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I forgot the opening line.

A Perfect Couple - 1979

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Allan F. Nicholls & Robert Altman

Starring Paul Dooley, Marta Heflin, Titos Vandis & Belita Moreno

You know you're going to get something unusual from a Robert Altman movie, so it comes as no surprise to hear that A Perfect Couple is a very curious and out of the ordinary romantic comedy - veering towards being a musical, though most of the music numbers are of the diegetic kind. Altman's idea for the film was to show us a love story where the two leads were just two ordinary people ("schlumps" is the word he uses) and for this he nabbed Paul Dooley (who played one of the main characters in A Wedding) and Marta Heflin (who'd also been in A Wedding) as his two leads. The movie plays so unconventionally that I genuinely didn't know what was in store for us - it's a playfully enigmatic romance. Sheila (Heflin) and Alex (Dooley) have a courting that's so off the rails the film earns top marks for being original - and while that's what most of us want when we watch a movie, I'd say be careful what you wish for. Your taste in music and amenability to the flawed personalities of our two main characters might be what makes or breaks A Perfect Couple for you.

Paul and Sheila both subscribe to a dating service, hooking up by watching taped Q&A sessions with prospective partners. Their first date is an absolute disaster, and that's not the only factor which will work against them. Paul's Greek family is ruled by it's patriarch, his father Panos (Titos Vandis) who is unusually strict and traditional - so much so Paul hides the fact he's dating Sheila. His sister, Eleousa (Belita Moreno), is dying. Paul and Eleousa are desperate to escape the overbearing and stifling atmosphere at home, whereas brother-in-law Fred Bott (Henry Gibson) is all too ready to play along. Meanwhile, Sheila deals with a strict patriarch of her own - band-leader Teddy (Ted Neeley), who drives his singers and musicians hard in rehearsals performance-wise and other than that fines them for even small infractions. She lives in a loft with all the other band-members, sacrificing much privacy, and experiencing the same kind of lack of control over her life. Paul and Sheila's love life will go on to experience one disaster after another - but something keeps on pulling them back to each other, and they do have the advantage of having both seen each other at their worst. Perhaps that's love, and a perfect couple.

I say love, but the first time I watched A Perfect Couple I thought Sheila hated Paul - and watching Paul's pushy insistence he see Sheila off at her door and kiss her made me very uncomfortable. Multiple times she tries to fend him off, and get him to leave - and by the end I was telling him aloud "Dude, she said no!" It was this that confused me a great deal about the film. Sheila is simply shy and reserved, but this can easily be misinterpreted as not being interested - making Paul's pushy insistence on kissing and demanding they go on more dates look like he's unaware that Sheila's not that into him. Only when she opens up a little later in the film do we understand her feelings in the matter, and as a result the film becomes less prickly. I honestly thought we were heading into stalker territory - especially when, after a mix-up, Sheila starts dating someone else and it's Paul who arrives unannounced, fighting the other guy regardless of what Sheila has to say about the matter. My feelings about all of this might stem from the fact that Paul isn't your typical heart-throb figure, and that perhaps in any other romantic comedy I've ever seen, he probably wouldn't be winning the girl over in such a clumsy manner.

One other aspect of the movie that might tip it into unfavourable territory is the music. Keepin' 'Em Off The Streets had been assembled by Allan F. Nicholls not too long before production on this film commenced, and they get to perform quite a few numbers during the film - around a dozen in all. I liked a few of the songs, but there were some that didn't quite come off as well. It doesn't kill the film, but seeing as the back-half is so music-heavy a couple of mediocre songs strung back to back really kills the mood. Hearing Jesus Christ Superstar's Ted Neeley belt out a few numbers was cool though - I'd only ever heard him as Jesus in that film, and I really enjoy him playing the lead role in that movie rendition of the musical. Marta Heflin does a great job singing Won't Somebody Care as well, seeing as we don't hear her as a vocalist as much as the other band members. In my opinion, I thought there were probably 3 or so songs too many that bog the film down - some of the weaker numbers that insist on dragging the last 20 or so minutes out as long as they do. I'd enjoyed the music up to a point, but it overstays it's welcome.

Out of all the reviews I read for A Perfect Couple, the most interesting item of observation was from Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker, who talked about Altman "working too fast", and although her comments about this not being a "closely thought-out film" (such a comment seems to show a lack of awareness about Altman films in general) is both on the money but at the same time (in a contradictory sense) an understandable misinterpretation, I also get the feeling that he was rushing through. He had a novice cinematographer in Edmond L. Koons, who wouldn't last long in the business, and his old friend and long-time collaborator Tony Lombardo in the editing suite - but this isn't a film that puts much stock in technical qualifications. Instead, Altman wants to explore the spontaneous thoughts of his actors in an almost rough, documentary style of filmmaking. He'll send some characters to interrupt Paul and Sheila, who are about to make love, but it distinctly sounds like the reasons they have for interrupting have been made up on the fly, and as is usual in many of his films, dialogue is probably left to them completely - in other words, it hasn't been written down at all.

