of this double life, starring lead characters who feel both smitten and star crossed, who are desperate for one another when absent, but miserable in each other’s company.  It was Shepard who wanted his play filmed and also chose to star as Eddie in the lead role, a lonesome cowboy at the end of an era, somehow out of place and out of time.  Much of the movie does take place in a single room, a seedy 1950’s roadside motel set on a lonely highway in New Mexico’s Mojave Desert where Kim Basinger as May is hiding out trying to find her bearings.  Unlike his earlier works, however, Altman opens up this claustrophobic confinement, allowing his characters to inhabit the real world outside, though it’s about as desolate and isolated as you could find filled with collectible articles of junk strewn around.  While the play focuses on the explosive energy of the tortured couple, the fools in love, as if the world could not contain their feelings, Altman creates a more dreamlike effect, complete with long drawn out flashback sequences narrated by intensely personal monologues, where confoundingly the narration does not match the images we see onscreen, causing a deeply unsettling confusion about what to believe.  Some in the audience may never regain that alienated disconnection with the material, but oddly enough neither do the characters onscreen.  Much of this movie is simply a bewilderment.                   

Once Eddie finds May, carrying a horse trailer and a few horses behind his truck, he wants her to join him, most likely dreaming of living in the open plains near the mountains somewhere, but May is reluctant, mindful of their cyclical pattern of self-destructive behavior.  Though she’s obviously attracted to Eddie, who’s a natural on a horse, he’s also a disturbing sexual presence, causing May to feel mistrustful, though mostly it seems of herself.  While Eddie is desperate to get her back, he tries to charm his way through her defenses, where amusing humor and sarcasm are eventually replaced by drunken rage, where through flashbacks we soon learn the real mystery behind their dysfunctional relationship, which strangely involves Harry Dean Stanton as the Old Man who led a double life when he was younger, moving back and forth between families, each one not knowing about the other, where these two are a product of his duplicity.  Eddie seems to accept the fact that they are doomed lovers, forever connected, where nobody and nothing can come in between, as if it’s their only destiny, while May wants to make a new start, which has Eddie disgusted at the thought, thinking she’s only deluding herself.  While the two go at it, tearing each other apart, making up, continually opening up even deeper wounds, May has a surprise, as she needs to get ready for a date who will be arriving soon, which has Eddie relishing the opportunity to demean and embarrass the poor slob.  If ever there was theater of the uncomfortable, this is it, as the emotional discoveries of love and abandonment veer into the world of horror and the macabre.  The Old Man is also hanging around the periphery of the motel, living in his trailer parked behind the motel, sitting around on chairs watching and drinking, as if he hasn’t inflicted enough damage, yet he may be their “safe” place, a shelter in the storm, someone they have in common, whose initial narration feels like a wayward Greek chorus, a man who set out on a journey, got lost and distracted, and never found his way back home, leaving it up to these two to find their way on their own.  This remote outpost in the middle of nowhere seems to be their exile into purgatory.    

But all the introductory emotional fireworks is just a prelude to the main event, which is the evening arrival of the gentleman caller, Randy Quaid, just an ordinary guy genuinely concerned about May who becomes a silent witness, like the role of a Holy Fool.  After a little physical altercation, he is quickly offered a drink to settle things down, and over drinks at a lonely motel bar illuminated by the neon lights shining through the window and reflected in the mirror above the bar, each of these doomed lovers tells their sad tale of woe to a perfect stranger, embellished with hypnotic pacing as they backtrack into the sordid details of their tortured pasts.  These eloquent monologues are fiercely intense and highly disturbing, yet they couldn’t be told with more quiet, purposeful understatement. Both Shepard and Basinger, initially defined by how much she fears and is both attracted and repelled by him, disappear from view, replaced by younger more innocent versions of themselves onscreen, where only their voices remain connected to who they really are.  The dreamlike quality of the flashback memories have a haunting effect, as if they’ve been replayed in their minds hundreds of times, and whatever actually happened has been replaced with countless variations and inventions until they barely recognize who they are anymore.  Their entire adult life has been one long struggle to rid their minds of these painful truths, but just seeing one another brings it all back where they’re forced to relive the heartbreaking tragedy all over again, where only in an alcoholic haze does the subject even surface before returning once more into the deep recesses of their damaged souls.  These flashback sequences near the end of the film are among the most uniquely original scenes Altman has ever filmed, and the way he continually disconnects the visual memory from the descriptive monologues is sublimely poetic, where the film itself becomes a surrealistic plateau of mental anguish and existential dread, sure to repeat itself hundreds of more times, like an infected virus spreading through the bloodstream.  Shepard literally inhabits the role he wrote, a character where every nuance matters, while Basinger’s smoldering sexuality and pitch perfect Southern twang may be her best performance over her entire career, rivaled only by LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997).  Also a steady stream of soulful country music marks the first half of the film, a combination of Waylon Jennings and Sandy Rogers, who is Shepard’s sister, who can be heard on YouTube (4:52) here: Sandy Rogers - Go Rosa.  Altman’s stream-of-consciousness theme of tortured and damaged souls was never more poetically realized than this film, where an early scene that wordlessly expresses Basinger’s relationship to a small girl locked out of her motel room is simply heart wrenching.     

