In the past four years a quiet revolution has occurred in the world of Hollywood filmmaking: the advent of digital editing on computers. Not since the Moviola arrived, in the mid-1920s, has a machine so radically transformed the way movies are assembled –for both good and ill — or broadened the definition of film editing itself. And it has altered, in ways both painful and salutary, the lives of the men and women who make movies.
The revolution has come swiftly. In 1992 editor Rob Kobrin cut an entire feature, the thriller “Needful Things,” on an Avid computer. It was only one of four films edited that year on digital systems. Today roughly 80 percent of Hollywood movies are edited on either Avid or its rival system, Lightworks. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Kobrin, 40, a self-appointed cheerleader for a technology that not everyone has welcomed. “If computer editing is hell, then I’m Satan,” he boasts.
Traditional film editing was always a funky, hands-on proposition: reeling and unreeling spools of film, cutting and gluing pieces of celluloid together, working amid a sea of film that sometimes got trampled underfoot. All that has changed, and the advantages are obvious. In the weightless world of digital information, 150 miles of film can be stored on hard drives, and an editor with the press of a key or the click of a mouse can instantly access any visual or audio moment in the film. Infinite variations of a scene can be stored and called up for review and comparison. Want to create a dissolve, a fade, a wipe? Instead of shipping the film out to an optical shop, and waiting days for it to come back, an editor can create these transitions instantly on his computer, and just as easily lay in a temporary music score, a bomb explosion, a title.
In this brave new world the line between editing and special effects has blurred, the jobs of editing film and sound have started to merge, and it’s sometimes hard to know where editing begins and cinematography and production design leave off. In the current family movie “Alaska,” editor Kobrin, working with director Fraser Heston, literally moved mountains. The town the characters lived in was on the Canadian coast, but the mountains on view in the background were shot in Valdez, Alaska, and electronically laid into the image. “Traditionally the art of film editing was the juxtaposition of frames,” Kobrin explains. “I’m now editing within the frame.” A crowd of a hundred extras can be multiplied into a horde of thousands. You could say that in the digital universe all live-action films have the potential to become animation.
In the first 100 years of moviemaking, the editing room was a noisy, collaborative workplace where an assistant would sit beside the editor and get a hands-on demonstration of the art. Now, when you walk into the old house in Greenwich, Conn., where Ron Howard is putting together his big fall thriller, “Ransom,” there’s a ghostly quiet. All you hear is the voices coming from the computer screens — where Mel Gibson, as an airline magnate, learns his son has been kidnapped — and the clicking of the keyboard. Howard is working with the two editors who won Oscars for “Apollo 13,” Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, but this is the director’s first venture onto digital. Each editor works in a separate room; the assistants are in the basement, where they convert the film to video, digitize it and painstakingly catalog the footage. “I find it thrilling,” says Howard. “You don’t have to tear the movie completely down and put it back together. It’s everything I ever hoped editing could be.”
But not everyone is rejoicing. For most editors the blade of revolution has a double edge. As Walter Murch, the legendary sound editor of “Apocalypse Now,” puts it, “If God wants to punish you, he gives you what you want.” Almost unanimously, editors rave about their new machines — and complain that the quality of their lives, and of the work, has gone to hell. It’s the much touted speed of these new machines that has led to problems. The studios, naturally, want a bottom-line return for the hundreds of thousands they’ve spent on their digital systems. Since time is huge money in Hollywood, executives figure that the time spent in post-production can now be cut in half. “Editors are terribly upset about what’s going on,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts Martin Scorsese’s films. “Computers do save time to an extent, but not as much as producers thought.”
To make the opening dates determined by the marketing departments, teams of editors frequently come in to “gang bang” a movie. “The vision goes,” explains editor Tom Roll (“Heat”). “Editors have different styles, so the movie becomes a hodgepodge.” Richard Marks, who edited “Assassins” last year in a rushed seven weeks, says, “It’s insane. It’s the thinking process that makes the movie, not the speed at which you use the tools.”
“The digital revolution is digging a big hole for all of us,” moans editor Carol Littleton (“The Big Chill”). “You do the impossible and that becomes the norm. You can’t explore anything.” Another reason the process isn’t that much quicker is that action directors, emboldened by the limitless options of their Avids and Lightworks, are shooting much more film — instead of boiling 800,000 feet down to a 12,000-foot movie, the editors might have to contend with a million feet of film. “We always worked terrible hours, and it’s worse now,” says Schoonmaker. “Everyone’s personal life and health is suffering. Everyone has to calm down and use the technology for the greatness of it and not get hysterical.”
It isn’t just the workers who are getting hysterical — so are the films. Several people cite the hyperactive “The Rock” — cut by four editors on five Avids — as an example of the new emphasis on kinetic impact over coherence. But is the technology driving the style, or is the style a response to an audience conditioned to a faster pace?
Roll and his colleagues warn that the facility of the new tools can seduce filmmakers into cutting too much, and too quickly. A new generation of directors, schooled in MTV esthetics, is so used to editing on a computer screen that they can misjudge the impact of their images when they’re amplified on a huge screen. Michael Bay, “The Rock’s” 32-year-old director, realized, when he finally saw a car chase projected on film, that he’d cut it too fast for the eye to absorb. He had to “de-cut.” The next generation may magnify this dilemma. “The real problem is with very young directors who have never edited on film,” says Warner Bros. head of post-production Marc Solomon. “They don’t want to look at film dailies, they’re happy to look at videotapes, and they lack a sense of proportion.”
The spirit of collaboration is disappearing, too. “The goal of electronic editing is ‘one brain, one screen, one machine’,” explains Murch. “But is working by yourself the best thing for the most collaborative art form there is?” Assistants, relegated to their bookkeeping chores in distant rooms, now have no shoulders to peer over — no way of learning their craft. They may know computers, but nothing about how editing creates drama and emotion. “I’m worried about how training is going to occur,” says Hank Schloss of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. “Everybody wants to get their end of it done today, and to hell with tomorrow.”
But there is no going back. The digital revolution is pointed in one clear direction: the all-electronic cinema Francis Coppola envisioned almost 20 years ago. Within the next five to 10 years, digital images will begin to match the subtlety and richness of film. Then, movies will be shot on digital cameras, fed directly into computers and beamed — somehow — electronically into theaters. Look, Ma! No hands! There will be no scratches on these movies, no faded colors and missing frames. There will be visions and effects and explosions the likes of which we’ve never seen. Will they be movies any of us want to see? That will have little to do with the machines, and everything to do with the people at the controls: the artists, craftsmen, executives and moneymen who will, rest assured, still be duking it out well into the 21st century. Some things don’t change.
David Ansen is Newsweek’s film critic. He wrote this piece; I had the idea for it and did the reporting.
Robert Altman’s “Nashville” was released in 1975. We’d only recently pulled out of Vietnam; the energy crisis was upon us; Nixon had just resigned; and hardly anyone had heard of an oddly ambitious Southern governor named Jimmy Carter.
The world of filmmaking and filmgoing circa 1975 seems just as remote. The idea of studying movies in college was new and exciting; the filmmakers of the French New Wave still had some vitality; screenplays and collections of movie reviews were regularly published — indeed, a film critic, Pauline Kael, was one of the country’s most argued-over intellectuals; the annual summer onslaught of action-adventure extravaganzas was as yet unanticipated. Repertory houses showing older and foreign films could be found in many cities, and colleges were the homes of competing film series.
Most of the big hits of the 1970s were as square as they’ve always been, but there was always something for movie buffs to quarrel about. Had Godard blown it by embracing Maoism and video? Were Bertolucci and Bellochio really the equal of Antonioni and Fellini? Why were so few people aware of Ichikawa?
In America, the World War II/Korean War generation of filmmakers — Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah, Altman, Arthur Penn — was in full bloom at the same time the “film generation” baby boomers (Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese) were introducing a new cosmopolitan art consciousness into American movies. There were heroes to root for and bad guys to hiss; the model was “the artist” vs. “the businessman.”
With the release of “Nashville” and “Jaws,” the summer of ’75 delivered both the culmination — and the beginning of the end — of that period. “Nashville” seemed to incarnate a film buff’s hopes for American movies. Here was an artist putting the machinery of popular culture to work for the sake of art, yet entering into the spirit of popular culture and partaking of its energy too. That was the dream: the power of popular art combined with the complexity of fine art, high and low not at war, and not blurred indistinguishably into each other, but embracing.
“Nashville” was debated in the mainstream press in a way that seems inconceivable now: The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with opinions and interpretations for months after the film opened. (The movie’s 25th anniversary isn’t going unnoted. The Times and Premiere have already run major pieces about Altman; Fox Television will broadcast a documentary about him, “Altman: On His Own Terms,” on August 13; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the film on June 22 in Los Angeles, with Altman and various cast and crew members in attendance; and, in November, Simon & Schuster will publish “The ‘Nashville’ Chronicles,” by the Newsday film critic Jan Stuart. Paramount will release the DVD version, offering its proper Panavision screen-aspect ratio, on August 15.)
But it was “Jaws” that captured the mass audience and really changed movies. It wasn’t the first big success of the boomer generation, but it was a hit on a scale no one had ever seen before. (Within a month of its release, the stock of MCI, the conglomerate that owned the film company that released “Jaws,” went up 22 points.) The aftereffects of “Jaws” rattled the world of film from top to bottom. Soon the artists were coming a cropper — Altman spent the rest of the decade creating ever-more-perverse head-scratchers; Coppola spent years on the debilitating “Apocalypse Now,” and seems never to have recovered his energy or concentration; Scorsese tripped himself up making the over-ambitious, epic musical, “New York, New York.” In 1977, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was released, and the intellectual and art side of filmmaking and filmgoing has been scattered to the four winds ever since. Despite the occasional good movie, the news since has all been about technology, effects, gender, race and business.
Through most of the ’70s, Robert Altman ran a kind of medicine ball caravan of an operation, and, following his work, you could feel like a participant in an ongoing party. He was a hip impresario, moving from detective movie to western to gangster movie, tweaking and twisting them, demanding more of these genres than they were used to providing. If Peckinpah was the barbaric, bitter celebrator of boozy grandeur, staking it all on the one great certain-to-lose gesture, Altman played the margins with a slipstream elegance, keeping a variety of bets in play at once. Tall and charismatic, with a goatee and long fine hands, he looked like something out of a Mark Twain story — a frontier campaign manager, perhaps, or a riverboat gambler turned grandee.
