Friday 9 March 2018

Bruce Hodsdon on the New Hollywood: Robert Altman (Part One)

This is the first part of the twelfth essay in Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood directors and to the actors they worked with. This essay focuses on one of the key American independents.

The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

Bruce writes: This essay is a continuation of the brief portraits of notable auteur directors in Hollywood and their place in the industry.  The focus is on their working methods especially with actors. The essays provide an impressionistic representation of the changing face of authorship from the birth of Hollywood to long form tv and are intended to complement  Barrett Hodsdon's recently published The Elusive Auteur. In part 5 of his book Barrett charts and profiles the new breed of auteurs that emerged in the seventies: Lucas, Spielberg, Eastwood, Stone, Scorsese and Tarantino.

It has been noted elsewhere that critics and scholars writing on Altman face the particular challenge that his body of work, more than most, resists interpretation and being narrowed down to a single formula or a single set of meanings. The same might be said for the much smaller oeuvre of John Cassavetes (discussed in two previous parts here  and  here.) Both Altman's and Cassavetes' work are marked by a consistently open approach to collaborative risk taking in what has been described as “an interrogation of classical Hollywood storytelling and popular genres” ([i]).

Robert Altman, 1983
Despite or because of his maverick position in the industry Altman occupies a central place in the development of the American cinema and the bringing together and synthesis of certain tendencies. He successfully inserted himself into the years of uncertainty following the end of old Hollywood marked by the rapid growth of the television audience and the failure of big budget family entertainments to deliver following the false dawn of The Sound of Music (1966). Unlike Cassavetes, Altman was able to maintain his maverick stance and restless desire to experiment within the parameters of Hollywood's commercialism. But as Thomas Elsaesser concludes “Altman's career can stand as the epitome of the direction the American cinema might have taken – but did not.” Yet neither, I think, is it the case, as Kristin Thompson argued in 1999, that the Hollywood cinema of the 1990s/2000s “remains rooted in tradition” ([ii]).

Altman was in the forefront of the changes including awareness of European cinema incorporated into American films in terms of consciousness and self consciousness (Images, 3 Women), and challenging audiences through the hybridisation of American genres (McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us). An important element in his resilience through box office and critical failures and disasters in the second half of the seventies was the forming of his own production company.  He set up Lion's Gate Films (not to be confused with the more recent Lionsgate Entertainment) in 1970 for production freedom following the box office bonanza of MASH. Altman equipped the studio to facilitate his experiments with multi-track sound in his films while producing other films like those of Alan Rudolph, as well as his own.

There was space in the mainstream of the seventies for an original talent like Altman. The space was provided by the rise of the notion of the European style auteur director  and given credence by the unexpected success of films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (69) and MASH (70) at one end, culminating with Chinatown (1974) and Taxi Driver (75) at the other. This was seized upon as pointing the way to engaging a rapidly changing audience demographic increasingly skewed by the 16-24 year old age bracket. The cult of the director, but not the trend to expensive pictures, was reined in by the debacle of Heaven's Gate in 1979-80.

Altman often went into a minor key in the eighties and nineties, although it could hardly be said that he ever fully approached 'assignment' mode, the closest being Popeye (1980), Beyond Therapy (87), Pret-à-Porter (94), The Gingerbread Man (98), and Dr T and the Women (00). Through the eighties he worked successfully in low budget experimental theatre-tv mode with Jimmy Dean (82), Secret Honor (84), Fool for Love (85), Tanner '88 and Vincent and Theo (90). Then when the opportunity arose, in an upturn for him during the nineties and his final years, he delivered The Player (92), Short Cuts (93), Kansas City (96) (which Altman felt was “as good a film in all of its elements that I've made – like a piece of music or jazz memory”), Gosford Park (01) and The Prairie Home Companion (06) together with often overlooked works like Cookie's Fortune (99) and The Company (03) to add to the critical peaks of McCabe (71), Nashville (1975), 3 Women (77) and A Wedding (78) ([iii]).