In the end, what it all amounts to is one of Robert Altman's least seen films. It doesn't demand to be seen as a great work of art, but it does stand as another interesting experiment by a filmmaker who was totally unafraid of trying something completely different. Of course, in many previous instances his experimentation proved pure genius, and his experiments masterpieces. It wasn't until this late 70s portion of his career that his experiments sometimes seemed a little lacking in execution and foresight. I can't count the number of times I've been watching a cinematic romance thinking, "Why can't they just get two average people? I'd really be able to believe in a film that did that." Now I'm faced with the ultimate truth of what that really feels like. A small portion of me is shame-facedly leaning over to the person casting this and whispering carefully "Can we still get Brad Pitt?" I'm exaggerating of course - in a way that tries to explain how conflicted I felt while watching a guy with average looks and awkward, deficient personality stumble through a disaster-ridden courtship. Marta Heflin is good looking, and there have been no end of shy girls in romantic dramas or comedies, so the same doesn't go for her in this.

Spread throughout, there are an inestimable number of little Altman jokes - often dependent on the improvisatory skills of the performers. Henry Gibson and Allan F. Nicholls, two Altman regulars, do the best with what they're given. Moments of fun and comedy aren't telegraphed like they'd be in a big high-budget Hollywood comedy - so it takes great concentration to get the most out of A Perfect Couple. Often it's the throwaway remark, the pratfall in the background or the slight change of expression - and the good thing about this is that when one of these comedic moments doesn't land, it's not particularly obvious it was even there. Marta Heflin is the enigma - she didn't go on to have a big career - hardly one at all actually. Paul Dooley flirts with making his character unsympathetic - and it's only once you can see the film as a whole you see he's a likable guy. There's no great performer here that that really demands attention, or any performance that's cinematically satisfying - so your enjoyment depends on how you grade the experiment. If you like the music of Keepin' 'Em Off The Streets (their music dominated the latter half of the film), Altman's sense of humour and Dooley, chances are you'll find this eccentric and enjoyable. If you can't stand the chaos, the music is hurting your ears and you find Dooley annoying, chances are you'll dislike this very much. I landed somewhere in the middle. A Perfect Couple is a long, long way from being a perfect movie, but it's a daring one at least.

Remember - everything has an ending except hope, and sausages - they have two.
Please come back Takoma

Latest Review : Le Circle Rouge (1970)

I forgot the opening line.

HealtH- 1980

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman & Paul Dooley

Starring Carol Burnett, Glenda Jackson, James Garner, Lauren Bacall
Paul Dooley & Alfre Woodard

By the time the 1970s wound down and the new decade loomed, filmmaker Robert Altman had worked himself into an unenviable position - his champion at 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr., quit his position as president of the studio mid-'79, leaving him without someone he could count on to indulge him. For years he'd been free to experiment, regardless of declining audience numbers and critical acclaim. He'd made a few great films since Nashville, in 1975, but nothing that had the same kind of industry buzz and popular appeal as MASH (1970), and only one, 3 Women (1977), could be classified as being among his best. Despite all of that, for his next, he made his most Altmanesque film since that mid-70s classic in HealtH - just too late. 20th Century Fox were not interested anymore, and the film was given the smallest of Arthouse releases - and only an exalted few got to see it. In the years since, licensing issues meant it's never seen the light of day in VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray form - easily classifying itself as hardly seen. Going through Altman's lesser-seen canon, one always hopes to find unfortunate classics, but doesn't always expect to - fortunately, HealtH is one of those that's actually quite good - bordering on great.

The film takes place during a convention at the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida. It's a health food convention, and the organization (called HealtH, which stand for "Happiness, Energy, and Longevity through Health") is host to three nominees running campaigns for the upcoming election of it's president. Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall) - a woman who claims to be an 83-year-old virgin, and who suffers from dreadful attacks of narcolepsy at the worst possible times (you know she's fallen asleep when her right arm raises itself.) Her slogan is "Feel Yourself". Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) - a self-obsessed, pretentious lady whose speeches are borrowed wholesale from Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. She has most of what she says recorded on tape. The third-party candidate is Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley) - salesperson for "Vita-Sea" (a powdered kelp product) who constantly pretends to have drowned to draw attention. The cast of characters also includes White House representative Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett) and Esther Brill's campaign manager, Harry Wolff (James Garner) - who also happens to be Gloria's ex-husband.

