[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabeandMrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.
Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, TheUndergroundMan, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.
[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 BrewsterMcCloud 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 BrewsterMcCloud 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 BrewsterMcCloud 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 BrewsterMcCloud 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 BrewsterMcCloud 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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
Robert Altman visited Seattle late last year in connection with the world premiere of Welcome to L.A.at the Harvard Exit. The directorial debut of his sometime assistant director and—on Buffalo Bill and the Indians—co-screenwriter Alan Rudolph, Welcomealso marked Altman’s bow as a producer. As a producer, he’d functioned idiosyncratically—as one might expect. Although he consulted on the casting of the film and talked with Rudolph about the general concept, he stayed out of his director’s way from then on—even the morning he woke up to find Rudolph waiting to use his house as a key set. Come to think on ‘t, holding a world preem in the Jet City was a bit idiosyncratic, too. But the town had been good to Altman movies, and for tax purposes Welcomehad to open somewhere in 1976 even though its general release wasn’t due till February ’77, and the year-end biggies would effectively shut it out of New York. So here were Altman, Rudolph, Sally Kellerman, and actor, publicist, and Barbet Schroeder–movie distributor Mike Kaplan (seen in the small but telling role of Russell in Welcome), making the rounds of the morning talkshows, meeting the press individually and ensemble for lunch, and wondering, perhaps, whether Seattle knew what to do with the world premiere of a relentlessly … well, idiosyncratic art movie. Seattle, as it turned out, was wondering the same thing.
MTN would like to get one thing absolutely straight: Welcometo L.A., which placed very high on several Contributors’ Ten Best Lists in #54, is Alan Rudolph’s movie; and we regret that the interview schedule obliged us to talk with Rudolph before we had had an opportunity to see his film. We used that occasion for simply getting acquainted with Alan Rudolph: enjoying his delight in ChildrenofParadise, which he had just seen for the first time a week or so before; sparring over BuffaloBill, a film we are far from appreciating to the degree he might have preferred; and coming decidedly to respect his way of standing by his work and his opinions where other Hollywood junketers often defer smarmily to the least suggestion of criticism. A day later and we might well have been worrying at the fascinating fiber of his auspicious debut. But for now, the interview of record must be Altman’s.
Altman had appeared a couple days earlier at the University of Washington, played off a packed Roethke Auditorium for an hour or so, charming one and all with his admission that he loves all his own movies, and vastly pleasing the (naturally) predominantly student audience with a laid-back attitude about film form and construction. An English prof (who happens to be a full-fledged film freak) tried to get him to comment on the suggestively rhymed imagery of the final tilt to the white sky in Nashvilleand Ned Buntline’s just winking away into the absolute blackness of the night late in BuffaloBill, but it wasn’t the forum for that sort of thing and so the director just shrugged and said,
“Well … ya have to tell the audience the picture’s over!” He got an even bigger laugh anticipating the final shot of 3Women: “We’re just filming the outside of this house, see, and the people have all gone inside and you just hear them talking, and then I had to have enough footage to play the end credits over without going to a freezeframe, so it was getting a little dull and I said to the cameraman, ‘Pan over there,’and there was this pile of tires, you’d never seen them in the film and I’d never noticed them before…”
[Originally published in Film Comment Vol. 10 No. 6, November-December 1974]
It’s a good idea to recall periodically no director at, say, RKO in the Forties ever passed a colleague on the lot and called, “Hey, baby, I hear they’re giving you a film noir to do next.” The term was a critical response, on the part of some French film freaks, to a body of American movies that had been piling up during the war years, a body that continued to grow in size as the postwar films themselves became increasingly darker and more intense in mood.
Film noir—thephrase—crossed the Channel and passed into English film criticism, where it began to suggest (as almost any colorful phrase has a way of suggesting in English film criticism) some kind of hothouse specimen. Characteristically, American francocinéphiles grafted it onto their own critical vocabulary in order to celebrate not the wondrously rich heritage of their homegrown cinema, but rather the grubbily exotic blooms of Godard (Breathless) and Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), themselves in large measure derived from the genuine, originally American article.
More than a decade has gone by and film noir has finally been discovered at home. Not every workaday reviewer employs the term, but many of them have a vague idea what it’s about, and whenever a new movie comes along in which the atmosphere is wishfully sinister and oddball characters proliferate to the confounding of any hope of lucid plot explication, they’ve learned to dive for prototypes in The Big Sleep the way a seal dives for a fish.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
1969: That Cold Day in the Park: Lazslo Kovacs’s camera bridges one sequence to another with frequent use of focus-in/blur-out visuals, stylistically underscoring the film’s dual theme: the ambiguity and the dissolution of personality. It’s a film whose greatest strength lies in its atmosphere. Altman’s and Kovacs’s command and treatment of space, light, and movement transfix the viewer, claw at his awareness, even while the story itself ultimately disappoints through lack of credibility or interior logic.
Sandy Dennis—in one of the better performances of her career, possibly the only one to take full advantage of her unique blend of naïve vulnerability and cloying obnoxiousness—plays a well-off Vancouver spinster, growing to confront the loneliness to which she has found herself condemned. One day she invites a young man in out of the rain, begins to mother him, and gradually imprisons him a la The Collector. The boy (Michael Burns) doesn’t speak to her, though it is clear he can hear and understand what she is saying; she talks incessantly, delighted to have a listener, someone to care for—someone apparently worse off than her. She treats the boy increasingly as a pet, working toward the moment when she can make him he—willing or unwilling—consort. His silence to her—later revealed to us as a game he often plays with people—serves to stress her loneliness, to provide an almost clinical ear to which she is encouraged to reveal far more than she would to a responsive listener.