Elliott Gould plays a disheveled Philip Marlowe who mutters to himself like Popeye. Altman called him “Rip Van Marlowe,” imagining him as a man out of time, waking up in the 1970’s after twenty years with his old-fashioned detective business (billing 1950’s rates). Marlowe doesn’t mind the modern era – “It’s okay with me” is his catchphrase. He solves the case of a missing drunken husband, meanwhile being investigated for his old friend Terry’s disappearance with a suitcase full of money and turning up dead a few days later. Marlowe is lied to and pushed around by everyone in the movie, but persistently puts together the real story of what happened to his friend – a true detective after all, and one who finally discovers some truths he can’t abide.

Sterling Hayden:

Marlowe’s customer is Eileen Wade (folk singer Nina van Pallandt) whose drunken, abusive husband Roger (a beardy, rambling Sterling Hayden) is found at a scammy treatment center run by Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson of The ‘Burbs and Innerspace). It’s not clear what exactly Verringer is up to, but he gets his bill paid by showing up in the middle of a party and appearing to hypnotise Roger into cutting him a check, then Roger drowns himself walking into the ocean that night.

Great scene of Marlowe talking to Eileen while Roger is walking into the surf below:

Marlowe’s investigation of his dead friend hinges on his belief that Terry (MLB pitcher Jim Bouton) couldn’t have murdered his wife as has been claimed by the police. But it turns out he did, and has taken the money stolen from Mr. Augustine (The Rose director Mark Rydell) to Mexico. His newly widowed neighbor Eileen is coming to meet him but Marlowe gets there first and shoots Terry.

Sometimes I had to activate subtitles for the muttering… this was a favorite:

Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, who wrote a bunch of Howard Hawks movies including Philip Marlowe mystery The Big Sleep. Altman got Mad Magazine artists to do the movie poster to convey that this ain’t a dark and humorless Humphrey Bogart movie. One of many great things about the movie is its John Williams theme song, which shows up everywhere in different versions. More movies need theme songs. How hard can it be to call up a talented indie musician and say “I’m making a movie, here’s a title and plot summary and general mood, write me a theme song”? This might make the original-song oscar category worthwhile again.

Gould improv-Jolsoning with fingerprint ink:

Altman on working with actors: “I can’t tell them what I want to see, when what I want to see is something I’ve never seen before.” Something audiences at the time had never seen before: when Marlowe is being intimidated by Mr. Augustine, I couldn’t focus on the dialogue at all because one of Mr. A’s henchmen is a pre-fame Arnold Schwarzenegger, four years before Pumping Iron, even.

A career retrospective of Altman, with short celebrity cameo definitions of “Altmanesque,” none of whom mentioned overlapping dialogue. Narration and interviews with family members, many of whom were at our screening. Some good Altman stories within, but not much to say about the doc itself, so instead here’s a list of his movies I should watch (or *rewatch) soon:

The Long Goodbye
Gosford Park*
Kansas City
Popeye*
Brewster McCloud
Buffalo Bill and the Indians
Thieves Like Us

Katy said let’s start holding theme months again – perhaps Westerns Month, or Robert Altman Month. To delay making a decision, I played a Robert Altman Western. She said it wasn’t bad, but please no more movies like that, so Westerns it shall be.

Foolish me, I actually thought this wouldn’t be so Altmanesque. He made it right after MASH, but I’ve seen Images from the following year, so I’d convinced myself that he didn’t pick up the ensemble overlapping-dialogue thing again until ’75 with Nashville, making a few movies with a distinguishable soundtrack there in between. But no, this one was extremely ensembley and each noisy scene seemed to have been recorded with a room mic placed a couple rooms over. Katy points out that it may have exploded Western conventions in ’71, but now that they’ve been exploded for so long, we don’t see this as a very daring experiment, just a mushmouthed dialogue-heavy flick full of Leonard Cohen songs with a great chase/shootout ending.

McCabe:

Another disappointment: when Julie Christie finally showed up I was expecting a force of nature a la Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, but she doesn’t do much more than build a bath house and take over the whoring at Beatty’s new pub. As an article in The Guardian points out, our protagonists are “nothing like as confident as they would have us believe.” Recognized Shelley Duvall in a pretty small role as a mail-order bride and Michael “Tanner” Murphy as a businessman who fails to negotiate with Beatty over the sale of his land, leading to a snowy hide-and-seek shootout throughout the town, Murphy replaced by a gang of thugs who do not negotiate. I’m slowly learning my Carradines – a fresh-faced Keith (star of Fuller’s Street of No Return) played a doomed vacationing cowboy.

