As the seventies came to a close and a new day was dawning on Hollywood, filmmakers and studios began to shift their work and business models to better prepare for the type of film they needed to make. Sure, the point of any movie studio at any time in the history of motion pictures had always been to make a profit. But after watching truckloads of cash show up at their doorstep after the release of films such as Jaws and Star Wars, it was no longer enough to just turn a profit. Movies began to come together in board rooms and designed to be less as entertainment vehicles that would make money and more unstoppable machines that would print money. So this is why it made a certain amount of sense for Paramount Pictures and the Walt Disney Company to join forces for a slate of films that would be geared towards the entire family but would be just a smidge more sophisticated than what could be expected from a live-action “Disney movie” which, by the 1980’s, had a certain kind of downmarket reputation and wasn’t exactly raking in the cash.

This partnership produced exactly two movies, Robert Altman’s Popeye in 1980 and Matthew Robbins’s impressive Dragonslayer, released the following year. That it produced anything is a small miracle as Popeye, first on the slate, was an absolutely cursed production from top to bottom and any sane assessment of the film reveals that fact many times over. From on-set fighting to the cocaine bust of producer Robert Evans, the production of Popeye kind of had it all. It wasn’t quite a Heaven’s Gate but it was definitely the last thing director Robert Altman needed at that point in his career. After owning the first half of the 1970’s, Altman’s work was continually met with diminishing returns which culminated in HealtH, his previously completed picture, getting completely buried and unreleased by 20th Century Fox. He needed a hit in the worst way and Popeye was a tee-up for him.

But the fact of the matter was that there was no real certainty Popeye would be a hit. All that was there was a vague notion that the monster Broadway success of Annie meant that there was sure to be a motion picture adaptation and, therefore, something had to be crafted to catch that similar wave of upscale family fare. Paramount owned King Features and, therefore, the universe of the Popeye comic strip so why not hire Harry Nilsson, the genius but inveterate alcoholic pop star on the downslope, to write the tunes and Robert Altman, an independent, bullheaded filmmaker whose last huge hit had been a whole decade earlier, to direct? I mean, it looked good on paper to somebody and I can’t help but think that somebody was Robert Evans whose career, like Altman’s, was also in jeopardy after a string of poor decisions teetered his reputation for rescuing Paramount Pictures in the late sixties from impatient creditors who were ready to engage the studio in a complete fire sale.

Another thing not considered is that by 1980, there was a giant delta that separated audience’s understandings of the Popeye from his origins in the Thimble Theatre comic strip created by Elzie Crisler Segar in 1919. In that iteration, Popeye (introduced in 1929) was but a supporting player in the larger world of Sweethaven, a cockeyed seaport town crawling with strange, yet lovable denizens. After becoming the star of the strip, Max Fleischer’s studios popularized Popeye and the majority of the Thimble Theatre characters in a series of cartoon shorts which usually put Popeye and company in contemporary and urban settings. By the time Paramount’s Famous Studios began producing the cartoons, Popeye and Olive Oyl were fully suburbanized and Popeye would frequently appear in shorts in which he would be battling his nemesis Bluto over trivial things like front lawn maintenance and seats at a baseball game. When Altman and screenwriter Jules Feiffer took the story back to its roots, it looked a lot like a world unfamiliar to many of the people who had become accustomed to Popeye as the confident, spinach-swilling, language-murdering hero who always had Olive Oyl by his side and Bluto at his feet.

But, oh, Lordy Moses, did people bitch when Popeye hit the theaters. Save the Wolf Kroeger production design and the incredible sets constructed in a Maltese cove (that are still standing and function as a tourist attraction, by the way), there was virtually nothing in the film that didn’t prove distasteful to at least one person in some shape or form. It did decent business but, unfortunately, was made at a time when it wasn’t enough to do good business if the business wasn’t good enough. Because of this attitude, Popeye has since been remembered as a magnificent disaster and a flop of a film, neither of which are remotely true. It’s a wild film in Altman’s canon and looking at it from the highest peak of Mt. Objectivity reveals an absolute mess of a final product but it’s also not out of line to rule Popeye a film where the sum of the parts are definitely better than the whole. As if it were built as if it were a number of cartoon shorts strung into one whole movie, Popeye is a movie without much drive but with a whopping ton of energy which can be joyous and fun but, at 114 minutes, feels like a juggernaut that could even wear down the last, most energetic person on the Studio 54 dance floor.

To the uninitiated, Popeye is about the titular character (Robin Williams in his film debut) arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven in the search for his father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). During his hunt, he becomes entangled with and falls for the dizzy Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall in her final bow for Altman), takes charge of abandoned infant, Swee’ Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman’s impossibly cute ham of a grandson), and runs afoul of Bluto (Paul Smith), the burly and hirsute heavy who begins the film as Olive’s betrothed.

