Ongoing Adventures In Altman Appraisal

Seeing all of the films that iconic director Robert Altman made in his half century career can be quite a task these days.

Several titles have never been released on DVD (including BREWSTER McCLOUD, HealH, and COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN) and one of his first features, COUNTDOWN, is only available as part of Warner Archives Collection’s “Burn On Demand” series so you can’t get it from Netflix.

Recently, inspired by reading the excellent “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” by Mitchell Zuckoff, I’ve been catching up with the handful of movies of Altman’s movies that I haven’t yet seen. These 3 films are easily available but still fairly obscure – here are my thoughts:


The opening titles of this – one of the very first bio-docs ever – declare that this is “a different kind of motion picture.” They go on to explain: “The presence of the leading character in this film has been made possible by the use of existing motion picture material, tape recordings of his voice, and by means of a new technique – dynamic exploration of the still photograph.”

If that sounds pretentious well you haven’t heard anything yet. Orson Welles-ish sounding narrator Martin Gabel reads from a script over the hundreds of photos and footage such overwrought lines as:

“He looked at the ocean, and was envious of its power.”

“He kept a revolver – which made him feel safe… but they found it and took it away.” (No more explanation is given to this)

“He tried to believe it when they said they liked him.”

“Success was nothing more than the concealing leaf which covered the tree of his loneliness, and after every job the tree was bare.”

If you can get past such irritating pretension, and the fact that this was an exploitation film rushed into production after Dean’s tragic death, there is much here to enjoy. Such a wealth of black and white photographs, whether they are dynamically explored or not, is displayed – many of which I’d not seen before. I’m sure there is most likely some coffee table book out there that contains them, but this is a well edited collage worth seeking out. Perhaps one should just turn the sound down and put on some music while watching.

Another notable aspect is that Altman re-created Dean’s fatal car accident for the documentary. Producer George W. George described the incident in Zuckoff’s book as “pure Bob.” He elaborates:

“Well, son of a bitch, he goes and figures it out by lashing a camera onto the end of a long piece of wood and putting it on the bumper of his car. And driving down the road that Jimmy Dean had taken that day! It looked like Bob was going to have a crash, but son of a bitch; he missed crashing by about two feet. He was driving the car!”

By no means an essential piece of Altman’s canon, THE JAMES DEAN STORY is still an interesting curio.

QUINTET (1979) I purchased this film as part of an odd Altman boxset – the other films were M*A*S*H, A WEDDING, and A PERFECT COUPLE which I had all seen before. QUINTET is a real oddity in his filmography: a sci fi tale set in a future ice age. Paul Newman, in his second starring role for Altman (the first was BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS) plays a stoic seal hunter named Essex who finds himself in the middle of the deadly game of the title.

The movie drags quite a bit with sequences that just sit there. If tightened up considerably it could make for a gripping short film, but you really have to be an Altman fanboy to get through it as it is. I had the close captioning on when I watched it and was amused at how many times the word “groans” was used in the descriptions of sound effects i.e. “the water groans”, “the ice groans”, “the wind groans”, etc. At one point I joked: “the audience groans”. I know I did.

O.C. AND STIGGS (1985) Although this is considered Altman’s “least successful film” I was looking forward to watching it mainly because of Nathan Rabin’s “My Year Of Flops Case File #54” entry at the A.V. Club in which he concluded that it was a “secret success”. That’s much more favorable a response than what I experienced. The premise of a 80’s teen comedy with a “slobs versus the snobs” scenario isn’t a good match for Altman even if he claims it was supposed to be a satire of the genre.

Very little satire is actually present in this tale of 2 hipsters (Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry) who come off as a poor man’s pair of Ferris Buellers. They torment a insurance mogul (Altman regular Paul Dooley) who lives in a garish house with destructive shenanigans, none of which is even remotely amusing. Altman’s patented style can still be identified – overlapping dialogue and slow panning long shots – but no unity to this material can be sensed.

It’s also sad to see cheap shots such as riffs on “The Pink Panther Theme” and the Doors “The End” intro when Dennis Hopper, who appears in his APOCALYPSE NOW get up, enters a scene. Of the supporting cast which includes Jane Curtin, Jon Cryer, Cynthia Nixon, and Ray Walston, only Martin Mull appears to be having a good time, but, even then, he looks like he’s just bidding time until the wrap party after shooting is finished.

The only bonus feature on the DVD is an 8 minute interview entitled “Altman On O.C. And Stiggs” that should’ve been called “Altman Defends O.C. And Stiggs”. Altman: “There was a time when these teenage films were kind of in mode. And I hated them…I just hated them. And I thought here’s a chance to do satire on something I feel strongly about.” The problem is that his strong hatred of the genre shows in every frame of this film more than any notion of satire. Still, as much as I disliked it, it’s not my least favorite Altman film – that would be DR. T AND THE WOMEN (2000).

Okay! That’s enough Altman for now. Just a few more titles to go to finish his canon – and then there’s his television work (episodes of Combat!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, and many others) to consider so look forward to more adventures in Altman appraisal somewhere down the line.

More later…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: