Wednesday, November 22, 2006

NOT A PLAYER

As you've all probably heard by now, director Robert Altman died Monday night. The list of films he directed is a long one, including a bunch I never saw. One thing I find interesting are the titles of some of his earliest directorial efforts, including, "Modern Football," "Better Football," "The Builders," and "How To Run A Filling Station." Were these shown in schools? As shorts before features? Did that 50's guy narrate these efforts? You know, that "And Billy always crosses 50 feet behind the bus. And Dad always sticks to three shots of scotch on weekdays, and only takes Mrs. Smith in the missionary position on the days she ovulates" guy that narrated every one of those films we saw in school on the old-fashioned projector.

Robert Altman, starting with instructional films! Gotta love the way a real artist'll do anything to get in, get started, get funding. I also bet he stuck something subversive under the radar in those flicks. Something so subtle, no one noticed it. Who knows? And from there he moved into TV, doing some quality stuff like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Combat!" Although he made his first full-length film, The Delinquents, in 1957, his feature career didn't begin in earnest until the late 1960's, when he was already in his mid-40's.

Anyhow, as we know, Altman went on to helm some real classics, some "essentials": M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park. I know folks who swear by McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but I haven't seen it {ducks lightning bolt}, so I can't judge. I've never sat through Popeye in its entirety either, but P.T. Anderson (an acknowledged Altmaniac) used Shelley Duvall's rendition of "He Needs Me," penned by Harry Nilsson, to great effect in one of my favorite movies, Punch-Drunk Love. As many have noted, Anderson's style mimics Altman's, in the use of ensemble casts, overlapping plots, tracking shots, etc. See, Boogie Nights & Magnolia mostly, but even the eccentric Punch Drunk Love uses great tracking shots and overlapping dialogue.

Altman was 81 when he died, and in addition to his film career he flew B-24s in WWII, studied engineering, married thrice, had 6 childen, 12 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. He lived a full life; no tragedy here.

But no more films from one of the greats. Not a tragedy there, but a sad realization. And for that, he'll be missed.

24 Comments:

Blogger Otto Man said...

I've never seen McCabe either, but I think I might have to soon. Great tribute to him over at Alicublog.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Just read it. Followed Lemieux's (Farley's?) link from LG&M.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Smitty said...

I always used to watch movies to watch movies. I have never really watch a movie and understood the cinematography or the effect a director has. That has never equated for me.

So I really feel like I miss-out on this type of discussion. I want to revere this guy for his contributions to the film industry. I just don't understand them.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I always used to watch movies to watch movies.

That's how every film buff gets started, no matter what he says to the contrary. And one thing I find that "works": go to the IMDB page for any of your favorite films. Then click on the director's link. I bet you find that other movies on the list are also favorites. Or at least ones you've heard about, had recommended by someone whose taste you trust, or were curious about.

Ultimately, no matter how one tries to explain subjectivity, it always comes down to whether you like it or not. Same for music, books, beer, favorite color, etc.

9:05 AM  
Anonymous John Royal said...

Lots of the great directors started like Altman. Well, I can't comment on the instructional film bit, but lots of the "greats" we know from the 60s and 70s started in Television. Lumet. Pollack. Penn. Spielberg got his break doing stuff for Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" ripoff in the early-70s.

I"ve got to say, though, that I've always thought Altman was a bit overrated. I've really liked some of his movies. But he fell too much in love with himself and felt that he couldn't do no wrong, and then the movies would be really bad -- he had a couple of movies with Paul Newman in the late-70s that have to rank with some of the worst films ever (I think one was "Quintet" -- bad sci-fi -- and the other was something about Buffalo Bill's traveling circus). And I've never been a fan of Nashville -- too much going on with nothing really going on -- if that makes any sense.

I think MASH is a classic movie ruined by a TV series. I loved The Player. And he did this sci-fi movie in the late-60s called "Countdown" with James Caan and Robert Duvall and it dealt with the race to put a man on the moon before the Russians. It's not on TV much, but look for. The overlapping dialogue and long tracking shots are kept to a minimum, but the characters are real, the tension is real, and it's tightly edited.

