L13FC: Director Robert Altman

Welcome back to Cindy’s Lucky 13 Film Club. This month, John Charet is my featured co-host. We discovered we shared a mutual like and respect for Robert Altman’s techniques. Please share your stories and comments. Don’t forget to check out John’s site CINEMATICCOFFEE for his passion and knowledge of the cinema. 

My Favorite Robert Altman Films

JOHN SAYS:

As with a handful of other great filmmakers who defined the New Hollywood era (1965-1983), director Robert Altman (read here) is often celebrated for his unique approach to cinematic storytelling. Though much older (he was born in 1925) than some of his contemporaries (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg), one could swear that his 1970 breakthrough anti-war comedy MASH was the work of a 24-year old than that of a then 44-year old. Altman’s trademarks rested on more than just his irreverent sense of humor though (read here), but also stemmed from his use of improvisation and overlapping dialogue (read here and here). As with MASH, Altman combines these two traits together when it comes to deconstructing a beloved genre like the western with McCabe & Mrs. Miller or the Neo-noir with The Long Goodbye. Other times, we find these same qualities in ensemble pieces as varied as NashvilleA WeddingShortCuts and Gosford Park to name just four examples. Now without further ado, I present to Cindy’s readers my top 3 favorite Robert Alman films starting with number 3.

3.) Short Cuts (1993)
On paper, adapting nine Raymond Carver short stories into a 188-minute episodic film, not to mention relocating it’s setting of the Pacific Northwest to that of the Central Valley, looks like a hit-and-miss undertaking with more examples of the latter than the former. Amazingly enough, Altman executed it all on the screen without a scratch present. Not unlike 1975’s NashvilleShort Cuts is an epic ensemble piece set against the backdrop of another iconic American city (Los Angeles, California) while exploring the lives of its many different characters – 22 as opposed to the 24 of that earlier film. Here, Altman (along with Frank Barhydt, who co-wrote the screenplay with him) delivers a sprawling human comedy-drama that also works as an insightful panoramic view of everyday people and the situations they face. The results are both humorous and poignant.

2.) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Produced during an era when the Revisionist Western was at the peak of its popularity, McCabe & Mrs. Miller continues to stand out for me as quite possibly my personal favorite of the aforementioned sub-genre, which I count myself as a huge fan of. MASH might have introduced us viewers to director Robert Altman’s unconventional filmmaking style, but it is in McCabe & Mrs. Miller that Altman finds himself perfecting it. In its entirety, Altman sprinkles his trademark use of overlapping dialogue so effortlessly that it feels more like his tenth feature film after MASH rather than his second (Brewster McCloud was sandwiched in between). As others have implied, the plot may sound straightforward, but in execution, it is anything but. For example, Warren Beatty’s entrepreneur/gunslinger John McCabe debatably ranks stronger at the former than he does at the latter regardless of its climactic shootout. As a business partner, Julie Christie’s brothel madam Constance Miller completes him. Speaking of which, the chemistry between Beatty and Christie (the best of their three on-screen collaborations) is as playful as it is ultimately poignant. Vilmos Zsigmond’s distinctive cinematography and Leonard Cohen’s poetic music (three of his songs are played here) shapes the form and content of this authentic American masterpiece.

1.) Nashville (1975)
How does one sum up an essential American classic like Nashville? Well If you adore the film like I do, then the answer to that question is simple. For me, Nashville is like watching 3 films for the price of one. Each is as similar as they are different. On the one hand, it is a comedy that (explicitly and implicitly) satirizes the title city’s political culture, not to mention it’s country music scene. Simultaneously, it is a thought-provoking drama that critiques celebrity worship. On the side, it also comes off as an exuberant musical filled with expressive songs. Director Robert Altman’s trademark use of overlapping dialogue (here courtesy of Joan Tewkesbury) is at it’s most memorable here – one of the sequences takes place during the aftermath of multiple-vehicle collision and another at a pre-show house party. All in all, Nashville stands out as Altman’s crowning achievement. In case any, if you readers are interested in reading my full-length review of the film, click here

