Archive for Robert Altman

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.

Treacly Dicky

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by dcairns

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I got intrigued to finally watch NIXON — I had always been kind of intrigued to see it but not enough, apparently, to actually see it — after hearing Oliver Stone talk about it, and seeing a lengthy — really extraordinary lengthy — clip of it during his Edinburgh masterclass.

Fiona and I were both rather taken by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but Fiona kept getting tired out by the sheer duration of the thing, and all those names — having missing Watergate ‘s opening run, due to youth, we felt we were experiencing it in real time, with added flashbacks. So we watched it in about four parts, which is admittedly not ideal.

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Let’s be clear: bits of this film are terrible. Stylistically there’s a lot of hangover from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which took the faux-documentary elements of JFK — switching film stocks, flash cuts, b&w and still photo inserts — and pumped them up into sheer hallucination. It’s a film whose brio I admire but whose message and attitude I despise, and which makes me feel really ill every time I see more than a few minutes of it. But I would grant it’s effective. (I don’t blame the film for inspiring actual atrocities: but there is nothing in it which would not be flattering to someone contemplating an atrocity — the serial killers are the only characters with integrity, apart from the civilians who don’t matter — Tarantino’s original draft is positively moralistic compared to Stone’s revision.)

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In NIXON, some of the techniques are flat-out awful: superimposing napalm blasts behind Nixon as he mounts the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — a new low in taste. Put it alongside the shark eating a victim filmed from inside the shark’s mouth in 3D in JAWS 3D. But with Robert Richardson lensing, this filmic atrocity abuts some truly stunning shots of the statue itself. And then comes the bit Scorsese got very excited about — Nixon goes out of sync. He says a line, pauses — and his voice continues. And then we jump-cut to a very slightly different close-up just as he finished his new line, his lips moving in time with it for the space of half a syllable. “This is new! We haven’t seen this before!” snapped Marty, and he’s right. And not much since. But it’s powerful — it’s not just Stone, stoned, mucking about in the edit, though it might have come about that way. It conveys in vivid fashion a familiar human sensation, when we find ourselves saying something. Our mouth and brain are out of sync, and there’s a belated moment of realisation when we grasp what we’ve said. Or else, we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re saying, we kind of miss the moment of actually saying it. Intense conversations have this quality.

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Dance, Nixon, dance!

Hopkins is very enjoyable — so much so, that when the movie finally shows us the real Tricky Dicky, it’s a surprise how little resemblance there is — there is, in fact, no resemblance. I think Hopkins may be wearing contacts and teeth, but otherwise the team have wisely decided not to disguise him. In HITCHCOCK, Hopkins is plastered in makeup but can’t do the voice. Here, he gets to look human, he sort of does the voice, and he gets the manner, or at any rate A manner which is fascinating and horrifying to watch.

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Best Nixon: Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s film of Donald Freed and Arthur M Stone’s SECRET HONOR. Hall doesn’t exactly look like Nixon but he is a Nixon type, if he’ll forgive me for saying so.

Worst Nixon: the poor guy in the prosthetic nonsense in WATCHMEN, a big expensive film with inexplicably terrible makeup. He looks like he’s wearing a leftover Nixon Halloween mask from POINT BREAK. A good plot twist would be to have him rip his face off and be Tom Cruise underneath.

Best possible Nixon — Walter Matthau. Only he had the scrotumnal countenance. And, if we disregard all the twinkly rogues he played in his late career and recall his charmless villains of the fifties, then it all happens. Just sharpen his nose and lighten his hair.

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Hopkins works harder than Baker to adapt his mode of performing, because he obviously HAS to. He has no genetic advantages. Very smart costuming manages to make his shoulders behave like Nixon’s shoulders, with Hopkins’ help.

Stone was amusingly scornful of most of his collaborators (in a way that makes you slightly suspect him of being an asshole) — I paraphrase: “I liked Hopkins as an actor because you always felt you could see his thinking going on behind his eyes. Having worked with him, I don’t know what he actually finds to think about…” Stone reported that Hopkins struggled terribly with the accent, and one day was riding an elevator with Paul Sorvino (transformed by makeup and performance astonishingly into a perfect Kissinger) and asked how P.S. thought the rehearsals were going. “Well, you’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Sorvino, and Stone had to either wrench Hopkins down from the ceiling or high-tackle him on the way to the airport as he tried to flee the country, I forget which.

I can report that the struggle was worth it!

