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Persistence of vision

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Persistence of vision
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Beauty ( jstor )
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PERSISTENCE OF VISION:
THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN












by

NEIL FEINEMAN














A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY










UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

1976




































To Jan,

who somehow lived through it















ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS



There are many people to thank;you know who you are

already. First, my parents who convinced me not to drop

out; my grandmother, for caring more than I did; to Char-

lotte, Tom, my sister Carol, and my other close friends

who had to put up with my moods and who seemed to under-

stand; to Dolores and Sid for their concern; to Joy Ander-

son for being there when I needed her. Also, to Louise

Brown and the rest of the English Department for getting

the movies; to Diane Fischler for typing this from too many

drafts and for forcing me to work; to Jim Flavin, David

Dunleavy, and Mark Schwed for running the machines and forc-

ing me not to work; to Russell Merritt for showing me what

movies are all about; to my committee members, Dr. David

Stryker, Dr. Sidney Homan, and Dr. Alfred Clubok for their

time, interest, and signatures.

Most of all, I would like to thank Dr. William Childers

and Dr. Ben Pickard. You spent an obscene amount of time

helping me and just listening to me complain. Your support

has always been appreciated deeply; you deserve the credit

for whatever polish and refinement the work has. I wish I

could be more eloquent; I owe you both too much.



iii
















TABLE OF CONTENTS

PAGE

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS iii

ABSTRACT iv

INTRODUCTION 1
Notes 5

CHAPTER 1: ALTMAN ON ALTMAN 6

CHAPTER 2: THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK 8

CHAPTER 3: MASH 18

CHAPTER 4: BREWSTER McCLOUD 31
Notes 43

CHAPTER 5: McCABE AND MRS. MILLER 44
Notes 77

CHAPTER 6: IMAGES 78
Notes 102

CHAPTER 7: THE LONG GOOD-BYE 103
Notes 125

CHAPTER 8: THIEVES LIKE US 126
Notes 145

CHAPTER 9: CALIFORNIA SPLIT 146

CHAPTER 10: NASHVILLE 172
Notes 187

CONCLUSION: THE AUTEUR 189

BIBLIOGRAPHY 209

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 211






iv









Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy


PERSISTENCE OF VISION:
THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN

by

Neil Feineman

August, 1976

Chairman: John B. Pickard
Major Department: English

Robert Altman is one of the most prolific of all the

contemporary American directors; since 1969, he has directed

nine feature films. Although only MASH has enjoyed major

commercial success, Altman has a cult following that in-

cludes many of our most respected film critics, actors, and

technicians, as well as countless film scholars and students.

Because he is so respected by his fellow artists and by

visible film people, his influence undoubtedly will be much

greater than his box-office clout. But even without the

framework of his potential importance to film history, his

movies are beautiful, complex, and unusual enough to de-

serve critical attention. In addition to being its own in-

dependent entity, each film draws from and refines the other

Altman films. Because they are so varied in genre and

period but are so similar in style and theme, Altman seems

to be a true American auteur. By treating each film as

both an individual offering and a part of a collective body

of work, this examination of Altman's movies will capitalize

v









on the structure but avoid the doctrinaire biases of the

auteur theory.

Altman's first three films, That Cold Day in the Park,

MASH, and Brewster McCloud are artistically uneven; as in-

dividual films, they are less successful than his later

movies. These three films do establish Altman's basic

values of the loneliness of the individual and his inability

to succeed and hint at Altman's episodic, non-linear, and

emotional way of telling a story. Although each is of some

interest in its own right, they are more valuable as illus-

trations of Altman's as yet unrefined strengths and weak-

nesses.

With his next three films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller,

Images, and The Long Good-bye, Altman develops his visual

style and thematic concerns. Each is a reworking of a film

genre, but sees the genre through the perspective of the

egocentric, isolated individual in a hostile, dangerous

world. Each is also a beautifully shot and constructed

film, obtaining its continuity and consistency respectively

through the narrative and characters, through its editing,

and through its music and theme.

Thieves Like Us, California Split, and Nashville all

directly relate to the earlier Altman films. Drawing from

the other movies, these three reiterate, deepen, and darken

Altman's world view and show Altman's increasing skill as a

film-maker. They also raise a question: after these nine

films, which seem to be a completed body of work, where

vi









can Altman go? What can he do that he has not done? The

answer lies, of course, with his next nine movies.





















































vii















INTRODUCTION



I was not prepared that August 1971 night for what I

was to see at the Esquire Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin.

After the movie was over, I did not know why I had been

so moved; I only knew no other film had touched me so

deeply. Hopefully, five years and many film courses since

that first exposure to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I am more

articulate about my emotional reaction. And as of this

writing, there have been eight other Altman movies, with

more on the way, and other directors who have moved me.

Still, however, I will always owe most to Robert Altman

and, deep down, will always belong to McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Unlike many analyses of contemporary auteurs, I have

made no attempt to disguise my affection for the films or

the personal biases behind the discussions. After all,

one of Altman's most appealing traits is his insistence on

the viewer's emotional reaction. Even when his movies are

cold and cynical, like The Long Good-bye and Nashville,

he includes us in his design. As Joan Tewksbury, Nashville's

scriptwriter, says, "All you have to do is add yourself

as the twenty-fifth character and know that whatever you

think about the film is right, even if you think the film

is wrong."1

1






2


Once my response is added to the other characters,

then, my Nashville becomes complete. More importantly,

since my response is different from anyone else's, it dif-

ferentiates my film experience from everyone else's. Since

the emotional experience is personal, the analysis must be,

as well. After all, who can better explain my reaction

than myself.

Perhaps because Altman demands this personal and emo-

tional response, rather than an analytical or rational

one, and because his films stress the visual and subtle,

little has been written about Altman's movies. Even after

Nashville, a full fledged media event, much of the belated

attention focused on Altman has taken the form of mild

gossip or superficial summaries of his career and person-

ality. Had there been an extensive amount of research,

however, I still would have concentrated on my reaction

to the movies; Altman's movies are too alive to reduce them

to an academic cataloguing of other people's perceptions.

Keeping this in mind, there have been several informa-

tive articles and interviews that help explain Altman.

These include the excellent article about the selling of

Nashville in the June 13, 1975 issue of New Times, an

interview with Altman in the Chicago Reader of July 5,

1975, and the reviews of Brewster, Images, and The Long

Good-bye in various issues of Film Quarterly. Whenever a

source like these has been helpful or pursues a point dif-

ferently or more extensively, I have noted the source in









the chapter notes. For the most part, however, this analy-

sis does not pretend to be a scholarly compendium and re-

view of the Altman literature, but deals more directly with

the movies themselves.