Thematically, this is McCabe & Mrs. Miller territory (replete with a direct blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual nod in the floating casino sequence as a zonked-out prostitute examines a ceramic pot as she reclines in her bunk); ultimately a story about how an iconoclast can enter a town and rearrange the structure. The problem with Popeye is that the story never allows the viewer to understand how anything in the town works in the first place. Some of it feels like a parody of shallow American nationalism but the town of Sweethaven is such a sketch, the details the audience has a right to know are either not there or buried. Taxes are being constantly collected but for what purpose and they’re routed where, exactly? The town has a Mayor but the Commodore holds more stroke why? The Commodore is a recluse that nobody has seen for what reason? Is this an isolated island burg in a post-Quintet future that’s surrounded by the melted ice and where the people are only just learning how to be a functioning society again? Because they sure act like it.

But, putting narrative and story aside (which we shouldn’t do but will anyway) is there another movie outside of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy that looks like it was Silly Putty’d right off a newspaper than Popeye? As a retrospective criticism, the film’s bloated budget would be a legitimate concern if every single dollar wasn’t up on the screen and everything didn’t look absolutely gorgeous. The beautiful widescreen compositions by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno capture the sideways-pitched structures against an immensely beautiful green sea where foregrounded primary colors absolutely pop off the screen. The costumes by Scott Bushnell, longtime Altman producer, are magnificently elaborate and detailed and everyone in the cast looks 100% perfect.

Altman’s on-screen choreography with his performers, always a staple in making his movies breathe, might just be at its highest level here as the frame is constantly swishing back and forth, always revealing some new information in the background. In fact, so busy is its canvass that, after forty years of watching the film, I have just recently spotted the caveman that randomly pops up in the far back of the background throughout the movie. Where most Altman films demand a second viewing due to the multi-tracked, overlapping dialogue, Popeye joins ranks with works such as Brewster McCloud and HealtH as needing multiple views due to everything that’s going on everywhere but the center of the screen. Just one instance of this is Robert Fortier’s Bill Barnacle. Sloshing around as the town drunk (ya know, the same character he played in McCabe & Mrs. Miller for those of you keeping score), it’s worth missing everything else that’s happening on the screen each time he appears as his physical performance is likely funnier and more interesting than what’s happening front and center.

And despite his giving up on the project to return to Flash Harry, his penultimate album before his untimely death in 1997, the Harry Nilsson tunes (and their wonderful Van Dyke Parks orchestrations) still soar. “Sweethaven,” “I Yam What I Yam,” “I’m Mean,” “Kids,” and, especially, “He Needs Me” all have a loopy charm and sly humor while “He’s Large,” a song dedicated to Bluto’s… ahem… girth, sung by Shelley Duvall and backed up by the Steinettes, the Greenwich Village doo-wop outfit who served as the Greek chorus in HealtH, is absolutely inappropriate for a family film but, on second thought, perhaps this film deserved such a shot of raunch if to only diffuse the treacle in “Sailin’” and “Swee’ Pea’s Lullabye,” two slabs of straight sentimentality that feel a bit out of place in a bizarre place such as this.

1980 wasn’t terribly kind to Popeye and time has done little to repair its image. Folks that loved it then, love it now. Folks that hated it then are always quick to point out they’ve never revisited it. Contemporary audiences don’t know quite what to make of it. Robert Altman didn’t end up in director’s jail but he would be cast out onto the stormy seas of the 1980’s with almost zero studio support, fully requested by the powers that be that he learn to fend for himself. In the end, Popeye turned out to become a fondly-remembered cocaine film for children and, regardless of the film’s box office returns, we probably needed more of them as the dawn of Reagan loomed large.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


After dicking with the Dino De Laurentiis company one and only time in 1976 with his acidic Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Robert Altman moved into what seemed to be a really nice and comfortable distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, whose film division president was Altman superfan Alan Ladd, Jr. To Ladd, Robert Altman could do no wrong, so whatever Altman wanted to deliver was a-ok with him. This couldn’t have been a more perfect arrangement but it somehow led Altman to write, produce, and direct five movies over the course of the following four years that would greatly assist in his unceremonious ejection from Hollywood and cause him to wander the creative wilderness for every waking second of the 1980’s. This is not a reflection on the quality of the movies Altman delivered to Fox, mind you. This was just how it went down.

3 Women, the first project on Altman’s slate, was likely the one that knocked him most off-course with audiences, causing him to have to thread quite the needle to work his way back into the mainstream. If audiences were only somewhat welcoming to Nashville and Buffalo Bill & the Indians, it’s hard to imagine that anyone thought they were going to cotton to 3 Women, a perplexing and mysterious film quite literally built out of a dream. But ever the maverick, Robert Altman just didn’t care. He had carte blanche with a major studio and he was going to make the movies that he wanted to make and 3 Women was his shot across the bow to illustrate just how serious he was about it. And, in crafting a post-Bergman/pre-Lynch meditation on shifting personalities and twinning identities, Altman produced a true masterpiece with 3 Women and it stands as one of his greatest achievements.

