This is the second part of the twelfth essay in Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood directors and the actors they worked with. It continues the focus on one of the key American independents.
The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.
At least eleven books have been published in English on the work of Robert Altman, plus one “oral biography” and two book-length interviews (1[i]). This is exceeded only in number by booklength studies of D W Griffith, Hitchcock, Welles, Spielberg and Scorsese. Four have been published in the last three years. A Companion to Robert Altman (2016), edited by Adrian Danks is comprised of 23 essays. It is, and will almost certainly remain, not only the most wide ranging but also likely definitive in the quality and depth of its coverage of all aspects of his work in the cinema, television and theatre. Unfortunately priced by the publisher beyond what most individuals will be prepared or able to pay and also unlikely to be acquired by the local library, this makes it important to at least give some indication here of the content of what I regard, for the purposes of this survey, as two of the most important contributions to Companion - the essays on visual style by Hamish Ford and sound by Jay Beck. The two essays take us into the core of Altman's 'system' - see the reference to authorship as a system in Cassavetes Part 2 a previous essay of this series in Film Alert.
Visual Style in Altman's 70s Films
Altman's films are contained within what Ford refers to as “a porous frame” - strikingly flexible and inherently unstable - that works to define and emphasise cinema in and as process. It is a paradoxical mix, remarkably “free” yet often denuded of traditionally affirmed markers of style. Rather than exceptions, Altman's zooms remind us of the inherently artificial and non-human nature (the materiality) of the moving image per se. He is only partially, reluctantly and sporadically interested in charting a narrative line in his films, repeatedly making it known in interviews of his interest in cinema as “painting' or even “music' rather than storytelling.
Rather than psychological or “expressionist,” Altman's cinema is concurrently objective and subjective, realist and reflexive. In Ford's estimation, his works' visual style, as powered so crucially by the zoom lens in its various capacities, is far more fundamental than any accenting, ornamentation or improvisatory embellishment. Altman makes more use of the zoom lens than any other filmmaker, its most frequent use as a device with overtly voyeuristic properties largely undermined by Altman. Ford finds Altman's use of the 'Scope' (2.35:1) screen as counterintuitive in that “the lateral expansion becomes quite reflexively partial, fragmentary and opaque.” Altman works to use this repeated blocking of viewer desire and expectation triggered by the zoom and the widescreen to generate enormous space for other kinds of looking and engagement with the human body onscreen and the world it appears to inhabit as well as the technical/aesthetic stuff of cinema itself in action.
Altman's cinema lives and breathes in process rather than outcome. The real secret of Altman's style, Ford suggests, is perhaps an always reconstituted and paradoxical distancing brought about through a materialist stress on image texture that is generated, bordered and characterised by a porous, forever unstable frame ( even as such filmmaking techniques often appear to bring us closer to the people and reality on screen).
Ford singles out the neglected Brewster McCloud and the poorly received Buffalo Bill and the Indians as stylistic apogees in his work. In the former, “Altman's special formalism and experimental attitude towards what constitutes a feature film are given joyous and inquisitive expression.” Buffalo Bill is his “most politically and aesthetically radical work” in the fusing of illusion and reality in its politics of “story” and “history” pertaining to the founding and the ongoing mythos powering America “that dominates almost every shot in the layered backdrops and costumes.” In its reception Buffalo Bill has not been afforded the wide recognition given to the confusing of illusion and reality in sexuality and gender issues in Images and 3 Women.
Altman's films, Ford reminds us, remain narrative feature films about characters, shot with the extensive use of what are widely considered stylistic markers of realism such as the zoom and a filmmaking technique and mode of performance drawing heavily on improvisation. This results in what Ford sees as a unique and sustained stress on a flexibly moulded image of a palpably human world on the screen. The open question Altman poses is how the reflexivity in his overdetermined visual style, which increases the viewer's sense of the materiality of film itself, might also serve a realist engagement in the presentation of the human characters and their world. This, Ford concludes, “remains an open question.”
The above four paragraphs are edited from Hamish Ford's essay, “The Porous Frame: Visual Style” pp 119-146.
Altman's Sound Aesthetics in the 70s
In the early 70s Altman used sound to construct a radical new form of cinematic storytelling. He and his production teams developed a sound aesthetic using multitrack recording techniques to free sound and image from the constrictions of the norms of classical continuity and character goals. Central to this new creativity was the use of overlapping sound to multiply the number of speaking voices while separating them from their spatial relationship to the camera and the frame. This allowed a diversity of voices in production through the “democratisation of acting and sound techniques.” Actors were encouraged to develop their own conversations behind the centred character or characters in a process of “overhearing” introduced in Brewster McCloud so that most, if not all, of the characters were given a voice and have the potential to be heard. This displaced the governing ideological premise behind conventional narrative cinema that requires that the story, not the character voices, take precedence. Altman uses the loss of a sense of unity with other paradoxes “to offer a critique of American culture and its underlying myths.”
In McCabe and Mrs Miller overhearing is developed further, “extraneous” dialogue is heard overlapping and interrupting dialogue to the extent that much of our understanding of the main characters is derived from innuendo and overheard gossip. Altman used these charged sub-conversations to tip the emotional balance of scenes, and in the process we gain access to a new form of cinematic dialogue that opens up the potential for all speakers to advance the narrative. As in MASH the film requires the audience to weave together narrative elements presented in fragmentary fashion.
Altman honed his techniques of overlapping and overheard sound in The Long Goodbye further refining his experimentation with the “democratic voice.” Raymond Chandler's 50s novel is updated with Marlowe being acclimatised to 70s Los Angeles. In place of the standard narration by the private eye, Elliott Gould as Marlowe often mutters subjective thoughts quietly to himself while events happen around him, the audience being expected to pay as much attention to his barbs and jokes as to the main dialogue. The established use of looping to replace problematic location sound recording was used by Altman to give legibility to lines not supposed to be heard by other characters.