I have begun my discussion with That Cold Day in the

Park. Because I did not have access to Altman's television

work, the James Dean documentary, and Countdown, his unsuc-

cessful and mediocre first film, I can only write about the

nine films since then. After viewing each of these several

times, I found them conveniently grouping themselves into

three phases of Altman's development.

The first three, That Cold Day, MASH, and Brewster

McCloud, are uneven movies. Failing to develop themselves

fully, they function more significantly as illustrations

of Altman's as yet unrefined strengths and weaknesses. As

a result, my discussions of these three films center on

their potential and implications for Altman's future work.

The next three movies represent Altman's first mature

efforts; because each is a variation of a particular genre,

I examine it against a classic of its genre. McCabe and

Mrs. Miller, a complex social study of the settling of the

West, a beautiful photographic essay, and an enduring love

story, is compared to Stagecoach. Images is juxtaposed

against a simpler subjective thriller, Repulsion. Although

similarities exist between the two films, Images uses the

metaphor of schizophrenia to develop an abstract investiga-

tion of the nature of the film experience that forces the









viewer to feel Kathryn's madness and accept the film as

its own reality. When Altman turns to The Long Good-bye,

he amalgamates the essences of The Maltese Falcon and The

Big Sleep so that he can present the private eye as he

really is, a moralistic, egoistical vigilante. With this

film, Altman's style becomes fully developed, refined, and

familiar; the overlapping dialogue, the rambling pace, the

abrupt and unexplained characterizations and incidents, the

unhappy ending, the isolated individual, and the hostile

world are by now expected and integrated components of the

Altman experience.

Because they have so many other Altman films to draw

from, the next three films differ. Thieves Like Us, Cali-

fornia :Split, and Nashville constantly allude to the earlier

films and deal with the same themes of the impermanence of

love and the limited power of the individual. Thus,

Thieves is more than Altman's gangster film or answer to

Bonnie and Clyde; it is also Altman's remake of McCabe and

Mrs. Miller, replacing McCabe's tenderness with a chilling

bitterness. In the same way, California Split has more in

common with The Long Good-bye than it does with gambling

movies like The Hustler or The Sting. Finally, a knowledge

of McCabe and Thieves makes a viewing of Nashville much

easier and richer. In the other films, Altman's social

philosophy provides a context for his characters; in Nash-

vil:le, the characters are used to make a socio-political

statement. McCabe has prepared us well, giving us an






5


historical precedent to help judge and understand that

statement. Although the last three films are significant

and rewarding in themselves, they become even more satisfy-

ing and intricate when seen as a continuation of Altman's

vision. Thus, these films are treated less as experiments

in genre and primarily as parts of Altman's film vision.

Before examining the films, however, I would like to

present a collection of statements Altman has made at vari-

ous times in his career on the way he works.




1 Joan Tewkesbury, Nashville (New York, 1976), p. 3.















CHAPTER 1
ALTMAN ON ALTMAN



'1 think I'm more of an impressionist. I think I'm

dealing with atmosphere and impressions more than realism."

Chicago Reader, July 4, 1975.
Page 10.


"I never preplan a shot. Whatever happens almost

dictates itself. Whatever the circumstances are. The

style has already been set, and it sort of dictates itself."

Chicago 'Reader, July 4, 1975.
Page 10.


"This film follows the script a lot closer than any-

one who worked on it will think, including me."

New Times, June 13, 1975.
Page 54.


"One of the things I'm jealous of is your (the audi-

ences's) privilege of seeing the movie for the first time.

None of us will ever know what that's like."

New Times, June 13, 1975.
Page 54.


"I try to get a little over my head, try to get a

in trouble, try to keep myself frightened, do things that

are impossible. It helps me keep fairly straight."

Midwest Magazine, July 27, 1975.
6 Page 13.






7


"I don't try to lead you from one place to the other.

I try to put you in a place. I'm not going to tell you

anything; I'm going to show you something. I'm not even

going to show you something; I'm going to let you see some-

thing. And if you don't help me, my picture can't be any

good. If I have to do all the work for you, my picture

isn't any good."

Chicago Reader, July 4, 1975.
Page 10.


"I'm looking for surprises. If we had just taken what

was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have

been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary.

One head, no matter how good well, it just can't be the

same as everyone bringing something to it. So in that

sense everything is a surprise, but I'm not surprised by

the way it came out. I mean, we knew what we wanted."

New Times, June 13, 1975.
Page 54.


"The son of a bitch doesn't pay me anything. But when

he wants me, I'll be there. He lets me act."

Keenan Wynn on Altman
New Times, June 13, 1975.
Page 55.


"The movies don't fail, the audiences fail."

Midwest Magaazine, July 27, 1975.
Page 13.















CHAPTER 2
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK



That Cold Day in the Park, Altman's first major fea-

ture film, is ultimately uninvolving and pretentious. It

does show, however, that Altman has always been dissatisfied

with passively watched, unambiguous movies. Also, it of-

fers all of Altman's strengths and weaknesses in their un-

refined, easily recognizable states.

Perhaps most immediately noticeable is Altman's lei-

surely pacing. Dealing with the familiar suspense themes

of kidnapping, thwarted sexual desires, madess, and murder,

That Cold Day's genre suggests a fast pace. But as he will

do later in Images, which borrows many of these same themes,

Altman does not generate suspense through tense and in-

creasingly quick editing. Instead, audience involvement

is heightened through the construction of a dense, claus-

trophobic atmosphere and through the slow but threatening

character development.

To achieve this atmosphere, Altman holds the audience

captive in and by the oppressively heavy, albeit beautiful

Art Deco apartment for the first third of the film. Al-

though Art Deco can be light, airy, and amusing, like the

Fred Astaire-Ginger Rodgers musicals that showcased it,


8





9


Frances' apartment is a series of stifling, repetitive, and

severe geometrical patterns that allow for no movement or

deviation. The apartment, like the movie, traps us; since

we can go nowhere else, we are forced into the apartment

and the film's events.

Unfortunately, however, our involvement is undercut

by the characters' lack of appeal and by the events' shal-

lowness. Seeing a boy huddled against the cold rain in the

park outside her apartment, Frances invites the boy in.

Since the boy does not talk for the first third of the

movie, we are forced to listen to Frances' compulsive,

constant chatter. Her incessant talking and nervousness,

not to mention her initial interest in the boy, are indica-

tions of her unresolved, repressed, and unhealthy sexual

interest. The boy is equally strange, punctuating his

weird and silent passivity with short and unexpected bursts

of bizarre dancing and musical explosions. Despite their

strangeness, however, they remain curiosities, too mild to

be generally frightening or threatening and too remote to

be alive. Also, rather than focus and thus create and

identification with one of the characters, the camera di-

vides its attention between the two. The characters' lack

of vitality and the film's failure to establish a point of

view keep us in the audience detached and uninvolved.

The diffusion of focus continues in the next segment.