The film begins simply enough. Inelegant and plain Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) arrives fresh from Texas to a dusty, desert town in California and goes to work in a health spa that caters to the elderly. There, she meets Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), a overly self-confident chatterbox whose lack of an emotional quotient would stun even the least self-aware among us. In need of a roommate after her freewheeling friend, Diedre (Beverly Ross), moves out of her one-bedroom apartment, Millie reluctantly allows Pinky to move in with her. Here, Pinky soaks in Millie’s constant jabbering about her goofy recipes for frozen banana pops and tuna melts and becomes completely enamored with (to Pinky) Millie’s excitingly independent lifestyle which doesn’t really consist of anything outside either being shunned by her neighbors at her apartment complex’s pool or hanging out at a nearby bar and shooting range run by Edgar and Willie Hart (Robert Fortier and Janice Rule). After one of Millie’s McCall’s-inspired dinner party goes awry, the film takes a sharp left turn better left experienced as a first person viewer rather than a third person reader as Altman and company take the audience on one of the most spellbinding and haunting journeys in his filmography.

The third part in a loose trilogy that includes That Cold Day in the Park and Images, 3 Women stays out of the humdrum life of Frances Austin or the unreliable mind of Cathryn and replaces them with a diaphanously hazy dreamscape where only Dennis Christopher’s Coca-Cola delivery boy seems like the only outsider. Traces of the other films occur as the horribly awkward Millie is much more like Frances Austin, her understanding of sex and contraception bordering on the juvenile as she chirps to Pinky that she only takes the pill “when I know I’m going to do something.” But more in line with Images, 3 Women goes into hyperdrive when it’s focusing on the confusion of identity and psychological doubling. Aside from the utilization of identical twin sisters who work alongside Millie and Pinky at the spa, the details that blossom from both Pinky and Millie reveal a wicked symmetry that continues to tangle around the two of them until metaphoric ripples across the surface of a pool triggers a sea change in attitudes and personalities that culminates in a horrific nightmare and an even more terrifying climax, the board and all of its players becoming completely resettled.

3 Women is a curious title for the film as it predominantly about two women. But Janice Rule fills the important role of the silent and intimate yet unknowable presence that fascinates Altman, an idea that he would explore in greater detail two years later in Quintet. Willie isn’t just another woman in this universe with a phonetically similar Christian name to Duvall’s character. She’s the sad end to a tributary Duvall pretends to understand but, in reality, one in which Duvall has no clue. To Millie, Edgar and Willie are just a fun couple who run the watering hole where he cuts up on the shooting range and she solitarily creeps around the rotten and derelict park and emblazons all available white space with sinister, anatomically-defined figures engaged in a terrifying and bitter scrum. To Willie, Millie and Pinky become, at different times, “the other woman” which, frankly, they can only understand from their side. It’s all Scrabble and wines with names like like Lemon Satin and Tickled Pink until you’re the one who is desperately alone, toiling away at the bottom of a dried up pool while on the downslope of middle age where allegory and reality cruelly blend into one.

It’s likely impossible to heap enough praise on Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek who give two of their greatest performances in 3 Women. And, truthfully, it was likely the best Duvall ever got, her performance nabbing her a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival that year. As Millie, Duvall projects an almost impossible lack of self-awareness with an attitude both supremely confident and subtly fragile that is by turns both painful and hilarious. And Spacek’s Pinky has to go from homely to hot in both look and attitude and the 180 degree shift in her performance an absolute masterclass from top to tail. The film’s tone never strays from its dreamy origins and everything in the story clicks much like it would if you were half-lucid and looking at life through a gauzy filter. It sometimes feels like it’s a movie taking place about five hundred feet above an Altman film where the overlapping dialogue and off-frame conversations can still be vaguely heard, always keeping one of the film’s feet in a recognizable reality but submitting to almost no rule of traditional Hollywood filmmaking.

Given that this came out in April of 1977 and Star Wars came out a scant five weeks later, it probably comes as no surprise that 3 Women, despite getting some of Altman’s best reviews in years, got its ass kicked all over the box office. Unlike William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, another brilliant film from ‘77 that got itself all kinds of fucked up by Star Wars’s monopoly on America’s imagination, the business 3 Women lost to Star Wars was, truthfully, probably negligible. This film was going to be a tough sell no matter what year in which it came out. But what happened to 3 Women was not just that it simply got murdered in its general release, hardly anyone not named Jerry Harvey remembered it at all and the film languished in obscurity, never seeing a home video release until the Criterion Collection picked it up in 2004.

