Doodad Kind of Town

A Preview of Coming Attractions
September 21, 2008, 2:36 am
Filed under: Robert Altman

My life has become a little overscheduled as of late, with days and evenings eaten up by choir rehearsals, off-hours conference calls for work, homeowner’s assocation meetings and yoga classes. I’ve had little time to breathe (well, except in yoga classes, where breathing is sort of essential), let alone to blog.

Nevertheless, I’ve made time to watch Robert Altman’s 1975 masterpiece, “Nashville” almost twice in its entirety, and I’m working on a longer-than-usual post about it. In the meantime, enjoy the original theatrical trailer – it manages to introduce every one of the film’s 24 characters while making Altman’s “metaphor for America” sound more like a soapy TV miniseries. The final tag line (“For movie lovers. The damnedest thing you ever saw!”) is a good as outright admission that Paramount had no idea how to market “Nashville,” but figured someone would like it.

Stay tuned for more…..

NASHVILLE trailer Robert Altman
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The Other 12-Movie Meme
August 30, 2008, 1:25 pm
Filed under: Billy Wilder, Robert Altman, Woody Allen

I’ve been tagged by Joseph Campanella of CINEMA FIST with a new, 12-movie meme. This, of course, is a new twist on the “original” New Beverly Cinema 12-Movie meme first started by Piper over at Lazy Eye Theatre – and this one comes courtesy of MovieMan0283 at the Dancing Image.

As Joseph notes, this one is “damn difficult.”

The challenge is as follows: “Pick 12 movies that you’ve never seen before, and that are very difficult to find on video.” (More specifically,the films can’t be available on Netflix.)

The difficulty was in finding films I had always wanted to see that weren’t available on DVD; pretty much everything on my ‘want to see’ list is there and waiting for me on Netflix, or very soon will be. I hedged about including Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath” and Visconti’s “Ludwig” since both are being released on DVD within the next six weeks. (Which is well before I’ll probably get around to seeing them.)

So this list does not represent my “Holy Grail” of film experiences. In most cases, I’m curious about – but not passionately interested – in the films I’ve listed. But if I’d rent them on DVD if they were available. Eventually.

In alphabetical order:

1) “Brewster McCloud” – Early Robert Altman – it came right after “M*A*S*H,” although it wasn’t nearly as successful. Bud Cort plays a eccentric loner whose dream is to strap on mechanical wings and fly around inside the Houston Astrodome. Also marks the film debut of Altman regular Shelley Duvall. I wouldn’t give this a film a second thought if Altman’s name weren’t on it But Altman’s too smart and too iconoclastic a filmmaker to have made this as cloyingly quirky as it sounds.

2) “Fedora” – Billy Wilder’s 1978 adaptation of a Tom Tryon novel about a reclusive, aging film actress (Marthe Keller) and the producer who tries to lure her out of retirement (William Holden). It’s hard not to think of Wilder’s earlier classic “Sunset Boulevard” when you hear about this one; I’m interested to know how they compare. “Fedora,” however, was barely released, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it show up on TV. That suggests it may be an utter failure, but I’d like to see for myself.

3) “Girlfriends” – A late ’70s comedy/drama about the friendship between two women – one who pursues her independence and an artistic career and one who opts for traditional marriage. Melanie Mayron (who went on to television’s “ThirtySomething”) plays the independent-minded one. It came out when I was in college, and got a fair bit of attention, but I never got around to seeing it. The director, Claudia Weill, went on to make a romantic comedy with Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas (“It’s My Turn,” which I saw and liked), then apparently worked only in television from that point on. I have a feeling that “Girlfriends” may be horribly dated now, but I’d still like to check it out, if only for the late-70s nostalgia it may invoke in me. That it also has Christopher Guest in a feature role only adds to my curiosity.

