Friday, March 03, 2006

2 + 2 = 5 (Altman edition).

Remember how I said I was going to get back into the swing of making a weekly list of the pop cultural strata clogging my brain? Despite my recent silence (damn you, work!), I meant it. So here's round two of the resurrected 2 + 2 = 5, dedicated to Robert Altman, in observation of this weekend's Altman Blog-a-thon.

1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller's elliptical structure.

Girish recently asked readers to name "One film you've wanted to see for a long time, available on video/DVD, that you haven't gotten around to seeing yet." Pathetically, my answer was McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I'm a huge Altman fan; I'm a big Pauline Kael fan; Pauline loves her some McCabe; for Christ's sake I've owned the DVD since 2002! And still, it sat on my shelf for years. Last Sunday I finally saw it and it did not disappoint.

I won't lie, the opening twentyty-some minutes worried me. I'd forgotten that I often have to find my sea-legs when watching an Altman film for the first time. The early scenes of McCabe establishing his new town felt so vague, I was convinced I was missing crucial details. By the time Mrs. Miller came to town, I was onto Altman's M.O. and was squarely in his pocket. Those first twenty minutes were jarring because the film's structure is so elliptical; nearly every time a new scene is established, an unspecified but substantial amount of time has passed. It's a total violation of conventional film grammar, but it gives the film a chaotic propulsion that I love. For instance, Shelley Duvall is in maybe four scenes total; in those four scenes her character goes through a dramatic transformation. We've missed months and months of her life, but each time she shows up we momentarily recalibrate, fill in the blanks, and then go with the flow. It's that kind of unorthodox spirit that makes A Decade Under the Influence and the other '70s cinema hagiographies somewhat (please note I said somewhat) palatable.

2) Altman's Lynchian-before-there-was-Lynch period.

I saw David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me on VHS when I was in eighth grade. I didn't understand what the hell was going on, but it was so beautiful and odd and inexplicable that I became obsessed with Mr. Lynch's films; I still am. But imagine my surprise when, two years ago, I saw Images and 3 Women and realized that Bob had put two dream-fugue mindfuckers in the art-house years before Lynch. People get so fixated on Altman's multi-character epics that they forget about these two psychosexual delusions and what-the-hell-just-happened? identity-swapping dramas.

3) Philip Marlow's supermarket exchange in The Long Goodbye.
If you haven't seen it, forgive me, this just won't do it justice:
Philip Marlowe: Excuse me, I don't see any Courry Brand cat food here.
Supermarket Clerk: Some what?
Philip Marlowe: Some Courry Brand cat --
Supermarket Clerk: Could you spell that?
Philip Marlowe: Courry Brand, C-O-U-R-R --
Supermarket Clerk: Oh, we're all out of that. Why don't you get this. All this shit is the same anyways.
Philip Marlowe: You don't happen to have a cat by any chance?
Supermarket Clerk: What do I need a cat for, I've got a girl.
Philip Marlowe: Ha, ha. He's got a girl, I got a cat.

4. The ballet set to "The World Spins" in The Company.

There's not enough love for The Company. Dr. T and Cookie's Fortune seem to get all the attention from cinephiles looking to shower attention on Altman's recent, underappreciated output. That's a shame, because The Company, about a year in the life of the Chicago Joffery Ballet, is an intimate and lovely docudrama anchored by the exceptional Malcolm McDowell. However, the film's greatest moments are the various ballets recreated throughout. The most stunning of them is a piece performed by Emily Patterson, set to Julee Cruise's ghostly pop song "The World Spins" (written by, ahem, David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti). In it, she glides, piourettes, and floats across the stage with the help of a bungee cord. Altman captures the scene with such effortless fluidity, that when I saw it for the first time I held my breath in awe. It'd be impossible to film a dance sequence with more artistry.

5. Gosford Park's ensemble.

This category was originally going to be "Helen Mirren in Gosford Park." Every time I revisit the film, I'm floored by how beautifully she underplays her role. Then I think, well, she got an Oscar nomination, so people clearly see how great she is. But do they remember how solid, how refined Emily Watson is? Or how hilarious Michael Gambon is? (Watch the first dinner scene again and just look at the way he's eating his food.) Or Stephen Fry's bit of ham 'n cheesery? Or Kristen Scott Thomas's self-deprecation? Or Maggie Smith... Or... You get the picture.


At 3:50 PM, Blogger Maya said...

Ben: I'm glad the blogathon inspired you to continue 2+2=5. I finally saw "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" within the last year. At first I was kind of embarrassed to admit that, but, then realized that this is the mark of a great film, that it finds its audience over time wherever.

I've seen neither "Images" nor "Three Women", though they come highly recommended to me, and wonder if you can say if Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" had any sway here?

Thanks for quoting the Marlow grocery-store exchange. Very wry. I love the character of Philip Marlow and all the films made to him.

"When I was a boy I dreamed that Philip Marlow took me as his partner, took me as his friend. He gave me his fedora. Gave me shotgun fever. Let me ride beside him until the very end."--David Forman


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