You're right about P.T. Anderson. But Anderson does a better job of Altman of keeping a structure to the movie, of making sure the various threads intersect every now and then. And if you want good P.T. Anderson, go watch his first movie, "Hard Eight."

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

For some reason -- and I don't have a good one -- I've never seen Hard Eight. I love Magnolia & PDL, and I like Boogie Nights just like everyone else, but never got to Hard Eight.

I have a couple friends who know I love Anderson and have recommended H8, and you've now added yourself to the list. Funny thing, none of the others like him nearly as much as I do, yet they've seent he debut flick I haven't seen.

What's wrong with me?

I can understand folks' problem with Altman, for the very inconsistency and self-referentiality you object to. I definitely like him (a lot) more than you, but I'm not sure I'd call him one of my all-time favorite directors. Other than maybe Short Cuts, I couldn't put any of his films in my personal top-25, so how could I call him a favorite.

Objectively, I don't think of him as inferior to Scorcese, Kurosawa, Allen, Hitchcock, Coppola, etc. But they all have multiple flicks in my All-Time Category. So I have to admit . . .

Plus, quite a few young directors in their primes that may end up in my Pantheon, but still too soon to say (Anderson x 2, David Russell, maybe Kim Ki-Duk, maybe Meirelles, maybe Payne, maybe Gonfry, maybe Jonez).

11:20 AM  
Blogger George said...

Yo all have to see McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Brilliant deconstruction of the Western (of course, taking apart genres was par for the Altman course), and both Julie Christie and Warren Beatty are pretty iconic, and I choose the word pretty intentionally.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty are pretty iconic

I'll say. Hard to find a more attractive couple with which to deconstruct anything, huh?

Add yourself to the list, George. The list of folks who insist I need to see the movie, that is. Unfortunately, that list of movies is long and grows longer every year.

I still haven't seen The Searchers, The Third Man, or La Dolce Vita. Those three have to be crossed off before I can move on to McCabe or Hard Eight, ya know?

11:40 AM  
Anonymous John Royal said...

It's way too soon to say about some of the directors that you have in the Pantheon waiting room.

I am a big P.T. Anderson fan. "Punch-Drunk Love" is a classic in my opinion. I can't believe that movie flopped at the box office. "Hard Eight" in some ways, is like early Altman -- tight story, few characters, nothing wasted. And he gets a good performance from an unknown Gwyneth Paltrow and superb work from the always good John C. Reilly.

I like Wes Anderson (a Texas boy). Once again, I urge everyone to see his first movie, "Bottle Rocket." That's just a fun movie. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson make a good writing team (with "Rushmore" being their best script), though it looks like Owen's just willing to star in the films now, not write them. And I think that both of the Wilson brothers do their best work when they're in Wes's films.

I'm not sold on David O. Russell. "Three Kings" is an excellent movie. And he did this movie with Ben Stiller looking for his real parents (I forgot the title) that is really underrated. But I found "I Heart Huckabees" to be a lot of noise signifying nothing (though it did have Naomi Watts bouncing around in a bikini, so it does have something to recommend).

I think that everything that Spike Jonez has done has been good. He just hasn't done enough. And I was a Payne fan until that last movie -- I think he had way too much of the vino doing his wine movie -- cut about two hours from that thing and you've got an okay movie -- though I've got to give him some credit for re-discovering Virginia Madsen.

I can't write about McBabe and Mrs. Miller -- just haven't seen it in years. I just remember it being a beautiful movie to watch. And people forget that Beatty's a good actor.

And I've rambled way too long without connecting to anything -- hey, I did an Altman.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

It's way too soon to say about some of the directors that you have in the Pantheon waiting room.

That's a good catch. Maybe I wasn't clear enough. I mean it in the way you'd look at a 21 year old with two 300/30/100 seasons under his belt and say, "He's headed to Cooperstown." Implicit in that is remaining healthy, staying off drugs, avoiding getting stuck on the Royals, etc.

But barring weird stuff, guys who can play at an all-star level at 22 are rare, and often end up being superstars (see DiMaggio, Joe; Ott, Mel; Rodriguez, Alex; Cobb, Ty; Kaline, Al; etc.).

