Tag Archives: Robert Altman

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: M*A*S*H (1970)

By Patrick Crain

And then there was M*A*S*H.

Once upon a time, fifty one years ago to be exact, long before the block programming of post-Carson syndication would lull my generation to sleep with the overly familiar, brassy theme song “Suicide is Painless” before drifting into the flute-driven opening for Taxi, M*A*S*H was a third-priority Korean War film about which the suits at 20th Century Fox barely gave a shit. For their eyes were collectively on both Tora! Tora! Tora!, a multi-helmed, transcontinental production and Patton, a star vehicle for George C. Scott. Over the hill in Calabasas, California and amongst the knotty hills of brown and olive was Robert Altman and a ragtag bunch of nobody actors making a picture about a war that was already mostly forgotten. He brought it in on time and under-budget so the suits were happy.

Well, they were happy until they saw what Robert Altman had done to Ring Lardner Jr’s adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel about Army surgeons. A structureless mess of anarchy one would have to have been a detective to recognize as “not Vietnam,” M*A*S*H was everything the aging brass at Fox would have rather avoided. In fact, to drive home the point that it was set in Korea, the suits demanded Altman include a post-credit crawl making explicit that THIS was a film about a PREVIOUS war, implying that this was not at all to be misconstrued as to be sending up the current administration and our involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.

I mean… ok. But it’s Vietnam. And that’s probably a good thing because the core audience that lifted M*A*S*H to its dizzying heights of financial and critical success was the cynical Boomer generation who was more than ready to pick up what Altman and company was putting down. The late and lamented father of a buddy of mine used to speak about seeing M*A*S*H in the theater in tones so reverent, they were probably better suited to stories about the birth of his son. “We had to go back and watch it again immediately to pick up the stuff we missed,” he said.

And, of course, M*A*S*H is really where Altman’s style blossomed which caused one to want to go back and watch it again. And maybe that’s not by choice but accident. After all, his previous three films all seemed much more tightly bound by story and plot. Regardless of whatever the screenplay was or the source material from which it sprung, Altman decided M*A*S*H was a mood and not a story and all but chucked the script; something that made Lardner none too pleased until, ironically, he picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Bracketed by the arrival and departure of Col. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to and from the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit which is mere miles from the front, M*A*S*H zips through its running time dividing itself between the zany antics of the irreverent surgeons and the horrendous detail of their gruesome work. When the film settles down into the operating rooms, the film turns shockingly gory and, additionally, gets awash in so much overlapping dialogue regarding surgical procedural and other ephemera that the audience never once thinks that Sutherland and Skerritt (and Elliott Gould who shows up as ace chest surgeon “Trapper John” McIntyre), aren’t actual doctors.

It is in this busy canvass of toil and work that Altman can let his focus run free and drift in and out of clusters of people, all engaged in their own private worlds. The multi-tracked soundtrack he’d perfect in Nashville gets its first workout here as stacked conversations force the viewer to choose one and stick with it only to realize you’ve drifted into another conversation that somehow seemed adjoined to the other. That Altman could do this at will and almost any film was pure magic and the biggest reason his films have such long legs in terms of their conduciveness for revisiting. And M*A*S*H is Altman’s first film to have the wide and warm tapestry of supporting players who fade in and out of the scenery in half-measures but all of whom we feel as if we know by the time the closing credits run. It is around this time that Altman begins to toy with building communities within his films. A practice that would run to the release of Popeye (and non-release of HealtH) in 1980, Altman’s productions became something of a communal experience with actors being chosen as types and then asked to flesh them out on the screen while using the script only as a loose framework (most notably in the following year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). In M*A*S*H, we come to adore secondary characters such as Major Frank Burns (the extra dry Roger Bowen), Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois, having a ball), Painless Pole Waldowski (John Shuck, making history by dropping the very first instance of the word “fuck” in a scripted motion picture by a major studio), and Corporal Radar O’ Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only cast member to make the transition to the television adaptation).

