THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: TANNER ‘88 (1988)

Even with questionable projects like Quintet and A Perfect Couple finding their ways into theaters in 1979 only to find his fortunes crater in 1980 with the underperforming Popeye and the mostly never-released HealtH, it would still appear that, on paper at least, Robert Altman’s sojourn away from the multiplexes from 1988 to 1992 was the absolute bottom of his long and illustrious career. For during this period he worked exclusively on projects envisioned for the small screen. Some of these were good as was the case with his adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,and some of these were the direct opposite of good as was the case with Basements, his adaptation of twin Harold Pinter pieces, “The Dumb Waiter” and “The Room.” But even on wobbly legs that could only be glimpsed in the living rooms across America, from this stretch of time also sprung Tanner ‘88, Altman’s absolute crowning achievement of the 1980’s and one of the greatest and most significant works of his entire career. If Altman’s Nashville is the greatest film about America, Tanner ‘88 is the greatest work about American politics.

Written by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau and directed by Altman (and advised by future Clinton advisor, Sydney Blumenthal), Tanner ‘88 was a wildly creative and incalculably influential eleven-episode miniseries that spans the course of six hours and was broadcast on HBO between February 15th and August 22nd in 1988. Fluctuating between the real-time cable news drama of the very real Democratic presidential primary of that year and the bustling, fictional world of Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), liberal idealist and one-time Michigan congressman now thrust into the maelstrom of a presidential campaign, Tanner ‘88 dissected American politics with skilled precision, blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction as Tanner and his dysfunctional campaign intermixed with real pols and press all the way up to the Michael Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen-coronated convention in Atlanta.

By running a clear-intentioned but befuddled antique of a candidate in Jack Tanner, Altman was able to get in there to document American politics on the cusp of a new age of information; 24 hour cable news working overtime to numb the minds of many voters, causing them to tune out due to over-saturation. In doing so, Altman sends up the technical bugs that plague on-the-fly productions that occur in politics and live television such as roving optical titles that sometimes shuffled between multiple names before landing on the correct person who’s doing a shoot interview and miscommunications galore despite sitting atop a bank of telephones. Tanner ‘88’s shot-on-video foundation (lensed by longtime Altman camera operator, Jean Lepine) has all the artistic greyscale of a Gregory Dark porn from the same period but it doesn’t damage Tanner ‘88 in the slightest. Instead, it appropriately gives the piece an immediacy, underlying its theme of authenticity and emboldening its independent spirit while still retaining Altman’s busy and impeccable onscreen choreography.

As my old man was the executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party in 1976 and worked for many governors and twice as many gubernatorial campaigns so a whole lot of Tanner ‘88 registers with me as authentic, most especially Pamala Reed’s TJ Cavanaugh, erstwhile campaign manager of the Tanner operation. I have known so many folks just like her; hardened political professionals who have to constantly see one election cycle in the future to stay employed. Likewise, famous are stories like the New Hampshire couple in the opening episode; people who politicians chase for photo ops as the kind of salt of the earth individuals with whom one wants to be photographed around the kitchen table but, in reality, are political starfuckers who collect autographs and Polaroids of the various candidates who drift through their kitchen.

In terms of 1988, Jack Tanner predicts Bill Clinton by about four years. Hell, if not for Clinton’s more folksy backstory and a lasting marriage, there’s not much that separates Jack from the 42nd President. In some ways, Tanner is to Clinton what Monty Python’s Brian is to Jesus Christ. Only a single presidential cycle separates them but that cycle makes the world of difference. For Tanner is a candidate for the wrong era. Clinton would have been much more politically cynical about cutting a commercial that was surreptitiously shot from under a glass coffee table or taking advantage of a private pain for political advantage. What Tanner ‘88 gets to the heart of is how decent and flawed people with true convictions and a desire to act on behalf of the public good can be completely shut out by the decision-making process where it counts because of a media environment that feels like a foreign land where one can’t quite see all the cannibals and the want to crack through the facade of “making great television” is an absolute fool’s errand.

