For Reel


Nashville (1975)
August 21, 2016, 12:28 pm
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Director: Robert Altman
4.5 Stars
NashvilleNashville is a film of alarming contradictions, imagining America as a nation at war with itself and yet holding off on an intervention with blind optimism. The songs of the film reflect this notion—how can one stomach lyrics like “I pray my sons won’t go to war but if they must they must” or “We must be doing something right to last 200 years” as a tribute to patriotism and not blind naïveté? The great thing about Robert Altman’s film, however, is that if there is an undeniable cynicism in the way things play out, there is no sensationalizing of the details. It’s a tonally complicated film precisely because the only tone Altman is concerned with capturing is what it felt like to be in Nashville in 1975. When performers take the stage the Grand Ole Opry house, the performers and the crowd are given equal importance—it is impossible to ignore fans shuffling in and out of the theater during Henry Gibson’s performance, whereas many filmmakers would have insisted on falsifying their united interest in the music. The cumulative ironies make the film a darkly funny one at times in a way not unlike a Christopher Guest improvisation, but the situations that are inherently humorous can’t overcome the fact that they are desperately sad and hopeless (Ronee Blakely’s on-stage banter seamlessly transitions from endearingly awkward to a woman having a breakdown in a hurry). If Nashville is almost overwhelming in scope, these consistent themes of contradictions and hopes being pitted against realities is a powerful through-line that substitutes for the need of a traditional narrative.



McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
March 16, 2016, 9:19 pm
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Director: Robert Altman
4 Stars
McCabe & Mrs. MillerThe oft-repeated sentiment that McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a revisionist western seems an inadequate way of describing the tone of Robert Altman’s achievement. While McCabe (Warren Beatty) could be placed as the last of the frontiersmen–his death signaling a transition from the old west to a world overburdened by corporate interest–the film’s form doesn’t reflect the deconstruction of the genre with the directness that directors like Sam Peckinpah or Monte Hellman had previously demonstrated. Altman has too much on his mind to reduce McCabe & Mrs. Miller to a genre revision, and furthermore the classic downfall structure is perhaps the least interesting thing the picture is doing. In the first half hour of the film, Altman slowly invades a small mining town and lingers around the people within it. Characters speak over each other, Leonard Cohen’s music both drowns out dialogue and creates a ethereal daze, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography doesn’t single out characters, rather it roams the community. There is little sense of an obvious classic narrative construction–if to call the picture an anti-western is a reduction, it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about the way in which it abandons classic filmmaking conventions. Zsigmond’s cinematography predicts the gauzy, paintings-come-to-life aesthetic of John Alcott’s work in Barry Lyndon, but his roaming camera is a huge contrast to the rigorously structured mise en scene of that film. Regardless, it achieves the same elegiac quality, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, if not Altman’s finest achievement, a rigorous exercise in tone.



Fool for Love (1985)
June 8, 2011, 8:47 pm
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Director: Robert Altman

Considering that Sam Shepard’s screenplay, Paris, Texas, was adapted into one of the most visually striking films of the 1980s, it comes as a disappointment to see how uncinematic Fool for Love is under Robert Altman’s direction. Though much of this can be blamed on the play itself – which somehow makes an incestuous love/hate relationship seem entirely familiar – many of the scenes, such as one in which a drunken Sam Shepard writhes on the floor for what feels like ten minutes, may have worked on stage but come off as laughable in adaptation. When Altman does consider using the medium in a way that a stage play can’t – such as a series of flashbacks in the latter half of the picture – his efforts are tedious and utterly uninspired. Though its set is memorable and there are a few inspired gestures with the camera that capture an interesting kind of subjectivity – for example, the way that Altman’s camera doesn’t enter Basinger’s home while Shepard remains outside – as a trailer park Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it doesn’t offer enough authentic character complexity to warrant listening to their never-ending vitriol.



3 Women (1977)
June 8, 2011, 8:44 pm
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Director: Robert Altman

In 3 Women, Shelley Duvall plays Millie, who, although on first glance is pathetically obedient to the media’s projected image of social order, reveals herself to be a tragic figure whose bourgeois way of living serves as the most blunt of shields. Despite her fake exterior, however, Sissy Spacek’s Pinky admires her social competence. Though Altman’s vision is evasive, his mysteries are always involving. His tone, which is clearly influenced by Bergman’s Persona, is dream-like – achieved by, among other things, a constantly moving camera and the recurring image of ancient, monstrous females in battle, painted by the third of the titular women. The performances match Altman’s vision splendidly, particularly the eerie Spacek – first appearing childlike and innocent, and later suggesting an utter contempt for Millie not unlike the relationship between a pubescent teenager and their overbearing parent.