Sunday, May 07, 2006

Yesterday Was a Pretty Good Day

This is going to come off a little like gloating, but I spent most of yesterday out at the Museum of the Moving Image, taking in three genre subversion-by-immersion movies from Robert Altman's most fertile period. Without further ado:

Thieves Like Us I'd seen this once before, in high school, but only remembered it in bits and pieces. It's from Edward Anderson's 1937 novel of the same title (also the basis of Nick Ray's They Live By Night, although Altman's film, or so I gather, is the more faithful). Altman's anti-romantic tendencies are on full display here: he brings down a very Bonnie and Clyde-type Depression piece with a determinedly inarticulate cast, Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall's toothy, pipe cleaner-skinny chemistry, and ironic juxtapositions with period radio broadcasts. (Even at his best, Altman has a tendency to traffic in reductive, funny-ha-ha ironies and character-cheapening gags, and there are a couple of times in the first hour when I worried that the movie was going to go sour.) But eventually, his dedication to restoring the plot to naivete becomes a kind of romanticism, too. It's a very plaintive strain of romanticism, one that fits with the pearly, washed-out colors of the movie, and by the time the last two scenes come around (Carrdine's death in a one-sided shootout, left mostly to the imagination in favor of Duvall's excruciating- in the good way- reaction shots; and Duvall's departure on a train to Fort Worth, the camera stopping at the bottom of a staircase as she and the other passengers walk, backs to the camera, up and away), he's managed a nostalgic gut punch that lingers a little while longer than you were expecting it too.

The Long Goodbye I'd never seen it before, though I'd heard a lot about it, especially in the context of the mid-70's neo-noir cycle (c.f. Chinatown, Night Moves). And, surprise surprise, it's great. Starts early with the tongue-halfway-in-cheek transposition: Chandler's hard-boiled narration turns into Elliot Gould's running commentary, mumbled out of the side of his mouth. The plot is, inevitably, much simplified from the book; the changes that were made seem pretty pointed, especially in the engineering of the ending. Having Gould (who's great, and really oddly charismatic) finally say "Nobody cares except me" was crucial, obviously, but also works (as others have noted) to make the movie resemble The Third Man as much as possible: basically, everybody but Marlow is willing to believe that Lennox is dead, and nobody else cares to track him down; in the course of his investigation Marlow discovers such profoundly unpleasant truths about his friend that when he does find him, he shoots him. And then the last shot, on the long, straight road lined by trees, with him walking away from the potential love interest who was really in with his friend all along, puts Gould into the Valli role.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller I was a little nervous for this one, actually, because it'd been a little while since I'd seen it, and returning to a beloved work of art after a long time away is always fairly nerve-wracking. And it wasn't quite the movie I remember it being: every time I watch it, the tone seems more comic and the narrative more structured. (Probably an inevitable result of increased familiarity with the narrative; I also watched it for the first time on an old VHS with terrible picture and sound quality, which probably helped create the sense of elusiveness I value so much about the movie.) But being more concrete doesn't hurt the movie; it locates the film's relationship to the Western more firmly in the interrogatory camp, and makes the last reel (and the isolated moments of fleeting beauty before then) all the more treasurable.

Hey, all these movies end pretty depressingly, don't they? These endings are Altman's most definitive statements on the genres he chose to revisit: he's restoring the sense of melancholy to the love-on-the-run crime movie's live fast, die young ethos of instability, to the private eye's iconoclasm, and the Western hero's outlaw individuality. If anything, despite his reputation as a subversive, Altman's genre movies try and strip away convention for the sake of achieving a greater, more resigned sense of romanticism. Just a thought.