The New Hollywood Question
What is the continuing appeal of Robert Altman’s 1970s cinema? If his once much-discussed and often critically praised films from the first half of that much-mythologised decade remain of interest beyond being historical museum pieces exemplifying the more progressive edge of pre-Jaws (Stephen Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) New Hollywood, what drives their ongoing critical and audience purchase four decades later?
A certain nostalgia is often at play when considering a period of much mourned – and relative – freedom gifted to directors within a crisis-ridden and technically post-studio industry, even if Hollywood’s old patriarchs were still largely calling the (increasingly ineffective) shots. The same nostalgia often applies when left-liberal commentators look back at the cultural products (and lost opportunities) of the diverse and often scattered shakeup of primary ideological tenets within US politics and culture that seemed, at least for a few years at the beginning of the ‘70s, prone to some critical self-examination in the long shadow of late-‘60s counterculture upheavals and the still ongoing atrocity of the partial invasion, occupation and virtual destruction of Vietnam. But this is far from the only explanation for the period’s tenacious fascination. Whether it be long-celebrated auteurs forever associated with the 1970s (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola), respected ‘journeyman‘ directors who first made their name in live television’s famous early heyday (Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer), crash-and-burn alpha types (William Friedkin, Michael Cimino), eventually enshrined figures (Brian De Palma, John Cassavetes) or critically derided ‘cycles’ today enjoying some redemption (blaxploitation, sexploitation), a cinephile does not even need to have been around to feel a unique fondness for the vaguely liberal and/or slightly dangerous, gritty, American cinema proliferating in these crucial years.
As film scholars and historians such as Robert Kolker (2011) and Alexander Horwath (2004) have pointed out, this ongoing fascination occurs despite, or more properly as informed by, the intertwined cultural, political, and cinematic failures of New Hollywood when measured against claims of its idealistic impulses and potential. The real-world impulses were those of a previously all-powerful industry facing an exponential crisis, out of sheer desperation employing some younger and often new Film School-trained directors who brought with them new approaches. The commercial aim was to connect with the elusive new audience of a quickly changing youth demographic increasingly drawn to countercultural forms and ideas. Paraphrasing Thomas Elsaesser, Christof Decker effectively frames the much-vaunted yet forever contested historical legacy of this New Hollywood as an impossible-to-unravel knot or question. ‘Were the countercultural energies’ palpable in at least some of the films, he asks, ‘a genuine alternative or merely a way of reinvigorating the commercial imperatives of a production system in a state of crisis, which subsequently re-emerged stronger than ever before?’ (Decker, 2007, p. 68) While commercial imperatives always remained absolute – as the imminent shift into the franchise era so starkly demonstrated – a few ambitious young directors flush with the influence of both Hollywood history and the burgeoning ‘art cinema’ coming out of Europe and Japan since the early 1950s were keen to shake things up. They attempted to forge a kind of hybrid cinema that maintained a deep connection to genre and the broad audience Hollywood habitually defined itself through, while also ‘updating’ American filmmaking’s formal, aesthetic and thematic dimensions away from strict adherence to classical principles, so as to become more modern and thereby rather belatedly join an increasingly global rejuvenation and reformulation of narrative cinema. The overall significance of this development remains, four decades later, difficult to gage and account for.
It is more important to approach New Hollywood for its properly contradictory and still unresolved role as a true ‘symptom of history’. That the films and more broadly the USA during this period in no way transcended the conservative formal-generic and ideological traditions driving cinema and socio-political life in what has been since 1945 the most powerful country and culture in the world, is an intrinsic part of the early 1970s’ ongoing relevance and interest even where such interest is necessarily fraught and ambivalent. It is also why the cultural outcomes of these years, in this case when it comes to cinema, remain so hard to judge in retrospect without falling into nostalgic (and US-centric) romanticism or simplistic, radical-elitist dismissal due to the inherent failure of this period to establish a more progressive cinematic and broader socio-cultural transformation. So the story suggests, it took one blockbuster, Jaws, to effectively sign the death warrant of the adventurous New Hollywood, taking the rest of the decade to fully suffer a slow but inevitable demise (marked in some popular historical accounts by the critical and audience disaster of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980). Yet even if we look to the famous pre-‘75 achievements, compared in particular to contemporary and recent world cinema, the much-vaunted early ‘70s American films appear to represent less Oedipal overthrow and more an updating or reformist iteration of ‘Old Hollywood’ when it comes to the maintaining of fundamentally narrative and movement-based form, unflagging allegiance to genre, and an absolutely tenacious individualist ideology.
To what extent do Altman’s films exemplify the above, and in what ways are they possible exceptions? Where does his 1970s cinema fit within the critical and scholarly veneration of and ongoing interest in this relatively brief period in North American filmmaking? Altman’s films from the first half of the decade are at once ‘Exhibit A’ texts for those wishing to advocate for a formally adventurous New Hollywood, yet also sit at the margins. Somehow, despite the relatively copious critical and sporadic scholarly literature devoted to his work, this director – with 13 features made and released between 1970 and 1979, the most prolific of prominent narrative filmmakers working (mainly) in the US over this period – remains both central yet difficult to grasp, account for, and ultimately assess. As the immediate effects and tenor of the ‘70s recedes, it is increasingly challenging to address these films at once intimately connected to the moment and immediate cultural minutiae of the socio-historical period of their production and release, and yet capable of real, ongoing fascination. Despite the strong emphasis on history and contextualisation gripping academic film studies today – frequently separating text from context in an artificial and unproductive way, with the film itself abandoned as the ‘bad object’ – the formal and aesthetic characteristics of Altman’s most productive decade of filmmaking most often motivates our ongoing interest and inspiration. Put simply, it is Altman’s films as films and their contribution to and role within cinema’s increasingly grand, ever-unfolding multi-strand histoire that matter, even more than what they tell us about the particular moment of their appearance.
Altman’s much discussed and influential style is worthy of ongoing sustained attention when it comes to both image and sound. Elsewhere (Ford, 2015), I address the director’s often counterintuitive marshalling of both the zoom lens and 2.35:1 widescreen ratio in an attempt to define his films’ recognisable visual style, while also suggesting that such formal-stylistic signatures imply no coherent textual/contextual stamp on the level of intent and meaning. While there would be later alterations and developments – most strikingly, the director’s shift to low-budget theatre-related work shot in Academy ratio produced during his 1980s exile from the commercial film industry, followed in turn by the partial recapitulation of his famed earlier style in the early-‘90s ‘comeback’ films, The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) – Altman’s 1970s output comprises the bulk of both his most celebrated as well as often neglected and even reviled films when it comes both to audience and critical reception. It is this work that I will address ahead, focusing in particular on the way it comprises both Atman’s influential but also most challenging films – not only when it comes to reception by audiences, critics and subsequent filmmakers, but more broadly in seeking to define and assess the specificity of his cinema’s place in and contribution to the aesthetic evolution of narrative film history.
In preparing this essay, I watched all his 1970s films first in sequence, then a second time in quick succession. The more I watched and thought through Altman’s cinema, the harder I found it was to delineate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ individual films, scenes, eras, and whole elements of his purported style. This despite the fact that I concurrently felt that it was a significant and very unique body of work. From the perspective of someone who took a rather long time coming to fully appreciate Altman’s accomplishments, it is far from clear that the most famous titles – in particular McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville and especially The Long Goodbye (1973), with MASH (his biggest commercial hit) now receiving a more ambivalent hearing – are better or more interesting than the much more obscure or often derided titles from the same period such as Brewster McCloud (1970) and Images (1972), or even more starkly the post-Nashville films. From the second half of the decade, only 3 Women (1977) seems to today enjoy a reasonable critical reputation, taking its quiet but rather special and baroque place within the Altman canon. Beyond the generalising application of an auteurist signature associated with large casts, mini narratives, overlapping dialogue and a hyperactive camera style featuring sometimes constant zooming, just exactly what kind of cinema we are faced with here becomes increasingly difficult to appraise when looking at large swathes of Altman’s work. This is more than a classificatory problem that the simple but none-too-helpful appellate ‘Altmanesque’ will solve. Rather, it lies at the heart of what I believe makes these films most interesting and in highly insidious, overtly modest yet slyly radical, ways still so reflexive and challenging, so genuinely full of cinematic life.
In the introduction to Signatures of the Visible, Fredric Jameson writes: ‘Not only would an aesthetics of film be indistinguishable from the latter’s ontology; it would be social and historical through and through by way of the very mediation of form itself, if you grant the historicity of perception…’ (1992, p. 4) My appreciation of Altman’s 1970s work is for its aesthetic eccentricities and pleasures as always deeply connected to both multiple historico-social contexts and for the way the films manipulate, utilise, deconstruct and re-present the material of celluloid and its aesthetic possibilities, usually presented loosely within – and implicitly commenting upon – the auspices of the film medium’s most prominent formal incarnation in the service of narrative as codified by Hollywood cinema. The primary means of this formal exploration has been the director’s much-discussed emphasis on improvisation on both sides of the camera, aided by a pioneering use of multi-tracked ‘deep-focus’ sound to record cluttered dialogue tracks rendered via what can appear the ubiquitous use of the zoom lens, making up films driven less by plot development and satisfaction than narrative multiplication, excessive performative modes, and an essaying of social space as highly mobile, fluid and (like the film itself) always in the process of re-making yet without obvious direction, purpose or control. These are characteristics suggesting a kinship with documentary form. Yet, while this connection remains important, Altman’s work is marked by intense stylization and the type of reflexivity commonly associated with modernist fiction filmmaking. The emphasis on form and aesthetics has long been both a source of fascination and even novelty for many critics (especially in light of Altman’s being in most respects a truly American director when it comes to both socio-historical setting and enactment of genre), while also causing some disquiet and confusion. How to justify all that apparent formal and stylistic emphasis, somehow operating concurrently with many of the hallmarks of non-fiction filmmaking and an apparent focus on a socio-historical (or even anthropological) charting of life in different parts of the USA during the 1970s, within what are still ostensibly narrative features made with Hollywood money?
