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René Auberjonois

Blu-ray/DVD: Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’

mccabeMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.

Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.

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Review: Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s films quietly creep up on plotlines, sniffing around the possibilities of storytelling before shifting away into a different kind of thing. In Meek’s Cutoff, a wagon train of pioneers is lost in the parched West; in Night Moves, a group of environmental saboteurs plans a bombing; in Wendy and Lucy, a traveler faces a transportation problem on the road to somewhere. None of these situations is allowed to come together in the usual kind of completion, which means you’re left with Reichardt’s wonderful way with actors and dialogue and a sense that we should be concentrating on gesture and intonation rather than plot.

I don’t want all movies to be like this, but I’m grateful for Reichardt’s talent for warping our movie expectations.

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Review: The Big Bus

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

The Big Bus is no movie to slap down first-run admission prices for, but if it turns up on a double bill with another halfway-enticing film, plan to give it a chance. I’d like to pretend it’s a better movie than it is, because most of the notices I’ve read have taken it to task unduly: its failings aren’t gross and its modest pleasures are so far superior to the general run this slummy summer season that I feel very kindly toward it. The worst thing about the film is a pantingly insistent—and quite superfluous—foreword that wants us to know we’re watching a sendup of disaster pictures. And if sending up disaster pictures is a little like putting rosy contact lenses on an albino, well, all right, maybe there are better ways of expending money and talent. But James Frawley is an intelligent director who’s had precious few chances to exercise his talent: even with post-release prodding from the Lincoln Center Film Festival, Kid Blue never achieved better than cult standing, and the earlier The Christian Licorice Store remains on a shelf somewhere.

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Out of the Past: Brewster McCloud

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Uniformed marching bands with twirlers. Red, white, and blue. Frustrated chauffeurs who can’t quite comprehend the world of their passengers. An arrival at the airport by charter plane, covered by an on-the-spot news announcer. The death and funeral of someone named Green(e). A reference to car racing. Some wild driving and a crash that brings many of the characters together. The more you look, the more similarities you find between Brewster McCloud and Nashville. Themes, motifs, devices, even characters and character relationships unite the two films. In each film, Shelley Duvall plays a naïve and sexually capricious free spirit, though in Brewster McCloud the impact of her affections on the men she favors is far more serious than in the frivolous flirtations of Nashville. In each film she takes up, at least briefly, with the son of a wealthy and powerful man: Bernard Weeks in Brewster McCloud is a sensitive and talented young man whose artistic inclinations have been stifled by his father, who has made him his business secretary—the same relationship, in fact, that Bud bears to Haven Hamilton in Nashville. In each film, too, Michael Murphy plays a visitor from California whose cool ways contrast sharply with those of the people around him, and whose comings and goings lend a kind of unity and purpose to the development of the film’s events. His escort, in each film, is a lovable but somewhat slow-witted man, whose home life we glimpse in a dinner scene (though Patrolman Johnson’s outrageous three sets of twin sons in Brewster McCloud contrast sharply in tone and intent with the two deaf children of Delbert and Linnea Reese in Nashville).

All these imagistic coincidences suggest similarities in more abstract areas as well; and sure enough, they’re there. Each film attempts a sweeping satirical commentary on virtually every major aspect of American life: sexuality, class-struggle, race relations, ambition, success and failure, economics, crime, politics, religion. The more obvious, less integrated Brewster McCloud uses original songs on its soundtrack to comment on action and character development, and counterpoints the loose, rambling structure of the film’s events with comment on philosophical and anthropological concepts from an anonymous Lecturer whose location and character never directly connect with the characters of the film’s story. Nashville‘s use of songs and the continuous comment of Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign truck are, however, not significantly different—only a more successful integration of these devices into the film. The purpose of the devices is the same: to extend the meaning and significance of the film’s events to a larger scope, to link microcosm with macrocosm.

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Review: King Kong (1976)

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

There are good things and bad things about the new King Kong. One of the good things is that it’s nice to look at. Though the photography and production design are scarcely more interesting than those of the 1933 film, they are on an epic scale, impressive and economic, using widescreen and color to more purpose than merely out-spectacle-ing the original. The designers have retained much of the architecture in the island sequence, especially the bridal altar and the huge gate with phallic bolt, and they were wise to do so. They were equally wise to avoid the dinosaur encounters of the 1933 film, for which Willis O’Brien’s model animation was perfect. In the new version the only attempts at model work come off as distressingly poor: the huge rubber snake against which Kong battles while zoologist Jack Prescott stages his daring, pure Frank Frazetta pulp rescue of a bare-breasted Dwan from the ape’s mountain lair; and its parallel sequence in New York, Kong’s battle with a toy-sized El that, in his hand, visibly does not contain the panic-stricken passengers we see at the windows in the intercut interior shots.

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Review: Eyes of Laura Mars

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Give Jon Peters full credit, he’s honest with his audience. At the beginning of A Star Is Born a voice called out advising “all you assholes out there” that the show wasn’t about to get under way until everyone quieted down, and Jon’n’Barbra proceeded to treat their public accordingly for the rest of the film (not that a goodly portion of the public seemed to mind: “Gee, Barbra called me an asshole!—I have arrived!”). Peters’ credit on Eyes of Laura Mars is preceded by a spacey model’s muttering “Guh-ross!” Yes, my dear, Eyesof LauraMarsis pretty gross and, in deference to memories of the good films director Irvin Kershner once made, I’d prefer to lay most of the blame at Peters’ door.

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