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

The cast of the Broadway show "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" celebrate opening night backstage at New York's Martin Beck Theatre, Feb. 19, 1982. From left are, Sandy Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black.

USA  (109 mi)  1982  d:  Robert Altman

Altman spent the entire decade of the 80’s recovering from the critical failure of POPEYE (1980), a box office bonanza that grossed nearly $50 million dollars, preferring to make smaller more intimate films, none of which came close to generating even a million dollars, converting a series of plays into movies starting with this one, followed up by STREAMERS (1983), SECRET HONOR (1984), and Fool for Love (1985).  Adapted from the Ed Graczyk play, Altman chose to use the same set from the short-lived original Broadway stage production, which features two identical small town “five-and-dimes” separated by a two-way mirror, which allows simultaneous viewing of both the present and the past, shooting the entire film in a single room.  Normally one might think this would be a disaster in the making, an exhaustive endurance of tedium, but keeping the same Broadway cast, Altman turns this into a tour de force drama, a showcase of acting talent that becomes searingly confessional.  Set in a Woolworth's diner in a near empty town not far from where GIANT (1956) was filmed in Marfa, Texas, this is the site for the reunion of the “Disciples of James Dean” fan club, commemorating the 20th anniversary of his death.  It’s not your typical reunion as these women have not kept in close contact, so as they delve down memory lane, life holds a few surprises in store.  Sandy Dennis, Cher, Kathy Bates, and especially a mysterious appearance by Karen Black add to the building intrigue, as the mood starts off friendly enough, but each woman has highly personalized sequences that likely include mirror flashback sequences, where the initial polite tone of respectful quiet builds to a crashing crescendo of in-your-face drama, literally surprising the hell out of the audience, as something so light and easygoing suddenly takes a turn into the world of a Bergman chamber drama. 

Using the old-fashioned jukebox music of the McGuire Sisters, singing songs like “Sincerely,” this is really one dynamo of a women’s picture, as these women delve into each other’s habits and character flaws, literally dissecting one another onscreen in an attempt to redefine themselves in a new and different way, not as they were, but as they are, or can be, now.  This metamorphosis of change doesn’t come easy, as many, especially Sandy Dennis, kick and scratch the entire way, absolutely refusing to alter her perceptions.  Her near manic stubbornness is like living in a protective bubble with the other women continually poking and prodding until the bubble bursts.  This kind of liberating intensity is not for the squeamish, but it makes for extraordinary theater, resembling Fassbinder or early Cassavetes, as few others make films as blunt as this one, an ensemble work featuring dynamic performances as dramatically powerful as any Altman film, which might surprise a few people, as this is a hard film to see, never released on Video or DVD even after the passing of thirty years.  That situation has been rectified somewhat, as it’s one of the feature films traveling the country in 2011 as part of the UCLA Festival of Film Preservation.  Initially shot on 16 mm, then blown up to 35 mm, again much like early Fassbinder and Cassavetes, this adds a bit of edginess to the raw emotions on display, never looking pretty, but always challenging the audience with the claustrophobic feel of the world closing in.  All seem to be holding dark secrets of some kind, where slowly through the fixated probing of Black, things are not as they seem, where people soon become unglued.  Using a brilliantly innovative set design, the film seamlessly crosses between the 1975 present and the 1955 past, blending revelatory moments in the present with a familiar emotional arc from the past, where each period of time continues to shed light on the other.

