Make Your Picks

My Robert Altman Review Thread

→ in

Have you seen The Long Goodbye? It's my favorite Altman, would love to read your review
Yeah, there's no body mutilation in it

Looking at Altman's filmography, I'm counting 12 movies of his that I hands down love. Left over are a number I really like and some fascinating failures. And as I've so far to see any of his supposed dogs, I'm struggling to think of any director that has a better track record with me.

Hitchcock? Bergman? I think those are the only others that might come close (and I have definitely seem some of their dogs, so their record is not nearly as clean)

I forgot the opening line.
Have you seen The Long Goodbye? It's my favorite Altman, would love to read your review
Yeah, I've seen it quite a while ago, and I look forward to reexamining it in detail. As I'm now intent on reviewing his films in sequential order, it'll be coming up soon - film after next, which will be Images.

It's possible I've seen Beyond Therapy, and if my memory serves, that was maybe Altman isn't without his sins
It'll be interesting to see if going through his career in chronological order (I'll try to pick up a few biographical details as I go as well) will give me some idea as to how he reached such a nadir in that 1980s period.

So far, none of his films dip into great territory for me, but I imagine he's the kind of director who grows on you over time.
I think that's more true for Altman than for most other filmmakers.
Remember - everything has an ending except hope, and sausages - they have two.
Please come back Takoma

Latest Review : Le Circle Rouge (1970)


McCabe & Mrs. Miller - 1971

I tried to watch this last week before it left the channel, because I had a busy week ahead of me. However, an hour in, I started to get bored and too tired to watch it so I turned off the movie, fell asleep, and never finished it.

It must have been what Matt72582 felt the first time he watched The Grand Illusion.

This one, Jackie Brown, Paris Belongs to Us, and Out 1 are 4 movies that I watched at least an hour of, but failed to finish them. Because the movie left the channel, I guess I will have to use to watch the movie or wait until it comes back to the channel. Like The Departed, it was a really good movie, but I just was not in the right mood to watch it when I saw it.

I think I was also disappointed as to how great Nashville and Three Women were, but did not get the same excitement out of this one. It still had a pretty cool main character in Warren Beatty and relaxing music by Leonard Cohen(Second film I saw since Exotica to feature his music).

As someone who love McCabe and Mrs Miller, it's an admittedly hard movie to crack. As are most Altman's. So many of the important moments in his films are ones which are pushed into the background, or have to do with connections between characters you need to watch the movie multiple times to pick up on. But once you understand the world he has created, they have endless rewards. You are never finished watching an Altman film (at least his best ones).

With the exception of Three Women and Images, both of which I adored immediately, pretty much everything else needed a second viewing for me to get a handle on. I actually think I had to watch Nashville about five times before I even knew what to do with it. It seemed like it spread itself to thin between all those characters, but when you begin to see how much he can say about a person in a fleeting moment he captures with his camera, the more and more clear it becomes that he undestands his characters so well he can distill their essence down to a single look they give. Or a throw away line of dialogue.

All of his greatest films are worth giving the time to. Hes a miracle director

I forgot the opening line.

Images - 1972

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Robert Altman & Susannah York

Starring Susannah York, René Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Cathryn Harrison
Hugh Millais & John Morley

Robert Altman had already touched on the theme of madness in That Cold Day in the Park when Images came along, but his thought processes and preparation for the latter went back as far as the mid-60s. With the likes of Persona, Psycho and Repulsion all being artistic triumphs in that decade, it stands to reason a filmmaker interested in exploring every theme and genre he could would want to see where this took him. What he ended up with was an extraordinary film buried by the sands of time - and while it was never one that would be universally accepted by all, it deserves consideration at least. If one is the least bit interested, they owe it to themselves to seek it out and decide for themselves. This is a psychological horror film that succeeds completely in putting you into the mind of it's central character, and unleashes hell - unrelenting, claustrophobic, tension-filled and lurking in every crevice. As per usual for this filmmaker, decisions that were especially adroit and enhanced this film were made on the fly, suggested by whomever had that moment of inspiration then and there.

Cathryn (Susannah York), a writer of children's fiction, waits alone at home for husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) to return from work. A friend calls, but it's not long before her friend's voice is interrupted by a stranger who makes disturbing implications about Hugh - and this stranger calls again, and again. When Hugh gets home, Cathryn has a moment when her husband turns into a completely different person. Obviously, Cathryn is very sick. The two decide to retire for relaxation to their country cottage, where Cathryn keeps on spotting herself in the distance - and keeps on having mental lapses, to Hugh's consternation. Soon Cathryn is being visited by an ex-lover who is long dead, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi), and when Marcel (Hugh Millais) and his daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) come to visit real people begin to take on the visage of others. There's no telling who is really there, and who each person who is there really is. Cathryn can only live with this fear for so long, and she begins killing the people she's convinced aren't really there. At least, she'd better hope they're not really there.

We get into Cathryn's head in a number of ways. First of all, we hear her recite the book she's writing in her mind - "In Search of Unicorns", a children's fantasy that Susannah York wrote in real life. When Altman found out about this proclivity of York's, he suggested it be used in the film, and the end result is why you see her credited as one of the screenwriters. The hypnotic recitation she gives furthers the mood of the film - strange passages beyond our grasp float by, and it's hard to not feel a little creeped out by the way she softly speaks each passage, almost in a dreamy haze, but also as if she's enacting some kind of mystic spell. We hear her speak of strange creatures and a heroine often in peril, and the danger bleeds through into the story. This reading of her book comes and goes, often in the background and seemingly representing her thoughts when she's alone - it automatically puts me into Cathryn's mind, and since we see everything from her perspective that's where we stay for the film's entirety.

Another aspect of the film which underlines it's psychological tone, and does so in a brilliant manner, is John Williams' score. I can't emphasise enough how incredible this score is - and while it might be hyperbole to claim that this or that score is among the best I've ever heard, I can easily say with confidence that it sits within my top 100 film scores of all time. Freaky, discordant, atonal, frightening and fascinating, it's something that seems to take various musical instruments into unhappy places and misuse. We initially hear simple, easy piano melodies, but as we descend with Cathryn into madness strings, drums and all manner of sources cry out and pound in extreme and uneasy wailing. Added to it are sounds specifically made by Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta for Williams to add to the music - they consist of things like strange screams, and haunting instrumental wails. Williams was nominated for an Oscar - it would be only the third Oscar ceremony he'd go to being nominated for at least one, and he'd already won one for the Fiddler on the Roof score, one of five he's managed to win in his illustrious career. (The Oscar, strangely, went to 1952 Charlie Chaplin film Limelight - it had waited 20 years for release in the United States. Since Chaplin was credited as one of the composers, this represents Chaplin's only Oscar win.)

Adding to the sonic is the visual, and for Images Altman had cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond return to work for him again after McCabe & Mrs. Miller - once again making use of rapid movement and rapid zooms to convey shock and surprise. Altman was not stepping back at all from his desire to use the zoom function more than other filmmakers. There are some especially haunting shots, such as one where Cathryn spots a vision of herself down at her country estate while standing on a distant hilltop, and then in reverse we switch to Cathryn heading inside while we see a vision of Cathryn still standing on that same hill in the distance - she's seemingly split in two - though this isn't the first time she hallucinates. The Irish countryside, where this was filmed, was made great use of in it's verdant greens, but when the camera focuses on Susannah York it can be at angles that suggest the off-center nature of her fractured mind. It's a virtuoso piece of work that managed to snag Zsigmond a nomination for a BAFTA for Best Cinematography in 1973, in conjunction with his great work on Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Aided by excellence in sound and behind the camera, Susannah York stepped up in a difficult role, and she ended up winning Best Actress at Cannes when the film premiered there. Returning from M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller was René Auberjonois, playing Hugh, Cathryn's wife. A role that wasn't as challenging. Also returning from McCabe & Mrs. Miller was Hugh Millais in a more testing role that he seems to have done with ease, despite not really being an actor before appearing in these two Altman films. Cathryn Harrison debuted, and Marcel Bozzuffi plays his part without ease due to the fact that he wasn't a fluent speaker of English. The supporting roles don't matter too much though, as this film is rigidly focused on Cathryn, her relationships, and her hallucinations which increase in frequency as the film goes on. We're never absolutely sure if what we're seeing is real or not - even a dog, presumably long gone, surprises and scares Cathryn by showing up. Something might not be there at all, but at the same time it might be there and simply taking on a different form.