The boy, whose name is never revealed, escapes out of the

bedroom window and goes to his squalid hippie pad that he









shares with his sexually voracious sister and her drug-

dealing, leering boyfriend. Like Garbo, the boy finally

talks; his sister explains that he has always retreated

into silence, sometimes for weeks. After this information

and after an uninspired evening of smoking pot, the boy re-

turns to Frances'. Perhaps he wants to escape from the

filthy and cramped pad, perhaps he has nothing better to

do, perhaps he is intrigued by the new game. At any rate,

the boy gives Frances some hash-laced cookies; they eat

them and spend the afternoon playing thinly disguised and

unresolved sex games. Before the games become real, how-

ever, the boy sneaks into what has become his bedroom and

falls asleep.

Had Altman made the boy a more attractive character,

our interest and involvement in his fate and the movie would

have been heightened. But since he is cruelly tantalizing

to Frances and since Frances is becoming increasingly pathe-

tic, we have nowhere to focus our emotions. Because we

are not directed, we are not pulled into the movie.

In perhaps the film's best sequence, Frances next goes

to the gynecologist. What is important here is not the

scene's contribution to the plot, but Altman's execution

of it. While Frances nervously waits for the doctor, the

soundtrack picks up the disjointed conversation of three

other patients. One is quite naive and amuses the other

two more experienced women by her confusion over the loca-

tion of the clitoris and over the size of men's genitals.






11


The conversation, appropriate for a gynecologist's office,

continues the film's recurrent sexual concerns, even though

it adds nothing to the plot or the character development.

It does, however, add texture to the film. Its humor and

absurdity are an unexpected and welcome change from the

film's heavy mood; it momentarily disorients us. Catching

us off guard, it makes us react emotionally, rather than

intellectually. Altman will become increasingly reliant on

this non-linear narrative technique; even at this early

date, it is startlingly effective.

The following scene reveals Altman's talent for struc-

turing his movies. While Frances is out, the boy's sister,

Nina, invites herself into Frances' apartment. Over the

boy's protests, Nina draws a bath, freely uses Frances'

toiletries, and soon pulls the boy into the tub. They

splash and cavort; then Nina tries to seduce her astonished

and unwilling brother. Curiously, this scene is the first

one that elicits an intense emotional reaction; throughout

this scene there is an almost obscene air of destruction

and violation. This reaction is caused primarily by the

film's structure. Although the characters are not people

with whom we identify, the apartment is beautiful. Since

the first half hour of the movie takes place in the apart-

ment and since the camera lingers more lovingly on its

furnishings and objects than it does on the characters,

we become comfortable and familiar with the apartment.

When Nina breaks into the apartment, then, it is as if she





12


is breaking into our apartment; when she mistreats and care-

lessly handles.the objects in the apartment, she seems to

be abusing our property. Unfortunately, Altman is not

able to transfer our reaction and concern to the characters;

the scene's impact is, however, proof of Altman's ability

to develop an emotional response through his careful and

almost subliminal structure.

The film's momentum continues with Frances' return to

the apartment. She is unable to prevent the older doctor

who loves her from coming up with her. She checks the

boy's room, sees he is sleeping, and locks his door. While

she is doing this, the doctor begins to tell her that he

wants her. As he talks, she flashes back to the gynecolo-

gist's cold and dehumanizing examination, to his rubber

gloves and shiny chrome instruments. The connection be-

tween the two doctors is unmistakable and effective. The

scene's beautiful editing and sophisticated handling of

time as non-linear and flexible contrasts with the rest of

the film's straightforward presentation. Because it is so

jarring and not integrated into the rest of the film, the

scene may be considered gimmicky; more importantly, however,

it indicates Altman's as yet undeveloped talent for creative

editing and thematic presentation.

After the doctor leaves, Frances enters the boy's bed-

room and tells him that she is lonely and repulsed by the

doctor and the old people around her. As she gets more

sexually explicit in her language, she moves closer to









him and becomes bolder. Lying down next to him but on top

of the blanket, she tells him to make love to her. Finally,

after he does nothing, she reaches for him. She is shocked

to find out that his sleeping body is a blanket and his

head only a doll. Although she will later repay the boy

with the murder in the bed, for now, she is understandably

shaken. She has been cruelly humiliated and mocked, while

we have been teased into falsely expecting the sexual con-

frontation the movie has been building to from its first

scene.

Altman has, in fact, been manipulating and then frus-

trating our expectations from the very beginning. Frances'

first locking of the door was an unexpected twist that cut

short any early sexual activity; the boy's silence was

robbed of truly grotesque implications when it was revealed

to be a childish sham. Even Frances' failure to catch Nina

in the apartment worked against the cross cutting of Frances'

anxious glances towards the window, or at least the direc-

tion, of the apartment. These remain little twists; the

bedroom scene is the first in which Altman successfully

catches us totally off guard and disarms us completely.

Later in his career, Altman will become more comprehensive

and ambitious in his baiting and then exploiting our ex-

pectations. In That Cold Day, however, this reversal of

expectations is kept on a smaller scale.

To repay the boy for his trick and to make sure that

he cannot leave her anymore, Frances waits until he returns





14


and then locks him in the apartment. Even though he still

refuses to sleep with her, Frances will not let him go.

Torn between her desire to keep him and her fear of losing

him, she decides to get him a whore that will keep him

sexually satisfied. As she waits in a barren cafe for the

whore, two lesbians visually and physically caress each

other. Even though they are not directly related to the

plot or characters, they, like the women in the film's

other waiting room (the gynecologist's), add atmosphere

and dimension to the film. Where the three women are used

verbally, the two lesbians are visual, if sordid, relief.

Both incidents are free from any intellectual or rational

explication, but add to the film's emotional impact.

The remainder of the film is more plot oriented. The

boy and the whore try to make love, Frances listens to

their efforts, bursts in, plunges a butcher's knife into

the bodies under the blanket, kills the whore, and then

tries to comfort the boy. By now quite mad, she tells the

boy, who is crying now, that everything will be all right.

As the credits begin to roll, Altman adds his final touch,

Frances' voice whispering, "I want to make love to you."

These final scenes lack the impact of the bar, bed-

room, and bath sequences of the middle part of the movie.

They do not have the earlier scenes' emotional power; they

also do not have much narrative strength. Thus, while they

show Frances procuring and murdering the whore, the final

scenes fail to explain who Frances is trying to kill. They





15


also do not satisfactorily develop the action; there is a

potentially good story here but it is ineffectively pre-

sented. As Altman will show in Images, he does not have

to explain the events to convey the emotional content of

the characters' lives. In That Cold Day, however, he simply

does not generate the emotional involvement. By keeping

us on the outside of both vapid, unattractive main charac-

ters, Altman gives us no human alternatives or dimensions

that would emotionally engage us. In addition, by failing

to give us a well-developed story, he does not satisfy us

on a rational and narrative level either.

