Thursday, January 31, 2008


From the now defunct "Can You Picture That?" column, November 30, 2004, a tribute to Robert Altman for the Oni Press website. It was written before Altman passed away.


In the documentary A Decade Under the Influence, when the top directors of the '70s were running through their list of directors that had the most impact on them, Robert Altman said, "The filmmakers who influenced me the most, I don't know their names, because I would go and see a film and hate it, and I'd say, 'I've got to remember never to do anything like that again.'" I am not sure there is a better way to sum up this chaotic filmmaker, whose output is often as frustrating and disappointing as it is exciting. For nearly four decades, he has always been out on the furthest ledge, pushing his skills in an effort to push the film medium. When he fails, he fails spectacularly, and in some ways, it may be that sort of daredevil approach that allows him to soar so high when it works. (See also: Spike Lee.)

Over the last two months, there has been an outpouring of Altman films on DVD. There doesn't seem to be any real reason for it. No milestone has been hit, or a sudden rediscovery of the man's work as part of a zeitgeist in film culture. Just a happy coincidence, it seems.

That said, it's likely no coincidence that Criterion timed two of their Altman packages to land in October, just in time for the election. Both Secret Honor and Tanner '88 are from two decades ago, but their political bite has not been dulled by the passage of time; on the contrary, the points are sharpened by the discovery of how little progress we have made.

Secret Honor was a one-man play that Altman saw in 1984 and decided to commit to film. The stage production starred Philip Baker Hall as President Richard Nixon, alone in a room, trying to write some strange version of a memoir by dictating his thoughts into a microphone. Over the course of the night, he becomes unhinged, disappearing down a vortex of madness, speaking tangentially, exposing his own insecurities. Altman saw no real need to monkey with what was working, and so stuck with Hall and created a confined set that he could prowl around in. The only major addition he made was a bank of video monitors, playing up Nixon's self-obsession and metaphorically representing his fractured personality. He lets Hall loose and then tries to make the camera keep up with the bravura performance.

I'm sad to say it's not hard to see our current commander in chief heading in the same direction. There is the same single-minded need to be right, and the same paranoia and feeling that if you aren't with him, you're against him. There is a lesson here, the exposure of a certain mentality that can shatter when its own self-belief is challenged.

By contrast, Tanner '88 isn't nearly as heavy. This influential satire is a mockumentary that originally aired as an early HBO television series. Scripted by Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau, Tanner '88 follows fictional Presidential candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) on the campaign trail. While his foibles and the fumbles of his staff end up grist for Altman's comedic mill, Jack Tanner stands in contrast to the Nixon of Secret Honor. Tanner is attempting to regain the hope that Nixon's betrayal dashed on the rocks. He may be clumsy, but he's sincere, something that is becoming increasingly rare in today's political climate. Altman and Trudeau saw the trends developing in how the media portrayed a candidate. The politics of personality were starting to take over as the Presidential hopefuls were becoming more savvy to how to portray themselves in front of cameras. Hell, the numerous real-life participants in Tanner '88, which was shot on the actual campaign trail, is testament to that.

Tanner '88 paved the way for Steven Soderbergh's K Street, another HBO mockumentary series that aired last year and showed how the lines between fiction and fact in our current age of instant news has been obscured even further. Apparently, Altman and Trudeau saw a similar opportunity in today's media, as well, and gathered the principal players from Tanner '88 back together for a new series, Tanner on Tanner. To further drive the point home, Tanner's daughter (Cynthia Nixon) has become a documentary filmmaker who is putting together a piece on her father's Presidential aspirations. In one already famous scene, the young Tanner crosses paths with one of John Kerry's daughters at the Democratic National Convention, and the young Kerry is making her own film about her father's real campaign. Life and art have no distinguishable beginning and end.

Tanner on Tanner is now also available on DVD, after having initially aired on the Sundance Channel. Sundance also re-ran the original series, and Criterion has included the new introductions that were made for that marathon, featuring the characters reflecting back on what happened sixteen years ago. There is also a fascinating conversation between Altman and Trudeau, reminiscing about how far out on the edge the project was at the time.

If you're tired of politics and you want something a little lighter, Columbia/Tri-Star has released Atman's 1974 comedy California Split. Elliott Gould plays a motormouth gambler who sucks George Segal into his on-the-fly life after they are mistaken for a pair of grifters at an old-folks' poker house. Gould is a magnetic personality who always has the inside info and a new line on a big score. Segal can't help but follow him. He makes everything sound so exciting!

And it is exciting, at least for a little while. One scrape follows another, leaving the men physically battered, broke, and in search of another shot at a big win. Altman shoots it all in a loose style, letting his actors wander and explore. The characters are freewheeling, and when they careen out of control, Altman let's the movie go out of control, as well. The gambling life is a manic one, full of exhilarating highs and debilitating lows, and the audience is let in on what it must be like, experiencing the hearty laughs when it's all going well, and feeling a little sick when it drops back down.

While California Split is one of Altman's lesser-known works, Short Cuts is easily one of his most famous. Released in 1993, it received much acclaim and was a surprise success. Not even Elliot Gould's California Split character would have bet that a three-hour film with a huge ensemble cast and an interweaving narrative based on several Raymond Carver short stories would have been a hit. Too bad, because the long shot paid off.

So, it's been a strange oversight that Short Cuts hasn't been on DVD until now. Criterion has remedied that, delivering their best Altman package: a double-disc set chock full of extras, housed in a swanky slip case alongside a reprint of the Carver story collection that inspired it all.

After a decade, Short Cuts still stands out as something fresh and compelling. Altman had spent the '80s in somewhat of an exile, as the previous decade of creativity that had been forged by single-minded directors gave way to the giant Hollywood spectacle. The Player (1992) put him back in the public eye, and Short Cuts was his bold follow-up. Returning to the ensemble casting that had become his '70s signature, and turning Carver's prose into an interconnected symphony of lives of disquiet and desperation, Altman exposed a Los Angeles full of people who lived very different lives, but who had all gotten lost on the path to the same destination: human attachment.

The cast reads like a who's who of the brightest of early '90s cinema: Tim Robbins, Frances MacDormand, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine. It's also probably the first place most of us saw Julianne Moore--and we see a lot of her. She has an emotionally raw scene where she exposes herself, both physically and mentally, confessing to an infidelity while wandering the room pantsless. It's a dual nakedness, a case where director and actress are fearless together.

Moore's only competition for snatching the defining moment of Short Cuts is Jack Lemmon. His virtuoso monologue is the center of the film, encapsulating the themes of disconnectedness in one speech. His story is tragic for how pitiful it is. Caught by his wife having sex with her sister, his whole life fell apart. He has spent thirty years wishing someone would just listen to his side of the story. If someone would only communicate with him, he'd be understood, and he'd have it all back. Or so he thought. It all comes spilling out of him, but in the end, he feels no more in touch, and he simply walks away.

In the decade since Short Cuts, Altman has continued to traverse all over the map. His John Grisham adaptation, The Gingerbread Man, failed to find an audience, and Dr. T & The Women was universally panned; yet, he got Oscar nominations for Gosford Park, made the charming character piece Cookie's Fortune, and experimented with blending fiction and reality once more in last year's The Company. By all accounts, he is the same old Altman, and this recent spate of re-releases should hopefully be a mere taste of what is to come.

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