But to Altman, this was just part of the business and tough sells and easy sells weren’t his problem. He had a pipeline set up and when one project crashed, another one was on the horizon. While doing promotion for 3 Women, Altman made an off-handed remark to a reporter that his next film was going to be “a wedding,” a joke on the then-nascent business of having a legit film crew come and professionally capture your wedding. Well, a joke turned into an idea, an idea into a script, and a script into a film, and by the following year, A Wedding would be unleashed on America.

That’s just the way Altman rolled. Well… for a few more years, at least.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


At the conclusion of Nashville, the camera pans upward into the high heavens and the last image we see before staring off into the ether is the American flag. So it is appropriate that, at the beginning of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, the film that was released the following year, we see the raising of the American flag over the strains of reveille. Following some narration about the brave men and women who built our country and trudged through hardship after hardship, we witness the scene of an Indian attack on some settlers, driving the narrator’s point home in traditional western style. Once the carnage has concluded, the camera pulls back to reveal the attack has been a recreation and the settlers and natives are actors and this has all been done in the attempt to perfect a scenario for a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So where Nashville infused Altman’s vision of an America being infested with rot via politics and show business, Buffalo Bill and the Indians aims to almost invert that formula from the jump by giving a tall-tale American history lesson filtered completely through the artifice of show business which, ultimately and paradoxically, overflows with truths.

The year is 1886, and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Paul Newman) is a bigoted, ridiculously coiffed, narcissistic, and pinheaded blowhard who lives in a cloistered bubble of his own legend that is his Wild West Show where he is the figurehead, president, and CEO. But the new season needs a fresh angle as crowds are dwindling, causing chaos and cutbacks in Codyland. With the help of obsequious press agent Major John Burke (Kevin McCarthy) and ruthless producer Nate Salisbury (Joel Grey), Cody scores a coup when he wrangles Sitting Bull (Frank Kanquitts), whose victory over General George Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn made him a ready-made villain to audiences, into joining his show. Cody, a puffed up man of no small amount of self-importance, is frequently annoyed and enraged at Sitting Bull’s insistence on not rewriting history for the sake of entertainment nor allowing Bill to look like the star-spangled hero to which the latter is accustomed of appearing. Sitting Bull’s lethargic refusal to play the game Bill’s way, backed in full by Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), the show’s major draw, threatens the Wild West Show and, since he’s mostly a media construction, Bill’s existence.

To audiences of the day, this was maybe the most unwelcome bit of bicentennial cheer since Frank Zappa’s “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead.” To fans of Paul Newman and westerns, this was an affront to the senses and their patriotic sensibilities. To those that loved Altman and were in the tank for him, it was unsubtle and too on-the-nose. And maybe both of those camps’ criticisms mattered a great deal in 1976 when the nation was struggling with itself as it turned 200 years old. The country’s dichotomous mindset couldn’t be summed up any better than the Academy nominating Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, and Network for Best Picture only to then turn around and award the Oscar to Rocky, regardless of that film’s bottomless merits and endless appeal. It was clear that America was in the midst of a national case of the DT’s and was desperate to feel better.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, unfortunately, was not made for people who wanted to feel better. It was made for people who thought all the ballyhoo circling the bicentennial was a racket, and a racist one at that. This kind of disdain made Robert Altman a frequent target of conservative critics who would continue to willfully label his flaming of American culture as a misanthropic attitude about America itself. Of course, this was wrong as Altman loved America and, in fact, embodied its best and greatest characteristics. What Altman hated was the rank hypocrisy and the half-truths that built so much of the American narrative, something that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable point of view. And, after all, what was the Wild West Show but a traveling pack of exaggerations that, nonetheless, blazed a trail in the collective mind of America and ensured that its revisionist tales took the place of actual history? If conservative critics are hell-bent on discussing the effect of television and movies on our citizens, why not extend that same argument to those mythological tales with a reach so far back into America’s past that our country’s mind has been hard-wired to recognize only its supposed benevolent greatness?

And perhaps Altman, whose Nashville was a critical hit but didn’t exactly achieve its goal of changing the way movies were made, earned himself no favors in Hollywood by making show business look like a nepotistic, valueless, and grotesque vessel frequently lost in it own sauce of incompetence and yes men. But by looking into the past and examining how so much of America’s historical foundation is built on myths and legends, he also sees the ability to shape the future. Buffalo Bill is a buffoon but his keen understanding of the power of “the show business” to twist history into something perverted, unfair, disgusting, and beneficial only to him is frightening. “Bill Cody can only trust his senses. And when his senses fail him, he might just see things as they really are,” muses Burt Lancaster’s Ned Buntline, one-time scribbler of penny dreadfuls but current deconstructionist of the myths he once helped create.