There is another important component. Fundamental to the critical challenges of Altman’s cinema is the uncommonly prominent influence of primarily European modernist art cinema. While this latter dimension has met with some consternation and dismissal – exemplified by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s description of Images and 3 Women as comprised of ‘shopworn arthouse clichés’ (1978) – Robert Self is the most prominent and consistent Altman scholar who unambiguously claims him as an art cinema auteur who just happens to have been born and largely worked in the USA. Writing of a film for which such a designation is least surprising, Self argues:
Robert Altman’s pervasive use of mirrors in point of view shots in 3 Women effectively undermines the direction of glance and space and thus destabilizes the continuity of narrative perspective achieved by point-of-view structures in the classical text. … [T]hese effects in the art cinema are not simply the result of credibly ambiguous characters living uncertain lives, but that the ambiguity results from rigorous, frequently self-conscious manipulation of filmic systems. (1979, p. 75)
Even more than its earlier ‘sister film’ Images, 3 Women ticks many art cinema boxes, featuring especially prominent play with mirrored surfaces and doubling (or tripling) motifs, borrowing liberally from famous modernist art cinema-designated sources, notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). But certain traditions of Hollywood cinema also feature female protagonists and extensive play with mirrored surfaces, such as aesthetically advanced melodramas, film noir and horror movies. Nevertheless, Self’s description also applies to Altman’s work at large when he concludes: ‘What emerges as the excess, the logic of dispersion that exceeds control by the economic narrative in the classical cinema, is given textual primacy by the art film.’ (ibid. p. 77)
Refreshing in some respects, Self’s account also risks inadvertently corralling Altman’s cinema within a prescriptive pincer movement caught between too-neat poles of Hollywood and modernist world cinema, out of which it will not come off well when compared to other directors, especially outside the USA. While productive to a point, Self’s portrait risks distracting us from investigating the films’ precise qualities, ongoing fascination, insidious innovation, and their quite subtle but substantive challenges for incorporating important elements of both Hollywood and art cinema worlds, while somehow transcending both. Nevertheless, while the ingredients and outcomes might be more diverse and often paradoxical than such a description seems to allow, the cumulative effect of Altman’s foregrounding of the image also crucially connects his cinema to the aesthetic mode Self seeks to affirm.
Formal and textural ‘primacy’ retains an urgent and overarching effect in Altman. Ultimately, no matter whether it is one of many Hollywood-based genres or alternatively a European-style interior psychodrama that seems the textual starting point or template of a given film, scene or aspect, Altman remains intensely interested in the material stuff and permutations of celluloid’s expressive potential. Loosely inherited through given textual conventions, the development of a surprisingly diverse and difficult-to-define visual style is played out against diverse models.
To what extent does Altman’s cinema partake of an absolutely central tenet of modernism – reflexivity? In its usual definition, cinematic reflexivity is judged against a perceived (and usually simplified) norm upon which it comments. Yet norms are a result of habit and familiarity, rather than inherent naturalness or transparency. Certainly it has long been shown – including by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger in their seminal work designating the parameters of what we now call classical Hollywood cinema (1985) – that this overly familiar and ‘excessively obvious’ cinema is itself both artificial and rather strange and even sometimes reflexive when viewed with fresh eyes and minds (ibid., pp. 3-11). Nevertheless, this is the tradition or ground – combined, I argue, with a second, ‘European’ one – against which Altman’s claims to innovation are often made, and in relation to which his films’ reflexivity operate. Kolker offers a good example, stressing Altman’s remaking of space and human subjectivity on screen through the figure of the peripheral, resulting in a form clearly different to the dictates of classical narrative cinema:
The dislocation of space that makes up the visual world of his films is part of a wider dislocation that concerns him. The well-made American film, with its steady, linear, and precise development of story and character, appears to Altman to be itself a dislocation and a distortion, a refusal to come to aesthetic terms with the centeredness and incoherence of modernity. By attending to different spaces, both visual and narrative, he can reorient the ways an audience looks at films and understand them and the way they reflect cultural fantasies back to that audience. (Kolker, 2011, p. 373)
I both concur with and question this formulation. I do not consistently share Kolker’s and many other Altman scholars’ wholesale view of the inherent political efficacy of his cinema for providing a coherent autocritique of Hollywood and American popular culture, even as these domains and image-worlds remain crucial for providing the very slippery ground upon which his more radical, reflexive project plays out.
While Self and Kolker emphasise the formally progressive aspects of Altman’s work, many of the director’s most prominent supporters, such as Helene Keyssar(1999), also suggest that, judged for their formal interest and relative narrative attenuation, his films will be ultimately designated as occupying a space somewhere between familiar Hollywood and more adventurous modernist art cinema from Europe and elsewhere. In this way, Altman’s admirers inadvertently risk marooning his work as a kind of superficially hip but essentially middlebrow cinema that looks pretentious and self-indulgent to myopic Hollywood-obsessed eyes, while appearing both aesthetically unadventurous and unable to frequently escape the cage of genre for those accustomed to world cinema’s myriad post-war glories. As both a film lover and a scholar most consistently accustomed to the pleasures of and discourses around 1960s European film modernism, my first encounters with Altman’s cinema were rather in line with this. While historically interesting, I did not feel the films were especially innovative or interesting compared to the various new waves that exploded in Europe and elsewhere throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. But such a judgment makes the same mistake as 1960s-era advocates of the avant-garde – a category that was then broadly synonymous with modernism – in condemning art cinema (including that which we today call modernist, such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s work) for its maintaining a sense of narrative, character development, and apparent ‘authorial vision’. In other words, what Bordwell himself once called the ‘domestication of modernist filmmaking’ (1979, p. 62) – by which he meant the avant–garde.
To be in between two often artificially maintained extremes does not, however, automatically imply a middle-of-the-road compromise (Ford, 2012, pp. 16-18). In Altman’s very particular case – as with Antonioni, Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Chantal Akerman, Nagisa Ôshima, Jacques Rivette, Miklós Jancsó, Jerzy Skolimowski, Theo Angelopoulos, Andrei Tarkovsky and many others – a different kind of perceived ‘in-betweenness’ once again increases rather than flattens out the challenge, powering his cinema’s important instability, its genuinely slippery impact and status.
It is not enough, then, to treat Altman simply as a Hollywood filmmaker, even though in important ways this is certainly what he frequently was. It is also too simple to treat him as the American equivalent to Bergman, Federico Fellini or Akira Kurosawa: a global art cinema auteur whose work explores and at its peak exemplifies cinema’s developmental possibilities, while also providing some understanding of a national culture. The Hollywood-entrenched position wilfully ignores, derides or is easily embarrassed by the European aspect of Altman’s work, while an art cinema-based one sets him up as a rather too sociologically responsible American chronicler and independent trailblazer. On one hand, there is a risk of rather selectively dismissing that aspect of his work seen as an inevitably failed or necessarily clumsy copying of the more sophisticated and adventurous world cinema. On the other, it is easy to underplay Altman’s important ties to Hollywood when it comes not just to production context but also reception and the textual manoeuvres.
The complex, often sly, idiosyncratic reflexivity of Altman’s cinema poses a lingering question. Which traditions, historical narrative, formal conventions, aesthetic contexts and critical criteria are most appropriate to situate and ultimately position his work? One of the most fascinating things about the celebrated films from MASH through to Nashville, but also the generally much less admired run starting with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson and concluding with Popeye, is the way in which Altman constantly problematises boundaries we know in theory to be false or at least overstated, yet that are still often passively assumed or partially invoked when analysing and seeking to qualitatively situate films, bodies of work, and filmmakers.
There is a broader conceptual or theoretical level at which Altman’s 1970s films, on the one hand, complicate and problematise while, on the other hand, clarify and even correct distinctions commonly made in critical and film studies literature. In ‘The Existence of Italy’, a long essay comprising the last part of Signatures of the Visible that contains his most sustained attempt to narrate and comment upon the theoretical story and challenge of film, Jameson discusses how the realism–modernism–postmodernism trajectory in cinema occurred at an entirely different speed, and with quite different historical coordinates, compared to other Western art and media forms. More importantly, he explores how these aesthetic-conceptual-historical maps, seemingly emerging from different social and cultural contexts as well as in part at least being contradictory, are in fact rather more omnipresent, palimpsestic, and dialectical than linear or evolutionary. Some or even many films have their roots, at least according to much established scholarly accounting, primarily in one of these aesthetic traditions or historical moments, but all the while we can also see other ‘anachronistic’ traditions operating – sometimes quite self-consciously – within the same films, as informed by their critical and historical situatedness. The most significant example, strongly invoked by the title of Jameson’s essay, is how Italian neorealism can be seen as concurrently enunciating realism, modernism and even proto-postmodernism as argued by Peter Brunette (1985) in relation to the co-presence of realist and expressionist elements in Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948), a film both transparent in its historical claims and modernist in its reflexive provocations. More than just offering alternative examples, Altman’s films are idiosyncratic but especially instructive reflexive case studies suggesting such a fully integrated account of film’s intersection with history at its most operative and fluid.
Foregrounded Form, Slippery Style
Writing of how he had habitually framed such aesthetic tendencies or concepts as theoretically oppositional or distinct, Jameson describes his re-thinking of cinema’s realism–modernism–postmodernism trajectory, emphasising dialectical co-presence:
This dialectic seems to me to provide at least one formal mediation capable of including history within the sensory experience of the screen … but it does so only on condition of remaining dialectical – indeed, the laws and accounts registered for each moment clearly remain absolutely asymmetrical and of distinct and different types, modernism turning out to be anything but an inverted realism, and postmodernism anything but a cancellation of modernism. (1992, p. 6)
On the one hand, the documentary aspects of Altman’s work – notably the often constant re-framing via especially zooms but also some tracking and panning, performative improvisation and messy, overlapping dialogue, non-narrative by-ways, and rather loose (almost seemingly accidental) charting of socio-historical detail and cultural zeitgeist without much in the way of overt authorial commentary – qualify the films as offering a kind of realism. On the other hand, they offer an idiosyncratic but extremely relaxed kind of formalism that in a more typical context would be labelled modernist for the overt emphasis on the image surface and its distracting qualities, subverting the artificiality of narrative, textual and mythic materials invoked through the scaffolding of familiar storytelling traditions and genres. Meanwhile, the apparent lack of political, critical commentary on what these films show, and the fact that their formalist gestures and lack of narrative interest can go unnoticed by the casual viewer, marks a more apparently postmodern aspect.
