Monday, June 12, 2006

The Altman Effect

I had to make a decision today that kind of amused me, between seeing the new Pixar movie Cars, which actually is something I had intrigued me, a take on the anthropomorphic taxi and airplane cartoons (Like where the bomber gives birth to a jet, and you're thinkin' "She got a little on the side. She's got a little 'Space Fever,' if you know what I mean...goin' for those hot new NASA boys...I digress...), or An Inconvenient Truth, about how, among other things, cars are going to kill us all. So to speak.

I ultimately decided that a lone man in his 30s, smelling of cigar, who drove up in a van...with tinted windows on a Sunday afternoon to a kids movie was inviting trouble. So I saw An Inconvinient Truth.

But Incertus said all that needed to be said about that.

So I'm going to talk about why I'm never sure if I've seen a good movie or not when I watch an Altman film. I'm going to work this out with all of you, well by the time you read this I'll have already done it, you would have just followed how I did it. But anyway...

I saw A Prairie Home Companion. I should say that I am a long time fan of Garrison Keillor, from back when entirely by accident I came across a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. I was delighted the day he asked me to get out of the way during a book signing.

But this A Prairie Home Companion is much more of an Altman movie than it is anything else. It made me think a bit about Altman's style of story telling. In theory he is a 'proof of concept' for me and Sous Rature in that we tend to write character based ensemble pieces. But Altman, as is easily imagined, has a style all his own that I honestly don't know how I feel about.

There isn't a real sense of ending, or completion to an Altman film. He is perhaps the only filmmaker of the 70s auteur crowd that has retained that aspect of his filmmaking. Jarmusch does a bit of that, too. Though the movie has a kind of definitive ending it undermines that both in how it is set up and in the denouement.

I think that the thing that is the hardest to get around, and probably a barrier for other audience members is that his characters have very little internal life. This might seem like a natural thing for film, but it really isn't. When a character is alone, or doing something that they don't think at least others are seeing that is films way of providing an internal life for the character. While Altman doesn't abandon that all together it is far more spartan. You are an observer with no particular special privilege. You are flipping channels through the evening in these peoples lives and are left to piece it together yourself. Peoples reactions and emotions, their outbursts, can seem unmotivated and a little confusing. But it is because we are accustom to the special privilege that audiences have. Altman robs you of that.

While it would seem that this would separate the audience from his films, and no doubt it does for some, I think it has the opposite effect in that your reactions to the characters, their unmotivated outbursts or behaviors holds the same curiosity as would if it happened literally right in front of you. You are reacting as the undressed member of the crowd, the guy no one remembers inviting going from room to room nursing that one beer. The quality, the elusive reason that you think you've seen a good movie but aren't sure with Altman, is in this needle he threads with things that aren't supposed to work.

He has too many characters, no internal life, and conventional wisdom is that you can't make a film of someone's party interesting unless you are there. By giving us only the privilege that we would have as audience at that party, that's exactly what Altman films-a party that you are at. It's a different kind of filmmaking and takes a bit of getting used to.

There are weaknesses, and they don't neccisarily come from Linzie Lohan. Some of the actors, particularly and most noticably Virginia Madson, have a hard time. I don't know if it was being starstruck with author and director or what, but there are lines that you can almost tell the actor feels is corny or doesn't work but trudges through them anyway. Madson in particular gives the movie the feel of a community theater rendition of Our Town. But the interplay between Streep and Tomlin. For that matter, most of the pairings. And while it's frustrating when that style of storytelling steamrolls over a favorite bit (messing with the sound effect guy, for instance) it's about the only way this story could have been told.

One last note is the way Kiellor depicts himself, through the various stories about how he got into radio and his reactions (or lack there of) to what goes on around him. He is always at the tail end of a story that he gives you no reason to believe but want to hear anyway. He has the narrative of an observer with the characteristic of someone that does not notice those around him accept as audience. He doesn't care that the show will end because for him the show never ends. It's an interesting way for an artist to portray himself. And again, fits well into the style.

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