When you begin to consider the high-level talent that went into the formula that produced Robert Altman’s HealtH, it’s difficult to recall another movie in film history that was, and continues to be, treated as poorly. Coming directly after Altman’s twin failures of 1979, Quintet and A Perfect Couple, its production was relatively quick and on-the-fly; an attempt to get one in the can while things at 20th Century Fox were still being run by Alan Ladd, Jr., a staunch Altman proponent who once gave the maverick filmmaker a million and a half dollars to make 3 Women, a movie that came to Altman in a dream and had no real cohesive story.

Sure enough, things did change and Ladd left for form the well-intentioned but doomed Ladd Company. HealtH, which had an initial scheduled release date in late 1979, began to get slowly pushed back on the schedule. Early 1980 came and went and a series of test runs arranged by the new management proved to be less than promising. The master plan of having it released before the 1980 presidential election never materialized. It’s safe to assume that when Altman began shooting the lavishly budgeted, dual-studio event picture Popeye in 1980, he couldn’t dream that he would get it shot, edited, and in theaters before HealtH.

But Popeye was released in time for Christmas in 1980 and HealtH was eventually pushed off of the Fox release schedule entirely (its final replacement on the Fox release schedule being Oh, Heavenly Dog!, a movie starring Chevy Chase and Benji). It did manage to play a limited engagement at Film Forum in 1982 but, aside from its occasional, stealthy appearance on various television movie channels, HealtH has never seen a release on home video. Every once in a while, a widescreen rip from one of those movie channel broadcasts makes its way onto YouTube, but it’s difficult to know if it’s been edited for time or whether the somewhat squeezed visual presentation is a representation of the film’s true aspect ratio.

Given its obscurity, the perceived notion is that HealtH must be some kind of otherworldly dog of a film; a real hubristic bonanza crafted amidst a barrage of likeminded projects by Altman. But the truth of the matter is that HealtH is a surprisingly strong and wicked look at the ridiculousness of the American political system as filtered through the world of the then-bourgeoning consumer health industry. A fine addition to the busier, wide-canvas ensemble pieces Altman could engineer with remarkable skill and dexterity, HealtH performs double duty as a sly comedy and a prescient warning of the toxic injection of empty personality and media-driven messaging into our electoral process. And having rewatched it in 2021 to rejigger this piece (originally written in early 2016), HealtH comes off as an even stronger film today given the twisted road down which we’ve travelled as a country.

HealtH is, on the surface, about two days at a health convention in which two candidates are running for the title of “President of HealtH.” Present at this convention are product pitchmen, authors, political functionaries & fixers, glad-handing bureaucrats, dirty tricksters, aides, liaisons, and PR staff all centering around the two presidential hopefuls. In one corner, Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall), 83 year-old virgin whose ubiquitous campaign slogan “Feel Yourself,” is delivered with an astounding cluelessness as Brill believes that each orgasm shaves 28 days off of your life. Her staff is made up of PR guru Harry Wolff (James Garner), oversexed campaign manager, Dr. Ruth Ann Jackie (Ann Ryerson) Brill’s undersexed personal physician who secretly lusts after Wolff, and a gaggle of nurses who are constantly drinking behind Brill’s back. In the other corner is Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) a pragmatic-yet-cold idealist whose speeches all seem swiped from Adlai Stevenson. Her entourage consists solely of Willow Wertz (Diane Stilwell), a sweet-natured aide whose ongoing sexual frustration is rooted in her inability to feel anything sexual for anything whatsoever. And between the two candidates are Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett), a representative from the White House and Wolff’s ex-wife; Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley), an independent candidate for president and shill for something called “Vita-Sea;” Colonel Cody (Donald Moffat), a bellowing political string-puller; Bobby Hammer (Henry Gibson), a slimy, Roger Stone-adjacent political operative sent to disrupt the Garnell campaign; Sally Benbow (Alfre Woodard), the convention hotel’s PR director; and, finally, Dick Cavett, as himself, who is there to cover the event for his talk show. Oh, yeah, and the Steinettes, an a capella outfit that acts as a ridiculous (but appropriate) greek chorus to HealtH’s very odd portrait of 1979 America.