Unlike both realism and modernism at their most well-known and not necessarily incompatible peaks, Altman’s films often seem resolutely playful and light in overall tone and apparent attitude toward socio-historical and thematic content, as well as the director’s marshalling of textuality when it comes to form and genre. Sometimes simplistically seen as hallmarks of postmodern cinema during the 1980s and ‘90s, such characteristics mean that we are never sure to what extent Altman is condemning, mocking, fondly celebrating, or ambiguously laughing at the broader American culture and specific social milieu a given film renders. Rosenbaum, ambivalent in his take on Altman’s work, suggests that this troubling and possibly disingenuous ambiguity includes even the efficacy of the director’s by now most well known stylistic devices. The pompousness of a Catholic marriage ritual marking the unhappy conjoining of rich ‘old’ and ‘new money’ families at the start of A Wedding(1978), thereby, is matched by big and pretentious or rather glibly ironic ‘Big Statement’ zoom-outs from the church, as Rosenbaum (1978) sees it. Where Rosenbaum laments vacuousness and empty gestures of both content and form, however, Barbara and Leonard Quart see a clear divide in Altman’s direction of A Wedding. ‘In fact, the only genuine relief from the Hogarthian catalogue of American vice and lunacy,’ they write, ’is his transcendental commitment to film itself.’ (1978, p. 46)
Turning to one of Altman’s most well-regarded films, by both the director’s aficionados and more ambivalent and rigorous critical voices: is The Long Goodbye an attack on the generic and ideological inheritance of private-eye narratives and frequently ‘misogynist’ film noir, or a late-entry celebration of such an interconnected literary-filmic tradition’s purported values as anachronistically (and thereby conservatively) set against a liberal and variously corrupted Los Angeles? Or neither? We can ask the same questions of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and its self-consciously bleak presentation of a nascent community more usually offered as viable or necessary in the Western’s classical incarnation; or the use of the homosocial ‘buddy film’ and culture of gambling in California Split (1974); and most prominently Nashville in regards to country music, ‘the South’, and Watergate-era USA. The same goes for the director’s less discussed and more derided work, most strikingly Quintet (1979) as an especially arty, bleak and philosophical post-Star Wars big-budget science fiction project; but also the often overlooked or relegated Images and its iteration of a Bergman-style chamber drama mixed with the psychological horror film.
While visual style is consistently foregrounded, this occurs both to different degrees depending on the film in question and in a rather less homogenous way than even the director’s most prominent advocates imply through their enthusiasm for charting a consistent authorial signature. Robert Kolker is often cited within the Altman literature for the way his influential elegy for pre-Jaws New Hollywood, A Cinema of Loneliness (originally published in 1988, subsequently updated), positions Altman’s work as representing the formally innovative peak of 1970s cinema in the USA prior to the industry’s mid-decade commercial resurgence with the dawn of the modern franchise era. He writes:
Altman’s seventies films are formally and contextually of a piece, so much so that, once his style is understood, it can be recognized in almost any one part of any film he makes. He stands with Kubrick as one of the few American filmmakers to confirm the fragile legitimacy of the auteur theory with such a visible expression of coherence in his work. (Kolker, 2011, p. 358)
On the one hand, this account is surely right. Whether there are 48 primary characters, as in A Wedding, or just one human figure in the entire film, as in the later Secret Honor (1984), Altman’s stylistic trademarks are palpable once we become familiar with them. Yet there is a real risk here of actually underplaying the director’s formal achievement in marshalling a quite diverse array of elements to forge his films from one to the next (or sometimes from one scene to the next). This is especially so when we realise that the large-cast productions, for which Nashville is the central generative model, actually make up a relatively small minority of his productions even from the ‘70s, despite garnering the majority of critical attention and approval.
In a precise summation of Altman’s cinema from the vantage point of the end of the decade, James Monaco offers what would become a subsequently very familiar formula. ‘In general, the more people an Altman movie contains,’ he writes, ‘the better it is, with Images at the low end of the scale and A Wedding at the high end.’ (Monaco, 1979, p. 323) This heavy emphasis on the large-cast films does serious disservice both to the diversity of this filmmaker’s work and the consistency of his visual style. But more than this, in certain respects a film like Nashville, despite its important popularising of multi-strand narrative form within commercial filmmaking, in other respects might actually represent the more conservative edge of Altman’s work when it comes to ‘work on the image’. Its slowly percolating ‘commentary on modern America’ aside, another reason why Nashville might have been embraced by more critics than many of Altman’s other films is that while, on the one hand, crystallising the director’s trademark style and centrifugal approach to narrative form, on the other hand, it also winds back the formal-aesthetic bravura so central to the earlier productions, employing a comparable ‘discreetness of approach which may surprise those used to its director’s more playful, offbeat or downright strange films.’ (O’Brien, 1995, p. 68)
How can these films be both all of-a-piece and yet – as Altman repeatedly claimed – seemingly more focused on process than outcome? It is useful to acknowledge that he is concurrently the most radical of the New Hollywood directors when it comes to heavily foregrounded work on the image at the expense of narrative and character, while also being the closest of any of them to observing and engaging with commercial cinema’s inheritance – especially in respect to genre and the central importance of actors. It is not for nothing that this maverick director in constant conflict with the studio money men can feasibly be described as the Howard Hawks of his era (Hawks’ final film, Rio Lobo, coming out the same year as MASH makes the baton-passing quite neat), both for the ability to retain an auteurist signature, while exploring very diverse generic and narrative materials, and sharing a frequent taste for comedy (in addition to being ‘man enough’ to stand up to the Hollywood bosses). More than this, Altman chronicler Gerard Plecki suggests, many of the director’s famous stylistic trademarks directly link him to both classical (Hawks) and modernist (Orson Welles) American directors, with even some of his famous habits – such as overlapping dialogue, occasional rapid cross-cutting, and fluid narration via frequently shifting points of view – harking back to such diverse forebears. (1979 p. 2)
Monaco writes that, although his films since MASH have used a range of cinematographers, Altman’s stylistic signature is ‘immediately identifiable as such, despite the wide range of settings and genres, despite the varied screenwriters, despite the fact that most of the films are based on novels.’ (1979, p. 314) Citing the director’s wry humour as one key to his cinema’s attraction, Monaco finally offers an almost religiously cinephilic invocation, concluding that the prime appeal of Altman’s work is ‘the richness of the cinematic table he sets’. (ibid.) Yet, while chiming well with many of the director’s early-‘70s admirers, Monaco goes on to complicate such a catch-all phrase via a striking evocation of Altman’s central challenge:
As a consequence of this exhilarating approach to the medium, the whole of Altman’s work is notably larger than the sum of its parts. Think of Altman-in-general and you’re likely to get a warm glow… Think of a particular film, however, and you become perplexed. Nashville comes exceedingly close, but none of his other movies seems wholly satisfying; there are always critical problems. (1979, p. 314)
How can it be that this most canonical of New Hollywood directors may not, in fact, make singularly good films upon which there is sustainable agreement? A very small handful sometimes aside – Nashville or The Long Goodbye, followed by McCabe – no two critics or scholars seem to agree. And even those few titles are increasingly debated. Contra many critics’ total embrace of the film at the time, Rosenbaum was divided over Nashville, admiring its formal remaking of narrative possibility through quite radical dispersion and fragmentation, while also regretting the lurch towards what he sees as pretentious big-picture commentary, especially with the final sequence (1975). More recently another prominent US critic, Kent Jones, has said that although liking it upon initial release and still mainly admiring Altman’s work overall, he now considers Nashville ‘a bad movie… hopelessly pretentious and hokey’, a re-think Jones posits as catching up with properly rigorous critical opinion, citing Manny Farber’s panning of the film (Jones, 2008).
Looking back over the director’s work leading up to Nashville at the time, Rosenbaum lamented its uneven nature, suggesting the Hollywood production system itself as the primary cause of what he sees as its filmmakers’ lack of ‘formal development’ and thereby providing a partial explanation or excuse for his in some ways scattershot career. This is especially interesting in that, at the height of Altman’s fame, Rosenbaum criticises the filmmaker on the same grounds for which his work is now often celebrated:
With a career that has already zigzagged from the brutally confident machinations of MASH to the sensitive suspensions of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, from the congealed arthouse clichés of Images to the exhilarating improvisations of The Long Goodbye and California Split, one has come to expect the unexpected from Robert Altman, acknowledging the unpopular but inescapable fact that consistent formal development is virtually impossible today within the dictates of commercial American cinema. (1976)
The very thing Altman would later be credited with marshalling, the development of style and formal development across a range of very loosely inhabited genres, Rosenbaum sees as disallowed by the very diversity of Altman’s early films due to being largely made under Hollywood’s ever-vigilant repressive heel.
In her 1991 book on the director released at the moment of his commercial re-emergence, Helene Keyssar tries to approach these critical problems as caused by the films’ own mode of textual address, suggesting that ‘Altman’s movies are extravagant in the quantity of signs they project and because Altman so often distorts or avoids the filmic conventions that we rely upon to sort out the trivial from the significant content.’ (1991, p. 185) Even if The Long Goodbye joins or now sometimes replaces Nashville in critical consensus, Monaco strikes me as entirely correct in 1979 as cited above. The director himself has explained in many interviews that he is more interested in cinema as painting than storytelling, just as the finished film is less important than the process of its making. But Monaco is saying something rather different and more important, too. Like their individual shots, so frequently marked by extreme telephoto lens work, Altman’s cinema is unstable or ‘porous’, to use a word I employ elsewhere as a descriptor for the films both as texts and igniters of spectatorial events, but more specifically in relation to their particular use of the zoom and widescreen. (Ford, 2015) Through a nice piece of synchronicity, in a just-published essay Adrian Martin (another influential critic, whose own rethink of Altman’s most discussed film is headed in the opposite direction to Jones’) uses the same word to describe the portrayal of social and filmic space in Nashville. (2014)
Not only does one film bleed into others within this director’s body of work and beyond, but as complete texts they are in the process also easily felt to be somehow lacking, unsatisfying, even failures. Monaco sums up the problem:
If Altman’s films are to be judged and evaluated, we’ll end up with a reductive image of his career. I’m usually vaguely disappointed with an Altman film. One wants him to be more demanding of himself, not so self-indulgent, a little sharper and more pointed. If his films project a worldview, it’s not a very interesting one. It almost seems calculated to play on contemporary hip cynicism. … If truth be told, Robert Altman is not the most thoughtful of filmmakers. He provides themes for his films almost against his will, often tacking on a set of scenes, music, or a soundtrack device after shooting is completed in order to comment on the action and provide a sense of unity where there really isn’t any. His films are very much open rather than closed systems. They end only because they have to. In any particular movie, therefore, the sum of the parts is almost always greater than the whole. We may not learn as much from Altman’s films as we might; yes, he lets his actors overdo it at times; some of his tricks are painfully obvious, and in general the films seem to have more panache than conviction. So what? With Altman, you remember the good bits; sounds, looks, shticks, angles, correspondences, convergences, ironies, images: the raw material of moviemaking. (1979, p. 315)
With such multiple dimensions, the slippery nature of Altman’s cinema pays real dividends with the same stroke that it continues to demand a fairly hefty price paid by the viewer and critic. We are left with a paradoxical situation. The enjoyment of Altman’s work is that, the more you look at the films and think them through, the more they transcend the question of whether a particular scene, shot, or film is good, almost embarrassing, or swinging wildly in between.
