Thursday, April 12, 2007

On Robert Altman's Lesser Known Films

The predominant assessment of Robert Altman's oeuvre posits a canon of several masterpieces interspersed with a score of wholly forgettable or downright awful works. This regrettable attitude has long caused many of Altman's best or most interesting pictures to be entirely neglected as critics have focused largely on MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park. In more recent years, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and 3 Women, three of his finest films, have attracted more attention, but the vast majority of his work has been dismissed as silly indulgences with little artistic merit. This assessment is completely misguided, as even Altman's lesser work provides numerous delights to the receptive viewer. Only 1987's Beyond Therapy and 1994's Ready to Wear qualify as outright failures. Below, we will look briefly at three unfairly neglected films that deserve a more prominent place in Altman's oeuvre.

Following the unexpected success of 1970's Oscar nominated MASH, Robert Altman made the first of his many contrarian moves by choosing a whimsical (and downright odd) fantasy as his follow up picture, refusing any attempt at duplicating the earlier film's commercial success. Brewster McCloud is arguably Altman's most entertaining picture. The story concerns the efforts of a shy, awkward young man (Bud Cort) to build a set of wings and take flight in Houston's Astrodome in whose basement he lives. Opposed in his quest by a series of quirky characters, including a miserly old landlord (Stacey Keach), an evidence-planting cop (Bert Remsen) and the racist woman who sings the national anthem at ball games (Margaret Hamilton), Brewster is protected by his guardian angel (Sally Kellerman) who sics a horde of murderous birds on anyone who threatens his mission. Adding to the audience's enjoyment is the running commentary of a professor (Rene Auberjonois) who lectures an unseen audience on the similarities between bird and man, gradually becoming more bird-like himself as the movie progresses until his monologue becomes an incomprehensible squawk. Altman would often introduce an unexpected element into his films to serve as a chorus, from the radio program of Thieves Like Us to the political broadcasts of Hal Phillip Walker in Nashville, but never more amusingly than in Brewster McCloud. At the film's end, Brewster finally takes flight and, after a brief moment of glory, crashes to the ground and dies. At this point, the film's artifice is revealed as all the actors converge on the scene and a narrator introduces them to the audience. Like Brewster's dream, the surreal vision of Altman's film has ended and we are brought back to reality by a reminder of the artificiality of the work. It certainly was fun while it lasted.


Although the five years between 1970 and 1975 probably accounted for the most sustained artistic success of Altman's career (he made eight films during this period including MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville), the next five years, which are usually ignored completely, are equally worthy of consideration. 1977's dreamlike 3 Women is arguably the director's masterpiece and, thanks to an outstanding DVD release from Criterion, is beginning to achieve some recognition. Several of his other films from this period, however, including 1979's Quintet, one of Altman's most bizarre offerings, are still ripe for rediscovery.

One of the director's two ventures into outright science fiction (1968's Countdown is mostly forgettable), Quintet takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, in which a new ice age has taken over the earth (the film was shot in wintry Montreal). The inhabitants of a ruined city, knowing that the end is near, occupy themselves by playing a deadly game called Quintet. The game, whose rules are never explained, involves dice, a five sided board, and some odd tokens. The loser of the game is killed by another player according to a pre-arranged "killing order". With nothing left to do but wait for death, the players submit their fate to the game, which mirrors the largely arbitrary nature of their lives, while allowing the players a small chance to control their fate. The game, which seems to involve more luck than skill, thus perfectly illustrates the incidental nature of existence in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The film is filled with images of striking beauty as when Essex (Paul Newman) floats his dead lover down the river, giving her her final rest on the water that continues to flow despite the frigid conditions. The movie has long been derided by critics as inscrutable and pointless, but it is rather easy to follow and, if the viewer is willing to accept some gaps in his comprehension, wholly rewarding. Quintet has long been a cult favorite among Altman fans and, now that it is available on DVD, it demands wider consideration.


The 1980s were somewhat of a down period for Altman. After the frantic rapidity with which he turned out pictures during the previous decade, he slowed his pace considerably and focused largely on filming plays both for the large and small screen. The best of his work from this period includes his adaptations of a little known work by Ed Graczyk, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone's one-man play Secret Honor. In the middle of his theatrical adaptations, though, Altman turned to another source, National Lampoon magazine, for his 1984 production O.C. and Stiggs which was released three years later in 1987.

O.C. and Stiggs is Altman's version of the teen comedy. We follow the title characters, two Scottsdale, Arizona teenagers, over the course of a summer as they take their revenge on the Schwab family whose patriarch, an insurance company owner, canceled O.C.s' grandfather's policy. Their revenge takes the form of a series of obnoxious antics, such as charging long distance calls to Gabon to the Schwab's phone bill, or causing a water fountain to explode on Schwab's son . In between, they find time to travel to Mexico, pursue romantic encounters, purchase an off-road vehicle, and crash a wedding. What is great about the film is its inclusiveness. Altman throws in every idea he can think of and assembles an impressive gallery of oddballs including Dennis Hopper as a deranged Vietnam vet (parodying his role in Apocalypse Now), Melvin van Peebles as a wino, Jane Curtain as a drunk housewife and even King Sunny Ade, who treats the audience to a musical number. The film also offers a mild satire on conventional middle class values. The film's tagline "adventures in upper middle class suburbia" makes the film's satiric intentions clear, but it is as a madcap, anything-goes comedy that the film achieves its greatest success. O.C. and Stiggs may not be Altman's most profound work, but it is nonetheless a welcome addition to his oeuvre, and thanks to MGM's DVD release one that need not be overlooked.

Apart from the three films discussed above, many of Altman's other lesser known films are worth a look. Below is a list of his most underrated films.

Images (1972)
Thieves Like Us (1974)
A Wedding (1978)
Health (1980)
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Secret Honor (1984)
Vincent and Theo (1990)
The Company (2003)


La Cuoca said...

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Micah said...

Andrew, this is a great discussion of Altman's films because it introduces the novice(me) to relevant films I have never been exposed to. You extensive mind catalogue of collected films is a great preview to the great cinema of the century, especially films that are foreign and independent. You bring the underated films to light. Do you have Quintet by the way. Dare I ask?