Images is one of the great mood films - with only a rough screenplay, Altman once again encouraged the actors and crew to add their own ideas and direction to it while it was being made. His enjoyment of filmmaking seems to have been a desire to experiment with the ways they can be enhanced by this cooperative approach, and once again he created a spellbinding motion picture - albeit one with limited appeal. It was this difficulty in even imagining what it's audience might be that led to the film being very quietly released in few places - which is a pity. It left Images a film to slowly find an audience when other avenues were available to see it, and an underseen Robert Altman gem from his 1970s period of explosive creativity and amazing filmmaking skill and invention. It's mood is reminiscent of his 1969 film That Cold Day in the Park, which also had a tighter focus on one woman and her perspective. It's a film made with complete artistic integrity, for it's immediately obvious that it's mainstream commercial appeal is limited, and that this is really a thinking person's cinematic odyssey. To say that it's flown under the radar is an understatement.

Graeme Clifford, 2nd unit director and assistant to Altman on That Cold Day in the Park and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is credited as editor, and his input into the making of Images was a large step-up in his career. He'd end up editing a film with a very similar vibe - 1973 Nicolas Roeg film Don't Look Now, before moving on to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Man Who Fell to Earth. He became a fully-fledged director himself when he made 1982 film Frances. On the production design side of matters, long-time stalwart Leon Ericksen once again helped Altman transform is ideas into reality, and played a large part in this phase of Altman's career. Images ended up being nominated for Best English-Language Foreign Film at the Golden Globes and Altman himself received a Writers Guild of America nomination for the screenplay, even though it was loosely followed, and improved upon by many outside contributors. The reviews it received were mostly positive, but none of them had the stamp of approval that the likes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller got from Pauline Kael.

I think that Images is the kind of film you need to see several times to get the most out of. The pace and mood take a little getting used to, and we're thrown in at the deep end almost immediately, almost before we're ready and have adjusted ourselves to Cathryn's reality. You also have to be prepared for never being really comfortable - as far as Cathryn's break with reality is concerned, this film is relentless. From her phone interruptions at the start to her killing spree in the film's last act, you feel the tension she carries around with her to a large degree. Even her laughter seems laced with tightness and strain. Cathryn is surrounded by characters who don't really seem to care enough to see how much she's suffering. Even though she has several moments that point to her condition, they all seem to be brushed off by Hugh and forgotten. That lack of adequate caring increases the feeling of isolation and fear which she transmits so well to the audience. In this respect, Images really is a horror film that burrows under your skin in this fashion.

All up, with this film's score, cinematography by Zsigmond, sound, acting from York and direction from Altman you get a first-rate, psychologically-pounding film which seeps with tension-filled disorientation. When you consider this film in comparison with others of it's era, it sits right next to the likes of Don't Look Now, Repulsion and Persona with an elemental richness that's hard to fault, no matter how hard you look at it. Everything works in this, as long as you're not expecting a narrative journey with twists and turns, and instead tune into a feature that will creep on your nerves and perhaps lead to an unexpected nightmare or two. For me, it's up there as one of those Altman films like That Cold Day in the Park which just passed by unnoticed, but which I rate as something quite special made by a fearless filmmaker who wasn't going to bend to the mainstream despite his newfound success. If you decide not to watch the film, I still advise you to look up that film score and listen to it. Such a strange and wonderful accompaniment to this film. Strange and wonderful all up, this film is. A forgotten Altman classic.

I forgot the opening line.

The Long Goodbye - 1973

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Leigh Brackett
Based on the novel "The Long Goodbye" by Raymond Chandler

Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell
Henry Gibson & Jim Bouton

The longer you look at The Long Goodbye the more remarkable it seems, and the better sense you get of what you should be focusing on. In a neo-noir film based on a 1953 Raymond Chandler novel you'd think it would be the mystery - but this is more Robert Altman movie than Raymond Chandler story - character, atmosphere and a heady blend of themes create a work of art far from your typical noir story. Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe becomes a private investigator from the 1950s trapped in the 1970s - and many questions remain ambiguously unanswered. Chandler's Long Goodbye has been infected by a different time, with different moralities. The ever-smoking, wisecrack-master washes through a world where topless, acid-dropping yoga enthusiasts work out opposite his apartment, hoodlums scar their lovers to make a point and truth becomes harder and harder to grasp. It's a world so changed that Marlowe has become a kind of child-like, innocent spectator - loyal to his friends and pets to the last, at a time when loyalty has gone extinct.

During a sleepless night, after trying to please his fussy cat, Philip Marlowe is visited by his only friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) who is sporting some impressive wounds on his cheek. Lennox speaks of having had a massive fight with his wife, and asks to be driven to Tijuana. The next day the police come looking for Marlowe - it seems that Terry has actually murdered his wife, and until Marlowe gives the cops information they'll hold him as an accessory. When Terry's body is found in an apparent suicide, they let Marlowe go - but the private investigator is sure that Terry is innocent - he knows him too well. In the meantime, he gets a job offer from an Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) whose husband, Roger (Sterling Hayden) has gone on another bender and is missing. Marlowe tracks down a Dr. Verringer (Henry Gibson) who is trying to extort money from Roger, and brings him home. He's also visited by gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) who threatens to kill Marlowe unless he recovers the $350,000 that Terry took with him the night he went to Tijuana. When Roger commits suicide, and Marlowe finds out that he may have killed Terry Lennox's wife, he begins to suspect that Terry's suicide is not what it seems, and heads to Tijuana to chase down the truth.

Many questions remain unanswered, even after the big, dramatic reveal at the end of the film. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett really made the story her own - she'd previously written the screenplay for The Big Sleep, which featured Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, and her surprise ending along with other quirks caught Altman's eye and imagination. He made sure that he wouldn't be forced to change these aspects of her screenplay, and this is how we got the Long Goodbye we have - a film which simply grows and grows in stature as the decades pass. On it's initial screenings, touted as being a straight noir/mystery/detective story, audiences were mystified and upset - it was then that the studio executives and distributors realised they had something different on their hands. It wasn't straightforward. That's the crux of this movie - you can't approach it like that, because the heart and soul of the film is in what it captures thematically onscreen. The loyal and bewildered Marlowe, the world he inhabits and the characters that contribute to the concoction of a strange Los Angeles society where morals and mores have shifted. For this, Elliott Gould gives what is perhaps the greatest performance of his career - for good reason, for his career was nearly over and he needed this.

Behind the lens, once again, Altman had cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond doing the director of photography work. Zsigmond had been with Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Images - Altman once again taking advantage of Zsigmond's proclivity to "flash" the negatives he'd use - exposing them to sunlight so they'd fade a little and turn bright colours into more subdued pastels, darkening the image. It creates the kind of atmosphere that seems to send 1970s L.A. back into the 40s and 50s in visual feel. He also demanded that the camera never rest or be static - it doesn't mean that we're careening all over the place or constantly in motion, but you'll notice that we're never completely still, and even static shots have a little bit of sway and movement to them - along with a little zoom, which shows up often. It does give the impression of being inside the picture. There's also a lot of reflectino and obfuscation. Altman has his own, recognizable visual style by this point in his filmmaking career, and The Long Goodbye is very much a part of his 1970s free-flowing technique. Zsigmond won a National Society of Film Critics Award for his work on this film.

Music-wise, The Long Goodbye is very eccentric. It opens and closes with the old Richard A. Whiting song "Hooray for Hollywood" - and you could probably go mad trying to figure out why, which is possibly (considering Altman) the reason it's there. The rest of the film either features or is scored with the same song, played over and over again in differing styles, with different instruments and/or with different singers. Written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, "The Long Goodbye" is a jazz-like slow number that fits the noir style of the film, although at different times it morphs into whatever situation it's needed in. You'll hear the same song and tune over and over again - and it's something that's pushed to the forefront of the film. It's an attention-getting method of creating the musical accompaniment to the film, and very Robert Altman-like in it's experimental nature and in the way it absolutely fits. It almost feels as if the changes in tune relate to the changes in society, mood, character and meaning we see in the film. The same song, but a different tune - it's an actual saying which takes on a literal form here, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that this is very deliberate.

Lou Lombardo, editor of Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller returned to edit this film, doing excellent work yet again. Tommy Thompson, who had been assistant director on Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller along with being a producer on Images was assistant again and would work with Altman on countless other films. Acting-wise, there wasn't any return of the Altman ensemble we'd see in so many films, though of course Elliott Gould had featured in M*A*S*H, as had David Arkin, who plays Augustine underling Harry. Stephen Coit, who plays a police detective, featured in Altman film Countdown, and Jack Riley, who has a very small role, was in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. All in all, the film wasn't a big hit when it was released, but caught on like a cinematic snowball over the years as it accumulated more and more fans - until it became the much talked about staple of film lovers today - often reissued and broadcast, shown again at theaters and becoming a classic. Pauline Kael gave it a long, positive review in The New Yorker, and Roger Ebert praised it. Gene Siskel gave it three and a half out of four stars - calling it "a most satisfying motion picture" - but box office success wasn't in the offing, for The Long Goodbye was still far from being mainstream entertainment.

