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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.