Mrs. Miller:

Mostly I liked the look, the feel, the light, the editing and pace. I wouldn’t say it had a documentary feel, but it felt like the scenes were happening on their own and the cameras were struggling to keep up (*). Has a good reputation these days, voted one of the greatest-ever westerns by some group or another. At the time, Christie lost her oscar to Jane Fonda, for something called Klute, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy cinematography was only honored at the Baftas, where he was also nominated for Images.

(*) I thought that was a pretty neat thing I’d thought/written there about the movie, but when I went looking for articles I found that everyone else had thought it already. For instance, C. Taylor for Salon:

Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), is a hard-headed madam with dreams of her own, the ones emanating from her opium pipe. The movie feels as delicate, as lulling, as Mrs. Miller’s drug-induced visions, and yet the life it shows us, the town and its people, are so real and sturdy we seem to have stumbled on them. The life the movie shows us is already being lived by the time we turn up. And everything we encounter evolves naturally — the setting, the characters, the story and most of all the mood.

A. Danks for Senses of Cinema:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller follows the coordinates of the most rudimentary of westerns; full of archetypal and cliched characters and situations such as the loner/stranger who shakes up a frontier town and the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold. But these classical or archetypal elements are undermined by the film’s opaque view of its characters, its foregrounding of atmosphere and place (including the ‘atmosphere’ of place, weather), and a technique which captures characters (both their bodies and voices) within pictorial tableaux that emphasise their relativity to the unfolding drama. In this respect, parts of, and indeed images within McCabe and Mrs. Miller resemble a painting by the sixteenth century artist Pieter Bruegel; broken up into interlocking tableaux and brought up to date (i.e. into cinema) by the deployment of favourite Altman devices like the zoom, the pan and multi-tracked sound – these devices serving to distance the events and characters from the viewer while opening up the frame, and the relationship between frames, to the scrutiny of the spectator.

Think this is one of those seminal films that make people foam at the mouth about the 1970’s being the best-ever movie decade. Usually I’m skeptical, but this one lives up to the rep. Can’t believe it took me this long to watch it. One of Altman’s scattershot ensemble pieces illustrating life, sex, violence, media and politics over one weekend in the mid-70’s, closer to the messy truthfulness of Short Cuts than the more conceptually-unified Prairie Home Companion. Plot, then, defies simple description, so here are a bunch of character sketches instead.

Solo Opry stars:
Tommy Brown and Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson, suspicious neighbor in The Burbs) are the friendly male stars, while Connie White (Karen Black of Burnt Offerings, House of 1000 Corpses) and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley, Nancy’s fred-krueger-killin’ mom in Nightmare On Elm Street) are bitter rivals. BJ is recovering from exhaustion, acts slightly crazy throughout the picture.

The Trio:
Up-and-coming band “Tom, Bill & Mary” consists of relatively uptight Bill (Altman regular Allan Nicholls), Mary (Christa Raines of Ridley Scott’s The Duellists) who is married to Bill but secretly sleeping with Tom, and bearded free-spirit Tom (Keith Carradine of Street of No Return) who sleeps with near every girl in the movie.

Politicians:
Third-party candidate Hal Phillip Walker (inexplicably running in state “primaries” in a misuse of political language) is often heard but never seen. His campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy of Tanner ’88, X-Men 3) is everywhere, trying to recruit music stars for a rally. Del Reese (Ned Beatty of Deliverance, Network, Stroker Ace) is a heavy dude assisting Triplette. Triplette basically tricks Haven and Barbara Jean into appearing at the climactic rally.

Media:
Off on her own is BBC journalist Opal (Geraldine Chaplin, the year before Noroît). I was happy to see her at first, but her character is so awfully self-absorbed and oblivious to the world and personalities that she’s purportedly researching, she soon became mere comic relief.

Crazies:
The ever-present magician-looking guy on a three-wheeled hog was Jeff Goldblum’s third movie role (California Split was his second). Shelley Duvall, in the middle of her Altman film streak (ended with Popeye) plays a flamboyant girl often explained away with “she’s from California.” A boarder at her house named Kenny shoots Barbara Jean at the rally in the final scene, and the guy who tries to stop him, army private Kelly (Scott Glenn, just played Rumsfeld in W.) has been stalking B.J. throughout the movie. Poor Sueleen Gay (a great name, played by Gwen Welles of California Split) is an enthusiastic red-haired waitress who wrongly thinks she can sing, reduced to strip-teasing at a pre-rally bar party.

