Friday, March 03, 2006

Altman and Me

The great moment has arrived - the Robert Altman blogathon, in honor of his receiving an honorary Oscar from the Academy. See Matt Zoller Seitz for a round up... On this humble blog, I shall aim for 2 or 3 posts - starting with autobiography, later, moving on to analysis, I hope. Here goes.

Robert Altman made me a movie geek. That’s basically true. In 1992, the Brattle Theater ran a series of his films, probably inspired by the release of The Player, and I went to most of them. It was the first film series I ever attended, at least the first time I'd seen more than one or two films in a series. It changed me. The simplest change, I suppose, was that it got me in the habit of going to films - going to series’ of films, new films, old films and so on. It’s a habit that took a while to develop, but it started there. When the Altman series ended, I didn't just start going to the next series at the Brattle - but I kept thinking about it. I read their schedules - I kicked myself for missing stuff. And eventually went to another one, and more after that, and so on. It took a couple years, but eventually it was a real habit.

The second change was intellectual. Seeing all those Altman films changed how I saw movies. It changed the specific movies I liked, made me suspicious of the Eisenstein and Kubrick and Scorsese and Lynch films I'd have sworn by before. The reason that happened, I think, is that Altman's films fit very well with the books I was reading at the time. It is probably not pure coincidence that I was reading Joseph McElroy's Lookout Cartridge during that Altman series. Altman clicked with those kinds of books - McElroy, Gaddis, Faulkner, Henry Miller - dense, complex novels, that required a good deal of interpretive work to grasp. Altman's films had the same qualities, the same multivalence, moral complexity, and many of the same devices - multiple perspectives, stories told through dialogue, itself fragmented and overlapping. (Films like Nashville struck me as being very similar to William Gaddis' later books, JR especially). It's odd, and hard to explain, but this affinity with literature (specific types of literature) made me more sensitive to the films as films - at least, to films as narrative art. Maybe because those books were already making me think about narrative and structure, I thought about Altman in terms of narrative and structure - how to tell stories, how to convey meaning. At the time, I still thought about this mostly in literary terms (how he told stories, how he revealed his themes and ideas, the ways he structured information in his films), but once I'd started thinking about form, it was only a matter of working through it to the more cinematic aspects of the films. Starting with the obvious things - the way his films looked like someone had just left a camera running in a room, and come back later to pick out what was interesting; the way scenes relate to the plot - the way he decentered the plot, the way he used plot as a device driving the selection of what you see, rather than a motivation for what you see; the way people talk, and its relationship to the meanings of the films. Once I started thinking about how films worked, I didn't stop.

It also changed the types of movies I liked. I started to paying more attention to different kinds of films - in place of the macho angst of the Scorseses and Kubricks of the world, I turned to melodramas and comedies, to old Hollywood films, to genre pictures (kung-fu movies, westerns, noir). I became something of a conventional auteurist, post-Altman - looking at old Hollywood films and seeing the signs of the director. This was probably driven more by the books than by Altman himself - but he was the first filmmaker who embodied the values I saw in those books. His films taught me to look at films like novels.

There is an important distinction here that is a bit hard to get at. It is important that I was never an "innocent" filmgoer. I didn't go to films at all until college (for reasons I share with Paul Schrader and Mohsen Makhlabaf), though I watched films on TV. When I did start seeing films in theaters, I looked at them as glorified television, at least until grad school. That’s when I saw other films that made me take films seriously. I saw Ivan The Terrible on PBS, saw Blue Velvet and Full Metal Jacket in the theaters, saw a couple old films, like Alexander Nevsky, M, Alphaville. I was very inspired - I started reading about films, thinking about films, writing a lot about films. But - looking at what I wrote back then - there's almost nothing about the films as films - nothing about form. Everything is about what themes, meanings, about things like whether Full Metal Jacket is a "humanist" myth or not. I can probably blame that on grad school, and being steeped in Foucault and Barthes and Freud and Nietzsche at the time (all of it applied to history, nominally at least) - but there it is. I looked at those films as illustrations of their ideas - and, rather pointedly, I valued films that illustrated the ideas I thought were important.

It didn’t last. At the end of the 80s, my reading and interests took a major swerve - I stopped reading philosophy and started reading novels, basically. When that happened, some of my interest in films waned. I think this is related to the way I was looking at films. Reading novels (especially reading novels through Bakhtin) instead of philosophy made me interested in form - because novels do whatever they do, say whatever they say, in a very concrete way. Fiction undoes the hierarchy of ideas and expression - the words and stories do not simply point to the themes - they embody the themes. But I still looked at films as if they were means of illustrating ideas - I tended to like films than fit my ideas. I couldn't reconcile that approach to my new interest in fiction - I could reconcile Altman to my interest in fiction.

And from there - I passed on to classic films, to noir and screwballs and silent comedies and melodramas, and most of all films that (rather like Altman's films) combined these modes - Frank Capra, Godard, Cassavetes. Especially films that made the form apparent, made the means of telling the story crucial to the ideas. Eventually, I got back to the films I liked in the 80s - Lynch, especially - but seeing them in a more complete way. I could write a very similar essay about Blue Velvet - the film that did as much as anything to make me notice what films could do. But it was Robert Altman that provided the real epiphany, the real understanding of how form and content relate in films.

1 comment:

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Weeping Sam: Well, I can certainly relate to your experience here-- I'd have to say that Altman was a very important formative figure for me too. It was in understanding what Nashville was and how it could inform not only the rest of Altman's films for me, but how it could interact with and expand other art forms for me as well, that I came to love not only his films but hundreds of others that I might not have been open to before. I particularly liked the section in your post regarding how Altman's films lined up so well with the literature you were involved with when you first saw his stuff. I'm sorry I'm getting around to all the Blog-a-Thon writing as late as I am, but it's been a truly fascinating experience in the catch-up, and I'm particularly glad it led me here. Nice work.