He enjoyed shooting his mouth off about the cowardice of studio executives — he always seemed to need an enemy — and about his own preferences in drugs, booze and actresses. He brought to the movies a no-big-deal elegance; a taste for risk, humor and the unhinged; a hatred of rigidity and the overbearing; and an intransigent take-it-or-leave-it spirit. He also had — and still does have — an intoxicating line of California-Zen “It’s the art, man” baloney, and a hipster/psychic’s ability to find (and touch) you where, as we used to say, you really live. I once had lunch with him for a magazine interview, and by the end of it was ready to follow him anywhere. It took me a day to come to my senses and realize I’d been snowed.
As an essayist about popular culture, Altman was our Godard; in his view of life as a sad/funny circus, he was our Fellini; in the way he looked for truth in the souls of actresses, he was our Bergman; in the way he always saw people as part of a larger context, he was our Renoir. He’s also a natural joker, a satirist at heart (even as he dreams of tragedy and art), a profane and lowdown American who can’t put on fancy European airs without looking foolish — not that that stops him from trying. (Altman’s an orchestrater and conductor of genius, but as a composer he’s a dry well.) But when he messed with pop and film archetypes — western heroes, frontier hookers, country-bumpkin thieves — he could deliver a many-layered experience.
The jokey babble of “M*A*S*H,” the vanishing-before-you melancholy of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the offhand goof “The Long Goodbye,” the from-the-peripheries tone poem “Thieves Like Us” — different as they were — all seemed spun off the same reel. On the surface were familiar, linear story landmarks; beneath and around them burbled impressions and half-formed thoughts, feelings, and perceptions organized according to modernist art principles. Altman often works with what you’re not used to noticing or admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories. He draws you away from what you usually focus on and into less-familiar areas. What can’t be transcribed is often the point. A quality of revelation runs parallel to (and intermingles with) the surface throughout; part of the beauty of his movies is the way your attention flickers back and forth between these two levels, often unsure which is which. Some years back, a maker of CD-ROMs told me how eager he was to see Altman’s then-new “Short Cuts”: “Altman was making nonlinear multimedia before the form existed,” he said.
2. America, after the breakdown
There was a third kind of film Altman has made over and over again — films whipped up out of nothing but how he makes movies. Over and over, from “Brewster McCloud” to “H.E.A.L.T.H.” to “Ready to Wear,” they’ve been duds. “Nashville” is the great exception. There’s an exultant quality to it, as though the artist is glorying in his prowess, that can remind you of Picasso once he learned to cut loose with his own language. It’s a satirical musical comedy worked up around the idea that an independent/outsider presidential candidate — calling his new organization the Replacement Party — is coming to town to throw a fundraising (and publicity-garnering) concert.
The film has often been described as a tapestry, and that’s about right. The city of Nashville is used as a nexus or hub; even the people who live there seem like they might be tourists. (The exception is Keenan Wynn, playing a geezer with a small boardinghouse and a wife in the hospital. “What are you doing in Nashville?” a guy asks Wynn genially at a coffee shop. “I live here,” says Wynn. “Oh,” says the guy. It’s a real conversation killer.)
A dozen or so characters are moving through town. A dozen or so others are based in town. Keith Carradine is the sexily self-absorbed star of a hit folk-rock trio; Lily Tomlin is a suburban wife and gospel singer — she has something of the angelic and something of the shellshocked about her — with two deaf children. Henry Gibson plays the oily Haven Hamilton, a specialist in sanctimonious spoken-sung inspirational weepers, and the city’s unofficial greeter.
Geraldine Chaplin is the hopelessly pretentious flibbertigibbet “Opal, of the BBC.” “Un, deux, trois, quatre. Testing, testing,” she murmurs into her mike as she warms up her tape recorder. She’s there as a stand-in for Altman, and for anyone who would breeze into town to make overblown metaphorical points. The central figures — although they get no more screen time than many other characters — are Michael Murphy, as the candidate’s smooth advance man, and Ronee Blakley, playing an emotionally fragile star who’s returning to town after being away, recovering from burns she got from a “fire baton.” (“Nashville” probably took its self-mocking tone, as well as its subject matter, from William Price Fox’s Nashville novel “Ruby Red” and his script “The Great Southern Amusement Company,” both of which Altman had read.)
The film is like a series of overlapping variety shows set in parking lots, airport lobbies, hotel rooms, commercial strips and hospitals, and seen through plate glass and past billboards. It’s a jerry-built world of the disposable and the efficient. Altman gets the look of small-city mid-America: the knee-high socks, the businessmen in their tan suits — a Chamber of Commerce, high-school-athletic-team look.
People who wanted a tribute to the city of Nashville, or to country music, took the film very hard, as though the music and the city needed defending. “Cheap shot,” “patronizing,” “rip-off” — these were some of the accusations thrown at the film. I was willing to believe Altman had been a little rough on his subject until I visited Nashville for the first time, years after seeing the film. I was thunderstruck by how little the film had exaggerated; it had been more of a documentary and less of a satire than I’d thought. There was no escaping the bad middle-range singers, the bored backup musicians, the terrifying big hair, the Goo-Goo candy bars, the homey sentiments, the cranky retirees in cheery T-shirts.
The film comes across as a piece of New Journalism; it’s like Norman Mailer’s reports from conventions and rallies. Altman is using Nashville metaphorically — he’s really talking about politics. I wish he didn’t make that quite so explicit. There’s a reference to Dallas and a few to the Kennedys, as well as some red-white-and-blue visual cues, that the film could have done without. Still, the result is an X-ray of the era’s uneasy political soul.
What it reveals is a country trying to pull itself together from a nervous breakdown. As a young man, Altman had been taken by the Method, and in many of his films he has shown a love of watching women go to pieces. Here we watch not a blond in a slip but the entire country going through a crackup. It’s a country that’s wired up tight with tension masquerading as happiness. In this film about country music, the marketplace has leveled the ground, and there’s only one shot of the countryside. It’s of a funeral — the arc of a life returning to its sources.
Recording and communication devices — wires, phones, intercoms, cameras, mikes, speakers — seem to be everywhere; so does the machinery of publicity and fame. We watch the city recording itself, playing itself back to itself and marketing that image to itself. We eavesdrop on the culture’s conversation with itself. We’re watching people decide how they want to see themselves and how they want to sell themselves. Altman treats Nashville as a provincial New York or Hollywood, as one of the places where the culture manufactures its image of itself (this is Nashville in the early stages of getting slick and L.A.-ified). Altman shows us the image, and what goes into creating and sustaining it. He cuts between public functions and private domestic scenes; he shoots in studios and theaters, from onstage and from behind control booths. We gather that this is a culture that believes that its self-image accounts, or ought to account, for everything. And its image of itself is cheerful, upbeat, carefree: “It don’t worry me,” people sing.
Altman brings us into the space between the culture and its image of itself. We see the determination that goes into containing oneself in the pop image of just-folks. We see the jumpy creature within, and we see how Nashville’s self-image becomes a straitjacket. The songs that the characters sing, sell and buy are about roots and homesickness, and make a great show of being about “real” people and “real” problems. But they’re completely formulaic. The real energy goes into the marketing. There’s a consensus reality that has been created of simple shapes, bright colors and sweetened sentiments. A lot of the humor in “Nashville” comes from seeing how much heightening and industry go into producing this music that has such claims to relaxed authenticity.
The film is also a picture of a populist culture driving itself mad with celebrity. People want in to stardom, as they want in to heaven. And if they can’t get at least a piece of stardom, they’re furious. Altman shows us how we use stars. They give us focus. We tell ourselves their stories, and we organize our mental pictures around them. We want them to be real yet conform to our desires. But as populists, we’re picky about whether our stars are putting on airs (as though that were the greatest sin). We’re even picky about whether they’re just too dang professional. They have to be one of us, yet special, because we want to feel we’re a little special too.
The stages and studios of “Nashville” are full of professionals, but the stars themselves are near-amateurs, or very skilled at playing near-amateurs. Someone who really connects (like the Ronee Blakley character) can be a lightning rod for our frustrations. If there’s a revelation “Nashville” drives toward, it has to do with how attached we are to our fictions and how inescapable we have made them. “How do you get outside?” we overhear a frazzled soul ask at a hospital nurses station. Comes the polite answer: “You dial 9.” We feel starved for contact with the spiritual and the mythic, yet we live in a popularity-game world full of gods and superstitions. Altman uses the kids playing Lily Tomlin’s deaf children symbolically. In this film with the most complicated of all movie soundtracks, they’re the only characters untouched by the clamor and hubbub.
Yet the film is jubilant and festive; a freeway pileup turns into an impromptu picnic. The people are grotesques and caricatures of themselves, but they’re also — even the most flagrant losers among them — wily self-starters. (This seems truer and more accurate — to this Middle American, at least — than does the Raymond Carver view of ordinary Americans as stunted dead-enders.) The film feels like both a piece of drama and a painting with a time element.
In one scene, Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine have just had sex. (A tape of him singing plays on his tape recorder: This seems to be a seduction technique of his — he’s purveying his self-regard.) In bed, relaxing, he has her show him how to say “I love you” in American Sign Language. She smiles happily, then realizes it’s getting late. She straightens her hair and pulls on her clothes, sizing up the damage in a bathroom mirror. Carradine is stung — we’ve seen him with a number of other women, but he’s opened up only with her. You can see him thinking: “People don’t leave me. I leave them.”
He retaliates by dialing up an old girlfriend, working his charm on her and offering to bring her to Nashville in full hearing of Lily. Almost imperceptibly, Lily — a straitlaced mother and wife who has probably never before cheated on her husband — registers how childish and selfish the man she’s just had sex with is; she also registers how badly she must have needed this tumble. She waves goodbye briskly and leaves wearing a different smile than the one she wore in bed; Carradine ends his phone conversation abruptly. He can make any woman in a club think he’s singing a song for her alone, but here, now, he’s frustrated and disconsolate.