Naturally, something like Buffalo Bill and the Indians has aged extremely well and, viewing it in 2021, it’s a little jarring. For much of its running time, it feels like a funhouse mirror put up against our contemporary politics. Inspired by Arthur Kopit’s play Indians, screenwriters Altman and Allan Rudolph keep Buffalo Bill and the Indians confined within the boundaries of the camp of the Wild West Show and by keeping the film more or less stagebound, the Wild West Show and all of its backstage pandemonium begins to look like a lot like the White House of Donald Trump. When Bill meets Sitting Bull, it’s a mock celebration that’s meant to feel like an honorable meeting between two great heads of state but is instead a giant fantasy created to assuage the ego of Buffalo Bill who is such a moron, he has no idea what “incarcerated” means and confuses William Halsey (Will Sampson), Sitting Bull’s interpreter, for Sitting Bull himself. Liikewise, truth has no room within the parameters of the Wild West Show. Ned Buntline’s character is such an unwelcome creature in Bill’s land of fantasy that he attempts to have Buntline tossed from the premises the second Bill hears he’s around. Naturally, Bill delegates this duty to someone else and, likewise, Buntline won’t move until Bill disinvites him personally. This leads to one of the film’s most beautifully written and performed scenes in which Lancaster sighs “You haven’t changed, Bill.” “I’m not supposed to change,” Newman retorts. “That’s why people pay to see me.”

As a document in regards to Altman’s feelings toward the bicentennial, it’s fascinating. As a retroactive treatise on what would exactly happen if we lived in a political environment that operated like in the same fashion as backstage at The Muppet Show, it’s pretty brilliant even if Altman sometimes hard presses his acrid point to the point of smugness. “You know,” President Grover Cleveland coos in admiration as Buffalo Bill struts away from a reception, “it’s a man like that that made America what it is today.” Yeah… we get it. Additionally, Altman sometimes stretches himself for easy laughs and the running gag involving Buffalo Bill’s infatuation with opera singers proves to be more irritating and farcical than it is funny but it does at least set up one of the film’s most sublime moments in which the pack of artless cornballs in the Wild West Show are put to shame and moved to tears by the simple performance of by Nina Cavelini ‘Qui Sola Virgin Rosa’.

But, in the grand scheme of things, the film’s flaws seem minor in comparison to its triumphant execution and its fearless determination to take on both the seemingly unassailable lacquer that protects America’s Disneyfied image of itself and the vainglorious stupidity (and potential danger) of Hollywood. By admitting that America itself is a malleable tall tale if delivered by the right kind of polished huckster and that nobody, no matter how noble, is beneath selling out for the right price and practicality, Altman foretold of an America in ruin, susceptible to the charms of empty-headed, megawatt stars where relationships are transactional and nothing is sacred.

“Boy, I’ll tell you,” Harvey Keitel’s slack-jawed and dim-bulb nephew to Buffalo Bill says at some point in the film as he stares off into the distance, “there ain’t no business like the show business.”

Brother, you ain’t kidding.

(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.


If Nicholas Ray’s 1948’s masterful film noir They Live By Night was the true cinematic template for the “doomed lovers on the run” subgenre of films that eventually led to Arthur Penn’s revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, then Robert Altman’s Thieves Likes Us brings it all back full circle. By adopting the Bonnie and Clyde standard of the time that was the employment of period detail, authentic locations, and, when necessary, graphic violence, Altman’s film utilizes the same 1937 Edward Anderson novel that was the source material for Ray’s film and gives the audience what the Norman Rockwell-inspired, George Gross-rendered one-sheet poster promises. But the film ends on a note of brusque cynicism which slyly deprives the audience of a traditional resolution and, in true Altman fashion, upends the genre’s conventions.

Thieves Like Us, also the title of the Anderson novel, begins much like Ray’s film and, in fact, doesn’t much divert from its plot during its entire running time. After bathing in a beautifully lazy, unbroken shot across a Mississippi work farm, courtesy of French cinematographer, Jean Boffety, we see prisoners Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Chicamaw (John Schuck, delivering his final performance in an Altman film) steal away to an adjacent field to meet T-Dub (a terrific Bert Remsen) who has rooked an unwitting hick taxi driver in aiding in the escape of the two. From there, the trio hides out with alcoholic garage owner, Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), and his daughter, Keechie (Shelley Duvall in her first above-the-title role) before moving on the the home of Maddie (Louise Fletcher), the wife of T-Dub’s incarcerated brother. While on the run and convalescing after a car accident turns into a deadly confrontation with police, Bowie falls in love with Keechie and she reciprocates in such a fashion that their union can’t be met with anything but doomed and tragic consequences.