Sudie Bond plays Juanita, the widowed elderly owner of the establishment where they all used to work when they were kids, sharing their lives and their traumas together, all conveniently tucked away and nearly forgotten until unearthed by this reunion.  Juanita places her faith in God and takes a hard line against sinners and trespassers.  Cher, in her first meaty role, is surprisingly comfortable in the role of Sissy, something of a sexual floozy in high school and still amazingly candid, with a mouth that speaks her mind, never coy or bashful, quite capable of a full frontal assault, including godlessness.  Sandy Dennis plays Mona, the woman with the most to lose, as like Blanche DuBois, she clings to her dreams of the past, like living in a Glass Menagerie, as her fluttery speech and fragile state of mind appear to feed on her own self-inflicted neuroses and delusions.  The highlight of the reunion is always her recollection of the time she visited Marfa during the filming of GIANT, when she was chosen as an extra and miraculously spent the night with the brilliant young actor himself, naming her own child after Jimmy Dean, the object of their teen idol worship.  Kathy Bates is nothing less than brilliant in her role as Stella Mae, the sassy, straight talking Southern belle who struck it rich marrying a Texas oilman, a woman with a taste for hard liquor and easy living, who never for a second seems satisfied.  Marta Heflin is the quiet one of the bunch, Edna Louise, a bit dimwitted, constantly reminded of that by Stella Mae, but a friend to all, even if they barely know she’s there.  Karen Black as Joanne is the mystery woman with a role that requires unraveling the tightly wound secrets from each person, as she has a special transparency all her own.  She’s startlingly dark, an angel of gloom that seems to hang over each of them like a dark cloud hovering over their own guilty consciences, but she’s anything but happy about it, feeling like she’s continually been dealt a losing hand.  She seems to be the only one paying a price for everyone else’s delusions, as much like Edna Louise, she has become invisible.                
None of these six women would ever see themselves as feminists, yet they stubbornly cling to their own separate beliefs, where this film is a dialogue that challenges all their assumptions.  Something of a free-wheeling emotional slugfest, everyone gets to take their shots, but also gets shot down by the others in this collective group therapy where no one walks out a winner.  Everyone’s artificial façade is exposed, and none too gently, where the drunken and pointedly judgmental tone is strangely familiar with Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), where Dennis is the link to both films. But the Graczyk play here, while confoundingly interesting, full of bracing moments, simply isn’t in the same league as Albee.  While it has its own complexities with some extraordinary intimate moments between women, there is simply not the same kind of depth or realization.  Instead it is a portrait of delusion and loss of faith, where an unending sadness permeates every inch of that room, yet in Altman’s hands it feels magical, as if our own lives will be cleansed by their personal anguish and pain.  It’s a reminder of the kind of interior poetry that few filmmakers can master, that Altman achieves here and perhaps again later with Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, another rarely seen effort.  The 80’s was a decade when Altman went smaller, peering into the bleak and dysfunctional souls of damaged humans who spend their lives covering up their own unbearable pain, which is usually a patchwork job that falls apart all too easily whenever someone gets too close for comfort.  Love is an elusive goal rarely if ever reached, as people are too busy building layers of protection that hide them from the truth about themselves.  Plato said:  Beauty is the splendor of truth—well not from the vantage point of any of these women, where the piercing knife only makes them bleed.   

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.  

Saturday, April 26, 2014


NASHVILLE               A                    
USA  (159 mi)  1975  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

The price of bread may worry some, but it don’t worry me
Tax relief may never come, but it don’t worry me
Economy’s depressed not me,
My spirit’s high as it can be
And you may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me
It don’t worry me, it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me

They say this train don’t give out rides, well it don’t worry me
All the world is taking sides, but it don’t worry me
In my empire life is sweet, just ask any bum  you meet
And life may be a one way street, but it don’t worry me
It don’t worry me,  it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me

It don’t worry me, it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me. 
It don’t worry me,  it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me

One thing Altman railed against throughout his lifetime was phonies, probably because in Hollywood he had to deal with so many of them, where this theme resurfaces in any number of variations in his movies where a character is not who or what they appear to be, such as McCabe in  McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), or they’re cynically exploiting their false mythology, such as Buffalo Bill, who sees himself as a bogus entertainer willing to exploit his famous name for fame and fortune in BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON (1976).  But in this film, Altman takes aim at celebrity worship, where you’re not anybody unless you’re somebody, where the general consensus seems to be, why should we listen to anyone unless they’re famous?  Of course, the problem being, famous people often find it hard to tell the difference between their own legend and who they really are, like Ronee Blakely as a down home Loretta Lynn style country singer Barbara Jean, caught up in her own myth, perpetuated by her self-interested, overcontrolling husband and manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) who literally pulls the strings like a puppeteer, where she can’t tell the difference between what’s real, and what’s not.  The cynical message being broadcast throughout the entire film is an unseen political candidate running for office on the Replacement Party, where a car drives around town using a bullhorn to announce his platform is little more than - - not those guys - - railing against the status quo at every turn while never really revealing what he’s running for, except an early 17th century concept, sort of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part Two platform, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” claiming that’s why government doesn’t work.  Oh, and he wants to change the national anthem.  This film is one of the great ensemble masterpieces, where it has 24 main characters, an hour of musical numbers, and multiple storylines interwoven into a fractured narrative about life in Music City, the country music capitol of America, where the underbelly is just as exposed as a coterie of stars.        

