Update 2018: How I do love this movie. If Altman’s oneiric fluctuations and clouded truths are as wonderfully resistant to crystallization as always, they eventually sour into full-on psychotropic nightmare. By the film’s end, Altman holds life in a Janus-faced state of simultaneous free-fall and resting haunt. It won’t be for everyone, but catching this film’s wave-length is uniquely rewarding precisely because it is so slippery, its mind so hauntingly unquiet, ever-still but always subtly shifting with a frightening lack of clarification.
Robert Altman is not about to be forgotten. The man directed a proper handful of esteemed classics in the early ’70s and surged back into the limelight in the early ’90s with a pair of brusquely bitter late-period highlights. For good or ill, however, the greater film community tends to look sideways whenever a good portion of his lengthy, dense filmography is on trial. Say, for instance, anything between 1976 and 1991, a period in which the director made almost a baker’s dozen of fresh films for dissection, many of them rightfully moved past but quite a number truly audacious, brash, deeply personal, and worthy of analysis in their own way. It’s strange to call Robert Altman “underrated”, but the man made a lot of films, and sometimes it seems as if those who love him think time got lost between the early ’70s and its twenty-year later counterpart, the early ’90s. Continue reading →
Released only one year after Robert Altman’s first masterpiece, MASH, this sly, revisionist Western is the rare film whose intentions and affect are captured fully in its opening credits. Fore-grounded, we have an image of a decrepit, hunched over, and phony looking enigma of a man riding slowly into an equally decrepit and hunched-over town. It is nothing short of a stunningly snarky and caustic wry mockery of the Western archetype hero riding into town to save the day. Only he isn’t there to “save the day” here. He, McCabe (Warren Beatty), simply wants to make a name for himself, and he does so by running a brothel, but only once he’s saved by a woman who initially couldn’t care less about him, the down-to-earth Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who somehow manages to maintain an unreachable magisterial mystery about her. And that’s the film in a nutshell: decrepit, deadened, and down-trodden yet still somehow attaining a sort of energetic sense of positively alert human feeling. In this sense, it is the quintessential New Wave film. Continue reading →
Update mid-2018: This remains one of those very early college-era reviews I’m not especially proud of. In an ideal world, I would write up a new piece, but having recently rewatched the film, I’ll simply note how much I still admire its bracingly self-effacing tone, its stylistic shagginess, and its will to break any illusion of a dramatic arc. Before, of course, Altman finally side-winds us with a self-critically arbitrary conclusion: a parodic football game that sketches the link between competitive sport and war-mongering, doubles as a satire of dramatic pay-off, and triples as a mockery of masculinity – that ego-stroking liminal realm where the interstices of anarchy and authoritarianism, id and dogma, collapse into one another – played in Altman’s quintessentially sardonic key.
Original – Edited – Review:
Long considered one of America’s favorite comedies, MASH was, ironically for its famed humor, director Robert Altman’s coming-out as a serious filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Released in 1970, it was one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War (albeit under a historical guise) seriously and, released in January of 1970, it was the first masterpiece of the literal “1970s American New Wave” (which technically began a few years earlier in 1967). It’s a comedy, yes, but it’s also a daring, caustic exploration of male culture, American smugness and malaise (categorically Altman’s favorite topic as a bitterly comic dissector of his nation’s culture), and war bureaucracy (the connection to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is unmistakable, perhaps fitting considering the underwhelming formal adaptation of that book released the same year – one can’t complain though, for Altman gave us all we’ll ever need on the book). This is a film with many big laughs and many more subtle chuckles. But that I have used the word “serious” multiple times in only the first paragraph is anything but coincidence. Continue reading →
Robert Altman, among his many talents, was first and foremost the American master of nervous, human comedy. His films all have that special wink-and-a-nod approach to drama, that bittersweet, knowing approach to humor. MASH is usually considered his foremost and best comedy, but he expanded his horizons and explored the limits of gallows humor in his other more somber films as well. Even his quietest, most somber affair, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, reveals dry humor as early as its opening scene. Presenting a vision of a decrepit Pacific Northwest town all but destroyed by big business, the film’s hero, who we expect to save the day, rides in to town slowly, hunched over, and equally weathered with age. It’s an image shot through with bitter irony and acidic wit, one which gives us a Western town with no desert and a Western hero riding in but here looking mundane and even sickly.
Nashville, however, is perhaps his grand comic opus, and it too wastes no time revealing its caustic humor. Early on, we’re introduced to Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a longtime hero of America’s country-western music scene, performing a song written for the bicentennial with lyrics so hokey it’s impossible to take seriously. But he, and America, does. The lyrics belie a crushing self-seriousness to the grandiose performance that explicitly remind of the performative nature of this jingoistic conception of the American spirit. Continue reading →