Showing posts with label Robert Altman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Altman. Show all posts

Sunday, February 5, 2017

NASHVILLE

   I suppose these days everyone has their favorite something: favorite football player, favorite pop singer, favorite pest control expert. My favorite things have always been people--at least, certain people--and that is why, if pressed, I would select Robert Altman as my favorite movie director and Nashville (1975) as my favorite film. Altman populated his motion pictures with so many people that a first-time viewer might assume that some of them were extraneous. But such things rarely exist in his movies, and they certainly do not exist in Nashville. Even a small child resting on his daddy's shoulders in a crowd scene after a country star has been assassinated at a political music festival exudes substance. I have noticed that many people confuse substance with explicit meaning. Naturally, I disagree.
   It is not my purpose here to confuse Altman's style with absurdist works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, mainly because I have always found Beckett to be obvious and boring. Neither does he come across as some pretentious polecat in the spirit of James Joyce, whose writings always struck me as being in need of a decoder ring. If Altman's directorial style does have a literary equivalent, it might be a blend of Eugene Ionesco and Philip Roth, but even that fanciful thought still misses the mark. The most clear explanation I can offer is that he caught all the minute details of human interaction and adhered them to the old adage that comedy is tragedy plus time. When Keenan Wynn's character, Mr. Green, receives the news that his wife Esther has passed away, Scott Glenn's military character rushes up to him to babble out some wonderful--i.e., meaningless--good news. As Mr. Green strains to absorb the unexpected loss of his wife, the camera stays on the two men, neither of whom is reading the cues of the other, leaving us to struggle with the reverse of the adage. Throughout much of the movie, tragedy is comedy minus time. 
   Most directors--even some good ones--would not have had the imagination to conceive such a scene. But even those who might have found it within their abilities would not have been able to follow it up by having Mr. Green vindictively chase down Shelley Duvall who, as L.A. Joan, was more interested in chatting with men in the local music business than with caring about her dying Aunt. 
   It is no coincidence that we never meet Aunt Esther.
   We also never meet Hal Phillip Walker, the disembodied voice who is campaigning for President of the United States on the Replacement Party ticket. His long-winded witticisms come at us throughout the movie via a sound system atop an old campaign van winding its way through the city. Walker believes the National Anthem is a stupid song, that all the lawyers should be thrown out of Congress, and that churches should lose their tax-exempt status. He also believes that Christmas smells like oranges. In short, his message is one of populism. Released between Watergate and the American Bicentennial, Nashville summed up precisely where our country existed at that time.
   But such a statement fails to do justice to Altman's film, or to Joan Tewkesbury's screenplay, or to the brilliance of the casting and the performances the director allowed to flow from such heavyweights as Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, or any of the twenty-plus other actors prominently featured in this film. In this movie (which Altman called a musical, what with more than one hour of the total running time being devoted to mostly unappealing countrypolitan drivel, much of it written by the actors themselves, with the rest penned by Nashville stalwart Richard Baskin), we encounter people who are so beaten down by the lives they consciously created for themselves that they are largely unaffected by the public execution of the country star for whom they have all clamored, Barbara Jean, played to perfection by Ronnie Blakley. To quell any emotional response the crowd might express, or to seize an opportunistic moment, Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who has been looking for a break since the festival began, takes the microphone and howls out a Gospel version of the only really human song in the film, Keith Carradine's "It Don't Worry Me." The audience eats it up. After all, they came to be entertained. 
   Five years after this movie came out, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon to death. Some reporter called Altman and asked if he felt any responsibility for Chapman's actions. Altman, whose actual reaction can only be imagined, told the story that he answered back, "Do you feel any responsibility for not learning the lessons of Nashville?"

   