The Long Goodbye is packed with little pieces of trivia, and has an assortment of surprise guest performers on it's margins. David Carradine turns up in a jail cell, espousing hippie wisdom in a casual, measured fashion - a delightful surprise for those unprepared. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an even bigger surprise, appearing nearly a decade before his breakout starring roles in Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator - he has no lines, but draws all of our attention as a heavy in Augustine's office, at one point undressing to his underwear. Elliott Gould glances at him and laughs - and that probably wasn't in the screenplay, for as per usual the cast were encouraged to ad-lib and many of the scenes were improvised in this way. It was the way Altman liked to work, and it gave him naturalistic results. The film overflows with extra touches - Zsigmond captures a lot of action in reflections, sometimes showing us two images at once, and he sometimes shoots through things, distorting and interrupting the flow of what we can see. All of this is what makes Altman films so enjoyable to watch - and he's at his peak working on The Long Goodbye.

This film can't be fully encapsulated in one review. It's one of a thousand little touches, half a dozen great performances (including a couple from a baseball player and film director) and an Altman/Zsigmond peak of visual acuity. It's less a neo-noir as it is a film about the neo-noir genre and Marlowe character. However, it's more than that, and it's always misleading to pin one label on The Long Goodbye. The film's beginning features a protracted lesson to us on how loyal Marlowe is to his cat, and a frivolous illustration of a funny story Altman heard about a friend trying to mislead his fussy feline by switching cat food and cans - so you never know where it might lead. Instead of a mystery that starts out muddied and becomes clear - everything starts out perfectly clear and by the end of the film we have a million questions. It's not only endlessly rewatchable, but improves on every subsequent watch as you notice more and more detail you missed the first, second and third time around. What more could you ask for from a film? Any more doesn't seem possible. What seems on the surface perfectly suited to it's genre, is something that's anarchic, rebellious and of a piece with Altman's other films. It's Altman's noir - there's never been anything like it, and there never will be again.

I forgot the opening line.

Thieves Like Us - 1974

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Joan Tewkesbury
Based on the novel "Thieves Like Us" by Edward Anderson

Starring Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Bert Remsen
Louise Fletcher & Tom Skerritt

In an article titled "Love and Coca-Cola", Pauline Kael wrote that Thieves Like Us was perhaps the "closest to flawless of Altman's films - a masterpiece." It certainly has a puzzlingly low profile for such a great piece of cinematic art. It's a film that is what it is - there's no pretense to any deeper meanings you'd ascribe to it that don't fit the main narrative, and it's a film of it's time, with Bonnie and Clyde setting the tone in 1967 for period-rich bank robbing outlaw films set in depression era America. The way Altman has worked Edward Anderson's novel (for once adapted faithfully by a filmmaker notorious for doing otherwise) puts us in the picture - the characters aren't oversized mythical figures, as they are in Arthur Penn's classic along with the likes of Dillinger (1973) or Big Bad Mama (1974) which come from this same era. Instead we're transported by way of radio, lush cinematography and clever production design to a place and time that almost feels familiar. It feels like the most assured film from one of the most assured directors of his time - and it's another classic 1970s Altman film that I absolutely love.

Young and good natured Bowie (Keith Carradine), the big bodied Chicamaw (John Schuck) and older "T-Dub" (Bert Remsen) escape from a Mississippi prison after being appointed trustees by hijacking a taxi - it's 1936, and the three hide out at the auto-repair garage owned by Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt) and his daughter Keechie (Shelley Duvall). There, they plan their next meet-up, which will lead to another bank robbery and another hide-out, this time at the home of relative Mattie (Louise Fletcher - in her first feature film role.) When they leave this time, Bowie is involved in a particularly nasty traffic accident, and Chicamaw must shoot two lawmen dead to escape the scene without being apprehended. Bowie recuperates back at Mobley's place, and it's while being looked after by Keechie that the two fall in love. They get themselves a place out of the way, and find an enjoyable pace of life - but when Bowie meets Chicamaw and T-Dub again, he robs another bank again - which results in another killing. With the heat from both the law and the general population becoming intense, and with Keechie falling pregnant, the young man has to hope he's making the right decisions if he's to survive and start a family.

Joan Tewkesbury had simply been a script supervisor on McCabe & Mrs. Miller when she was suddenly conscripted into the Altman filmmaking machine and asked to play a small role in the film. Now she was being asked by him to adapt Edward Anderson's 1937 novel and Altman's faith in her paid off - he was pleased enough with what she'd done that instead of continuing on his freewheeling ways, he'd stick to the script and story - while still allowing the actors to improvise lines in the context of individual scenes. It would be one of the first screenplays he'd not throw in the trash can - and when production on Thieves Like Us started Altman sent Tewkesbury to Nashville to investigate the country music scene up there for a film he was intending to make. In the end, Nashville (1975) would be based on her diary and experiences there. You can sense that Altman's instinctive intuition with Tewkesbury was right on the money, and although both Calder Willingham and Robert Altman would be given screenwriting credits, this is her movie. It was only after production had started that Altman would find out that the book had been adapted once already, as They Live by Night in 1948.

On this film, once again, he'd have his stable of regular performers comfortably playing their part, and helping to bring their characters alive - you can sense the depth they have, as if they're real living people. Keith Carradine, of the famous Carradine acting family, had debuted in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. John Schuck had been with Altman a while, and featured in M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Bert Remsen had been part of Brewster McCloud's casting department when he was conscripted as an actor on the film - played his scene brilliantly, and found himself appearing in McCabe & Mrs. Miller before this. Shelley Duvall had been discovered by Altman in Texas and was introduced in Brewster McCloud to great effect. She also had a part in McCabe & Mrs. Miller - touchingly, also opposite the young Keith Carradine, making this a kind of sweet reunion for the two lovestruck characters. Tom Skerritt had appeared in M*A*S*H. The comfort and familiarity he had with his actors makes Altman's films as warm as they are. Louise Fletcher is fantastic in her role as well, and is very well cast as a prim, proper and strict housewife having to contend with a family that's either in prison or causing her trouble.

There had been a change in director of photography - French cinematographer Jean Boffety was behind the lens after a series of films Altman had done with Vilmos Zsigmond. It's my opinion that Boffety probably should have been given an Oscar nomination for the cinematography he's done on Thieves Like Us - it's such a visually lush film, full of the green topography of Mississippi and he captures this in many different ways from different perspectives. He also follows the lead of his director by shooting many scenes through windows and flywire - and past obstructions, giving us that voyeur's view and sense of diffusion. Of course, it wouldn't be an Altman film without the occasionally delightful zoom in or zoom out - now a kind of calling card that's instantly recognizable. Every shot - lengthy or short, long or close-up, is framed beautifully, and just looks extraordinarily good. I love the look Thieves Like Us has - aided by filming on location and not on sets. Boffety, not being from the U.S., felt compelled to take on the challenge of filming in Mississippi - a place most cinematographers like to avoid. The landscapes, tracking and dolly shots (including a wonderful, high-speed, road shot that was only possible because a new road had just been created parallel to an old one) all take on a note of perfection.

There's no score to the film - instead we get a consistent dose of 1936/7 radio as a background to everything that goes on in the film. It works really well, and aside from the music which helps to ground us in this place, time and circumstance there are many serials which involve crime and crime fighters, painting a picture of the national mood as far as gangsters and criminal activity is concerned. When Bowie and Keechie first start making love we get a radio adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that repeats as much as their lovemaking repeats. All wonderfully inventive and done with a filmmakers instinct that had no peer at the time. Thieves Like Us is a great film that was hardly promoted or noticed on release - and it's one that has yet to be properly discovered. You hear a collection of old songs and tunes, from the likes of Johnny Mercer, Victor Herbert, Irving Mills and Lew Brown. We simply roll along with our characters as the radio is on in the background, and it feels natural - but it's expertly guided and purposely arranged to fit the mood and circumstance of each moment.

The first time I watched Thieves Like Us it took me by surprise - I was expecting to see something more fringe from such a low-budget 1970s feature, but this has the feel of classic - a top of the line, wonderfully acted, beautifully captured film that is a pleasure to watch. The way the characters slowly change, from an almost adolescent immature happiness into three distinct characters that all have their troubling and fateful flaws, has a perfect timing to it. The rhythm, of the story and scenes, seems perfect. It's so appealing in it's sights and sounds. The story is hard-edged, but slants towards love, kinship and friendship to such a degree murders only register fully on Bowie's face, which we read so clearly that we trust him as a kind of moral arbiter - one that is ironically also a killer. There's no pretension - the film is made up of perfectly normal day-to-day moments of the innocuous which add up to something greater, and these moments are only briefly interrupted by events of more magnitude - and even the bigger moments play as everyday. It feels like the most honest, realistic and personal of depression-era crime thrillers.