When four films and four years later, Altman takes

many of the ideas and situations in That Cold Day and makes

Images, he has a better control over his technique and a

better understanding of the relationship between style-and

theme. Using the metaphor of schizophrenia for the ar-

tistic experience, he broadens his concern from the simpler

and narrower suspense thriller. He keeps the emphasis on

objects, the soft focus transitions, the shots through

glass, the fluid use of time, the creative use of sound.

In Images, however, he has an artistic reason for using

them. In addition, he adds a strong point of view that

enables him to withhold any clinical background information

but compensates for the lack of focus and audience identi-

fication.

Although That Cold Day looks more like Images than

the other Altman films, it resembles all of them. Its






16


leisurely pace, emphasis on the emotional response at the

expense of the.rational one, its careful structure, its

overlapping dialogue, its beautiful photography all will

become Altman trademarks and vehicles in his development

of an artistic philosophy.

That Cold Day also announces some of Altman's recur-

rent themes. There are no positive elements here. The

rich are empty, bored, and self-indulgent; the poor and

the middle class are prim, naive, inconsequential; the

hippies are a dirtier version of the rich; those in between

are pimps, whores, and older versions of the hippies. Even

the doctors are cold, impersonal, disgusting. There is no

permanent love or even a satisfying temporary escape in

casual sex. From Nina's unbridled heterosexuality to

homosexuality to sex for fun to sex for money, there is

an absence of dignity or satisfaction. Sex becomes a com-

pulsive way to pass the time, to make a living, or to trig-

ger a psychotic reaction. There is no alternative for

lasting happiness or meaning, no hope for the happy ending.

The world in Altman's films, so aptly described in the

film's title, is cruel, hopeless, and cold.

That Cold Day not only contains clues of Altman's

strengths, but also alerts us to the limitations or faults

inherent in his style. The leisurely pace and creative

use of sound can lead to self-indulgence and inspire bore-

dom as easily as they can rapt involvement. The reliance

on emotional moments and atmosphere can create unnecessary









confusion and alienation, rather than increased viewer par-

ticipation. The attention paid to structure and the de-

light in upsetting expectations may be coldly manipulative

and mechanical, instead of intelligent and fresh. By mak-

ing the type of movies he does, Altman courts these dangers

and negative evaluations; since he demands a more active

viewer, he invites disappointment, disapproval, disagree-

ment. As viewers of Altman's movies, then, our responsibil-

ity is not to like Altman, but to be active, honest viewers

who demand the same integrity and responsibility from

Altman himself.















CHAPTER 3
MASH



Although MASH is Altman's most commercially success-

ful movie, it is also his least interesting and most super-

ficial. It is motivated by a single idea, that the mili-

tary, religion, and marriage are inhumane institutions

that imprison the human spirit. To convey this theme,

Altman uses effective but stereotypical characters and dis-

arming visual tricks. For all its cleverness, however,

MASH is an empty and shallow movie.

The film begins as Hawk-eye comes to Korea and is mis-

taken for a jeep driver by Duke, another arrival. Sensing

the potential humor, Hawk-eye throws himself into the role

of chauffeur and drives Duke to their camp. Immediately,

his character and the film's values are established.

Rather than be imprisoned by false roles and status, Hawk-

eye mocks the roles and the system they legitimize. His

theft of the jeep and his impersonation of its driver re-

veal his quick and playful wit, his innate rebelliousness,

and his lack of seriousness.

Trapper, the other ringleader, displays an even

greater aggressiveness than Hawk-eye, as shown in his at-

tacks on Frank Burns and in his maneuvering to get a free


18






19


trip to Japan. Sharing the same irreverence and tastes,

Trapper and Hawk-eye are the ideal team. Each knows what

the other is thinking; they spontaneously act in unison.

Because they are so flexible and so quick, they are able

to seize control over any situation and defeat the more

rigid military establishment. They totally ignore, for

example, the military conventions and are thus untouched

by the military restrictions. When they go to Japan, they

do not acknowledge any of the military hospital's rules;

since they are not bound by any prescribed pattern of ac-

tion, they constantly outwit the hospital staff and thus

are sure of getting what they want, be it food, a golf

course, or an operating room.

The film's other characters are also defined by their

ability to get around their roles and function humanely in

dehumanizing situations. Colonel Blake, for instance, is

a positive, decent character because of his complete in-

difference to his role as base commander and his incompe-

tence in his enforcement of military regulations. Rather

than the military, the Colonel loves fishing and nurses.

His assistant Radar, on the other hand, is so efficient

that he can anticipate the Colonel's instructions before

the Colonel even gives them. Radar is positive because

he uses his efficiency to twist the Colonel's instructions

to the group's advantage. Radar, as his name implies, is

a key figure in keeping the MASH unit going, be it by

stealing the Colonel's blood or hooking the loudspeaker






20


to Hot Lips' tent. The priest, Dago Red, is also sympathe-

tic, primarily.because he listens more to the men than to

God. Kindly and devout, Dago never pushes his role as a

man of God but abdicates it whenever challenged. When

giving last rites to a soldier who has just died, for ex-

ample, he obeys a doctor who tells him to stop paying at-

tention to the dead and help assist a patient who is still

alive. Also, when he learns of Painless's problem of im-

potence, he realizes his personal inability to help and

turns the matter over to Hawk-eye. Even though he ulti-

mately is reduced to blessing a jeep, he is a flexible and

unceremonious person.

Like these three, the rest of the characters are like-

able and positive, primarily because they are pleasant

components of this zany group. Painless, for example, has

the biggest penis in the Army; Duke is Trapper's and Hawk-

eye's friend and tent-mate; Dish forgets her vow of fidelity

to her husband and her desire for Hawk-eye by going to bed

with Painless's enormous organ; Colonel Blake's girlfriend

keeps his mind off military matters; even the General is

an overgrown college boy, unable to concentrate on military

affairs when football is mentioned. These are happy, fun-

loving people, with whom we identify.

There are only two sustained negative portrayals in

the film, Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan. Of the two,

Burns is the more threatening. His religious fanaticism

is cued by his teaching Ho John, the Korean gopher and






21


camp mascot, to read the Bible, his ostentatious and lengthy

public prayers., and his unwavering seriousness and super-

ficial righteousness. Despite his faith, however, Burns

bullies a male nurse into falsely accepting responsibility

for a soldier's death. Also, Burns, unlike the other MASH

doctors, is professionally incompetent, even though he is

the only one that is impressed with the title and implied

status of his roles of doctor and major.

The Burns' saga is continued in his relationship with

Hot Lips. Kindred spirits, they decide to write a letter

to their superiors that will expose the nonmilitary charac-

ter of the MASH unit. In effect, they are "squealing" to

the authorities because no one is playing by the rules.

