Altman’s Unsung ’70s
Director Robert Altman had his fair share of ups and downs. The oscillation between works widely lauded and those typically forgotten is prevalent throughout his exceptionally diverse career. This was — and still is — certainly the case with his 1970s output. This decade of remarkable work saw the release of now established classics like M*A*S*H, Nashville, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as well as a picture like 3 Women, which would gradually gain a cult following of sorts and subsequently be regarded as a quality movie despite its initial dismissal. But couched between and around these features are more electric and generally more unorthodox films. There are multiple titles from this, arguably Altman’s most creative of decades, that remain generally unheralded to all but his most ardent of admirers.
For Altman, the 1970s began with this disparity. The first year of the decade saw the release of M*A*S*H, one of his most instantly provocative and popular films, and one of his most enduring. Later that same year though, there was Brewster McCloud, easily one of his most eccentric. The titular main character, played by the quirky, owl-eyed Bud Cort, resides in the Houston Astrodome and pines to one day fly, which he ultimately does by means of a mechanical wing device he has constructed. (Sounds reasonable enough so far.) Along the way, the film, supposedly Altman’s favorite of his own movies, brings in the following: the opening credits, shown twice; bumbling cops trying to solve mysterious murders; multiple references to The Wizard of Oz (the film even features Margaret Hamilton, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West); an assortment of peculiar characters (for example, Altman regular Shelley Duvall in her first film role, and Sally Kellerman as a guardian angel of sorts who wears only a trench coat); some of Altman’s most random dialogue (Suzanne: “Have you ever had diarrhea from eating Mexican food before?” Brewster: “I like your car.”); and, well, a lot of bird excrement. After the timely and trendy M*A*S*H, a film like Brewster McCloud as a follow-up was certainly a change of pace, one that baffled audiences, most critics, and studio bosses. Now though, it feels charmingly unconventional. “It was my boldest work,” said Altman a few years later, “by far my most ambitious.”
While 1971′s McCabe & Mrs. Miller has rightfully been read as a key revisionist Western, where notions of generic heroism, setting, and imagery were subverted, Altman similarly deconstructed the Western film’s superficial ideas pertaining to mythic heroism with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson in 1976. In this case though, the results are more combative, not necessarily just toward the characters (McCabe is definitely not presented as a “hero” either), but chiefly in its general approach to the genre’s penchant for distorted and exaggerated historical reconstruction; there’s a reason “history lesson” is part of the film’s subtitle. This Buffalo Bill is not the uncontested legend of the west; this Buffalo Bill is a questionable legend of his own making, a scheming, egotistic, shameless self-promoter. As played by Paul Newman (and like with Warren Beatty in McCabe), there’s an obvious thesis regarding the nature of celebrity in the casting here, commenting on image-centric star constructions. The film is very much about show business, according to Altman. “Buffalo Bill Cody was the first movie star, in one sense, the first totally manufactured American hero,” he noted in 1976. “That’s why we needed a movie star … to play the role.” Beyond that, the film’s larger concerns are those of the Western’s very essence: myth vs. reality, truth vs. fiction, and heroes vs. villains. Black and white distinctions are fine for John Ford; Altman works in shades of grey.
Between McCabe & Mrs. Miller and what is perhaps his best film, Nashville, Altman continued to broach new and ever varied filmic territory, with Images, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and California Split. While each have their qualities, the former two stand out for this uniqueness. Images (1972), one of Altman’s most enigmatic features (along with 3 Women five years later), is also his lone venture into horror filmmaking. The results, predictably when Altman goes genre, are fascinating. Susannah York gives a stunning performance as a women plagued by continuous and increasingly disturbing visions (she would win best actress at Cannes). Her paranoia and schizophrenia seep into the film itself — in its cryptic narrative exposition and its equally ambiguous visuals — and we are never quite sure of what is real and what isn’t. We’re left to wonder, with York, what is developing, why, and if it even really is. The film makes excellent use of contrasts. There’s the idyllic rural Irish setting, but played against its serenity is John Williams’ unnerving, Oscar-nominated score, his most exciting, if not most memorable, movie music. There’s also the relatively stable and secure life of the film’s main characters. The husband and wife have money, mobility, and a weekend cottage, but beneath this veneer of comfort, the mysteries and doubts lurk. Images, then, is a perfect title for this ominous film that questions the illusory surface of people and places.
Though not a genre in itself, no fewer than ten films have featured hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe as he adroitly solved crimes and treaded through the criminal underworld. Altman’s inclusion in this, The Long Goodbye (1973), is something a little different. Never having finished the source (“It’s almost impossible to comprehend”), Altman took considerable liberties with this 1953 Raymond Chandler novel. (Credit should also be given to screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who additionally penned the classic Howard Hawks Marlowe picture The Big Sleep, in 1946.) While still on the trail of a murderer, this Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, is a chain-smoking, cynical, lackadaisical, too-cool-for-school smartass. As such, while there’s detective work to be done, in Altman’s hands there’s also more than a little fun to be had. That fun is as much a part of the performances — Gould especially has considerable time for amusing asides, ticks, and character-building habits (the bits with his cat, for instance) — as it is with the Marlowe mystique. Those expecting a Bogart-esque slickness and tough-guy persona were sorely thwarted by this jaded incarnation. Altman the audio-innovator also takes the idea of a musical theme to another level, bringing in the title song in a variety of styles, popping up throughout the picture, even as grocery store music. A minor touch perhaps, but one that only adds to The Long Goodbye’s singularity.