With its profusion of wires, recording and communication devices, its mirrors and reflections and its concern with language, playacting, time and revelation, this brief scene is more complex than anything I can think of in the work of intellectual gameplayer-directors like Peter Greenaway. Yet the complicatedness isn’t made much of. We just take in the environment and the characters and what they’re going through. For Altman, this kind of thing happens to all of us, all the time. Signals get crossed, unwanted frequencies come wafting in, reflections we’d rather avoid bounce back at us, ghosts from the past sweep us up and then drop us, and when one thing comes into focus another falls out.
“I’m looking for surprises,” Altman said to a reporter at the time of “Nashville.” “If we had just taken what was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary. One head, no matter how good — well, it just can’t be the same as everyone bringing something to it.” Over his career, Altman developed a variety of techniques to allow for inclusiveness. The sound systems he developed with the sound engineers Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin let him record and present more ambient and minor-character noise than we’d been used to. With his cinematographers — during this period, usually Vilmos Zsigmond and, here, Paul Lohmann — Altman used multiple cameras and lighted entire environments, not just individual shots. This gave his actors an unusual freedom of movement; it also meant that, since they often didn’t know from which direction they were being filmed, or which angle was likely to be used in the final cut, they couldn’t play to a camera.
Altman often has his actors fill out their characters with their own substance. Blakley, for instance, actually was once burned by a fire baton. An actress might choose her own wardrobe and write her own dialogue; the structure that Altman’s screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, worked out allowed for a great deal of improvisation. The actor’s rapport with his role becomes what we recognize as the character. Here, many of the performers playing singers wrote or co-wrote their own songs. (That’s how Keith Carradine got his Oscar.) There’s always a mixture of real and not-real in what we watch in a fiction movie. Some filmmakers take this to be a problem, and put all their energy into strong-arming you to believe in the fiction they’re presenting. For Altman, a desire to believe is basic to human nature. It doesn’t need goosing, just inviting. And, yes, what we’re watching is both real and not-real. Why not invite both to the party?
He works by crosscutting and parallel action, by implication and suggestion. One of his distinctive camera techniques is to move the cameras and have them zoom at the same time. Cameras in motion add depth to an image. They’re generally used to heighten involvement; they invite us into roundedness and mass. Zooms flatten the image out. They’re usually used to heighten tension: The bomb is in the trunk, the microfilm was left in this drawer. The way Altman combines the two cuts us loose from our lock on the conventional subject, and frees us to rove through the entire image at our own rate. The camera work (like the soundtrack) seems elastic, submarine. It has a Japanese-screen effect; we move back and forth between losing ourselves in abstraction and pattern, and seizing on the concrete and specific.
When he does zoom to pick something out, it’s usually a character trying to decide what response is appropriate. He’s drawn to moments when you can’t figure out how to take things. Altman has his actors reacting to more than they can keep track of. Part of the fun is in watching them try to puzzle their way through a moment. “Truth” for Altman, as for many people in the performing arts, often seems to be what happens when a performance is working. (The one bad performance in “Nashville” is Allen Garfield’s; he overdoes the sleazy pushiness. While everyone else is fitting in, he’s doing his best to stand out.) Perhaps the film’s funniest moment comes when Blakley is singing on an outdoor stage that’s a mockup of a paddle wheeler. She sings beautifully to a relaxed, rapt crowd. Scott Glenn plays a soldier who’s infatuated with Blakley, and he’s staring at her and listening to her, agog. Geraldine Chaplin pushes her microphone in front of him and asks if he’s been to Vietnam. He doesn’t respond; he’s too caught up in Blakley’s singing. “Oh,” says Chaplin, empathizing wildly, “I can see that you have been.” She’s incapable of realizing that there’s magic happening on the stage before her.
Henry Gibson is spectacular as the viciously competitive Haven Hamilton. He’s an imperious cornpone cynic, a virtuoso of sanctimonious boilerplate constantly making appreciative reference to “this business that’s been so kind to me.” He makes his toupee and girdle seem major statements. But it’s with the actresses that Altman shows his best stuff. Watching some movies, you get the feeling that the director is having a sexual exchange with his actresses, and that the film captures a pulsing, we’re-breathing-each-other’s-breath quality. You sometimes see this when D.W. Griffith directs Lillian Gish, Bergman directs Bibi Andersson or when François Truffaut directs Jeanne Moreau.
Altman’s work with actresses is often in that league; in fact, there may never have been another director who has given us such a rich panorama of female performances, or who has delighted in such a wide range of physical and emotional female types. They range from the hard-bitten yet vulnerable examples of Julie Christie (in “McCabe”) and Susannah York (in “Images”) to the high-strung, self-dramatizingly serious women (Blakley in “Nashville” and Sally Kellerman in “M*A*S*H”), all forehead and cheekbones, for whom Faye Dunaway might have been a template, to the long-faced, down-to-earth women like Louise Fletcher (in “Thieves Like Us”) and Lily Tomlin to the one-of-a-kind Shelley Duvall (in “McCabe,” “Three Women” and “Popeye”).
From Sandy Dennis in “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969) to Embeth Davidtz in “The Gingerbread Man” (1998), Altman is fascinated by the beauty and power women are capable of, as well as by the potential for destructiveness that coexists with their sense of themselves as vulnerable. In “Nashville,” Geraldine Chaplin is a wizard at archness, missing the main point repeatedly with great wit. In her first film, Blakley gives a performance that’s ridged with emotion. When she isn’t performing, her Barbara Jean, a reigning country queen, is just psychic flotsam and jetsam. When she does perform, all the bits and pieces come into sync. There may not be a real personality in Barbara Jean, but at least it all sometimes moves to the same rhythm. Barbara Harris, a jazzy stylist of instability, never registered in another film as memorably as she does here. Playing a daffy, miniskirted, bleached-blond hillbilly with fantasies of stardom, she’s like a kitten on Quaaludes. When she does get her chance to sing, and she strews leftover flowers to the crowd, it’s as though she’s distributing bits of her ragamuffin heart.
It’s eerie how accurately “Nashville” pointed the way to the future. Here is our coming attachment to the “outsider” candidate, and our tireless hunger for authenticity and sincerity; here’s how feeling good about ourselves and griping about taxes came in the ’80s to take precedence over everything else political. In the film, once the crisis has been reached, every relationship snaps back to its previous state; we’re watching the country try to reaffirm its innocence. It rejects what it has seen of itself; the surface closes over again, like ice over a pond. This could almost be an anticipation of how, during the Reagan years, we acted out a manufactured version of normality and cheerfulness for ourselves.
Altman’s 1970-1975 streak can be seen as an extension of American painting from the mid-’50s on, and of American writing of the ’60s — as an example of pop art. For a couple of decades after World War II, pop — the teen-centered, Imperial America version of consumer culture — seemed young, irreverent and disrespectful of tradition and stuffiness, as well as garish and horrifying. To many artists, it seemed a great subject, source and vehicle for art. Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Terry Southern, among many others, took on pop subjects and worked in pop forms, bringing sophistication and perspective to pop while borrowing back its pizazz and accessibility. In a movie such as “Major Dundee,” Peckinpah dramatized his antagonistic relationship to pop with an abstract-expressionist fury. Altman was cooler, looser and more flexible — Robert Frank as a happy cartoonist.
The outdoor concert occurs at the Parthenon, a giant replica of the Greek temple erected for Nashville’s 1897 Centennial Exposition. (Originally constructed of wood and plaster, it was rebuilt in its present form in 1922.) The reporter Howard K. Smith does an essay on television about the candidate; the Goodyear blimp passes overhead flashing the candidate’s slogan. It’s a cloudy, milky day, but the colors are thick, broad and flat. We watch the stage being built, the traffic jam up and a line of black limos snake through town.
This getting-ready sequence seems straightforward, but it has a fated quality. (Even if you don’t respond to it as I do, it’s still a model of bringing strands together while keeping them all distinct.) I ran it over and over on my VCR, and I still can’t explain why it has the poised yet deranging, hallucinogenic effect it does. When the black limos pull onto the green grass behind the Parthenon, we watch them circle from above, between massive lemon-cream pillars. As Blakley and Gibson swing into a song, we’re above and behind them too. Then Blakley starts to sing about her parents, and we’re watching her from close up and underneath. There’s an immense flag fixed to the pillars behind her. When it billows out with the wind, you’re reminded of a scene earlier in the film. It’s at the airport; Blakley is returning from her convalescence to a city-sponsored welcome that’s like a parade. There are bands, reporters, crowds and marching girls. For a few seconds the sound of the entire scene is drowned out by a taxiing jet with a big “American” sign on its side. The colossal scale of the joke is part of the humor — it’s one of the biggest damn jokes since Buster Keaton tumbled a train into a river in “The General.”
Watching the earlier scene, you giggle. Here, when that flag billows out, you feel like you’re going insane. Blakley’s emotions surge, rise and crest. And amazingly, at that moment the sun — the sun! — comes out. The moment is so intense you don’t know whether you’re in ecstasy or whether you shouldn’t don an aluminum-foil hat to shield yourself from so many vibrations. All that’s on screen is a singer singing, yet — if you respond to Altman as I do — the inside of your skull feels as though it’s being painted on by such “artists of the insane” as Christian Wolfi. The feeling is sinister and beautiful; you feel there’s no turning back. Altman creates disordered, media-overload effects of the sort Thomas Pynchon is often said to create, and he does it without sacrificing aesthetic distance. (Pynchon always seems to me more interested in creating a nervous breakdown than in writing about one.) The center comes apart, and we’ve never felt freer. And we love our affliction.
3. The cinema of information
In the summer of 1975, I was a film student at NYU, and the day “Nashville” opened, I was among the first people in line at the Baronet. (Altman’s 1971 “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was the film that made me fall in love with movies.) Altman walked by with a few people, checking out the business. I ran after him and asked for an autograph. Feeling foolish, dizzy and thrilled, I gave him the only thing I had with me he could sign — a copy, as it turned out, of Karel Reisz’s book on film editing.