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As the movie lurches from bad bit — a March of Time newsreel that’s unconvincing in itself and a lame bit of condensed exposition even in the abstract — to good bit — lots of performers we like — Madeleine Khan, Larry Hagman, James Woods, J.T. Walsh (a great actor who had somehow slipped out of mm mind altogether in the few years since his death, a terrible thing) — I started to appreciate the hallucinatory feel. Maybe because it covers a lot of the same material, the film has much in common with the far more modest SECRET HONOR, but whereas the Altman takes place in a single room which comes to feel like Nixon’s headspace, all of NIXON, wherever the action takes place, feels like Nixon’s disordered mind — or Stone’s. Some of the Deutsch tilts and extreme low angles feel forced and melodramatic, but some of the psychedelic madness works, mainly in conjunction with Hopkins’ sweaty grimacing. Nixon, we are told, was trying to appear mad to make the Russians afraid. As Nick Nolte observes in MOTHER NIGHT, “Be very careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you ARE what you appear to be.”

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“Don’t worry, I’ll use the old Nixon charm,” says Hopkins, and then performs a wink that makes him instantly morph into Quasimodo — a role he has previously played.

I quite liked John Williams’ music. For once, it doesn’t feel on-the-nose, maybe because it’s never quite clear where Nixon’s nose is.

Oh, apart from the opening biblical quote, “What shall it profit a man…” Give Williams a hackneyed biblical quote and you know what you’ll get from him.

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Not quite sure what to make of Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover. Stone overplays the homosexual angle just as he did in JFK, and seems to be using it as evidence of moral corruption. On the other hand, acknowledging Hoover’s sexuality may be more respectful than downplaying it to nothingness, as other biopics tend to do, either by necessity or sheer discomfort (Eastwood?). Hoover’s big scene with Nixon is awkward as we have two Brits trying to out-Amurrican each other, while Stone cuts to foaming racehorses, symbolism which would certainly be lead-footed if we knew what the hell he was getting at. But I must say, the looming closeups with their lysergic sharpness and broiling intensity made for quite a scene. It’s bad AND good, much like the film.

(I miss Bob Hoskins.)

 

Fair and Lovely on the Campaign Trail

Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2015 by dcairns

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In THE CANDIDATE (1972), Michael Ritchie does such a good job of surrounding golden boy Robert Redford with grotesques, ugly Americans, non-WASP imperfect specimens of ordinary humanity, that the overall effect is similar to Heironymous Bosch’s painting of Christ Carrying the Cross, thronged and taunted by gurning Semitic caricatures. The once-dapper Melvyn Douglas is used to particularly unsightly effect, seemingly serving his aging kisser up happily to curdle our blood with a lot of sinister, wet grinning. Also Allen Garfield’s ebullient bulbousness, Peter Boyle sporting a Mr. Upside-Down-Head full beard, even a young Michael Lerner, every part of whom seems to be wider than it is long.

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This is one I had to watch pan-and-scan in an off-air recording, which seems a terrible gap in the historic record. You’d think Redford was well enough known for there to be a DVD somewhere. I’d suggest an Eclipse box set to compliment Criterion’s excellent DOWNHILL RACER — “Winning and Losing with Michael Ritchie” — it could have SMILE, THE CANDIDATE, DOWNHILL RACER, THE BAD NEW BEARS and maybe The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. And does anyone rate SEMI-TOUGH? Still, this would have to come after René Clemént’s “Occupation and Resistance,” which is top of my wish list.

What shall it profit a Malibu blond? It’s the age-old tale of the idealist who loses his way — Ritchie and editors Richard A. Harris (regular collaborator) and Robert Estrin shape Jeremy DRIVE HE SAID Larner’s script so that the path to hell has plenty of missing paving stones, forcing us to fill in the blanks, mentally. There are great transitions and elisions, and for once the principles Redford starts with actually sound like principles — pro-choice, pro-bussing, anti-pollution. Most political dramas, from MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON to House of Cards, contain sub-homeopathic doses of politics. Watching Redford get whittled down to nothing by his campaign managers is both depressing and grimly satisfying. Also, it’s a very good portrayal of how awful campaigning must be: an utterly moronic process designed to trap intelligent adults into humiliating situations.

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The movie anticipates Robert Altman’s excellent TV series Tanner ’88, which Altman considered his best work, in many ways, not least the use of real politicians and journalists playing themselves. And once again, Redford’s manner of heroism looks oddly off-kilter, a kind of behaviour we wouldn’t find noble anymore — he’s petulant and passive-aggressive. We aren’t convinced he’s really struggling to hang onto his integrity, and maybe that’s the point. But the whole thing also works as a depiction of the cult of celebrity, and how frightening and degrading it must be to experience from the inside. Redford once said that when he first saw his portrait on the cover of Time with the caption Robert Redford: Actor, he was convinced for a second it said Robert Redford: Asshole. That’s showbiz.

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