The film might have a cruel misogynistic streak by today’s standards and there are plenty of people who will impose all the current social values and norms to a fifty year old movie without applying much context to the discussion. But while it would be silly and irresponsible to cancel it outright, M*A*S*H shouldn’t be let off the hook completely. For it is true that the kind of cruelty heaped upon Major Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, bringing a fire to the role that nabbed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) is of an aggressively sexual and misogynistic nature but the film wants to make sure that it’s though not entirely at the hands of the hands of men. In what is seen as the most overtly crude humiliation (namely the shower scene), it’s clear that the other women in the camp have as much disdain for her as the men and are likewise in on the prank. In M*A*S*H, the camp isn’t simply a “boy’s club,” but a “club for open hedonists.” Nobody cares that the aggressively hypocritical Frank Burns (a terrific Robert Duvall) and O’Houlihan are fucking, what they care about is Burns and O’ Houlihan’s attitudes about everyone else who are fucking. But, all of that said, that women are in on the prank in the movie cannot erase the fact that none of the filmmakers were women. In this world, O’Houlihan is tasked with the binary choice of dumbing down and shutting up or resigning her commission which everyone knows means everything to her. This is where the film’s aim to drag all authority down to a very low level, strong career women like O’Houlihan become collateral damage and its hard not see the the undermining of similar women characters of the era as a feature and not a bug. Luckily, Altman would get much better at this in a very big hurry.

So, for certain, M*A*S*H is a product of its time but it’s hard to overstate what a dynamite product it was. Nothing seemed scared after M*A*S*H. Hell, even the holy game of football, as American as war, gets pulled through the ringer in the film’s final act (with some footage courtesy of future trash auteur and Wide World of Sports pioneer Andy Sidaris). At a time in which norms were crumbling by the second, M*A*S*H took dead center aim and laughed all the way to the bank as it stomped through all that we took seriously as a nation. The combination of our cathartic exhale and the film’s black humor proved quite therapeutic. And while the film launched a whole cottage industry of similar comedies in which anti-authoritarianism is taken to a sophomoric and perverse level, (it’s difficult to watch something like National Lampoon’s Animal House without seeing much of M*A*S*H’s DNA), Altman, now a superstar director with a monster hit under his belt, would be displaying his brand of fully-committed anarchy by the year’s end as the next trick up his sleeve would both equally dazzle and confuse and put on full display the fearless maverick he was.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

By Patrick Crain

On a random chilly day in Vancouver, a wealthy woman of undetermined age named Frances Austen spots a boy, teetering somewhere between his late teens and early twentes, sitting on a park bench adjacent to her home. The day grows colder and is then is finally saturated by rain, yet he doesn’t budge from the bench. Frances observes this from her window and for reasons either of benevolence or simple, piqued interest, the woman invites the boy, who first appears to be mute, into her home. From here, an unorthodox and obsessive relationship begins.

Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is a movie about sex though not necessarily in the way you’d expect from the description above. More specifically, it’s a tragic and mysterious film about a woman whose unmoored sexual blossoming combusts with her rigid repression. Sandy Dennis’s Frances Austen is almost a zombie of ritual who lives in a sarcophagus of high-class privilege occupied by the waxy specters of her late parents’ peers. We know little about her other than what we get by way of light expository dialogue and her direct yet taciturn demeanor. Her daily activities don’t seem to include any kind of employment but, instead, are spent entertaining, shopping, listening to selections from her utterly square record collection, and playing bocce ball with people twice her age. It’s as if her entire reason for being were awarded to her through a probate judgement along with her house and its servants.

This is juxtaposed with the life of The Boy, credited as such and played with a certain bright and impish charm by Michael Burns. Detangled from his large, overwhelming family we glimpse in one masterful exterior shot of his cramped, multi-level home that reveals multitudes while saying very little, he seems to float on a wave of pure life, his only real connection being that of his free-spirited sister who squats in a docked, derelict boat with her hippie boyfriend. It is with her that we learn that he is not, indeed, mute but is instead a curious observer with some rather eccentric tendencies.

In Altman’s first film to really put a real examining glass to human nature, That Cold Day in the Park lives in a very uncomfortable space where sex is never something joyous, exciting, a good time, or expressive but where it is a commodity, a disgusting biological necessity with frightening and painful ramifications, or an unreachable and twisted curiosity. There is always a heavy dichotomous swing between the awkwardness of not knowing anything or, in the case of The Boy, possibly knowing far too much. And while it doesn’t decry healthy sexual freedom, it looks on in sadness at unhealthy sexual identities which leaves the emotionally crippled without any alternatives or outlets.