Now, there's a product which dominates this film - Coca-Cola. The characters seem obsessed with it, and Coca-Cola advertisements are everywhere. There's even a Coca-Cola wagon that creeps along a street with a giant bottle of Coke in the back - and there are empty bottles of Coke, or else the characters are drinking Coke, in every scene. Emanuel Levy wrote that this represented an "icon of popular culture" and that Coke was "one of the few unifying objects in an increasingly diversified society" - that people of all classes could afford to drink it. He also said that this was "only a superficial equality" and functioned as a kind of "opium to the masses" - distracting them from the turmoil of depression era life in the 30s. He connects it to the superficial camaraderie the main characters have - and that becomes clearer as the film goes on and the characters solidify into three distinct people under pressure. However it's interpreted, it's one part of Thieves Like Us that stands out as interpretive and obviously being there for a reason. The story by itself is good enough to be entertaining, but there's that little iconography in the foreground of the film as an added bonus - one that could easily be misinterpreted as product placement, although a little too extreme even for that.

In the end it's another film which attains greatness in this 1970s Altman period - and while McCabe & Mrs. Miller has since received it's due, Thieves Like Us has continued to lurk in the background, remaining a film most people haven't seen. Bank robberies, the depression, guns and of course early 20th Century cars (usually with bullet holes) represent a newfound fascination with an era of crime that was unique to this time period - and I'd say that Thieves Like Us is my favourite film pertaining to this style and subject. It brings with it that Altman sense of grounded reality and applies it to subjects that were often mythologised. In through this walk the likes of Shelley Duvall, with her haunting eyes but jaunty tone, and the young fresh-faced Keith Carradine - all boyish charm and innocence despite having already shot someone to death before escaping prison. I've never seen the likes of characters such as these. Topping it off is how beautiful Mississippi looks in it's green resplendence, and how distinct American culture was as captured by a new national obsession - the radio. It makes for a film that should really have been a big hit - but it seems that this particular director confounded those operating the conveyer belt of cookie-cutter movies that were the opium of the masses back then. It deserves it's reconsideration.

I forgot the opening line.
I should probably give that movie another chance.

It's maybe one of two Altman films I actively dont like. Not sure yet. I only just started OC and Stiggs
I would give Thieves Like Us another go - so often a second viewing knowing what I'm in for changes the game dramatically, and it's a top-shelf Altman film.

I'm actually looking forward to seeing what on earth Altman's post-Popeye 80s films are like - out of sheer curiosity.

I forgot the opening line.

California Split - 1974

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Joseph Walsh

Starring George Segal, Elliott Gould, Ann Prentiss & Gwen Welles

Someone I was once close to (he has since passed on) had a gambling problem, and watching California Split almost made me wish I could find my way into that mindset. In this Robert Altman film a special friendship is forged amongst the risk-taking heat of the thronging masses at racetracks, poker dens and casinos between a memorable pair of characters - genuine, and improbable when you get a sense of how different the two personalities are. It seems like a complete understanding of a state of mind between them - a brotherhood forged in battle where your lifeblood is measured in dollars and cents. It's another arena which suits the documentary-like style of this director, the mise en scène an Altman-like host of extras doing what they'd ordinarily be doing in places where it's really happening. If I weren't already used to this in Altman films it might take me longer to orientate myself - but now I almost expect it, and sit myself at a nearby poker table to eavesdrop on what's happening here.

Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) finds himself in a dispute with a quick-tempered, overbearing man (played by the screenwriter's brother, Edward Walsh) at the poker tables when he's backed up by Bill Denny (George Segal) with whom he drinks after spotting the quiet, contemplative man at a nearby bar. The two start a friendship which is strengthened when they're both robbed and later end up in jail together - Charlie brings Bill over to his place and he meets the confident Barbara Miller (Ann Prentiss) and her polar opposite, Susan Peters (Gwen Welles). Under Charlie's influence, Bill skips work and joins him at the racetrack where the two share a big win, sending Bill over the edge into a gambling addiction that's soon enough upsetting Bill's creditors and others to whom he's not paying what's owed. When Charlie returns from a trip to Tijuana, Bill sells as many of his possessions as he can so that he can pool his money with him and enter a high stakes, $2000 buy-in poker game in Reno. But if Bill wins the money he needs to get even, and then some, will he be able to stop?

This film is really anchored by superb performances from Elliott Gould and George Segal - I'd hesitate to call Gould's act "naturalistic" for he's a kind of keyed-up, wild sort of character, but they both feel grounded and real-world kind of people. Obviously both actors were given great leeway to make the roles their own and ad-lib lines - this is an Altman film after all - but there was a screenplay guiding them, and both Charlie and Bill are very well defined. The difference between them makes the film interesting, as the lifestyle of both seem to make their friendship an odd sort of close co-operative partnership. Segal was at first perturbed by Gould's manic energy and loud manner, complaining to Altman that he was drowning out his own performance - but this is what the director was looking for. "He is absolutely strangling me to death" Segal complained, "I don’t even know what to do." Screenwriter Joseph Walsh, whose story was based on his own battle with a gambling addiction, advised the actor to keep on going the way he had been - letting Gould be the dominant, clamorous half of the duo. Gwen Welles also makes an impression as a quiet, emotionally sensitive hooker who lives with Charlie and Barbara. She often falls in love with her clients.

Altman chose his director of photography based on the fact that he didn't want California Split to be overly beautified or attractive in a visual sense. Since he thought a good few better known cinematographers might find it hard to resist their impulse to do this, he hired the inexperienced Paul Lohmann (who he'd keep on for Nashville). The two created one of Altman's more subdued films as far as cinematography goes, and everything is presented in a very straightforward, typical way. Old pal Leon Ericksen was on board as art director having previously worked on That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Images for the filmmaker on his long run of artistic success. Another long-time collaborator, Lou Lombardo, worked in the editing suite putting the film together with O. Nicholas Brown. The film is much less focused on stylized visuals than other Altman films are, and is a little more straightforward while still maintaining the general feel of what his movies are like.

One item that does a lot to make this immediately recognizable as an Altman film is the sound - and for the first time on this film he had the opportunity to play around with an experimental eight-track sound system. This enabled him to control the volume of individual actors while maintaining that trademark "actors talking over each other" style he'd been playing around with ever since he started making feature films. It gave him the opportunity to let us hear exactly what he wanted us to hear dialogue-wise, and also use the overlapping dialogue to give extras and supporting actors little moments in the film they wouldn't otherwise have had. It does add to the atmosphere of the film - and provides a kind of continuity you feel when watching this one particular director's movies. It was much more exacting, and considering we spend a lot of time in gambling dens, at poker tables and the racetrack, being able to pinpoint a voice in the crowd for just one moment is a great strength to have for this film. Kay Rose, who won a special Academy Award for her work on 1985 film The River was sound editor on California Split.

The music is what we hear from pianos in poker bars, or drunken revelries. Although John Williams wrote no music for the film, his wife, actress Barbara Ruick, played a small role as a bartender near the end of the film and unfortunately died on location of a cerebral hemorrhage in her hotel room. Ruick was only 43 years old and the film is dedicated to her. Many of the extras you see are members of Synanon - an organisation for ex-addicts that eventually turned into a cult which was disbanded in the early 1990s. In fact, while the movie was being shot on location many of the cast and crew would gamble at various casinos - encouraged by the general atmosphere which helped foster the real feeling of the film. Essentially it was about how it felt to be a gambling addict, and also how some people become one along with the type of personality that gambling usually attracts. This is what led Joseph Walsh, after having his own experiences, to write the screenplay with the help of Steven Spielberg, who was once attached to direct it at MGM. After taking it to Universal, Spielberg went on to direct The Sugarland Express and the screenplay went on to get the attention of Robert Altman.

