From the Archive: A Prairie Home Companion

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I don’t have much to add to the review below (originally published at my former online home), except to note that every great director deserves to have a final film as perfect of a closing statement as this one is for Robert Altman.

Enjoyment of the new(ish) film A Prairie Home Companion is not predicated on an appreciation for the long-running radio program that shares its name, but it may be dependent on an admiration for the work of Robert Altman.

That particular logic problem answer is based on a case study of one. I plainly don’t enjoy Garrison Keillor’s radio program, finding its gentle homespun storytelling and plunking musical performances to be achingly dull. I’ve tried to find its charm, genuinely hoping to discover that ingratiating warmth that keeps dedicated public radio listeners coming back week after week. Instead, I’m left as perplexed as Homer Simpson when he famously encountered a Keillor doppelganger while watching a PBS pledge drive and responded by smacking the side of the set in futile hope that it would jar some actual entertainment value out of the performer.

And yet…

Generally, I enjoyed the film. Keillor’s script (based on a story co-conceived with TV writer and Minnesota educator Ken LaZebnik) focuses on the production of a lightly fictionalized version of his radio show. Hanging heavy over the typical hustle and bustle of a live radio program featuring multiple musical performers is a sense of mild dread as a major media company has just bought out their home radio station and there are expectations that this performance may be the last. Interspersed are hints of relationships between the characters and backstories that come lightly into play through the dense conversations backstage and, occasionally, on mike.

All of these plot details feel somewhat incidental, though, and not by faulty narrative construction, but by design. Altman has rarely been concerned with the rigors of linear storytelling. He’s much more fascinated with submerging his films into a culture and soaking it in. He wants to convey how a place, a time, a group of people feel. What is it like to move through life with a group of characters for a while? There is a main plot that moves through the 105 minutes of the film, and several smaller stories that drifts along in its wake, but Altman primarily seeks to bring to the screen the work of performers, the effort and strain and combativeness and playfulness of the troupe that mounts this production. Keillor’s radio show is an affected reflection of Midwestern stasis, but the film he’s made with Robert Altman is about the focused stage managers and anxious musicians that manufacture the artifice. In their toils, it finds a bracing energy that enlivens the lengthy portions of the radio show performances that help fill the film.

When a film is more about the parts than the whole, the consistent excellence of those parts becomes extremely important and that’s where Companion picks up some static. There are pleasures aplenty provided by the large cast, led by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters, the last remaining remnants of a family act that toured the county fair circuit (to Keillor’s credit, he understands that you’ll not find a better city name to use as a ready-made punchline than Wisconsin’s Oshkosh, and making this the sisters’ hometown allow him to drop the O-bomb with impunity). The mastery of Altman’s trademark naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that they demonstrated at this year’s Oscar ceremony serves them well here. I suspect a satisfying film could be wrestled together solely and strictly from this tandem’s extended dressing room conversations. While the more jagged edges given to Tomlin’s character offer her a little more to do, Streep deserves admiration for her astonishing ease and comfort with the on-stage performances. Thirteen Oscar nominations de damned, watching her here it’s well within the realm of imagination that she could bypass future film work and wind down her career having the time of her life with a weekly gig at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Not faring as well is Kevin Kline, portraying the official show detective (already an odd conceit) Guy Noir, whose name is apparently taken from a recurring radio show character, but I presume the tiresome physical shtick he engages in is freshly created for the film. Perhaps Kline brought in some of the rejected gags from his prior production. Everyone else lands somewhere in between, although singing cowboy duo Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly can claim one of the film’s most unlikely comic highpoints with their final song.

This is hardly one of Altman’s masterworks. It doesn’t have the bite of Nashville or The Player, nor does it have the focus of Gosford Park. But it does have the restless bustle of his better efforts, that incessant inquiry into overlooked corners where little moments are as telling as sweeping stories and big points. It is truly, unmistakably Altmanesque.

From the Archive: Top Ten Movies of 2006

Recent weeks have seen an online avalanche of top ten lists from movie critics of all stripes. I live in the frigid north, however, and it takes certain cinematic offerings a little longer to fight their way through the sleet and snow to our various multiplex screens. So, as usual, I need to wait a little bit on that particular exercise in backwards counting. As a bit of a stopgap, here’s my equivalent list from ten years ago, which just so happened to be a movie year I found to be particularly strong. Following my usual methodology, this writing was originally presented as ten entries scattered across a few weeks. I’ve compiled them here, so be prepared. It’s turned into something of a long read.