With her downward-turned smile, librarian hair, and muted earth tones, Sandy Dennis’s Frances is as sharp and as emotionless as a clock and it is next to impossible to imagine that Dennis was but 32 years old when the film was made. Only when she eats some pot-laced cookies gifted to her as a gag by The Boy do we see her melt into a soft-focused thing of beauty, lifted into the ether by the tremendously gorgeous camerawork of Vilmos Zsigmond. Like Sissy Spacek’s Pinky in Altman’s 1977 masterpiece 3 Women, Sandy Dennis’s Frances literally transforms into another character in front of the audience’s face and it a thing of true wonder. As the scene slowly relaxes forward, we begin to vibe with her and pick up on the fully sexual being that she clearly would love to be if situations and forces unknown wouldn’t have stifled her. And like many an Altman woman that would pop up in his filmography, we get that her life has been robbed somewhere of a natural joy. Little wonder that when disappointment strikes, Frances snaps back into her discomforting comfort zone. And boy, does she snap back hard.

Also dividing the film in a rather bold way is the way it splits its time between the controlled environment of Frances’s apartment and the exterior world. As in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Frances’s apartment becomes a controlling space just as Susannah York’s two homes do in Altman’s Images, a film which would come three years later. In both films, the women are mostly trapped in cloistered environments are either inescapable or out of which it’s impossible to exist as the characters are constantly met with chaos and confusion and an inability to navigate through reality. And as That Cold Day in the Park marches toward its conclusion and moves more and more away from the confines of Frances’s apartment, Altman really cuts loose with his observations utilizing his signature style of messy sound design meant to give the audience the sensation of being a casual observer. For all the ink spilled about the following year’s M*A*S*H being the birth of the specific thing we’d eventually define as “Altmanesque,” I’d ask that the clock be turned back a bit and present this as an alternative Exhibit A. Here, it’s used not only as an engaging participatory device for the audience but also as an overwhelming sensory overload to Frances as a character as moments in the very chatty waiting room of a gynecologist and a pitiful attempt in a bar by Frances to procure a prostitute attest. In both scenes, she is entirely out of her element and rudderless and her anxiety is palpable.

Aided by Gillian Freeman’s beautifully delicate screenplay (based on a novel by Peter Miles), Altman’s third time at bat is an astonishing and effective film that gets lost in the conversation regarding his greatest works. While it lacks the jolts of Images and it can’t conjure the deliriously impenetrable and mysterious gossamer of 3 Women, That Cold Day in the Park reflects an artist interested in the marginalized and the outcast; people who aren’t given much serious study but who are indeed out there, doing their damndest, and putting their whole heart into it, regardless of consequence.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: COUNTDOWN (1968)

By Patrick Crain

“Why not just send the Voice of America up there and do it right? Or send some babe with big beautiful teeth and a stack of pop tunes?”

Robert Altman’s filmography is one that lacks heroes in the conventional sense. What it is in no short supply of are people who stumble upwards into some sense of accomplishment or peace. Sometimes it happens a little too late, but it happens nonetheless. For Altman was less interested in the white-hatted good guys who made up the myths found in the American history books; he wanted the stories of the regular schmoes who sometimes lucked into greatness or, as was also the case, those who stood on the wrong side of greatness and peered longingly at the other side.

So it is that Countdown, Altman’s big budget theatrical debut, would have such a concern at its center. Eleven years before Tom Wolfe blew the lid off the painstaking work that went into the myth-making of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff and a whole year before Apollo 11 made traveling to the moon a reality, Altman got an early crack at both; the bureaucratic handwringing and hustling with elements of the human, home-based drama that got the short shrift in all of those “astronaut wife” profiles Life Magazine churned out around the same time.

Countdown is a film about a fictional race to the moon between the Russians and the United States. Far ahead of the game, the Russians are planning to send an engineer to the moon while the US is still working on its own plans to launch. As the Russians’ plan becomes known, the US throws together a dangerous, breakneck scheme to send a man to beat the Russians to the punch. This causes a rift between Chiz (Robert Duvall) and Lee Stegler (James Caan) as the former is disallowed to go given his military rank and the latter is an untested young hothead. Eventuallly, Chiz becomes Stegler’s backup during his punishing training and preparation while the stress of Stegler’s home life begins to take its toll.