I will now turn to a specific examination of the formalist development in Altman’s 1970s work to the point of a sustained and unique brand of reflexivity, by teasing out more exactly how the films refuse both simple and more developed conceptual maps, in particular dividing art cinema and modernism on the one hand and Hollywood and narrative-oriented filmmaking on the other. This is, and remains, the generative challenge thrown out by Altman. The result, I ultimately suggest, is a very enjoyable yet truly vertiginous and quite devastating dance on the abyss.
Foregrounding Narration and Performance
A consistent formal and reflexive trait of Altman’s films is their foregrounding of the act of narration as at least partly decoupled from functional narrative development. Rather than a means of smoothly and transparently enunciating story events – which typically remain forever vague and of doubtful purpose – narration itself tends to be very self-consciously entered into, enunciated and performed in many ways as overtly commenting on what we see on screen. More precisely, the 1970s films are usually structured on a notably shifting, non-linear, unstable mode of narration that is split, depending on the individual film or sequence, between one clear protagonist (as with Images) or any number of apparently equal characters – such as Nashville’s twenty four or A Wedding’s forty eight – and the camera itself, which characteristically seems both somewhat interested in the human drama played out within and beyond the often shifting frame at any given moment, yet also detached from it. Somewhere both foregrounded yet submerged in this mix is the matter of Altman’s own presence and ambiguous role as author-narrator. Unusually for films that are both highly stylised and reflexive, authorial intentionality remains a shrouded question.
The question of narration becomes effectively separated, as does thereby the film’s reflexive address, from conjecture around both protagonistic motivation and off-screen authorial intent. This is partly played out through the frequent presence of a prominent, special human agent existing very loosely and sometimes ‘unconvincingly’ within the film. The most notable examples of on-screen narrator roles are, in greater or less obvious degrees: the bird-man lecturer (René Auberjonois), whose monologue begins Brewster McCloud and to which it sporadically returns; Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) through the mumbled auto-narration in The Long Goodbye, partially distanced from his own predicaments as he comments on them; Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), the much-derided British journalist in Nashville who claims she is from the BBC, interviewing people and offering vapid (and ignored) big-picture commentary about ‘America’, in a sense parodying the film’s own apparent pretenses; Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), Buffalo Bill’s cynical and world-weary yet mythic and not-quite-real story/truth teller who first engineered Bill Cody’s fame and is thereby now an embarrassing presence for knowing the degree of this emperor’s artifice beyond nakedness; Millie (Shelley Duvall) in 3 Women, through her ubiquitous rambling monologues delivered oblivious to constant social ostracisation, which fantasize and sustain a sense of lifestyle-defined identity; at times Rita (Chaplin), the reception coordinator in A Wedding who looks on at the varied heterosexual-institutional dramas from a slightly distanced and seemingly queer position; and, Grigor (Fernando Rey) in Quintet, as the apparent controller of the ‘game’, plus at different times other characters (aside from the protagonist, Essex). In some films, the role operates primarily in audio form. Key examples of this equally important function are: the radio broadcasts heard throughout MASH, the last of which concludes the film by announcing an imminent camp screening of MASH itself; Leonard Cohen’s frequent songs throughout McCabe, mythically commenting on events despite being recorded a few years prior to the film’s production (and of course far in the future of its historical setting); and Cathryn’s (Susannah York) recited fantasy story excerpts heard on the soundtrack throughout Images (taken from York’s own children’s book), plus the presence of some shots in which she appears to be working on such a manuscript.
Neither protagonist nor author, such a figure cannot be entirely explained as just another face in the film’s sometimes confusing character mosaic. His or her presence and words act as a framing device through which to present and consider the various micro- or macro- dramas and/or comedies (such distinctions being far from clear) played out on screen. As narrated and emphasised by the quasi-diegetic on-screen commentator, the film’s narrative events – in concert with already rather ‘excessive’ improvisation-fuelled dialogue and behaviour by the actors – are often presented as performatively self-conscious, non-committed, and ultimately failed fictions from the perspective of this figure residing on the borderline between an already sketchy fictional world and a much more overtly meta-fictional and quasi-spectatorial space. Despite their rather privileged status, however, these narrator-types are not thereby necessarily ‘reliable’, objective or otherwise more impressive than anyone else we see. This fact is a highly significant one in considering Altman’s cinema for its reflexive elements, generally enshrining no single figure – by implication including the director himself – as truly above or outside the on screen-world. If within a given film, and even more strikingly between and within individual shots (extensive use of the zoom lens often complicating such distinctions further), the viewer can sense the highly vertiginous nature of the attention given to a particular human drama by the camera, the frequent quasi-narrator role makes even more strongly felt a palpable distancing and distinctive reflexivity that scatters or obscures authorship, denuding it of mythic power. Reflexivity in these films largely thereby forgoes its commonly applied ‘self-’ prefix and limiting prescription.
Designation of on-screen and soundtrack narrator roles is also complicated by the fact that many people in Altman’s films speak in similarly detached ways, seeming to comment on the action just as they observe or participate in it. This decidedly reflexive performative effect, which bleeds across the human and social domain of the films, evidences the truly unstable and, I believe, ultimately voided nature of character formation or development within what on the surface appears a rather ‘character based’ cinema. What prevails is the fundamentally ambiguous nature of screen performance itself. As George Kouvaros (1998) has argued of Cassavetes’ films, this effect is one we can detect in different directors’ work, depending on the degree to which an actor’s performative mode is given room to undermine the transparent enunciation of character as dictated by the given screenplay and its associated fictional world of social relations. In Altman’s cinema, this unmooring of character and its fictional scaffolding through the foregrounding of frequently improvisation-fuelled (or what seems so) performance as charted by Lesley Stern, Kouvaros and others in the context of such performatively excessive filmmakers as Cassavetes and Scorsese (Stern, Kouvaros, et al. 1999), is here especially the result of a rambling, often narrational mode of on-screen dialogue delivery tending towards monologue – no matter whether one or more people are on screen at the same time. The seemingly endless, rambling talk of Charlie (Elliot Gould) and Bill (George Segal) in California Split is the most notable example. In this film especially, but throughout his ‘70s work, Altman not only attenuates US cinema’s inherited drive towards narrative forward movement through enunciation of exegesis via well-written dialogue, but also its even more sacred and serious investment in character and character development. This is despite the fact that the people in his cinema often seem to do nothing but talk.
A crucial nexus point in which seemingly messy filmmaking process floods neat pre-ordained outcome, the films demonstrate, and are powered by, a breakdown of any line delineating performance as a central enabling part of the very lively pro-filmic event, and as the actor faithfully bringing to life the a priori textual construction of diegesis and role. This procedure, or flooding of the latter by the former, is itself directly commented on to an even more overtly reflexive degree in the context of the developing intertextual universe of Altman’s cinema – in famous short sequences from Nashville, Gould and Julie Christie (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) appear ‘as themselves’. These two cameos, Altman claims, were motivated purely by the fact of the two actors (both at the peak of their popularity) ‘visiting the set’. The biggest surprise is how little such theoretically non-diegetic presence unsettles the film, these two actors’ behavioral modes entirely complimenting those exhibited by the characters around them. In particular, that Gould’s appearance and mode of social interaction is also impossible to fully differentiate from his performances in Altman’s previous films, makes clearer still that in a cinema which seems to devote so much time to what can superficially be seen as character, such a fundamentally literary (and in a sense metaphysical) concept is in fact undermined in favour of the entirely secular and material reality of filmmaking in process.
If the overall stress on screen performance engendered within Altman’s films has been much praised (especially by actors), the foregrounded narrator figures have often been ambivalently treated. Plecki argues that as early as Brewster, these often singled-out characters are an ‘attempt at self-parody (i.e., the director mimicking the absurdity of his own story)’. He goes on to claim such a gesture in this particular film ‘falls short of its mark’ because it ‘distances the viewer from the events of the film’ (Plecki, 1985, p. 29). Yet this is an inevitable and necessary part of any reflexive gesture, which is at the heart of Altman’s approach to performance per se. The more overt narrators (with the exception of Buffalo Bill’s Buntline/Lancaster) are neither reliable nor necessarily attractive. This does not, particularly in Brewster and Buffalo Bill, mean they are not capable of good lines. But to see the too-overt instance of this as a failure because of its distancing effect is surely to treat Altman’s cinema as rather classical.
In an Altman film, nobody is precluded or especially favoured when it comes to potential – usually provisional and temporary – empathy, and the narrator figures are both no more and no less sympathetic than anyone else. Seen as a reflexive gesture or auto-critique, both the overtly or more subtly narrational figures and their broader performative context tend to throw into greater doubt the veracity, reliability and nature of what we see and hear in the films as pulled together into a bounded and coherent fictional world/reality. The same applies to any search for an unambiguously meaningful utterance emanating from inside or outside its porous borders.
A Diverse Cinematic Feast
On-screen and auditory narrational figures operating within a broader human and filmmaking context, marked by performative slippage, constitute one notable presence and sign of reflexivity in Altman’s ‘70s work – a process that disperses rather than highlights character, narrative and authorship. The even more ubiquitous reflexive engine of this surprisingly diverse cinematic feast, however, remains the image itself.
It is the combination of various foregrounded or dispersed narrators and the films’ intense work on the technology and form of cinema per se that can accumulatively undermine the very thing sought by keen auteurist critics. Self writes:
It is easy to describe in formal terms the textual operations of an Altman film, but the very openness of Altman’s stance as a self-proclaimed auteur suggests the inadequacy of the unitary role of the function of the author in criticism and interpretation. In minimal ways these films are reflexive of their own discourse and call attention to the artificiality of coherence and homogeneity. (Self, 1985, p. 7)
The reflexive element in Altman is much more developed and overarching than ‘minimal’.Self’s point, however, holds good. As most Altman commentators have suggested, if the overall impression of the director’s idiosyncratic customising of the moving image can often appear to be some form of deconstruction or subversion of established cinematic codes, the ultimate effect does not necessarily suggest any affirmation of alternative modes of American filmmaking that could feasibly resist or operate outside Hollywood. Yet this does not lessen the extent of his work’s formal reflexivity; rather, it cements and enables it as operating within and upon contextually appropriate cinematic ground.