It was a cuckoo time. There was an intoxication about filmmaking and filmgoing — a euphoria and a fever. For many people, an interest in movies and movie history provided a way into the arts and a framework for exploring them. Films like “Nashville,” “The Conformist” and “The Godfather” were peak experiences that seemed to bring together all your interests in the arts — high and low, visual, auditory and literary. A figure like Godard or Altman or Coppola opened up new directions and led you into discoveries not just in art but also in your life, in terms of sex, philosophy, love, fantasy and friendship. So these figures meant something to you personally. They transformed you; they made a difference in your sense of what was possible.
By 1980, Altman was unable to find financing for his projects in Hollywood. He directed plays in New York, then moved to Paris and directed opera, TV and small films. He returned to Hollywood moviemaking in 1992 with “The Player.” By then, the baby boomers were running the joint. By now, they have set the tone in the media for 20 years. It’s striking how on-the-money Altman is in “Nashville” about the dark side of the baby boomers. Even when they’re successes, and even when they view themselves ironically as such, they always see themselves as outlaws. The character Keith Carradine plays — in his leather vest, his sun-kissed tresses, his contempt and his sensitivity — rings true in his vanity, his sense of entitlement and his selfishness. A character played by Cristina Raines is so wrapped up in her narcissism and masochism that she can barely bring herself to make baby talk. In the film, the older characters make an effort to keep up appearances. The hip, solipsistic younger people generally just act out.
In American movies, what the 25 years since the release of “Nashville” have brought is an evolution in the direction of selling the story and the hook — the movie equivalent of pop music’s three chords in 4/4 time. It’s as though the goal of filmmakers has become to make the package and the product one — to make the movie live up to its ad campaign. Given this, it isn’t surprising that Altman’s influence has been greater on TV than on movies. A few kinds of new-Hollywood film genres reflect his work: the ensemble film organized around a lifestyle or occupation theme (“Parenthood,” “Pushing Tin”), and the Mad-magazine style movie spoof (“Airplane,” the various “National Lampoon” movies). On TV, his influence can seem to be everywhere. “Hill Street Blues” and its mixed-mode, ensemble-cast descendants (“ER,” for instance) are straight out of “M*A*S*H.” The projects that combine story and documentary material in new ways, from the dramatic reenactments on shows like “A Current Affair” to attempts like Court TV and “Cops,” come out of Altman’s experiments in mixing fact and fiction.
In the years the baby boomers have been in charge, I’ve fallen out of love with moviegoing. What American movies deliver now are, on the one hand, Hollywood marketing extravaganzas and, on the other, what’s somewhat optimistically called the “independent cinema.” The extravaganzas are essentially big-budget versions of what were once known as exploitation pictures. The ’50s and ’60s exploitation films were often happy-go-lucky time-wasters and pocket-pickers. You could feel fond of a Roger Corman or a William Castle for aiming so low, and for taking the money and running. You didn’t resent them any more than you did the people who ran a carnival.
It’s hard to feel any fondness for the people behind films like “Dinosaur” or “Gone in 60 Seconds.” These films do the same kind of button-pushing as the old B pictures, and they often give the same impression of being made out of recycled stock footage. But there’s an immense commercial anxiety behind them, and you can sense that they’re basically respectable. (You can feel the careers hanging in the balance.) The people involved don’t seem to be entertaining vulgarians or small-time opportunists — they feel like yuppies taking advantage of our reflexes. Tony Scott, the director of such aggressive marketing machines as “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide,” has had his tasteful, serene house written up in interior-design magazines. And the independent films aren’t any more motivated by aesthetic concerns than the smasheroo studio films. They’re either illustrating a p.c. point or projecting a flip “alternative” attitude. The independent directors and producers often seem to think that the best response to database-driven commercial moviemaking is no technique at all. The result is anorexic filmmaking.
The language developed over a hundred years by such people as Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and Marcel Carné can sometimes seem to be a vanishing thing. I long ago became used to the fact that the movies I love don’t often succeed financially. What’s recently come as a surprise is how many of the films I’ve enjoyed most — from “Devil in a Blue Dress” to “The Last Bolshevik” to “Breakdown” to “Romance” — aren’t even talked about. They’re just ignored. I can’t help noticing that something these low-key films share is that they speak the language of movies. They draw on movie history and respond to it. I suspect that that’s what makes them irrelevant to most people.
In 1975, film was potentially the greatest of all the arts; in 2000, it’s one data stream among many. The hierarchical, centralized culture the baby boomers reacted against could be exclusionary, and its emphasis on ego and on greatness could be annoying. But it offered the possibility of something called “depth,” and it also provided a shared culture and language. The atomized, decentered culture we have now allows for horizontal ranging about; the new digital tools (and media) are irresistible; and the openness to cultural mixing is certainly a relief. But this mix-and-match culture can also seem shallow. If everything’s always available, why bother trying to unearth anything? (If it isn’t on a database, it doesn’t exist.)
A young Ivy League graduate I know made a success in arts journalism without ever having seen a Bergman picture. When she finally caught up with one, she was stunned to realize that there’d once been a time when people went to a movie theater to watch characters agonize and philosophize at each other. She hasn’t seen another Bergman since, and she hasn’t gone on to read any Scandinavian literature, or to search out further examples of Swedish films either. In Altman’s “The Player,” a comedy about what has become of Hollywood, a young studio executive is watching his career dissolve, and recovers his momentum only when he learns to stop worrying about integrity and depth. During my lunch with him, Altman observed wryly that one thing he could say for the executives he’d battled in the ’70s was that they cared enough about the work being done to get angry at you, and to hate your movies. Nowadays, when someone takes an idea upstairs for a decision, there’s nothing there but a computer.
Watched on videotape today, “Nashville” seems in its element in a way many movies don’t. It’s alive, and it doesn’t suffer from the fragmenting effects of stop-and-start, at-home viewing. This may be because Altman is instinctively drawn to multiple points of view and unresolved resolutions. It doesn’t exactly cohere, but it seems to bring our channel-surfing minds and experiences into some kind of loose relationship. It gives the impression of being a video installation rather than a routine feature; you can get the feeling that it’s playing on several monitors at once. Watching it made me think that one way of conceiving of TV is as movies gone to pieces and turned into wallpaper.
It also made me think that an upbeat way of looking at where we’ve arrived is this: We have been freed — perhaps against our will — of our attachment to the idea of art as a rebel activity, a gesture toward freedom made for the sake of the unconscious and revolution. Now it has become simply an activity some people pursue, and perhaps get something out of — as legitimate as (but no more vanguard than) business, cleaning, sports, science and child-rearing. “Nashville,” seen at this distance, looks like a snapshot of the moment when substance began to vaporize into information.
In 2010, when the movie turned 35, Dennis Cozzalio wrote beautifully about “Nashville.”
Although he was only 71 when he died this week, George C. Scott seemed like a performer from another era entirely. He had a giant presence and a raging masculine flamboyance that’s almost unimaginable in this era of Damons and Afflecks.
Born in 1927 in Appalachia, he grew up in Detroit. After four years in the Marines, he was in college studying journalism when he discovered the stage. He quit school soon after and threw himself into acting, doing more than a hundred roles in stock, where he became familiar with the joys and perils of the bottle. With the booze came the brawls. That striking nose of his? Broken four times in fights, and a fifth in a New York mugging. Discovered in 1957 by New York impresario Joe Papp, who cast him in the title role of “Richard III,” Scott received, by the end of that year, four major theatrical awards.
For more than two decades, he conducted an astounding career, becoming a star on TV and a major force on the stage. In the movies he roared through memorable performances in “The Hustler,” in “Dr. Strangelove” (as the war-mad Gen. Buck Turgidson), and in “Patton.” He had pugnacity and grandeur; he looked a little like Merle Haggard and a little like a statue of a Roman emperor. As an actor, he scorned, he thundered, he threatened. Mostly he dominated, working the old flamboyant-hambone tradition at a time when the softer, more introverted Method style was the rage.
Scott became notorious for his attitude towards prizes, labeling the Oscars a “meat parade,” and “a beauty contest in a slaughterhouse.” When it was announced at the 1971 Academy Awards that he had been voted the Best Actor prize for “Patton,” he was at home, watching ice hockey on TV. The following year he was voted an Emmy, and he refused that as well.
Did the booze burn him out? Although he was busy during the ’80s and ’90s, nothing he did during that time had anything like the resonance of so much of his work from the ’50s through the ’70s. In 1990, he had a heart attack. In 1996 he collapsed onstage during a Broadway performance of “Inherit the Wind,” and was operated on to correct an aortic aneurysm. Among his five marriages were two to the actress Colleen Dewhurst, and one to another actress, Trish Van Devere. The acting, it seems, was also in the blood; one of his six children is the actor Campbell (“Big Night”) Scott.
The three geographical and dramatic turning-points in the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” are initiated by Tereza. They occur when she’s interrogated and, surrounded by slides, negatives and projectors, understands that what for her has been an extension outward of herself — photography — is now being used against everything she cares about; when, in the western world, she is confused and upset by taking nude photographs of Sabina; and when she has sex with a near-stranger in occupied Prague. (These scenes embody the same cluster of issues, too: power, the uses and misuses of imagery, betrayal, and mirroring.) The central turning point of the film is the mutual-nude-photography session between Tereza and Sabina: the movie literally balances and turns on that scene of woman/camera/woman/mirrors. The scene itself is a double-sided mirror at the heart of the movie. After it, Tereza returns with Tomas to the Czech countryside, and Sabina winds up alone in California.
Philip Kaufman’s film has a life and liveliness quite distinct from the Milan Kundera novel it’s based on. The film is a combination of conceptual sophistication and lustiness that could be said to be about the lure of the idea of an Old Country. Tereza represents this, or something like it (the rural, the direct) to Tomas; Kaufman invites us to let Czechoslovakia itself, with its ancient culture and modern political tragedies, represent something like it to us. Viewed outside the terms of the movie, Tereza may appear to be a dumb, enchanting guilt-tripper, but it’s clear that the film uses her to draw from us our feelings about not being whole.
In the past, Kaufman tried to give some of his movies melancholy undertones. Here he makes melancholy the point of the film, proposing that we view Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche as representing what many educated adults feel torn away or cut off from. His work suggests that he believes that expertise, energy and sophistication can bring him only so far — that without what Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche represents, his own work isn’t emotionally complete. In this film, Kaufman isn’t just fearless about sentiment, he makes of traditional forms of sentiment (dappled forest light, the camera wheeling around and around embracing lovers, etc.) his very material.