From a ten thousand-foot view, there isn’t anything detectable to distinguish Altman and Ray’s different treatments of the material from each other. Sure, Altman’s film is more committed to the Depression-era period of the novel and neither film keeps Anderson’s nihilistic ending but, on first blush, Thieves Like Us is just a seemingly more relaxed and softer roll through the same territory as They Live By Night. But there comes a time in Altman’s film that the focus on the women characters becomes sharper and causes the film to shift away from a film about boys at play and towards a film about, to paraphrase my wife, how women will do whatever necessary to achieve a sense of normalcy, regardless of what that might look like. First, we see this in Keechie. Bored but resigned to her fate, Bowie gives Keechie someone other than her drunken father to look after and mother. Bowie’s murder rap, as explained by him, doesn’t seem all that just so Keechie goes with him out of a blend of genuine affection, boredom, and hope for a better life than her present one which Altman paints as desperately terminal.

It should be noted that Shelley Duvall is so real and so natural as Keechie that you can feel true romantic tension build between her and Keith Carradine during their silent moments together early in the film. They talk like actual people and respond in kind. When Bowie remarks that she’s cut a great deal of her hair off, she smiles, looks to the ground, and says “I dunno” in a manner that is so genuine and sweet, it recalls deep, buried memories of the awkwardness and shyness of first love. This is in diametric opposition to the way the characters are played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in Ray’s film, faultlessly walking a fine line between love-sick, smitten pups and hard-edged, damaged souls. In specific contrast to Granger, Carradine’s Bowie is a sweet-faced greenhorn, only slightly more streetwise than his ill-fated cowboy character in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Duvall’s Keechie is at once more naive and tougher than O’Donnell and her anguish at the end of the film is told in spades as Altman trains his slow motion camera not on the gory details of the police ambush that kills Bowie, but on her face as she watches it unfold, held back in a quasi-embrace by Maddie, the true driving force of the second half of the film.

In They Live By Night, Maddie’s character (played with gusto by Helen Craig) is spitting fire from the get-go, making her prime turncoat material. But Fletcher’s interpretation of the role is closer in spirit to Julie Christie’s Constance Miller; a woman who can see far more clearly than any of the men around her and will cut her losses as quick as breathing when she must. At no time in the film would any of the men suspect that Maddie would double-cross them for her own gain. And, honestly, neither would the audience. If one were to go into Thieves Like Us completely cold, Fletcher would seem like a harried but big-hearted good sport. She’s far more focused on the details of running a home and distracting her children from the awful details of her houseguests by ensuring her son knows to use his roll as a pusher at dinner time. But with her life in virtual ruin as it contains both a husband in prison and rugrats she can scarcely control, Fletcher exudes the quietest of strengths in a role that is by turns tough, honest, and canny. Slowly emerging in the second third of the film, Fletcher’s presence permeates the final act and, by the time the credits roll, more than a little of her character will have imprinted itself on Duvall’s Keechie’s. Keep a stiff upper lip and believe the stories you have to tell yourself to keep moving forward.

One has to wonder how much of this specific focus came at the hand of Joan Tewkesbury who, along with Altman and Calder Willingham, adapted Anderson’s novel for the screen. Instead of keeping Ray’s ending where Keechie reads the tragic love note that was written by Bowie just before he is killed in an ambush, and likewise jettisoning Anderson’s ending where the both of them are killed in the same event, Thieves Like Us presses a more tragic point about the very human cost and the actual wreckage that occurs to those in the orbit of criminals. It explicitly deals with the unfortunate shame and social baggage that (mostly) women have to tote around with them due to the careless and thoughtless actions of the men in their life. Not coincidentally, this theme would likewise emerge in Nashville, Altman’s next feature which was also penned by Tewkesbury.

Additionally, the connection between Thieves Like Us and Nashville is also clear due to their strong usage of pop iconography and corporate branding across the American landscape. Thieves Like Us shows the radio tying the country together in a way that previous mediums could not and by synching the diagetic music and dialogue from the radio dramas with the action on screen, Altman suggests an emerging correlation between real life and shared entertainment while also displaying a savvy focus on cultural mass marketing that is beginning to take root. Where prison gates are used as literal ad space for Coca-Cola, the almost outsized presence of that product in Thieves Like Us predates the Goo-Goo Clusters that will eventually underwrite the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville where the country crooners on the radio will no longer be selling Rinso Detergent, but Hal Phillip Walker’s goofy, untenable brand of populism.

Thieves Like Us was part of a cycle that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, itself as much a film about the then contemporary change in America as it was a biopic of Depression-era criminals. But where Bonnie and Clyde pops, Thieves Like Us simmers letting the individual ingredients stew and causing the material to cook into something else entirely. It never feels like Altman’s players are wearing stuff from the wardrobe department as is the case in Martin Scorsese’s underrated but undeniably budget-hampered Boxcar Bertha nor are things quite as clean as in the other Corman-produced films cut from the same cloth, such as Bloody Mama and, later, The Lady in Red. By letting us slowly wade into the world of Thieves Like Us, Altman rewards us by reminding us that the quiet details of real-life feel much more piercing than the grand sweep of Hollywood dramaturgy.

Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night is a true beauty with a well-deserved, unimpeachable reputation as a film that is as hard-edged a piece of business that you can find. It’s a film that talks tough, moves fast, and kisses tragic. Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us isn’t nearly as well known but it operates in the same, languid style as his adaptation of The Long Goodbye. It’s a film that speaks softly, takes its time, and ultimately reveals itself to be positively ruthless.

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller

In Robert Altman‘s stunning, dreamily haunting piece of anti western melancholia McCabe & Mrs. Miller, two lost souls wander out from unseen former lives into the rugged, barely tamed Canadian Pacific Northwest and attempt to carve out their slice of enterprise from a vast, unforgiving environment. Warren Beatty’s John McCabe is a shrewd yet caustic entrepreneur whose sense of romanticism is dwindling like the stars at dawn, a man who plans to capitalize on the wants and desires of the townsfolk of frontier settlement Presbyterian Church by tent-poling a successful local whorehouse. Julie Christie’s Constance Miller is a forlorn, sharp tongued opportunist bereft of any wistful innocence, her piercing, deep set blue eyes peering out from a thicket of gingerbread curls, scanning the horizon for lucrative endeavours. Both of them seem to arrive in the Northwest as if from another dimension; no backstory save for unfounded rumours, no goals except for capitalist monopoly and no sense of wonder or lyricism save for the few shiny flecks that haven’t been rinded down by the harshness of their lives, like mountains plundered for precious gold until not but scant flakes remain amongst weathered, weary crags. They team up as any person with a good head for business will concede to do, and before they know it they’re making a pretty penny… until big money mining interests try to muscle them out. Altman shows here how capitalism was a precursor to violence and corruption even in the early days of this continent and is successful in getting across his themes but for me the real treasures of this film lie in cinematography, tangible sense of character and mood. Christie and Beatty probably give career best performances as two hardened pioneers of commerce who collectively arrive at the end of each of their respective journeys in the saddest, mournfully poetic fashions imaginable. I wish I knew these two individuals before the world made them the way they are and the snowdrifts settled into the final acts of their arc because they’re two wonderful, well rounded and unique characters. Filling out a solid supporting cast are the likes of the late Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, William Devane, John Schlick, Michael Murphy, a very young Shelley Duvall and more. Altman uses unbelievably evocative wilderness photography to tell story and several aching, poignant songs by Leonard Cohen to bookend his film. It’s tough to capture the essence of this thing in a review, one has to let it wash over you, let it murmur in your ear for two hours as wood doors slam, horse drawn carriages trundle through muddy streets, wind whispers through tree lines, characters move in and out with organic disorganization like moths to and from firelight and McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s sad, introspective, beautifully ponderous story plays out. Sensational film.

-Nate Hill

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Confession time: I saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for the first time last night. I know, late to the party. Gotta say, I get the hype. From the first haunting, magisterial helicopter shots that follow Jack Torrence’s car up a gorgeous Montana mountain road to the icy snowbound finale in and around the deserted Overlook Hotel, this is one effective chiller that doesn’t quit, and succeeds in whipping up an atmospheric mania that culminates in the final shot, a simple black and white photograph that says it all. Nicholson is terrifying in every staccato gesture and possessed, ravenous glare as Torrence, a man who already has the capacity for volcanic violence if pushed, and all it takes is the seething malevolence of the hotel to push him right over that edge and turn him into a homicidal monster. Danny Lloyd is appropriately creepy as his kid and handles the dual voices thing in creepy fashion. My favourite performance of the film has to be Shelley Duvall though, and now it stands as one of my favourite works of acting in the horror genre itself. I’ve heard that Kubrick pushed her to some pretty dicey places to play Wendy Torrence, and fuck man she really got there. When shit starts getting freaky, she reacts in a raw, naturally progressive way that shatters all artifice and practically burns organically right into the celluloid, I believed her outright terror and her work pulled me right into the situation. Joe Turkel and and Philip Stone are super creepy as, shall we say, permanent residents of the Overlook, and Scatman Crothers is good if a little cartoonish as Halloran, the head chef who tries to help the Torrence family before it’s too late. Now, it’s no secret that Stephen King dislikes this film, and honestly I can’t see why anyone was surprised. I’m a huge King disciple and I’ve noticed that literally every other adaptation of his work but this one has felt like King, without really doing its own thing. Kubrick boldly went and made a totally different vision than King had, and that’s fine. This is a cold, desolate chiller with none of King’s trademark emotional beats or fiercely internal storytelling, and it works wonders as that. It isn’t perfect, some of the dialogue in the first half is awfully stilted and awkward, but that was sometimes a hallmark of the 70’s. I also wish there was more character development with Jack before he goes postal, it sort of makes it so you mostly only care about Wendy as opposed to the family as a unit, which would have been more effective. The film overall is brilliant though, particularly in score, cinematography and atmosphere. So many images are now iconic: the kaleidoscope carpet design, the room full of blood, those two creepy girls, that axe busting through the door, and they are all beyond fantastic, but some of my favourite frames are the ones less celebrated, like the stark moonlight through foggy snowdrifts outside, the sentinel hedge maze on the grounds, the opening vista shots of wilderness that suggest the horror comes from some vaguely elemental place. The score is a broad, varied soundboard of threatening death notes, ambient passages and startling cues. This is every bit the beloved horror piece I’ve always heard about, I’m glad I finally saw it, I enjoyed the hell out of it and I can’t wait to revisit.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: The 4th Floor