NASHVILLE came at an interesting time in history, following two major scandals, having only recently pulled out of Vietnam, and Watergate was exposing the imperial secrets of the Presidency, where Nixon had just resigned (in fact, the scenes in the Grand Ole Opry were shot on the day Nixon resigned), and furthermore, hardly anyone had heard of an oddly ambitious Southern governor named Jimmy Carter.  Somehow Altman tapped into a very serious and traumatizing time in America with a show-stopping piece of Americana that is a blisteringly hilarious satire, where often you can't tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t, including the performers, as it’s all an illusion.  In effect Altman has created a disaster film about the American Dream that may draw upon Hitchcock’s themes of fear and complacency in The Birds (1963), where despite the plethora of musical numbers, safe, family oriented, and unthreatening by all accounts, the American public is hiding behind a security net of fantasy escapism, where like Hitchcock, both use surprising, somewhat apocalyptic acts of nature to strike back at foolish humans who continue to believe they are exempt from life’s tragedies.  Central to this theme is the use of the song “It Don’t Worry Me,” which brings the final curtain down at the end, which is essentially a song of openly acknowledged ignorance, “The price of bread may worry some/It don’t worry me” or “Economy’s depressed, not me,” coming from a Southern town that doesn’t wish to have anything to do with the rest of the country’s problems, a blissfull ignorance that actually reflects the same state of mind as Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) in Hitchcock’s film, the local expert ornithologist who swears birds would never attack humans and that people have nothing to worry about.  It’s an interesting parallel that suggests both directors working at the top of their game tapped into similar themes a decade apart, where The Birds release preceded President Kennedy’s assassination by 6 or 7 months, with his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X all assassinated before the decade of the 60’s was over, while Altman’s release of this film preceded the election of President Jimmy Carter just a little over a year later, initially dismissed as a regional candidate, followed by the energy crisis, record levels of rising inflation, and the Iranian hostage crisis, America’s first taste of international terrorism.  In both instances, these prescient films were followed by a lingering social malaise of untold proportions.    

A Nashvillian looks at Nashville / The Dissolve, Noel Murray, former Nashville resident and current film and culture critic, from The Dissolve:

The movie Nashville isn’t trying to be docu-realistic when it comes to Nashville itself. This is something a lot of actual Nashville residents—in the music industry especially—didn’t get back in 1975. (My friend Jim Ridley examined the whole local kerfuffle over Nashville in this well-researched 1995 Scene article.) It’s something a lot of big-city music and film critics didn’t get at the time, either. Nashville follows an eclectic, loosely related mob of superstars, wannabes, fans, and hangers-on over the course of five days, watching how country-music royalty like Haven Hamilton (played by Henry Gibson) and cred-seeking young folk-rockers like Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) enjoy and exploit the privileges of fame. The film builds to a galvanizing act of violence, which leads to a surprisingly noble reaction from Haven, and a unifying performance of one of Tom’s songs. Prior to that, though, Nashville roams freely through a Southern mini-metropolis that’s much sillier than the real one.

As a result, the movie’s version of country music, while tuneful, is intentionally cartoonish. Which means that as part of coastal critics’ apparently eternal need to protect defenseless middle-Americans from mean-spirited showbiz types like Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, and Robert Altman, some tastemakers grumbled about Nashville, claiming Altman was making fun of hicks and disrespecting a grand tradition of American folk music. Reviewing the soundtrack, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau complained that the actors weren’t even authentic country singers, writing, “If the music makes the movie, as more than one film critic has surmised, then the movie is a lie. Another possibility: the critics are fibbing a little to cover their ignorance.”

That particular take on Nashville is based on the misperception that Robert Altman set out to make a movie about country music. That was more the goal of producer Jerry Weintraub, who saw in this project a hit soundtrack album waiting to happen. Altman, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to make a grand statement about celebrity, politics, the deep-rooted conservatism of the South, and a nation on the cusp of its bicentennial. Knowing nothing about Nashville, he sent screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury on a couple of scouting trips, which she came back from loaded down with anecdotes about a medium-sized city with a small-town vibe, where she kept running into the same people whether she was visiting a recording studio, a racetrack, a church, or a bar.