In the film, we’re told that HealtH (which stands for “Happiness, Energy and Longevity through Health”) is an organization more than three times the size of the NRA and whose members can be similarly motivated to vote one way or the other. So the film certainly exists in an America that could also produce the cockeyed presidential campaign of Nashville’s Hal Phillip Walker. But Walker didn’t much have a real-life counterpart in 1975. The populist politics of Nashville reflected a hopelessness that washed through the post-Watergate, pre-Carter country like a rotten fever. The politics of HealtH were much more immediate. While sending up the then-current political climate, the film seems to anticipate the cultural shift that occurred in the presidential election in 1980. Even if the other candidates in the film could be composites of many other political figures, Esther Brill is a certain representation of the perceived image of Ronald Reagan, a man who counted on a network of advisors and aides to keep him informed and aware and who was about to enter the presidential race with a boatload of sunny optimism and slogans aplenty.

While HealtH isn’t perfect due to its unfocused and rushed production and its occasional tendency to get lost in the sauce of its own mix of satire and reality (you never really feel like you should be investing in it as you really should), it’s Altman’s strongest film since 3 Women. The script, by Altman regular Frank Barhydt, actor Dooley, and Altman does an amazing job keeping the film equally steeped in reality (through the characters of Woodard and Garner), television (Cavett and, eventually, Dinah Shore), and fantasy (basically everything else). The performances, too, are all top-notch. Burnett, Bacall, and Jackson are all terrific but the film is absolutely stolen at every turn by Woodard whose polite facade hilariously begins to give way to disdain as the convention rolls along. Among the men, Garner turns in a reliably easy-going performance, Paul Dooley is as energetic as I’ve ever seen him, and Dick Cavett, remarkably comfortable in a sizable role, has a great deal of fun.

As history marches on, HealtH’s chances of being anything other than a completely forgotten and mostly unseen film become slimmer and slimmer. Fox’s catalog is now owned by Disney, Altman passed away in 2006, and, aside from his centennial that will occur in 2025, there simply seems to be few occasions that could plausibly act as a catalyst for its release. This is a genuine shame because while sometimes chuckling and sometimes wincing while watching it in the midst of our own current absurd political climate that certainly seems like it could play out in an Altman film, it’s almost guaranteed that HealtH could still find an audience today. Sadly, it will probably never have the chance.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


Coming off the universally reviled and glum Quintet, Robert Altman began to move back toward the warmth of human relationships with A Perfect Couple, a lighthearted romantic-comedy that tracks a mismatched couple through a series of sweet-natured misadventures as they connect, decouple, and reconnect. Put against Paul Newman’s fight for survival in a world not fit to survive, the synopsis of a middle-aged man (Paul Dooley) falling in love with a backup vocalist in a rock band (Marta Heflin) probably seemed much more in tune with what moviegoers in 1979 were wanting. Unfortunately, Altman wasn’t in much of a mood to tackle such a light project and as a result of being weighed down by a number of elements on top of which it can never seem to climb, A Perfect Couple both registers as one of Altman’s weakest efforts and the one that marked the end of his relationship with 20th Century Fox as his fifth picture delivered to them, 1980’s HealtH, would slowly bump its way down their release schedule, eventually dropping off of it completely, never to return.

The movie opens promising enough as Alex Theodopoulis (Dooley) and Shiela Shea (Heflin) enjoy an outdoor performance at the Hollywood Bowl of the LA Philharmonic, for which his sister, Eleouisa (Belita Moreno), is a cellist. As a torrential downpour disperses the crowd and ends the concert, Alex and Sheila escape to cut short what we learn is their first date which has been powered by their participation in a video dating service. During this time we also learn that Sheila lives in a cramped loft among numerous members of Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets, a rock outfit she has just recently joined. Alex, on the other hand, is part of a starchy and conservative Greek family where almost nothing is done individually, Friday nights are spent watching their father (Titos Vandis) mock-conduct along to orchestral music, and men who are almost halfway done with their entire existence on this planet still have to ask for permission to go on a date.

All of this is to set up a story of opposites where two sides of a relationship are viewed with elements in both sets of families that mirror each other and, surprisingly, this is where the film really fails. This is a movie that wants to show how clever it is by drawing parallels between the two disparate worlds but, unfortunately, neither world is appealing and Altman further cheats the audience by giving too much of one and not enough of another. One of the biggest examples of this is how Altman treats the gay characters in his film. Always one step ahead of his peers in his treatment of LBGTQ characters on the whole (most notable in the remarkable Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), Altman wears down a lot of shoe leather discussing the inner workings of the relationships between three gay members of the band (which is commendable) but then gets tight lipped and opaque when dealing with the other side of the coin, namely, Eleouisa and her relationship to band mate Mona (Mona Golabek) which is clearly non-platonic. It’s unclear if Altman keeps it coy to underline Alex’s clueless, almost juvenile and stunted view of sex and relationships or if Altman is making a point in regards to the sad sickness in Alex’s family that causes Eleouisa to code-talk her way around it but, by doing so, he shortchanges the audience by closing off an interesting avenue for dramatic exploration.