 

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#1–Children of Men

It’s the extraordinary confidence of director Alfonso Cuarón that I think of first; confidence not only in his capabilities to pull off bravura feats of staging, but also a surprisingly assured belief that the audience will comprehend all the complexities of the story without overt exposition and explanation. Set some twenty years in the future, after two decades of global human infertility have reshaped the very nature of how societies operate, Cuarón’s film is bursting with important, telling details, many of them revealed in the bustling backgrounds or through the passing references in shared reminiscences. The film is focused on lives as they are lived, and it moves with unobtrusive observation, letting the truths of the world emerge naturally. That approach is especially brave as the film has so much to say. Like the best of true science fiction, it offer pointed commentary on the travails and triumphs of modern life by providing a glimpse of the future we are potentially building. Cuarón’s commentary is not offered up through boilerplate political speeches or leaden allegories to current issues, but through simple revelations of troubled places and events that are utterly recognizable, maybe not as directly connected to where we sit today, but certainly just a few poorly chosen steps away. The England depicted here, with it’s ever-present propaganda and dehumanizing cages for captured illegal immigrants, is a harrowing vision, but also one that could be right in front of us after glancing away from the forces of control and hatred that currently fill op-ed pages and throttle discourse. In loosely adapting a novella by P.D. James, Cuarón works the central concept of this dystopian future unleavened by the rejuvenating promise of new generations with astonishing depth. He shows us all the futility, fear, struggle, and pained hope that can be imagined, and does so with startling technical accomplishments that manage to place us as literally in the midst of this world as any film could. The riskiest moments play out as extended single-takes with no apparent edits and none of the safe trickery of filmmakers remodeling time. We are there, trailing Clive Owen as he rushes through a city street war zone or in the claustrophobic confines of a cramped vehicle as horrors are spilling across the windshield. Cuarón takes the recent technical advances in filmmaking and thinks beyond what is cool to determineswhat can be done to truly enrich his work. His success in this is thrilling, enrapturing, even moving. More so than other film of 2006, or of recent years for that matter, Children of Men shimmers and shines with the gratifying intellectual friction of a movie that attains the status of great art.

 

#2–The Departed

I don’t know if I can come up with another film as vividly alive as this one. There’s already been too much cineaste chatter about The Departed as a “return to form” for director Martin Scorsese, mostly from film writers eager to congratulate themselves for not being duped by the high aspirations (or blatant Oscar-grabbing as far as they’re concerned) of Gangs of New York and The Aviator. As far as I’m concerned, those are exceptional films as well, and certainly nothing Scorsese needs to retreat from. The Departed isn’t about giving up on high art to get back to the mean streets where he belongs. What really marks it as a fresh accomplishment is Scorsese’s urgency to fill the screen with as many ideas as he possibly can. There’s a breakneck pace to the film, especially in the earlier sequences, as Scorsese expertly figures out how to convey all the necessary information, motivation and emotional pretzels in the clearest, quickest way possible. He’s always created dense films, but this may be the first time that he’s made a movie that’s seemingly in a race with itself. It’s a measure of his astounding craftsmanship, and that of his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, that it never turns into a blurred rush. It is a quickened pulse project on screen, and it feels for all the world like the way movies should always be. The complicated dance of a story examines the photo negative worlds of cops and robbers and what it’s like to exist in the murky gray in between. As you might expect, that’s fertile ground for the cast which is populated by performers reaching new personal heights. Of special note is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a steel coil held tight but always threatening to burst open. It is a performance of glowers and undercurrents with feverish intensity that mirrors the film and, in the end, helps ground its blistering screenplay, hurtling spirits and achievements in technique in the anxious fumblings of haunting misjudgments human tragedy. So, while it’s wrong to call The Departed a comeback for Scorsese, I will concede that for the first time in years he has made a film that can leave you blissfully exhausted from explaining everything that’s great about it. That’s not a standard any filmmaker should have to live up to, but today what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a film as great as this one, what does it matter?