As they become involved in their conspiracy, they also be-

come involved in each other. They look at each other, sud-

denly and passionately and noisely kiss each other, and

just as suddenly straighten their clothes and rush to the

mess hall. For them, sex is like the military; they have

respect for the form and look of the act but miss its

emotional intensity and feeling. Later, when they finally

make love, it is only after agreeing that God brought them

together and that his "will (must) be done." Unlike the

rest of the camp, then, they must hypocritically rational-

ize their nonreligious desires through the misapplication

and emptiness of their religious doctrines.

Even their lovemaking is indicative of their absurd

personalities. Devoid of any grace, naturalness, or






22


dignity, it consists of clumsy grabbing and overly loud

and heavy moaning. "Kiss my hot lips," she begs him re-

peatedly. Unknown to them, their noisy coupling is being

piped through the camp's sound system for the entire base's

amusement. Although the humor in this sequence stems from

Hot Lips' and Burns' humiliation and is thus ugly, they

are so unsympathetic that the cruelty becomes humorous.

When Burns is taunted into a nervous breakdown by Hawk-

eye the next day and is carried out of the camp and film

in a straight jacket, the loudspeaker plays "Sayonara" and

the audience laughs. Because Burns is so absurd and be-

cause the rest of the MASH unit is so likeable and happy,

Burns' mental condition and mistreatment by Hawk-eye is

minimized. Even at the end, he never becomes sympathetic

but remains an object of ridicule.

Altman's tacit approval of the camp's treatment of

Burns is continued with Hot Lips' transformation. When

she arrives, she is a ridiculous character, making small

talk in the operating room, referring to the military as

her home, and thinking that Frank Burns is the fine speci-

men of military excellence. Her mating with Burns gives

her a nickname and continues her degradation. The shower

scene adds to it; she is forced to shower nude in front

of the camp so that a bet over her natural hair color can

be ascertained. Once again the unit's cruelty is dis-

guised and endorsed by the film's structure of heroes and

villains. Because her unflagging devotion to the military






23


and her resulting disdain for the MASH people have caused

an alliance with Burns, she becomes a target for laughs,

regardless of the joke's underlying brutality.

Hot Lips is, however, different than Burns; although

she too has a misguided loyalty to the military, she does

not share his religious fanaticism. She is also different

because whatever her faults, she is a "damn good nurse."

When she breaks down in front of a bewildered Colonel

Blake, she does not get carried out but instead begins her

acceptance into the group. Soon she and Duke will go to

bed, signaling her certification as part of the MASH team.

And shortly thereafter, she will become head cheerleader

for the football game, the traditionally prestigious symbol

of female leadership. Unlike Burns, then, she has the

ability to change and adopt a new set of values that give

her greater happiness.

When Hot Lips changes her values, she changes from a

"bad" or ridiculous character to a more likeable and hap-

pier one. Burns, however, is less flexible; because he

never changes, he is destroyed and sent away. Although

Hot Lips changes her code from an oppressive reliance on

empty authoritarian roles and institutions and becomes

freer and healthier as a person, her transition from bad

to good character must be looked at skeptically and care-

fully. As long as she and Burns do not have the correct

standards, they undergo much humiliation, which seems both

humorous and justified because of the inhumanity and






24


boorishness of their beliefs. The humor of the film is,

then, in great part based upon the intolerance and insen-

sitivity of the MASH unit and, by implication, the laugh-

ing audience.

Burns and Hot Lips can be laughed at with immunity be-

cause they are charicatures and stereotypes, too broadly

drawn to the fully human. The stereotypes give us a dis-

tance and superiority that dehumanizes them and thus makes

them safe targets. In the same way, the good guys are

stereotypes; we like them because of external conditions,

not because they are good individuals. We see Hawk-eye and

Trapper battle hypocrisy and bring life to any situation

they enter; their fundamental honesty and refreshing re-

belliousness, plus their expertise as surgeons, make them

likeable and identifiable, even despite their cruel streaks.

The other characters, however, are defined primarily by

their integration with the group; if they do not detract

from the free-wheeling values of the MASH unit, they are

positive characters. When they threaten to upset the main-

tenance of the group, however, they are ostracized and

humiliated and scorned. MASH is more like a summer camp

than an adult military establishment; its anti-authority

values, emphasis on fun and games, absence of relationships

that entail responsibility, and power of the group norms

give MASH an adolescent quality. This immaturity is re-

flected in the puerile nature of many of the jokes and the

hidden degradation and superficiality of much of the humor

of MASH.






25


Both the characterizations and the humor of MASH, then,

depend upon our unambiguous identification with the ob-

viously right values and with our acceptance of their broad,

fast presentation. The situations with Hot Lips and Burns

have, had they been treated humanely, an inherent sadness

and cruelty to them. If Dish had been a more fully defined

character, Painless' suicide and its underlying sexism and

anti-homosexuality would be patently offensive. If the

importance of winning and the rampant cheating in the foot-

ball game had been treated with more subtlety, the football

game could have become a serious satire rather than a

hilarious lark. MASH, however, is so sure of its values

that it is oblivious to these ambiguities, intolerances,

and weaknesses. Rather than aiming for important insights,

the movie settles for a broad, easy, slapstick presentation.

The Last Supper sequence illustrates the adolescent

quality of MASH's humor. Painless decides to cheat on his

three fiancees; this is the first cheap joke Painless is

so well endowed that he needs and is able to satisfy three

women. He then is unable to perform, which he interprets

as evidence that he is a latent homosexual. Rather than

accept this, Painless decides to commit suicide, which ex-

plains the film's title song, "Suicide is Painless." The

rest of the group understandably do not share Painless'

panic and depression, but decide to humor him. They plan

to stage his suicide and then provide him with a woman

who will unexpectedly disprove his fears. After an






26


elaborate satire on "The Last Supper," everyone gives Pain-

less his last regards and he solemnly takes the big black

pill that will kill him. It is, of course, a fake pill;

as he sleeps, Hawk-eye and Painless' equipment convince

Dish to go to bed with him. As she snuggles next to him,

Painless wakes up and regains his form. The next day, he

has forgotten his troubles.

This scene is undeniably funny; the religious parody,

the elaborate and meaningless ceremony and seriousness, and

the group's sincere if irreverent concern for Painless'

mental condition all contribute to the scene's success.

The idea, however, is devoid of any subtlety or insight;

it does not reveal anything about the plot or the charac-

ters. Regardless of the charm and humor of the scene, all

its details reinforce the final effect. Once that is ob-

tained, the idea loses its freshness; on the second or

third viewing, the scene becomes tedious.