It seems to me that Janacek’s music (a little like Dvorak’s, but much more so: Dvorak always remained a bit of a peasant himself) is about how learning a sophisticated language, even one you may love, can remove you from your sources. It’s about looking back and realizing you can never again utter a peasant’s unself-conscious cri de coeur. (Whether you were ever actually able to doesn’t really matter: Janacek can stand in our minds for a cosmopolitan man looking at the countryside, an emigré looking back on his homeland, or any of us contemplating childhood.) Time passing in this kind of work is implicit. Janacek, and Kaufman in this film, seem to simply turn around at a certain point and take note of the fact that time has passed, all on its own. (This is a constructed illusion: one way Kaufman achieves it is by making a motif of shots of passing countryside and water seen through car and train windows. He’s using these sentimental-movie-cliché shots in ways that suggest Janacek’s use of folk melodies, and he’s weaving our feelings about them into the movie.) Incorporating cris de coeur (even if those of others, even if of created others) into the work becomes a tribute, a resurrection and a nostalgic act. Janacek’s music is about the beauty of where you are and the beauty of where you (may or may not) come from and the distance between — and a little about how that distance has perhaps helped enable you to find the beauty in where you come from, has maybe even helped you express your love. It’s a little about the absurdity of all this. It’s about the costs and rewards of awareness.
Kaufman uses being in the position of being a Hollywood filmmaker with an international cast making a big-budget movie about Czechoslovakia in 1968 — he has worked that nuttiness into the film. (He uses Janacek’s music to mirror his themes.) Think about how Tomas and Sabina enjoy each other’s playful erotic expertise (and how Day-Lewis and Lena Olin enjoy each other’s acting expertise): when they’re with each other (and often when they’re with others) they manage to turn everything into an enticing erotic challenge. The fun of being together for them is taking everything, and responding to everything, erotically.
They recognize this ability in each other and delight in it; that’s the basis of their friendship, it’s what they share. With others, they’re sneaky, even if sneakily direct; with each other they can be direct, even if that means being direct about their sneakiness. Tomas looks out from under his eyebrows and says “Take off your clothes.” Painting for Sabina seems to be a way of turning herself on: she keeps her hat by her side, and sometimes wears sexy underwear as she paints. If turning herself on involves or demands other people, fine. The female Sabina makes herself into an object that can be fallen in love with, and her art work is all mirrors, silhouettes and water imagery; the goatish Tomas is a surgeon, all analysis and action.
This kind of expertise can produce its own high: remember Olin on the train with her Geneva lover when he tells her he’s married? For an instant she looks stricken — will she become angry or dismayed? Then she manages to get turned on by this new bit of information. It’s a torchy moment: she thrusts her head out the window and turns her face to the rain. Kaufman uses rain and water in the film for its associations with death, fate and history. Sabina is being impudent; she’s defying what the elements would have her do. She’s defying what Tereza contemplates returning to after she realizes that the tall Prague stranger she has sex with may not have had the cleanest of motives. Tereza is introduced to us swimming in a pool; later, in her nightmare/fantasy about Tomas’ catting around, she’s in a pool too, her vision bobbing above and then below the surface. And in the country, when Tereza and Tomas move there, it’s often raining.
When Day-Lewis is a window-washer — and Kaufman uses Tomas’ position vis à vis windows and frames to make his status in relation to established power clear: for instance, Tomas is introduced at the beginning of the film in a commanding position, “performing” and being observed through a window, ordering a nurse to take her clothes off — and the woman invites him in, he sees photos on a bureau of her with what could be her father or her husband, who appears to be a successful Party hack. There’s a moment — is Tomas thrown out of his intrigued, sexed-up mood by this, or can he sustain it? — and then he’s going with it, and when his eyes return to her you know something of the (power-saturated? vengeful?) flavor his sex with her will have. Purity doesn’t mean a lot to Sabina and Tomas. They’re fallen, and they like it that way.
The taste of sex-without-love changes for Tomas in the post-invasion country, but he can get off on the new taste, and even enjoy his ability to get off on it. That sex is now fraught with pitfalls and ugly possibilities doesn’t prevent him from taking erotic pleasure; he’s able to use the danger and his own resentment as flavors, spices. The danger terrifies and sickens Tereza. Kaufman uses the sound of breathing as one expression of this. When Tereza arrives at Tomas’ apartment early in the film and he raises her sweater, Kaufman amplifies her frightened, aroused breathing — it’s funny and sexy. When they have returned to Prague after the invasion and we again hear her breathing that clearly, it’s when she sniffs another woman’s scent in Tomas’ hair. Anticipation vs. surveillance: the political shift has effected them even on that level.
The effect of the political shift on what’s allowed is made clearest in this film’s theater/performance element. Tomas has written a little scribble for a newspaper about “Oedipus The King.” It’s intended both seriously and playfully — I mean it and I don’t mean it, and you know in which ways — and readers understand and enjoy it. When he returns to Prague after the invasion, and is wooed and grilled, the policeman asks Tomas if he “really” meant that the Party leaders should pluck their eyes out. Of course he didn’t, and you watch Tomas size up how things now work. What was once theater — playful and liberating — is now read literally and used against you.
The enjoyment of expertise can be a basis for companionship and comradeship — it’s like “The Right Stuff.” Whizz-bang, so to speak. All those scenes of Tomas and Sabina making it in front of her mirrors and mirror-sculptures: they enjoy their reflections, their self-consciousness. To them it’s an erotic heightener. (And it’s akin to the lustiness and showmanship, the surface zappiness, of Kaufman’s earlier movies.) There’s swagger and brio in their sex, as there’s swagger and brio in the way Day Lewis and Olin work the fairly-explicit sex into their performances — they seem to turn that into an erotic performance challenge. They enjoy being cut loose, they enjoy their sophistication — she’s an adventuress, he’s a buccaneer.
Then Tomas falls for pure/peasant/uncouth/soulful/rooted-in-the soil/simple Tereza, whose idea of getting into sex seems to involve not a whole lot more than smooshing herself against him. She comes to the city during the Prague Spring. She’s part of what the free atmosphere coaxes forth, and she emerges from herself, first from the country and then from Tomas’ apartment — we’re given a shot of her standing behind Tomas’ window — into the commerce of life via her camera.
Sexually, she’s a klutz, nothing but needs and fears. But when Tomas is with her, what he feels seems deeper, more direct and genuine. He discovers a whole range of what seems to him to be pure feelings; she awakens in him the belief that without a connection to something “genuine” he’s incomplete, and that she is that something “genuine.” What she stirs up in him he misses otherwise. When she returns to Czechoslovakia we see him, through a window, use on another barmaid the same routine — mouthing the word “cognac” — he used to pick up Tereza. He isn’t being callous, he’s a performer enjoying his bag of tricks. But it isn’t the same thing for him anymore.
Tereza’s feeling so often crushed has some relation to what Tomas finds himself loving in her, and in oppressed Czechslovakia. She feels lost and confused in Geneva; she can’t handle western-style freedom, and her confusion is brought out in the nude-photography scene: she’s aroused and terrified, she genuinely doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. (It suggests a world of total disconnectedness, and she can’t make sense of that.) Surrounded by mirrors and art and facing another woman, she can’t account for her confusion or her arousal. She grows terribly nonplused when she’s turned on by Sabina’s sexiness before a camera — her yielding to it and commanding it all at once — and by Sabina’s pointing the camera back at her nakedness; we’re given to understand she doesn’t even like being naked. (Tereza needs to feel undefined.)
In Prague, when she tries to even the score with Tomas the perpetual cocksman, she’s clenched and frightened, and she insists that her partner pull back the curtains that are hung around his room to show that he’s hiding nothing. Kaufman lets us register the contrast with Sabina, who, on the train, enjoyed the wiliness — the role-playing and duplicity — of the pretending-to-be-asleep voyeur. Tereza hides behind frames without recognizing them as such until she’s urged out; Sabina propels herself into new situations, then puts frames around them and moves on.
Tereza can’t bring herself to enjoy the performance aspect of sex; Tomas and Sabina work costumes and playacting into their sex, and enjoy posing before mirrors. Binoche’s being so “available” yet not an accomplished performer jibes with this. What she is as an actress (at least here) in relation to Day Lewis and Olin parallels what Czechoslovakia (history! tragedy! a peasant culture!) can mean to an American: pure soul.
Much later, when Tereza and Tomas have retreated to the Czech countryside and go with their farming buddies to a country bar, she’s so at ease that she dances and teases and flirts; she’s consciously vamping Tomas. It’s the first time we have seen her do any active seducing; this is the only environment in which she feels secure enough to play. In California — all glorious surfaces — Sabina paints a picture of the ocean: she consciously, knowing the effort and what it costs, erects not a wall but a scrim between her and sorrow/fate. She needs to be able to experience her emotions as fully as possible yet not to be stymied by them. She thrives on what disconnectedness makes possible. (Only death rends the scrim.)
Kaufman’s movie is like a Janacek work, the filmmaker incorporating “Czechoslovakia” into his film as Janacek incorporated folk songs into his music, as Tomas incorporates Tereza into his life. It’s funny and touching that, in the movie, “Czechoslovakia” is as created (from France and other places, as well as from newsreels) as “Tereza” is. We’re not really seeing “soul,” we’re seeing an actress; we’re not really seeing Czechoslovakia, we’re seeing locations put to work. The doctored photographs that show up — the woman’s father or husband with Brezhnev; Erland Josephson with Kennedy and Khrushchev — and the whole passage about the Russian invasion, which is a kind of extended-through-time doctored photograph, have a special poignancy in this context. Kaufman is using movie fakery to make the emotions more immediate. He lets us realize, when Sabina puts her head out the train window, that Olin is performing in front of a blue screen and facing fake rain, but the effect is the enhancement of the character’s (and the actress’) impassioned recklessness.
Kaufman uses the newsreel footage similarly. When Tarkovsky and Wenders use newsreel footage, you can sense — despite what the filmmakers seem to be saying (which is usually about the need to leave the confines of your own head) — that what they’re doing is working the newsreel footage into their mournful and virtually totally self-reflexive fiction. Ie., their conceptual thinking is more important to them than the historical events the footage, in whatever way, portrays.
