My 2010 in Film: Three by Robert Altman

Altman-banner.jpg

[My list of favorite films released in 2010 will be going up on Row Three in mid-January, so I want to do something a bit different here. This series will include any films I saw for the first time this year and loved, regardless of release date. It may also include films from this year.]

Director Robert Altman was easily my favorite “discovery” of the New Hollywood marathon I did throughout this year. Discovered isn’t quite the right word; of course, I knew about Robert Altman and had seen a few of his films, but this year I saw several more that I ended up loving completely.

Nashville

nashville.jpg

I went into Nashville expecting to just put up with it, a begrudging viewing based solely on the film’s reputation and not any real interest in it on my part. I’m not into country music or politics, and I figured it’d just be a sprawling, overlong, not particularly interesting look at those things. Well, it is set in Nashville among a bunch of country musicians during the build-up to a political rally, but it is anything but uninteresting.

Altman is pretty well-known for his ensemble films, and this one proves why as much or more than any other (though he has plenty of other great examples). Loosely built around a coincidentally timed country music festival and a political rally for the fictional Replacement Party, the film is made up of a bunch of interweaving characters, each of whom has a well-developed and interesting arc. Often films like this suffer from not having time to develop any of the characters, or develops one or two at the expense of the others, making the film unbalanced, but Nashville contains at least ten or twelve characters that all feel real, that all seem to have back stories and arcs, and none of whom steals the spotlight from the others.

There’s the star vocalist recovering from a nervous breakdown, and maybe not quite ready to return to the stage, the waitress who wants to be a singer but doesn’t have the chops, the established trio whose interpersonal strife threatens the group, the gospel singer who feels more and more disconnected from her husband, the determined wannabe who overcomes all odds to get to the rally stage, the overeager reporter who’s equal parts naive enthusiasm and unwitting insensitivity, and several others – stereotypes in a way, perhaps, but they do not feel that way when you’re watching the movie. Everything just feels right and even though it is long, it’s perfectly paced and when the end credits rolled, I was actually sad the experience was over.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

mccabe_and_mrs_miller.jpg

This film snuck up on me while I was watching it. It takes a little while to get going, it’s a little low-key and quiet about getting there (reportedly there were sound problems on set that Altman never bothered to fix), and it’s tough at first to identify with anyone. But by the end, it got under my skin something fierce.

It’s truly a revisionist western in the sense that the main character McCabe (Warren Beatty) isn’t a classic western white-hat hero, but he’s not even really a morally complicated hero or anti-hero; he’s almost an a-hero. This is a world in which heroism basically doesn’t exist. The major conflict is purely commercial, and the major shootout isn’t fought in the open streets with the town watching, but sneaking around deserted buildings and through barns while the town is totally unaware.

It’s also not a typical love story, though McCabe and Mrs. Miller (the local brothel owner, played by Julie Christie) are one of those couples that are so clearly meant to be together and yet utterly not as well – they need each other, but for many reasons it wouldn’t work for them to be more to each other than they are. Their interactions with each other somehow carry the weight of tragedy. It’s a sad movie in many ways, but a great one that I can easily see myself revisiting over and over for years to come.

The Long Goodbye

long-goodbye.jpg

I’m pretty sure I saw at least some of this movie in an undergrad film course I took, and didn’t care too much for the part I saw. Clearly there was something wrong with me then, because when I watched/rewatched it this year, I loved every bit of it. It’s a take on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character that somehow manages to be irreverent, unique, and poke fun at the hard-boiled detective genre while also being loving and true to it.

The homages to classic detective films from the 1940s are peppered throughout, but with a sense of ironic world-weariness that is perfectly ’70s. Elliott Gould’s Marlow is a lackadaisical fellow whose catchphrase is “it’s okay with me,” a statement of bemused apathy that nonetheless is belied by his casual yet dogged pursuit of the truth about a friend of his accused of murder.

The film contains recognizable references to specific classic noir films, but also the detached style of European cinema of the 1960s, making it a quintessential New Hollywood film and perfectly poised to hit all of my buttons, and so it did. This time around at least, it was perfection.