 

#3–The Queen

Helen Mirren is indeed as wonderful in The Queen as the uniformly bestowed honors this Oscar season would have you believe. Her performance is not some flat duplication of newsroom footage, but a fully realized exploration of a person. In a way, the fact that she is playing the current sitting Queen of England is almost incidental. She has thought about the ways in which generational distance can insulate someone from changing times, the confused pain of having a private matter a great preoccupation of an international public stage and the struggle of someone whose very sense of purpose is slipping through her delicate gloved hands. These are the elements she channels into her portrayal; these shape the portrait more assuredly than any title does. Except, of course, that the fact that this is the current sitting Queen of England is anything but incidental. Director Stephen Frears could have proved himself a master movie tactician simply by training his camera on Mirren’s expressive face (which he does in fact do, to his great benefit) but he also digs into the complexities of Peter Morgan’s deeply intelligent screenplay. He finds the ways in which this story with the public and personal twisted together in its DNA takes the events in the week after Princess Diana’s untimely death — the warm empathy of Tony Blair’s outreach to the British people, the stubborn silence from the royals — and illuminates a whole collection of modern truths about the dusty crumbling of monarchy, the elevation of likability over experience in our leaders, and the increasing fascinated aggrandizement of public figures. With a veteran filmmaker’s clarity, Frears brings out the best in every element, every performer. Every moment that could ring false — from a symbolic stag to a gesture of caring from a small girl — instead locks in as perfectly right. One more plaudit: as wonderful as Mirren is, she is matched by Michael Sheen as freshly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair. He goes through the most pronounced change in the film, beginning as a skeptical soul convinced that the royal family is a blundering relic of the past and finishing as a believer in their strength, sense of duty, and distant dedication to their subjects. The transformation occurs over the course of a rocky week, and Sheen somehow manages to make the journey not only believable, but admirable.

 

#4–Pan’s Labyrinth

It is one thing to imagine magnificent wonders, it is quite another to make them come alive in a convincing, eloquent way on-screen. The great achievement of Guillermo del Toro’s film is not the dark splendor of his imaginings, but his deft directorial touch to best showcase these inspirations. He build shadows around his creations that accentuate their deep, strange beauties. Those shadows seep into the storytelling, too. Franco’s Spain provides the setting, but in many ways it is just a big, grim metaphor for the general muted pains of childhood. That is dramatized more directly in the challenges faced by twelve-year-old Ofelia as she endures her new stepfather, a harsh captain in the new militaristic regime. Played with luminous simplicity by Ivana Baquero, the character escapes the dread of her new daily life by retreating into fantasy, and this is where del Toro’s wild things come out to play. Despite the temptation to see her escape as something truly magical, del Toro never seems completely willing to grant the audience that courtesy. The fantastic elements are surprisingly limited, not because of a lack of interest on the part of del Toro, but because to overstate the levels of retreat available to our heroine is to present a story that is tragically untrue. The pain of loss and the cut of a blade have a jarring way of taking precedence. The safety of wishes for something beyond the injurious hardships of the worst of existence is fleeting, not lasting. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is for the splendid, lovely lie of a picture of paradise that washes over bleak reality at precisely the right moment. In the sadly beautiful ending del Toro constructs, he reaches out with that tattered gift.

 

#5–Brick

If the hard-boiled rat-a-tat-tat of classic film noir dialogue is the way we wished we could talk, then there are moments in Brick that are so jubilantly potent that they could very well represent the verbal aspirations of classic film noir characters. The script by Rian Johnson is absolutely enraptured by language, layering in cinder block poetry and other spoken pyrotechnics with unabashed glee. Johnson takes full advantage of his conceit — a murder mystery with a high school backdrop — finding sly humor in the contrasts of tough-guy banter including references to homeroom and parent-teacher conferences, and even justifying the dense conversations as the enduring influence of a “tough but fair” teacher of “Accelerated English.” His directing matches the script, stylish and dense with rewarding details. The whole endeavor has the same devilish intelligence as early Coen brothers, and I have few greater compliments at my disposal. A film like this is aiding immensely by strong acting. While players up and down the cast list come through, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role who has the greatest challenge and emerges with the most impressive accomplishment. His shoulders hunched against the world, his bruised face a road map of wrong turns and untimely bravado, Gordon-Levitt brings a probing intelligence to his scenes and offers just a hint of caution behind the pained heroism. He gets the stoic veneer just right and brings equal conviction to the underlying raw nerve emotions that come from betrayal. The performance is as sharp as the words he’s given to shape it, and in the case of Brick that’s really saying something.