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

COOKIES

   Drama, according to my high school junior English teacher, is conflict. These days, of course, man against man is the most common type, although on occasion we encounter vampire against man, sinister outer space zombie strippers against man, and even the infrequent subhuman man against man. There are even the often tantalizing cases of inner man against outer man. In a Robert Altman movie experience, however, the nature of the conflict is often more linear, more multi-dimensional, perhaps even more cosmic. I suspect that must be one powerhouse reason why many viewers, including myself, are delighted to disregard the lesser Altman trademarks, such as the humor being cued by strands of music, or the invariable quiet weirdness of some of the more feminine characters, and instead we just lay back and allow our minds to groove on the strands of humanity amid the characterizations. Altman's genius (as tired and unworthy an appellation to burden a genius with as can be found) rests in large part upon his ability to get relatively large casts of characters to form an individuality within a collective sameness. In M*A*S*H we saw often outrageous--yet somehow appropriate--individuality within the framework of an Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. In Nashville, twenty-four characters traversed a series of stages, each of whom screaming--however quietly or shrilly--his or her own version of the year in which they lived within the framework of the title city's musical establishment. In The Player, the framework was a Hollywood movie studio, while the individuals staying alive within it were decision makers, writers, and an assortment of clerical and support staff.
    In Cookie's Fortune (1999), scenarist Anne Rapp and director Robert Altman venture into the micro-cosmic village of Holly Springs, Mississippi, a town with no particular central leadership, yet one populated with infinitely believable people who share connections often in spite of themselves. Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal) lost her husband Buck two years prior and has never spent a day since without wishing he were still there with her in that big old house. She possesses considerable verbal skill, suggesting an education worthy of her presumed financial status. Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) is Cookie's sister, cousin, niece--it's often hard to be sure which, but that's part of the plot--something of a sympathetic yet hatefully disconnected case who dominates everyone merely because she intuits that the people she rules would run into stone walls without her constant guidance. Her sister (or daughter, or niece--again, it services the plot) Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore) remains Camille's puppet to the end, even when an ironic twist blows apart any hope Camille grasps of having the freedom she herself demands. In one especially humorous scene, Cora has been told to "tick a lock" by Camille and cannot even bring herself to open her mouth to speak when a Sheriff's Deputy tries to make small talk about the shooting death of Cookie.
    Most everybody in town liked Cookie very much. After all, she was old, a bit on the decrepit side, but not without charm. She smoked a series of lady's pipes, kept her late-husband's extensive gun collection in a cabinet that wouldn't quite close, and had one hell of a nice garden through which she kept an eye on the precocious neighbor boy who was always stealing her croquet balls.
   We know where we are throughout every instant of this movie, a fact that reinforces the often fictionalized feel of the small southern fishing town. From the first shots of the crumbled tin walls that house the local bar to the rapturous holiness of deputies talking about fishing, from the absurdity of the Church's Easter play being Salome (written, the marque informs us, by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon) to Manny (Lyle Lovett) with his outre creepy lust for Emma (Liv Tyler) (Cora's daughter, sister, niece, etc), and especially from Lester (Ned Beatty) second in command in the Sheriff's office and his peaceful relationship with Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton). These two men amplify every scene they are in together, even when the presence of one is only referenced by the other, as when Willis finds himself charged with Cookie's murder and Lester states with calm certainty that he is innocent because "I've gone fishing with the man."
   Most of us--especially those who grew up in small towns and moved to bigger cities--want very much to believe that this is pretty much the way things play out in small towns with a major industry being the selling of catfish. The authenticity is not for one second in question here, even as we watch with mounting anger as Camille violates the sanctity of Cookie's suicide by poking her body with a jabbing finger, rearranging the death scene to look like a murder, and insisting that respectable people do not commit suicide. The irony of this and other magnificently staged scenes is so multi-tiered that it may take some serious afterthought to catch them all. Here's Camille, the most burlesque version of the southern belle since Scarlett O'Hare, attempting to redefine protocol into every place she marches her self-important bodice. If her own sense of propriety requires that Willis be charged with the murder of his friend (and possible relative), then so be it. If her version of comfort dictates that Emma has to go back to living in a van instead of in a big old roomy house, that must be God's will. And if Cookie's will needs to be destroyed to safeguard her own concept of an appropriate lifestyle denied her by her own mother, well then it might have behooved her to find that last will and testament in the cookie jar before the lawyer, Jack Palmer (Donald Moffat) beat her to it.
   It would be stupid to ignore the theme of miscegenation in this movie. Altman sets us up from the beginning to misinterpret the relationship Willis has with almost everyone, but especially with Cookie. When we meet him, he is tossing back shots of Wild Turkey in his friend's bar. We watch him apparently steal a bottle of hooch on his way out. From there he stops by Emma's van to tap on the glass. We surmise that the glass may not be the only thing he hopes to tap that Good Friday evening. We follow him to Cookie's home where he walks up to the gun case and begins to remove the valuable armaments. 
   Our evaluations in the above three scenes is by large part influenced by the fact of Willis being black. Surprise! Surprise! We may just have it wrong. It turns out that Willis was not so much stealing the whiskey as borrowing it. The next day he brings back a half bottle to replace the one he took, a common unspoken routine between the customer and his bartender. His stopping by Emma's van was merely to check in with the young lady to see if she would have Easter dinner with him and Cookie. And the reason he removed the guns from their display was because he had promised Cookie he would clean them as a favor to her before the night was over.
   This would be a very sub-O. Henry series of twists were it not for the fact of Willis's relationship to the town and particularly to Cookie and Emma. The latter asks him about his childhood and he talks about his grandfather who had thirty-four grandchildren. "Thirty-four!" she says, astonished. "How'd he tell you all apart?"
   "Well, eighteen of them were girls and sixteen boys, so that helped. And among us boys, some of them were white and some of us were black. I was the blackest of them all."
   A kind of meta-brilliance with Cookie's Fortune is the freedom Altman gives the support characters, a freedom which allows them to aid in the strength of the central actors. Courtney B. Vance as Inspector Otis Tucker is so free in this movie that we could never mistake him for the role he played in TV's "Law and Order: Criminal Intent." The normally cosmetic Chris Dutton as officer Jason Brown allows his character to be simultaneously bumbling yet identifiable because of the sheer enthusiasm he brings to his small town world. And Donald Moffat, not exactly the most household name in Hollywood (a fact that is Hollywood's loss and not ours), positively incinerates all levels of other people's pomposity with a richness of character that crumples every starched pleat in town. 
   About halfway through this movie, I thought to myself, "Hey, this is very nice. There'll be no need to watch it a second time, but it's still pleasant." By the end of the film, an extended moment that stretches for generations, I knew just how wrong I was to be so dismissive. This film contains a tangible holiness that an earlier Altman might have considered worth gently mocking. That his intent remains entirely respectful of good and bad folks alike remains the most cosmic irony of all. I wish my high school English teacher was around to give me an "amen."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