What Altman couldn’t have known is the funhouse mirror Tanner ‘88 creates in both his career and in American politics. Already disillusioned with eight straight years of Reagan which, to folks like Altman, was a more refined and dangerous and disingenuous Richard Nixon for the worn-out Boomer generation, he looks at a landscape rendered unrecognizable by the the ever blurring line that separates celebrity and politics and how the poisonous tabloid luridness seeped into our national bones. By pinpointing this moment in time in 1988 with the inevitable election of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush (which was like building an extra room onto the previous eight years), Altman both recalls the political seeds in 1975’s Nashville but also sets up his penultimate effort, Tanner on Tanner, where America finds herself staring down the next four years of another Bush administration in the absolute death throes of a media landscape that took root in 1988.

The best way to absorb Tanner ‘88 is via the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD release (also featured on their streaming channel) the production of which coincided with the production of Altman’s Tanner on Tanner. In the Criterion set, each episode is bumpered with then-new introductions by the characters in the Tanner universe as they ruminated on the campaign’s failure and the sorry state of American politics that had gone rapidly downhill since the congressman’s ill-fated run during those halcyon days of the wheezing and waning Reagan administration. Now, almost 20 years after Tanner on Tanner, what seems recognizable in the world of campaigning is mostly bittersweet and nostalgic as more primitive forms of campaigning and decorum have been smashed to bits by social media and candidates fully immersed in demagoguery.

Also, framing Tanner ‘88 in the hindsight of 2004 creates a nifty, if tragic, historical window as we were then looking to avoid sliding into a second term of the ruinous George W. Bush administration. But in ‘04, as was the case in ‘88, we failed in our dodge and had to sit through four miserable years before Americans saw their hopes rise and lives flourish for eight more. In 2021, almost twenty years after the retrospection of 2004, Joe Biden, a supporting name on the crowded 1988 trail but never seen in Tanner ‘88, is now the very real President of the United States that are truly no longer all that united seeing that a good 15% of the population thinks his presidency is, in fact, a creation of the media.

Tanner ‘88 was highly influential on Steven Soderbergh’s K Street, a similar premium-channel series from 2004 in which a fictionally constructed world of political advisors collided with our very real political system. That show achieved about a week’s worth of heavy ink for the scripted part of the show, notably strategist James Carville’s feeding a line to Gov. Howard Dean, bleeding itself into an actual primary debate among the Democratic candidates which landed in Dean’s favor. I recalled this moment while watching a scene in Tanner ‘88 in which the then-recently dispatched Bruce Babbitt advises Tanner as they walk along the shores of the Potomac. Babbitt, a popular but boring governor of Arizona who was one of the first to drop out of the race in 1988, seems to understand the uphill battle ahead for bland but effective policy-makers like himself. His breakdown of the message to politicians? “I’m going to talk to you straight about our future and how Americans can get together and start solving problems instead of living in this kind of silver screen age of unreality.”

I think about that quote a lot these days.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: O.C. AND STIGGS (1985)

After Ronald Regan scored a dominating win and a second term in office, there had to be some kind of numbness that was felt by those who knew Reagan was an intellectual lightweight but yet somehow, almost despite himself, remained vastly popular. What, they thought, can’t people see, or, more scarily, do they even care? It was probably the latter for Reagan hustled in a kind of hyper-capitalism that ran on credit and deregulation which forced everything to continue to be “bigger and better.” And while this excited those consumers who could afford to see the middle class take a squeeze, it also caused more and more people to fall through the cracks and stumble into the margins where they no longer became part of society but part of a conversation that had some kind of re-beautification scheme baked into it so those people could be further marginalized and forgotten.

Somehow and someway, Robert Altman decided to put all of this and other sundry sentiments of anti-Reaganism into a big screen adaptation of the summer adventures of a couple of teenage characters who had graced the pages of National Lampoon throughout the early eighties. The result was 1985’s O.C. and Stiggs, a film that sat on the shelves until 1987 and one that is generally considered Altman’s worst effort by people who, I suppose, have never heard of or seen Beyond Therapy or A Perfect Couple. While it’s never going to be confused with top-shelf Robert Altman, O.C. and Stiggs remains a delightfully sly film with more on its mind than most of its teen-sex brethren. And, honestly, who gives a flying fuck if Altman forgot to add the sex when he’s having such a gas using his ONE major studio film of the 80’s to gleefully torch the foundation of what every decent American should despise? Altman deserved a medal, not jeers and castigation, for this move.