Countdown, at its most basic, is a serious-minded affair that is something between science fantasy and science fiction; I’d be tempted to pitch it as science-fact, but that’s not quite right. For amid the scientific jargon, the gadgets, and the impressive amount of detail, Countdown can’t quite shed its thin, stagey, soap operatic flourishes when it focuses on the domestic world of the Steglers. Chief among the issues is the character of Mick Stegler, Lee’s long-suffering wife. Joanna Moore turns in a fine performance and does what she can with the role but the screenplay gives her no real depth. In a film more daring, Altman would have allowed for Moore to act independently as her emotional void becomes exacerbated by Lee’s work. Mick Stegler is relegated to wear the cloak of the dutiful, robotic wife who more or less has to absorb every decision with a grin. These scenes go through the motions of hitting the right notes where they should in the story (the uncertainty, the fear, the boredom, “what’ll we tell little Stevie?”, etc.) but each domestic situation feels like it was recycled from a benign television drama of the day, exactly the kind of tin-type and shallow patriotism Altman would later skewer with bottomless glee.

But Countdown really shines in those moments where the film focuses on the mission and all of the dressing around it. Altman’s military service gives him a keen understanding of Air Force culture and when the movie settles into the wood-paneled military offices and yawning lecture halls where decisions both good and bad are shouted over each other, the film has a certain immediacy. And, really, to a layman, all of the dialogue and the ephemera sounds pretty buyable, most especially for the time. Hell, “His eyes will have been bathing in oxygen and he’ll have bilateral conjunctivitis” sounds like something I might quote at a party to sound smart if I were in a conversation about astronauts and was three glasses of wine into it.

Under-remarked, too, is just how much pure chemistry is apparent in the debut match of James Caan and Robert Duvall who would find themselves paired in four more films in the following seven years. The naturalism of their rivalry/friendship is a true thing of beauty and it is really on high display here, especially given the nature of the roles and the story.

Countdown is far from a perfect film and it’s very much a product of its time but it’s also not exactly NOT “Altmanesque.” While his particular style of casual observation of the mundane and the messy sound design that’s immediately recognizable as Altman’s would have to wait until his next film, Altman does give it the old college try by having heavy chunks of dialogue to crash and topple on another during a number of the scenes. It’s a technique that would make him famous by 1975 but, in 1968, got him fired from the picture by studio chief Jack Warner and, unfortunately, led to reshoots that jettisoned Altman’s darker, more opaque ending in favor of something with some positive closure.

Due to the studio interference, Countdown is ultimately an impersonal work but Altman’s deconstructive dark streak really finds a way to make its debut here as the film cannily tracks his fascination with the sloppy beauty of America and its ability to achieve great things in spite of itself. How does a man beat the odds, go to the moon, and become the All American Boy? According to Altman, with lot of meetings, nervous political decisions, goofy luck, faulty technology, and a bunch of uncomfortable familial damage.

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: The Delinquents / The James Dean Story (1957)

By Patrick Crain

When we think about the social unraveling that occurred in America, we seem more or less fixated on the mid to late sixties, a psychologically fragile time in which our great compact seemed to fissure as stress upon stress was laid atop it and harder and harder scar tissue began to form in the place of the great, gaping wounds. The seeds of this, of course, were sown in the postwar years in which men came home from overseas with psychological issues and then created children who would then have to deal with the silent trauma in their own way by dropping out and tuning in just as the sixties began to ripen.

But floating between these two extremes were those of the Silent Generation who, too young to serve their country themselves, watched their fathers go off to war but then had to grapple with the reality of the absent parent who, in some cases, would not return, or, in other cases, would return in a form almost unrecognizable to the people who stayed behind. World War I was the first war in which medical advances allowed us to reckon with the physical damage of combat and World War II was the first in which we had to confront with the difficult sociological damage of combat. That it was met with relative silence and was internalized in such a way that it often resembled a pressure cooker was a definite contributing factor in the fracture between the generations that occurred later.

To the young men drifting through those times, Elvis Presley and James Dean were identifiable outlets; figures who cut through a lot of social layers and captured the imagination and set the cultural tone. But James Dean filled this gap better than Elvis. Maybe it’s because Dean didn’t seem quite as beamed in from another planet like Elvis did or maybe because Dean remained forever young, perpetually romantic and frozen in time; an almost perfectly preserved artifact of his time. By turns dangerous and sweet, sexual and brooding, Dean was the perfect icon due to the ability for men to see him through whatever prism they chose.