FILL UP AND YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY

    
   The movie Car Wash (1976) is the greatest vehicle director Michael Schultz has ever helmed. It is also the greatest thing screenwriter Joel Schumacher ever wrote. Prior to the creation of this film, both men worked in television and that's a tradition in which they continued. But if it's true that each person has at least one mighty work inside him, then this surely was their picture. 
    Is the movie derivative of Robert Altman? Sure! Is it great all the same? Absolutely! Why? Because something can be derivative without being a copy, especially when the talent in front of the camera is as strong as it is here. The strongest talent in front of the camera here is yet another man who primarily distinguished himself in the television medium. I'm talking about the late great Ivan Dixon. If the only thing you know Ivan for is "Hogan's Heroes," then you are depriving yourself because he directed some of the best episodes of "The Rockford Files," "In the Heat of the Night," and even "The Waltons"! His all-time best directorial work was with the movie The Spook Who Sat by the Door, one of the most brilliant black power movies ever made. As the lead man in the gang at the Dee-Luxe car wash, he plays Lonnie, a stoic man who did some time, who gets hassled by his probation officer, and who cannot quite get by on the salary the white boss is paying him. His character is the solid foundation of this film and without Dixon in that role, this would have been an entirely different film. It would not have been as good.
   That foundation work is crucial in a movie lacking a traditional plot. The storyline involves one long shift at the car wash, where we meet men and women, each of whom is one good day away from emotional, psychological or physical destruction. We meet Franklin Ajaye as the equally under-appreciated combination Lothario and superhero known as The Fly. We meet George Carlin, doing the best impression of an L.A. taxi driver in the history of the profession. We meet Bill Duke, a Black Muslim who is damned tired of trying to explain to the others about their real place in the system. We meet Garrett Morris, a sort of good-natured Shylock character who forgets to pay his traffic fines. We meet Melanie Mayron, who gets fed up with being the owner's mistress and finally gets a date with someone else who will take advantage of her in some other ways. We meet Professor Irwin Corey, who only wants to get his car washed while providing a urine specimen for the doctors. We meet Richard Pryor and the Pointer Sisters, who as Daddy Rich and his flock, assure the multitudes that the way to happiness is paved with money. These people and all the others live over the edge. They know their future probably lies in washing other people's cars. Yet some of them do have their dreams. Some want to meet the right young woman. Some want to break out with their musical act. Some plan a political revolution. And some just want a raise so they can pay rent. 
    Car Wash is also a very funny movie. To deny that is to deny yourself some well-earned pleasure. The humor is real in a way that escapes most movies. There's nothing evil in the shots. When the hooker skips out on the cab fare, she's not trying to hurt the driver. She just doesn't have the money. When one employee puts hot peppers inside another guy's burrito, he's not trying to kill him. He's just evening the score from an earlier prank. Even when the workers smart off to the owner's son for reading to them from Mao's Red Book, they don't hate the kid. They just want him to wake up. There is, in other words, a friendliness to this movie that links with Lonnie and holds together for repeated viewings. (Danny DeVito and Brooke Adams are also in the film but you need a magnifying glass to spot them in the food stand across the street.)
   The Norman Whitfield soundtrack that plays throughout the day's work is punctuated by raving disc jockeys with a sense of the absurd, just as it should be. The three hit songs from the movie were the title track, "I Wanna Get Next to You" (which sounds very much like the Stylistics) and "I'm Going Down," as well as The Pointer Sisters tune "You Gotta Believe."
   When this movie first came out, some people called it the black M*A*S*H, which was just silly. There's multiple ethnicities represented here and besides this is funnier than M*A*S*H and the acting is every bit as spontaneous and authentic. But the label stuck, so most of these excellent actors went back to their day jobs with the television studios. 
     The humor in Car Wash will break your heart every bit as much as the cathartic ending. It'll also give you something to think about the next time you take your sedan in for a cleaning. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