Critics of the film complain that it lampoons the American political scene too directly, and lacks subtlety - but this is exactly why I enjoyed HealtH so much. It's naked lampooning and the way it obviously has everyone stand in for something that's easily observable in 1970s politics gives the film a broad kind of power, and keeps it from being too pretentious. Altman isn't trying to make incisive points, but is instead harnessing the ridiculous and using it to power his distinct brand of comedy and moviemaking. Most of all - for the first time in a while for Altman - the whole cast look like they're having the time of their lives. James Garner would go on to often state that he had a great time on location at the Don CeSar, and Carol Burnett looks to be hitting a manic groove as a lady who becomes sexually aroused by being scared. The silly ways Harry does nothing to sooth her when she comes to him with conspiratorial fright, or the way she holds him when she thinks she's seen a dead body are priceless. I loved the energy they had - and because Altman has taken a step back from his '48-character' experimentation in films like A Wedding, we get to enjoy it all the more.

Henry Gibson appears in his 4th Altman film here, as dirty trickster Bobby Hammer - you can see how everyone lived under the apprehension of Nixon politics becoming the norm during this period. Paul Dooley's relationship with the director had advanced to him being a cowriter on HealtH - this was his 3rd Altman film. Allan F. Nicholls - who'd go on to co-direct with Altman on 2nd unit duties in the 80s and 90s is appearing in a small role - his 5th. The performers ad-lib in a convivial atmosphere, and here things really work - there's a certain magic in the air that wasn't quite as conducive in A Wedding or A Perfect Couple. The situation is weird enough to bring out odd responses, and Alfre Woodard, close to the beginning of her career, gives a wonderfully hesitant yet drawn out answer to an interviewer's question on just how strange this particular convention is. That's among many moments that I really liked, and this is another of those Altman movies that have too much packed in to take in on a first viewing - I'll be coming back to explore this film numerous times I feel. Of course everyone talks over everyone else - we'd expect no less.

The film had me when I noticed one political candidate was taping everything she said - it's such a bare-faced presidential/Nixon trait, and I became aware that nothing was being slid under the table to me here. It was straight forward and up-front - and I wonder if the director thought he might have a more accessible movie on his hands for the first time in a while - which would be especially ironic, considering the fact that hardly anyone had the chance to see it anyway. I loved Gil Gainey and his urge for us to go with neither the extreme left nor extreme right in the election (one in which he knows he has no hope of winning, but kicking up a stink regardless) - instead, he wants us to vote for him, the "Extreme Middle". Also, another piece of wisdom from a candidate that sure feels true - "When you're that crazy, everybody believes you." Indeed - who would make something like that up? They must be telling the truth. I think a lot came to the cast in the moment, with politics being an especially easy inspiration for tomfoolery. It always has been.

So, where did this film end up? After being replaced at the last minute with 20th Century Fox's Oh, Heavenly Dog (says a lot about the industry, that a Chevy Chase stinker would replace a good Altman film) and only existing for a couple of arthouse showings after poor test screenings, Altman himself re-released it in April 1982. Ronald Reagan watched it the same year, at Camp David, and called it "the world's worst movie" (I'm sure he loved Oh, Heavenly Dog - it would figure.) It wasn't deserving of any of that - and although it teeters on cult status just because of it's tortured existence these last 40-plus years, it's yet to have it's day. It simply hasn't been released properly in any form. It's no masterpiece, but it's one of Altman's good movies - and the most fun since Nashville in '75 (a film it's often compared to, and along with it's political commentary it does bear a striking resemblance to this classic.) I finally fell in love with Carol Burnett here as a performer and person - she's terrific, and so energetic. Lauren Bacall is wonderfully infuriating. James Garner is purely a sex object. Dick Cavett appears as himself, covering the convention, and watching his rival Johnny Carson's every move on television each night.

Set against bright pastel colours in sunny Florida, on location at the Don CeSar, Altman also collaborated with Frank Barhydt on the screenplay (they'd done Quintet together, and would go on to collaborate on Short Cuts and Kansas City.) There's nothing overly special about the cinematography or music in it - although "The Steinettes", Altman's a cappella doo-wop street quartet, get to sing a lot of songs and otherwise brighten the mood. They'd reappear in Popeye. It all positively adds to the movie, and is another reason to look on it as undeserving of it's underseen status. I have to admit - after watching Quintet and A Perfect Couple, I was not expecting much from HealtH. Lowered expectations help a person enjoy a film, but this was an absolute return to form for Robert Altman and a film that feels like it puts forward the best of what he could offer comedy-wise as it gives to us his own personal brand of political satire. It's not for everyone (especially people not familiar with his work) - and I can understand why test screenings would go badly - but for those with that acquired taste, I'm sure it would poll much better and be voted for favourably amongst fans. That is, as long as they can find it to actually have a chance of seeing it.