This freeing up of the restricted narration of the detective genre is further achieved by sound and camera moving unmotivated by the narrative to secondary and tertiary characters. In Thieves Like Us voices overlap the ubiquitous presence of network radio of the 1930s. This was achieved by liberating the sound recording from the sound mixer. In recording multiple characters speaking together, Altman found technology outside the film industry to allow the recording of each voice separately.
Beck marks California Split as “a major turning point in Atman's sound aesthetics in how it allowed him to liberate his characters from the teleological pull of narrative and let the audience take pleasure in the idiosyncrasies of the characters' personalities.” The audience placement in the position of outside observers is reinforced by the anti-dramatic ending.
In Nashville, as in the previous three films, non-diegetic music scores are replaced by music from on-screen sources or with a meta-diegetic function as critical commentaries, the continuity of the audio tracks dictating which images were used and how they were structured. In the oscillation between polyphony (three or four simultaneous conversations) and songs “the alienation of the subject is exposed and and the democratic process is called into question.” In this, Beck suggests, “Altman achieves a summation of his audio aesthetics representing his critique of American culture with a true democracy of multiple voices supplanted in the film by a new national anthem.”
Nashville is the transition point in Altman's experiments in democratising cinema sound since its production coincided with the moment “that the rules of classical sound recording and mixing were being concretised by new technologies.” With the rise of Dolby Stereo in the late 70s “mandatory mixing techniques returned the voice to the central position reinforcing the division of labour of classical Hollywood sound thereby restricting Altman's experiments.”
The aesthetic of the democratic voice was at odds ideologically with the function of mainstream narrative cinema. Beck comments that “Altman's grand project of retraining in the use of sound later waned. By the time of Gosford Park, three decades later, lines of dialogue tended to be concatenated instead of overlapped and the music score used to support character and plot development rather than providing meta-diegetic commentary. The 70s constituted a brief moment of radical sound experimentation exploiting the capability of recording technology to provide new models of sound reproduction.”
For a new generation of filmmakers such as Alan Rudolph, P T Anderson, Lucretia Martel, Thomas Vinterberg and Michael Haneke, “Altman's sound aesthetics and services offer a template for other dialectical attempts to rewrite the rules of a new cinema.”
Edited from “The Democratic Voice: Altman's Sound Aesthetics in the 1970s” by Jay Beck, pp 184-208.
Altman on Actors and Acting
Directors who use actors like painters use pigment or colour are rare. Most directors believe that the most important element of a film is the script; that they must tell the actors what to do. Actors are not allowed to be auteurs. Directors are becoming increasingly known as auteurs: there are innumerable reports of conflict arising between writers and directors as to who is the real author of a film. But it seems to me that the increasingly indefinable relationship between actor and director has been underestimated...Many actors...are genuine artists, true creators.
The more confidence I have in an actor, the more I make him create. People tell me, 'It's wonderful what you have managed to do with so-snd-so.' But all I did with so-and-so was to insist that he or she invent. I am not the Creator but the trainer shouting from the ringside...When I saw Naked, I asked myself who should be credited with the script. In such a film, the actor is forced to become a considerable artist, and the differences between creation and interpretation get very blurred. In a way the actors write their parts.
Actors come to see me and talk about themselves. What they tell me contributes to the development of their scenes which are rewritten not by the writer but according to the actors' behaviour. You see this in the work of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. This is perhaps why actors ask to be in my films. They don't really know why they do this, but they see things happen on the screen and want to participate in the process, to become creative, to enjoy a certain artistic freedom. Some actors can't live in such a situation but most can...Creativity springs form the actors they are more than just interpreters.. If one sees qualities in my films they arise out of the chemistry of the ensemble (2[ii])
Adrian Martin sees Altman's essential contribution to modern American cinema as located in his very particular way with characters and characterisation. In 1996, reviewing Kansas City, Martin noted that Altman “captures a certain shade of real human behaviour like no other filmmaker around.” He identifies Raymond Durgnat as the only critic who had tried to describe this unconscious form of behaviour in labelling Altman as “an explorer of the preconscious” in a singular form of alienation “as if they have a swarm of bees in their head” without being consciously aware of it, like Van Gogh in Vincent and Theo. It can assume a certain fluidity between characters like Blondie and Caroline in Kansas City. Everybody in an Altman film “can act in an oddly disconnected way as if they are not exactly sure who they are.”
[i] . The authors : Judith M Kass (1978), Alan Karp (81), Gerard Plecki (85), Patrick McGilligan (89), Helene Keysser (91), Robert D Self (02), Rick Armstrong ed. (11), Kathryn R Altman (15), Frank Caso (16), Robert Neimi (16), an oral biography by Michael Zuckoff (10), and interviews by David Sterritt (00) and David Thomson (06).
[ii] An edited version of “The Actor as auteur” by Robert Altman in a special issue of Projections no. 4 ½ (published between issues 4 and 5 in 1995), pp 9-13.
Main Sources for parts 1 and 2. Essays by Adrian Danks, Hamish Ford, Jay Beck, Virginia Wright Wexman and Claire Perkins, A Companion to Robert Altman 2016. David Thomson Altman on Altman 2006; A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema 6th ed. 2014. Thomas Elsaesser The Persistence of Hollywood 2012 Ch 15. Jonathan Rosenbaum “Improvisations and Actions in Altmanville” Essential Cinema pp 80-94. Adrian Martin, reviews of Nashville, Short Cuts, Kansas City, Gosford Park, et al filmcritic.com.au
Thanks to the librarians at the invaluable AFI Research Collection at RMIT for their assistance.