The spirit of James Dean hangs over Robert Altman’s debut feature, The Delinquents, like an unwelcome ghost. Shot in 1955 but not released until 1957, two years after Dean’s death, the enterprise was the result of a local Kansas City producer wanting to cash in on the juvenile delinquent movies that were printing money out in Hollywood and local talent Robert Altman wanting to move from the industrials he was making for the Calvin Company to actual feature films. Whether Altman was ready for such a thing is another call entirely as the Delinquents is a movie that feels like two parts of an educational film that you might have seen in junior high in the late 50’s. It concerns itself with the doomed romance between Scotty and Janice (pre-Billy Jack Tom Laughlin and KC local Rosemary Howard, respectively), two high school kids who are having trouble taking their relationship to the next level due to Janice’s square parents feeling that a girl of sixteen is far too young to be going steady and forbids them to see each other.

Enter a gaggle of rough young thugs, the ranks of which contain Eddie (Dick Bakalyan) and led by Cholly (Peter Miller). After involving innocent bystander Scotty in a drive in rumble, Cholly hatches a plan to help his new buddy out. He’ll pose as Janice’s date and will bring her to Scotty after picking her up. And, of course, this leads to all kinds of trouble which includes a police raid on a house party, a lot of booze, a gas station robbery, an attempted assault, and, finally, a knife fight.

Containing a mix of passable and stiff performances, a lurching narrative, and a helplessly terrible and moralizing wraparound monologue, the Delinquents more or less banished Altman to the world of television where he honed his skills, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Whirlybirds. It is also notable for the weirdly intense performance Tom Laughlin gives, clashing with the helpless Howard in the same way that predates the exact same awkwardness that would materialize when he would insist on casting Delores Taylor, his non-actress wife, in gigantic, difficult roles in his worthless Billy Jack movies.

I suppose there is a camp quality to be had with this kind of thing. After all, deep in the third act, Laughlin’s method acting gets so out of hand that it looks like he permanently damages Dick Bakalyan’s cervical spine when he drags him down to the ground in something that looks like a headlock that would get you thrown out of most wrestling matches. And in the film’s climax soon afterward, a hotted up Laughlin gets into a fight with Peter Miller’s character that looks like it wasn’t completely covered or cut correctly. The result is a lot of jagged editing which has Laughlin oscillating between looking like he’s going to either destroy or vomit all over Peter Miller before finally coming to a head with Laughlin Popeyeing Miller to the moon against the side of a refrigerator.

Add in some fun Kansas City locations, a painless running time of just around 75 minutes, and the tacked-on monologue regarding morals and American values and this MIGHT just be someone’s cup of tea. And, regardless of the result (which isn’t unwatchable and was good enough to land him a job with Hitchcock) it’s also hard to ignore that Altman beats Cassavetes to the big screen by two years with his independent feature and netting writing, producing, and directing credits. For every independent filmmaker who owes a debt to Cassavetes, some of that gratitude should be directed toward Altman.

James Dean factors in more appropriately and explicitly in Altman’s next outing which was assembled and created during the editing phase of the Delinquents. Also released in 1957, the James Dean Story has the regional, documentarian feel of a Charles B. Pierce film though it also curiously enough seems to veer a little towards the style of an Errol Morris documentary at times as the film is mostly pieced together with solemn narration and the unvarnished and raw takes of some talking heads, some secret recordings, and sprinkled with brooding passages about misgivings, griefs, and the inability to conform.

But the James Dean Story is really a telling little piece of material from the time that might just be a little more reflective and dour than it was envisioned to be. Sure, the subject matter had perished in a terrible car crash and died far too young but, for 1957, it’s just a little honest and just a tad unflattering which showed that the postwar generation were more interested in getting down to just who they were more than they wanted a magazine on film that sold the image of Dean that might not tell the whole story. Buried in all of this was the generation expressed existential angst; who are we?

One thing that Robert Altman really seemed to understand is that celebrities do oftentimes come from humble beginnings and that they are as much a part of the American portrait as steel workers, teachers, and farmers. And while watching this piece, one sometimes wonders how much Altman identifies with James Dean as he was only six years older than Dean and likewise sprung out of the middle of America. Both nonconformist iconoclasts, it’s hard to imagine that Altman didn’t see a lot of himself in Dean. Over time, he would revisit Dean’s legacy, most explicitly in his 1982 adaptation of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean as he examined the nature of celebrity, pop culture, and the empty promises that come with investing in the memories of people you really don’t know.