I forgot the opening line.

Popeye - 1980

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Jules Feiffer
Based on the comic strip by E. C. Segar

Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul L. Smith, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston & Richard Libertini

Are we only just now able to appreciate Robert Altman's Popeye? Did it confound us at the time of it's release? Nothing up on that screen is comparable to any other such film, and off-screen it's equally hard to find examples to judge it's production against. The idea alone is remarkable and hard to process mentally - the director of films such as Images, Nashville and 3 Women, an anti-establishment, arthouse/experimental filmmaker taking on a big budget, property-based, live-action comic strip musical. Altman's previous films defied convention, and in some cases had paid dearly for doing so. Now he was to direct what was anticipated as one of the biggest films of the year for Paramount - a position he had never been in before. The result of this strange marriage was indeed remarkable, but tagged a "fiasco", "failure" and "bomb" - despite being none of those things. Popeye was one of the biggest moneymakers Paramount had for the year it was released, and has critics looking at it today and seeing something that wasn't seen back then - an extraordinary filmmaking achievement. A wonderful film.

The production had as it's ground zero a weird shanty town constructed from scratch on the island of Malta. It's been a tourist attraction to this day - given the moniker "Popeye Village". This location, purposely grey to let the 'cartoon characters' stand out as if this were a live-action comic strip (it has since been spruced up to flower-garden standard), really gives the film a firm grounding and sense of reality. "Sweethaven" - it's characters sing what amounts to a 'national anthem' at the start of the film which familiarizes us to a town which feels not only like a country unto itself, but almost a reality disconnected from any outside contact. That would explain why Popeye (Robin Williams) is ogled uncertainly by all of the other characters when he arrives as the 'stranger'. In it roam all of the familiar characters from the comic strip and cartoon. Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) and Bluto (Paul L. Smith) are the standouts, but we also get the likes of Wimpy (Paul Dooley), Castor Oyl (Donovan Scott), Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston) and George W. Geezil (Richard Libertini).

Popeye rows in from the sea to Sweethaven on a quest to find his long lost father, who abandoned him at the age of two. On arrival in the crooked shanty town he takes up residence in the Oyl household, with Castor, Nana (Roberta Maxwell), Cole (MacIntyre Dixon) and of course the clumsy Olive, who is betrothed to Bluto. Bluto controls Sweethaven while the Commodore is seemingly away, and does so with an iron fist - declaring curfews along with often losing his temper and destroying things. On the eve of her wedding a celebration is held, but Olive, who has been engaged a number of times before, sneaks away, coming to the realisation that Bluto isn't for her - and she runs into Popeye, who is having trouble fitting in. The two share a dizzy kind of chemistry. Both come across an abandoned baby in a basket and, naming him Swee'Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), decide to raise him together. Eventually Popeye challenges Bluto's rule of Sweethaven by various means - including a boxing match, uncovering Swee'Pea's talents of foretelling the future and the discovery of what has actually happened to the Commodore.

It's not a narrative that neatly unfolds or tells a compelling story (something of the western "a stranger rides into town" theme) - but this is Popeye, and the comic strip nature of that fact was something producer Robert Evans, screenwriter Jules Feiffer and Robert Altman himself wanted to preserve. As soon as the film begins you'll notice a marked difference between this and most films of it's ilk - most apparent the way dialogue is kind of quietly muttered and mumbled, as if what's being said is background to more important matters. There are some funny asides that Robin Williams comes out with that are barely audible (Williams had to redub his audio because talking with a pipe in his mouth made his recorded lines on set not clear enough - and yet it's still hardly clear in any event.) Then the first musical number is a strange amalgam of regular dialogue and semi-apparent tune, centered on Popeye's occasional "Blow me down!" as he comes across many a curiosity in Sweethaven. It's almost as if Altman is slowly acclimating us to what's to come. During all of this we meet various strange inhabitants in the foreground and background - and it surely is a magical comic strip come to life.

