Saturday, December 09, 2006

Robert Altman's Latest Death Trip

There aren't too many directors I would immediately recognize if I walked into the middle of one of their films, but there are a few. If two characters use the word "n-gger" thirty-seven times in one conversation, it's Quentin Tarantino. If David Mamet's wife is in it, it's David Mamet. If I've already seen it, it's Joel and Ethan Coen. And if it has a HUGE ensemble cast of utterly unsympathetic characters, zero plot, and is totally devoid of anything resembling either comedy or drama, it's Robert Altman. And even though I've walked into the middle of it, it's probably going to last another three hours.

I'd like to salvage something from all the hours of Robert Altman I've seen, but it's not going to be easy. Start with his most popular film, M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H is, in fact, a perfectly vile piece of work. It's cynical, mean-spirited, misogynistic, and doesn't have three jokes in it that are actually funny. The idea of a comedy set in a blood-soaked surgery in Korea is supposed to be a fine artistic juxtaposition, I suppose. But the endless television series that followed proved that a military surgery is no different from a Boston bar, or Seinfeld's living room. And it's disturbing how easily the corrupt and cynical characters of the film were so easily transformed into conventional Hollywood liberals on television. Just as the dismal, barren scrub hills of Korea were perfectly mimicked by the dismal, barren scrub hills of central California. Overall the effect is ultimately depressing, but being depressing is not the same thing as being profound.

Moving right along to Altman's critical masterpiece, Nashville. Here we are invited to think that we are experiencing a parody - of Nashville, of course, but Nashville as an effigy of Amerika. The clues start right at the beginning with the first of the hundred characters we'll meet: Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a nudie-suit nightmare with Elvis hair who is in his studio recording a bicentennial song called "We Must Be Doing Something Right (To Have Lasted 200 Years)". This is a canned-laughter cue for liberals to jerk their knees - patriotic country music? Bleeeech! Afterwards Haven warns his piano player to get a haircut. "You don't belong in Nashville (Amerika)." Once again Altman picks a big, fat, slow-moving bogeyman and aims low.

Maybe I'm reading too much into Nashville. Or too little. At the end of the film, singer Barbara Jean (a Loretta Lynn stand-in, played by Ronee Blakely) is senselessly gunned down during a performance by a guy who looks like Clark Kent. "Thank yuh, thet song was fer Mommy an' Daddy ---" BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! A hippy and a soldier wrestle Clark Kent to the ground. As Loretta Lynn's body is carted off the stage, Barbara Harris takes the microphone and sings a pretty, meaningless tune: "You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me." Everybody happily claps and sings along. Roll the credits.

That has to mean something, right? After all, Nashville was nominated for four Oscars in 1975, and is a perfect fossilized specimen of the Seventies: brainless music, brainless clothes, brainless art, high gas prices, Arabs running amok, crazed gunmen running amok, Jimmy Carter running amok, cynical films with no plot - okay, maybe that's what's happening right now. Maybe that makes it prophetic, or timeless. I find it hard to care. I just want my six hours back - at least, it seemed like six hours. Maybe I want that whole decade of my childhood back, without the sordid details. Without this goddamn picture in the middle of it.

But I gave Altman another chance, with Short Cuts. When dealing with a Robert Altman film, it's best to focus on one of the thirty different storylines and spend the rest of the time taking cigarette breaks and replenishing the Milk Duds supply. The part of the film I chose to watch dealt with a small boy who is accidently hit by a car (driven by Lily Tomlin). The boy seems to be unhurt, but he collapses a short time later and eventually dies. This unpleasantness is reinforced by the appearance of the boy's grandfather (Jack Lemmon), a painful failure of a man who threw his life away with a marital infidelity, and by a twisted pastry chef (Lyle Lovett, minus the Large Band) who harasses the dying boy's mother with nasty phone calls. All of this is every bit as much fun as it sounds, and I don't know if I can take any more cinematic experiences like that one.

Ingmar Bergman supposedly said, "I could always live in my art, but never in my life." I guess Altman finally achieved in his life what he did in his art: Death by sheer indifference. I can't think it will be much of a change for him. Resquiat in Pacem, friend.