Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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Another master remembered...

I usually don't post clips without any comment at all, but a few days ago I did so with a clip from Robert Altman's Nashville, in which Keith Carradine sings his Oscar-winning song "I'm Easy". I have always loved the irony of this simple song being performed in such an plaintive manner... but each of those women think (with some cause) that he's singing the song specifically to them. On one surface, the song seems to be very sweet, but listening closely to Carradine's lyrics reveals that it also can be read as a perfect reflection of the twisted, manipulative creature that his character is. The song is honest, but one can read it in two very different ways (note how different Lily Tomlin's reaction is to everybody else's). While the music in Nashville does have a ragged aspect to it,* having the cast write and perform their own songs allowed those songs to be much more reflective of the characters than an overall sound for the film.

I could have discussed this when I posted it but I didn't. The fact of the matter was that I watched that scene when I was getting ready to post it and I was struck by the fact that I will never see new Robert Altman film. Of course I knew this after I learned of his death, but it was watching this scene that the full reality kind of came crashing down on me. Sure, he had some misfires (Cookie's Fortune?), but more often than not he was doing something fresh and innovative... but always, always distinctly Altman. There's no way around the fact that he's an acquired taste, but as a teenager I responded to the chaotic nature of M*A*S*H and truly discovered his body of while in college.

NOT WORK SAFE - You don't really see it, but Painless' Pole plays a major role.

I had grown up on the television series and could immediately tell when I first saw it that the film was a very different animal. In fact, it was quite different to me from pretty much anything else I had seen, and the thick soundtrack with the overlapping dialogue meant that every time I saw the film, I heard something new.

But more than anything else, it was a film and style that seemed to be brimming with possibilities. M*A*S*H is a completely cluttered film, but like all Altman films, it loves the clutter. It revels in it. Confusion yields options, and Altman certainly was a master at marshaling confusion. And confusion was a major point of the film, and it remains a very biting criticism not of the Armed Forces (although many have read it that way), but of war itself. This was, of course, also the point of the television series, which was innovative for its own medium. But while the series was 'shouldn't you feel ashamed?' the film was 'this whole situation is just plain nuts,' a sense intensified by the promiscuous Panavision frame, densely packed audio track and an anarchic kaleidescope of characters... all Altman staples.

NOT WORK SAFE - Language and Nudity

Altman's version of The Long Goodbye shocked the hell out of Raymond Chandler fans by completely re-imagining the novel and its protagonist. The setting is still Los Angeles, but updated to present day of 1973; it is this alteration in the time period that creates the largest discrepancy in tone between the novel and film. The city itself is a character in the film, something reflected in Vilmos Zsigmond's flashed cinematography that captures the actual look of the L.A. basin sunlight better than any other film I've ever seen.

Marlowe himself has gone from being the big W.A.S.P. into this meandering Jewish schlub. Rather than have the standard film noir voice over, Elliot Gould strolls through the film absent-mindedly mumbling to himself. The film often dwells on the more mundane details of this Marlowe's life, as the time allotted to Marlowe's attempt to feed his cat demonstrates. This film was actually a major inspiration for Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski, which takes Gould's lackadaisically shuffling from one place to another as insanity erupts around him only one step further.

Also of interest here is John Williams and Johnny Mercer's song "The Long Goodbye," which appears throughout the film in various guises. The clip above demonstrates the versatility of the theme; it is heard as score in the opening and closing, Terry Lennox is listening to one version of the song in his car, Marlowe is listening to another... but when Gould enters the supermarket it becomes muzak. One actually hears the song played out in full, but intercutting between all these different versions depending on the content of the shot.

News of Altman's death took me by surprise because Prairie Home Companion had just been released. Rather than flagging as he got older, he seemed to become more productive. If his output was somewhat uneven, well, it always was, and when he was on - such as with his own take on Upstairs/Downstairs and drawing room murder mysteries with Gosford Park or the visually stunning The Company - he was still capable of producing intense, challenging works.

* Nashville is often categorized as a "musical," although one might question that judgment as all of the songs heard in the film are diegetic. However, Altman did make a musical in the traditional sense of the term, Popeye... in which he eschewed the more polished studio recordings in favor of the rougher location recordings, giving that film's songs a ragged aspect as well. Which, of course, ended up blending perfectly into the typically very busy Altman soundtrack.
Tags: cinema, john williams, movie moments, robert altman
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