Because Altman liked to improvise, with input from his cast (who in Nashville also wrote some of their own songs), Tewkesbury often doesn’t get enough credit for her contributions to Nashville. But she was the one who helped devise a structure with two dozen major characters wandering into and out of each other’s storylines—even if it’s just to stand mute in the back of a shot, barely noticeable. And it was Tewkesbury who established the recurring moral dilemma these characters face, which she pinpoints on the Criterion Blu-ray when she talks about the scene in Nashville where a terrible singer (played by Gwen Welles) gets duped into performing a striptease at a political fundraiser. “I can fix this so I won’t have to take off all my clothes,” says Tewkesbury, describing what every character in Nashville thinks as they make compromises with their careers, ideals, and personal relationships.

Make no mistake, though: Nashville is Altman’s movie more than anyone’s. He had a capable team helping him achieve a revolutionary sound mix—with every character miked-up and woven into the soundtrack—and helping him cut hours of material into a fluidly paced film that sometimes ping-pongs rapidly between scenes, and sometimes stays still to take in a musical performance. But it’s always Altman pulling the strings, constructing a world so teeming that it seems to spill off the edges of the screen. (One of the movie’s best tricks is playing key songs like “It Don’t Worry Me” in the background well before they’re performed in the film, so they already seem like massive hits that everyone knows.) Though Altman and Tewkesbury based some of the major Nashville players on Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Charley Pride, and others, they weren’t intending to satirize or celebrate country music. The songs—sometimes funny, sometimes sweet—express the characters’ feelings, and their view of the world, irrespective of the location.

Altman’s film acknowledges a period of diminished faith in government while tapping into the populist fervor of country music, actually equating the two, comparing the hypocrisy of politics with the sleaze and dishonesty of the entertainment business.  Yet somehow, when looking back over Altman’s career, while no two films are alike, they all convey similar themes, ideas, story, or style, and point back at one another, as if part of a continuing conversation.  Altman enlarges the world of expanding characters depicted in California Split (1974), adding many more characters, each with their own individual narrative.  Much more than his earlier films, Altman strove for something larger, where the film would become a grand cultural statement, encompassing many attitudes and points of view, or in Altman’s words, “a metaphor for America,” while screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury adds her view, “All you need to do is add yourself as the twenty-fifth character and know that whatever you think about the film is right, even if you think the film is wrong.”  In this way, simply by the expanding and open ended film process, yet clearly set in a specific time and place, Altman intentionally adds the viewer into the conversation, even after repeated viewings where one’s view may shift or change through the years.  As an experiment of integrating multiple narratives into a cohesive whole, Altman has refined what he began in Brewster McCloud (1970), where fragmented pieces of mid 70’s American culture are reflected in the various characters, where each is vulnerable and hurt in some way, often seen as flawed and even foolish, but there’s also an underlying ugliness or moral stain in their own behavior, often conniving, hurting, or bringing harm to others, yet somehow, rationalized within their own collective conscience, this is acceptable behavior.  While there are moments of stunning emotional force, they are undercut by Altman’s direction and his continually shifting editing scheme, such as the moment Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) during a routine hospital visit learns that his beloved wife has died, where his grief is quickly interrupted by a joltingly intrusive conversation from an upbeat soldier visiting another patient, who offhandedly remarks “You give my best to your wife” as Mr. Green literally crumbles before our eyes.  But rather than hold the shot for emotional effect, Altman quickly edits to another scene, keeping the audience at a distance, where the viewer remains an impartial observer witnessing various events as they unfold over the course of five days.

Despite the revolving door of quirky characters, in NASHVILLE they all seem to be on some kind of personal quest or journey, perhaps to get away from something while pursuing their dreams, like Barbara Harris as Winifred, seen abandoning her husband early on during a freeway pile-up of people all driving into the city of Nashville, transforming herself into Albuquerque, her chosen stage name, as she aspires to become a country western star, joining the legions of others all following the same yellow brick road to fame and fortune.  Part of the curiosity comes from characters asking others what they are doing in town, suggesting people are arriving for some major event, creating a sense of anticipation for the intersecting paths of a political campaign and a music festival.  Part of a running joke throughout is how quickly people in this town describe themselves as apolitical, disinterested in politics, or even declaring they don’t vote, confirming a tone of abject disinterest, yet all display undaunted enthusiasm for gaining a foot in the music business.  Somehow their fates are intertwined.  Political alienation is symptomatic of deeper, often unexplored issues, yet the political reality is passivity breeds manipulation, as the space you vacated leaves a spot open for ill-fated winds of empty rhetoric and hot air to blow while searching for a foothold in the political landscape.  Disinterest allows the ambitions of others to set the terms of their own politicized agenda, while you sit by and passively allow them to do it.  Similarly, the paying customers of these musical legends exude their own loss of identity, transferring all the power to the performer, often fawning over celebrities, where they are easily duped into becoming ardent believers, like submissive cult followers.  These competing interests of music and politics comprise the moral dilemma of many of the characters, especially the established musical stars, who don’t wish to be affiliated with any political party, but aren’t against a little back-roomed arm twisting if they think they can gain an advantage over their rival competitors.  What brings them together is both sides want attention, popularity, which in their eyes breeds success, as that is the nature of the business.  Again, the viewer remains an impartial observer sitting outside the events, so may render judgment on the ethical boundaries crossed in pursuit of both goals, especially how easily people allow themselves to be duped and fooled.  With so many different characters with personal agendas, what catches the viewer’s eye may be altogether different in subsequent viewings, which is part of the hidden beauty of the film, as it evolves as we do.  