Popeye's music, musical numbers and general dialogue is in general clear enough - but Altman doesn't let go of his penchant for playing with how audible it is, and what that dialogue is competing with for our attention. Jules Feiffer was beside himself after a preview screening when he realised that much of it couldn't be clearly discerned - something Altman attended to when other patrons complained about not being able to hear it. Although much clearer now, it's still an interestingly novel way to present a comic strip musical movie - full of curious routines and strange songs written by Harry Nilsson. It gives the mind little basis for comparison, because there's not much out there that is like this. Altman added professional clowns and circus performers to the cast, giving us wild real-life cartoon characters performing unusual stunts and really embodying their respective characters. Most noticeable is former clown Bill Irwin, making his debut here as Ham Gravy. He contorts his body and does such wonderful work he needs no dialogue at all.

The production design (Wolf Kroeger) is remarkable, the set decoration (Oscar-winner Jack Stephens) is remarkable and the costume design (Scott Bushnell) is lovingly true to Popeye's origins and history. The Sweethaven set is simply incredible, and one of the best of it's sort I've ever seen. The cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno (just coming off an Oscar win for All That Jazz) is emblematic of a Robert Altman film - still full of those zooms and inventive Altmanesque shots. The actors really embrace the whole feel of this "live comic strip" cinematic exercise - Shelley Duvall was, as Altman said, born to play Olive Oyl, and Robin Williams is also giving 100%. For Duvall, this was her 7th time around with this director, and including The Shining, which had come out earlier that same year, she'd only been in two feature films not directed by him. Regulars Paul Dooley (4th Altman film) and Allan F. Nicholls (6th Altman film) as Rough House continued his penchant for sticking with certain actors.

So overall, speaking generally, my thoughts and feelings have also changed over time regarding Popeye, and I think the film gains a lot when you're more of a film lover. If you're a kid, and just want to be entertained, Popeye is on shakier ground - although that's not to say many kids wouldn't love it. It's not as vivacious, simple or loud as some kid's films are - and depends on careful consideration of details that may be missed by a younger audience. It's almost too good for it's own good. But while some of the effects - such as when Donovan Scott's Castor Oyl is kicked out of a boxing ring, flying through the air as if launched by a cannon - are marvelous, there are the occasional low points. Take for example a giant octopus near the end that behaves more like the one in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster than anything you'd expect from a film such as this. I'm not complaining though - overall, this is a beautiful and well realised film. I've seen it as middling for a long time - but giving it more careful consideration, I've come to love it. It's so rich in detail, and naturally comedic, that it's grown on me.

For quite a while, I've been seeing Popeye as a kind of dividing line for Altman. A cut-off point, after which his stature diminished for just over a decade until he reemerged with The Player in 1992. If that's true, then it's not because of the quality of this film, or how well it did at the box office - it was simply because the heads of production and studio bosses in Hollywood hated the man, and actually played down Popeye's success, just so they could be rid of him. It may not be universally beloved, but it's a filmmaking achievement and seems to be admired by many critics who approach it today - as if film lovers in general weren't ready for that kind of movie back in 1980. I was actually surprised by my recent reaction to it - and my desire to watch it again so soon after taking it on. It's a rare example of a living breathing comic strip, and one transposed so faithfully from the page to the screen. That talented group, sequestered half the world away in Malta, really gave Popeye their loving best. We should love them all in return. If you haven't seen it for a while, or have never seen it, I suggest giving it a viewing. You might just find a new appreciation for it.

Some appreciation for Popeye. Yes, some parts are a bit wonky, and it probably doesn't hold together perfectly as narrative cinema, but as unique spectacle, as an example of cinematic individualism, as a mishmash of all sorts of different talent hitting us from all sides, it's borderline brilliant.

I hated it when I saw it in the theater as a kid though. But I also hated Empire Strikes Back, so what the hell did I know?

Some appreciation for Popeye. Yes, some parts are a bit wonky, and it probably doesn't hold together perfectly as narrative cinema, but as unique spectacle, as an example of cinematic individualism, as a mishmash of all sorts of different talent hitting us from all sides, it's borderline brilliant.

I hated it when I saw it in the theater as a kid though. But I also hated Empire Strikes Back, so what the hell did I know?

I admire it for really trying hard to be a live-action cartoon. You can see some great efforts of Altman to think outside the box on that part. Having said that, I didn't find it to be the funniest comedy, despite the good casting.

The trick is not minding
I’ve been vocal about my dislike of Popeye before. It’s one of his few actual failures, in my eyes. Up there with Kansas City and Buffalo Bill. That I have seen so far, anyways.

