A Going Home Companion
Robert Altman had been in frail health in recent years, but we were still looking forward to hosting a critique of his next picture,Hands on a Hardbody, a fictionalized version of the documentary about a Texas contest in which people stand around a pickup truck with one hand on the vehicle, and whoever lasts the longest wins it. The film—which based on that description alone should have given Altman ample chance to cast half the Screen Actor's Guild and let them improvise before their ringmaster—was to go into pre-production in February. Sadly, the five-time Oscar nominee went into post-production the night of Nov. 21. It's a wrap; the outspoken, unconventional and vastly influential filmmaker who helmed M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park and, most recently, A Prairie Home Companion, died of complications from cancer at 81.
"Plains Song," Ella Taylor's review of that final Altman film, appeared in these pages in June.
For a film about death and endings, A Prairie Home Companionis a cracking good time—a warm, golden bauble within which to shelter, like the radio show that inspired it, from the misery and ennui that engulf us in and out of the multiplex. Directed by Robert Altman from a screenplay by Garrison Keillor, the movie is a happy collaboration between two crusty souls, in all respects an unlikely match save for their mutual love of the local, the prankish, the anachronistic and the amateur. And who better than Altman—who thought nothing of opening his masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, with an 11-minute tracking shot of Elliot Gould's rumpled Philip Marlowe trying to find gourmet cat food—to interpret Keillor's digressive sensibility, his knack for creating the hermetic space in which to play out everything that matters in this life?
Later in the piece, Taylor dealt with the auteur's love of performance and mortality.
Prairie may seem like a step out on a folksy limb for Altman, but the movie is all of a graceful piece with the love of performance that has informed so many of his films, from the masterful Nashville through the oddly flat Kansas City to the faux dance documentary The Company. Like that beautiful but nebulous confection, Prairie makes for a wonderful concert movie, but its pacing is looser and more exuberant, its back-stories vibrant, bawdy and intimate. There's a dark side, of course, and not just because the Minnesotans it lampoons and lionizes are "people who believe it could be worse, and will be." Despite the acquisition of a spanking-new transplanted ticker, which he impishly announced while accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Oscar ceremony, Altman is looking squarely at his own mortality here, and so, it seems, is Keillor (who, at only 60, is more than 20 years Altman's junior).
Other Altman cinematic triumphs and some not-so-triumphant productions have been chronicled in the Weekly, but since we weren't around for his first 70 years, we only got to cover the twilight of a brilliant career. Fortunately, our oldest sister paper, the Village Voice, has been around much longer. Here are some select words of praise from the country's oldest alternative newsweekly—and a couple knocks:
Looking ahead to his 79th birthday, Robert Altman has been plugging away on movie sets, manufacturing adroit classics, odious train wrecks, and—most often—ambitious mediocrities for more than five decades.
As with Altman's best movies, Gosford Park is above all an entrancing hum of atmosphere and texture.
Robert Altman calls his latest film a "love letter to the women of Dallas," but it's hard to detect anything resembling affection in Dr. T and the Women—at best, a snickering empathy for Richard Gere, cast effectively enough as the squintingly perplexed, emasculated center of a raging estrogen tempest.
Even more than Woody Allen, Altman is a filmmaker who aspires to the choreographed and socially astute ensemble humanism epitomized by Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. But unlike Renoir, he has a saturnine temperament—he cannot help but condescend to half of his characters and ridicule the rest.
Perhaps more fitting than snippets from reviews to remember Altman is this debate between then-Village Voice critics Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell aboutNashville that first appeared on June 9, 1975. Here's a sample:
Sarris: I like the very beginning and I like the very end, but I find a lot in the middle very ordinary. People have been telling me for weeks that the movie is very "novelistic," and I think I know what they mean. It's all these characters lurking in the background of one shot and then suddenly lurching into the foreground of the next shot. But for me "novelistic" is not just network, but nuance too. Altman has given star billing to 24 performers, but he's cheating on at least half a dozen of them. Bert Remsen as Star, for example, is one of the Altman regulars, but all he does here is chase half-heartedly after Barbara Harris. Or Jeff Goldblum as the Tricycle Man. He's more a visual figure of style then a character. And when you think about the link-up to Easy Rider and the Kennedys and the fact Nashville turns out to be part musical and part murder mystery, then a great many figures in the background turn out to be suspects in some impending violence. But I'm not knocking the movie itself, just some of its advance critiques. I hate to go out on a limb after only one viewing, but Nashville strikes me as Altman's best film, and the most exciting dramatic musical since Blue Angel. And, like you said, it's the music that puts it over.
Haskell: I think that the power and the theme of the film lie in the fact that while some characters are more "major" than others, they are all subordinated to the music itself. It's like a river, running through the film, running through their life. They contribute to it, are united for a time, lose out, die out, but the music, as the last scene suggests, continues. It diminishes them, as death itself diminishes us, and ennobles them. And it's the people who live and breathe country music who are finally less ridiculous, less hollow, than the "sophisticates" who condescend to them: Michael Murphy's advance man and Geraldine Chaplin as the bleeding heart BBC reporter.
But what about Altman the man? In "The Artful Codger," Kristine McKenna's 2001 Q&A with Altman that appeared inLA Weekly, he conceded his feelings about America had changed.
"I was in England last year when the presidential election was taking place, and I said to my mates, 'This will be okay because it's going to the Supreme Court.' It did go to the Supreme Court, and we know what happened there. I felt like such a fool. I'm 76 years old, and I still believed in America up to that minute, and at my age I should've known better. Now I don't feel any emotional patriotic ties to this country at all."
LA Weekly film editor Scott Foundas also interviewed Altman "The Craftsman" this past June, to accompany their coverage ofA Prairie Home Companion, which Foundas called "another grand, messy, multi-character canvas in which actors invent and embellish freely, and the scenes seem to be unfolding organically, in the moment." He asked Altman about his famously collaborative and improvisational filmmaking style.
"I make them do the work they say they became actors to do in the first place. They say, 'I want to contribute. I want to do this and that.' Good. I won't have it any other way. Those people who want it all laid out on a storyboard for them and then they just come in and do the words—I can't deal with those people very well, because I don't get much out of working that way."
But, asked Foundas, isn't that a process fraught with danger?
"It's fraught with danger, but I don't know what it is that I'm after in the first place. I'm working from the seat of my pants. I'm the one who's doing the improvisation, not the actors."
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