So, overall this might not be one of Altman's greatest films during this productive 1970s period, but it's still a damned fine piece of cinema and worthy of being considered a great success in how it came out. Many gambling addicts can relate to everything that happens in it - the superstitions, the highs and lows, the urge to gamble money on virtually anything at any time and the emptiness that constantly demands to be filled by risk. Bert Remsen (Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us) makes another appearance (in drag) and we get to see Jeff Goldblum at the very start of his feature film career (he'd only had a small role as a young punk in Death Wish to this point.) It has that feeling of realness about it - that you're watching real people interacting in real situations, like so many other Altman films. Many consider it to be one of the best films about gambling - and it still goes on to make many Top 10s when that subject is raised. The actors are at their best - inhabiting their characters, and we become very involved in their lives, not being told who they are through exposition, but picking it up ourselves. California Split comes through a winner, and I very much enjoyed seeing it for the first time - it won't be the last because so many Altman films have further rewards in store for those who come back.

I forgot the opening line.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson - 1976

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Alan Rudolph & Robert Altman
Based on the play "Indians" by Arthur Kopit

Starring Paul Newman, Joel Grey, Kevin McCarthy, Harvey Keitel, Will Sampson
Allan F. Nicholls, Geraldine Chaplin, John Considine, Burt Lancaster & Bert Remsen

One straightforward theme, or point to make - the legends of the old Wild West were inventions. Their feats were exaggerated, or either completely made-up. Their heroism more or less equated with bloodthirsty, opportunistic murder and mayhem. Their mythical status built by the show business power and ethos prevalent during the 1800s, where entertainment and history are mutually exclusive and incompatible with each other. On the other side of the coin, Native Americans were portrayed as savage, barbarous and ruthlessly cruel inhuman beasts with no honor or dignity - cowardly, sneaky and untrustworthy. Americans who grow up reading about the likes of Buffalo Bill might find it hard to equate his image with reality, but Robert Altman's film Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson tried to paint a portrait of the man in his own very distinctive cinematic style. That he set out to do this during the United States Bicentennial celebrations, at at time when the naked truth was only just starting to seep into the American consciousness meant that many critics and moviegoers couldn't fully enjoy this one.

In 1869, a 23-year-old William Frederick Cody met publisher, journalist, and writer Ned Buntline. Cody was a scout for the U.S. army, and at times hunted buffalo for Kansas Pacific Railroad workers, who nicknamed him Buffalo Bill - and Buntline used him in fictional tales about Cody's adventures on the frontier. The popularity of these stories prompted Cody to travel to Chicago in 1872 to pursue a career on the stage, and he featured in several productions until founding the Buffalo Bill Combination, a Wild West show in 1874, touring for 10 years. In 1883 he created a circus-like attraction called Buffalo Bill's Wild West, where he performed re-enactments of various feats he's said to have accomplished, and within a few more years he'd formed a partnership with Nate Salsbury and Evelyn Booth and formed Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band. The show featured famed performers such as Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler. There were re-enactments of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, stagecoach robberies and Custer's Last Stand. The show would usually end with an Indian attack on a settler's cabin, where Cody and a group of cowboys would ride in to the rescue.

Altman's movie begins in 1885, with Buffalo Bill's Wild West in full swing. Paul Newman plays "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a pompous and pampered man approaching his 40s who has grown over time to believe in the invented feats Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) wrote about. Everything about him is fake - he wears a wig, is afraid of birds and his pistols spray buckshot so he can't miss the targets he can't hit. Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) is the main attraction apart from himself, with her husband Frank Butler (John Considine) always nervous about getting shot by a stray Oakley bullet. Into his show comes infamous Indian Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) and his interpreter William Halsey (Will Sampson) - and Cody is taken aback when they refuse to play the part of cowardly, dastardly Indians attacking Custer. Instead, Chief Sitting Bull wants to play a part in a show that illustrates Army troops massacring unarmed Native Americans - men, women, children, and even the dogs. He wants to tell the crowd about dishonoured treaties and lies. Sitting Bull's dignified manner, and ability to win the support of the crowd without resorting to theatrics, starts to play on Buffalo Bill's mind, and eventually even his soul.

Along with Newman and Lancaster, Altman brings along some of his old hands and introduces some very capable acting talent to this, another broad ensemble effort. Kevin McCarthy as publicist Maj. John Burke is a welcome face, as I often enjoy watching this amiable performer. Harvey Keitel is among the cast, as a relative and something of a hanger-on to Bill Cody - he appears in this the same year he appeared in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, marking his ascent. Shelley Duvall, as First Lady Mrs. Grover Cleveland, makes her 5th appearance in an Altman film, after being in Nashville, Thieves Like Us, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Brewster McCloud. For Bert Remsen, as The Bartender, this was the 6th go-around after appearing in all of the films Duvall did plus California Split. Allan F. Nichols, Geraldine Chapman (as Annie Oakley) and Robert DoQui had all appeared in Altman's huge previous production Nashville, and John Considine (as Annie Oakley's manager and husband, Frank Butler) had appeared in California Split. You can tell that some actors really thrive with the freedom Altman gives his performers, and some, like Keitel, struggle a little bit, albeit with talent enough to get by.

The film is introduced as if it itself is a 19th Century Buffalo Bill Show, with resplendent credits to match. It's a nice touch, with florid descriptions of Altman, the film and the performers beginning with "Robert Altman's Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustrel..." and continuing in that manner. In the meantime we hear Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band perform as they would during shows - and this old-time brass and percussion marching band type of music is what we'll hear throughout the film, especially one "Buffalo Bill" kind of signature tune which can become a little tiresome after the first dozen or so times we hear it. We hear the likes of "Charge" and other trumpet tunes as appropriate - Altman is obviously putting us ringside, and although the film's composer is credited as Richard Baskin (Altman's arranger and organizer on Nashville) we hear much that's familiar, such as the "The Star-Spangled Banner". Sound-wise, you can tell that Altman is still having a great time with multi-track recording systems as far as highlighting specific voices at just the right moment. BAFTA winning sound people such as Chris McLaughlin had been a part of his crew since California Split, when the 8-track system was first used.

Altman's cinematographer was once again Paul Lohmann, whom he had used on California Split and Nashville. The camera work isn't as "showy" as it was when he was using Vilmos Zsigmond on The Long Goodbye or Jean Boffety on Thieves Like Us. Altman seems to be more focused on words and meaning than visual complexity and cinematography as an art, but you'll still notice those zooms, which are frequently used in this film. What is truly rich, and incredibly detailed, is the production design and set decoration. Anthony Masters, production designer and well as set/art decorator for 2001: A Space Odyssey, on which he was Oscar-nominated, has filled the various tents of the Buffalo Bill Show with what looks like thousands of historical artifacts. Art director Jack Maxsted (Oscar winner for his work on Nicholas and Alexandra) has recreated Buffalo Bill's Wild West in magnificent fashion, and set decorator Dennis J. Parrish has created a visually rich and complex world, transporting all the performers back a century with a panache deserving of great respect. This is what makes this Altman film look as great as it does. 3 time Oscar winner Anthony Powell served as costume designer.

This was the first film from Altman since That Cold Day in the Park that critics for the most part didn't gel with, and I wasn't sure myself the first time I watched it - but after reading about Buffalo Bill and the history of the era, then watching it again, I found myself noticing countless details and nuances of performance which increased my viewing pleasure. There's a lot more packed into Buffalo Bill and the Indians than meets the eye the first time around, and Paul Newman really delivers, giving us a Bill Cody that verges on the ridiculous, but stays well within the borders of real world authenticity - he's a man who must keep up a pretense of being 'great' despite the fact he's as ordinary as you or me. In fact, Cody carries with him a great fear of being found out and exposed as being ordinary, and it's this fear which guides his actions and words. When confronted with Sitting Bull - a truly dignified great man of history, Cody flails, fluffs his lines, and makes embarrassing mistakes. The way this unfolds in this film is really interesting, and I immensely enjoyed watching Newman project this character's torment throughout.

I guess I would say that this is Altman's most difficult film up to this point in his career - it expects a lot more from the audience than his previous ones, and those who don't vociferously agree with his stance on American history might feel the focus stays too intently on it's targets for the film's entirety. Much like latter-day films such as The Death of Stalin however, it allows a comic approach to introduce simple and painful truths to stand naked without the usual comforting adornments. The taming of the "Wild West" was a murderous, heinous part of America's history - one that included genocide, and unspeakable cruelty. Those who were adorned as heroes of this age were often not what they were portrayed to be - their feats were complete invention by authors, which graced newspapers, magazines and novels. When Native Americans fought back, they were branded as savages, murderers, bloodthirsty maniacs - justifying what was being done to them. They were in a no-win situation. Buffalo Bill's Wild West was a theatrical representation of all these lies, and Bill Cody, an invention himself, the main attraction.