In fact, throwing up road blocks to anything interesting is what Altman seems to do well in this movie. Almost every side character that saunters into the frame is preferable to the couple at the center. Whether it’s co-screenwriter Allan Nicholls popping up as well-meaning suitor Dana 115 or Ann Ryerson’s hilarious turn as a randy veterinarian, the urge overwhelms me to cling to their legs and beg them to take me away with them. Likewise, I’m almost certain a better movie could be made out of the exploits of Alex’s bored yet obsequious brother, Costa (Dennis Franz) and/or his creepy, effete brother-in-law, Fred Bott (Henry Gibson, fabulous as ever), both of whom feel like characters who escaped from an episode of the brilliant sitcom Soap. Hell, give me a movie featuring nothing but the exploits of the emergency room doctor, drolly played by frequent Altman collaborator Frank Barhydt and one of the few in the film who seems to understands he’s in a Robert Altman picture.

Throughout the film, Alex is an uppity scold who is continually turned off by things in both Sheila’s world and outside the confines of his own familial sarcophagus. He’s disdainful of the “weirdos” in her world but he also runs like a scared man-child when he realizes that a video date he is with likes a little slap and tickle. He seems to be a man of little intestinal fortitude, reuniting with Sheila after a disastrous video date only to leave again when he realizes that the rigors of the road and the lack of privacy just aren’t for him. His final return to her, almost insultingly, occurs only after he’s banished from his family following a left-turn tragedy that occurs in the third act and, unfortunately, one which the film simply cannot emotionally support, creating a fatal tonal imbalance. I would almost say that Alex is maybe a spiritual cousin to the distaff sexual cripples that populated 3 Women and That Cold Day in the Park excepting we see the patriarchal squeeze that makes Alex into the person he is and we are triply frustrated when he never does anything proactive about it.

Her performance maybe three slight shades of beige, Marta Heflin makes zero impression in this movie. This is a shame because Heflin is a natural and good actor (she’s underused in A Wedding and she’s perfect in Five and Dime). Only ever getting the heart pumping during a scene where she is roundly humiliated by Alex’s ridiculous family, Heflin never seems like she’s fully bought in to the relationship nor does she give off the impression that she wouldn’t be fine without it. After all and in the end, is Alex REALLY worth all the trouble she goes through in the film? But Altman and Nicholls don’t give her character much life and, like the contrast between the gay characters, the comparison between the stern patriarchs of the Theodopoulis clan and Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets is a cosmetic afterthought; the kind of thing you’d be able to show an elective film course made up of seventh graders as to teach about thematic balance.

This is a film that doesn’t resolve as much as it ends. It feels like a much longer film was shot but a hacksaw was taken to it and only the items that really interested Altman (namely, the stuff with the band) were left in. But, by keeping one eye on the clock and delivering a crowd pleasing rom-com (which, at just a hair under two hours, is still overlong) the cuts to the film create gaping holes and so many questions remain as the credits roll. Is Sheila now out of the band and replaced by the singer we see for the first time right before the end? How did the band and the LA Philharmonic wind up playing together at the Hollywood Bowl? Is Alex completely done with his family without ever standing up for himself? How in the world did Alex ever have a first wife without ever telling her he really liked her? Does Sheila even have a backstory? Is she so weak that she takes Alex back with no kind of discussion about his shitty attitude and his penchant for leaving her? If Altman thought he could pull a Minnie and Moskowitz and simply get by with a “love conquers all…EVEN TWO WILDLY OPPOSITE PEOPLE” movie, he missed the gritty charm and the attention to character that infused every frame of that film that made it work despite all of its logical holes and corners cut by its writer and director, John Cassavetes.