Kaufman’s approach liberates libido; he works the story and the characters into the newsreel. He alters the newsreel footage and lets us know it: we have the fun of trying to figure out how it’s been altered even as we register the awfulness of the invasion, and experience the rupture it represents in Czechoslovakian history (and in the film). For Kaufman, using this footage is a tribute art (as a part of life) pays to life (which includes art even as it washes it away and moves on). Though Kaufman never shows Tomas and Tereza rising into the heavens, the movie’s final image — it’s of a road through a forest, seen through the front windshield of a moving truck; the image grows brighter, suggesting pure radiance — may be the most beautiful Ascension ever put on film. What the light elicits depends on us.
Robert Altman plays with the elements of film-making the way jazz musicians play with tunes and changes, the way painters like Jasper Johns and Jim Dine play with pop iconography. He destabilizes the elements he works with, opening them and making them part of larger processes, part of a flow. He works with what you’re not used to admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories.
Altman’s one-time assistant Alan Rudolph recalls that Altman used to say to him, “Nobody makes the films they want to make, they make the films they’re able to make.” Altman’s film-making suggests an ethos of taking your clue from what life presents to you. “I don’t go in and say, Let’s see how we can do it differently,” says Altman. “It’s more like, I don’t want to do that, because I’ve seen that. And also, it never rings true to me. It’s more starting at the inside of these projects and building them from the inside out. I’m always surprised myself by what the exterior, the total package, looks like.”
His 1992 film, “The Player,” is another easygoing goof on an institution. In his 1971 “M*A*S*H” it was the Army; in his 1975 “Nashville” it was politics and the country-music industry. Here, it’s Hollywood. The picture is naughty, and it has dazzle and audacity. But “The Player” doesn’t have the all-devouring quality of Altman’s early 1970s work, or the intensity and concentration — of bitterness, exile, rancor, and obsessiveness — of some of the work he made in the 1980s after leaving Hollywood. “The Player” may remind us of the great Altman films, but it isn’t really great: it’s movie-making as sunny-spirited recreation. Is there a danger Robert Altman will become a benevolent, lovable sweetie? Altman’s relationship with his subject isn’t the antagonistic one you’d expect, given his history with Hollywood. He doesn’t seem to have a serious quarrel with the film industry anymore. It’s like a formerly married couple spending an evening together: maybe they wrangle and feel some of the old heat, but in the end they back off. They’ve learned they can live and let die.
In “The Player,” which is taken from a Michael Tolkin novel that’s essentially a writer’s hate letter to the movie business, the central character is the once-thought-to-be-rising studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). He feels his career is riding on every decision. He’s freaked out and paranoid; Altman and Tolkin suggest that this is the normal emotional state of Hollywood people on the make. Griffin is having trouble being a player. Something’s holding him back and torpedoing his prospects. His girlfriend, Bonnie, who is a story editor at the studio where he works and who is his ally in his job wars, doesn’t excite him. At the office, he’s picking up bad vibes — it’s rumored that another young hotshot is being brought in and will rank above him. He’s also receiving threatening, homicidal postcards from an anonymous writer whom he has evidently snubbed. Griffin is a brat, but a brat in torment; the postcards bring together the lousy feelings he has about his life. So when he thinks he has figured out who the writer is, he tries to placate his suspect by offering him a deal. But this writer isn’t grateful, and Griffin’s rage gets the better of him. As Altman presents the movie, it’s a joke on the idea of the “up” Hollywood ending: Griffin learns (you always have to learn something in a Hollywood film) to live with being a murderer, and this releases him from his torment.
Altman opens “The Player” with a bang — a virtuoso shot that begins with an image of a clapper coming down in front of a mural depicting early film-making. During this shot’s eight minutes, what we see and hear includes a discussion of the virtues of fast cutting vs. continuous, unbroken shots; a chat about the famous opening shot in “Touch of Evil”; two different close-ups of a postcard; several cases of mistaken identity; a variety of activities seen through windows; a group of Japanese visitors on a studio tour; and three or four movie “pitches.” This shot sets the stage for a film that could be said to be about the manipulation of images, and frames within frames.
Altman moves in tight for Griffin’s drama, and then backs off and takes in the moviemaking world, a cuckoo-land where lives, careers, and projects exist in a state of perpetual, dangling uncertainty. The movie is filled with “real” celebrities — actual performers and film-makers playing themselves. You’re kept (enjoyably) uncertain about which performers are appearing as themselves and which you’re being asked to accept as fictional characters. We can take this as a visualization of Griffin’s paranoia, as well as of how much of life in the movie world consists of stargazing — in Hollywood, you’re always on the lookout. A producer (Carolyn Pfeiffer) who attended the first screening of “The Player” says that afterward, when the lights came up, it was as though the movie had spilled out into the auditorium — the audience was full of film business types, and some of them had been up on the screen.
It’s usually a gag when Altman moves in tight on Griffin again. We laugh at this spoiled boy’s fears and humiliations, and at his “dignity.” When Malcolm McDowell (playing himself) spots Griffin at a hotel and needles him, Griffin is shaken; for a second he looks as if he might burst into tears. When the Pasadena police grill him about the writer’s death, they unnerve him with their small talk and their unsmoothed-out eccentricities. (In “The Player,” Pasadena contrasts with Hollywood; it’s where a rep house plays “The Bicycle Thief,” where the “truth” is still an issue, and where Griffin’s power strategies count for nothing at all.)
For Griffin, writers might almost be interchangeable nuisances. When he tries to locate the author of the threatening postcards, he’s willing to settle for the first name that’s plausible. In a sinister, oddly fluid and beautiful scene, he drives up to this fellow’s house and calls him on his cellular car phone; he gets June (Greta Scacchi), a painter who is the writer’s girlfriend. Although he’s calling from right outside her house, Griffin lets her assume he’s at his office. He walks from window to window, looking in on her as they talk; she moves about, playing with her paints and paintings. The camera moves from outside the house with him and his phone and his pretence to inside with her and her reflection — it’s night and the house is lit up from within. June is dressed in flowing white. The interior of the house is white and blue, and it’s full of paints and jars, and hung and stacked paintings. Transparent and patterned shower curtains hang from the ceiling, and photos are taped to the walls and the refrigerator door. Everything is mingling and filmy; the imagery may put you mind of tissues and placentas and pregnancy. This is June’s bell jar, but she isn’t coming apart, she’s happy, moist and glowing — a woman in her own world, “creating.” (Later, after he’s met her, Griffin asks which gallery she sells through; she explains she doesn’t sell because she’s never finished with her work. These images are her feelings, and she’s never done feeling.) They talk and flirt. She explains that her strange last name — Gudmundsdottir — is Icelandic; there’s some banter about Greenland being icy and Iceland being green. Somehow the Red Sea is mentioned.
When he goes off to find the writer, Griffin thinks that what he wants is to make amends. (What we learn in the course of the film is that what he really wants is not to be bothered by his scruples anymore.) David Kahane, the writer Griffin finds, is loud, angry, and shabby — a perpetual grad-student type who is intent on his autobiographical movie idea about a student in Japan. The plot of the “The Player” turns on whether the studio is vulnerable to a Japanese takeover; Griffin and Kahane’s conversation mostly takes place at a Japanese karaoke restaurant/bar, where customers get on stage and, looking into a monitor and singing into a mike, perform to canned music, with a screen above them projecting MTV-like imagery and subtitles (“Why can’t we start over?”). Nearly everything in the film is doubled and tripled in this way. And the question of who owns the image is always being posed.
Kahane guesses that Griffin discovered his whereabouts from June, whom he refers to as “the ice queen.” Griffin doesn’t really flip until Kahane taunts him: Everyone knows Griffin can’t O.K. projects any more, that the new executive is supplanting him. When Griffin is fired, what will become of him? “I can write. What can you do?” yells Kahane. That’s when Griffin’s rage overcomes him; he kills the writer, holding his head in a puddle that reflects red light — the writer dies in a “red sea.”
Part of the reason the executives hate writers is that they depend on them; the writers actually come up with ideas. Altman sets up a writing-related satirical scheme; in this picture, the more you’re attached to writing, the more conscience-stricken and miserable you’re likely to be — and the more full of integrity. The unhappy story editor Bonnie is a “tragic” character; she gets more and more shut out as the movie goes along. Early on, Griffin himself stands up for writers at a meeting where the new hotshot is passing around an issue of the L.A. Times so he can show his finesse at improvising movie subjects from public (i.e., free) sources. Griffin watches the paper with dread; a small front-page headlines announces David Kahane’s death of the night before.
Altman uses a writer/director played by Richard E. Grant for contrast with Kahane. The Grant character broadcasts how uncompromising he is. His idea for a film, he’s quick to point out, requires no stars and an unhappy ending — because that’s how life is. He gets tearful when he tells his downbeat story, he moves himself so. He’s brilliant at using the appearance of daring, integrity, and passion: he’ll do well for himself. By the end of the “The Player,” he has turned his vision into an upbeat Julia Roberts/Bruce Willis vehicle. “The audience wrote this ending,” he exults.
Altman catches a central thing about Hollywood: Griffin, like all the other executives, is always at pains to manipulate “image” to make the most impressive possible statement about himself. The depiction of Hollywood life feels authentic — these people have enormous egos, yet they are wildly insecure; they don’t really have anything that’s theirs. Something is forever eluding them — the idea, the hit, the magic. So it’s always crucial to give the impression you possess the magic — everything becomes a matter of positioning, strategy, and one-upsmanship.
“The Player” shares with Altman’s 1973 “The Long Goodbye” a breezy sense of humor about movie-fed foolishness and a distinctive view of corruption. Altman doesn’t overdo the corruption in either of these films: everything that counts can be bought and sold, yet the environment isn’t ominous. Inside and outside spill into each other, as they do in L.A. Altman’s camera zooms in, zooms back, changing position and focal length, moving from room to room, from inside to outside. This is a visual realization of what happens in your head when you spend time in L.A.: you stop worrying about what’s real and what’s not.