Cindy Says:

I appreciate Robert Altman now more than I ever have because he is a director whose filming style became a personal stamp of distinction. His love for the actor, that is, giving them free-reign of ownership of the scene, was atypical. Elliott Gould‘s talent for improvisation made him a favorite of Altman. In MASH, Gould recalls in an interview (read the full Jon Zelazny article HERE) “I read the script, which was by Ring Lardner, Jr., but I didn’t think much of it. As far as I’m concerned, MASH is Robert Altman’s vision. I remember when we showed the picture to Lardner at the studio, he came up to me afterward and said, “How could you do this to me? There’s not a single word in there that I wrote!” And he went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay!” In The Last Goodbye (1973), Elliot Gould maximizes his ability to insert character snippets of dialogue to create memorable lines that forge a character, like his repetitious, “It’s okay with me”. Robert Altman wanted his actors to show him something new. He believed the artistic power of a scene rested in the lap of the actor, not the director.

His incorporation of music and his obsession with sound using multi-tracks created an experience similar to watching a beehive. MASH (1970) is a perfect example of this. The expansive ensemble casts and his love of wide-angle shots included everyone and everything showcasing their lives and mini-dramas. The character Radar (Gary Burghoff) births a whole career out his ability to create a character who talks over his commanding officer. A simple trick for making the grunt superior to his superior. A technique for flip-flopping what’s expected and revealing the satiric theme of the film. The result is a chaotic perspective, occasionally voyeuristic, like when Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) spies on June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) outside her window while having a flirty conversation in The Player (1992).  In a Richard Altman film, the audience is positioned far and high enough away to catch the buzz of sounds and movements. It’s an unusual perspective.

My favorite Altman technique is the long take, his famous example is the seven-plus minute opening shot in The Player which pays homage to Orson Welles long take, opening shot from Touch of Evil (1958). Many of Altman’s films combine the long take with overlapping dialogue. You see it beautifully executed in The Player and my personal favorite Altman film, Gosford Park (2001). I am a sucker for plots that focus on the “upstairs, downstairs” dynamic. Altman pays homage to classic Hollywood with a British location and a large, star-studded ensemble cast that is a joy to watch. We follow the camera around the halls overhearing, snooping, participating in the whodunit mystery. The music is perfect with a Cary-Grant-type star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) at the piano serenading the scheming elite while the servants silently migrate the periphery of the room. The acting, the aesthetics, the constant movement of dialogue and tracking shots are Altman at his best. I believe Robert Altman blended art and marketability better than most. What was his recipe for success?

Griffin Mill: It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.

June Gudmundsdottir: What elements?

Griffin Mill: Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

Well, maybe the happy endings didn’t happen, but I noticed I’m always happy after watching a Robert Altman film.

THANKS AGAIN, JOHN CHARET for co-hosting today! Please, everyone, tell us what you think about the technique of the late-great Robert Altman. 

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Julianne Moore

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Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club. A friend of mine asked me recently which working actress today who has a prolific career could give Meryl Streep a run for her money?

I watched Still Alice (2014) and realized how much of a fan I am of Julianne Moore. Her best asset is her body language to show emotion. She has found a wide variety of flawed characters to stretch her acting abilities. In a recent interview, she said she picks women characters who are not usually discussed at the dinner table–everyday women. Her unique gift is her ability to find the humor and sympathy within the shallow, the manipulative, and the most misunderstood of females. You can’t take your eyes off her.

There’s not a film she’s in where her presence doesn’t lift up even the banal or mediocre of productions. Her performances are authentic whether playing the timid mouse or the vindictive tigress. Those expressive eyes! She brings out the beauty in the ugliest of characters.

Here are a few of my favorite scenes (profanity warning!) in no particular order: 

The tragic tale of lost souls who will do anything to become a star — Boogie Nights.