Properly enough for a filmmaker working in the USA during a period when the strictures of Hollywood production were being loosened while its institutional and financial organisation remained largely intact, Kolker writes of the myriad ways in which Altman de- and re-configures narrative cinema’s inherited formal conventions:
In dislocating their visual and narrative centres, the films dislocate their generic centres as well and begin to reveal some of the ways in which the smooth, undistracted, and unquestioning forms of cinematic storytelling have lied. Altman will no more construct alternative truths to the lies he perceives than any other American filmmaker, but the deconstruction is insightful, funny, sometimes angry, sometimes off the mark, and always respectful of uncertainty and plurality. (2011, p. 375)
With the benefit of hindsight, following the immense influence of his work on subsequent generations of filmmakers – particularly those ‘Hollywood independents’ who since the 1990s fancy themselves as offering an alternative cinema – it can feel as if Altman ultimately did construct ‘alternative truths’. The emphasis on plurality, along with improvisation and indulging actors with long and often improvisatory dialogue scenes, has tended to generate a set of conventions at least since Nashville (following its basic establishment with MASH) that Altman’s followers – ultimately more than the filmmaker himself – have at times turned institutionalised clichés of indie-film formalism and overall quality, frequently in partnership with a vague liberal politics. Uncertainty and plurality can be subversive, perhaps, if put up against the purported and often oversimplified institutional-formal-political sureties of Hollywood, and these qualities are constantly in play throughout Altman’s work. But they can also easily amount to myopic, lazy presentations of a culture and its inhabitants. Altman’s ‘70s cinema (along with some later films) is on the whole better and much more interesting than this; its instability and sly dismantling of distinctions amounts to much more than glibness, hip irony and quotation.
The vertiginous and idiosyncratically reflexive nature of Altman’s cinema is palpable whenever his advocates seek to critically adjudicate on the question of what perceived norm a given film is compared to. This is especially tricky with Brewster McCloud. In addition to a whimsical meditation on the human desire for flight and escape, while also managing to parody both Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1967) and even the subsequent Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971) through Michael Murphy’s hip/risible coloured sweater-clad ‘super cop’, Lieutenant Frank Shaft from San Francisco (brought in by a local corporate high-flyer to help inept and bigoted Houston detectives), Brewster is certainly one of Altman’s most overtly reflexive films in its surface play with genre, characterisation, narrative convention and formal construction. It is this film rather than MASH which holds the key to the director’s special formal interests and experimental attitude towards what constitutes a feature film. Questions of whether the film is good or works are especially irrelevant to its pleasures. Plecki is not alone in judging that this uncharacteristically fragmentary film is particularly hampered by ‘a lack of emotional capacity in the character of Brewster, and the absence of a time scheme…’ (1985, p. 32) Despite its ‘flaws’, he continues,
the film remains a daring, complex, and enjoyable experiment in a significant thematic and narrative style that would carry Altman through many films. The visual format of many scenes in Brewster closely resembles the style of his later films, suggesting that the narrative and cinematographic devices most important to the director were forged in Brewster McCloud. (ibid.)
Brewster shows more brilliantly than MASH Altman’s willingness to explore and stage an incredibly diverse cinematic feast, here through an unusually foregrounded emphasis on montage. But this is ultimately less because Brewster is experimental per se, aside from the book-end credit sequences, and more that it foregrounds, to an unusually felt and self-conscious degree, both the basic building blocks of narrative cinema and the characteristic reformulations thereof that would re-emerge in and characterise much of Altman’s subsequent work.
Compared to the diverse bravura of Brewster, closely followed by the very different but in many ways equally elaborate McCabe and Images, the 1973-4 trio of The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us and even California Split can initially appear to represent a shift towards a more respectful inhabiting of genre, popular forms and narrative convention – the director understandably trying to find a surer footing in Hollywood. Yet if these productions do, in certain respects, get closer to the heart of American narrative feature-film tradition, they also inhabit such conventions in highly ambiguous ways, just as reflexively as the ostentatious films preceding them. Concurrently, they also more clearly solidify what would become known as Altman’s recognisable style. While the canonical title from this trio is The Long Goodbye, California Split is likely Altman’s most aimless, radically plotless feature. Meanwhile, the even more neglected Thieves Like Us is his most leisurely, restrained and (along with McCabe) beautiful. In stark contrast to both, The Long Goodbye features the most densely packed, dialogue-heavy and fast-moving narrative of Altman’s ‘70s work, peppered by a few ‘diversions’, all of which is rendered by means of what feels like a non-stop zooming camera. Despite or in part because of this, it is The Long Goodbye around which Altman obsessives increasingly gather as the central work of his classic period. It remains emblematically paradoxical that a ‘Hollywood outsider’ makes his seminal film by way of an especially plot-driven, genre-tied production.
In Altman’s work, inside/outside, conservatism/progressivism, realism/modernism, and associated oppositions become rather unproductive labels. Keyssar writes that The Long Goodbye, ‘like almost all of Altman’s films, calls attention to its createdness and reminds us, in particular, of its relations to movies as a cultural form.’ However, she adds that the film
is not typically modernist in its sensibility (nor are any of Altman’s other films) because it is not really concerned with film form or with the movies as form. Instead, The Long Goodbye wishes our acknowledgment of movies as creations that mediate our understandings of our culture, and it urges our examination of the kinds of value and practices movies encourage. … Altman’s point is not to make us just sit back and think, for the sake of knowledge that we are thinking, but to think about certain, particular elements of our cultural history. (1991, pp. 109–110)
It is indeed too broad and unhelpful to simply label The Long Goodbye modernist. To incorporate Altman’s cinema into this already much-debated historical, aesthetic, philosophical and political category of cultural production, textuality and critical-theoretical discursive reception not only further stretches the concept but also, more importantly, sidelines the crucial fact that the impact and overall tonality of Altman’s cinema differs in certain key respects from the more serious, anguished or engaged modernism common to European cinema proliferating during the 1960s. Yet Altman’s cinema does feature extensive work on film form to a point of highly idiosyncratic yet authorially shrouded reflexivity. To dive straight into the films’ possible socio-political or culturally specific commentary and reportage overlooks or denies such a crucial – perhaps even from this vantage point, central – dimension.
In the case of The Long Goodbye, an expansive formalism occurs alongside select application of textual gestures so closely tied to their generic sources that the intent, presence and outcomes of such two-track reflexivity – both in the treatment of textual source, here the private eye genre film, and concurrent formal-aesthetic play – is far from clear. The tension borne of text/form interplay (‘dialectical conflict’ would be too strong) in this film is palpably felt, with the viewer left wondering why these images never seem to have a stable frame and set of coordinates. Yet Altman scholars often seek ways to explain or reconcile a foregrounding of the image that ultimately lead us away from the reflexive formalism that remains so central. For Keyssar (1991), The Long Goodbye’s intimately bound formal and generic dance can be justified or read as continuing the grand national/institutional critique around which she seeks to affirm Altman’s quasi-political, social project: the question, ‘What is America?’, as expressed or interrogated through its most mythic of modern forms, Hollywood genre movies. In this instance, Marlowe – treated sympathetically, if rather pathetically, by the film overall – resorts to murder in the final scene, an act that retains something of a self-conscious shock and highlights the disturbing vigilante morality that runs so deep in Hollywood cinema and broader US mythology. Yet it does not seem to me that there is a consistent or especially rigorous interest across Altman’s films in unmasking or rethinking the ‘value and practices movies encourage’. I likewise remain unconvinced that here or elsewhere the director is ‘not really concerned with film form’ prior to or beyond such grand thematic strains.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the other exponentially canonised film from Altman’s early-‘70s period, sutures together genre, narrative and the foregrounding of the cinematic gaze in an even more extensive, elaborate and stylised way. Despite being a very striking film when it comes to cinematography and composition – and therefore, according to the director’s own repeated claims to be uninterested in ‘Rembrandt lighting’ and beautiful images per se (Altman 2004), one of his least typical – McCabe differs from The Long Goodbye for the more clearly enunciated, serious distance it appears to proclaim between itself and its generic, mythic and narrative sources. ‘In contrast to Godard or Bergman,’ Keyssar writes, here ‘Altman’s reflections of and upon the film’s process of signification do not interrupt the narrative but are embedded within it.’ (1991, p. 183) In their different ways, each of his productions exemplifies how Altman’s style is more palpable the closer he gets to Hollywood source material.
If McCabe, Thieves Like Us and The Long Goodbye observe their genre and associated narrative conventions in ways that, despite being variously disrespectful thereof, nonetheless make them more accessible than most of Altman’s other 1970s work following MASH, California Split pulls a different trick. On the one hand, this appears the least ambitious of the director’s projects thus far, and the most artless. Yet its excessive but not ostentatiously extreme cinematic and human performativity emphasising improvisation – in particular, a stripped-back version of Altman’s long-take, slow-zoom style, and the over-the-top antics of its two male protagonists – brings Altman’s cinema closer to the beyond-Hollywood domain of Cassavetes’ most radical work, in particular Husbands (1970), while being comparably much more structured, coherent and light on its feet. Suggesting a more rigorous or obvious logic than likely appears upon an initial encounter with the film, Kolker nonetheless evokes well its almost offhand nature, highlighting how, in a different way, it is again both innocuous in offering what appears much buddy-film warmth – even if ultimately far from unambiguously charming and darkly rendered, in addition to being unconvincingly heteronormative in its portrayal of gender – and yet radical. He writes:
The film’s structure is that of a game of chance, a playful, random, offhanded series of events full of accident, coincidence, and peripheral action brought to the centre in a more extreme way than in the previous films. But the adjective is misleading, for the film is not “extreme” in any way. If anything, it is extremely gentle and undemanding of its characters and its audience, requiring only a pleasure in its playfulness and its improvisation effect. The film is carefully crafted to be open to various interpretations but to various reactions to its juxtapositions and anomalies; it is made to be analogous to the wheel of fortune that closes the film, spinning and stopping where it will. (Kolker, 2011, p. 400)
In a much more severe and portentous way, the theme of a game as structuring form, indeed as raison d’être, will return at the end of Altman’s peak decade in the otherwise very different Quintet. Yet California Split is today often less discussed than many of Altman’s other early ‘70s classics despite, or because of, its deceptive easiness, just as Quintet is ignored or heavily criticised for the opposite reasons.