4) “King Lear” (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 version) – Its alternate title is “King Lear: Fear and Loathing,” which evokes Hunter S. Thompson and suggests this may be a sort of “gonzo” experience. And “gonzo” sounds like the right adjective for a film whose cast includes Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Godard himself, and stage director Peter Sellars as a character named William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth who is struggling to re-write the Bard’s works from memory after they’re destroyed in the Chernobyl disaster. In other words, this isn’t your high school English teacher’s “King Lear.” Completed in 1987, the film wasn’t actually shown anywhere until 2002, and apparently it’s been around enough to generate some IMDB comments (“aggressively, offensively, violently boring” was my favorite). But it’s nowhere to be found on Netflix.

5) “The Little Drummer Girl” – Long before she got caught in an endless loop of 60-year-old-dingbat roles, Diane Keaton was a formidable actress who frequently played complicated, shrill or difficult women. (Though you’d never know it these days, her range goes far beyond “Annie Hall.”) In this 1984 adaptation of a John Le Carre thriller, Keaton plays an actress with controversial political views on the Israeli/Palestine conflict who get lured into an actual Israeli intelligence mission. (I’m sure any and all similarities to Vanessa Redgrave are entirely coincidental.) What can I tell you, folks? “Mad Money” pushed me over the edge. I need to see some gritty, intelligent work from Keaton again, and this film (which I missed on its initial release) might just do the trick.

6) “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” – Brian Moore’s novel about a poor Irish spinster – winding down her days in a lonely boarding house room, comforted only by copious amounts of whiskey and some misguided notions about a fellow boarder’s interest in her – is probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read. But I’d gladly brace myself for this sad story again just to see the phenomenal Maggie Smith in the the title role. (Bob Hoskins has a supporting role, but interestingly dominates the film’s poster at left. Go figure.)

7) “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” – I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen this; I could be wrong. I have vague memories of a seeing seeing some D. W. Griffith films in my college Introduction to Film course, but don’t recall whether this was one of them. Anyway, it’s from 1912, it’s got Lilian Gish in a major role, and it’s generally thought to be the first gangster film.

8) “The Red Desert” – Over the last year, I’ve been sporadically renting Antonioni films. This is the only one I want to see that isn’t available on Netflix. I don’t even remember what it’s about, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve loved discovering Antonioni’s work so far, and I’m sure this one will be just as challenging, baffling, and ultimately rewarding as the others.

9) “Saint Joan” – Jean Seberg was 18 years old and fresh out of Iowa when she won a national contest to play the title role in Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Shaw’s play. By all accounts, she held her own alongside such estimable talents as John Gielgud, Anton Walbrook, and Richard Widmark. I read “Played Out; the Jean Seberg Story” years ago, and have wanted to see “Saint Joan” ever since, but have had few-to-no opportunities to do so.

10) “So Sad about Gloria” – Ok, this is the wackadoo selection on my list, so bear with me. I remember reading newspaper ads for this 1974 film which promised: “The heartbreak of ‘Love Story.’ ‘The terror of ‘Psycho’.” Since “Love Story” and “Psycho” were two films that loomed very large in my early adolescent experience, I spent a lot of time trying to imagine the one film that could combine the intense emotional drama of both. (Perhaps some young rich Harvard hotshot lost his poor-but-beautiful-and-witty lover to the bullet of serial killer?) But “So Sad about Gloria” – rated “R” and showing in only a couple of theatres in the far-off big city – was out of my reach. God only knows why it popped up in my brain again, but a quick glance at IMDB shows that the people who wrote that intriguing ad copy may not have been familiar with the actual film. It’s a cheap exploitation flick about a recently released mental patient who has dreams of herself committing ax murders. There’s quite a stretch from that plot to the whole “Psycho meets Love Story” concept, but one I’d like to figure out for myself. (Bonus weird fact: the director, Harry Thomason, went on to co-produce the TV series”Designing Women.” That’s quite a stretch, too.)

