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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L13FC: Vincente Minnelli

Image result for gene kelly and vincente minnelli
Welcome back to Cindy’s Lucky 13 Film Club where we share comments with one another about a topic in the film industry. This is my lucky day because you are joining me on my birthday! Three cheers to Vincente Minnelli.

He was a costume and set designer in Chicago theater before he moved to New York City and was eventually hired in 1940 by producer Arthur Freed at MGM. Considered an auteur because of his style and creative control of his films, his background in theater and experience with stage sets and the use of color are trademarks of his musicals and dramatic films. According to The Gross: The Hits, The Flops by Peter Bart in 1999, Minnelli’s impact is profound in cinematic history. Vincente Minnelli directed An American in Paris (1951), Brigadoon(1954), Kismet (1955), and Gigi (1958). Other than musicals, he directed comedies and dramas including Madame Bovary (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Lust for Life (1956), Designing Woman (1957), and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963). He passed away at the age of 83 in 1986. Nominated several times, he finally won the Best Director Oscar for Gigi in 1958. As a director, he is credited for coaxing several actors (Shirley MacLaine, Spencer Tray, Gloria Grahame, Anthony Quinn, Kirk Douglas, among others) in Oscar-nominated performances. Would anyone disagree that Gene Kelley‘s magical dancing in the fantasy-rich sets of a Minnelli film is the best offering from MGM? I think not.

What’s the allure? It’s his use of color. Vincente used Technicolor better than most directors to shape the visual information much as a theater director does for the stage. Used as a device, he created motifs and incorporated visual imagery and symbols that added a layer of complexity for all to appreciate. Contrast his colorful worlds to the real world pallet of grays, browns, and Army green from the depression and WWII. In the fifties, the battered world needed the whimsical sweetness of a Minnelli film. His films were a tonic, the relief after the hangover of war.

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One example is his decision to use the bold color of fuchsia to signify the loose morals of Shirley MacLaine‘s “easy” character, Ginnie Moorehead in Some Came Running (1958). Walter Plunkett was the Costume Designer and combined with Minnelli’s vision to illustrate the theme of acceptance and the fracture of morality in small-town America in part by use of color, it was a memorable film.

Which sequences in his films have you noticed this theatrical trick to use color to help tell the story?

Since Gene Kelly was in several Minnelli films, take a look at this tribute by Christopher Walken.

L13FC: 1960s British & U.S. Significant Films

Welcome back to Cindy’s Lucky 13 Film Club. I heartily give thanks to Pete from Norfolk, England who agreed to co-host this month. After a discussion about significant films, not necessarily Oscar winners or box-draw favorites, we hashed out the details and chose three favorites from each side of the pond. What do our choices show about society at the time? Please comment and feel free to turn this into a discussion board. What films would you add? 

PETE FROM BEETLEY asserts: 

The 1960s were an important time in the development of British Cinema. From the home-made epics to the emergence of the kitchen-sink’ dramas reflecting real life.  The ‘comfortable’ class-ridden films that had gone before began to fade away, as film-makers sought to portray life as it could be understood by the people who paid for tickets. With most of the poverty behind them, and the absence of the rigours of war and rationing, cinema-goers began to expect more, and they got it.

In the era of ‘Swinging London’ and the culture of pop music and fashion that defined it, I became a teenager and a film fan, at one of the best times in history to have been both.

I recall three films that, showcased what was going on. Changing attitudes to class, approaching the horror film in a very different way, and a fresh approach to the espionage genre.

Peeping Tom (1960)

In the same year that ‘Psycho’ was released, the esteemed British film-maker Michael Powell released this film about a disturbed serial killer. Set in London’s seedy glamour and soft-porn industry, it followed a troubled young man unable to control his impulse to not only kill, but to film those kills as they happened. The audience followed the camera into the terrors of the victims and then watched as he not only reviewed his crimes but also played old reels about his own abuse as a youngster. It proved too much for the time. Critics and censors were appalled, and the audiences were shocked beyond belief. Powell’s career was ruined by the uproar, and the film took many years to gain a cult following of those who appreciated just how radical and powerful it was.

 

The Servant (1963)

Joseph Losey made many films with the leading man, Dirk Bogarde. In this film, he is cast against type, as a nasty, manipulative manservant, keen to take advantage of his aristocratic and superior young employer, played to perfection by a young James Fox. To achieve his goal, he introduces an attractive young woman into the house, to act as a maid. He claims she is his sister, allowing his young master to believe he can take advantage of her. Once hooked on sex with the girl, (a suitably alluring Sarah Miles) the upper-class man has his life slowly dismantled by the scheming pair, as they destroy his relationships, and make him increasingly dependent on them both. With wonderful location filming in London, tight direction by Losey, and a powerful script, this film reflected changes in class attitudes driven by 1960s society. Foretelling the end of so much privilege by circumstance.

The Ipcress File (1965)

The first of the ‘Harry Palmer’ spy films saw Michael Caine emerge as a new kind of secret agent. Not an upper-class university educated gentlemen, or aristocratic fop, and not resident in the glamorous fake world of James Bond. This was the everyday slog of spies in the Cold War. They still have to overcome class prejudice from their superiors, but they are playing a new kind of game, one where winning is the only acceptable outcome. Ex-military, unimpressed, and wearily flirtatious, Harry was the perfect role for Caine, who ran with it to the sequels too. Although the film builds to a climax, it excels in the small details of Harry’s everyday life, and his interaction with his colleagues. When we went to watch this film, it was undeniable that things were changing in Britain, and we now had a new kind of hero.

CINDY’S CHOICES

Only three? Should I choose one from the start of the decade like Spartacus (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrick for an undeniable well-crafted epic? What about the film that gave the voice to the counterculture in 1969, Easy Rider? Which film reflected the terror and paranoia of the Cold War best? Dr. Strangeglove? Should I choose a film that typifies vibrant NYC and its spokesperson, the endearing Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? I adore West Side Story. It is probably my favorite film of all time. I chose not to mention it here today. God that was hard!

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

The 1960s was about finding one’s inner strength. It was about non-conformity. Paul Newman as Luke Jackson does this best and becomes a martyr in the eyes of his Florida inmates. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, what a cast and outstanding performances by Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, and Jo Van Fleet. Just look at that trailer to remind you. The film is art.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

In answer to my question about the Cold War, The Manchurian Candidate hit a nerve. It raised fears that top-secret missions existed and fanned the flames of fear and paranoia. Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Shaw was frightening while Frank Sinatra gave one of the best performances of his career.

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock pushed the envelope with his most famous film. He filmed Janet Leigh in her bra and slip. The central character was female; she had a steamy affair and embezzled from the bank. The toilet flushed for the first time in film. A trifecta of taboos inferred: transvestitism, incest, and necrophilia. Who can forget Bernard Herrmann’s score with violins that pierce the air like a knife? Or Hitchcock’s filming of angles, the play with light and dark, and the awesome editing montage during the shower scene? The exterior and interior shots of the house? Those top shots of the stairs? Doesn’t everyone cringe at one of the best final shots in film history–the stare of Norman Bates played by Anthony Perkins? Well done, Janet Leigh, for starring in two out of three of significant films from the 1960s.

Your turn!

Thank you, Pete! Don’t forget to visit Pete’s blog soon. You can find him in Beetley HERE.

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