In addition to the lack of subtlety, the scene is

fueled by an adolescent assumption, the idea of a large

penis and sexual pleasure. Painless is defined in the

film solely by the size of his penis; his size and subse-

quently his prowess make his impotence and his depression

more notable, just as it makes Dish's reactions explainable

and humorous. Again, although it is funny, especially on

a first viewing, the scene rests upon an adolescent preoc-

cupation with the size of Painless' penis. And like all

adolescent jokes, the humor wears thin after a while.






27


Even Altman's stylistic devices, usually used to add

diffuseness, ambiguity, and texture, are used in MASH to

single-mindedly add to the unambiguous statement on the

inhumanity of war, the military, and religion. The over-

lapping dialogue, for instance, does not add levels of

structure and contrasting detail but merely reinforces al-

ready apparent relationships. At the film's beginning, for

example, the women officers are almost inaudibly talking

about soap and sex, foreshadowing their definition by

sexuality. When the doctors in the operating room mumble

about the nurses' "boobs getting in the way" or about a

particular nurse's figure, they only reiterate the loose

and prevalent sexual atmosphere of the camp. And when some-

one asks if a patient is an enlisted man, who get bigger

stitches than the officers, the satire on the military is

repeated. Like the cheerleaders' chant, "69 is Divine,"

the comments are funny but, if missed, leave no gaps or

ramifications in this film experience. If they are caught,

they add another laugh, a slightly different version of the

same joke.

The loudspeaker is no different. It adds to the noise

on the soundtrack, is an editing device, and provides struc-

ture and foreshadowing with its announcements of missing

drugs, VD epidemics, absurd regulations, and medical warn-

ings. It predicts Ho John's attempt at draft evasion by

taking handfuls of amphetamines and also the pot smoking at

the football game; both by now dated attempts at topicality






28


and courting of safe and predetermined audience responses.

Again a device is used not to add depth but to further an

already clear statement.

The loudspeaker is used in another way as well. In

addition to playing music that directly comments on the

visuals, as with the "Sayonara" to Burns' exit, it an-

nounces the showing of movies on the base. The films are

usually war movies like The Halls of Montezuma and are an-

nounced by the reading of the films' press releases. At

MASH's end, the loudspeaker tells us the film is over by

reading MASH's own press blurb and introducing the cast.

There are other movie allusions as well. Hawk-eye's first

appearance in the film is accompanied by the traditional

and unmistakably dramatic movie music of the hero; Burns'

and Hot Lips' first kiss is a parody of the old movie kisses;

Dish's and Painless' lovemaking to a Handel-like choir and

a shot of the sun rising over the tent are satires of Holly-

wood's traditional inability to treat sex naturally; Hawk-

eye's and Trapper's roles when they deal with the military

police in Japan are stolen from countless American "B"

movies. Unlike the later Altman films, however, these al-

lusions do not seem artistically purposeful. Instead, they

resemble Mel Brooks' self-conscious attempts at drawing

attention to the medium for a laugh. Rather than expand

the film's focus, the allusions are cute but superficial

and thrown away.






29


The blood in the operating room is still another suc-

cessful gimmick. Veins pop and guts flow amidst wise-

cracks and sexual games. The juxtaposition of humor and

gruesome blood is effective, making real the human waste

of war, exploiting the potential for black comedy, and

breaking new ground for the film. Its repetition in the

film wears thin, however; since it never really develops

beyond the obvious contrast between gore and laughs, it

becomes a predictable and easy device.

MASH, then, is an explicit and savage attack on the

abuses and hypocrises of the military and religion, empty

forms that shackle people to false values and legitimize

inept leaders. Impulses and spontaneity, MASH says, are

more important and more beneficial; if followed, they will

lead to at least temporary happiness. Thus, Hot Lips

learns by the end of the film to love, laugh, jump, and

scream; even though her relationship with Duke is only

temporary, she does have the moment.

Despite the humor and superficial good will generated

by the movie, much about MASH is ugly and questionable.

The portrayal of Frank Burns is callously one-sided, as is

Hot Lips' transformation. They exhibit an almost frighten-

ing reliance on the group norms and on conformity, even

though the MASH group has understandable and identifiable

values. There is also a smugness to the anti-military,

anti-religious, and pro-drug references that seem to capi-

talize on already prevalent audiences' prejudices. When






30


MASH was released, the climate of the time disguised and

perhaps justified MASH's style. Now, seven years later,

however, the sexism, condescension, adolescence, and cruelty

of much of MASH detracts from the movie and badly dates it.

As we are to learn from Images, we must take a film

on its own terms. And MASH is so single-minded, unambiguous,

and broad that we must admit that yes, it is a broad, sin-

gle-minded, unambiguous and funny comedy. On its own

modest terms, it succeeds. But because it set its sights

so low, because it traded art for a quick laugh, it has

dated itself and lost much of its effectiveness. Instead'

of the timeless work of art it might have been, MASH now

is only a reminder to those who share MASH's values that

we too are capable of intolerance, sexism, and dehumanizing

behavior.















CHAPTER 4
BREWSTER McCLOUD



Although Brewster McCloud is as broad, excessive, and

reliant on stereotypes as MASH, it is also a more whimsical,

innocent, and personal movie. Rather than aim for MASH's

realism, Brewster is a fantasy, developing its own world

that works on its own values.

The first scene establishes Brewster's tone. After a

brief speech by the lecturer, who tells us that man has al-

ways wanted to fly or at least wanted "the freedom that

true flight seemed to offer," we see Miss Daphne rehearsing

"The Star Spangled Banner" in the empty Astrodome. As the

opening credits unfold, we hear her scream that the band is

off key. "And I want that scoreboard lighted...." As the

band begins again, the credits also reappear; this time, the

scoreboard has rockets bursting everywhere. As the credits

continue, we read "title song Frances Scott Key." Rather

than.sophistication and subtlety, then, the humor is obvious

and pointed.

The next scene continues this broad style of comedy.

Brewster drives Abraham Wright, the invalid, almost senile

brother of Wilbur's and Orville's, on his weekly collection

of the rents from his chain of rest homes. Obscenely ugly,


31









Wright obviously enjoys himself; he hideously giggles, in-

sults everyone,, and demands rent from patients who have

died during the week. A contemporary Scrooge, his inhuman-

ity and grotesque personality make him an absurdly unbe-

lievable and comic villain. So when he and his wheelchair

are pushed onto the freeway, when his body lands on the

pavement, desecreated by bird droppings (an integral part

of the killer's modus operandi), we laugh. Too broadly

drawn to assume human dimensions, Wright becomes a carica-

ture, a cardboard villain created only for our amusement.

Underneath the scene's absurdity, however, lie. subtle

details that increase the discerning viewer's enjoyment.

Reflecting the film's concern with birds, the rest homes

have bird names like the Feathered Nest Rest Home and the

Blue Bird of Happiness. In addition, Wright's license

plate reads OWL, another detail reinforcing the aviary

theme of the movie. In the shots of Brewster and Wright

in the car, Altman adds an arresting visual pattern by

shooting the action through the colored automatic windows.