The plot of O.C. and Stiggs is pretty episodic and random; it’s basically a recounting of the crazy summer that our two characters had as their senior year lurks on the horizon. For O.C. (Daniel Jenkins), it’s a bittersweet memory as he will soon be moving to Arkansas for his final year of high school as the grandfather he has been living with has had his retirement insurance cancelled and is going to have to stay in a nursing home. For Stiggs (Neill Barry), it was just another summer where he can torture the wealthy Schwab family and upend societal convention if only for the attention that he is not getting in his own dysfunctional and overcrowded home.

As much as Popeye was to some extent just McCabe & Mrs. Miller reconfigured for kids, O.C. and Stiggs is basically “I Was a Teenage Hawkeye and Trapper John” where all of the pranks, jokes, and misdeeds have been rerouted from military authority and are now at the expense of the Schwabs, a clan of nouveau riche straights whose patriarch (Paul Dooley) is the insurance king in a community where the words loud, bigoted, tacky, gaudy would be appropriate descriptors. Altman’s rendering of Scottsdale, Arizona, makes it look like the new American frontier; a community of inhabitants in a place not meant to be inhabited, replete with artificial wave pools and other stupid attractions. It’s a baking, sweltering enclave that is an absolute hell, 100% Barry Goldwater territory; the exact type of place where Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), Nashville’s third-party presidential candidate, is making a bid for the U.S. Senate ten years after the events of that film.

So it’s a teen sex comedy where the sex is substituted with a giant rod up the ass of the shallow crassness, racial cruelty, and the individualistic, selfish pursuits that had run amok in the back nine of the Reagan Era. And wherever Reaganism failed, O.C. and Stiggs exploits. The homeless, Vietnam vets, decorum, capitalism, and silly charities all get a full inspection as the characters of O.C. and Stiggs are the perpetual progressive irritants in a dead suburbia becoming even more zombiefied. Wherever society decides to stagnate to the detriment of some, the two are there to make sure everyone’s boats are lifted.

So does this really sound like a teen sex comedy at all? The film’s connection to National Lampoon is crucial given M*A*S*H’s contribution to what Roger Ebert used to call the “slob comedy” which was made famous with 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House. So this is Altman closing a chapter by bringing it full circle with a certain poignancy and sadness. Unlike other similar films of the day, both O.C. and Stiggs have deep grievances that have some emotional truth. O.C. is hurt by the Schwab Insurance Company which has cancelled his grandfather’s retirement insurance and Stiggs is damaged by a philandering father and a sense of being completely unseen in a busy cacophony of a family (very reminiscent of The Boy’s situation in That Cold Day in the Park). These are kids whose adventures are more stimulated by what their elders have wreaked than it is about chasing girls. “What you boys need is some pussy,” says Melvin Van Peebles’s Wino Bob, in a jive on Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback persona. He knows what it’s like to want to put your foot in the Man’s ass and here are two white kids who have some shared enemies and who want to do just that. But there is a wistfulness to Bob’s sentiment as it’s just too bad that change is left to the young who are the only ones with the energy to do anything when they should be asked little more than to go out and enjoy their lives.

With some nice references to Apocalypse Now, The Pink Panther, The Last Picture Show, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,Altman hasn’t been this referential since Brewster McCloud, itself referenced in O.C. and Stiggs via the jokey vanity plates and a very pointed scene dealing with a lot of bird shit. Additionally the inclusion of King Sunny Adae and his African Beats sets the film apart as one of the commercial aims of films like this was to pack the film with as many hot new artists as possible if only to create a separate revenue stream for the concurrently released soundtrack album. Here, the music of King Sunny Adae acts as pure joy and a great equalizer, one of the few things that seems to bring joy to everyone who hears it. And special mention has to be given to both Jane Curtain, who nails her role as the perpetually soused matriarch of the Schwab family (every member of which being too oblivious to notice is also a nice touch), and the radiant Cynthia Nixon, object of O.C.’s desire.

Of course, not everything in the film works like gangbusters. Sometimes the film has a difficult time mixing Altman’s style with the kind of two handed teen comedy that the movie sort-of kind-of wants to be. Sometimes it’s at ill at ease with itself and there are moments where Altman makes big miscalculations as to what the audience will find amusing by throwing unnecessary and goofy sound effects onto the soundtrack. Additionally, the film also shows the tell tale signs of over-editing; like the shapeless story was given the slightest bit of a plot only in the editing room leaving even more of this film on the editing room floor.