 

#6–Letters from Iwo Jima

The conventional wisdom says that Clint Eastwood’s late career directorial reemergence is enriched by a anti-violence sentiment that serves as a sort of corrective to the stardom he achieved in no small part by asking helpless punks to wager on whether or not there were any bullets in his gun while he pulled the trigger. I’m not sure I buy that, and I doubt that Eastwood buys it either. Maybe instead he’s just finally reached the point where he can make whatever films he wants without having to come up with some sort of giveback to the studio –h e can make White Hunter, Black Heart without making The Rookie, he can deliver Bird without having to agree to stroll through another Dirty Harry picture — and that freedom emboldens him in his choices. Or maybe he’s just following his own personal curiosity a little further than he did previously. That’s what led him here after all; preparing for the Iwo Jima battle sequences in Flags of Our Fathers he thought about the Japanese adversaries as frightened, noble men instead of faceless, nameless enemies and wondered what it would be like to tell their story. The result is a potent, moving film that bravely immerses itself in the culture of the Japanese soldiers burrowed into tunnels on the island. As opposed to many Hollywood films, Eastwood doesn’t feel the need to give us a white man as entryway into this time and place, nor does he bury the film in bookish exposition to explain the unique particulars of their views. He simply shows us the men who prefer suicide to the indignity of defeat on the battlefield, and the imposed norm of proudly charging into an battle that cannot be won because you are doing it for the greater glory of Japan. But Eastwood also takes great care to show the conflicting views, the growing notion of the nobility, even tactical wisdom of self-preservation. Things are simply not clear-cut, because, after all, it wasn’t a nation defending that island, it was men. With great care and respect, Eastwood’s film brings us closer to those men and everything they lost.

 

#7–United 93

With the careful calm of a detached sociologist, writer-director Paul Greengrass grapples with the most charged day in recent American history. His entryway to September 11th is the one airliner weapon that didn’t strike its target, seemingly due to the intervention of the hijacked passengers. Without diminishing the bravery of this response one iota, the film’s reasoned portrayal shows that fighting back against the terrorists was less an act of thunderous heroism than the instinctual reaction to being backed into a terrible corner. This isn’t to say that these people onscreen act with fevered desperation. Instead, it is the nonplussed self-assurance of people who have been reduced to a single viable option. There is tension and there is worry, but the predominant sensation is that of inevitability. That coheres nicely with world outside the fuselage as Greengrass portrays it. By dramatizing the reactions in various air traffic control centers and in the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration, Greengrass depicts that Tuesday transforming from just-another-day to something far more troubling. Greengrass takes care to show that it didn’t occur in some cataclysmic way when the first tower was hit, but through the dawning realization that a vast scheme was unfolding in a sky absolutely filled with planes. There’s not much characterization to the people in the film, which only serves to heighten the impact. Without trumped up screenplay quirks and other sorts of Hollywood color and backstory, everyone seems all the more vivid, just people going about their lives until history took them into its unrelenting jaws. It is by saying less about them and portraying their individual pieces of September 11th with a verisimilitude that even most documentaries don’t achieve that Greengrass pays them the ultimate tribute. They are not fictionalized, they are real. And they are unforgettable.

 

#8–L’Enfant

A young man whose livelihood is completely dependent on petty crimes raises a small sum of money by selling his newborn son. The one sentence plot description is bleak and devastating, a thumbnail sketch of the rottenness of humanity. And yet, while that description is entirely accurate, it’s also misleading. There’s no denying that the choice of the central character is horrid, but the stunning trick Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film pulls off is making the viewer understand why he does it. You don’t sympathize with him or feel he deserves some sort of second chance. As he rushes around his destitute Belgian city trying to reclaim the child with the juvenile impatience of someone who’s more concerned with getting out of trouble than the wellbeing of his offspring, you in fact can find more and more reason to dislike him. The film makes you understand by developing the character so well that his impetuous nature, simplified world-view and underdeveloped emotional maturity is laid bare. You can despise the action he takes and yet recognize how, to him, it was perfectly reasonable, as plain and uncomplicated of a dilemma as which jacket to put on when a chill hits the air. The Dardennes aren’t interested in some sort of expose or trumped up examination of the terrible misfortunes that plague the world. They simply tell a sad, quietly powerful story with great acumen, conveying with equal precision the instant joys of a playful wrestling match with a lover and the smothering panic of a remote, unprotected interaction with criminals unburdened by mercy. The Dardennes are equally merciless, but they’re also free of judgment. In the end, that evenness is what gives this film of small, wounded lives its lingering power.

