Monday, March 06, 2006

The start of New Directors/New Films.

Well, it's that time of year again, and this morning there were two screenings: "Half Nelson" and "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros". Thought both films had merit, and the latter was particularly fascinating as an example of the development of an aesthetic approach to working in digital, and trying to develop a real digital "style". "Half Nelson" was good, but i wish it weren't so earnest, and Ryan Gosling has to lighten up! Where's the kid who used to be in "The Mickey Mouse Club"? Where's the kid who used to do cartwheels on "Young Hercules"? He doesn't even smile much anymore.

A lot of flurry via e.mail re: the Academy Awards.

But i'd like to comment on Robert Altman.

One friend of mine once said about Altman, "He's a genius. He must be a genius, because otherwise he's the stupidest man i've ever met in my life, and there's no other explanation for his best movies." He's a very erratic talent, he had a great run in the 1970s, and it's been hit and miss ever since.

But one thing is that Altman can also be incredibly cruel, vindictive, and outright hateful.

I once ran into Suzy Elmiger, who has worked for Altman as an editor. She was (at the time) working on the edit of "Pret-a-Porter". And it was driving her crazy. The movie was hit-and-miss, there were terrible bits and some great bits, but there was no way to structure it so that it would make sense.

But there was one thing that she felt really terrible about.

As with one of these Altman extravaganzas, it had so many actors floating around, and in most cases, they were working without scripts. There was a vague outline, but he just kept signing up more and more people, and many of them were left adrift.

Well, one person he allowed in the movie was Sally Kellerman. What happened with Kellerman was that he had (of course) worked with her on "M*A*S*H", and then on "Brewster McCloud". It had been a very wonderful working relationship. (Altman may be many things, but i haven't heard that he's one of those directors who must have affairs with the women he works with; Ingmar Bergman he's not.) But on "Brewster McCloud", he met a nonactress that he cast in the movie, Shelley Duvall, and his interest in Kellerman waned. She (of course) didn't really understand, and she kept waiting for him to work with her again. (He had talked to her about
"McCabe" but when he made it, it was a ready-made deal with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.) At parties, Kellerman would always try to corral Altman, to ask him when they'd be working together again, and he'd often duck out of parties early, just to avoid her.

But he let her in "Pret-a-Porter". And she knew his working methods, and she realized that there was no real script.

So she got ahold of some of the other actors (and there were plenty of them) and they began to make up their own story. They went so far as to come up with a little script (which could be amended). And Altman didn't stop this, he filmed the material.

Suzy said that if she had edited the Kellerman segments, it would have made a perfect little 45 minute short. And these were some of the best scenes that were shot, because they had cohesive dialogue, there was character development, and it wasn't amorphous, there was a plot, and a beginning, middle and end.

When Altman realized this (Suzy said that there would have been a way to edit the film so that the Kellerman "scenes" would have been the "anchor" of the film, and this would have helped to structure the movie, which had become utterly shapeless), he was furious. He had let Kellerman in on the movie in a moment of "weakness", but he didn't want her to "shine".

So Suzy was instructed to "shred" the Kellerman parts, and this was very vindictive, and it wasn't just to hurt Sally Kellerman, it wrecked the movie as a whole. But Altman was willing to do this, just to make sure that Sally Kellerman knew her place.

The Louise Fletcher story is pretty well known: Louise Fletcher's parents are deaf. Louise Fletcher has two children. Louise Fletcher's father was actually a minister and she sang in a choir. Put these together and you get the character of Linnea in "Nashville".

Altman knew Fletcher because her then-husband Jerry Bick produced "Thieves Like Us"; when the actress scheduled to play Mattie didn't show up, Altman asked Fletcher to take the role. And he liked working with her so much that he planned the role of Linnea for her.

Imagine her shock when she reads in the trades that Lily Tomlin had been cast in the part, and was learning sign language to prepare for the role! Altman didn't even bother calling her. And it wasn't because of anything she did: Altman was feuding with Jerry Bick, so he decided to dump Fletcher.

And on "Nashville", he did that to another actress: Susan Anspach. She was the one originally scheduled to play Barbara Jean, and she brought along her friend Ronee Blakely (who was going to write the songs for her). Well, he just dumped Susan Anspach and replaced her with Ronee Blakely. And the humilation was that these women had come to Nashville, to work on the movie, and he doesn't even tell them he's firing them, he just starts shooting with other people, and it's announced in the trades.