I think Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is another film that deserves another chance once we catch up to the filmmakers sensibilities, and adapt ourselves to his unique methods. The film is rich in history, and every scene is meticulously constructed with period details. It's another Altman film which richly rewards multiple viewings with something new to be discovered each time. It doesn't immediately strike you, and it takes time to acclimatize to it's unerring, never deviating focus - but if you really look deeply into this film's soul you just might fall in love with it. On it's surface level, it's as straightforward as one of Bill Cody's shows, and we all know what Altman is saying - but the film isn't trying to convince us, but rather to make us experience the fakeness and futility ourselves, and convince us of how important it is to acknowledge that our perception of historical figures and history itself is no more real than the image on that screen. That our nostalgia is for times and places that never existed in the first place, and as a result is baseless. To not base our history on what entertainers have to tell us, no matter how beguiling it might be.

I forgot the opening line.

3 Women - 1977

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Robert Altman & Patricia Resnick

Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
Ruth Nelson & John Cromwell

Robert Altman's subconscious was again hard at work when he made 3 Women, to me one of his greatest ever films, and one that you can dive into, digging down deep when looking for meaning and substance. Once again we see the director's fondness for Ingmar Bergman, with this film resembling Persona even more than Images did - a film that Altman originally claimed Persona was an inspiration for. In all actuality, 3 Women was based on a dream Altman had, which he expanded into a treatment which was co-authored by Altman's personal friend Patricia Resnick, whom he'd met at the University of Southern California - marking her first screenwriting effort. The particulars of the story were kept blank however, with the actors encouraged to take their roles wherever they felt they should go. Once again Robert Altman would forge ahead by both encouraging his crew to contribute ideas and direction to a film, and letting it grow organically. I find that this method of filmmaking uncovers a great deal about what's going on in our subconscious - and indeed this is a 'dreamlike' film, despite being based fairly well on solid reality. The more you think about this film, the more you see in it.

The film starts at a health spa where the young and child-like Pinky (Sissy Spacek) gets taught the ins and outs by the confident yet unpopular Millie (Shelley Duvall). Pinky latches on to Millie, and when she notices her post a notice for a roommate, she's quick to answer and move in with her. Pinky becomes part of Millie's life, and as such Millie introduces her to artist Willie (Janice Rule) who paints massive murals and creates works of art that she punctures with firearms. She also meets Willie's husband Edgar (Robert Fortier), who has fathered the child Willie is shortly about to give birth to. The two women clash - Pinky is accident-prone and less sure of herself than Millie is, and when Millie brings Edgar home with her one night an argument ensues which leaves Pinky hurt by Millie's harsh words. She attempts suicide by diving off a railing into the pool - leaving Millie feeling guilty and grief-stricken. While Pinky is in a coma, Millie contacts her parents and brings them to see her, but Pinky wakes up and claims the two older people aren't actually her parents. In fact, Pinky's personality has dramatically changed - she's become Millie, but a tragedy is about to unfold that will draw Pinky, Millie and Willie so close together that we start to wonder if perhaps they're all the same person.

Perhaps they are the same person. We learn during the film that Pinky's real name is Mildred, which also happens to be Millie's name, and when you consider that Willie is so close to Millie that you just need to transpose one of her name's letters it starts to seem as if they all share a single name. Pinky does things such as enter Millie's social security number as her own, and keeps on accidentally using Millie's time-card to end her shift at work. When Pinky gets out of the hospital, she starts writing in Millie's diary, claiming that it's hers - and seems to think the apartment they live in is hers instead of Millie's. Also consider the fact that Edgar sleeps with all three women as if they're interchangeable. The three aren't necessarily physically one person, but within the context of the film Altman seems to be specifically equating them as consisting of the same psyche or energy. It's also interesting to note that Spacek seems to personify childhood, while Duvall's character appears to take the form of adolescence and Rule's adult woman or motherhood - three different parts of a woman's lifespan.

3 Women opened at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, and Shelley Duvall ended up winning Best Actress for her performance. Italian film Padre Padrone ended up beating it for the Palme d'Or. Duvall also won a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for her work in the film, and was nominated for a New York Film Critics Circle Award - she lost out to her costar Sissy Spacek, who took out the award for her acting in this film. They were both nominated for a National Society of Film Critics Award, and Duvall was nominated for a BAFTA. The pair obviously were real standouts in this film, and make 3 Women what it is - they appear to be living their roles, and bring to the screen two very unique characters who are extremely interesting and fun to watch. Spacek appears more child-like than I've ever seen a grown woman act, and it's incredible how Duvall maintains her confident and easy state of mind amidst the total rejection from those around her - and in spite of her need for attention and approval. When they're not ignoring her they're belittling her in hushed tones that she nevertheless can hear. Rule's is a more distant, dark and mysterious aura, and she's only very slowly introduced into the world of the more dominant two characters.

Composer Gerald Busby's film career doesn't consist of much, but he composed a haunting, somewhat spaced out and psychedelic score for this film - it wouldn't feel out of place in films such as Polanski's Repulsion or Bergman's Persona, as there's something psychologically broken about it. If I had to invent a term for it, it would be "kaleidoscopic brass", and it turns the everyday into something a little unsettling and unreal. In the meantime Altman was working with a new cinematographer again, with Charles Rosher Jr. taking up Director of Photography duties. He quickly adapts to the director's need for movement, both lateral and by zooming in and out, sometimes at speed to draw our attention to something suddenly. He captures Shelley Duvall at one point completely fractured by a reflection, and does a lot more than what Paul Lohmann was doing in Altman's last few films. The colours of 3 Women are interesting as well - with their pastel pinks, purples, yellows and blues dreamily dissolving everything into a desert landscape. There's something otherworldly about it - and matches the tone of everything else in this film.

Altman had Dennis M. Hill, who had edited his previous 4 films, do the editing duties on this. Familiar names abound, such as Chris McLaughlin in the sound department, and you can readily assume that this director had a very steady and stable team of people assisting him in making these films. If you were creative, this was the perfect place to be as far as moviemaking specialties is concerned. Artist Bodhi Wind painted the amazing and visually striking murals - unfortunately he was struck by a car while walking one day in 1991 and killed. You look at the lizard creatures in them - usually a group of females dominated by a man - and wonder what they're all about and how they relate to the film. Considering the subject of this film you'd think they have to be connected to everything. Shelley Duvall decorated the interior of her character's apartment all by herself, and even gets a Set Decoration credit for doing that work - it was the kind of film that encouraged the cast to create their own character's inner world.

One last item to look at in considering what the film means are the transitions all of the characters make during their journeys through time. Spacek's Pinky begins in an obviously child-like and innocent fashion, but later becomes contrary, argumentative and sexual - as if she's going from childhood to adolescence. Duvall's Millie goes from being primarily interested in herself and guys to caring for Pinky and providing for her - as if she's going from adolescence to motherhood. Willie seems to be the maternal matriarch of both of these characters, and by the film's conclusion she's wedded to them as if they're one family living together. There seems to be a natural progression that occurs, created by an almost supernatural process, for these three characters - and in the end they turn on their male overseer, who has failed them completely by putting his physical needs above his own wife and child. He doesn't seem necessary to the family unit we end up with by the time the film's conclusion draws the curtain on what we see.

3 Women really feels like one of Altman's "perfect" films - one where everything comes together in just the right way, and you feel a particular satisfaction having seen it. The film is even interesting and entertaining just on it's surface - all of the characters are highly unusual, and you're never quite sure what they'll do next. When Millie finally manages to find Pinky's parents, and she brings them to see Pinky in hospital, they're a couple that seem to be two of the more stable patients from an asylum rather than your average Ma and Pa - and appear far too old to be Pinky's parents in the first place. When she awakens, and cries out claiming that they're not her parents you're not sure whether to believe it or not - neither option would surprise. Then, after Millie puts them up at her place, she happens upon the two elderly visitors making love, which increases the preternatural feel to what's going on. There's a million little touches to the film as well, which all add up, such as Millie's dress always seeming to get caught by her car door - you'll see her drive around with the hem of her dress poking out many times. Something that first occurred as an accident, and then once Altman saw it he decided to make it a character trait.

I thoroughly enjoyed 3 Women the first time I saw it, and by that first moment I had yet to really invest myself in all the possibilities of what it all means, and what it was saying. I felt sad for the outgoing Millie, who is absolutely ignored by every character in the film other than Pinky - her yearning for friends, and the way she'd invent many small lies about how popular she was, and how she had to turn so many men down, really accentuated the sad feeling I had about her. I still wonder about how female viewers perceive the film, it having been created by a man - but 3 Women seems to have been universally accepted and acclaimed, despite it having to sit dormant for three decades without video or DVD distribution until 2004. It might not have made much money - but Altman was at a certain stage of his career where he could take great risks, and make films with limited appeal. Alan Ladd Jr. at 20th Century Fox was greenlighting Robert Altman films on the basis of the budgets he kept them constrained to, and his interesting ideas. His personal relationship with Ladd would tide the filmmaker over for the rest of the decade.