And let me pause on here to remark on the thing I most dislike about A Perfect Couple, which is the entirety of Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets. From their candy-ass stage routine to their insistence on using two apostrophes in their name to the soft rock musical arrangements that are so tethered to 1979 they sound like they were composed while sitting in wicker furniture and recorded under a hanging plant supported by macrame, I hate everything about this band and despise any and all moments spent with the group in rehearsal or in concert. Like a Grateful Dead full of Donna Jean Godchauxes (but only if Donna Jean Godchaux could actually carry a tune outside of the studio), this is a band far too large to be plausibly functional. Ted Neeley has the thankless role of prick band leader, Teddy, but my disdain for his character goes beyond what’s written given his stupid wardrobe and his annoying habit of jamming his hands in his pockets while he’s performing on stage. All of it combines to create a grating, overexposed idea that is not entertaining nor do I buy any of it as something audiences would care to see, regardless of the fact that they were, indeed, a real band who had split before production but reformed specifically for the film. When people tell me that they have the soundtrack to A Perfect Couple, I have to fight back the urge to snakily tell them that I don’t bother them with my personal troubles so I don’t know why they can’t return the favor.

Throughout the film, we witness a silent “perfect couple” (Fred Beir and Jette Seear) as they pop up in various scenes through the story as a visual counterpoint to the messiness that happens around them. Only at the big ending at the Hollywood Bowl do they fall apart as our imperfect couple of Alex and Sheila reunites for the final time. It’s a cute idea, I guess, but stuck in the midst of one of Robert Altman’s worst films, it’s an idea wasted on a film that doesn’t deserve it.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


The Paramount logo appears in black and white and in a state of mismanaged distress. This is quickly followed by a calm pre-title credit countdown; Three, the studio… two, the producers… one, the director. Then, the blast off occurs with a voice that booms “NOW AFTER YEARS IN THE MAKING…” revealing a commercial for the film’s soundtrack album that will also operate as the film’s opening credit sequence. Welcome to Nashville, Tennessee in 1975, a reflection of an America that could be marketed just like a K-Tel record. Years in the making but here for your enjoyment “in stereophonic sound and without commercial interruption.”

Robert Altman’s Nashville is ground zero for reflecting America’s unhealthy appetite for mixing celebrity and politics and it savagely and meticulously lays bare the ugly mechanisms that fuel both enterprises and also our collective and insatiable obsessions with them. It’s about a post-war, post-Eisenhower America being left behind as a perverted geek show of wrong-headed populism, shameless grifters, and shallow entertainment tightens its grip on a nation that has been so beaten down and disillusioned that a earnest yet moronic song like “200 Years,” an anthem that marvels at America’s ability to withstand trials and tribulations long enough to last two whole centuries, can be mistakenly presented as a chest-bursting piece of patriotism instead of the hilariously stupid self-own that it is.

Nashville is the story of a few days in the life of twenty-four people in the titular city in which there are two defining events afoot. One of them is the re-emergence of country artist Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), the undisputed but fragile queen of Nashville who’s been convalescing after a recent “flaming baton” incident. The other is the organization of a political rally for Hal Phillip Walker, presidential candidate for the populist, third-party “Replacement Party,” and winner of enough recent primaries to make the political establishment sweat. Through these two events, which will eventually thread together, we follow a whole host of country stars, political advance men, groupies, journalists, bored husbands, their even more bored wives, rock stars, hangers-on, has-beens, never-weres, kooks, and earnest fans. There’s a lot of information that floats at the viewer like an unstoppable current but Altman, with the help of a framework screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury, links all of these characters together with an uncanny skill and a uniquely American eye.

Up until 1975, there had not been a film quite like Nashville. Sure, star-studded films in the vein of Grand Hotel had been produced and were crowd-pleasing successes, but even those felt more like omnibus tales and less like a grand tapestry in which there truly is no lead character. Nashville was the first film to spread its giant cast comfortably across the widescreen canvas while also making them feel as they were part of something that was bubbling with vitality and was recognizably and organically alive. And in fact, Nashville exists in a space where real stars such as Elliott Gould and Julie Christie appear alongside characters portrayed by actors with whom they’ve worked before. Additional life is given to the film in the way it integrates likewise authentic locations like the Grand Old Opry (replete with a real GOO audience) being utilized for the actors to authentically perform songs that they wrote and brought to the project themselves. While the greatest example of this form of Altman commitment likely goes to the mock presidential campaign that crossed paths with very real ones in Altman’s Tanner ‘88 (which, not coincidentally, featured Michael Murphy as the central visible political figure), Nashville was the first to truly make an Altman production the kind of all-in communal effort he’d been tinkering with since McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