I forgot the opening line.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean - 1982

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Ed Graczyk
Based on his play

Starring Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, Sudie Bond, Kathy Bates & Mark Patton

It's hard to write about Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean - it has a delicate beauty to it that makes me more than a little nervous about trampling and stepping on wispy threads of subtext and most importantly purpose. It's the kind of film that I think is better approached by seeing it three or four times over the course of a year or two, stopping to run a thought or two through your mind every so often. It's a straightforward adaptation of a play, and I'm using 'adaptation' loosely, as it has lost none of the narrative or verbal trademarks of something you'd see live at a theater - with only Robert Altman's fluid visual direction brought to life by cinematographer Pierre Mignot adding a dimension you'd definitely miss out on if you were seeing it as a play. It all takes place in the one five-and-dime store in McCarthy, Texas and deals with a James Dean fan club who meets on the day of Dean's death, and then 20 years later for a reunion. The two time periods are mixed together, and the device that separates one time period from the other is a counter-length mirror in the store.

The store is run by Juanita (Sudie Bond) - an older matriarch, God-fearing and worn compared to the fan club women who are barely past their teens during the 1955 time period of the story. They are, of course, much older in 1975 when some come back for the reunion. There's the nervous and high-strung Mona (Sandy Dennis), sexy Sissy (Cher), quiet and reserved Edna Louise (Marta Heflin), and the much more verbose Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) all coming back and reuniting after having gone off in separate directions to live their lives. With them arrives a stranger, Joanne (Karen Black), who has what at first is an unknown link to the girls. There's some reminiscence about a male character, Joe Qualley (Mark Patton) - a young boy often taunted and beaten by the men in town, and unseen is young James Dean in 1975, whom Mona claims came as a result of a night spent between her and Dean while 1956 film Giant was being filmed - her being an extra in it. We see various flash-backs from the '55 period - all within the mirror of the shop.

I've never gone to a reunion in my life, but I imagine most who go to them try to reflect what's best about each and other's life, and minimize or hide what's bad. Ed Graczyk is using this as a kind of example to reflect on a larger scale the way we all build facades around ourselves and try to project a not entirely honest image of ourselves to others in our lives. Our failures go unmentioned, our sadness kept quiet and any negative change to our physical features hidden. In it's most visible way, this is observed when men wear wigs to hide their baldness, and people use make-up to try and normalize their physical features. We walk around and interact with people while carrying a sign with us saying "Everything is fine." We're not getting older, we're not desperately sad, we're not worried about the future, and we've never experienced anything that has left a never-healing open wound on our psyche. The reality of "today" really contrasts with the earlier epoch in the film - James Dean is alive and virile, things are happening, and possibilities seem endless - until clouds appear on the horizon.

The performers from the Broadway version of the Ed Graczyk play came back to feature in this film, and the well-rehearsed first-rate performances are all pretty special. Cher, Karen Black and Sandy Dennis really stick out and are in brilliant form - their emotionally demanding parts are strewn with pitfalls, and it would have been easy to overact considering how raw some of the moments are. Cher was new to something that required a full-bodied realization of a character (she'd be nominated twice for an Oscar during the same decade, winning for her performance in 1987 film Moonstruck, so there was undeniable talent there.) Just incredible performances - and seeing them are big reasons to see the film. The camera moves around them and through the store surprisingly swiftly and never really settles in one space, like a roaming fly about the place. We're always panning and zooming - shifting and tilting, restless and very free all the same. I liked this motion, especially seeing as we're bound to the one small location.

There's a deep abiding sadness - a nostalgic sadness - to this movie. Graczyk was inspired to write it after visiting Marfa, where Giant was filmed. The only remnant remaining from the giant mock-up of the mansion in the film was a propped up façade, in pieces and decaying. It brought back to him the memory of how vibrant things were when James Dean was alive, and this movie was being made. A nostalgic gulf, which always hangs around places that are decaying and disappearing. Mona, taking the place of the author, mentions her visit to the remains of the façade in the story - she collects small pieces to take away and hold onto. It adds an element of loss to the whole feel of the film. A loss of innocence, a loss of years to our lives, a loss of friendships and relationships, the loss of health, the loss we endure relating to the dead. Even the loss concerned with the quiet and ability of our minds. Reunions bring all of that into sharp focus. There's even the loss of our façade when lies are uncovered. That's why I thought the final shots of the film - of the decaying store - made for a really poignant departing epilogue.