So, I loved it. Roger Ebert also did, and he rated it as his Number 1 film for 1977 - over and above Star Wars. There weren't many people making films with the guidance of sparse treatments, relying on input from actors and crew, and seeing where it takes everybody at the time, and there weren't that many before or since. What's most surprising is how profound the results can be - to achieve what he did, it would have appeared to me that Altman had meticulously planned every single moment of this film - but it would appear that our subconscious mind knows better, and that the cast and crew also have a role in the creation of a film that goes beyond just doing what the director or producers tell them to do. The rest of the mystery (probably a bottomless mystery) awaits for the next time I turn my mind to 3 Women - for like a dream, it has a lot more to say and reveal. Sometimes a person's personality can carry over into another person - and identity can be elusive, changeable and reflective of who we identify with. Sometimes, like with twins (there are a prominent pair in this film) two or more people can be like one. The desert surroundings of Palm Springs have never seemed as haunting or isolating as they are in this dream - a Robert Altman dream that has now been shared by 3 ethereal women.

I forgot the opening line.

A Wedding - 1978

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by John Considine, Allan F. Nicholls, Patricia Resnick & Robert Altman

Starring Desi Arnaz Jr., Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin, Howard Duff, Mia Farrow
Vittorio Gassman, Lillian Gish, Lauren Hutton, Viveca Lindfors, Pat McCormick
Dina Merrill & Nina Van Pallandt

A Wedding is one of Robert Altman's toughest films to fully invest oneself in, not because it doesn't work or doesn't make sense, but simply because it marks one instance when his experimental ambitions went a step too far - there are 48 speaking parts in all, encompassing an incredible range of characters and small plot threads. Moments of comedy work, and are fun, but at times the scattered nature of the proceedings made me feel a sense of displeasure - it feels like a mess during these moments, and there are times while submitting myself to these moments when I find myself wishing he wasn't overlapping dialogue for the first time since I started watching his films. I admit that wedding receptions do feel this way. When two families collide in this fashion, there are many avenues of intrigue and always plenty going on - but while being a fly on the wall reveals many funny moments, it's also a recipe for disorientation. Instead of a great work of art or original comedic treatise on family, class and ceremony, it kind of comes off like a shambolic muddle - or worse, a home movie. That's not to say, though, that there isn't some Altman magic along the way. There's much - it's just that the overall package doesn't sparkle as much.

Dino Corelli (Desi Arnaz Jr.) weds Muffin Brenner (Amy Stryker) in a service conducted by the doddering Bishop Martin (John Cromwell) - who hasn't presided over a wedding for 25 years. Muffin's family consists of her father, trucking industry player Snooks Brenner (Paul Dooley), and mother Tulip Brenner (Carol Burnett) - along with sister Buffy (Mia Farrow). Dino's family is presided over by old matriarch Nettie Sloan (Lillian Gish), who dies at home the morning the couple give their wedding vows - but other than that there's his mob-connected father, Luigi Corelli (Vittorio Gassman) and mother, Regina Sloan Corelli (Nina Van Pallandt). The wedding reception has been organised by a very strict adherent to procedure, Rita Billingsley (Geraldine Chaplin) and other guests include Nettie's doctor, Jules Meecham (Howard Duff), Luigi's friend "William Williamson" (Bert Remsen) and Dino's aunts, Clarice (Virginia Vestoff ) and Toni (Dina Merrill). Unforeseen weather events, drug use, love affairs, illness, overzealous staff, misunderstandings and the usual attendant chaos play havoc during the reception - but since when has a wedding reception ever proceeded without this kind of drama?

It's a relatively well-known story that Altman decided to make A Wedding when an off-the-cuff remark about him filming people's weddings ("What are you filming next?" the journalistic question went, to which Altman replied, in acerbic fashion, "A wedding!" - he happened to be speaking the absolute truth!) gave him pause for thought. According to his style of filmmaking, a wedding reception would be a very interesting way to comingle characters, record dialogue and create drama. In an exploratory fashion he decided to double the number of speaking parts that Nashville consisted of - from 24 to 48 - and move forward with only the loosest of outlines as to what was going to happen. The film definitely has that feel of not heading in any particular direction as you watch it, and instead of following a story you kind of feel out various characters and learn about them. One of the larger subplots consists of Toni's husband Mack Goddard (played by Altman regular Pat McCormick) falling in love with Tulip, and trying to organise some kind of meeting time and place once she reveals that she's receptive to his advances. The other is the revelation that Buffy is pregnant, and that she claims that Dino is the father. Nettie's unfortunate death, and the cover-up of that death so it doesn't mar the reception, also plays a part.

It didn't feel to me that we approach Gosford Park levels of class distinction and comment in A Wedding, although it's often held up as an examination of wealth variance via observed behaviour. The Corelli's live in a large mansion, and the film was shot at Lester Armor House in Lake Bluff, Illinois instead of in a studio. The director of photography was Charles Rosher Jr. who had just made the alluring and amazing 3 Women with Altman. I think he may have been restricted a little by what he could do with so many people and the real-life location, but there are rooms that consist of doors and walls completely covered with mirrors, and a basement bar that has been fitted out like a subterranean cave, and he makes the most of these unusual features (the mirror room must have been a nightmare to shoot.) He manages to make these two Altman films look like they were made by different directors and cinematographers - completely their own kind of film, with this one often severely muted as far as light is concerned during tense family confrontations and dour situations. This film is one dominated by personalities and people, but eccentric little flourishes remain - with even the statues outside the house rendering their impression of the madness going on when we zoom in and fix on their stone stares.

Sound-wise, Altman had taken another step and affixed his performers with their own small microphones so everything they said could be picked up and mixed into the film at the requisite volume - depending on what the filmmaker wanted us to hear. People speak over each other, but for the most part if you miss something it's not going to cloud what is in essence, primarily and purposely, confused mayhem and disorder. Hearing Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire being sung by a girl playing an autoharp is actually deeply touching when you think back to what Cohen's music had done for Altman's masterpiece, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It's all distinctive of this one-of-a-kind artist's unique style and cinematic presence. You immediately recognize it, even when the result is a little rough - and it's always tempting to go back and find the plethora of jokes and moments you simply didn't hear the first time around. Even the most mindful concentration won't let you hear or notice everything - there's too much going on. The most exciting thing you can say about A Wedding is that it always merits further examination.

Familiar names crop up, and although unfortunately Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek couldn't appear due to scheduling conflicts, Bert Remsen makes his 7th appearance in a Robert Altman film in this - he's comedically the sole guest greeted by the receiving line at the reception, as if he's a king ("William Williamson" is clearly not a king - in any reasonable interpretation of respectable society) and gives sly comments to all. Geraldine Chaplin, having appeared in Nashville and Buffalo Bill, was becoming something of a regular. Old family friend Tony Lombardo handled the editing duties once again - although it could be said that the entire cast and crew on an Altman film were his extended family. In the meantime, Altman found himself under the protective wing of Alan Ladd Jnr. at 20th Century Fox and free from many of the demands most of his contemporaries and lesser lights would ordinarily have been feeling. After nearly a decade of critical success, and during the very height of the pre-Heaven's Gate artistic utopia of the 1970s, it made sense that this filmmaker would test his boundaries further and further. A Wedding didn't need to be a stellar success to ensure Altman's next feature would be all he wanted it to be.

To hear Robert Altman talk about A Wedding, you get the impression that he defends all of his babies, this included, but that he also acknowledges that there was too much going on and too many characters having a meaningful impact on what an audience has to follow. If there's clarity, then perhaps you could get away with it, but by definition there's a real-world fuzziness and diffuseness to his films and particularly this one. It's a trademark, and one you can't push to absolute extremes like this. I like much of it, and some of it is as delightful as any of his work done during this period - but there are far too many individual stories that go missing in action - never to reach any (even perfunctory) conclusion or resolution. Even the major one concerning Nettie's death seems to peter out slowly without any satisfying drama or surprise. It doesn't help that in the meantime, films like the original Death at a Funeral made use of similar contrivances with uproarious results, making A Wedding look a little ordinary in comparison.

Amongst all of this, there are absolute gems to be found. Carol Burnett, in one of her first major feature film roles, gives the finest comedic performance of the film - stealing absolutely every minute the camera is near her. You can tell that her powers of improvisation are the sharpest of anyone there - even Altman regulars who are used to finding all of the words by themselves. In the background (I haven't spotted these "before they were famous" faces, but I haven't exactly been looking for them), a young John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf are roaming around as extras. As already stated, there's much to be discovered in repeat viewings with more concerted concentration, because so much is hard to discern the first and second times around - and often a fuller picture makes future viewings all that more satisfying. The names the Brenners have given themselves are also fun - Muffin, Buffy, Snooks and Tulip all do their utmost to make their own monikers sound even more ridiculous in respect to their behaviour and character.