In the spirit of how our lives actually unfold, Nashville is a big movie built of little things. Broad gags such as the freeway pileup at the beginning and the climactic ending aren’t subtle nor are they hard to forget but the heart of the film is found in its small, fleeting passages such as the moment where Barbara Jean’s manipulative, boorish husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield) blows her a kiss as she hits an emotionally terse high note while struggling to get through a musical set without a meltdown. It’s a film that recognizes the hurt on Mary’s (Cristina Rains) face when the vacuous Opal From the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin) announces that she, too, has slept with Tom (Keith Carradine), Mary’s musical partner to whom she’s truly in love despite being married to Bill (Allan Nicholls), the third in their musical trio. It’s a film that makes no judgements in understanding the delta between the feelings of frustration felt by Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty) and the joy felt by his wife, Linnea (Lilly Tomlin), while listening to their deaf son’s story about swimming class. It’s a film that picks up on the absolute contempt, punctuated by camera-ready smiles, that floods the face of Connie White (Karen Black) as she waits in the wings at the Grand Old Opry to fill in for Barbara Jean, a woman she positively hates. Finally, it’s a film that documents the sometimes ugly birth of stardom as it allows Barbara Harris’s unlikely and wonderfully ragged Albuquerque, a total hot mess of bleached hair, torn stockings, mismatched outfits, and wild dreams of becoming a “country western singer and or a star,” to triumphantly rise above tragedy, fully embodying American’s broken soul.

Nashville is also very good at both covering all of its bases and existing on a wavelength of recognizable ebbs and flows. It’s not satisfied with Gene Triplett’s (Michael Murphy) smug disdain for the people of Nashville as he tries to schmooze each and every star or half star into the Walker rally; it’s satisfied when it gets to show his utter shamelessness, following him into the hotel room of Tom and Mary where he attempts to rook them into the same show by dismissing the appeal of the country music artists he’s worked to put on the bill as being limited to dumb shitkickers. It’s not satisfied by showing us Barbara Jean virtually being draped in an American flag while performing “One, I Love You”; it’s satisfied when, earlier in the film, the tragically untalented Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) gets booed off the stage at a smoker for performing the same song. It’s not satisfied to show self-absorbed Tom treating every single woman that moves through his hotel room like absolute garbage and with reckless abandon; it’s satisfied when Linnea returns the favor by coldly and wordlessly reminding him that she’s past a point in her life where her feelings can be manipulated by a casual fling, even by him.

Nashville was the last time Altman keenly anticipated the culture and, in fact, the film’s ending became a reference point when Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon five years after the film’s release. But created in the haze between Richard Nixon’s resignation and the ascension of Jimmy Carter, Altman found the most fertile possible ground for the ascendancy of the campaign of a sleazy idiot like Hal Phillip Walker. For all the ink spilled on the prophetic nature of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network, released the following year, the bone-headed populism at the root of Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign has had longer legs with American culture. After all, not by coincidence, Altman would find the depths of the Reagan years to be the perfect time to recast Hal Phillip Walker as a (still unseen by the audience) right-wing television talking head in his unnecessarily maligned O.C. and Stiggs. The chord of Hal Phillip Walker and how it would likely eat America from the inside out was something that must have troubled and disgusted Altman to such a degree that, after Nashville, Altman ceased reporting on the culture and, in a manner of fashion, tried to do more to influence it (to diminishing returns) with specific elements found in A Perfect Couple, Quintet, and HealtH.

Nashville caused quite stir when it was released and it was uniformly detested by the Nashville community. Of course, this should be expected as, outside the coasts, most every place in America which feels like it’s keeping her memory pure has an almost insatiable desire to appear as unblemished as one of Tom Wolfe’s freshly-pressed suits. But what did Nashville reveal that was so objectionable? That, despite their cornpone humility, folks in the south can be just as petty, uninformed, and judgmental as those in New York or Los Angeles? That reductive, simple-minded country weepies like “For the Sake of the Children” could actually be hits? That there exists a ruthless power structure within the bowels of show business, regardless of what region of the country one finds themselves? That black country entertainers like Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) have to often grit their teeth and accept the transactional relationship they have with their majority-white milieu? That boredom and infidelity occur in spades, even in places where seemingly everyone goes to church on Sunday morning, even if that house of worship is a hospital chapel? If Nashville, the city, was so bent out of shape at the content explored in Nashville, the film, then they simply revealed that the flame put to their hypocrisy was justified. Just as, in an effort to move forward, Shelley Duvall’s Keechie resigned herself to repeating the untruth that the father of her child died of consumption in Thieves Like Us, perhaps Nashville (and America as a whole) keeps its engine humming along on the fuel of an untenable false narrative about itself that is two parts hubris and one part tomfoolery, lacking any ability or desire to take account of itself.