 

#9–Volver

When it comes to the storytelling, Talk to Her was more bold and unique, and Bad Education was more richly complex, like a tight, satisfying novel. Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver can feel like a softer cousin to those films, not to mention the bustling fresh establishment of a unique cinematic voice that is All About My Mother. Yet Volver lingers in its own way for its own reasons. Almodóvar’s audaciousness is restrained and his insights more refined. There are none of those Almodóvarian moments seemingly designed for little more than eliciting gasps. Instead there is a discipline to the proceedings, a focus that helps the whole film cohere thematically. Almodovar has long been renowned for his affectionately constructed female characters, and that comes through with grand clarity here, as the film repeatedly allows its women some level of tender liberation from men who have caused them harm. One could argue that even extends to the reclamation of his former collaborator Penélope Cruz from the Hollywood star machine that has stranded her in a series of English-language performances that have been strained at best, but more often downright embarrassing. She seems to have a decent enough command of the language, but no capability to work with it in believable rhythms. Working in her native language untwists her tongue. The words pour out of her rapidly, forcefully, passionately. She builds the character out of pain and heartache, and finally a little hope. And it is the strength of Almodovar’s filmmaking and the potency of his empathy for the characters that makes that hope feel well deserved and decisively earned.

 

#10–A Prairie Home Companion

I’ll concede right up front that this selection is as much a tribute to a storied career as a celebration of this particular film. Of course, it’s not like I’m making room for Prêt-à-Porter or something, trying to pretend a disastrous movie is wonderful just to get in one more testimonial to the grandmaster skills of director Robert Altman. A Prairie Home Companion is a little wonder in its own right: rambunctiously funny, disarmingly thoughtful, and, in the end, a grand appreciation of the happy messiness of creation. In using his longtime radio program as a launching point for a screenplay, Garrison Keillor brings us a production filled with his trademark mix of nostalgic music and homespun humor and also takes us backstage to the tumult, roving distractions, and barbed dressing room conversations. All this serves to enrich the showmanship on stage and the songs being belted into the shining, silver microphones. It’s one thing to hear and see Keillor effortlessly rattle off a long monologue extolling the virtues of some sponsor. It’s quite another when he’s doing so with consummate unflappability as a stage manager struggles with a towering stack of papers, trying to find the one sheet that he requires to usher the show to the next segment. As the film world mourned the death of Robert Altman, the considerations of mortality in this film became prime fodder for discussions. The prevailing sentiment presented here is that you meet the end not with heavy speeches or maudlin proclamations, but with the same simple, dignified dedication that was brought to every day, every show, and, one can extrapolate, every film. Indeed, and bravo.

From the Archive: The Player

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And here we are at the top of my list of the best films of 1992, at least at the time of our broadcast. As I note in the write-up, my on air cohort and I agreed on the title that deserved to be called the top cinematic offering of that year. In fact, that was remarkably commonplace through the years. Basically every time we talked about top films of any given year on the radio, we were in complete agreement about the #1 position, a trends that persisted at least a couple years past the end of the show. I can hang a asterisk on that streak, however. At the time this episode aired, I hadn’t yet seen Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, which took its time getting to my small, Midwestern college town. Though I never announced it in any official space back then, that film supplanted The Player at the top of my list. For the record, here’s my top ten, straight from the radio script:

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I stand by that assessment of Single White Female, by the way. Anyway, here’s what I wrote about the film that, at the time, was my pick for best of the year. 