11) “Those Lips, Those Eyes” – A backstage romantic comedy set in a summer stock theatre and starring Frank Langella, Glynnis O’ Connor (what happened to her?) and Tom Hulce. It’s about people doing musical theatre and it has clips of musical numbers from well-known shows, and that’s about all it takes to get this former community theatre performer interested in seeing it. (Well, that and the fact that it’s got Frank Langella, who was pretty damn handsome at the time. ) It got decent reviews when it was released in 1980, but never made much of a showing in theatres.

12) “Wild Boys of the Road” – An early film by Wiliam Wellman (“Public Enemy,” “Wings”), this Depression drama focuses on a group of teenagers who are forced to become vagabonds, searching for work after family circumstances become desperate. I saw clips of it in a documentary on Wellman shown on TCM, but neglected to record the film when it was shown later that evening. I’d like to get around to seeing it someday.

And now,the final part of the meme is to tag five fellow film bloggers, so I am tagging:

Marilyn at Ferdy on Films
Fox at Tractor Facts
Alexander at Coleman’s Corner in Cinema
Nick Plowman at Fataculture
Daniel at Getafilm

"The Company"
May 5, 2008, 1:30 am
Filed under: Robert Altman

The following article is part of the Invitation to the Dance blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films.

I’ve never been a lace-tutu-and-pink-ballet-slipper kind of girl.

There’s not a pastel color to be found in my closet, nor has a single Degas print ever graced the walls of my home.

“The Red Shoes” I didn’t get at all. While women around me were sniffling and sobbing, I was rolling my eyes and thinking “Why would a beautiful, talented woman like Moira Shearer throw herself off a balcony over a drip like Marius Goring?”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that my favorite ballet film is thoroughly unsentimental and unconventional. Moreover, it was directed by the man whose work had such an impact on me as a teenager that I wanted to become a film critic just so I could capture and share what I had found in it — Robert Altman.

“The Company” wasn’t initially an Altman project, but rather the idea of Neve Campbell. Yes, that’d be Neve Campbell of the “Scream” movies and “Party of Five.” Not exactly the first name that comes to mind when you think “ great dance film,” but Campbell, in fact, was a dancer from the age of six, trained in classical ballet. It was her dream to make a realistic film about life in a dance company, and she and screenwriter Barbara Turner spent over a year observing and traveling with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company in preparation. Altman was Campbell’s first choice to direct, and – despite his protests that he knew nothing about dance and didn’t know how to approach the film – he eventually accepted the challenge.

Altman shot the film in Chicago, where Neve Campbell became a sort of temporary member of the Joffrey company, training and performing with them while playing the role of an up-and- coming dancer named Ry. And apart from Malcolm McDowell (who steals many a scene as the imperious, self-absorbed artistic director), all other dancers, choreographers and administrators are played by actual members of the Joffrey Ballet company itself, giving the film an unspectacular but engrossing, documentary-like feel.

It’s not a heavily plotted film. There’s a story of sorts, but it doesn’t have a predictable dramatic arc. What we get instead is a look at one season in the life of the Joffrey company. We see rehearsals, performances, staff meetings, even the annual “Christmas Roast” at which the dancers spoof the ballets they’ve performed over the past year. Through it all, Altman keeps a respectful distance from the dancers, both emotionally and physically. We’re allowed to observe the daily hubbub of hallway conversations and dressing room banter, but the camera is held at a discreet distance and the sound design is conceived so that those hallway conversations have the feeling of being overheard in passing, rather than the focus of a scene. Except for occasional scenes in Ry’s apartment, we see very little of the dancers’ personal lives.

“The Company” touches on the themes common to all films about ballet dancers: the physical demands, the potential for serious injury, the competition to become a principal dancer, and the difficulty of having a satisfying personal life outside of the dance studio. But it deviates from the standard ballet film template in the lack of dramatic weight it gives to these issues. You have to watch very carefully to catch moments such as the crestfallen expression of a dancer after she’s cut from a number or the interchanges between Ry and a male dancer about their recent romantic breakup. Such moments are treated casually, even perfunctorily.