In 2017, I was asked to list my top ten films of all time and I chose Nashville as number two (for the record, Peter Yates’s Breaking Away will never not be number one). At that time, I talked about how the election of Donald Trump evoked the memories of the end of the film and how America was basically conditioned to just sing and move on after catastrophic events without proper acknowledgment or collective reflection. Since that time, we’ve lived through a pandemic in which the former president couldn’t have cared less that half a million Americans died on his watch. We also saw a deadly insurrection in Washington D.C. at the behest of that same president. With the help of performative politicians who traffic in shallow patriotism with low-rent celebrities, the disreputable, right-wing media has created a cultural situation in which logic is untoward and facts are verboten, preparing us for a future that is as terrifying as it is unpredictable. But in our relative, localized comfort, we still continue to do the same thing as Haven Hamilton does at the end of Nashville; bloodied and bruised, we will call everything to order and give the microphone to someone… anyone… who will hopefully distract us from the pain and the damage. Up until now, this formula has always worked though, as sure as I’m sitting here writing this, one day it won’t. But, until that day, “It Don’t Worry Me” won’t be just a song in this film, it’ll stand as our glib, alternative-national anthem.

America the doomed, the damndest thing you ever saw.


Philip Marlowe has been asleep. Whether it’s been a literal and continuous Big Sleep that has lasted since we last saw the man in 1946 is unclear. But there are clues scattered about which suggest that it is. First off, genius screenwriter Leigh Brackett is back with another adaptation of a Raymond Chandler opus just as she was all those years earlier when she was Howard Hawks’s scribbler of choice. But regardless of the initial and obvious familiarity, things are markedly different than the last time we saw Marlowe. For the hope and exuberance of postwar 1946 has given way to the cultural malaise of 1973, a time where the fabric of the country was disintegrating under the twin stresses of Vietnam and Watergate and everything we thought we understood about America was turned upside down and was perpetually under audit.

Robert Altman’s masterful The Long Goodbye was the first in a wave of neo-noir films that flooded the American cinemas in the 1970’s. Along with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, and Robert Benton’s The Late Show (produced by Altman and both cast and crewed by many of his regulars), these films took the antique formula of the dogged private eye and turned it on its ear by examining the current culture through the newly-minted, cynical lenses of the Boomer Generation or making a contemporary allegory out of an old-fashioned period piece. In all of the cases, there was a strong, moralistic tone regarding right and wrong that would crack as the film unspooled and the hero found that he no longer recognized the world he was in, a theme that cut deeply with the intended audience.

This is strongest and most evident in The Long Goodbye, which, not coincidentally, was the first of the bunch. In it, private eye Philip Marlowe is juxtaposed immediately with a cinematic fantasy. As “Hooray For Hollywood” scratches its way over the soundtrack and we survey the lodgings of one of pop culture’s most indelible and toughest detectives, we immediately sense that something has gone directly to seed. Instead of clean-lined Humphrey Bogart, we get fuzzy, wrinkled, and unshaven Elliott Gould. And instead of having to jump into his car in the middle of the night to solve a hot mystery under the darkness of the Los Angeles night, Marlowe’s cat simply wakes him up because he’s hungry and wants some food.

While the trip to the grocery store for the cat food supplies the film with its most potent allegory about trust, it also serves to crosscut an escape from the Malibu Colony by one Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), lifelong buddy of Marlowe currently bruised and battle-scarred after a tussle with his wife, Sylvia. As he drives to Marlowe’s pad to request an emergency, middle of the night escort to Tijuana, Terry surveys the physical damage to his person; deep scratch on the face with a swollen and bruised hand. When Sylvia Lennox shows up beaten to death fifteen minutes into the film and Terry confesses to her murder in his own suicide note, Marlowe goes on a personal crusade to clear his friend’s name. In doing so, he mixes with an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden), the writer’s icy blonde wife (Nina van Palllandt), an equal opportunity mafioso (Mark Rydell), and a quack doctor (Henry Giibson).