But considering the states of both Altman’s career and the subgenre he was inverting with O.C. & Stiggs, there is far more to celebrate here than to dismiss and the film’s continued life as a punchline thanks to people who should know better is borderline irresponsible. For all of the things Altman called out as a threat to our society in Nashville have brought in a return on their investment ten years later thus beginning the slow, poisonous crawl to our sorry state today. This is no better realized than in the character of Pat Coletti (the always incredible Martin Mull), a lazy and affable millionaire whose geographical proximity to the Schwabs makes him their almost polar opposite. Rich, insulated, and bored, Coletti’s brand of capitalism is an open, creative, and almost lax approach to making money which proves to be more inclusive and has a more balanced entrepreneurial spirit. So if O.C. And Stiggs is the final word in the slob comedy and not at all a teen sex comedy, Coletti and all of the adult characters represent the bitter end of the first half of their lives. While they’re all victims of Reaganism, they’re all choosing their own specific misery as they sink into inert middle-age, a place where most people no longer know how to grow but only know how to expand. And the choices they make speak volumes about their characters.

While Paul Dooley’s racist, conspiracy theory, doomsday prepper character looks like a first step toward MAGA right in the red, white, and blue middle of Reagan’s America, a retrospective view of O.C. and Stiggs shows how shockingly on the nose Altman was about all of it and how, perhaps, some of the criticism was from people who just didn’t want to believe it. I suppose if you had your head in the sand, this film would look incredibly silly. But, gosh, all of those American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” signs papering cookie-cutter stucco homes that magically popped up in the middle of the Arizona desert to get away from… something? I’d say that, despite the inherent silliness in a so-called teen sex comedy being “Exhibit A” to prove a larger point, MAGA was less a phenomenon that sprung forth in 2016 and that it was there all along.

“This is real!” O.C. screams at Dennis Hopper during the film’s climax as the former is handed a grenade to be used to get out of Schwab’s doomsday room.

“Everything gets to be sooner or later,” Hopper replies.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Nikole Beckwith’s Stockholm Pennsylvania

I struggled with Nikole Beckwith’s Stockholm Pennsylvania on several levels, despite it having a wicked strong cast and premise so full of potential I almost want to write my own version that does it more justice than this incredibly frustrating film. Saoirse Ronan gives a typically superb performance as Leia, a young woman who was kidnapped when she was very young by doomsday obsessed, ill adjusted Benjamin (Jason Isaacs) and raised in his captivity and care for over a decade. When she’s eventually found and freed, she returns to a life she barely has memory of, to two parents (Cynthia Nixon and David Warshofsky) who feel like strangers to her. Her life with Benjamin was never filled with abuse or horror or anything like that, beyond kidnapping her and filling her mind with all sorts of end of the world, anti-humanity nonsense he actually cared for her as his own kid and treated her decently, all things considered. So there’s this alienation from the real world, this wall of separation from parents who desperately try and reconnect with her and this strange bond with her captor who is still out there in jail, thinking of her. How does the script take this situation and evolve it into something challenging, believable and emotionally resonant? Well, it doesn’t really. Ronan, Isaacs and Warshofsky are terrific but Nixon gives this shrill, unpleasant and altogether inexplicable portrait of tyrannical maternal instinct gone wrong that curdles into her own version of holding Leia captive when she can’t reconcile that her daughter just isn’t the same person she used to be. I’m not sure what Beckwith was going for or drawing on with this original script, it seems as if she is deliberately trying to tell a knowingly obtuse, in-your-face uncomfortable story and the result is a maddening experience, or at least was for me. It’s a shame because the idea, setup and execution of the first act is really good and drew me in and then it just goes off the deep end appears to lose itself in histrionic, grim, unnecessary Mommie Dearest nonsense that feels like it walked in from a much lesser film, and as such it drags the whole experience down and you just feel emotionally depleted afterwards, with no reward, pathos, thought provocation or narrative satisfaction. An interesting experiment that needlessly nosedives and betrays both the audience and its characters to masochistic doom and gloom that doesn’t feel warranted.

-Nate Hill