Kolker is right when he suggests that, despite its lazy and superficially good humoured demeanour, California Split ‘holds an important place in Altman’s work: experiment, joke, a game about gaming,’ (2011, p. 400). Its apparent casualness and improvisatory tone also mark an important move away from genre adherence and the ultimately limited game of revisionism. Yet at the same time, following the more genre-oriented previous two films, Altman also appears to be moving even further away from his European tendency. This is the most striking instance through which we can see a Hollywood/art cinema opposition as being a far from productive map by which to ultimately locate and judge this filmmaker’s work and achievements. Even so, with this film the director is nonetheless also in an important sense simultaneously returning to a less narratively-based and ultimately, if rather quietly, more challenging cinema, this time featuring a much lighter tone than any of his previous work. For the first time, both Hollywood narrative and genre on the one hand, and European-style art cinema on the other – twin rails that together or separately provide the textual-narrative scaffolding for much of Altman’s 1970s work – are absent. What we are left with is a strikingly vertiginous and, as Kolker argues, deceptively light-as-a-feather experience that brings with it seemingly modest yet trenchant revising of narrative film form, ‘of the ways movies tell their stories and can be made to tell them differently.’ (Kolker, 2011, p. 400)
Show Business Served Cold
With different incarnations as we move through each film, and sometimes (as strikingly with Brewster) in a single work, what can we say is the limit-point result of Altman’s remaking of narrative form, the director’s focus on style and film’s very materiality, and an overriding slippery reflexivity?
Responding to one of Altman’s most derided and now ignored ‘70s productions, Buffalo Bill, Janey Place offers this summation:
Altman’s films reject the epic form of narrative in which the psychological dimension of the characters structures the world of the film. His characters are victims of the social forces that Altman is criticizing; they do not transcend their tragic fates through epic emotional values. Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) carries this movement from the emotional, sensual character of popular art to the alienated, intellectual character of modern art further than any U.S. director working in the mainstream of the industry has taken it. Jean-Luc Godard is the standard bearer of cinematic “high art” which self-consciously refuses the sensual appeal of its popular origins, thus alienating the bulk of its audience. With Buffalo Bill Altman has similarly, if less radically, produced a movie about movies and their operations which appeals almost exclusively to the intellect. (1980)
All Altman’s previous films, including Images and even That Cold Day in the Park(1969), tend to receive more attention today than Buffalo Bill. This is odd in many respects. Buffalo Bill represents both Altman’s formal-aesthetic as well as thematic and political zenith, and yet is also quite atypical for pushing all this quite so far. All of a sudden, we are a long way indeed from the warm and roughly familiar surfaces, spaces and invocations of the films up to and including Nashville. Enacting the world of the Western more overtly yet also far more disrespectfully than McCabe, Buffalo Bill thrusts us into a cinema entirely missing the cool and ambiguous inhabiting of genre, or the insider’s ambiguous affectionate/cynical charting of Hollywood convention and broader US behavioural and existential tropes. Also evicted is the vaguely humanist, at least superficially character-based and democratic micro-narratives inextricably bound to criss-crossing social worlds presented and exemplified by Nashville, in which the viewer can select from a smorgasbord of partially interconnecting people, events, relationships and scenarios.
Decker frames the innovation of Altman’s multi-narrative style and the kinds of subjects and spaces newly allowed into the narrative arc of a feature film – people and locales previously very unusual or shut out entirely – following the important work with genre in the preceding films. ‘With Nashville in particular,’ he writes, ’Altman presented himself as the “director of peripheries”, moving the accidental and the marginal, the repressed and non-conventional to the centre of attention.’ (Decker, 2007, p. 65) The more hopeful and celebrated aspect of Altman’s films lie in this egalitarian vision of social life and space enabled in part by what Keyssar calls his ‘promiscuous’ camera refusing ‘commitment to any one person or image’ (1991, p. 35), liberating the peripheries and undermining inherited institutionalisation of relationships, social formations and space. The vast majority of these films take place either in shared social spaces of often fluid, indeterminate, and temporary purpose – their borders and designation physically and temporally ‘porous’, as Martin notes of Nashville (2014) – or de-institutionalised domestic environments. We almost never get to see codified family domains (despite himself having children, Altman seems almost entirely uninterested in charting the nuclear family in his films) or those associated with the committed couple. It is hard to think of a major director less interested in portraying romantic/erotic scenarios and dramas. Yet this cinema remains resolutely social in the genuine sense, with no compensatory investment in the demarcated individual subject to make up for the above absences. Characters’ personal accommodation spaces remain either uncharted or portrayed as dysfunctional, deeply lonely, or simply empty.
In all senses of the term, Altman’s central characters are never really at home. Keyssar reminds us that when a character is seen alone either within their notionally private domain or a space previously defined by improvised social relations – generating a communal energy and warmth that always seems contingent and temporary – the sense of isolation is striking:
The consistency of attention to nonfamilial relationships, to various combinations of person, in Altman’s films persistently suggests the possibilities of companionship, and even of community, but is rarely a sentimental or facile gesture. When a character does appear alone in a frame, both the physical posture of the actors and the effect of the surrounding space often connote desolation. (Keyssar, 1991, p. 43)
With Buffalo Bill we are once again, more starkly than ever, not only outside familial space and that of the committed or even vaguely functioning couple, but in a highly artificial entertainment environment that in reality disallows such institutions – even as its textual products (notably Hollywood movies) have often appeared to mythically extol them in very narrow, prescriptive ways. When we see Bill Cody (Paul Newman) alone in his very temporary looking (but seemingly only) home – the large tent structure housing both the central office of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and its star’s domestic quarters – this sketchy, far-from-real subject appears to be in free-fall.
When Bill has female company in the bedroom, his risible and seemingly impotent relations with the various opera-singer mistress figures especially brought in for the purposes of companionship – a type the desire for which seems to be less erotic than an asexual fetish as symptom for some embarrassed awe at European high culture – the very temporary couple is played out as an absurd, cartoonish parody marked by dysfunctional self-interest. Whether would-be private, managerial, or public, here space seems entirely without the hopeful sheen intermittently palpable in the previous films. The potential warmth offered by the observation of social relations carried out within fluid, vaguely egalitarian if heavily contingent social space now seems gone. So too does all semblance of vague characterisation or even productive archetype. Instead, with Buffalo Bill we are stuck with a set number of cardboard cut-out protagonists who move like moths around the film’s empty shell of a titular character/icon, and one rather claustrophobic, quite literally corralled space for two hours, loosely bound up by a rather lazy overarching narrative comprising insufficient events and variation to warrant the film’s running time.
For the only time in his work, and in place of the attractions offered by Altman’s previous films, from its very first frame Buffalo Bill assaults the audience with an unambiguous, bitter denunciation of mythology. Yet while countless radical European film artists, most notably Godard, have been praised for mounting various sceptical or radical big-picture critiques – in which rather cartoonish caricatures also replace character psychology – with this film, Altman was widely criticised for offering stereotypes instead of believable people, and for being too blunt in his political essaying. After stating his in-principle support for such an enterprise and political intervention, Rosenbaum writes of the film upon its release:
Considered purely as agit-prop — neatly timed for a 4th of July American release at the start of this bicentennial summer — Buffalo Bill and the Indians might seem justifiable as an instrument for ramming this point home if it went about its business with some historical rigour. Unfortunately, Altman appears to know a lot more about show business than about the American Indian, and what he knows about the former mainly consists of behavioural observation … (1976)
If we see the film as simply a flaccid left-liberal expression of guilt that seeks to enlighten us about the USA’s largely decimated indigenous populations and cultures, Rosenbaum is surely right. And it is true that, as Place points out, the film can be seen as ascribing some rather magical powers to the ‘Indians’, noting that
they can ‘cross the river’, which whites cannot venture into without disaster. They can escape at will, ride calmly into the hills while the ‘cowboys’ of the Wild West Show perform a Keystone Cops-like pursuit; they can hide and not be found. When put in a position of ridicule by Bill, Sitting Bull becomes the subject of applause simply through the force of his being. (1980)
But while, on one level, this can certainly seem like textbook romanticising of the Other as Noble Savage in touch with nature, unspoiled by Western interference and progress, part of the film’s ongoing strength and relevance – more ambiguous than is often assumed – is in seeking to tell us nothing useful at all about Sitting Bull, his power, or representative culture.
The entirety of Buffalo Bill charts the non-character-based psychology and mythology of white America through, yet also transcending, the figure of Bill Cody himself. This includes a sense of real intimidation felt by the white figures in the face of an ancient or ahistorical presence associated with the land both largely decimated and selectively appropriated by violent settler-colonial culture – here the Wild West Show in buying Sitting Bull to take part in recreation performances with Bill of Custer’s Last Stand – but also the source an ongoing haunting. In both overtly bigoted and romantic/superstitious ways – the spectral aspects of which are brought to a head in the penultimate scene through the monologue of a dishevelled and rather desperate Bill as confronted with the clearly oneiric image of Sitting Bull (appearing for the only time in ceremonial head dress) – Buffalo Bill is all about the self-doubting arrogance and neurosis of an increasingly powerful, but secretly unconfident, occupying culture. This culture’s show business – both as historically presented by and exemplified through movies – is exactly what the film is centrally concerned with, as a literal and metaphorical reality upon which what would become the world’s most powerful nation was, and continues to be, based. That Buffalo Bill itself is yet another part or symptom of this culture becomes both unavoidable and an essential part of the film’s genuine, and – contra those who stress a debilitating romantic streak, especially in the portrayal of Sitting Bull – properly embedded radicalism and contextually appropriate reflexive incursion.
The closely connected political aspects of Buffalo Bill aside, Altman’s now familiar formal strategies are by this film so self-conscious as to be apparently uneventful, even boring, for many viewers and critics at the time, again such as Rosenbaum (1976). Yet watched in our decidedly non-linear digital era, the director’s stylistic signature, formal development and aesthetic innovations are here on display at their most perfected and radical. Altman’s technique is both at its peak of arrogant bravura and materialist power, yet somehow also plays as paradoxically transparent, so attuned are we to his aesthetic dominion and also the utterly seamless blending of form and content. Each scene is overflowing with diverse uses of anamorphic lenses to create both still and variously moving shots, combined with virtuosically orchestrated Panavision frames allowing the characters no escape from their highly artificial world. Altman’s patented multi-tracked dialogue is also at its most elaborate and challenging here.
By comparison, Nashville comes across as the more predictable – no doubt at least in part due to its being so praised and copied in the intervening years – and rather aesthetically and thematically lazy. As usual, depending on how we choose to read it and its makers’ intentions, the film can easily come across as patronising, ignorant and simplistic on the topic of the apparent social reality and culture it essays – the city of Nashville and its country music milieu – just as the vague commentary on America plays as incoherent, scattered and superficially big-picture. In stark opposition, benefitting from comparable under-exposure, Buffalo Bill now plays as a very clear-eyed and uncommonly focused investigation of the founding of both the USA as borne of, and sustained by, colonial-settler violence, and more importantly its central ongoing theatricality: what the characters call ‘the Show Business’, the proper inheritor of which in the film’s own era is of course Hollywood. The fact that we never really see outside Bill Cody’s compound to a possibly real America and its bloody history, let alone a space of pre-colonial indigenous culture, both harks back to the classical Western (such as Hawks’ canonical Rio Bravo, the John Wayne-starring 1958 film in which the action never gets out of town) while concurrently offering a truly reflexive theatrical mounting of white America’s narcissistic history and its simulacral image-culture writ large.