Clad in a cheap black suit that never comes off his corpus and prowling about in his 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet with a bottomless supply of non-filtered Lucky Strikes, Marlowe stumbles through blanched, early 70’s L.A. in a total haze. Still smart enough to sniff out phony amateurs and bumbling hoods, Marlowe never seems to understand the gravity of his current situation or the physical stakes involved. And in direct opposition to Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep where Philip Marlowe seemed to glide through a studio-built Los Angeles with horny women throwing themselves at him without any effort on the part of Humphrey Bogart, Gould’s Marlowe can’t even negotiate a fruitful conversation with Mrs. Tewksbury, real estate agent to the rich and famous. “It’s ok with me,” a catchphrase he’ll employ throughout the film to signify his acceptance of any given situation without any shred of understanding, seems to fly out of his mouth with more frequency the closer the film gets to its conclusion.

What makes The Long Goodbye unique is that, like the other genre-blasting offerings by Altman, this is a detective film without much of a mystery at its center. Marlowe seems more intent on convincing himself of Lennox’s innocence than he really cares about clearing Lennox’s name and, like so many other Altman heroes, there is more than a touch of self-deception at play with Philip Marlowe. Lost in a landscape where ideals have become malleable, trust is transactional, and macaroni costs more than a quarter, Marlowe desperately builds a case out of the wildest of red herrings so he can continue to float along through life with his core values intact. Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes is gutted by the larger graft that has seared him very personally and Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby is frustrated at his inability to see three moves ahead of him but Philip Marlowe believes in a kind of idealistic clarity better suited for a time long since vanished, if it even ever really existed at all.

It isn’t until about the the middle of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, itself ostensibly a whodunit about a call girl killer, that the film’s mystery is lifted and the audience knows the identity of the murderer well before the titular cop figures it out. In The Long Goodbye, the detail of Terry Lennox’s bruised hand being concealed by the driving gloves is something told to the audience but not Marlowe and it is a reveal that occurs before the opening credits end. In essence, Altman wants us to know that Marlowe will spend the rest of the film being played for a sucker and expending a ton of shoe leather just to get his heart broken. In a world that’s gone all wrong, Marlowe is all right. Unfortunately for him, he’s all wrong in a world where, by his own constant admission, it’s all ok with him.

Joe Dante’s The Burbs

Ever wonder what your neighbours are up to? Probably nothing, but there’s always that off chance that they are in fact spooky serial killers or occult weirdos. Or not. Joe Dante’s The Burbs plays with this notion of paranoia about those next door and gives us a hysterical social commentary on the white picket fence life while it’s at it for something decidedly different. Stressed out yuppie Tom Hanks is certain that the oddball German doctor family down his block are up to no good, and he whips up the rest of the folks who live around him into a fervent panic with his anxieties. It doesn’t help that the people he’s suspicious of are played by the oddball likes of Henry Gibson, Courtney Gains and Brother Theodore, but he still seems like a delusional schmuck and we’re never really sure exactly what *is* going on until the demented, ballsy ending which makes laugh like hell each time. His wife (Carrie Fisher!) thinks he’s lost it, we think he’s lost it and he desperately scrambles to prove otherwise by gathering any evidence against these dudes with the help of local kid Corey Feldman and persnickety Nam vet Bruce Dern who absolutely steals the show with priceless lines like “Smells like they’re cookin’ a goddamn cat over there!!” This one is a total scream, retaining Dante’s ooey gooey horror roots while almost reminding one of Spielberg/Zemeckis style fright flicks that take place in suburbia. The only thing separating people from one another in a neighbourhood like this are four walls and a roof, and within them anything could be happening right under one’s nose and several metres away, yet unseen. This is Hanks’ worst fear here and Dante plays it’s for absolute hilarity, mirthful menace and glorious black comedy. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

