“Nashville,” directed by Robert Altman

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“Nashville” at 25

By Ray Sawhill

1. 1975

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Henry Gibson

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.

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Robert Altman directing “Nashville”

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

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Ronee Blakley and Allen Garfield

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.

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Barbara Harris (in yellow top)

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.

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Ronee Blakley

“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.

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Lily Tomlin

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

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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.

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Scott Glenn and Geraldine Chaplin

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.

©2001 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“The Player,” directed by Robert Altman

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Hollywood’s Hip Cynicism

By Ray Sawhill

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 player2

“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.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“The Funeral,” directed by Juzo Itami

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The Sound of Flowers Burning and Other Ghost Properties

By Ray Sawhill

Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” the second film he directed but the first to be released in the U.S., conveys a child’s delight in splashing food around and a happy director’s delight in playing with movie conventions and genres. It’s free-form, bright-colored and high-flying. “The Funeral” — his first movie as a director, although it only recently opened in America — is relatively subdued and even-toned. It’s so well-mannered that some may take it as a generic exercise in estheticized comic melancholy. But you may find it enjoyably peculiar, as I did: quiet and spare, yet lustrous and inviting. It has the quality of certain jokes that you repeat to yourself time and time again, wondering why you enjoy them so much. Itami, who is said to be an expert cook, has designed his film to be a passing, melting pleasure, experienced most fully in the savoring of it. Like “Tampopo,” “The Funeral” seems meant to turn you into a gourmand and a food critic, only in this film, resonances and aftertastes are what Itami orchestrates.

The film is narrated by a successful middle-aged actor, who is married to an actress he sometimes works with. In the opening scenes, her father, who lives in a country home near the ocean with her mother, has a bad heart attack. He pulls himself over the floor to the porch; when his wife finds him there, he explains that he was trying to get a look at the ocean — that the sight of it had helped him over such spells before. A few days later, in the hospital, he dies. The film’s skeleton is a chronicle of the ceremonies — and the preparations and worries that attend them — during the three days that follow. Laced in and around these basics are a variety of mild farce elements: a cranky older brother, a naughty mistress, eccentric neighbors, confusion about roles.

You can sense that everything in the film is presented in relation to ritual even though you don’t always know what the rituals are — like the characters, we learn about them as we go along. The acting milieu and the stage set-like house (whose rooms lend themselves to being seen two or three at a time) help give the film a backstage-farce vivacity; Itami has been an actor himself, and he’s especially good at using performances to bring out the flavors of locales and situations.

These ingredients are like glimmers that draw you into watching, or dreaming about, what’s going on down below: in this case, a tone poem that is a meditation on the dispersal of form. (Being drawn through the chronicle and farce creates its own awareness of dispersal.) Itami has shot and recorded his film so that there’s always something about the surfaces that makes you lose yourself in what’s beneath them. Everything — even new, pop objects — seems to have a patina, and a succulent, hand-rubbed richness: the sheen of wood, leather and flesh are especially vivid.

The blacks, like the blacks in “The Conformist” and “The Makioka Sisters,” are warm, active. Here, they’re in correspondence with another, deeper layer: a shadow black. The sounds unfold themselves for our delectation: the sound of hair being brushed, the ringing of a ritual bell (percussion, clang, tone, buzz, etc.); the sound of flowers burning, of rain pelting first a nylon umbrella and then a paper umbrella. One quick, stunning effect occurs when a furnace fire ignites: Fwoof! — and a room’s paper windows thwack and crinkle outwards with the pressure.

A Buddhist priest, who arrives in a white Rolls and who lights up at the sight of tabletops inlaid with French tiles, is played by Chishu Ryu, and the Ozu echo must be deliberate — Itami’s film suggests a loose, appreciative look at a late Ozu picture. But it has an element of the random and erotic, of darting play, that’s lacking in Ozu: Itami wants to convey his pleasure in the processes that give rise to and sustain ritual and performance. There’s life washing around the whole time, like static around a clear signal: kids tussling, people’s feet tiring as they squat on their knees, friends arriving to help out with food and chores. Itami is bringing us into contact with ghost presences, letting us swim among crisscrossing impulses. The layers reveal themselves and return you to the next surface.

The film’s events strike your mind like stones striking water, and watching the ripples expand and mingle can be very pleasurable. Several shots are from the point of view of the corpse. Through his eyes, so to speak, we watch his family bend over to peer at him, and we see the coffin lid lowered and two small doors opened to permit viewing. These shots, and several others like them, are grotesque jokes, but they’re held longer than we expect, and are repeated until we become familiar with them. They’re like the sound of that ritual bell — ours to wander around in.

They’re also reminders of a great shot in Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” and expressions of a feeling that so long as the physical vessel exists, the spirit continues to dwell within it. In other scenes we’re given a moving-through-a-tunnel effect. The camera precedes the hearse as it moves along narrow, wall-bound roads, over which trees close in; it rides the coffin into the furnace. By the time the crematorium chimney pours forth its smoke, and the widow, actor and actress burn the ceremony’s used bric-a- brac in a barrel, we may find ourselves thinking about how we are both chambers and enclosures.