"A Wedding" was one of Altman's most troubled productions. He had loved working on "3 Women" with Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, and he had decided to work with them again on "A Wedding". But Shelley Duvall had been signed to do Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" and Spacek had agreed to work on "Bad Timing" with Nicolas Roeg. Both of them wound up in London, and, in the case of "The Shining", there was a protracted shooting schedule, and, in the case of "Bad Timing", the financing kept falling apart. (When Roeg was finally able to start shooting "Bad Timing", Spacek was long gone, and she was replaced by Theresa Russell; Spacek wound up making "The Coal Miner's Daughter" instead.) But they had these commitments, and they couldn't just drop them when Altman called because he was ready to start "A Wedding". (Spacek was cast as the sister of the bride, the part that eventually went to Mia Farrow, and Duvall was cast as the neighbor who rides a horse, the part that eventually went to Pam Dawber; the neighbor's part was considerably diminished, and the sister's part was changed to make her mute, because Mia Farrow was uncomfortable with improvising her own dialogue.) He was furious. He felt that they were being totally disloyal, and he swore not to work with them again. (He did relent with Duvall, and worked with her on "Popeye", but he never relented with Sissy Sacek.) And it wasn't their fault: Duvall just couldn't walk off the set of "The Shining" (it was a shoot that took almost two years!), but Altman expected that!

(Like most directors, the man has shall we say a healthy ego?)

And a lot of people i know have worked for Altman. Susan Emshwiller (Ed Emshwiller's daughter) has done the art direction on several of his film, Suzy Elmiger has worked as an editor, Marlene Arvin (who had worked for Jonas Mekas at Anthology Film Archives) worked as Altman's assistant (and as the general manager for Altman's Sandcastle Productions), Robert Hilferty was an assistant during the late 1970s.

But the thing they all say is that Altman's genial vibe is HIS genial vibe; he controls it, he sets it up, and if he decides to banish you, that's it. And he often does it in a way that's very public, so that (if he's banishing you) it's obvious and you're publicly humiliated (which happened to Louise Fletcher and Susan Anspach).

It was like the press conference at the New York Film Festival, when "A Wedding" was opening night. This was during the Richard Roud era, and (of course) as everyone knew, Roud was one of the major champions of Jean-Luc Godard. So someone asks Altman about the ending of "A Wedding" and how it's similar to the ending of Godard's "Contempt" (the car crashing into the truck) and Altman (with Richard Roud sitting right next to him) very calmly says, i wouldn't know because i've never seen a Godard movie. Altman loves these "pranks" where someone like Richard Roud is put on the spot. Altman is either the biggest liar in the world, or he's seriously delusional. But he's probably both.


Blogger Brian said...

I wonder why he's allowed to make statements (like on the Nashville director's commentary) that totally contradict some of the stories you tell here, and get away with them.

11:38 PM

Blogger Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Maximo Oliveros last October by chance in Toronto. I'm surprised Strand or some other company hasn't picked it up yet with all the festival dates its been getting.

8:53 PM

Blogger harvey bupkiss said...

Bollocks. Robert Altman has been making some of the best American movies for the last four decades--and NOT, as conventional wisdom would have it, merely a run of good luck that ended with Nashville. Much of what followed, especially 3 WOMEN, SECRET HONOR, and VINCENT AND THEO, ranks with his best work.

Anyone who has worked as long and with AS MANY BLOODY PEOPLE as Altman has will be trailed by hurt feelings, slights, lover's spats, sour arguments, and, yes, sheer spitefulness.

Remember that Altman hit it big at age 45--after a lot of years working in the trenches and probably a long accumulation of anger and, er, bad behavioral traits along the way. He doesn't get to be a blissful I-love-everybody-I-work-with guy like Paul Thomas Anderson, because, well, the guy came from the School of Hard Knocks and probably accumulated a decent amount of bile and bah-humbug along the way. (For more on this subject, talk to anyone who worked for I-hit-it-big-at-40 Oliver Stone.)

Altman has no doubt done some mean shit in his day...but again: read some bios of Josef Von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and other greats of the Golden Age to see some bad behavior. And when last I checked, Martin Scorsese had once done a line of blow from Paris to New York, Roman Polanski fondled some toddlers, Woody Allen fondled some more, John Cassavetes occasionally ordered one Scotch too many, and Spike Jonze didn't know who "Tennessee Williams" was.

As a Billy Wilder character once taught us, nobody's perfect...but then, not many people make over a dozen masterpieces in the world's most high-stakes art form, either.

1:03 PM

Blogger Jim Beaver said...

I've been making movies as an actor for thirty years, and I've worked with some of the biggest name directors of that period. After reading this description of Altman, all I can think is "What's so bloody remarkable about this?" Find me a director of Altman's stature who doesn't have stories like this (true or false) dogging him. Who cares? His work is often magnificent. I may not have liked working with one particular Oscar-winning director because he was rude and belligerent, but the work was splendid. If you can't stand the heat.....

11:48 AM

Blogger Greg said...

"Martin Scorsese had once done a line of blow from Paris to New York": self-destructive, yes. But mean? Hardly.

"Spike Jonze didn't know who "Tennessee Williams" was." You can't *seriously* be classifying this as in the same league as treating people incredibly badly &, in the case of Polanski, actual criminal activity.

In any event, Jonze is an inveterate prankster, so I'm dubious.

7:51 PM


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