Buffalo Bill’s final image is an enormous zoom-out starting from the Wild West Show at the culmination of a perfunctory, pathetic Custer’s Last Stand re-enactment by Bill and ‘Sitting Bull’ (following the real Bull’s death, now played by his former translator, a much more physically imposing and therefore at least theatrically ‘convincing’ figure initially presumed to be Bull himself at the start of the film). The shot is the only one taken from a perspective unambiguously ‘beyond’ the Show’s massive illustrated painted borders. Like most of Altman’s ‘70s work, this conclusion pulls together the film’s thematic-political tapestry and quite self-consciously comments on the preceding work’s enunciation of form, more fully than ever implicating the expensive Paul Newman-starring production itself as a manifestation of modern Show Business (the pre-cinematic origins of which it has bitterly charted). Rather than simply a ponderous ever-expanding slow zoom out, the movie’s end credits soon start to roll over the exponentially wide image, making the cloistered Show (and maybe its modern equivalent) look like the expensive but miniature kitsch it always was.
Kolker suggests that the endings of many of Altman’s films bring out a risky tendency in his work. The final movement, he writes, often leaves us with the notion:
that the best way out of an impossible situation is simply to leave it behind. In some of these films, the withdrawal is informed by the narrative, by insight into the sources of hypocrisy and self-delusion in Buffalo Bill; for a lament for missed chances in McCabe and Mrs. Miller; by an understanding of the power of ritual over life in Quintet… The gaze in A Wedding permits a privileged position, a position of safety and superiority, unlike in Buffalo Bill, which attempts at least to offer an active demystification, to explore some of the foundations of cultural lies. A Wedding leaves the viewer simply alone, a situation by now too familiar. (2011, p. 420)
At its end, Buffalo Bill asks the most serious, and genuinely political, question of any Altman film and from which the viewer cannot escape no matter how immersed in Hollywood and its mythology she may or may not be, and especially if the ongoing beneficiary of a colonial history wherever it might operate and through its multiple mediascapes. In this light, through basing reflexive commentary on a textual form at the very heart of both commercial entertainment and the most sacred of Hollywood genres when it comes to national mythology (the Western), the film arguably even enacts a more serious, sustained and rigorous reflexivity than much of the more overtly modernist European cinema Place and others suggest is far beyond Altman’s reach.
The Reality of Genre
It is directly in the above light that I wish to offer a brief reconsideration of genre, an aspect of Altman’s work usually treated very prominently. Here, ultimately, is where the reflexivity of his cinema is felt most strongly, but in many ways elusively so. Much is made of Altman’s almost macho determination to cover ‘all the genres’, and indeed from MASH through to Popeye it is striking how much slippery ground is rather lightly skated across in the process of establishing one of the most stylistically personal American cinemas of the post-classical era. Yet, once more, this can appear rather counterintuitive. It is tempting at times to concur with John Orr when he writes of David Lynch’s work that ‘the mocker of genre is also its prisoner’ (1993, p. 12) in his rather self-consciously lonely, polemical book Cinema and Modernity. However, if we take this approach to cinema made in the USA, so dominated as it is by West Coast studios and Hollywood modes of production, one can come up pretty empty handed searching for American equivalents to formally innovative and radical European, Japanese and subsequent world cinema feature film directors and various New Waves. While, for example, some of the excitement over Cassavetes’ cinema that snowballed since his death is due to its relative, though far from total, remove from Hollywood conventions (even as some of his films loosely borrow generic traditions), to take the same explicitly Euro-centric modernist criteria to cinema from the USA ultimately rules out even more progressive figures such as Altman and Cassavetes. (This is perhaps more clearly the case with De Palma’s work, which operates even closer to generic source material and associated textual traditions, while nonetheless forging a truly personal and subversive cinema.)
Yet reflexivity – an almost sacred value for advocates of modernism – for a filmmaker working in the USA will essay and engage with primary image forms as they have dominated screens since the birth of commercial cinema. If Hollywood has tended to be almost exclusively marked by genre, it can be argued that Altman’s engagement with genre is less a concession to the market than a necessary stage in his development: his work on the moving image as the very open ground upon which to build a quietly re-formulated understanding of what constitutes a feature film. Where different traditions of realism play this role in, for example, 1930s French or late-‘40s Italian cinema, for a director working remotely within Hollywood systems, the equivalent reality is the already heavily textualised, artificial one of popular genre cinema. In this regard, such filmmakers can theoretically in fact be seen as already further ahead of those in other national-cinematic contexts with strong realist traditions who subsequently turn realism itself into a reflexive mode of textuality (as Brunette argues of Italian neorealism).
Following extensive work with genre in the first half of the 1970s, Altman’s cinema increasingly de-emphasises its importance as textual scaffolding. It is notable that he rarely expresses any interest in or affection for a genre that his films explore. Speaking of McCabe, he described the use of genre as constituting ‘an easy clothes-line for me to hang my own essays on’. (qtd. in O’Brien, 1995, p. 44) This description of both a given genre and its particular narrative incarnation as scaffolding or clothes-line for his real concerns is, it so happens, an almost textbook modernist principle or strategy. The director increasingly flies without a net by treating his own now enshrined formal conventions as the shaky ground in relation to which the films will increasingly soar or crash.
The borrowed iconography and textual traditions inherent to a given genre frequently invoke the baggage of ideologically loaded content. How does an allegedly progressive, innovative filmmaker approach the ideological inheritance of a given genre or genre per se, or is it simply a matter of irony and textbook revisionism? Addressing this overall question of genre’s role in the films, Keyssar’s argument describes an appropriation strategy: ‘The miracle, always at least present in potential in Altman’s films, is that he arranges the very images that have dominated us in such a way as to reestablish our control over them’. (1991, p. 15) Later she concludes that the ‘most coherent of Altman’s films’, citing McCabe as a key example, ‘attempt what might be called a third-order semiological system; they disrobe the filmic signs of their myth concepts and allow the denuded signs to function anew within history and politics. Altman wants to give them back to us, as ours in our ordinary lives.’ (ibid. p. 184) Keyssar’s point is well taken that Altman begins from a point of loose, seemingly cavalier and even cynical appropriation, making the inherited image language of genre and in the process Hollywood itself both the film’s starting point and decidedly strange through loosening and transformative iteration.
Another crucial reason for the prevalence and importance of genre, particularly in Altman’s early films, either as a singular world (McCabe, Thieves Like Us) or as fragmentary filmic combinations (Brewster McCloud), or alternatively treating European art cinema itself as a genre (Images, 3 Women), or rather turning it into one, pertains to the fact of his making films within a culture fundamentally marked and even largely defined by Hollywood and its associated myth-production and repetition. This is the fundamental question Buffalo Bill leaves us with. Any debates about Altman’s realism or charting of national identity need to take into account the fact that reality, for the United States (and of course a great many societies keyed into its mediascape), is a strange thing indeed. Recall only that a studio-era B-actor was twice elected President of the USA, following an earlier stint as governor of the state Hollywood calls home, to know that commercial cinema and its constructions define very much how the world is perceived and even how it is made.
Monaco addresses how for Altman’s cinema to be effective in charting cultural life, the films must include some level of engagement with the generic inheritance of Hollywood in its specifics and as a broader metaphor, as well as other aspects of popular culture such as country music in Nashville or Broadway and Meatloaf-style epic pop in A Perfect Couple (1979). Monaco rightly raises the question of what price is paid, asking when this procedure may stunt a film’s potential socio-political impact:
In short, Altman’s people are universally addicted to an American mythos,propagated by the media, not least of all film, to which their own reality never measures up. Altman doesn’t seem to want to let them take action, and that is a major and unavoidable criticism of the theory of his work. It’s especially evident – what else is new? – in his treatment of women. [3 Women’s] Millie, Willie, and Pinky ought to revolt: they deserve to get out of Altman’s dream and into their own. (1979, p. 326)
Similar criticisms were made, it so happens, about many of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s very different – but also often genre-engaged – 1970s films. Why do the victims of a sexist and generally oppressive consumer culture so rarely revolt or even articulate fundamental disquiet? Why do they, overall, accept their rather pathetic fate? More broadly, the same is often said of any purportedly ‘depressing’ cinema, which I have elsewhere advocated as a cinema of ‘negativity’ (Ford, 2011; 2012 pp. 27-140) for being the only properly hopeful mode of expression in light of history’s modern atrocities and quotidian enslavements.
Pessimism’s Lonely Road
To show the ways in which women are particularly acute victims of popular culture at its sharpest and most subject-prescribing, while also in many respects apparently being its prime consumers, without a compensatory moment of feminist awakening, does not amount to a politically useless cinema. It may instead offer an example of an address that remains radical for refusing any liberal balm, reformist gesture, or epic psychological privileging of exceptional individualism. Fassbinder once asked us why we expect filmmakers to provide answers to our problems, or at least a generally hopeful ending to what is an otherwise sober or stark portrayal of the world, suggesting that to want this is to effectively to desire ‘fascism’. (Following his conversion to Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama, Fassbinder subsequently declared happy endings were actually the rousingly bleakest of all for being such lies.) There is, in fact, a gradual move towards female solidarity in the final section of 3 Women, though less overtly feminist per se than redolent of famous finales from non-genre European art cinema, in particular recalling the last scenes from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) and Fellini’s Juliette of the Spirits (1964). Irrespective of the apparent qualified criticism offered by Monaco above, he is right to draw attention to the increasingly despairing aspect of Altman’s films in the 1970s. They can be seen as constituting a sustained and exponential attack on countless foundational ideas germane to much of modern American experience, at the heart of which lies a ubiquitous commercialised culture. That the films’ tonality becomes notably bleaker in the second half of the decade goes some way, in addition to the gradual downplaying of genre, to accounting for their diminishing critical and audience success. The various treatments of genre in Altman’s 1970s cinema is crucial both for claims to the films’ status as social documentary, but also a key to their gradually despairing aspect. The pinnacle of all this comes with the towering black edifice that is Quintet.