So, that's the nostalgic sadness of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. For Altman personally, it was a shift into a completely new direction. He hired the people he wanted, and he directed the exact way he wanted. Two of his sons were firm parts of the crew now. Robert Reed Altman was an assistant camera operator, having graduated from being a focus puller when he started on Nashville. Stephen Altman was a prop master in the art department. The closer kind of familial atmosphere was probably welcomed. The play and cinematic incarnation embraced Altman's comfort of exploring the psyche of characters, most often women, that he has a deep-seated storytelling love for. It's another reflection of That Cold Day in the Park, Images and 3 Women - while at the same time covering new ground. Using two-way mirrors in the method he does here presented a much-needed cinematic challenge. Considering the film got much better reviews than the play, I'd say this visual component enhances everything about this adapted version.

Overall, judged exactly as it is, I think this is another addition to that collection of Altman films which belong on the highest shelf. Obviously that's also down to Ed Graczyk's play, adaptation, and some award-worthy performances from the talented cast. No matter how priggish or deluded some of the characters can be, it's never hard to feel empathy for every single one of them in this - and as such it's an emotionally involving film which leaves a definite impression. Robert Altman directed a documentary about James Dean very early in his career in 1957 - a potent symbol of dreams dashed and loss. Of the fading remnants from a time when life was moving in an exciting direction. Of recollections that are still too vivid not to make the shared experience of the memory painful - no matter how nostalgic people are, and happy everything was. For the "Disciples of James Dean", that psychological visit to what remains of a decaying set is a release though - one that they may all have needed. A really great one, this.

I forgot the opening line.

Streamers - 1983

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by David Rabe
Based on his play

Starring Matthew Modine, Michael Wright, Mitchell Lichtenstein & David Allen Grier

Beautiful streamer open for me
Blue Skies above and no canopy
Counted nine thousand - waited too long
Reached for my ripcord - the darn thing was gone.

Beautiful streamer, why must it be
White silk above me is what I should see
Just like my mother looks over me
To hell with the ripcord, twas not made for me.

Beautiful streamer, follow me down
The time is elapsing and here is the ground
600 feet and then I can tell
If I'll go to heaven or end down in hell.

Beautiful streamer, this is the end
Gabriel is blowing "My Body Won't Mend"
All you jump happy son's of a gun
Take this last warning - Jumping's no fun

To the tune of Beautiful Dreamer, this is the song paratroopers are meant to sing when their chute doesn't open, and they face imminent death. The group of young, pensive soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division ready to be shipped to Vietnam listen to it with a very strained concern - Billy (Matthew Modine), Carlyle (Michael Wright), Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) and Roger (David Alan Grier). They've already been scared to death by other stories told by Cokes (George Dzundza), who has been there and returned not quite right (also constantly drunk.) Did the paratrooper he saw fly past him with a bum chute sing the song? No, he just had a stunned, confused look on his face. Underneath the fear though, are personal animosities that can't quite unify these boys facing the unenviable task of travelling half way around the world to face possible death, and certain psychological trauma.

Streamers opens with Richie patching up a young man who has slit his wrist - and trying his best to hide this from everyone else (the kid who has tried to take his own life is rather more frank about his state of mind and what he tried to do.) The first thing you notice is that both are obviously gay, but despite Richie's frequent mincing, femininity, way of dressing, and attraction to other guys in the unit the conservative Billy has talked himself into believing Richie is straight and just has some feminine traits about him. The rumble of homophobia exists in a subconcious place, but always seems to be about to erupt from Billy, Roger and Carlyle. Carlyle is the very definition of a loose cannon, and while he claims to be gay when accosing Richie, it seems more likely that he'll kill Richie if he finally confesses to him. The building tension has to erupt at some point, from somewhere. Whose chute will fail to open?

This film really excels in it's performances - all of the actors here never miss a beat and are on absolute top form. I enjoyed that aspect of Streamers very much indeed, and it's a very well written drama from David Rabe. I think as far as filming it goes though, Robert Altman was kind of stuck with a visual field that didn't offer much to him. He seems intent on bringing this to us inside of a play setting - and nothing more. Doing that, we never leave the barracks - and are stuck with row after row of bunkbeds for the entire running time of this film. I know it serves to increase that feeling of being pent-up without any recourse or escape, but there's only so much you can do with that before you've exhausted many of the movie's possibilites, and I would have loved to have seen this adapted as a full-fledged film rather than as a filmed play. The opening and ending credits though, are an atmopheric pleasure to watch - an acrobatic rifle drill in suffocating mist, with the sound of the rifles and boots determining the beat in our mind.