The rise of the modern director as auteur is exemplified by Altman in his control and inflection of new forms, at least through that 'golden decade' of experiment in Hollywood, 1967-77. In doing this, Altman made expressive use of the technical devices of modern cinema such as zoom and telephoto lenses already taken up by television, and the  layering of sound initially begun in Brewster McCloud (1970) with  California Split (1974) and Nashville contributing to the sense of a loosely structured lived reality or in McCabe to a dream-like unreality. The dreamy and the disjunctive aspects come together satirically in The Long Goodbye (“a 53 novel in 73 LA, a suit and tie in a pot smoking haze”), and given weird off the wall extension in Popeye which Altman made as an anti-Broadway musical. The instability and the loss of control which centrally inhabit the thematic threads of the characters' loss of control formed the basic pattern underlying the stories. The plot is often the least interesting part of an Altman movie. “In my films I try to reflect my view. Its what I see, not the way I think things should be.”

The notion of twenty-four roughly equal characters moving in random in Nashville, (double that number in A Wedding) as the ideal material for his style is something of an overstatement since with the addition of Short Cuts, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion only five of his 35 features can be centrally regarded as successful 'group' films although the tendency runs strongly through a number of his other films from MASH (69) to The Company (06).

Nashville is the paradigm of what Adrian Danks terms a “panoramic form” utilising an “ensemble aesthetic” involving a mosaic of interlocking plot lines subject to a constantly shifting camera perspective accompanied by multi-tracked sound and overlapping dialogue. Virginia Wexman tells us that Altman adopted Chicago's Second City Troupe founder Vida Spolin's idea of theatre experience as a communal game turning the film into one involving the spectator. He broke with tradition in depicting many of the relationships between the characters as unstable. The actors were encouraged to write their own speeches which Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury then vetted in advance of filming.  

David Thomson provisionally suggests that Altman “backs away from tragedy or real comedy: a sort of alert, floating drift is his essence, and it works best when people are involved for whom depth can be avoided.”  This does raise the question of how good he was with actors? And “how far he rejects the well-made movie (in a spirit of innovation) or cannot reconcile himself to its discipline?” Thomson points to his awareness of the camera's power of observation engaging the viewer in “a new way of seeing.” Altman shot two thirds of his pictures in the 2.35:1 anamorphic ratio because contrary to most of the veteran directors who worked in classical Hollywood Altman believed “that's the way you see.”

Speaking in 1978 of his attraction to developing a multiplicity of characters in sceptically humanistic detail in Nashville, A Wedding and later Short Cuts, Altman said that he “tried to make things cohesive (while) not giving much of a hoot about plots” substituting in A Wedding, for example, a concentration on behaviour and a unity through attention to detail. He claimed a detailed three act structure for the film with ideas and incidents written on cards then shuffled around on a big board “until we got the order we thought we wanted.” A scene would be written the night before or perhaps during rehearsal, or a week ahead “like a game plan for a football match...or an architect's blueprint. Some things work, and some need changing, others work so well you want to continue them.”

In the English period setting, advice and the script provided by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) for Gosford Park, resulted in an intricately structured assemblage of characters attending a shooting party at a English country estate in 1932. They are invested with more psychological depth than the other successful 'group' films listed above. Included in the supporting cast were actors in a position to give advice on authenticity because they had actually been in service in the 'downstairs' of country houses in the thirties. But predictably Altman wanted to avoid 'Merchant-Ivory heritage cinema'.

He spoke of how, through his camera style, he aimed to take the preciousness out of period drama, taking the formality out of it by going back to camera work in The Long Goodbye which unconventionally is not motivated by the rhythm of the action. He wanted what he called “a sloppy and ragged look” not using close-ups, the whole of the area lit for filming with multiple cameras so that the actors did not know precisely when they were on camera. Altman himself largely discarded the script while filming a scene and did not block the actors preferring each to find their own space.  They all also wore radio mikes freeing them from taking turns in playing to the camera lens, theatrical style, to deliver their lines. In this way with two moving cameras “the tempo of the script takes on its own life.” The camera is moving much of the time, adding what Altman called a “voyeuristic effect” frequently cutting on panning movement, challenging the 'rules' of classical mise-en-scène.