TWO HOOKERS AND AN EIGHT BALL

    
   A mere two years following the release and universal acclaim of the movie Nashville (1975), director Robert Altman told an audience of movie critics and presumed aficionados that we as a society had only scratched the surface of the imaginative possibilities of motion pictures. I have only one other time been so simultaneously floored and elevated by a remark spoken by someone in the movie business and that was when Sean Penn said that movies were too important to be mere "entertainment" and that if people wanted entertainment they should get two hookers and an eight ball. 
    Rarely do people integrally involved in any given business demonstrate such remarkable insight into their own enterprise. Altman had the right idea and Penn had the right sense of indignation.
    Here were the preeminent director and the finest actor of their respective generations telling us that we needn't be all that impressed with what we were seeing because the players in question would one day be exposed for all their evident limitations once the system evolved a bit.
   I cannot completely agree with the presumed modesty of either assertion, however conceited the wording. But about the validity of the sentiments I have not the slightest doubt.
   Just think about Altman's prediction in its context. He had released Nashville two years earlier, a movie with a twenty-four person cast that existed as a true ensemble, where some of the cameo performances were performed either for free or for scale because the actors were just that honored to be involved in the project, where people such as Henry Gibson and Karen Black wrote the lyrics and music for the songs they would be performing, where Lily Tomlin was tasked with playing the mother of two deaf children, where Jeff Goldblum's character was forbidden to speak--in short, where everyone had to create their roles in the most extreme and literal sense of that term--and here's Altman saying that his medium was still in its infancy, that with the proper stoking of imagination we would one day witness movies that would make his feel trivial by comparison.
    We certainly have not evolved far since the time of his remark. Even with a brief flirtation with "independent" film production, the fact remains that most filmmakers are constrained to go for the artistic line drive rather than risk striking out while aiming for a creative home run. Some people still try, as the recent critical success of 7 Psychopaths bears out. Yet there are one thousand Breaking Dawn/Red Dawn/Dawn Go Away I'm No Good For You vomit festivals to every work of genuine merit. 
   And that's strange because I think it would be much easier to make something good than something so typical.
   There's a fascinating exchange in Altman's movie The Player where the vunderkind offers the opinion that the studios can save money by not hiring writers. All they have to do is apply newspaper headlines to the process and the scripts will write themselves. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) quips, "I was just thinking, if we could get rid of the actors and directors, you really might have something." 
   Even though Mill intends that as a devastating rejoinder to the pompous idiot he is addressing, in a way that is kind of what Altman does do in his movies. Sure, he litters them with stars, but when you have twenty to thirty stars in a movie, there are no stars because no one can upstage anyone else. 
    Executing that working philosophy exemplifies taking movies where they had heretofore never gone. So what's the next step? It's been forty odd years. You'd think we'd have something better to show for it than that fucking Avatar. Is it possible to make a "real" movie--meaning one that people like that is smart and imaginatively innovative?
   It used to happen all the time. That period of time was called the first half of the 1970s. I'll go far out on a fragile limb here and even opine that very little of significance has happened cinematically since the release of Jaws in 1975. The crystallization of the blockbuster drove a stake through the heart of creativity in contemporary filmmaking. Obviously, some exceptions have presented themselves, but those exceptions were almost exclusively committed by directors who had established their cache prior to 1975. Kurosawa, Coppola, Kubrick, Godard, Woody Allen and Robert Altman: those are the fellows who exhibited the most post-Jaws imagination and each of them had made a well-deserved reputation for doing what he does best before 1975. You can even throw Scorsese into that mix if that makes things more palpable. 
    Technology has played the largest role in the de-emphasis of creative imagination--just as it always has. When movie production evolved from silent to talkies, everyone thought that the quality of films would de facto rocket through the stratosphere and yet it was years before any "new" movie surpassed Birth of a Nation, City Lights, or Metropolis
   This same working philosophy applies in endeavors unrelated to movie making. I had an interesting conversation this very day with a man quite knowledgeable about various aspects of internet marketing. This tremendously nice person was able to bandy about all the terminology in a pleasant and cogent manner, making his business needs quite clear to me in a brief period of time. At first I sort of rolled back in my seat, marveling at his mastery of some fairly complex concepts. And then I was struck out of the blue sky by how he had not managed to integrate what he knew into anything useful, much less enjoyable. While I am not interested in picking on my new friend, I have to admit that in the end I was nonplussed. He has the same goals that most people have: he wants to use the internet to make a lot of money or to at least make a reasoned shot at it. To accomplish this, he has obviously attended his share of webinars and consulted with all manner of charlatan and scalawag. And while he dazzled me with his fluency in the usage of Search Engine Optimization,  keyword niches and anchor text, I have to confess that what I would have preferred to have heard him say was: "I'd like you to build a website that accomplishes its purpose in a way that no other website has ever been used before. I'd like it to be aesthetically appealing, yet persuasive through its use of the medium itself, rather than with an emphasis on simulating organic processes." That would have been a fun conversation.
   There's nothing inherently stultifying about technological changes. The problem arises when we enter an Alvin Toffler type of fascination with gadgetry and lose sight of what it is that people actually want. Some folks in the ironically titled entertainment industry are too busy generating false needs for the audiences to suffer than to put effort into using their real imaginations to tell a story or stories in a way that is fresh. Sequels, pre-quels, remakes, franchises: these are the money words that Hollywood loves. Why bother thinking when all we have to do is throw Bruce Willis into a movie and give him a bazooka? 
    Even two directors I like--Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino--often take the hard-easy way out by wallowing their audiences in ponds of violence rather than considering that there are things more ghastly than the reality of physical pain or more glorious than the reflection of an exposed breast in the gleam of a sword. 
    So, yes, we are still waiting for Altman's prediction. Despite all the evidence of the last forty years to the contrary, we remain optimistic. With all the great minds around, how can we fail?
   