If I had to pinpoint what I felt this was all about I'd say fear. It seems to inform everything in this film which is both said and left unsaid. This wait to go to war is telling on these boys, and the fact that Richie is so openly gay (without ever admitting to it) is sandpaper to a raw wound for Carlyle - either because he's also gay or because he's homophobic (or perhaps both.) There's enough internalized angst amongst this group of fellow soldiers already. It seems like they're always at a breaking point - and occasionally frivilous relief is just that - relieving - but we're more often tightening the bolt on everyone in the barracks. A visit from a drunk Cokes and an also very drunk Sgt. Rooney (Guy Boyd), who craves action (at least while he's hammered), only serves to increase the pounding pressure. The two sergeants are at that stage of drunkenness that's frightening for the fact that a person is liable to do anything when so inebriated. There's no outlet. Left unsaid, but also an added pressure point is the fact that Carlyle and Roger are African Americans - something that seems to define them in everybody's mind.

Cinematographer Pierre Mignot would be with Altman throughout his 'filmed play' phase, from previous feature Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean to his segment in Aria. I found his work here very claustrophobic - we never get very far from the pent up young men here. There is enough technique to keep a film lover interested. The art direction saw Stephen Altman taking another step forward, becoming sole art director on Streamers. Robert Reed Altman was still an assistant Camera operator and part of the Electrical Department. So Robert Altman's two sons continued to work for him - but I don't see it as nepotism when they're doing these kind of jobs. It'd be different if they had lead roles, or were writing/performing terrible tunes - lord knows that happens a lot in the movie industry (think Jaden Smith or Frank Stallone.)

All-up, Streamers is undeniably powerful and has a psychological component that's really meaningful without being pretentious. I don't think I would have got anything less from it if I'd seen it on stage - but since I'd probably never have that opportunity I'm glad it exists on film. As a film though, I'm not sure if it does enough visually to really justify making it so true to a stage performance. Even if there were a few establishing shots, I'd have felt that wouldn't have detracted from the whole strict 'play' theme - (and as mentioned above, the credits sequence was great and fused with the concept no problem.) The film as a whole was met with mostly rave reviews, but it's release would have been festival and art house-based. The entire ensemble was voted Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival - and I have to agree and reiterate that the performances in this film are quite brilliant. Vietnam would be a hot topic film-wise in the '80s, but none of those films would be as oblique in their meaning, or as location-bound, as Streamers.

Victim of The Night

Popeye - 1980

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Jules Feiffer
Based on the comic strip by E. C. Segar

Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul L. Smith, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston & Richard Libertini

Are we only just now able to appreciate Robert Altman's Popeye? Did it confound us at the time of it's release? Nothing up on that screen is comparable to any other such film, and off-screen it's equally hard to find examples to judge it's production against. The idea alone is remarkable and hard to process mentally - the director of films such as Images, Nashville and 3 Women, an anti-establishment, arthouse/experimental filmmaker taking on a big budget, property-based, live-action comic strip musical. Altman's previous films defied convention, and in some cases had paid dearly for doing so. Now he was to direct what was anticipated as one of the biggest films of the year for Paramount - a position he had never been in before. The result of this strange marriage was indeed remarkable, but tagged a "fiasco", "failure" and "bomb" - despite being none of those things.
Just thought I would share this, not that it's the be-all-end-all, but in response to your paragraph above:

"One of Robert Altman's trademarks is the way he creates whole new worlds in his movies -- worlds where we somehow don't believe that life ends at the edge of the screen, worlds in which the main characters are surrounded by other people plunging ahead at the business of living. That gift for populating new places is one of the richest treasures in "Popeye," Altman's musical comedy. He takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms -- the comic strip -- and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits."

I forgot the opening line.
Just thought I would share this, not that it's the be-all-end-all, but in response to your paragraph above:

"One of Robert Altman's trademarks is the way he creates whole new worlds in his movies -- worlds where we somehow don't believe that life ends at the edge of the screen, worlds in which the main characters are surrounded by other people plunging ahead at the business of living. That gift for populating new places is one of the richest treasures in "Popeye," Altman's musical comedy. He takes one of the most artificial and limiting of art forms -- the comic strip -- and raises it to the level of high comedy and high spirits."
I spent so much time in my early days thinking Popeye had been this disastrous critical and commercial bomb - and that wasn't helped when I read Fiasco: A History of Hollywood′s Iconic Flops which dedicated a whole chapter to the production. Years later I was looking through the Box Office returns of all the films released in 1980 - and was surprised to see Popeye near the top of the list. And of course there's Ebert with glowing praise here. I read that Popeye's own producers purposely played down the film's success because they hated Altman. It certainly is one of the most unusual films out there in the way it's been perceived on release and post-release over the years.

I love the quote from Ebert's review which you highlighted there. His reviews often bear out over time, as if he had a good instinct for how films would eventually be perceived in posterity. (That's probably more on the rest of critics being anchored to cultural trends, current modes of thinking and such.)