Shot in only 45 days on a $2 million dollar budget, which was considered small, where each of the two dozen lead characters drew similar salaries somewhere between $750 to $1000/week, the film was originally conceived as a possible TV mini-series, where Altman shot a great deal of footage, viewing two hours of rushes every day, with the director at one point considering releasing the film in two parts, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue, before finally settling on a more conventional format.  But the film is anything but conventional, something like a sprawling epic trainwreck about to happen with plenty of detours along the way.  When the film was previewed in Boston by Paramount, the audience stood for several minutes both cheering and booing.  Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay moves from one giant set piece to the next, a multi-car freeway pileup, recording sessions, night club performances, The Grand Ole Opry, an amateur night that becomes a strip show, to a gathering in front of the Parthenon (1,280 × 853 pixels) in Centennial Park.  Altman received a huge boost from the lavish praise received from film critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, calling it a masterpiece before it was even finished after seeing an early cut of the movie, describing Altman “as identifiable as a paragraph by Mailer when he’s really racing.  ‘Nashville’ is simply ‘the ultimate Altman movie’ we’ve been waiting for… It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over,” actually comparing Altman’s methods to James Joyce in Ulysses.  In The New York Times, Vincent Canby protested: “If one can review a film on the basis of an approximately three-hour rough cut, why not review it on the basis of a five-hour rough cut?  A ten-hour one?  On the basis of a screenplay?  The original material if first printed as a book?”  While they used the script primarily as a guide, as the movie was shot almost entirely in sequence, the film is largely improvised by the actors, who spent a great amount of their time in character, each one individually mike’d for sound, where the use of multiple cameras prevented the actors from knowing precisely when they were on camera.  Each actor was required to write and perform their own songs for the movie, where Altman’s talent was juggling all the various storylines of the two dozen characters, creating clarity out of chaos.  

According to Altman:

I felt we were doing something that had the potential of being terrific. I had complete artistic freedom in this; I had nobody — nobody — saying you had to do this or do that....We had the framework, which was the city of Nashville, and I had the music as the through line. Then, you’ve got to understand that at that time everybody was politically charged — one way or another. So when they found out we were free to express these...attitudes, everybody became very creative.

Opening with the blaring noise of an advertisement for the film itself, where the announcer promises to proceed “without commercial interruption,” what follows is one continual commercial advertisement from a political campaign van driving through the streets spouting cliché’d political banalities that pass for wisdom, where Altman has a habit of celebrating the same interests and themes that he also subjects to ridicule.  A freeway multiple car pile-up leaves traffic at a standstill as Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an alleged BBC Reporter, walks through the carnage of cars spouting platitudes into her pocket tape recorder about violence in America, as she arrives in town to do a story on Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton, Henry Gibson from television’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1970 – 73), a part originally intended for Robert Duvall, but his salary demands were too high.  Hamilton is recording an ode to our national heritage, “We must be doin’ somethin’ right to last 200 years,” but he’s amusingly interrupted by Opal’s invasion of the privacy of his studio, where she’s quickly escorted out into another studio where Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) is cutting a record with a black gospel choir, where Opal rambles on into her recorder about “darkest Africa with its naked, frenzied bodies.”  Across town at the airport, fans are welcoming back the return of the reigning queen of country music, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely, a backup singer for Hoyt Axton, who met with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton in preparation for the role originally intended for Susan Anspach), who’s been recovering from an injury and near-nervous breakdown, where her swoon causes a near panic, expecially from her nervously manipulating manager and husband Barnett (Allen Garfield). 