Sunday, November 25, 2012

WHERE REALITY COMES TO DIE

   
   Rather than attempt a redundant scene-by-scene analysis of Robert Altman's The Player (1992) here on Hollywood Eats Its Children Night at Philropost, it might be better to talk about the relevance of this motion picture outside the motion picture industry. Granted, there are not usually quite as many celebrities in the day-to-day world in which most of us move--and having encountered several celebrities myself, I can assure you that your daily existence is usually enhanced without their presences. Still, as Ray Davies of The Kinks once opined, "Everybody's a dreamer, everybody's a star, and everybody's in movies, it doesn't matter who you are." To the extent that we all play some series of roles throughout our walks and runs across this madly spinning orb, we really are all actors, as well as agents, lawyers, writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, golf cart drivers, mail delivery boys and so on. 
   The difference, to the extent that there is a difference, is probably in the pace. After all, we may only accomplish two hours and four minutes of work in an eight hour work day, but the rapidity of the action comes a bit slower than in any filmmaker's dreams. Yet the confusion we often experience, especially as the new kid in the office, or the industry, is perfectly replicated in many Altman movies--and especially in the deservingly-celebrated opening eight minute sequence that kicks off this brilliant film. Telephones ring, one-sided conversations are heard, some essential personnel quickly chastise novices on the inadequacies of their training, conversations wind in and out of doorways about names that are spoken with such reverence that we simply know the persons referenced are vital, identities are mistaken, big shots are approached unceremoniously by would-be up-and-comers, underlings get run over by nonentities, and we come into the most important meeting of the day only to discover that our pen is out of ink and the battery on our laptop didn't get recharged over night. 
Quiet on the set.
Scene one. Take ten. Marker.
and action!
Joel Levinson's office.
I'm sorry. He's not in yet.
May I take a message?
Mr. Levy, I'll tell him you called.
Never say that.
He's either in conference, in a meeting.
He's always in.
Who was that?
Larry Levy.
Was there anything in the trades this morning?
I don't know. The mail's late.
Go get them. Now!
I want them back here before he arrives.
Griffin, hi. Adam Simon.
We weren't supposed to meet until next week.
I didn't know we were.
I wanted to plant a seed in your head.
I'm booked up.
Picture this.
It's a planet in the far future with two suns.
Who plays the sons?
No, suns. Large solar discs.
Run this idea by Bonnie Sherow.
The pictures they make these days are all MTV. Cut cut cut cut.
The opening shot of Touch of Evil was six and a half minutes long.
Six and a half minutes?
Three or four, anyway.
He set up the whole picture with that one tracking shot.
My father was key grip on that shot.
What about Absolute Beginners? That was an extraordinary shot.
Never heard of it.
It's an English film.
   It doesn't really matter that this dialogue, taken from the opening sequence of The Player, was spoken by no less than six different actors. What does matter is that we do not know who Larry Levy is or why he is calling Joel Levinson. We may never have seen or even heard of either A Touch of Evil or Absolute Beginners. We may not know what a tracking shot is or if we are actually watching one now--we aren't, at least not specifically, although it is one long uncut sequence that goes on for another seven minutes. What we do know is something about the apparent importance of some of the speakers. We know that this guy Griffin--played by Tim Robbins--is a big deal. We know that because a fellow dressed not nearly as well approaches Griffin before the latter even gets out of his Range Rover. We know that Levinson must be someone important because he has an office to which he has evidently not yet arrived and that he has a secretary or assistant or someone who answers his phone calls, plus he also has someone else standing by in case the person who answers his calls says something inappropriate. 
   We also know that our sense of confusion is only matched by our sense of intrigue. This is, after all, Hollywood. And Hollywood is where reality comes to die. 
   It is also a town with its share of vampires. I'm convinced that the real reason we keep getting all these Breaking Wind Vampire Movies is because the company town that makes them is telling a little inside joke on itself. Matter of fact, if you're a wannabe screenwriter who hopes to make it big in Hollywood, you should create a scenario with a soulless villain who charms all his victims specifically because he is so lacking in humanity. Think of Tony Montana in the remake of Scarface. Think of John Belushi in Animal House. Think of the Michael Douglas character in Fatal Attraction. Now, just for fun, image all three of these films overlapping. Hey, I think you've got something there--as long as your script has heart in the right places.
   The vampire in The Player is June Gudmundsdottir (pronounced, approximately, "Good man's daughter"), played by Greta Scacchi. She is the girlfriend of the screenwriter Griffin kills. She is also an artist who deliberately never finishes any of her paintings, who doesn't go to movies ("Life's too short"), and who likes words but not "complete sentences." 
   If you've been paying attention to your life, you have met this particular vampire before, although I believe that technically the appropriate term is succubus. June is a dreamlike character, nonetheless real, who feels nothing substantial as she lures Griffin into becoming even more of an asshole than he is when we first meet him. She's the kind of person who never has any particular ideas of her own, doesn't actually contribute to a conversation but instead asks all sorts of questions that get you to reveal far too much about yourself, never overtly draws conclusions, and ultimately leads you to your doom--a doom dressed up as salvation--while you scratch your head trying to figure out what the hell you really see in her. 