The same re some of my young directors. Each has made at least one film at a pretty young age that, in my opinion, demonstrates real artistry, real control and confidence in his medium.

It won't surprise me (especially Jonez and Wes) if they've already peaked. But assuming a normal career trajectory, I expect greatness from most of these fellas.

By the way, I hearted I Heart Huckabees, and while I won't call Sideways "great," I think Payne's gonna blow our doors off with his next film. There was something great bubbling beneath the surface in Sideways, and even though it didn't rise to the top, I'm waiting for it next time around.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous John Royal said...

Point well taken -- kind of like how Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were going to be first ballot Hall of Famers.

I agree with Spike. I think he might have peeked. But I think that Wes has a nice long career ahead of him -- I'm kind of pegging him as Steven Soderbergh kind of guy who's going to hit it big at the box office with a film that has a slight alteration in his style, then he's going to spend the rest of his career bouncing between commercial and personal projects.

Which brings me to the two directors I'd like to add to the Pantheon waiting room, though neither is young, anymore, and I think that one is already in the Hall.

I think Steven Soderbergh is already in the Pantheon. Yes, he does sleek, commercial pictures like "Oceans 11," "Oceans 12" and "Oceans 13," but man, he does it well. There's nothing I hate than a director who tries to sell out and it comes off looking like he's trying too hard to sell out. Soderbergh's commercial stuff is fun to watch, the acting's still good, and there's a decent script. And he still goes out and does experimental work, while, it doesn't always work (see, "Solaris" -- better yet, don't see "Solaris"), is still better than what most of the hacks are doing. Plus, he was able to get a good performance out of J-Lo, not many directors have succeeded with that task.

Also, Soderbergh's one of only two directors (that I know) to have two films nominated for Best Picture in the same year -- "Traffic" and "Erin Brokovich." (For the curious, the other is Francis Ford Coppola with "The Conversation" and "The Godfather: Part II.")

I also wish that Elmore Leonard would demand that the only director who can adapt his books be Soderbergh -- "Out of Sight" nails the Leonard novel in ways that Tarantino can only dream of.

And, while I'm going to get laughs, I think George Clooney has shown great promise as a director. True, he's only done two movies, but "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," are two very good movies which have me anticipating his next directorial effort.

I hope that you're right about Payne. I loved "Election" and really liked "About Schmidt."

And, Mike, I'm going to be in the minority here, but if you want to see the great Ford/Wayne western, skip "The Searchers" and get "Fort Apache."

And I somehow get the feeling that the rest of the crowd reading these comments are bored stiff.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I somehow get the feeling that the rest of the crowd reading these comments are bored stiff.

Your assumption of the existance of a crowd is a dnagerous one, John. Especially the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Smitty said...

Still here. Just reading your comments and understanding the deeper arguments.

And thinking about beer.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

And thinking about beer.

Well. Mid afternoon before a 4 day weekend. That's a given, right?

2:59 PM  
Anonymous John Royal said...

What's a 4-day weekend?

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Uh-oh. Is your boss hectoring you to work this weekend?

3:32 PM  
Anonymous John Royal said...

I guess that you could say that he's "torresrizing" me.

Don't you miss it?

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I'm not getting any closer to this one!

4:18 PM  
Blogger DED said...

I thought "Solaris" was pretty good. I wouldn't necessarily blame Soderbergh for how the story came across. Stanislaw Lem, the author of the story, can be a bit of a tough nut to crack. Maybe living one's life in Poland behind the iron curtain will do that. I haven't read "Solaris" but I've read some of his other stuff and it comes across as intentionally obsfucating (if that's even a word), which would be fine if they were good, but they were kinda lame.

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I'm not a big sci-fi guy, but I'm somewhat curious about the 1972 Tarkovsky version. Have either of you guys seen it?

9:42 PM  
Anonymous John Royal said...

I've never seen the Russian version. And to be fair, I don't really think Soderbergh's version is that bad. I just think he was going for some "2001"-type comparisons, and he couldn't pull it off. I respect the hell out of him and Clooney for not playing it safe, for daring to take chances.