We follow the continued near misses of a folk trio, Bill and Mary (Allan Nichols and Cristina Raines) who keep missing Tom (Keith Carradine), who is sleeping with Mary while secretly attempting to pursue a solo career.  Tom also calls Linnea at home, hoping for a hotel tryst, where we learn she’s married to Delbert (Ned Beatty) while raising two deaf children.  Lily Tomlin’s role could  based on actress Louise Fletcher who was the child of deaf parents.  Ironically, Louise Fletcher won the Best Actress Award that same year for her role in a film that won all the major categories at the Academy Awards, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S BEST(1975).  Rising country star Connie White (Karen Black) takes advantage of Barbara Jean’s absence and fills in for her at the Grand Ole Opry.  While this music world is bustling with behind-the-scenes activities, with characters continually crossing paths, political advance man John Triplette (Michael Murphy) meets with Delbert to line up contacts, celebrities, pocketbooks, and entertainers for both a fund-raising smoker and an outdoor political rally at the Parthenon.  While there are more stars and secondary characters galore, with a beautiful interweaving of various interests and personalities, the three characters that really stand out are Lily Tomlin, also a regular on Laugh-In performing in her first film, whose grace and eloquence couldn’t be more surprising, whether singing in the choir, having a delightful sign language conversation with her kids, or sitting alone in a club actually listening to a song, turning that into one of the profound moments of the movie, where she may actually be the heart and soul of the film.  Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal is appallingly insensitive, yet she gets the majority of the laughs for her fawning celebrity worship, utter daffiness, and infinite rudeness, where she’s seen wandering aimlessly through vacant junkyards or a giant parking lot filled with yellow school busses spouting stream-of-conscience jibberish wherever she goes, where after stepping all over everyone to get close to anyone resembling a celebrity, she rejects even talking to the driver for Bill, Mary, and Tom, claiming, “I make it a policy never to speak to the servants.”  Finally, this film belongs to Barbara Harris, who makes the most of an underwritten part, yet she is probably the most hopeful and optimistic character in a film that is otherwise filled with people who might be described as unhappy, pathetic, devious, manipulative, miserable, or even delusional, where she takes the baton at the end and leads the crowd in a surprisingly soulful rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me,” Barbara Harris - It Don't Worry Me - YouTube (Film finale, 5:02), becoming a transcendent moment, where her rousing performance resurrects a shocked and stupefied audience, becoming the film’s driving force, an emblematic theme song that could easily become the Replacement Party’s choice for the replacement national anthem.      

After November 22, 1963 [the date of President Kennedy's assassination] and all the other days of infamy, I wouldn't have thought it possible that a film could have anything new or very interesting to say on assassination, but Nashville does, and the film's closing minutes with Barbara Harris finding herself, to her astonishment, onstage and singing, It Don't Worry Me are unforgettable and heartbreaking. Nashville, which seems so unstructured as it begins, reveals itself in this final sequence to have had a deep and very profound structure - but one of emotions, not ideas. This is a film about America. It deals with our myths, our hungers, our ambitions, and our sense of self. It knows how we talk and how we behave, and it doesn't flatter us but it does love us.

Friday, April 25, 2014

California Split

CALIFORNIA SPLIT                    A
USA  (108 mi)  1974  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

One of the unsung films of the 70’s, coming on the heels of Vietnam, Watergate, and ending with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August, 1974, just two days after the American release, films such as Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and this one all contribute to a pervasive feeling of nihilism running rampant throughout America, where a government of laws and even a Presidency that we once thought was sacrosanct are suddenly fallible.  Slamming the door on 60’s idealism, when the deflated hopes of the Civil Rights era and anti-war protests did not eradicate poverty, racism, or even ignorance, the 70’s was an era of especially edgy and well-made paranoid conspiracy thrillers in movies, including Alan Pakula’s Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), and Sydney Pollacks’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), all of which express an impending doom creeping into the moral fabric of society. But rather than deal with this issue head-on, Altman chooses to make a modest film where not a lot happens, yet the atmosphere is rich with intimate detail, becoming one of his loosest and freest expressions, feeling as if there was plenty of on-the-set improvisation. The film was unseen for decades other than out-of-print VHS tapes due to music clearances and copyright issues and when a DVD was finally released in 2004 there were three minutes missing, with specifics detailed here: [Gregory Meshman].  Nonetheless, this is easily Altman’s most naturalistic, Cassavetes-like film, especially the way the lead characters spontaneously break out into song at a moment’s notice, unleashing pent-up emotions, where this is largely a dense, character driven portrait of the effects of gambling addiction (the director and screenwriter are both recovering gamblers, where Altman acknowledges “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days”), starring George Segal and Elliot Gould as Bill and Charlie, two compulsive gamblers, where one is unfortunately down-on-his-luck, while the other is a more free spirited soul that takes a liking to him.  Accentuating the authenticity of the gambling lifestyle, and the theme of addiction, the director chooses to use extras in the opening gambling sequence that are actually recovering drug addicts from Synanon, while also using real life gamblers and bystanders throughout the film from authentic locations