In summing up, Altman finds his outer limit in A Wedding, pushing the envelope a dozen or so characters too far, leaving some of them (and their individual stories) with too little time to breathe and become part of the larger picture. That said, it's full of ingenious little moments and a lot of gratifying comedic improvisations, making it a fun if unfulfilling movie to watch. If you're a fan of the filmmaker then it's a definite recommendation, but with the proviso that you'll feel the rough edges and the limits of where spontaneity in this form can take us. Although obviously farcical, there's an honest and recognizable depiction of the awkward debacle this comingling of families often descends to in real life. The celebratory atmosphere encourages participants to get drunk, take drugs and even act in a promiscuous manner, so the grotesque features of this comedy come from a place that's fairly close to reality. With a good portion that works, and an equal portion that doesn't, A Wedding is one of those films that depends on how receptive you are to it's chaos. It'll be required viewing for Altman fanatics - but everyone else should approach it with caution.

I forgot the opening line.

Quintet - 1979

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Frank Barhydt, Patricia Resnick & Robert Altman

Starring Paul Newman, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson
Brigitte Fossey & Nina Van Pallandt

Film history is overloaded with compellingly fascinating failures, and Quintet sits amongst them as Robert Altman's first ever shocker - a visually interesting and rare venture into sci-fi territory for him, which at times feels a little dull and leaden - sure to have an average moviegoer shifting in their seat a little. It can be something of a challenge for anyone expecting science-fiction action and drama - stretching out into 118 minutes of a dark, depressing cinematic void. Interpretive meaning should be a little more satisfying than it is in Quintet. The game of life is one in which you feel most alive when close to death, but the thrill inherent in defying your own mortality meets a sad kind of irony here, because this is an extraordinarily boring movie. Visually though, it's much more interesting, and although Tom Pierson's score can be quite overbearing, it beats the sluggish pace and empty tone we're otherwise faced with. Somewhat sadly, Kenner Toys actually designed a board game to be released as a tie-in, but the film's dismal box office death means it went unreleased, and is an extremely rare collector's piece.

A new ice age has descended upon a doomed mankind, freezing the windswept landscape and heralding a new cold planetary era. Survivor Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter and young Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), miraculously pregnant, travel north to a city which once housed millions - there, a few cling on tenaciously. Essex looks up his brother, Francha (Thomas Hill) at an abandoned directory and much to his surprise finds he's still living at the same place. Those also sheltering at the abode all join together to play the game of Quintet - which consists of dice, and a patterned five-sided table top, whereupon players "kill" each other and are eliminated. The game's popularity is all-consuming. Essex goes out to search for firewood, and while he's away a stranger, Redstone (Craig Richard Nelson), sneaks a bomb into the building and kills everyone inside. Essex tracks the man down, but before the two confront each other, Redstone is killed. The only evidence as to what Redstone was after is a list of names he had on him, which leads to a Quintet tournament. There, Saint Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), Grigor (Fernando Rey), Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt) and Goldstar (David Langton) await to play a deadly iteration of the game.

Before saying anything else about this film I have to get one thing out - the central idea embedded in Quintet, of a post-apocalyptic world where survivors are obsessed with this board game, is monumentally stupid. Quintet looks like any one of a hundred uninteresting board games you'd be forced to play for an hour with your aunts and uncles at a family gathering during the holidays. The notion that people, struggling to survive the end of humanity, are fixated on playing it puts me at odds with the movie. Just imagine World War III breaks out, and what remains of humanity becomes inexplicably consumed with playing Ludo all day - to the point where our daily lives revolve around it. The characters in Quintet can barely stand to talk about anything other than this silly game, as if playing it is so addictive people can barely be bothered to eat and keep warm. It makes no sense. Essex is the only character that seems nonplussed by this, inquiring about work, gathering firewood and trying to keep the human race going via raising children. People do nothing but talk about Quintet, and it bugs me because the game is obviously not all that interesting. When your film is the slowest of slow burns, it helps to not alienate your audience with inane fancies that don't stand even brief examination.

Fancy a game of Quintet?

Not everything about Quintet is awful however. The cinematography is sublime, and so good that it feels wasted on this hardly seen film. Jean Boffety, who had done absolutely marvelous and beautiful work with Altman on Thieves Like Us, returned to collaborate with the filmmaker again, and he brought an almost supernatural ability to know where to shoot from and what he wanted on each shot. The film was shot in the ruins of the Expo 67 World Fair in Montreal, with broken down pavilions and wreckage providing some great real life sets for the cast and crew. Boffety uses the zoom technique Altman was so fond of a lot, and in a daring move clouded the outer edges of the lens (it was smeared with some substance), making only a central circle visible to us. This gives us the impression looking through an ice-clouded, frozen pane of glass. The whites are dazzling, as are the whites on whites and general mix of long shots, very long shots and intimate closer ones. I loved just looking at Quintet, and blanking the story and characters from my mind. A real winter wonderland with various structures, levels, packs of dogs and huddled survivors clad in apocalyptic medieval winter gear. The lighting is always perfect, and the shot always interesting. There's near constant panning and the camera always seems to be roaming and searching. A very interesting film visually.

I found Tom Pierson's score a little much at times. Although fitting for a science fiction film, at times it would call attention to itself by being bombastic with it's harsh high pitched and loud moments, trumpets and drums pounding. At other times it seemed suited to a disaster film. The music powers the feel of the entire film, transporting us to some part of an alternate reality with it's unusual shrill whistles and sharp tones, climaxing during hunts, murders or the discovery of dead bodies - of which there are quite a few, contributing to the film being classified with an 18+ Censorship Rating. Throats are cut, and people are full-on stabbed in the head in this film - the latter stages of which almost cross over into slasher territory. All the while a roaming pack of fat Rottweilers feed on the various dead bodies littering the environment. Those dogs are unpleasant - they are basically substitutes for vultures, and during one moving scene Essex saves a loved one from the indignity of being eaten by the marauding pack. A scene that would be more moving if Newman had of been directed to exhibit a little more emotion. Listening to Pierson's music for Quintet by itself would be an interesting exercise, it's atmospheric and almost discordant tones and shrieks displaced from the cold apocalypse.

The cast is no less unusual or different, stacked as it is with European actors and actresses. French actress Brigitte Fossey had grown since Forbidden Games and The Happy Road. Bibi Andersson is a fascinating inclusion when you take account of Altman's love for the cinema of Ingmar Bergman. Nina van Pallandt, a Danish actress, had just appeared in Altman's A Wedding, and Indian born Thomas Hill had been in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Famed Italian star Vittorio Gassman had also popped up in A Wedding. Spaniard Fernando Rey, a favourite of Luis Buñuel, fits in as much as any other performer in this eclectic mix. Upstairs, Downstairs stalwart, David Langton, was flying the flag for Britain. In a disorientating sense, all of these actors playing characters with wildly differing accents espousing the tactics and merit of Quintet isn't pleasurable, and does nothing to sooth that feeling that we have a lack of interest in what we're seeing. There's no grand performance here - and even Paul Newman seems distant and disinterested. I liked Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and Newman must have enjoyed the collaboration in that venture, but not here. He's on autopilot.

"Being alive. That's the only prize." The players in Quintet play for the thrill of it, which is so ironic considering how dull the film is, and how ordinary the game is. They'd be better served looking for food, and especially having sex. Essex gets drawn into the violence and murder, thinking victory will lead to some kind of epiphany or prize - and us as the audience go through the same process of hope and disappointment. Yes, watching Quintet inevitably leads to a feeling of anticlimax, and although sticking around to really get a good feel of it has lead to some appreciation of the artistry involved (the ever-trusty Leon Ericksen, who had been with Altman since 1969 film That Cold Day in the Park, was once again a production designer on Quintet), it's a dud overall. Mention must be made though, about the Medieval-type costumes in this film (Altman would stick with costume designer Scott Bushnell from Nashville in '75 to Short Cuts in '93) which are also extremely well made. Aside from those aspects however, Quintet is so ill-suited for viewing by the average moviegoer that you'd have to consider it an all-out failure, even when considering it's positive aspects. Dull in story, with confused and unenthusiastic performances and a silly central premise, I'd advise even those interested to approach with caution. I give points for it's look and sound only. Altman rolled the dice, and crapped out this time.

Perhaps Monopoly instead...