Robert Altman would disappear into Hollywood hack work for another decade before reemerging in 1968 with his first big studio picture, Countdown from which he was fired by Jack Warner. A literal quote from the James Dean Story reads “the more they criticized, the more he refused to change.” This is said, of course, of James Dean but it could also be as easily said of Robert Altman.

SYLVAIN DESPRETZ: Los Ángeles by Kent Hill

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I don’t profess to be anything except a guy who really loves his movies. So I was, needless to say, humbled when Sylvain Despretz, illustrator extraordinaire and Hollywood veteran, asked for my opinion on his new book Los Ángeles .

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The thoughts (abridged) I rendered unto him are as follows:

“Right off the bat I concede we have a very similar taste in movies, beginning on the opening page where you count James Mason among your idols. You have a free-flowing narrative style here – mixed in with a little distain for certain elements of ‘The Industry’. Yet there, embedded in your frankness, and if you know the lyrics to Billy Joel’s Piano Man, you strike me in predicament alone, to be like John the bartender; sure that he could be a movie star . . . if he could get out of this place.

So in that I feel your journey is unique – in the sense that you have been surrounded by the business, yet are melancholic, purely because you are no different than any other kid who wanted to run off and join the circus – you longed to be a lion tamer – you wanted to be a director.

Still I can’t wait to see this all come together. As I read your words I heard your voice and am reminded of great quotes from the towers of their fields from days past. Well, two in particular. One I heard Peter Guber say: “Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.” And the other comes from Harrison Ellenshaw,  “Shakespeare never had a word processor . . . and now we word processors we have no Shakespeare’s.” Your life is extraordinary and the tapestry upon which your weave this tale is rich in texture and bold in attack.”

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Los Ángeles is a book that is much about one man’s love of cinema as it is his adventures in the screen trade. It might get personal, and it does…in the best sense. This separates it from the generic ‘greatest hits’ compilations which would merely be satisfied showing you only the art from the films and pictures of the movie masters Sylvain has been privileged to rub shoulders with.

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But this is not a film book. It’s about art, life, and loving movies so deeply you feel them at the source of everything that inspires one to create. Sylvain and I always have the most engaging and complex conversations, which are always nice to have with like-minded cineastes, especially when we share a similar perspective on what great films are and how they touch us.

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Life like cinema is about a series of moments. We all know the films we like, still, when asked, we find ourselves recounting the scenes which really spoke to us. Robert Altman once told his wife about his first viewing on David Lean’s A Brief Encounter. She recalled that, though Altman was initially just casually watching the movie, by the end, he had fallen in love with the films leading lady, Celia Johnson, and was utterly moved by the story unfurled.

Thus is the power of cinema, and the heart of Sylvain Despretz’s Los Ángeles.

As it has been written, so has it been done.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON Los Ángeles, VISIT THE PUBLISHER’S WEBSITE HERE:

https://caurette.com/?fbclid=IwAR1Y5EdeVzKGdCZ1o2G-VExxykJR8ejEgEuphdnMHYkBiS7Frk2CbVHT5J8

“Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?” : An Interview with Michael Davis by Kent Hill (PART 3)

Shoot 'em Up

I really love this gig. I really do. I’ve had the distinction of being able to converse with many a hero and much admired artist over my time at PTS. There have though, been a few surprises along the way – and this was one of them.

I have long wanted to chat with Michael Davis. Part of it, and I’m sure you’ll agree having seen his films, that here is a man who went from making 100 Women to writing and directing the most-excellent, ballet of bullets that is Shoot ‘em Up. And you just need a few minutes of talking with Michael to understand how this was possible.

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They say Scorsese has a machine-gun-mouth. Well listening to Michael is like standing next to Jesse Ventura firing Ol’ Painless. And – WOW – what a delight, the frenetic and passionate electricity that this man generates in infectious. Michael’s initial overview of the birth of his career is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard. From his beginnings as a storyboard artist, to various writing assignments (don’t say Double Dragon out loud), to his eventual directorial debut; it’s a madcap movie marathon coming at you – at high speed!