The two films also share a vision of L.A. as a make-believe city bedazzled by the movies. Yet “The Long Goodbye,” for all its sophistication and cynicism, has a little nostalgia for what people tend to think of as the “kind of movies Hollywood doesn’t make anymore” — with the old stars and the old glamour, with the “well-told stories” — essentially, escapist fantasies from the 1930s and 1940s. The Hollywood of “The Player” doesn’t have that depth or beauty, or that quality of fantasy. It doesn’t even seem to bother feeding its own myth. It’s simply a place sharp people exploit. The characters here aren’t square; they’re media-savvy, hip cynics — in this world, everyone’s become a connoisseur of self-reflexiveness. And there’s an extra layer of technology, technology within technology: car phones, faxes, phones in screening rooms. (When Griffin opens up his glove compartment and there’s a fax machine at work and it prints out a replica of a postcard, the Chinese boxes seem endless.) This is an environment where media competition and attention-getting have become the only activities anyone admits to believing in or standing by.
June the painter has no awareness at all of the movie business; it seems to strike her as little more than a glamorous lark. Courting her, Griffin takes her to a resort in Desert Hot Springs favored by film-business people because they’re kept anonymous there. “Do places like this really exist?” she says in delight. “Only in the movies,” he replies. The spas are glowing and blue, but they have been set among boulders and rocks; they have been given “natural”-seeming shapes. Let’s go into the water, June suggests. “You’re not really Icelandic,” guesses Griffin. “Oh, did I say that?” says June.
June’s acceptance of the surface and only the surface might seem like a form of brain damage in Europe; in L.A., it’s the city’s special form of grace. June makes it all up as she goes along; she plays with images. Apart from the cops, she’s the one character in the movie who isn’t in the film world; she’s the only character Altman doesn’t really satirize. (This makes her seem rather indefinite; and Scacchi seems to get only about halfway into the groove.) Many of June’s paintings have words and letters in them, stenciled (it seems), but very painterly, with drizzles and drips. Griffin asks June if she likes words, and she answers, “I like words. I like letters. Sentences I’m not crazy about.” Griffin is entranced; he is sprung loose from what binds him to words.
Griffin is completed by his involvement with June — the film world doesn’t make him crazy anymore. He has shaken free of his feelings of responsibility. He just doesn’t care, and that makes him a winner. He can play on the surface and not be dragged down by his conscience — this is seen, satirically, as a triumph. Getting away with murder becomes the most freeing event in his life.
Altman framed “M*A*S*H” with a p-a system, which was constantly making bungled announcements for old war movies that were going to be shown in a tent somewhere. In “The Player” he frames the action with posters for old crime pictures. They’re gaudy: the titles are amusingly “dramatic,” and the ad copy on them is hype from another era. “M*A*S*H” ends with the p-a system announcing a final movie, which turns out to be the one we’ve just seen. At the end of “The Player,” Griffin is driving home after a day at the office. He receives a call on his car phone and listens to a pitch from the writer who actually wrote him the postcards that filled him with terror; it’s the story of the movie we’ve just seen. The faceless writer could be any one of hundreds of writers who have pitched their movie ideas to Griffin. Is the writer blackmailing him? He might be, but Griffin is intrigued anyway: who cares where a marketable story comes from?
As he steers through the L.A. streets, Griffin is wearing a black suit with charcoal pinstripes. He has traded in his enclosed Range Rover for a black Rolls Royce convertible, and the vivid red leather interior glows in the sun. Griffin is happy and masterful. He drives up to his home and we’re given a shot of big lush red roses; through them we see a pregnant, radiant June welcoming him. The blue and white of the ice queen; the black of the demonic; the red of sexual excitement and fullness — even June’s dress has some red in it in addition to the usual blue and white. Griffin and June hug; male and female merge. This is American wedded bliss, Altman is saying good-naturedly: red, white, and blue against black.
It doesn’t seem to bother Altman much. Is one reason “The Player” doesn’t have a lot of bite that Altman just can’t take seriously the anguish of a vain young studio executive? Tim Robbins has gravity, focus, and a delight in being found silly; he manages to suggest that Griffin would dearly love people to believe that the thoughts he’s keeping to himself are dignified and impressive. And with his height (6’5″) and his huge baby’s head, Robbins is quite a camera subject. But Altman’s Griffin — the center of the film — is thin. The Griffin of the novel has evil in him, and the reader experiences the world as Griffin experiences it. Altman moves the malevolence out into the system generally, where it disperses and becomes a shared craziness.
Altman sees the current Hollywood as nothing but an absurd business based on fleecing people, empty even of the entertaining hucksterism of old. But Hollywood people don’t seem to take the movie as a hate letter to themselves; this satire of Hollywood is embraced by its targets. They can enjoy “The Player” because there’s nothing really adversarial about it. Altman is saying out loud what they all think and feel; his film jibes with their view of themselves. (It’s like the last Buñuel films, which tickled the haute bourgeoisie Buñuel once threatened with murder.) “The Player” doesn’t add up to much more than a very sleekly done roast — an amusing series of inside jokes choreographed around and through the familiar restaurants, offices, and parking lots. Altman isn’t fighting the business people. Now they can accept him as a master.
“Disclosure,” from Michael Crichton’s potboiler, is a facsimile of an absorbing movie. It’s a humanoid with a heart of silicon that has been sheathed alluringly and made to perform some fluid dance steps. The crisis-in-the-workplace atmosphere is what’s most original about the movie. You’re drawn to notice the way a secretary avoids her boss’s eyes when she knows something she doesn’t want to tell him. You wonder what that group down by the elevator could have been meeting about at this time of day.
The director, Barry Levinson, has fitted the film out with an oil-rubbed, yuppie opulence — weathered wood and time-worn brick, lush Pacific Northwest greenery. Ennio Morricone’s score supplies a suave version of old-fashioned movie-music warmth and grandeur. “Disclosure” may be for audiences that ask only for something a little more movielike — bigger, more adult — than the TV they usually watch. But it’s a handsome, professional job.
Demi Moore is Meredith, a lustrous package of calves, thighs, greed and cleavage, wrapped in a power suit. Michael Douglas is Tom, a roll-up-your-sleeves family man. Both are employees of a Seattle computer firm. They had an affair back when Tom was single; now she gets the promotion he was hoping for, and she becomes his boss. She invites him to a meeting in her new office. “You’ve kept in good shape, Tom,” she says with throaty appreciation; then she comes on to him mercilessly. From there on out, it’s dueling accusations, and Tom’s struggle to keep his job and protect his family. No, not just that, but to establish the truth, goddammit.
We know Tom deserves his righteousness because we’re shown his kids, his matronly wife, and his iconic home: fireplace, cushions, warm lights, comforters. We know Meredith is evil because she works out on a Stairmaster, and because we never see her at home. All she has in her fridge, we’re told, is an orange and some champagne.
The company’s building (designed by Neil Spisak) is the film’s central showpiece and metaphor. It’s a matter of PC networks, black steel and leather, slipped into an arches-and-fluted-columns, renovated industrial space, with an atrium that’s like a small opera hall. It’s a stylish beehive, a pull-off-your-tie workplace. It’s also sliced up by panels of glass, and it’s unnervingly well-wired — i.e., watch your back. The audience murmurs when Tom starts receiving mysterious e-mails, and when, after a career of keeping his office open, he begins swinging his glass door shut.
Friends tell me they enjoy Crichton’s overcaffeinated-but-not-too-gonzo pacing, and the enthusiasm in the press for his current TV series, “ER,” has focused on its pace. “It’s an adrenaline rush of velocity, trauma, pathos and heroism,” wrote Rick Marin in Newsweek. “It’s like channel surfing without having to hit the remote.”
Information overload isn’t my idea of entertainment — I get enough of it at work — but I also have other problems with Crichton. He has zero sensuality and no descriptive powers. He has a way with pop hooks, but the novels seem to consist of nothing but research, coincidences, and downtime. In his novel “Congo,” the loopiest of the bunch (to be released in movie form this summer), he piles on the jaw-droppers — he subjects his jungle-explorer heroes to a political revolution, cannibals, killer gorillas, angry hippos, and a volcano that’s ready to blow. It’s a high-tech “Tarzan,” minus campiness and sexiness.
A mixture of technocrat and Dr. Frankenstein, Crichton projects the mechanical onto the organic; he’s fascinated by people hooked up to life-support systems. Where does the person end and the machine begin, and vice versa? If he has a theme, that’s it. The central image of his work is an ID card being run through a slot, and providing ingress to a fancy lab.
I’ve sped through a number of his books, but the only two I’ve sped through happily are the most recent, “Rising Sun” and “Disclosure.” In them he’s gone from futuristic cautionary claptrap to torn-from-the-headlines cautionary claptrap, and he’s become an angry man, an op-ed novelist. The topicality and fire give filmmakers something to contend with. The director of “Rising Sun,” Philip Kaufman, did a lot of script tweaking and creative casting, and made a film that was a hip, off-hand comedy about multiculturalism, as well as an essay about the dissolution of the movie image.
Barry Levinson works more broadly, and in square, showbusiness terms; his work has gone into making things smooth and acceptable. It’s a creamy example of contemporary Hollywood retrofitting. Levinson and his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, have made the film more balanced than the book. In the novel, for instance, Tom’s wife is a feminist shrew who leaves town with the kids for the duration of the brouhaha; in the movie she sticks around to witness, suffer, and be loyal.
But, like Kaufman, Levinson is also writing an essay, in his case about what movies have become. It’s a joke about how work-obsessed the country is that, as for the homey but high-tech Seattle, all we get — aside from some cityscapes and a little time on the ferries — is a single sequence. The company’s CEO (Donald Sutherland) is driving Douglas to a hearing, and is trying to con him into a deal. We see the city reflected in the car’s windows.
Michael Douglas’ peevishness and flabby sarcasm don’t put off the audience. Moore’s lack of stature and tenacity don’t either. You could criticize the film by saying that no sparks fly between Douglas and Moore, even in their operatic near-coitus scene, but Douglas doesn’t lose face playing the anguished virgin. A man who waits until after the cock-sucking and panty-ripping to pull himself away from a woman should be a joke, and some members of the audience do giggle. But they don’t give up on the film. Moore and Douglas have been in hits and on the covers of magazines, thus they’re stars, and thus they have sex appeal.