Hello. Is David Kahane there?
David! I'm sorry. I forgot. He's gone out. Who's this?
This is Griffin Mill.
Oh, the dead man.
What did you say?
Oh, nothing.
About me being a dead man?
Just a nickname David has for you.
I see. That's a funny nickname. I suppose your husband doesn't like me very much.
I don't have a husband.
I suppose David doesn't like me very much.
David's gone to the cinema.
When will he be back?
When the film's over, I presume. 
   I could tell you a million other things about The Player, including the fact that it operates on multiple levels which include a movie within a movie within a movie. What you need to know, however, is that this is satire of a high order, satire less about the movie industry than about the life industry. No other Hollywood eats its own picture, including Swimming With Sharks, trains its guns on life--Your Life--with as much contrived precision as The Player. Hell, it even has a happy ending. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

GOSFORD PARK BLUES

    
    Anyone who thinks much about movies will eventually find that there is one director with whom he connects better than any other. Often this connection has more to do with sensibility than specific technique or auteur theory. Stanley Kubrick, for instance, was a masterful craftsman who could busy up the screen with more psychological manipulation than anybody in history, and while it is possible to marvel at that accomplishment, I've always found his point of view of humanity to be a bit cold. Jean-Luc Godard continues to make some of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen and even his relative duds are capable of whacking me upside the head with their majesty and splendor. Even Woody Allen, who may not necessarily be that great of a human being, has made more than his share of troubling, beautiful romances and for years he has wavered in stature as my second favorite director. But when it comes to the one person who gets it right for me, there can be nobody who comes close to Robert Altman. 
   The driving force behind any formidable talent is always ego and with ego comes de facto the occasional success. In Altman's case, there were lots of those successes. But the redoubling of this ego-success drive can also lead to some disasters, or at least lapses in judgment. This is certainly true of this director, as anyone who has watched Thieves Like Us, Ready to Wear, or O.C. and Stiggs can attest. The thing about the failures of a genius like Altman is that even they are at least interesting. We can forgive these digressions from perfection because of the glory of movies such as MASH, Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, The Player, and his two finest films, Nashville and 3 Women
    With the exception of the latter film, Altman was at his best when he developed the panoramic cast of characters whose lives were never subordinated to the plot. In fact, you could argue that MASH, Brewster and Nashville did not have any plot whatsoever, at least in the common sense of the word. You could even argue that plot would have gotten in the way of the story in those movies. That concern on someone's part for a cohesive storyline is what damaged some of his otherwise remarkable films, including McCabe & Mrs Miller, California Split, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians
     Plot almost gets in the way of Gosford Park (2001). Happily, we are saved from that perdition because in this murder mystery, the guy who gets killed is hated by almost everyone in the movie. Set in November 1932, Gosford Park takes place in an "Upstairs, Downstairs" type of English mansion and the film's forty-some major characters are nicely divided between the hoi polloi and the servants, except that there are impostors afoot everywhere and one is never certain who are the wealthy and who are the servile. The whole fact of the murder itself is nothing more than a concession, a contrived device to move the people along a bit, as is evidenced by the fact that at least half the characters have a reasonable motive to have killed the master of the castle and no one is much disturbed that he was actually killed twice, once by poison and once by stabbing, and by two different murderers. Altman himself even remarked that he hoped people would see this movie more than once so that they could enjoy it the second or third time without having to worry about whodunit. That actually makes tremendous sense because there is simply no way that the first third of the film will make sense to you on a single viewing. But that's actually a good thing in this case because that also happens to be the way life is. Picture yourself as a character in this movie. You're at a party the night before the big pheasant hunt. You know the host and the misses, of course. Maybe you know a couple other people from previous outings. But most of the people are strange to you. You haven't much of an idea what the hell the Hollywood producer is going on about with his long distance calls. You don't know why the handsome actor keeps playing the piano and singing boring songs. You wonder at the servant who claims to be from Scotland and yet feigns every accent imaginable except a Scottish one. You try to figure out why table knives keep disappearing. You stare in amazement at the young whelp who keeps bleating about being ruined in the market, or the player who attempts to convince you that no matter what kind of employee you're looking for, he is the best. Then,  by the next morning, after too brief a night of sleeping, you begin to pull things together. Still, certain statements made earlier are now forgotten, though you know you wish you could remember them because they might be revelatory, especially after the murder. 
    None of this even addresses the beauty of the gold and brown hues that sparkle and dampen throughout the filming. None of this addresses the magnitude of the talent in front of the camera, most of these players being unknown to American audiences, except for Clive Owen and the guy who played the head of NBC in "Seinfeld." None of this approaches the subject that by the end of this movie you will very much care for all of these people, these people who so confused you at the beginning. Just like in the real world.
    Gosford Park is a beautiful place to visit. It is worth a second run, and likely a third. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