As we hear the two characters, we watch the playful motion

of the window, which goes up and down, reflecting, obscur-

ing, or revealing Brewster, Wright, and Houston. Finally,

the dialogue, often lost in the visual confusion and quick

pacing, is surprisingly funny. As an old woman gives

Wright the week's rent, for example, he asks her if she

has given him everything. As she tells him he has "every

last penny," he reaches into her blouse and grabs two bills.









As he drives away, he excitedly cries, "Two big Georges."

Although a funny line, it is relatively hidden; the line

may not add any ramifications or refinements to the overall

situation, but it rewards the more attentive viewer unsatis-

fied by the farcical nature of the scene. In the later

films, the details will do more than just support and re-

inforce the main idea. In Brewster, however, the hidden

details add to the film's single-minded, broadly comic mood.

Even the movie allusions,usually Altman's most subtle

device, add to Brewster's outrageous absurdity. Margaret

Hamilton plays both the witch in The Wizard of Oz and Miss

Daphne in Brewster. She dies in Brewster when a black

"nigger" bird opens her giant bird cage (shaped like the

Astrodome) and it falls on her. The wicked witch, of course,

was killed when Dorothy's house fell on top of her. As the

camera pans across Miss Daphne's body, we hear an AM radio

news report of her death. While the radio announcer de-

scribes her red, white, and blue acrylic knit dress and

red rhinestone shoes, we see that she is wearing the ruby

red slippers of The Wizard. Thus, all of the scene's

visual and verbal components combine to make its single,

absurd, unrefined joke.

Unlike the later Altman movies, the sound and back-

ground visuals do not extend the scene's boundaries, but

merely reinforce the primary idea. When the radio an-

nouncer tells us about the red shoes, for example, we also

see them. The lecturer describes a Crested Peacock; we






34


then see Frank Shaft, the strong, silent, professional de-

tective, wearing shoes that match his luggage. After that,

we see him open a suitcase full of turtleneck sweaters of

different colors. Since Altman had already made his

point, this second illustration is repetitive and unneces-

arily obvious.

As befitting the humor, the characters remain broadly

drawn parodies.1 Had Brewster been a realistic film, the

use of caricatures could have detracted from its effective-

ness. Since Brewster is a fantasy, however, the characters

need not be realistic, only recognizable. Frank Shaft, for

example, is defined by his serious and vain self-conscious-

ness and his intimidating, if meaningless, professionalism.2

He is a villain and his suicide is laughable not because he

is the most serious threat to Louise and Brewster, but

primarily because of his tiresome pomposity. Johnson, on

the other hand, has the same job as Shaft, although he does

not have the title or the reputation to uphold. Unlike

Shaft, Johnson bumbles his way through the job; he whispers

into the microphone, speaks into its wrong end, and enjoys

Captain America comic books. Because of his incompetence,

his sense of humor, and humanity, we like him, even if he

is a cop.

Louise works the same way; she murders and steals, but

she also laughs and protects Brewster. A cross between a

bird and a person, she bathes like a bird, has scars on

her back from her raw shorn wings, resorts to bird sounds






35


when under emotional stress, and understands the true impor-

tance of flying. She tells Brewster that "people;...accept

what's been told to them. They don't think that they can

be free. They don't even believe they can be free.... some-

thing happens to them as they grow, and then they turn more

and more towards earth. And when they experience sex, they

simply settle for it."

Because she understands the value and elusiveness of

freedom, Louise acts like Brewster's mother, making sure

he obeys training rules, warning him that sex will sap his

energy and destroy him, rocking him to sleep by singing

lullabies, and protecting him from strangers wishing him

harm. Like most mothers, Louise can seem unduly repres-

sive and overprotective.

Louise, then, offers Brewster the knowledge and ability

to fly. She has the film's secret; she alone has refused

to compromise and knows where freedom can be found. Loyal

to Brewster, she represents his chance to be free; when she

kills Wright, Miss Daphne, Breen, Billy Joe, Shaft, and

Weeks, she is protecting Brewster. She does not kill any-

one who in the context of the film does not deserve his

fate; thus, she still keeps our empathy and admiration.

In a similar vein, Brewster becomes a positive charac-

teL because he is, by definition, the hero of the film.

The archetypal individual, Brewster does not have personal-

ity or individuality; he is more like a blank face that

each of us can identify with and substitute ourselves.






36


Because he has Louise to look out for him and because he

attempts to fly and thus be free, Brewster is the hero, the

character we would like to be.

As a fantasy, then, Brewster establishes its own world

with its own code of values. Since the characters do not

have to function in our everyday real world, they have no

responsibility to behave like real poeple. All they have

to do is present their characteristics and roles in a re-

cognizable manner; once we understand their function, we

know how to react to them.

Thus, Shaft is the typical professional Wright, the

all too familiar money-mad absentee landlord; Louise, ma-

ternally loyal and perceptive. We can identify their roles

and, within the context of the story, believe them. In-

terestingly, the only unbelievable character in the film

is the most original, the least developed, and the most

typical of the later Altman films. Hope, the health food

cashier, knows nothing about health foods. In addition to

supplying Brewster with health foods, she crawls under a

blanket and thrashes herself into sexual ecstasy. Unlike

the other characters, she is not grounded to a recognizable

type. We cannot believe her here because our imaginations

are already engaged in making the larger fantasy work; al-

though a minor and specific character, her strange actions

overload our imaginations by drawing attention to the

artifice of the entire fantasy. Because she violates the

internal consistency of the fantasy, then, Hope becomes an

ineffective and distracting character.






37


Brewster's plot also depends on the suspension of our

disbelief. As.a fantasy, it depends on our compliance.

We cannot demand realism and cannot ask usually normal

questions like how Louise got out of the camera store, how

Haines and Mrs. Breen got to Lost World's River Adventure,

how Shaft knew where Brewster and Susan would drive to, or

what Louise did with Johnson. If we ask those questions,

the movie obviously would not work. Instead, we accept the

film's events at face value. Like the humor, the story

either works for the individual or it does not.

Although this demand forces the viewer to accept a

very broad style and an implausible plot, many original and

satisfying details remain in the movie. The lecturer, who

hilariously turns into a bird, may not be subtle, but he

does break the plot's linear motion. Although his compari-

sons of the characters with birds only reinforce our per-

ceptions, like Shaft's vanity or Louise's maternal pro-

tectiveness, and thus become repetitive and unnecessary, the

lecturer is original and very funny. Another effective and

more peripheral scene is introduced by the lecturer. While

the lecturer talks about the bathing habits of certain

species, Altman cuts to a shot of Louise frolicking in the

Astrodome's fountain. Suddenly, she becomes aware of the

camera, smiles, and covers her breasts. Although it has

nothing to do with the rest of the movie, her action con-

vincingly conveys her exhuberance, joy, and dignity. Three

movie allusions are also handled with subtlety. When Shaft






38


checks into the hotel, he notices the incessant sirens.