Mostly shot in gambling casinos using an 8-track recording device, which allows 8 overlapping layers of dialogue to be heard simultaneously throughout the room, this method creates a mix of chaos amidst a world on the verge of spiraling out of control, where the two are caught up in random events, where the attempt to gain control seems futile and senseless, yet their will to prevail feels infinitely complex and ultimately absurd.  While this is not an acid tinged, nightmarish vision, it’s more a Dostoyevskian plunge into the lower depths of reality.  The two characters meet, seemingly by chance at a poker table in a room filled mostly with older women, like typical bingo parlors, where one guy at the table is a particularly sore loser.  As Bill and Charlie celebrate their winnings in a nearby bar, they get stinking drunk, delving into the hazards of memory loss where neither one can remember all of the Seven Dwarfs, where their euphoria is short-lived, as the sore loser laying in wait (Edward Walsh, brother of the screenwriter Joseph) beats the crap out of both of them, stealing their money, where the two can be seen licking their wounds over breakfast in Charlie’s apartment the next morning, which he shares with two call girls, Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, who provide a kind of ditzy LA alternative mindset.  While Bill is more close to the vest and has a somewhat square job working as a magazine editor, Charlie is a freewheeling, live wire act who continually lures him away from his desk with the promised land of a world out there filled with fast action at the track, where the two quickly become best friends, giving this the unique feel of a buddy road picture, as these guys are always on the run somewhere, going to boxing matches, playing poker, or drinking, where their world consists of drifting from one impulsively driven, adrenaline-packed high to the inevitable lows that follow, where Bill in particular starts accumulating heavy debt, where writer and co-producer Joseph Walsh also makes an appearance as his loan shark, Sparkie, whose patience runs thin.  “Didn’t I tell you that I’ve got busts happening all over the city, that my parents are in town, and you come in here and you don't have dollar one?” 

Down and out and seemingly at his wits end, Bill gets the harebrained idea to sell his car and most of his belongings in a desperate attempt to make a splash in Reno, where he just has a good feeling and he doesn’t need Charlie spoiling it for him.  Never afraid to bet a hunch, Charlie gets behind this crazed energy, where the two agree to split whatever winnings.  Told in episodic segments that are little more than real life vignettes, the two spend a wild weekend in Reno, resplendent in its artificiality, but once we get a feel for the lay of the land, beautifully expressed by the running musical commentary of piano lounge singer Phyllis Shotwell, Altman takes us underneath the surface through the differing perspectives of these two guys.  Bill is driven to succeed with near manic zeal, searching out a private, high-stakes poker game, while Charlie is equally enthralled just taking it all in while sitting at the bar.  Before a seat opens up at the table, Charlie gets into Bill’s ear, sizing up each of the men sitting at the table like a boxer getting last minute instructions before entering the ring, while Bill is maintaining his composure by staying sober.  But after the first few games, Bill asks Charlie to leave the room, as his presence is affecting his concentration.  Both men then go into their own internalized rollercoaster ride of changing emotions, where Altman uses Charlie’s exclusion to feed into the audience’s own expectations, as they likely feel just as cheated missing out on all the action.  Without a dime to his name, as he’s given everything to Bill, Charlie wanders around kibitzing on other poker games going on in the casino, where his overly sarcastic running monologue matches the song selection by Phyllis Shotwell, who keeps churning out the old standards, all of which continually coats the film in a layer of superficiality, while offscreen reverberations continue to swell, as Bill occasionally comes out for air, reporting the latest update, but he keeps going back for more, intermixed with an improbably driven need to switch to blackjack, or roulette, all the while keeping Charlie away, who is dying a slow death not knowing what’s happening.  Finally, Bill allows Charlie to join him at the craps table, where Bill goes on a roll that most can only dream of, where the house players and the watching public are simply in awe, pointing at the guy who’s winning all the money, like he’s a headline story.  When Charlie collects the winnings, he can’t contain his unbridled enthusiasm, like pulling his finger from the hole in the dam, and all the water comes gushing out, breaking into a frenzied moment of delirious, nonstop commentary.  But Bill is exhausted, in a state of hushed quiet, where he literally doesn’t feel anything, no jubilation, no joy, no ecstasy, only the hollowness of the moment, where the American Dream is viewed as an empty landscape filled with pitfalls, suddenly feeling senseless and self-defeating.  There’s a river of delusion under both men’s vantage point, continually covered in cocktails, lounge songs, and the everpresent red carpet that beckons, but by the end, despite the comic tone, both players feel equally lonely and pathetic in what is ultimately a devastating portrait of crumbling dreams.