When one dancer falls while executing a series of jetes (we hear her Achilles tendon snap with an abrupt, sickening sound), the camera doesn’t allow us close enough to really see her reaction. Instead, Altman cuts to an overhead shot of the injured dancer sitting on the stage floor, then cuts back so we can see her being briefly attended to and carried off stage, then brusquely replaced by another dancer. Later we’ll see her on crutches, watching in the wings as her replacement performs, but we still won’t be able to tell how she feels about it.

In the film’s final performance scene, Ry dances a featured role, but falls and badly injures her shoulder. She’s rushed off and quickly replaced for the finale (and it wasn’t until my third viewing that I realized that the dancer who replaces Campbell is the same one she replaced in an earlier ballet). Moments later, as the company takes its curtain calls, Campbell is shown laughing with her boyfriend offstage, her arm in a sling.

The message is clear: pain and heartbreak are all a part of the company’s daily business. The dancers deal with it and move on. Emotional and physical traumas are swept to the edges of the film, while the dancing itself becomes the central and overriding focus. (Unlike lesser directors who’ve made forays into the unfamiliar territory of the dance film, Altman mines the real drama from the dance numbers, not from the backstage/rehearsal room doings. If only Richard Attenborough had learned that lesson before he desecrated “A Chorus Line.”)

There are ten ballets in “The Company,” each filmed in its entirety. And every time a ballet begins, the film comes to a hushed halt and we witness moments that are perfect and beautiful and remind us what all that pain, struggle and discipline are in service of. Because they’re shot in high-definition video, these scenes come closer than those in any other dance film I can recall to giving a sense of “being there,” of witnessing a live performance rather than one staged exclusively for film. Plus the technique allowed Altman to shoot with as many as five cameras, and the variety of angles – from full-stage shots to close-ups of individual dancers to the occasional aerial shot – are seamlessly edited to convey the energy and flow of movement in each ballet.

Campbell’s Ry is refreshing and unique among film ballerinas in that she doesn’t seem particularly invested in becoming a principal dancer. The possibility is discussed, but at the film’s end it still isn’t clear whether she’ll achieve that status, and Campbell gives no indication that she cares one way or another. She seems satisfied just to be in the corps.

Even more refreshing: Ry manages neither to have her heart broken by the company lothario (as did Leslie Browne in “The Turning Point” and Amanda Schull in “Center Stage”), nor to find true love incompatible with her dedication to dance (as did the aforementioned Moira Shearer). Rather, she’s allowed to have a happy, thriving relationship with a handsome chef (James Franco.) And that relationship is foreshadowed in the film’s most heart-stoppingly romantic pas de deux.

Campbell and Joffrey dancer Domingo Rubio dance to “My Funny Valentine” on an outdoor stage, just as a thunderstorm is picking up strength. Winds blow the musicians’ sheet music off their stands, the audience puts up umbrellas, rain pelts the stage. And yet the two dancers continue, flawlessly and sinuously wrapping themselves around each other, seemingly lost in each other and in the dance. The wind and rain only intensify the romantic poignancy and yearning in the ballet, suggesting two young lovers who cling to each other in the face of all adversity. See for yourself:

Ry and her boyfriend will also face some disappointment and adversity, but when the closing credits roll, they’re still happily together. And to underscore the ballet’s significance, we hear some version of “My Funny Valentine” playing in the background of every one of their scenes together.

“The Company” ultimately gives a compelling depiction of how beautiful and powerful great dancing can be without over-romanticising the process. Likewise, it fully conveys how difficult and painful it can be to dance beautifully, but without suffocating its dancers in tragedy.
Its greatness lies in Robert Altman’s measured, clear-eyed approach, and shows what a great filmmaker can bring to even the most unfamiliar of worlds. I, for one, am glad he accepted Neve Campbell’s challenge.