While in many ways all of a piece with the rest of Altman’s ‘70s work, to watch Quintet in close proximity to those leading up to Nashville is quite shocking. The warm if also distanced, vaguely humanist charter of the absurdities as well as the awkward and naïve charms of modern American life seems to have now become ice-cold in this film, whose one, superficially hopeful future vision represented by the taciturn would-be hero Essex (Paul Newman) is an even more anachronistic and ridiculous figure destined for truly meaningless death. O’Brien sums up the responses to this film through the years, including his own at best ambivalent feelings about it:
Quintet remains the least popular of Altman’s films (“Dismayingly pretentious claptrap” and “Perhaps the most boring film ever made” are fairly typical assessments) and there is certainly a lot wrong with it. The pace is unusually slow (occasionally grinding to a halt altogether). The plot is difficult to follow, the dialogue tends towards the willfully obscure, the acting is variable and the relentless sense of nihilism (this is a film with absolutely no sense of humour) can be depressing. Faced with these glaring faults, most viewers will look no further. This is a pity, as there is much in Quintet which is actually quite impressive. (1995, p. 78)
In certain respects, the same can be said of many Altman films. In regards to overall pace, whenever the male repartee pauses, California Split is just as slow, but without the compensatory distraction of Quintet’s remarkable production design. And when it comes to an obscure plot, at least Quintet offers more of a palpable narrative than many of Altman’s films. It does, however, ratchet up what is elsewhere a palpable while often more underlying nihilism, as seen especially in the loosely amoral nature of his characters detected by Adrian Martin (2002) when discussing the director’s late-career high point, Kansas City (1996). Most unavoidably, the film is a withering, increasingly hopeless portrait of meaningless life played out within a very particular post-apocalyptic world in the final stages of self-inflicted death, apparently resulting from a culture of absolute competition and environmental abuse.
While the film represents an extreme incarnation rather than an entirely new development in Altman’s work, O’Brien is nonetheless right in suggesting that, in Quintet, familiar elements are forced into a newly forbidding register. Despite the loose presence of genre and a big budget, it is perhaps here, even more than Images or 3 Women that Altman most indulges in his passion for trans-national art cinema. This is marked by the presence of prominent non-US star actors made famous for close associations with touchstone modernist European auteurs such as Bergman (Bibi Andersson) and Luis Buñuel (Fernando Rey). Closer to Tarkovsky’s final Soviet film Stalker (released the same year) than Star Wars, respecting science-fiction expectations only slightly more than the former, in a sense Quintet is the culmination of Altman’s work. It loosely pulls together a codified genre with overt formal-aesthetic experimentation and bleak thematic treatment.
Many of Altman’s films characteristically make details of the on-screen world seem indistinct through soft image texture, use of telephoto lenses, and some post-production manipulation. In Quintet such formalism is radically enlarged in a unique way. Sizable portions of the frame – usually left and right sides but sometimes top and bottom, too – look like the camera lens has been excessively treated with Vaseline or ice, an effect caused by the liberal application of then-unprecedented custom filters. Strikingly for a director well known for his employment of 2.35:1 widescreen (or ‘Panavision’), here the more generally common 1.85:1 aspect ratio’s modest widescreen dimensions are perversely employed as effectively neutered by the radical filtering, such that the only consistently legible portion of the image is essentially the old ‘Academy’ 1.33:1 frame. Through such extreme stylisation, the film becomes an explicit, highly reflexive articulation of the side of Altman’s cinema that involves play or experiment with form and surface texture. Quintet offers up a grand (and in terms of both critical and box office response, suicidal)dish that, despite its deep unpopularity, in fact exemplifies well and brings to an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion this filmmaker’s fundamentally contradictory cinema. From the unprecedented visual style and reflexive incarnation of image surface materiality rendered at its enigmatic, mathematical and doomy conceptual core (partnered by a remarkably bleak soundtrack and score), here lies the almost friendless apotheosis of Altman’s work – a film (one devoted fan site aside) not even capable of becoming a cult item.
Dancing on the Abyss
While it remains important to acknowledge and validate the creeping pessimistic strain in Altman’s work, his cinema is not finally depressing. The negative pole needs citing and stressing – indeed defending – as a key driving force, given various levels of expression but always remaining present, especially as it is so easily the cause either of frustrated critical and audience complaint or neglect. But just as important – in fact, co-dependant – is an almost romantic element at the heart of this cinema.
Altman both explored many of the most established genres of American filmmaking during the 1970s and also, sometimes within that context and sometimes from further outside it, mounted the most ambitious series of feature films made by anyone working in or around Hollywood in the post-war era. In a crucial sense, nothing could be more romantic and less cynical. His most properly romantic project in a particularly eccentric sense remains Brewster McCloud, a quality worked into the very core of the film as at least partially forged by dissatisfaction with the apparent choices available on this (American) Earth (represented by Houston), just as its inevitably tragic end must also come via the central Icarus figure’s pathetic fall from an already compromised and rushed test flight inside the enormous Astrodome while being shot at by police. The entire story, of course, can easily be seen as a metaphor for Altman’s future career trajectory, from commercial and critical success with MASH to the friendless Quintet and imminent ‘retirement’ as the result of excessive, arrogant ambition.
In the typical and brilliant (if also often criticised as prescriptive) piece of analysis prefiguring the fictional exegesis itself, Brewster’s very first moments thrust us in medias res into the exponentially dishevelled bird-obsessed and -resembling lecturer’s quintessentially romantic narration (and who, judging by the Hobbes reference, seems to have just issued forth on political philosophy). Beginning under the MGM lion logo, he intones:
I forgot the opening line. Enough of that Hobbes! Flight of birds. Flight of man. Man’s similarity to birds. Birds’ similarity to man. These are the subjects at hand. We will deal with them for the next hour or so and hope that we draw no conclusions. Elsewise the subject shall cease to fascinate us and, alas, another dream will be lost.
Coming from such an early film in a fairly prolific career, this strange but telling monologue chimes with increased and uncanny beauty in light of Brewster McCloud and Altman’s subsequent work. Foregrounding the refusal to proclaim knowledge or singular meaning, instead these words and the film that houses them herald an ultimately joyful, while also concurrently nihilism-informed, investigation of modern life and cinema in all their intertwined absurdities. A truly inquisitive and playful, reflexive and challenging celebration of film and its formal dimensions, nothing could be more complexly and genuinely romantic.
Bringing together even more perfectly the dialectical poles of nihilism and romanticism, on the long-debated question of meaning itself, the last word should be left to the most insidiously and intimately vertiginous film Altman ever made. Equal parts euphoric and quietly devastating in turn, or at any given moment, California Split suggests that winning could be the worst thing that can happen. This is Altman’s quintessential dancing on the abyss, a modern and ultimately unavoidable procedure or entertainment that his cinema invites us to join. Much of the film distracts us with the pleasures of the dance (here the web of seductive camaraderie weaved by two lonely men, and the filmmaking that so shares in its energy), while the abyss (the absolute emptiness of these characters’ individual lives, the already slightly anachronistic male-centred world they represent, the changing yet in many ways doggedly conservative American culture around them, and the worn-out cinematic codes such figures once sprang from) lies constantly in wait, barely hidden from view – in fact, on rather ubiquitous display across the everyday spaces of a truly banal, everyday California.
Whereas many of Altman’s films end in death or outright failure, California Split takes us through fraternal frisson and the possibility of a modern reinvention of communal life, then alienation’s dark night of the soul, before what seems the storybook win and cementing of social bonding. In the very last moments following their enormous haul at a small Reno casino, Bill, who has played the long winning streak, finally responds to the ecstatic Charlie after the latter has finished triumphantly counting the partners’ winnings. By way of an explanation for his lengthy silence and vacant expression, Bill calmly articulates the truth of their big win: ‘Charlie, it don’t mean a fucking thing.’
Robert Altman, (2002) McCabe and Mrs. Miller DVD audio commentary, Warner Brothers.
—– (2004) 3 Women DVD audio commentary, Criterion Collection.
David Bordwell, (2002) ‘Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Spring 2002): 16–28.
Hamish Ford, (2011) ‘Broken Glass by the Road: Adorno and a Cinema of Negativity’, in H. Carel & G. Tuck (Eds.), New Takes in Film-Philosophy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 65–85.
—– (2012) Post-War Modernist Cinema and Philosophy: Confronting Negativity and Time, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
—– (2015) ‘The Porous Frame: Visual Style in Altman’s 1970s Films’ in A. Danks (Ed.), The Robert Altman Companion. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.
Alexander Horwath, Alexander (2004) ‘The Impure Cinema: New Hollywood 1967–1976’, in A. Horwath, T. Elsaessar and N. King (Eds.) The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood in the 1970s, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 9–18.
– Jones, Kent & Hynes, Eric (2008) ‘The Adventure of Perception: A Conversation About Manny Farber with Kent Jones, Part One’, Reverse Shot, Issue 23 (2008): http://www.reverseshot.com/article/adventure_perception_conversation_about_manny_farber_kent_jones
Helene Keyssar, (1991) Robert Altman’s America, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Robert Kolker, (2011) A Cinema of Loneliness, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
George Kouvaros, (1998) ‘Where Does it Happen? The Place of Performance in the Work of John Cassavetes’, Screen 39:3 (Autumn 1998): 224–258.
Adrian Martin, (2002) ‘Screwy Squirrels: Robert Altman’s Kansas City’, Film Journal 1 (3): http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue3/kansascity.html
—– (2014) ‘Anywhere But Home’, Nashville DVD/Blu-ray booklet essay, Eureka Masters of Cinema.
James Monaco, (1979) American Film Now: The People, the Power, The Money, the Movies, New York: Plume Publishing.
Daniel O’Brien, (1995) Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor, New York: Continuum.
John Orr, (1993) Cinema and Modernity, Cambridge UK and USA: Polity.
Janey Place, (1980) ‘Buffalo Bill and the Indians: Welcome to Show Business’, Jump Cut, no. 23 (October 1980). Available here: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC23folder/BuffBill-Indians.html
Gerard Plecki, (1979) ‘The Films of Robert Altman’, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, UMI Dissertations Publishing.
—– (1985) Robert Altman, Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Barabara Quart & Leonard Quart, (1978), ‘A Wedding’, Cinéaste, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Winter 1978-79): 45-47.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, (1975) ‘Nashville’, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1975). Available here: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1975/10/nashville/
—– (1976) ‘Buffalo Bill and the Indians’, Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 43 No. 512 (September 1976). Available here: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1976/09/buffalo-bill-and-the-indians/
—– (1978) ‘An Altman’, Film Comment, September-October 1978. Available here: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1978/09/an-altman-on-a-wedding/
Robert Self, (1979) ‘Systems of Ambiguity in the Art Cinema’, Film Criticism, Vol. 4 Issue 1 (Fall 1979): 74–80.
Lesley Stern & George Kouvaros, (eds., 1999) Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance, Sydney: Power Publications.