The 'unstable' mise-en-scène - camera movement, the lighting and design of hallways and downstairs spaces adds to the sharp sense of the layered iniquities of the class system, and the social and sexual tensions upstairs in the break with heritage cinema that Altman was concerned to achieve, his iconoclastic eye scanning equally above and below stairs. The subtle disjunctions of the cutting on panning movement has the effect of a kind of modified jump cut, c.f., the role of camera movement in Downton Abbey for example.

Towards the end of his life Altman admitted to David Thomson that he didn't understand acting, that he “didn't  understand how they did it - what anybody's technique is.” While he had early connections with the Chicago-based Second City Troupe which staged improvised comedy, he showed impatience as a director with improvised method acting. In his first film The Delinquents Tom Laughlin held up filming because Altman said “he thought he was “Brando and Dean in one.” He also chafed at Warren Beatty's demands for repeated re-takes in McCabe and Mrs Miller as Beatty searched for a maximum degree of inwardness and wouldn't apply himself to the first take in anticipation of re-takes  (Wexman). The unevenness of Altman's prolific and varied output resulted in questions about the consistency of his work with actors.

Consistency wasn't a concern. There are echoes of Cassavetes in his indication that the role of the script was as “an indication of character and situation. What I do comes in over the top of that.” He sometimes employed actors without allocating them written parts expecting them to create their own roles, encouraging them to expand their scripted parts during rehearsals or even write their own speeches in advance (as in Nashville). Taking a similar option with locations Rosenbaum also tells us that rather than scout them Altman sometimes chose to encounter them only when he arrived with his crew. He allowed space during shooting to be filled in at the editing and sound mixing stages.

Andrew Sarris in his positive review of McCabe and Mrs Miller wrote “that unlike many of his contemporaries, Altman tends to lose battles and win wars.” MASH was his only major hit and Nashville a minor one. That he made 33 films averaging one a year from 1970 might be seen as a victory of sorts in a war of attrition with mainstream Hollywood and the vagaries of the film going public, both undergoing major change. MASH was critical in establishing his bankability at that crucial time of transition from the old to the new Hollywood  ([iv]). At the time Altman's chequered success from the mid seventies, both critically and commercially ([v]), his persistence with making films his way, often seemed almost quixotic yet he did deliver returns at crucial times (at least several times a decade) and found funding providing something of a model for independence and a legacy of increasingly indispensable classics.

Warren Beatty, McCabe & Mrs Miller
Part 2 will look at Altman's visual style and experiments with sound in his 70s films and his own views on actors and performance.

[i] See career essay on Robert Altman by Robert Self, Great Directors series, Senses of Cinema
[ii] Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood.
[iii] Altman directed 35 features for cinema release from The Delinquents (1957) to A Prairie Home Movie (2006) credited as a writer to 15 of them. He also directed 7 telemovies, 142 episodes for 34 tv series additionally contributing to about 20 as a writer. While box office records are not available for a number of his features it seems fairly clear that only about 7 were commercially successful on release: his first feature The Delinquents, MASH, Nashville, Popeye (although below expectations), The Player, Gosford Park and his last film A Prairie Home Companion. Source: IMDB.
[iv] As a crucial step up in his career, MASH almost didn't come off for Altman. According to Peter Biskind's account it was the rapport between Altman and his agent George Litto who first identified the script as Altman material, and Litto's negotiation of a deal with the hidebound Fox bureaucracy that landed the job for Altman on favourable terms. Thereafter it was Altman's petulant hostility to that bureaucracy (like a public pronouncement by him at a crucial time that “Fox is going broke and I'm glad”) and their distrust of him that more than once almost sunk the project for the director and his agent. As it was, the deal originally negotiated was considerably weakened in the final contract, most crucially the deletion of their 5% share in the the picture (see Easy Riders, Raging Bulls pp 93-8).

[v] The quartet of commercial and critical failures following Nashville were Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1977), Quintet (79), A Perfect Couple and HealtH (80).

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