#1 — THE PLAYER

All of the film we have talked about tonight stood out for some particular reason, but no film can claim to succeed on as many levels as the film that tops our individual lists of the best of 1992. It is a crafty mystery built around a collection of threatening postcards. It is a blistering comedy that features some of the most sharp-edged dialogue of the year. It is a unique romance about a man set off-balance by a stunning, creative woman who initially shuns all of the excesses he thrives on. It is an insightful study of office politics, and the way a person reacts when their job security is threatened by a young, bright up-and-comer. And it is a scathing indictment of the business that spawned it, at attack on the lowbrow mentality of Hollywood studios that helps explain why so many of the films cranked out this past year stood as disappointments. Written by Michael Tolin, directed by Robert Altman, and featuring another attention-getting performance by Tim Robbins, THE PLAYER stands as the best film of 1992. No other film was so thoroughly engrossing from beginning to end, and no other film sticks in the mind as effectively as this springtime release. Robbins plays the studio executive who is fighting for his job and dodging death threats, and Greta Scacchi is great as the woman he falls for. Fred Ward stands out as a surly security guard, Whoopi Goldberg shines as a suspicious police detective, and Peter Gallagher is sensational as the fast-rising newcomer to the studio executive’s boardroom. THE PLAYER skillfully attacks the business of making movies, where the ultimate dream of studio executives is to eliminate the creative talent behind films and use the headlines of a newspaper to create star vehicles. It’s lucky for us that that particular dream hasn’t become a reality. It’s creative people like Altman, Tolkin, and Robbins that insure high quality entertainment. Together, by making THE PLAYER, they’ve brought forth the highest quality film entertainment of 1992.

From the Archive: Frankie and Johnny and The Player

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One week ago, I helped bring the school year to an end at the college generous enough to employ me, thanks to my leadership role with the annual commencement ceremony for graduating students. This made me think back to my own college graduation, two decades (and change) ago. Part of my long goodbye from school involved writing one last movie review column for the student newspaper. I explain what I chose to do in the actual piece I’m transcribing, so I won’t get into the choice here. I will note, however, that I’ve written about both these films in this digital space, hopefully better given the upgrade in skills passing years should provide. More than usual, then, today’s post is an offering for purely posterity’s sake. My last name in the headline should not be interpreted to mean I had some sort of fan following on campus that mandated highlighting my contribution in larger letters. 

Over the course of the year and a half that I’ve been doing movie reviews for The Pointer, I’ve handed out a few raves and an awful lot of pans. There’s certainly a lot of junk that Hollywood studios dump on the public, but there are some real gems in there too. Unfortunately, many of the best films of the past two years I never got a chance to cover in the newspaper (usually due to the intensely brief stay most of these films had in Central Wisconsin). So for the last time I put fingertips to keys to compose for The Pointer I want to take this opportunity to rave about a pair of forgotten treasures, both of which are available on home video.

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY: Released in the fall of 1991, this romantic comedy never attracted the audience it deserverd. The film is warm, funny, and endearing. The film follows the troubled path to romance of two workers in a New York diner. Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the waitress whose rough encounters with relationships have left her wary of love. Johnny (Al Pacino) is the new cook who instantly falls for Frankie. He’s a tender man who’s just been released from prison and is anxiously hoping to rebuild his life. The film also features a first-rate supporting cast, including Kate Nelligan as the saucier waitress Cora, Hector Elizondo as the penny-pinching, Greek owner of the diner, and the vastly underrated Nathan Lane as Frankie’s understanding neighbor.

Many critics carped that Pfeiffer was too pretty to play the lonely waitress, but they’re missing the point. “Frankie and Johnny” is not about people who are too unappealing to find love. “Frankie and Johnny” is about the way people work through loneliness and slowly recover from the pain of being hurt before. Terrence McNally’s splendid script, Garry Marshall’s solid directing, and the cast’s effortless acting relay these things solidly. When Johnny sits in Frankie’s cramped apartment and tells her, “Everything I want is in this room,” you feel his love for her. It’s a moving moment in a film that is a true charmer.

THE PLAYER: Robert Altman’s 1992 masterwork was a favorite of many critics, but was unfairly overlooked at Oscar time, perhaps because people in the movie making business didn’t like the unfavorable portrait it painted of the industry, Tim Robbins plays the lead character, Griffin Mill, with invigorating zest. Mill is a studio executive whose job may be in danger from and up and coming young hot shot (Peter Gallagher, in a sly performance) and who gets uncomfortably close to the murder of an idealistic screenwriter.