Two scenes rise up out of what the other scenes flow into, and with a kind of blind force. One involves the actor and his mistress. The young woman, who has arrived with the mourners and who has grown drunk and resentful, lures him into a wooded area. She seductively exposes her neck to him, taunts him, and finally incites him into sex. Afterwards, he falls and muddies himself trying to fetch a bauble she’s lost. She laughs happily; he slaps her but she keeps on laughing — she’s tickled by the trouble she has caused him.

During the other scene, some members of the family happen upon a behind-the-scenes room at the crematorium. They look through a viewing hole in the furnace and see the corpse burning, and they talk to a technician about his job. This likable man, who bowed to the furnace before lighting it, tells about his dreams, and about his fears that one day a body he has put in the furnace won’t yet be dead. (We can know little about death; all we are empowered to do is become specialists in the rituals attendant on it.) A glen, hot with glowing chlorophyll and insects; the guts of a kind of factory — these scenes take place in realms where ritual, at least as we can know it, is supported and made possible.

The film’s tone edges towards comedy and then dissolves. What we grow familiar with is a rhythm of gathering, tensing, and then dispersing into a new set of forms. American audiences are used to a fantasy that there is some realm we can get to where we can be happy, powerful gods — a domain that’s often symbolized, at least in audio-visual terms, by dance numbers, car chases, gunplay, couples splashing in the California surf.

Itami’s assumption seems to be that it is part of the nature of identity to be dissatisfied with given forms, and that all that is available to us is a release into something about which we can know only that it has its own form; all energy and matter can hope to do is metamorphose. (He directs as though he believes that this can be achieved only via a heightening of our awareness of form — via something like fetishism. He’s as concerned with fetishism as De Palma, yet there’s nothing very obsessive in his way of seeing, and nothing very bound-in about the film. Fetishism, in the world of this film, is just what happens when you tighten your focus and begin to bear down.)

You begin to picture a life (or a movie) as a gathering of energy and matter, a channeling of them through space and time, and a final dispersal into something we can know nothing about. The film’s approach and style express the conviction that there’s an equivalence between ritual’s place in behavior, the body’s place in experience and form’s place in acting and art — that for all their drawbacks, ritual, the body and form are what make sensation possible.

There’s nothing overbearing or strict about Itami’s work; he’s an entertainer, and he deals with ideas by nicking them as he passes by, making them spin. They’re part of the show. A joke is “resolved” in a way characteristic of the film near the end. All along, the husband has been expected to give a talk about the deceased at a final dinner, and while he’s being introduced, his eyes are glassy and his knee twitches; this actor suffers from stage fright. But the widow indicates that she’d like to speak instead. The actor relaxes and the audience laughs; he has been given a reprieve.

The widow talks quietly about her regret that she wasn’t able to be present as her husband died; she was kept out of the room by the crush of doctors and nurses, and she is afraid that he may have been lonely. She talks about her feeling that her husband’s nature has changed, about a feeling she has that he and she have entered a new phase together. The camera moves in on her slowly, then cuts to a closeup. We understand that this is her discreet public acknowledgment of the momentousness of what she’s going through. (Watching her is like realizing that a local, family-owned store you’ve been planning to patronize has changed hands.)

Yet the camera’s exposure is set more for the brightness outdoors than indoors — the light on her face is grey and dim — and even as we take in her tiny, worn face and her struggle with her feelings and words, our vision is drawn past her and through the large window behind. We can see the porch and the green of trees, and we sense the presence of the ocean beyond, the sight of which the dying man hoped would heal his heart. “The Funeral” is about rituals that release the spirit, about giving up the ghost. It offers its own to us as a gift.

©1986 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.

“Death Becomes Her,” directed by Robert Zemeckis

death becomes her

By Ray Sawhill

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.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“The Cooler,” directed by Wayne Kramer

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By Ray Sawhill

I found “The Cooler” sweet and absorbing. Praise the lord: it isn’t a flashy electronic-media thing. And, although it was shot in six weeks for very little money, it’s full of real acting, real writing, and real filmmaking. It’s an experience to sink into, not to be wiped out by.

Whether or not you enjoy the film may depend on how well you tolerate several things: the neonoir form; and fairy tales about little people, Lady Luck, and Vegas. I fell for the whole package. William Macy gives his most William Macy performance ever as an über-loser who’s such a sadsack that he’s employed by a casino to ruin people’s luck. He’s The Cooler: all it takes to cool someone’s good run is for Macy to walk on by. Maria Bello plays a gorgeous ragamuffin whose hopes have come to naught but whose emotions aren’t yet extinct. Alec Baldwin is the scummy oldstyle casino owner whose schemes throw Macy and Bello together.