TONIGHT'S DOUBLE FEATURE

    Seems like it's been close to forever since we took in a movie review, so to compensate you all for what I'm certain is a severe hardship, tonight we're going to take a look at two films for the price of one. First up is Donnie Brasco (1997), something of an unusual buddy film in the sense that Al Pacino plays a gangster (What?!? Who would of thunk it?) and Johnny Depp plays the undercover FBI agent who infiltrates the mob and ends up developing some genuine fondness for the hit man, Lefty Ruggiero. The film was based on a book the real life Joseph Pistone wrote about his years in undercover. Paul Attanasio wrote the screenplay. If you don't know Attanasio, you should. He was responsible for developing several excellent television series, including "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "House." Normally, pointing out a writer's connection to TV shows wouldn't be especially relevant. In this case, however, it feels crucial to preparing oneself for this movie.
    This should have been a made-for-TV movie, one that would have been at home, as it were, on HBO. That's  not a criticism, at least not necessarily. What I mean by that is that the movie hits all the right buttons, just the way we've come to expect on a television show. Depp works deep undercover, although we never really find out what his specific objectives are and I suppose we are not really intended to wonder. All the buddy film cliches are present and accounted for, from the amazing Anne Heche as Pistone's wife Maggie, freaking out over her husband never being home, to the couple's kids growing annoyed with their father for the same reason. Meanwhile, this time out, Pacino's character Lefty is a hired killer with twenty-six hits under his belt, now finding himself reduced to cracking open parking meters to arrange for his tribute to the Brooklyn gang. Depp, of course, has a male shrew for a boss's boss. All of these cliches serve to drive Depp and Pacino together and it must be admitted that we in the audience are unquestionably pulling for these two to stay friends for life. Their chemistry works remarkably well as the fallen patriarch vouches for the new guy. 
   Because it is a gangster movie, after all, we have to take in some brutality from the hoodlums and frigidity from the law enforcement officers. 
    Yet I cannot recommend this movie enough for one of the most unexpected of reasons: Actor Michael Madsen, who plays skipper Sonny Black. Madsen does what he usually does--that is, he plays a sociopathic, amoral violence freak. But this time out he really steals every scene in which he appears because he actually believes himself to be Sonny Black. He obviously is in the right company, with both Pacino and Depp being among the two greatest practitioners of method acting. But the beautiful thing about watching Madsen is that, when the camera is on him, we cannot tell what his character is thinking--and that worries the hell out of us because he is such a potentially dangerous guy. Lefty is a killer who is also a dedicated family man. Pistone is a cop who pretends to be a hoodlum. And Sonny Black is a bitter power freak who is doomed to stay in the low ranks of mob activity and resents the hell out of it, as does Lefty, as do all the other gangsters in their crew.
    This is a fine movie and God knows it did well at the box office, with world gross of $125 million. I just can't help thinking it would have made a better TV show.
    And that is not something we can say about our second film, director Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man (1998). Now I'll tell you straight up that you're probably not going to like Kenneth Branagh in the role of Rick Macgruder, the well-heeled lawyer drawn from the screenplay by John Grisham. But we need a white fish bearded guy in the starring role so that we can better appreciate the more predictable characterizations delivered by Robert Downey, who plays Clyde, the lecherous and lovable drunk private detective, and Darryl Hannah, who plays the fetching legal assistant Lois. Their parts may have been predictable, but that doesn't make them a waste of time; far from it. You see, nothing is what it seems in this movie and so you just never can tell who is who and what is what. And that's a good thing, especially coming from Altman. The plot of this film has more twists than a West Virginia highway and takes place during the horrendous hurricane Geraldo, a storm the attorneys in the movie are too preoccupied with themselves over to even acknowledge. As usual, the visuals of the metaphoric storm come across as poetry and great poetry at that. So Grisham gets credit for a great story and Altman gets credit for making sure the story is well-presented (although it isn't really crazy, something we always appreciated and sort of expected from the legendary and late director). But it's the acting of Embeth Davidtz as Mallory Doss and Robert Duvall as her father Dixon who take this movie places it would otherwise never go. Davidtz goes beyond convincing and into some creepy land where one simply inhabits the character. We're never quite comfortable with her and it kind of makes us happy when it turns out our suspicions are justified. But Duvall--my God! He plays a kookie Manson type fanatic and manages to pull in our sympathy through sheer charisma, something that's pretty hard to fake, even in the movies. 
    So this is your lucky night. Or day. You can check out both these flicks and be assured of something more than mere entertainment, a better criteria than which I cannot conceive. Of. If that's a sentence.
    Oh yeah. And by the way, here's the photo/caption of the day.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