The Rest:
Sueleen’s coworker Wade looks out for her. Sad Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn, guy leading the attack on General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, also in Point Blank, Piranha, Laserblast, Parts: The Clonus Horror) is the California girl’s uncle; his wife dies in the hospital. Barnett (Allen Garfield of Brian De Palma’s early films) is Barbara Jean’s controlling husband/manager. And Lily Tomlin, in her first film, is campaign fella Del Reese’s wife, mother of two deaf kids, who sneaks away to sleep with former flame Tom of the trio.

Movie made piles of money. Won piles of awards except at the oscars (lost to Cuckoo’s Nest), baftas (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and grammies (Jaws). Acting awards were difficult – Golden Globes gave it four nominations just for best supporting actress, surely a record. Lots of gossipy maybe-true bits online: Nashville was going to be two movies, the unused footage was to become a miniseries, and a sequel was written and cast before falling apart.

Shot in wide-ass cinemascope with no close-ups (by the D.P. of Coffy and Silent Movie), so screenshots aren’t much help. Would be reeeeal nice to see on the big screen someday. Did not play the DVD commentary by Robert Altman because I didn’t want to listen to him drift in and out of sleep for 2.5 hours.

Writer/director Altman, “third woman” Janice Rule, her cheating husband Robert Fortier and the actors who played Pinky’s parents (Ruth Nelson of Humoresque and blacklisted 30’s and 40’s director John Cromwell)? All dead now.

More similar in tone and style to 1972’s Images than to anything else I’ve seen by Mr. Altman. Unlike Images it’s not shot subjectively, showing the hallucinatory visions of a lead character; everything on screen is assumed to be happening. But there’s the tight psychological focus on just two characters and the slow (and sometimes overlapping) motion shots of the mystical ancient-looking paintings set to creepy flute music.

Woman 1:
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Story goes that three sad women with names similar to “Millie” meet in a small California town (desperate, pathetic but high-spirited single Shelley Duvall, childish Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule, a painter pregnant by her cheating husband). After each of two harsh breaks in their routine (Spacek’s attempted suicide and ensuing coma, then Rule’s stillborn birth attended by the other two), the women assume different identities. First Spacek becomes an unleashed and attractive version of Duvall’s character and Duvall becomes withdrawn and passive, then in the finale, the three move in together (the husband having met a mysterious shooting death) assuming the roles of daughter, mother and grandmother and speaking in spookily robotic tones. D. Sterritt says the ending “presents a parody of American family life as desolate as it is surreal.”

Woman 2:
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Good movie, but I found it a little slow and wondered at the symbolism. Lots of humor, absolutely perfect performances by a post-Carrie Spacek and pre-Shining Duvall, and an extreme yellow-and-purple color palette.

Spacek uses Duvall’s social security number in her job application, an early sign of the current identity-theft crisis!

Woman 3:
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Altman: “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.”

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Movies: now more than ever!

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Maybe I’ve seen The Player enough times that I don’t really need to write about it. One of the only movies that I like Tim Robbins in (besides Mystic River, Shawshank Redemption, and presumably Howard the Duck).

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Things I forgot:
Whoopi Goldberg as the smartass detective
The Swedish artist who Robbins picks up was the dead guy’s girlfriend
Dead guy was Vincent D’onofrio
The author and his brother as the excited pitch men at the end

The only other place I’ve seen Robbins’ cute coworker / ex-girlfriend is Happiness, although she’s been on TV recently.

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Katy liked the movie but not the character.

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Totally enjoyed it. Jim compares it to Neil Young: Heart of
Gold
in how the performances look + feel, and that’s about right (except
without the harsh video look of NY:HoG). Lotta performances and backstage
musings about life, death and endings. Except for the Tommy Lee Jones
part, it’s almost done mockumentary-style. If I didn’t know a little bit
about R Altman, I’d think they shot three times as much material and put
the thing together in the editing room. Tricky to make a fully-scripted
movie seem so free, but he always manages.

I don’t listen to the radio show and wouldn’t have recognized Garrison
Keillor’s voice before seeing the movie, so can’t comment on how it treats
the legacy of his show. Very well, I’d imagine, since he wrote it and
co-stars. I’ve read negative comments about Kline, Jones, Lohan and
Madsen’s characters, but I ate it right up… enjoyed all of them. Way to
combine humor with horror. I felt it was worth the ticket price right when
the opening credits started… all those names of some of my favorite
actors together up on screen. I’d happily call it Altman’s best film in a
decade, but I have sort of a soft spot for Cookie’s Fortune.