The screenplay, by Michael Tolkin, savages the studio heads that would love nothing more than eliminating the truly creative people from the process of making films. The film is darkly funny and terrifically complex, with the added pleasure of being packed with dozens of star cameos to lend the film authenticity in its portrayal of a morally bankrupt Hollywood. It is a supremely funny irony that “The Player” is brimming over with the very richness and daring that its main character would like to see eliminated from movies altogether.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Six

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#6 — McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
It’s routine to praise directors for their abilities to construct entire worlds, especially in the modern era of filmmaking which increasingly depends upon the startling efforts of creators who are freakishly adept at rendering imagery utilizing computer software. Too often, that celebrated world-building largely stops at the backgrounds, leaving the development of the characters moving through it as a secondary concern, leading to only the most superficial of conflicts playing out in front of the expensive walls of ones and zeroes. That’s because the filmmakers may be interested in worlds, but they’re not concerned with societies, and the correlating examination of how souls carrying their own personal sets of joys and troubles collide with each other. We are deep into the epoch of playset directors, many of whom must have once marveled over the intricacies of their miniature plastic Death Stars and Millenium Falcons, never putting all that much thought as to what the plastic figures that populated them might be feeling at any given moment.

Robert Altman was, of course, from an entirely different generation, but he also had a unique sensibility among his peers. While most films are built on plot and therefore incident, Altman’s movies–his best movies, anyway–were settled on a foundation of bustling humanity. No film exemplifies Altman’s startling skill at making masterpieces from such an approach than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film recognizable as a western from its milieu, but otherwise as far removed from the sturdy epics of John Ford and Howard Hawks as any cinematic offering could be. It isn’t about good guys and bad guys, but instead that vast terrain of ambiguity that exists between those two absolutes. It is about the necessarily corrupting influence of American capitalism in a community, settling its story on a time in the earliest years of the twentieth century to demonstrated that the pollution in the nation’s fiscal stream was there at the mouth.

John McCabe is played by Warren Beatty, in arguably the best performance of his career, largely because the role is perfectly suited to both his personal reputation of stealthy control and his unique muttering patter, the latter of which suggests a man anxiously attempting to turn his impulses into thoughts. McCabe comes to a blustery frontier mining town named for the church at its center (though definitely not at its heart) and begins exerting his influence over the citizenry, largely in pursuit of the almighty dollar. He establishes a brothel, the management of which he eventually turns over to another newcomer, Constance Miller, played by Julie Christie. The film traces their mutual ascent and then descent, and the title characters are undoubtedly the main drivers of the narrative. However, Altman’s concerns are simultaneously greater and more intricate, burrowing into the tenderized interpersonal mechanics of the entire town, not through an overburdening of subplot, but by simple, intense observation. Altman’s famed overlapping dialogue is in full evidence, paradoxically providing immense revelation by they way he allows things to be obscured. Other filmmakers spell things out with painstaking exposition, but Altman chooses to let life simply happen, which proves to be far more enlightening.

In addition to all the familiar Altman trademarks that make McCabe & Mrs. Miller extraordinary, this is surely the most beautiful film the director ever presided over. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is a nonstop source of wonder, evoking a time when only candlelight offered illumination, and the descending blues of dusk could be the most imposing sight of all. These choices simply make the light of day, when it arrives, all the harsher, a fitting, metaphoric visual for the muted cacophony of a wounded, suspect nation taking its first furtive steps to becoming its truest self.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-Three

#23 — M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)
Whenever I look at Robert Altman’s breakthrough 1970 film set during the Korean War, I find it simultaneously completely logical and utterly incomprehensible that it spawned a beloved television series that ran for 251 episodes across eleven seasons. In many ways, M*A*S*H already seems designed to be broken into individual episodes, pivoting at any moment to pursue plot threads–such as a trip to Japan and a football game played between two different military camps–that have only the most tangential connection to any discernible storytelling through line of the film. It’s as if Altman, fully aware that he had his first truly juicy opportunity to make a movie, wants to pile in every notion that he has. Much of the broader action is drawn directly from the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker (a pseudonym of H. Richard Hornberger, writing, in this instance, with W.C. Heinz) that serves as the film’s source material, but it’s the free-for-all approach of Altman that makes it all seem beautifully scattered, imposing the natural chaos of war–hell, of life–onto the film.

It wasn’t an easy route to get to the final project, a forecast of the various tribulations Altman would endure throughout the remainder of his defiantly unique career. Ring Lardner, Jr. won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay, but he was livid about Altman’s multitude of deviations from the words on the page, both in encouraging the actors to improvise dialogue and sometimes rearranging whole scenes to suit his vision. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, both of whom Altman inherited from early pre-production rather than cast himself, spent a significant amount of the shoot trying to get their director fired rather than continue to put up with the perceived indignity of him focusing on the swarming intellectual mass he was crafting when he theoretically should have been working harder to turn it into a proper vehicle for his leads. All that tumult added up to something wonderful, shrewdly artistic and quite unlike anything that had been seen before. It also became a hit, behind only the markedly different Love Story and Airport on the box office tally of 1970’s releases. Amusingly enough, the next film down on the list is Patton, a staid war film that is everything M*A*S*H is not.