READY TO YAWN

Robert Altman
    Stars: Two of five.
    Even the duds that director Robert Altman created have a lot going for them, so it must be admitted from the outset that Ready to Wear (1994) fails to be all bad. Because of the enormity of the excellent cast, one gets the initial impression that this fashioned show of a fashion show may be a Nineties version of Nashville. And in a way it is. I mean, we have all kinds of famous clothing designers displaying their wares or wears, we have a reporter (played by Kim Bassinger) who steals every scene and who we just know will crumble in the end, we have Cher who, as the Elliott Gould of the 1990s, makes an appearance for the purposes of gentle sarcasm, and we have a loosely strung-together story-line that isn't particularly the point. 
    So what's the problem?
    The damned thing isn't very interesting. That's the only problem with this movie. 
    The film begins strong enough, with a French title, Pret-a-Porter and the words "A Robert Altman Film" in Russian letters at the beginning. We get to see Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. We get Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts. We get Forest Whitaker. Sadly, that is all we get. The ending is so contrived that even if it was supposed to insult us by being obvious in advance it still doesn't work because by the time we get there we no longer have any reason to care. 
    It has been claimed by more erudite writers than myself that Altman had a tendency to alternate successes with failures and that even his failures were worth watching. That is almost true. 
    The biggest problem with this film is the script. Altman and Barbara Shulgasser simply don't know what to do with their most potentially interesting characters. The fashion guru who dies early on has zero personality, even though most of the people in the movie claim he was a rotten person. It might have been nice to have understood why this was so. Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt and Sally Kellerman, as the editors of fashion magazines, come off as vastly more dull than even those occupations would suggest. And the character of the in-demand photographer Milo, played by Stephen Rea, is simply stupid, even his snideness not worth the bother. 
    The talents of all the actors mentioned above are thoroughly wasted here unless it is somehow supposed to be interesting that Anne Eisenhower (Julia Roberts) is fascinating because she gets amorous when she drinks alcohol, or that Joe Flynn, a sportswriter played by Tim Robbins, is intriguing because his luggage gets stolen and he can't do much about it because his French is so bad. 
    No, this is a colossal mess of a film, one that by its very existence besmirches the well-earned reputation of all those involved as being the brilliant directors, writers and actors that they certainly are. Genius is maligned here.  
Robert Altman


WHAT KIND OF PERSON READS PHILROPOST?
    According to the lads in market research, the typical Philropost audience member boasts being a male aged 45 to 54, with some American graduate school beneath or under his belt, and no kids that he knows of. Most of you access this site from home rather than from work. And the overwhelming majority of you earn between $60 and $100 thousand dollars a year.
    On the other hand, we at Philropost would like to attract just all kinds of people. What kinds? Well, back-to-school shoppers, beauty advocates, cat owners, dog owners, Egyptian walkers, food-likers, hip Hungarians, grocery store merchants, online industrial products manufacturers, Spring seasonal sensation seekers, Valentine's Day celebrators, and shake it up babies. Actually, any key word one might like to insert here in the interest of driving scads of traffic our way so we can add dollar signs to our advertising revenues would be just dandy, so long as you don't own a nuclear power plant, advocate war, or desire to stupefy the masses.
Jean-Luc Godard



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