The 4th Floor is an odd little horror vehicle starring Juliette Lewis and William Hurt, two big names who you wouldn’t usually find in low budget, bizarre stuff like this. Lewis plays a young woman who moves into an ancient New York apartment building only to find that something malevolent is going on inside. Hurt is her big-shot TV weatherman boyfriend who is resentful about it as he’d hoped she would make the step and move in with him. Anywho, the building is home to a host of creepy types including an awkward caretaker (Austin Pendleton), a woman for some reason named Martha Stewart (Shelley Duvall), a weirdo lock smith (Tobin ‘Jigsaw’ Bell) who doubles as an artist and others. They’re all kind of set up like dominoes and you’re supposed to choose which one is behind the evil what-have-you, but it isn’t all that scary or enthralling. Still, it’s atmospheric enough, has a great cast who do pretty well, and anything with Lewis in the lead role is already sold for me. The film’s strongest point is the twist ending, but it’s such a fleetingly subtle revelation that many probably missed, a last minute thing you’ll either see or you won’t, but changes the dynamic of the entire film jarringly and ends on a nice, tense cliffhanger. Passable stuff.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Russell Mulcahy’s Tale Of The Mummy

Russell Mulcahy’s Talos: Tale Of The Mummy is a fascinating failure of huge proportions, a well casted, unbelievable muck-up that has to be seen to be believed. When your low rent Mummy flick comes out at pretty much the same time as Stephen Sommer’s classic The Mummy, you know you have no shot at getting it out there past a few cable runs, especially when the film has been plagued by one nightmare of an editing fiasco from day one, not to mention low budget and more pacing issues than spastics in a sack race. There’s two apparent versions of it, a 115 minute international cut that was edited down to 88 minutes because of some humour that was in bad taste and aforementioned pacing problems. I saw the shorter version, and I can’t imagine the flow of the film being any worse than what I bore witness too, so maybe they should have just gone with the original cut, but who can really say. The film is essentially just two very cluttered, chaotic prologues jam packed with cameos and creaky special effects, and then one long boring extended horror sequence set in London, so you never get the feeling that they knew what they were doing before the editing process even commenced.

The opening sees archeologist Christopher Lee unearthing some ancient tomb in Egypt with his assistant (Jon Polito), both getting very quickly dispatched by some evil via a flurry of visual effects that are either really cool or really bad, jury is still out on that one for me, they’re just weird more than anything. Skip ahead some years and yet another team falls victim to this Talos Mummy thing, led by Louise Lombard, Brit tough guy Sean Pertwee and Gerard Butler of all people, in what is probably his first movie gig ever. Flash forward to London some months later, we see the Mummy thing roaming around killing people at will, and also seemingly at random. Two detectives played by Jason Scott Lee (looking very out of place in England) and Jack ‘Commodore Norrington’ Davenport investigate and the story just loses itself to nonsensical doldrums and lame ‘scares’ for the rest of the duration. Shelley Duvall bizarrely shows up as a journalist, as well as Honor Blackman and the Sean Pertwee character, now a raving madman who no one will believe when he says the Mummy is out to get them. I’m still aghast at the sheer number and variety of notable actors Mulcahy got to appear in this thing, most of them fleeting or short lived but still making hilarious impressions in a story they had to know was just plain silly. There’s a few things that work; the FX in the Christopher Lee sequence are a neat, schlocky blend of CGI and practical and work on their own scrappy terms. There’s a very brief flashback sequence to Ancient Egypt that shows how Talos became an evil creature that’s visceral and well designed, but doesn’t last long enough to boost the overall quality. Everything in London with the two cops is just laaammee though, and drags it all down the sewer. Talos there resembles a filthy shower curtain that went through a paper shredder and subsequently got carried away by a strong gust of wind, neither remotely scary nor stylish, just your average half assed B flick monster. Worth a watch simply for the odd spectacle of it all, and for research purposes.

-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