Levinson seems aware that Douglas and Moore are simulacra. (Most of the rest of the cast is loose and funny.) They’re what we build films around today, he’s saying, as we build films around Crichton’s flow-chart plots. The filmmaker’s role is to customize these elements to the audience’s preference, to dress the robot. (In fact, you read Moore’s character by her clothes: is it charcoal miniskirts and stiletto heels today, or a severe pantsuit?) Levinson is half going along with this, and half taking note of it.
It’s heartening that almost no one in the press has gotten worked up about the reversal on the usual sex-harassment pattern. No one except The New York Times’ Caryn (Dial-a-Theme-Piece) James, that is. She argues that the film unconsciously expresses men’s fear of powerful women, and she includes the inevitable reference to Anita Hill. Her editors obligingly ran a photo of Hill taking the oath.
It’s one of the funnier assumptions many writers on pop culture make, that a (for instance) committee-created artifact costing tens of millions of dollars is likely to express much of anything unconsciously. The fact is that no one leaves the theater after “Disclosure” discussing, or arguing about, sexual harassment. (What they talk about is how sweaty the “C’mon, let’s do it!” “No, I mustn’t!” scene is.) Women in the audience have no trouble hissing Meredith, Demi Moore’s character. You’d think Caryn James would be happy that it’s now OK for a woman to be the powerful villain. But then, Caryn James — quick to use feminist ideology as a substitute for thinking and responding — is the Meredith of film reviewers.
When, in earlier movies, the hero entered deeper realms — entrails — in search of truth, he usually found himself in caves, basements, abandoned factories, a sewer system. Here, he enters a virtual-reality database. The populist feelings the movie targets concern jobs, computers and bosses — especially anger at the way jobs are taking up more of our lives, yet are becoming more unstable. The film’s glamour and suspense have to do with our sense that we’re sacrificing our time and our personalities to the exciting, mysterious microchip god.
Like “Fatal Attraction,” “Disclosure” does one of those things pop movies are supposed to do, but do rarely, which is give us something recognizable that we don’t get from more serious work. In “Fatal Attraction,” it was the archetype of the dangerously-crazy, 45ish, unattached career woman. In “Disclosure,” it’s a sense of the way the boundaries between our personal lives and our jobs are eroding, and how much we resent that. The film’s limitation is that Tom, the hands-on guy we identify with, is involved in making computers, and there’s no irony about his complicity in making machines that will distance us from direct experience yet one more step.
Meredith, alluring and ruthless, yet empty, is one of those automatons Crichton finds sexy yet warns us against. If Crichton were an artist rather than a moralist-entertainer, he’d admit that Meredith isn’t just his enemy — she’s also his muse.
Meryl Streep’s performance in Robert Zemeckis’ new movie “Death Becomes Her” doesn’t wipe out memories of the hours of classy boredom she’s inflicted — instead, it makes amusing use of them. As a dragon-lady star of stage and screen, Streep scrawls nasty things on “Meryl Streep,” the A-student. (In all fairness, it must be admitted that for several pictures — “She-Devil,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Defending Your Life” — she has been trying to subvert her image.) An immaculate performer, she doesn’t have the messiness or the subterranean qualities that true popular stars have. Here, her performance is like a Mad magazine parody of a Streep performance, only she’s giving it herself — and she has edge and dirt. You can finally see what people who saw her on stage have always said they saw — a sense of fun. She may be constitutionally incapable of cutting loose; even her yowls and hisses are impeccably modulated. But her control is part of the joke, and she seems wise to it.
“Death Becomes Her” is a striking horror comedy about glamour and the desire for eternal youth — an enjoyably malicious Hollywood act of self-desecration. Streep is the aging star; Goldie Hawn is the dormouse best friend, whose fiancés Streep keeps stealing. They play female drag queens, scrapping to the death over a guy who isn’t worth it (and who knows he isn’t worth it) — a plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis. Isabella Rossellini, in a low-slung sarong and Salomé necklaces, is a siren with an elixir that defies time and aging. Her presence, with its echoes of cosmetic ads and of her mother, kicks the movie into fantasyland.
The screenwriters, David Koepp and Martin Donovan, have described their script as “Night of the Living Dead as Noel Coward would have done it” — it’s pure camp ghoulishness and bitchiness. Robert Zemeckis’ direction is all boyish exuberance and technological hi-jinks. Zemeckis, who is known for his mock-heroic, Moebius-strip action comedies such as “Used Cars” and the “Back to the Future” series, goes for debonair comic poise. But the film still has its rambunctiousness — it’s like an Ealing comedy as the young Steven Spielberg might have directed it.
As a failure who’s out of his league, half-boozed and skidding around corners, Willis doesn’t just play against type. He creates a convincingly small man with ordinary failings and wholesome goals; he’d like to live out a Capra film but he’s caught up in a Puccini opera. Goldie’s a joy in her scenes with Meryl when they’ve made up after their feuds — they’re girls together again, finishing each other’s sentences. And when Goldie’s weight balloons in misery — itself a joke on the actress’s obvious fanaticism about her figure — she seems inspired. If she’s not as successful in her other scenes, this isn’t just because her own features have clearly gotten some surgical tune-ups but because she hasn’t figured out a Phyllis Diller-like way of acknowledging and enjoying the improvement. On some level she’s still hoping we won’t notice.
Zemeckis plays with elements straight out of horror films: turrets, mirrors, shadows, fireplaces, arches, thunder and lightning. It’s “Kane” and it’s “Frankenstein,” with the iconography used not for depth and resonance (however pseudo), but cartoonishly. (And the special effects are used for L.A.-gothic shivers.) Zemeckis, the misanthropic puppet-master — the filmmaker as mad-scientist/cartoonist — is too cold-hearted to achieve beauty, but he gives the film a spooky, layered, visual splendiferousness. He wraps the action in oversized marble staircases and columns that are a parody of Hollywood postmodern/baronial luxe. They’re meant to contrast with the characters’ pettiness and narcissism. This epic décor is a joke about how the glamour factory is also a horror factory where people try to turn themselves into monuments to themselves. The composer Alan Silvestri partners Zemeckis, heightening the already-overdone Hollywood thing and making it even more absurdly grand.
Zemeckis has the soul of a mid-American media-junkie kid. He’s frankly in love with speed and cheapness, over-the-top-ness, camera hysteria, genre clichés — with the vulgarity of film, and with the ways movies can overstimulate us. His style expresses the uncontrollable enthusiasm of a small boy turned on by the huge movie image and engulfing music.
But the film’s combination of wit and physicality unnerves some people, as though you ought to be allowed only one or the other. These people find Zemeckis’ perversity and excitement an assault; they want to be asked to care for the characters on screen. Zemeckis never asks you to believe in what he’s showing you; in his films, human values exist only to be mocked.
Zemeckis excites us, then needles our responsiveness to the movie image — not for an art effect, but strictly for our entertainment. He’s a companionable sadist. Like Joe Dante and Brian De Palma, Zemeckis can seem crude, dumb and childish to Europeans, and to people who cling to European-style notions about art and seriousness. He’s the opposite of an art movie-maker; the tradition he’s working in is of overbright commercial entertainment. Yet in “Used Cars” and “Death Becomes Her,” he provokes some of the same responses Buñuel sometimes did. (It’s another sign of how well-digested “revolutionary” as an aesthetic criterion has become that people who have learned to appreciate surrealism and to talk with approval of its revolutionary intent get riled by “Death Becomes Her.”)
Zemeckis gives viewers no moral vision to hang onto; putting over his cartoon effects is his only morality. Streep’s noggin gets bopped and her neck breaks and hinges over backwards, leaving her head hanging upside down between her shoulder blades. Goldie Hawn rises from being shot, angry as hell and with a hole a foot wide in her gut. It’s cheerfully gruesome and macabre — pop Buñuel.
“Death Becomes Her” is such a rowdy hunk of polished malevolence that it made American media people fret and freak when it was released this summer. It’s a kick watching the hypersensitivities erupt — adults grow touchy about the things they threw darts at as kids. Variety’s scorecard of critics’ reactions showed 14 negative and only five positive reviews. David Denby proclaimed from on high, or least in New York magazine, that it was all he could do to refrain from calling the film the worst big-budget movie he’d ever seen: “anxiety, loathing and self-hatred gush from its pores,” he thundered. (When evil needs crushing Denby’s your man.) Even the people who devised the publicity campaign felt it necessary for the ads to spell out that the film is a black comedy.
Perhaps just raising the topic of women and aging is enough to put some people in the mood not to laugh, and to make them find a film cruel to its women characters. It’s probably no use pointing out that the film is cruel to everyone, and that’s the fun — pleasure in amoral vindictiveness is not the kind of fun these people want from a movie. Of course Zemeckis sees his women as monsters. But he’s also tickled by their overblown crass vitality and their cut-throat determination to have things their way. The plastic surgeon, who wants to live out a normal lifespan and redeem himself with humane works, is cackled at. He’s a sucker, a softie who wants to do good — he’s like the people in the audience who are horrified by the film.
Zemeckis apparently lacks the desire to do anything elevated in tone. (He’s an anti-do-gooder.) But it may be that his mean-spiritedness is what gives him staying power and keeps his work enjoyable. He has made a few films some of us have regarded as duds (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future II”); he has asked us to care about his characters a few times (“Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future”); and this film has some glitches of logic. But throughout the whole of his career (it began in 1978 with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), he has never once romanticized his feelings, not even his feelings about movies.
Cheerfully lowbrow, Zemeckis’ pictures can be wonderfully complicated and suggestive. “Death Becomes Her” may get you thinking about how the overlapping themes of time-travel and of bringing the dead back to life are among the most potent themes of pop movies. And, like all his films, it’s full of screens, reflections, frames and projections. You could set a team of grad students to work on such topics as “Zemeckis’ use of blue-screen effects,” or “the foreground/background joke,” or “contraptions, toys and models as metaphors for the filmmaking process,” or “old movie cannibalization and the new movie image,” and keep them busy for years. But Zemeckis doesn’t get poetic; he gets the giggles. His hall of mirrors is located at the suburban multiplex.