Our conversation was so enthralling, so engaging, that I would be doing my guest a severe injustice to cut even a moment of it. So I shall be presenting it to you as a trilogy. Each section I promise is as entertaining as the last. So, don’t touch that dial, and prepare yourself to experience the film-making personification of the perfect storm that is . . . Michael Davis . . . . . . PART 3.

FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE :

https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2018/04/25/do-we-really-suck-or-is-this-guy-really-that-good-an-interview-with-michael-davis-by-kent-hill-part-2/

https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2018/03/25/do-we-really-suck-or-is-this-guy-really-that-good-an-interview-with-michael-davis-by-kent-hill-part-1/

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“Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?” : An Interview with Michael Davis by Kent Hill (PART 2)

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I really love this gig. I really do. I’ve had the distinction of being able to converse with many a hero and much admired artist over my time at PTS. There have though, been a few surprises along the way – and this was one of them.

I have long wanted to chat with Michael Davis. Part of it, and I’m sure you’ll agree having seen his films, that here is a man who went from making 100 Women to writing and directing the most-excellent, ballet of bullets that is Shoot ‘em Up. And you just need a few minutes of talking with Michael to understand how this was possible.

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They say Scorsese has a machine-gun-mouth. Well listening to Michael is like standing next to Jesse Ventura firing Ol’ Painless. And – WOW – what a delight, the frenetic and passionate electricity that this man generates in infectious. Michael’s initial overview of the birth of his career is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard. From his beginnings as a storyboard artist, to various writing assignments (don’t say Double Dragon out loud), to his eventual directorial debut; it’s a madcap movie marathon coming at you – at high speed!

e73501112002d80ee16c6730f1a665b6

Our conversation was so enthralling, so engaging, that I would be doing my guest a severe injustice to cut even a moment of it. So I shall be presenting it to you as a trilogy. Each section I promise is as entertaining as the last. So, don’t touch that dial, and prepare yourself to experience the film-making personification of the perfect storm that is . . . Michael Davis . . . . . . PART 2.

{FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE . . . : https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2018/03/25/do-we-really-suck-or-is-this-guy-really-that-good-an-interview-with-michael-davis-by-kent-hill-part-1/}

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“Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?” : An Interview with Michael Davis by Kent Hill (PART 1)

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I really love this gig. I really do. I’ve had the distinction of being able to converse with many a hero and much admired artist over my time at PTS. There have though, been a few surprises along the way – and this was one of them.

 

 

I have long wanted to chat with Michael Davis. Part of it, and I’m sure you’ll agree having seen his films, that here is a man who went from making 100 Women to writing and directing the most-excellent, ballet of bullets that is Shoot ‘em Up. And you just need a few minutes of talking with Michael to understand how this was possible.

They say Scorsese has a machine-gun-mouth. Well listening to Michael is like standing next to Jesse Ventura firing Ol’ Painless. And – WOW – what a delight, the frenetic and passionate electricity that this man generates in infectious.

 

 

Michael’s initial overview of the birth of his career is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever heard. From his beginnings as a storyboard artist, to various writing assignments (don’t say Double Dragon out loud), to his eventual directorial debut; it’s a madcap movie marathon coming at you – at high speed!

 

Our conversation was so enthralling, so engaging, that I would be doing my guest a severe injustice to cut even a moment of it. So I shall be presenting it to you as a trilogy. Each section I promise is as entertaining as the last. So, don’t touch that dial, and prepare yourself to experience the filmmaking personification of the perfect storm that is . . . Michael Davis . . . . . . PART 1.

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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

MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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Surely a seasoned connoisseur of the silver screen can relate the experience of watching a film to emotional responses which seem to transcend the medium all-together. For instance, certain films may have a distinctive smell; others might even allow one to taste something either delectable or truly putrid on the tip of their tongue. Robert Altman’s MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, a whiskey-soaked indictment of American idealism filtered through the abstracted gaze of a hazy opium den, truly has the best of both worlds – the film smells strongly of musk and is bitter to the taste but nonetheless warm once it’s in you. It has the benefit of seamlessly evoking homeliness and absolute desolation in equal measures; not once is one allowed to truly sit back and take in the spectacle on a base level, but if that’s not somehow oddly ingenious in its own right, then I’ll be damned.

