Archive for Robert Altman

Louise Brooks’ History of the World Part I

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2021 by dcairns

Caught up with THE CHAPERONE, which glosses on the true tale of Louise Brooks’ first experiences in New York, accompanied by a Kansan hausfrau. A weirdly flat experience — sexless and lacking drama. This is weird because it has a teenage Louise Brooks in it, the narrative takes in child abuse, emotional neglect, adoption, all kinds of fraught stuff, but everybody is always making nice.

We’re dealing with Julian Fellowes, High Tory writer of GOSFORD PARK and Downton Abbey, adapting a book by Laura Moriarty, and with a director from Fellowes’ TV show. I never watched that thing. I liked GP a lot, but I think it benefitted from Altman’s wry disgust at the world being depicted, and from the actors’ improvisations. A BBC Scotland bod who had employed Fellowes on an earlier TV show remarked that they felt sure the best lines were made up on the set, but then that same person was reportedly unable to start work each morning until an assistant turned on their computer, so who knows?

What surprised me was that Fellowes would short-circuit every opportunity for drama by letting one character or another calm things down. I know we don’t want a David Mamet story populated entirely by ranting psychos, but as Alexander Mackendrick put it, “Sympathy is the enemy of drama.” The whole art seems to be to create a fictive world where sympathy can exist, but to always position it where it doesn’t defuse the excitement.

Nice to see Elizabeth McGovern in a leading role, the TV show having restored her to the limelight. Haley Lu Richardson has a near-impossible task, and the appearance of a flurry of clips of the real Brooks cruelly points up the contrast. I would settle for less physical resemblance (HLR is only passably similar in appearance) in favour of more edge — but the script is so lacking in spikiness and spiciness, the direction so anemic, the music such thin soup, ladled over everything, it’s hard to see how any real Brooksian quality could have survived. So without blaming the star we can say she was either wrongfully thrust into an unsuitable role or else undercut by everything around her.

I’m always happy to see McGovern and Campbell Scott, but again, probably not the actors who would set things on fire. Is it possible to die of niceness? At least Downton Abbey has Maggie Smith being catty.

The dialogue is poor, with “Horse feathers,” the sole bit of twenties idiom. Someone actually says, “This is 1922.” I guess the biographical distortions are a minor matter, but Brooks’ childhood sexual abuse is disgracefully softened, and her experience after the onscreen events summed up in a title card: “after some difficult times as a shopgirl in New York she reinvented herself as a writer…” Fellowes’ distaste for shopgirling is hilarious, and presumably his distaste for hooking is so great he can’t bring himself to mention it, and we’re trying to hone messy reality into a redemptive arc here…

The problem, probably, is that even if you got some energy going, this is a story mainly covering Brooks’ early studies as a dancer, and skips over everything she’s celebrated for. Plus she’s not even the main character. The solution to these problems is to not make the film.

THE CHAPERONE stars Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham; Claire Benoit; Saul Ausländer; Lady Macbeth; Robert Benchley; Martha Jefferson; Eowyn; Munkustrap; and Nervous Man.

The Atlantic Ocean was something, then

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2020 by dcairns

I have a strange history of not watching Louis Malle & John Guare’s ATLANTIC CITY — or, as the print used in my rather poorly-transferred DVD inexplicably calls itself, ATLANTIC CITY, USA. I think I’ve started watching it twice… once was probably on BBC2’s Film Club in the eighties, or around then. I think the way the movie doesn’t insist that it’s heading anywhere (though it is), and doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching, allowed me to drift off. But those are now qualities I value highly, and bits of it certainly stayed with me. In the last few months I picked up both the DVD, and the book Malle on Malle, secondhand, so it was clearly time.

I really enjoyed it last night. It reminded me a lot of the later TROUBLE IN MIND, from Alan Rudolph, only staged against a documentary backdrop (urban renewal in the titular city, with the crew rushing from site to site to catch demolitions in the background of its scenes, rather than attempting to transform a modern city into a place of near future/alternate reality possibilities. Both movies seem to enjoy an Altman influence, direct in the case of Rudolph, maybe just more zeitgeisty in Malle’s case, but actually stronger — a network narrative of interconnected characters whose paths criss-cross — crime — jazz — Americana.