As far as I was concerned, the film isn’t in the same class as the best of the semi-recent neonoirs, “The Grifters” and “Croupier.” Main reason: an overlong third act, during which the filmmakers run their characters through every possible narrative variation, a few of which struck me as skippable. But I was very happy spending a couple of hours in the film’s world. The actors, who let it all hang out in many lovely ways, show a lot of talent, skill, and gusto; the smallscale, bluesy atmosphere is enchanting; and the tough/tender, make-believe tone is pitch perfect.

©2006 by Ray Sawhill

“Bull Durham,” directed by Ron Shelton

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By Ray Sawhill

Set in baseball’s minor leagues and written and directed by Ron Shelton, who spent five years in the minors himself, “Bull Durham” is a comic, engaging mix of burliness and delicacy. It gives, in movie terms, a version of the so-stirring-they’re-funny emotions that sports events sometimes deliver, and it’s full of scenes that are instant classics.

As it begins, a soul-gospel voice soars over sepia photos of baseball heroes, and Susan Sarandon, in a voice-over, explains that to her baseball is a religion. She plays a baseball groupie in perhaps her mid-30s. Kevin Costner is a seasoned catcher nearing the end of his playing career who’s sent to the Durham, N.C., Bulls by their parent organization to break in a gifted but loutish young pitcher, played by Tim Robbins. Every year, Sarandon tells us, she takes one of the Bulls as her lover, and every year that lucky man has his best baseball year ever. This year she picks the kid, even as she and Costner size each other up over the kid’s head.

The film is about how to make the magic happen, or at least how to nudge it along — about how the ability to “throw smoke,” while exciting, doesn’t last long and isn’t everything. The kid has a hot arm and a hot dick, and he can’t figure out why Costner and Sarandon don’t think that’s enough. On the field, Costner faces him down, forcing him to mix his pitches up and obey the catcher’s signals; in the bedroom, Sarandon lures him into taking his time, and into letting her enjoyment become part of his pleasure.

The film has a goofy, sweet side that takes off from the fact that everyone in it is a baseball fan, even the ball players. When Costner tells his teammates about a few weeks he spent in the majors, there’s the kind of hush there might be if an Elvis nut were telling others about the day he shook hands with the King. When the kid is having a bad streak, Sarandon, who is taken with pop forms of mysticism, urges him to pay attention to his chakras, to be sure to breathe through his eyelids, and to wear one of her black garterbelts under his uniform. Costner laughs when he finds out, but respects her suggestions; after all, they might work.

Ron Shelton brings his own kind of seasoning to the picture. In addition to having spent time in the minors, he’s an experienced yarn spinner; he worked on the script of “Under Fire” and wrote “The Best of Times.” As a director, he’s warm and rowdy with actors, and he’s sly and deceptively lackadaisical; his story points always arrive with a lot more stuff on them that he’s led you to expect. The minor-league setting helps keep things colorful and in perspective — the spotlights are pointed elsewhere, so the people here can wear their idiosyncrasies more openly. Robbins makes a wonderful musclehead, and Costner and Sarandon seem ideally cast; they’re skillful, spirited actors — team players. And the film has a kind of daring in its suggestion that the Costner character — someone who never made it big, who’s on his way out and to whom almost no one has ever paid much attention — has his own accomplishments and points of legitimate pride. Yet it doesn’t sentimentalize, mythologize or romanticize him. We see that he gets by on tenacity, concentration and brains, and that he has managed to learn that there are concerns more important than making it in “the show,” which is minor-league slang for the majors.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“Visitor Q,” directed by Takashi Miike

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By Ray Sawhill

The 40ish Takashi Miike is a brilliant maniac who makes four or five movies a year, yet seldom makes more than one movie in the same style. “Audition,” his best-known film, suggests a splatterfest as directed by the meditative Yasujiro Ozu; it’s one of the most horrifying movies I’ve ever seen. “Ichi the Killer” is whirling, sadistic gangster gore; I liked it a lot better than John Woo’s movies, and its virtuosity and flamboyance make poor Quentin Tarantino look like an overdeliberate wannabe. “The Happiness of the Katakuris” is one of the strangest musicals ever made, an attempt to fuse a dysfunctional-family black-comedy with “The Sound of Music.” The elements don’t gel, to say the least, but the film is nothing if not daring.

Though it isn’t in a league with “Audition” or “Ichi,” “Visitor Q” is also well worth a look. It’s a camp comedy about a mysterious stranger who moves in with a screwloose Japanese family. Dad’s a washed-up reality-TV show host who’s desperate for another hit. Sis turns tricks, Bro is routinely beaten up by his chums, and Mom gets a sexual thrill from having her breasts milked. Bodily fluids play a leading role. Sexual encounters of the strangest kind are lingered over.

The film — which Miike shot on next to no money, in a week, on digital video — is like one of John Waters’ grotesque-family comedies, only far more intense. It’s also, at least at first, considerably more bewildering; for the film’s opening 30 minutes, The Wife and I felt completely disoriented. (The Wife, a much more devoted Japanese filmbuff than I am, likes to giggle and mutter “Caucasion not understand” during such opaque passages.) But the film’s storylines finally sort themselves out, and as they do the action becomes ever more nutty and funny.

©2004 by Ray Sawhill