John McCabe (Warren Beaty) arrives in Presbyterian Church, Washington as a stranger, but soon establishes himself as a legend of his own distinct variety. A gambling man with a detrimental love affair with the bottle, McCabe is immediately met with suspicion on the part of the townspeople, who suspect he’s really a gunslinger that shot one of their own over a card game some time ago. Nevertheless, it’s his reputation – coupled with his intense personality – that allows McCabe to be seen as a leader among loners and losers in this quiet little Northwest town. It is here that he aspires to establish a brothel, the first step in doing so being the acquisition of three women from one of the neighboring towns.

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This, of course, will hardly be substantial in the long run. Along comes another stranger, Constance Miller (Julie Christie), who proposes that the two become business partners. It’s an offer that McCabe simply can’t refuse, and they’re all the better for it; it’s not long before three girls turns into about a dozen and the establishment is doubling as a bathhouse. As rewarding as this venture appears to be, the attempted intervention on the part of a nearby mining company indicates there may be trouble ahead for both business and personal pleasure alike.

Only a select few films have a kind of palpable density that the viewer feels right in the gut, and as it turns out Altman has made quite a few of them. Throughout the course of just two hours, man himself is challenged (the tragedy of masculinity suppressing all which stands in its path), and everything – land and life alike – has a dollar value. For instance, when McCabe continually refuses the offers from the mining company’s shady representatives, they send over a trio of bounty hunters to seal the deal. Afraid for his life but unwilling to leave the town and business he helped start, McCabe turns to his lawyer for advice, but is instead treated to a spiel that basically amounts to the company’s safety being favored over McCabe’s. The poor bastard’s response is genuinely haunting: “Well I just, uh…didn’t want to get killed.”

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This is a film that soars, perhaps even more-so than the average Western (MCCABE is revisionist). Altman’s uncanny genius can be traced back to his modesty, quite an appealing quality in any artist, though given the sense of scale and impeccable attention to detail present in his work it’s almost a bit amusing. And yet, even though there are moments of genuine humor, no doubt provided by McCabe himself, the character remains a tragic one; one whose deepest flaws would appear to be almost entirely of his own making. The man is an enigma and a half to the naked eye. And Mrs. Miller, who as it turns out has a bit of an opium habit, is essentially the product of an unnecessarily harsh world dominated by the opposite sex, a world in which her expertise doesn’t seem welcome. And thus, the romanticism of the genre is stripped from Altman’s warped worldview, and in its place a new kind of grandeur emerges.

It goes without saying at this point, forty-something years after the fact, that Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is absolutely note-perfect. The world in which the tortured, titular souls occupy is one largely confined to dark rooms and dusty bars; and the town’s exteriors couldn’t possibly be any rougher. There’s an inherent bleakness to it, and yet when there is any semblance of light shining bright at the end of the tunnel, it does not go unnoticed. Not only does this feel absolutely distinctive in terms of its genre, Altman and Zsigmond go the extra mile to find beauty in even the most deliberately obscured of images. Form is no longer so well-defined and the rules no longer apply in the same way that they used to.

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Altman’s films tend to have rich, multi-dimensional soundscapes in which the abstraction of sonic perception gives way to a new language of its own. Here, no spoken word is free of the director’s unique grasp. Conversations are always overlapping to the point where the subject becomes more important to the viewer than the content, which is ultimately an effective method of conjuring up such an off-kilter atmosphere. Lou Lombardo’s editing is equally as inventive – time feels almost nonexistent in this town after we’ve spent a considerable amount of time there. The focus shifts between characters both integral to the central relationship and generally insignificant, adding to their collective mystique. Altman challenges us to embrace this very quality head-on, to return to a sort of exhilarating ambiguity that audiences of today have all but shunned.

The frontier unveils new angles from which to exquisitely immortalize it and the frontiersmen themselves remain largely the same. The cinema of transcendence is alive and well, drinking bourbon by the fireside, mumbling incoherently under its bearded breath. The lovely, brooding songs of Leonard Cohen allow it – and us – to drift off into a state of near unconsciousness; a state from which we’d hardly like to return. MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is a subtly colossal achievement, especially in the positively brilliant final twenty minutes, a film of dreamy, universal resonance. It’s a world you could settle into for twice – perhaps even triple – the length we’re provided with. “I know that kind of man, it’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender. And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind, you find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter.”

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