A friend of mine, whom I respect, did try to watch the Russian version. He said that it was unwatchable.

3:07 AM  
Blogger Mr Furious said...

Contemporary names that will always get me to sit up an pay attention...

Soderbergh -- "Out of Sight" is a Top 10 flick for me. And do NOT miss "The Limey" Hasn't done anything I'd say is bad (that I've seen)

David Fincher -- "Se7en", "Fight Club", upcoming "Zodiac"

Christopher Nolan -- "Memento", "Batman Begins" and, holy fucking shit i just saw this on the IMDB page, the upcoming "Dark Knight"

Coen Brothers -- Notable exception—"Barton Fink" [shudders]

Spike jonez -- As good as "Malkovich" was, "Adaptation" was far better.

Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes), Russell and I recently saw Terrence Malick's "The New World" which was such a beautiful film, I need to seek out his legendary "The Thin Red Line".

I still like M Night as well. Never saw the last one however.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Agree about Adaptation.

What's wrong with Barton Fink? I prefer Miller's Crossing (my favorite Coen Bros. film by a long, long shot) or Raising Arizona, but I like BF.

If you like Malick's New World for the photography and the mood, then check out his other stuff. He's only got 3 others!

I LOVE Thin Red Line, so you'll get nothing but a ringing endorsement from me. Days of Heaven is another beautiful looking movie. Badlands I never saw in its entirety (no reason, just how it worked out), but it's well-regarded and it's fun to see Sheen and Spacek so long ago.

In the beautiful movie category, alsp check out Picnic At Hanging Rock by a very young Peter Weir.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the instructional films:-After trying to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood during the late '40s, and failing, Altman returned to his hometown of Kansas City and was about to take a humdrum job before he ran into an old friend who recommended him for a job with the Calvin Company in Kansas City, a large studio that produced many instructional films for schools and sales and PR movies for big corporations in those days. Altman got a job directing and writing these films (he was one of four or five other directors with that company) and worked there from 1949 until 1956. It was here where he learned all about film technology, and shooting projects efficiently and bringing them in under budget. He also tried making these nuts-and-bolts films more interesting, adding dramatic sequences and agitated camera movement and editing and so forth. It was not so much a style as it was a reaction against the subject matter. Thanks to some artistically (or rebelliosuly) inclined instructional film directors of the time like Altman and Herk Harvey (who worked for a company a stone's throw away from Calvin in Kansas City, and later did "Carnival of Souls"), some good little instructional movies got made during the '50s. I don't know about "subversive moments," but Altman certainly did put in some surprising ones just for the sake of dramatization. In one Altman film I saw, 1954's "The Perfect Crime," which is an unrelenting public-service plea for more road construction, it opens with a very bizarre dramatized sequence showing the brutal murder of a small child and elderly woman in a grocery store. You'd have to see this film to see how Altman ties in this rather arbitrary opener to the rest of the movie's plot. And this movie was shown on television in 1954! Yikes! However, most of the Calvin Co.'s hundreds of films have been lost and destroyed over the years (much to my regret), and so none of them ever turned up on MST3K. However, there is one, "The Magic Bond," which Altman directed in 1955. It's a public relations film for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and is available online for free viewing (and downloading) on the Internet Archive. Just search for "Magic Bond." But there is a very interesting opening sequence involving World War II soldiers that will strike you as quite similar to some of Altman's later work. Just watch. And it features some profanity, odd since this film was made specifically for television showings in 1955. And I don't know what you mean by "that 50s guy," because I'm sure there were several of them, but in his films Altman was using local actors in Kansas City, which sounds derogatory, but actually many of them were quite talented. But most of his narrators were KC radio and television announcers by day and did many other instructional films for both Calvin and for Centron over in Lawrence, Kansas (the Herk Harvey company), so those may be the guys you're thinking of. Names include Jim Lantz, Keith Painton, Shelby Storck, etc. By the way, in addition to Altman and Herk, other directors who started out in industrial/instructional films include George Romero and Stanley Kubrick. Hope this info helps. But anyway, thanks for putting up that well-written tribute to the late great director.

8:57 PM  

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