Burt Lancaster always seems like a dreamer to me — you sense immortal longings. This is what led him, in real life, to make movies with European arthouse guys. His character here is a bullshitter, dreaming up a “romantic” past as a boardwalk gangster. His longings are for a past that never was: aspiration turned inside out into nostalgia. Circumstances finally allow him, in a crazy and ironic way, to play the hero in his own life. Burt gets several of the all-time great closeups. With Burt, the dreaminess perfectly counterbalances the acrobaticism, slightly in abeyance here. But he still has that precision of movement that makes you think of his athletic grace. Each gesture is powerful yet delicate, like a martial artist crossed with an assembly line robot and taught to dance.

Susan Sarandon is also really good. There are awkward old guy and young girl moments to get across, but Burt is still, in Fiona’s view, a viable leading man in his late sixties, and the script is so good, and of course Sarandon is not into Burt the way he’s into her… the voyeuristic element reminded me of Duvivier’s PANIQUE (and its remake, MONSIEUR HIRE, made nine years after AC) which is a possible influence since Malle seems more open to ’40s French cinema than the Cahiers mob (I can’t seem to refer to them collectively without making them sound like gangsters), who had a few favourites but mostly saw that school as an old guard to be replaced — by them.

All Sarandon’s early roles seem to be about her breasts, which is a bit embarrassing now because spectacular talents like hers are more unusual than spectacular breasts like hers. There’s generally a pathetic excuse, like the spilled wine in THE HUNGER that makes it absolutely necessary for her to become topless. Here she works in an oyster bar and spends her evenings rubbing lemon juice on herself at the window to eradicate the fishy smell. “How does she manage to get oyster on her ARMS? or her TITS?” asked Fiona.

Oh, and of course we were delighted to spot Wallace Shawn, poised to slip the script of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE to his director, and the exploding head guy from SCANNERS (the movie was made with Canadian tax shelter money). The guy, Louis Del Grande, proves he’s no one-tricky pony by playing a guy whose head does NOT explode. Although I admit we were waiting for it to happen.

ATLANTIC CITY, USA stars the Swede; Janet Weiss; Linda Loman; Inspector Ginko; Eden; Lizard; Lt. Bert Samuels; Quentin Hapsburg; Gold Leader; Dr. Bill Michaels; Vizzini; Felix Leiter; and First Scanner.

Yesterday

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2020 by dcairns

A busy day at Il Cinema Ritrovato online:

LIEBLING DER GOTTER, Emil Jannings in an early German talkie. Surprisingly sophisticated — I guess Europe had a couple of years to absorb the early mistakes and discoveries of American sound film, so there’s immediately an understanding that UNsynchronised sound — separating sound from image — offscreen voices and noises overlaid on top of contrasting images — is one of the most powerful and absorbing techniques, at least as valuable as lip-synched dialogue.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT — I’d seen this years ago and knew it was good — Fiona hadn’t. More sound innovation, as Altman mixes untold layers of overlapping gab, sometimes allowing a clear conversation to emerge from the wordstream, sometimes smothering bits of it in crosstalk, sometimes submerging everying in burbling accretions of babel.

The film itself is terrific. I recall Elliott Gould talking about it in Edinburgh. He was a producer on it and said that the ending was originally supposed to show him and George Segal exiting the casino, filmed from outside: they’re friendship is over.

Altman approached Gould and suggested, it being very late/early and everyone tired, that they could end the film indoors and save themselves relocating and setting up a new shot. Gould agreed, and has wondered ever since if he made a mistake, and if the film underperformed because of it.

Maybe the very end is a tiny bit lacking — but not in a way that hurts your memory of the experience. A good illustration of Kurosawa’s point that, when you’re tired, your body and brain tell you that you have enough footage when you really don’t. The only solution, AK counsels, is to go ahead and shoot twice as much as you think you need.

A hard lesson!

The movie is wonderful — I miss the pre-McKee era when films could shamble along loosely, apparently neglecting all rules of structure, until at the end you realised that everything was there for a reason and an artful design had been functioning all along, UNDETECTED.

We also watched TAP ROOTS (George Marshall, 1948), beautiful Technicolor but by God it was dull.

Apart from Boris Karloff as a Native American with an English accent, and a fairly well-written part for Van Heflin, and the odd political interest of this GONE WITH THE WIND knock-off (Susan Hayward being flame-haired at the top of her voice) in which the South wins the Civil War against itself (a valley of abolitionist Southerners is invaded by the Confederates), the most striking moment was a surely unplanned incident in a river battle where one horse, improvising wildly, mounted another, trapping the hapless actor on Horse (2)’s saddle in a kind of Confederate sandwich with horses instead of bread. Looked painful. I have never weighed a horse but I believe they’re not featherweights.