Speaking of Altman’s aural techniques, much has been made of his innovative use of multi-track sound recording, and the full impact of this fascinating system is usually most appreciated in his films compiling a large number of speaking roles. In most cases, Nashvilleis seen as the crème de la crème of this method; its characters constantly talking over each other leaving audiences to — quite realistically — pick up the pieces of audible dialogue. But it was with A Wedding in 1978 that Altman arguably outdid himself with this audio construction. The interiors were far more constricted than in Nashville(there’s essentially only one location), making for more people in less space in any given scene, thus more talk to sift through. Not only that, Altman upped the ante by including no less than 48 featured characters in this film. Apparently, Altman jokingly told a reporter that after 3 Women he was planning to film a wedding — what a demotion for such a filmmaker! However, upon reflection, Altman realized the drama that was inherent in weddings and his next film, his next real film, was set. Certainly, other movies have centered on weddings and the catastrophes that abound, but none come close to equaling the hectic yet perfectly plausible mingling of people and their individual tragedies and comedies as A Wedding.
Altman’s next foray into genre territory was the 1979 science fiction film Quintet, again with Paul Newman. This movie isn’t quite like any other in the Altman cannon or in the wider category of sci-fi/fantasy. “It’s set probably in the future, or else in the present in a parallel world,” stated Altman, and this type of obscure description perfectly suits the film’s unconventional visuals and narrative. The titular ‘Quintet’ is the name of a game played amongst the inhabitants of an inhospitable arctic wasteland; some play with a dire and deadly seriousness, thus forming the crux of the film’s suspenseful and mysterious plot. The setting is a city dying out, the result of an impending ice age set to eradicate human existence. This idea of a frozen reality dooming humanity is more than an additional narrative catalyst though, it’s a stylistic device. Aided by a genuinely frigid location (at one point, the temperature reached 60 below), the film looks and feels cold. The icy conditions are palpably present in every stark, grey, dismal scene. It gives the performances and the story credibility, and it all forms the despairingly bleak visual palette of the picture. In some ways, it similarly reflects the glacial pace of the film, certainly one of Altman’s most trying in terms of typically swift story progression. And if the locale looks barren yet somehow futuristic, it’s most likely because the film was shot on the dilapidated site of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montréal, which perfectly matched the desired sense of prior vibrancy now in decline. Lastly with Quintet is one of Altman’s most curious stylistic choices. For some reason (and the reasons are quite debatable), the edges of the frame are obscured with a Vaseline-like substance, essentially creating a blurred border around the central image not unlike masking effects from the silent era. A further part of the film’s overall visual appearance? (Something to do with the cold maybe… or symbolic of surroundings closing in?) Or simply an empty and ineffectual gimmick? This is but one point of discussion raised by this truly distinct Altman movie.
Altman would begin the next decade with what may be his most underrated movie. Popeye was widely panned upon its opening and is still seen by many as one of the great filmmaker’s lesser works, one that, just in general, seems rather odd (at best) or simply bad (at worst). But Altman’s Popeye is actually one of the director’s most purely enjoyable pictures and, as some more recent Internet comments point out, the film is newly gaining much deserved popular appeal. When released, Popeye was not the kind of movie audiences were expecting from this rebel director (ironically, it appears Popeye was seen as too unusual and too unclassifiable, even by those who appreciated Altman for being just these things). In any event, with a mumbling one-eye-closed Robin Williams in the title role and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl (the part she was born to play; indeed it’s her best performance), the plot is as delightfully unassuming as one of its source comics. It’s directed and acted like a live-action cartoon, with sequences obviously exaggerated and preposterous, the characters similarly erratic and unorthodox in the extreme, and some moments at times simply bizarre. It’s over-the-top and amusingly absurd, but it’s extremely likable and fascinating, and Williams’ nearly inaudible one-liners are frequently hilarious.
Nevertheless, Popeye’s poor reception would signal the beginning of further tumultuous, though nonetheless productive, times for Robert Altman. After more than a decade of lower-key film and television work, work that is still noteworthy, Altman would burst back onto the Hollywood scene with a film that, oddly enough, sharply jabbed the ridiculous mechanics of Hollywood itself: The Player in 1992. As opposed to his work in the 1970s, from this point on even his lesser features were paid some attention, based solely on his previous record of accomplishment if nothing else. Then into the new millennium, Altman was generally heralded as one of America’s great filmmakers, an iconoclast who was still doing things his own way. An honorary Oscar in 2006 sealed the deal.
From his first feature (Countdown, 1967) to his last (A Prairie Home Companion, 2006), it is surely indicative of Altman’s talent and place in cinema history that so many of his films are worth a second look and critical reevaluation; not only worth it, but benefiting from it, their merits justly revealed. In so doing, as hindsight remains 20/20, no doubt more unsung Altman films originally dismissed will be newly minted as classics.
This piece is part of the Robert Altman Spotlight at Sound on Sight