I hated the romanticization of the porn industry, but Julianne was electrifying.  

“Amber Waves” was a mother lost in a life of addiction and porn. She was the only character I cared about.

Maybe one of the reasons she touches hearts is her ability to cry?  

What do you think? Is she as good as Meryl Streep? I would rank Julianne in the same league and place her in the elite top five actresses working today. Would you? Which of her films moved you? 

L13FC: Raymond Chandler films

 

Welcome, all to the Lucky 13 Film Club and a special thanks to my good friend Pete from Beetley who agreed to co-host this month’s topic–films associated with Raymond Chandler. The purpose is to comment and engage with others in a positive way. So, join in!

Pete’s thoughts:

As I have never read any of Raymond Chandler’s novels, I am dealing with the portrayal of his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe in four films made before 1950, as I consider them to be in the genre of American Film Noir. Later versions served as an homage but lacked that gritty feel of the black and white classics.

Marlowe is a character we all think we know from either the books or the films, but each actor who has taken on the role has given us a very different portrayal. Essentially, he is a reflective, chess-playing man; a world-weary and unimpressed detective who rarely falls for the sob stories of the ever-present female love interest. He lives alone, avoids violence, and treats friend and enemy with much the same attitude.

 In his first outing, ‘Murder My Sweet’ (1946), former song and dance man Dick Powell gives us an edgy Marlowe. No-nonsense, unsympathetic, and openly aggressive, he lacks both the insight and contemplative manner that is essential to understanding the character. And it is hard to equate the cheery crooner from ’42nd Street’ in the role of a tough guy too.

But in 1946, we were treated to ‘The Big Sleep’. Marlowe was firmly established in the genre by the near-perfect casting of Humphrey Bogart. This was an actor who not only knew how to deliver some classic one-liners but also how to get Marlowe across by what he doesn’t say, as much as by what he does. Laconic, tired, visibly sick of it all, he also fails to be beguiled by the presence of Lauren Bacall as the femme fatale. He can say as much in one look, as Powell managed in ten lines of dialogue. This wonderful pairing, great direction, and snappy script all combined to deliver the archetypal Marlowe on screen. And for my money, it was never bettered. 

Brief mention goes to the two 1947 films, ‘Lady In The Lake’, and ‘The Brasher Dubloon’, starring Robert Montgomery and George Montgomery, respectively. After Bogart’s turn the previous year, those two hard an impossible act to follow. The result is by-the-numbers performances in films that are ultimately forgettable.

Cindy says:

I recently focused a post on Raymond Chandler AS AUTHOR. I wanted to revisit the film adaptations of his classic novels. Additionally, where he had a role in the screenplay. It’s the language of the script that interests me. What’s more important in a film noir? The actor and femme fatale chemistry? Or is it the storyline? I’ve read many reviews that pick at holes and say the plot takes a back seat. I feel it’s Chandler’s language that makes the best film noirs. 

Implementing the lyrical metaphors and the snappy smart-alec responses typifying the style of Raymond Chandler is when the noir ascends. The script that moves further away from Raymond Chandler’s style, the lesser the quality. 

One film noir is quintessential. Billy Wilder‘s direction + Raymond Chandler‘s screenplay+ the powerhouse chemistry between the narrator (Fred MacMurray) and femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) is on everyone’s favorite list: Double Indemnity (1944). Watch the clip. It’s the language that makes the film fantastic.

Walter Neff: How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

Murder My Sweet (1944) starring Dick Powell has an awesome dream sequence and is a fantastic film noir. Why? Once again, the language.

Philip Marlowe:
“‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.'”

Philip Marlowe:
My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn’t feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers.

Which Raymond Chandler film is your favorite and what is your favorite scene? 

 

A big hug goes to Pete for hijacking my blog and talking to you all. Please join in the conversation and don’t forget to check out Pete’s blog found RIGHT HERE.

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