Friday, December 29, 2006

Jottings on Three Films by Robert Altman

MASH (1970): For those (like me), who've seen the TV series first, this film comes as a shock, albeit a welcome one: its wit is more caustic (and misanthropic), and the film superbly captures the sheer tedium, cruelty, disorientation, corruption, and humor in the face of despair that I imagine characterize a battlefront. I probably wouldn't consider this a great movie, but it is certainly a notable one, principally for its marriage of light humor and political subversion, with the US' Cold War agenda (the film is set during the Korean War, but Altman's eye is surely on America's Vietnam misadventure, in full swing when the film was released) coming off the worse for wear. In an era (and in the midst of another wartime) where media conformity and pom-pomming are par for the course, MASH is a reminder that there is always a need for public figures like Altman (and films like this one) who have not mortgaged themselves to the latest opinion poll.

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973): Altman's adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name plants Chandler's hard-boiled detective from the 1940s -- Philip Marlowe -- smack in the middle of 1970s Los Angeles, a man in a suit and tie amidst a hothouse of decadence, California Dreamin' sun, sand, & surf, addled hippies, self-righteous thugs, and Marlowe's dead friend, accused of murdering his wife before committing suicide. Altman is firmly on Marlowe's side here, and one can sense Altman's contempt for his cultural moment, and preference for the ethic embodied by Marlow. And the ride is so compelling that as the film unfolds -- whatever one's political persuasions -- the viewer ends up "with" Altman's Marlowe.

Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is justly famous (his travelling shots, combined with his and Altman's fondness for the zoom lens, mean that everyday settings are rendered restless, and on occasion impinged upon by figures and events that cannot be discounted simply because they are not part of the viewer's foreground), as are the superb performances by Sterling Hayden (playing an alcoholic author reminiscent of the Hemmingway of public memory) and the impossibly, irresistibly blonde Nina Von Pallandt (playing Eileen Wade, the author's wife) -- indeed, all three come together in three beach scenes, two of them sun-drenched, the third nocturnal -- but it would be no exaggeration to assert that the film is elevated to greatness by Elliot Gould's performance as Philip Marlowe. As a triumph of disheveled, unflappable cool, Gould pays homage to Humphrey Bogart while carving out a niche for himself in Hollywood's pantheon. He's just about always in a suit and tie, and with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, but he has no illusions, playing the cool customer with an air so knowing it deconstructs himself. If the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland leaves his grin as a trace, then the latter's cinematic equivalent is Gould's furrowed visage (with a Marlboro, of course). Simply put, one of the most enjoyable male American performances I have ever seen.

KANSAS CITY (1996): Not a great film but a seamless and interesting one, Altman's film, set in Kansas City, Missouri during the Depression, involves impressive -- and suitably hard-nosed -- performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Blondie O'Hara, who kidnaps the wife of an adviser to President Roosevelt in an attempt to secure the release of her own husband from the clutches of a gangster) and Harry Belafonte (as Seldom Seen, the larger-than-life gangster holding Blondie's husband for the latter's robbery of a customer of Seldom Seen). Over the course of two hours, Altman deftly works in race, political corruption, the unfussy, love, loyalty, and the hardscrabble heroism (of the unsentimental variety) of those for whom a shortage of money is the most naked fact of all, into his film, and if the end result is less rich than it sounds, much can be overlooked in light of the superb soundtrack. And oh yes, all movie buffs will find Blondie's exchange with her hostage, on Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, simply irresistible.

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