Rob Schneider’s Big Stan

You’d hardly ever catch me giving praise to a Rob Schneider movie as he’s usually intolerable, but Big Stan deserves a shout out, both because it’s almost quality comedy and it has gotten less than half of the publicity given to other Rob flicks, which are all just terrible (remember The Hot Chick? Ew). Schneider is probably the least appealing, most irritating little mole rat out there, so you have to kind of grin and bear it here, but the comedy itself is kind of worth it. As Stan, Rob is a selfish, fraudulent little bastard real estate salesman who is busted selling faulty deals and given a three to five year in prison. When an ex-con bar patron (Dan ‘Grizzly Adams’ Haggarty looks like he can’t believe he agreed to say the dialogue in his script) scares him with tales of rampant rape in the joint, Stan sets out to become ‘un-rapeable’ before his sentence, with a little help from King fu guru The Master, played by a chain smoking, growly David Carradine in a parody of his former career. Armed with skills and sweet karate moves, Stan gets processed and pretty much almost incites a riot the first day, until the prisoners realize there’s no fighting him and he’s pretty much big boss. Abolishing prison rape, setting some new ground rules around violence and introducing salsa dancing are just a few of the changes brought on by him, and the prison sequences are the best of the film. Stan has a sidekick in Henry Gibson, locks horns with the obligatory evil Warden (the great Scott Wilson) and it all parades by with necessary silliness and some semblance of a life lesson that ultimately gets lost in aforementioned silliness. As you can probably surmise, it’s about the farthest thing from politically correct humour as well and very much milks its R rating, so put your thick skin on if you give it a go. Also starring the likes of Jennifer Morrison as Stan’s wife, M. Emmett Walsh as an enthusiastically crooked lawyer, Kevin ‘Waingro’ Gage as the head guard, Randy Couture and others, it’s surprisingly well casted for a such a small movie that almost feels like it was funded by Schneider himself, as he directed it too. Usually I’d be the first to just rip into this guy and his awful, near self destructive output (remember The Animal? Or the Deuce Bigelow sequel?? Fuck), but this one really isn’t all that pitiable, but you’ve been warned, it’s cheerfully in bad taste and if you’re easily offended by off colour humour, steer clear.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Asylum

Asylum is first rate trash, a nasty, cheap exercise in shocker horror that gives sanitariums everywhere a bad name and perpetuates the ludicrous stigma that all such institutions are the scariest, most unorganized places on earth. God bless the cheap underside of Hollywood and it’s deliberately skewed perception of things. This one sees Robert ‘T-1000’ Patrick as a private investigator who goes undercover inside a mental hospital as a patient when it becomes clear that people are going missing inside and something is up. The set, design and mood of the place is schlock to the core, without the faintest hint of realism to be found. The facility’s head doctor (the late great Henry Gibson) is a benign fool who has no idea the kind of havoc being perpetrated under his watch. The place has a special kind of crazy in a character played by Malcolm McDowell called Sullivan Rane, a lucidly maniacal serial killer who has red herring written all over him and moonlights under an obvious wig and mask as a patient known simply as ‘Doc’. It’s a hammy throwaway role, but ever intense McDowell seems to have a ball playing whatever oddball garage sale B role they give him, and ends up stealing his few scenes, as usual. Patrick plays it straight and his trademark steely reserve is an odd contrast to the knowingly silly demeanour of almost everyone else involved. The film does it’s best with a twist one can sense coming a good country mile off, but it gives one aforementioned actor some last minute juicy scenes to make his involvement worthwhile. Low rent horror and then some.

-Nate Hill

Robert Altman’s Nashville

You wouldn’t think that a disorganized little ensemble piece revolving around a country music festival could go on to become a silver star classic in cinema, but this is Robert Altman’s Nashville we’re talking about, and it’s a stroke of sheer brilliance. Structured with the same haphazard screenplay blueprint (or lack thereof) of Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused (which I’m almost positive was hugely influenced by this), it’s a raucous little celebration of music and mayhem without a single lead character or central storyline. Every person is important to the kaleidoscope of a story, from Ronee Blakely’s troubled angel starlet to Jeff Goldblum’s early zany career tricycle riding cameo. It’s less of a narrative with forward surging momentum than it is a big old sequinned wheel of fortune you spent n at your leisure, each stop containing some story or vignette revolving around country music, be it sad, joyous, ironic or just plain peculiar. Henry Gibson, that oddball, plays an Emcee of sorts, Scott Glenn is the mysterious military private, the late Robert Doqui coaches a hapless wanna be songstress (Barbara Harris), Keith Carradine charms all the ladies as a suave guitar playing crooner stud, and the impossibly eclectic cast includes brilliant work from Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Elliott Gould, Julie Christie, Keenan Wynn, Allen Garfield, Geraldine Chaplin, Karen Black and an adorable Shelley Duvall. There’s something thoroughly lifelike about a sprawling story like this, as were treated to moments, episodes and unplanned exchanges between people as opposed to a contained, streamlined narrative. Things happen, and before we’ve had a chance to process it, were whisked away to the next page of the book like roulette, and every story in the film is a gem, not too mention the music and sly political facets too. A classic, get the criterion release if you can.  

-Nate Hill