Of course, it’s that unconventional nature which makes it so unlikely as the inspiration for a weekly half-hour to air on CBS Monday nights. Altman’s film is dark as long-dried blood, rejecting any notions of heroism or nobility among the doctors and nurses at the Mobile Auxiliary Surgical Hospital, patching up soldiers stuck in a bloody fight they didn’t pick. It revels in the bleakest possible humor, shredding off laughs from institutional ineptitude and the singed outlook of those who stare into the void of imposed mortality on a daily basis. Altman gets a lot of credit for reinventing the sound, rhythm and density of movies–even if his innovations have only spread so far–but he’s not cited enough for the degree to which he broadened the inner personality a Hollywood film could have, introducing a level of wry, fiercely intelligent cynicism that is now the common expectation for most films that are held up as exemplars of the highest level of art a film can achieve. Critics don’t often trip over each other to herald the daring of a happy ending.

Altman didn’t invent that cinematic viewpoint, not with Italian Neorealism and French New Wave both in the rear-view when he made M*A*S*H. He did, however, give it a profoundly American spin that posited, in part, that all those promises of national exceptionalism were founded on delusion. Even worse, it’s entirely possible that they came from a lie formulated at the highest levels.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-Seven

#27 — Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
What does it say about the difference between European cinema, I wonder, that there’s such a pronounced fundamental difference between the two directors, roughly contemporaries, from each respective region that are best suited to having their names transformed into adjectives by having the suffix -esque pasted onto the end? Federico Fellini was a master of heightened unreality that existed at the intersection of fever dreams and the untethered fantasies spin to life by earthly passion. Robert Altman was the polar opposite, placing his most characteristic work in a distinct, recognizable world that obeyed all the same shaky rules as its real counterpart well beyond the stretching shadows of the movie set. Even when the material was fiercely satiric, Altman was committed to the messiness of truth, his famed utilization of overlapping dialogue only the most apparent manifestation of this quality. The chief element that both directors had in common was an astounding capability to create whole societies and condense them into single films, allowing them to drop their cameras in the midst of the bustle and spin with muscular grace to take it all in.

Nashville is arguably the Altman film that is most Altmanesque. Set in the eponymous city, the film is a daunting tangle of entertainment and politics, celebrity and those that exist in the scorched path of the biggest stars. A group of country and gospel musicians at different levels of fame are convening in Nashville, in part because of a benefit concert being organized for an upstart presidential candidate. By most counts, there are about two dozen significant characters in the film, played by the likes of Henry Gibson, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Lily Tomlin and Barbara Harris. Part of the bracing, thrilling challenges of the film is keeping track of all of the moving parts, although being able to cleanly trace all of the lines of narrative is far from the point. Instead, the massive complication is what Altman is most interested in conveying. Joan Tewkesbury is credited with the screenplay (she also wrote Thieves Like Us, one of two films Altman directed the prior year), but the happy disregard of clarity in favor of buckshot verisimilitude is pure Altman.

Just because Altman has a deliberately rough-hewn approach doesn’t mean that the film is scattershot, however. Nashville is masterfully composed, and it makes prescient points about the toxic mixture of entertainment and civics that have only become more pointed and pertinent over the years. Altman also shows tremendous, uncommon patience, allowing live music performances to basically play out in their entirety. Sometimes it just provides fascinating flavor, but it also sets up an incredible passage late in the film when the singer-songwriter portrayed by Carradine performs the song “I’m Easy” in a club, and Altman uses the tender attention of his camera to illustrate how all the different women in his orbit think the song is about them. It’s a perfect distillation of the sway a simple song can have over the emotions of the listener, the ways in which associations are bred through the sonic alchemy of melody and poetic words. Despite the copious amounts of music in it, Nashville is far more clearly about flawed people than the songs they sing and love. In that sequence, though, Altman allows that music can provide moments of solace, even if they’re fleeting. The briefest taste of grace can be monumental in a cold world. That’s just one more hard truth that’s strikingly Altmanesque.