Johnson explains that a group of doctors from Boston who

do heart transplants "just sit around and wait until a

stiff dies." Could Johnson be talking about our Boston

doctors from MASH, the pros from Dover? Altman teases us

with his next allusion, a poster of the film The Decline

and Fall of a Birdwatcher. Although shown three times, the

full title is visible only the first time; by obscuring the

last three words of the title, Altman playfully frustrates

the viewer who did not read the poster that first time.

The MASH poster in Suzanne's apartment, also only fleetingly

seen, makes another pleasant contrast with most of the

film's pointed approach. The scene in the amusement park

does not really further the story, but provides a comical

visual aside. The Lost World River Adventure has a native

god with rolling eyes; the tour guide explains that it is

called Shirley's temple. Should they paint Shirley's temple

black, she wonders. Perhaps more than any other detail,

Shirley's temple foreshadows Altman's eye for the cinemati-

cally absurd and his willingness to make a place for it in
3
his films.

More interestingly than these details, isolated from

the rest of the film, is the flying sequence in the middle

of the film; it compresses the entire film into a single,

short episode. Louise lulls Brewster to sleep; he dreams

of rolling clouds, beautiful vistas, and the true freedom

of flight. His brief dream ends, however, as a swish pan






39


brings us from the clouds to a dead white bird lying on the

ground. The camera then moves to the funeral, which quickly

becomes a circus of multi-colored umbrellas. Brewster, of

course, will suffer the same fate; after a brief flight, he

too will plummet to the ground and lie there, encased in

white. And as soon as he hits the ground, the circus will

arrive. More than a mere interlude in the film, the dream

sequence acts as a surprisingly subtle microcosm of the

film. As such, it hints at Altman's increasing concern and

skill with his films' structure.

Even with these inventive, subtle details, Brewster

remains an obvious and simple movie, a fantasy. Because

it is a personal little fable, the individual viewer must

decide for himself whether it successfully captures and

holds his imagination. More universally demonstrable, how-

ever, are the values that structure the fantasy. Since

Brewster operates in an imaginary world created by Altman,

his values can be seen in pure, discernible states.

"The desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind

of Man," the lecturer begins, at once establishing that

Brewster's quest is primal and universal. But, Louise

cautions Brewster, the ability to fly and to be free be-

comes possible only after intensive training, discipline,

and sacrifices. As an archetypal individual, Brewster is

warned about sex and passion, which hinder discipline and

obscure the vision of freedom. Sex causes people, Louise

tells him, to rationalize their lives and to ultimately be-

lieve what society tells them.






40


Brewster's temptation, of course, is Suzanne. (Hope

seems quite happy without Brewster's active sexual parti-

cipation and is, therefore, no real temptation.) Suzanne

proves irresistible; to Brewster's surprise, sex with her

feels good and does not appear to sap his strength or re-

solve. Hurt because Louise has lied to him, Brewster tells

Suzanne about his ability to fly. And although Louise's ad-

vice has seemed typically unreasonable and maternally over-

protective, she does know best. Before Brewster has even

finished telling Suzanne about his plans to fly away, she

is happily merchandising him into a mansion in Houston's

most fashionable neighborhood. As soon as he tells her of

his responsibility for the murders, Suzanne drops her pose

of "feminine" stupidity and becomes a coy schemer. She

quickly gets Brewster out of her house, reports him, wins

back her old boyfriend, and transforms a case of premature

ejaculation into a marriage proposal. In almost any other

film, her reluctance to lie next to a confessed mass mur-

derer would be understandable. In this movie, however,

Brewster is the harmless hero; when Suzanne turns him in,

she betrays him and the film's positive values. As such,

she proves Louise's advice. Brewster's indulgence in sex

does destroy him; a passionate woman does betray him.

The climactic scene is at once heartbreaking and ex-

hilirating. Louise, who has grasped the situation, has

already left (but not before doing one final favor, mur-

dering Weeks). Brewster knows he must fly. He puts on






4 ,


his wings and, in full view of the Houston Police Depart-

ment, triumphantly soars to the top of the Astrodome. As

he rises, we remember the lecturer's initial warning, "It

may someday be necessary to build enormous environmental

enclosures to protect both Man and Birds. But if so, it

is questionable whether Man will allow birds in....or out,

as the case may be." Although we hope for Brewster's es-

cape, we know he cannot. As the lecturer screams that man

will never equal the natural flight of birds, Brewster plum-

mets to the ground. As soon as he hits the astroturf, Alt-

man cuts to a tiny section of the Astrodome, which is filled

with politely applauding spectators. The scoreboard lights

up and the Greatest Show on Earth, a circus of sorts, pours

into the arena. We realize that the circus is Brewster's

costumed cast taking a curtain call; even the dead charac-

ters are resurrected and take their bows. Only Brewster,

the individual who has tried to be free, remains dead. His

insistence on remaining dead reinforces his failure to be

free.

Although Altman has prepared us for Brewster's death,

the movie might have supported a happy ending. Had the

dome opened and Brewster flown out, he could have been a

comtemporary Peter Pan. Even at the risk of sentimentality,

we would have believed it. But Brewster does not break

away; he fails. This inability to escape reveals how deeply

Altman believes in man's inherent limitations.






42


Perhaps Brewster does not deserve to escape because he

ignored Louise's advice; in any case, he was doomed from

the start. Louise told him he must remain pure and dedi-

cated, if he were to succeed; the professor told us at the

beginning and end of the film that he was not going to get

out of the dome; Brewster's own dream ended with the death

of the white bird; most importantly, the freedom of flight

was never even verified. Freedom is not only attainable,

then, but may also be illusory.

The refusal to let the individual exist in a state of

freedom connects Brewster, which superficially seems so

different, with Altman's other, more realistic films. Not

only are the values the same; some of Brewster will be used

in other Altman movies. Abraham Wright's priorities and

speech about his money will be repeated by Marty Augustine

in The Long Good-bye; Shaft's slow motion death in water

will reappear in McCabe and The Long Good-bye; his repeated

use of "Jesus Christ" will characterize Images' Hugh's

speechpattern; the climactic death by betrayal will resur-

face in Thieves Like Us. But most importantly, all the

films will concern themselves with the individual's inability

to be free.

Although Brewster is more successful than That Cold

Day, which was a collection of techniques in search of a

theme, and more original than MASH, which was an adolescent

collection of stereotypes and slapstick comedy, it still

does not have the tightened structure, totally integrated






43


design, and depth of Altman's later films. With his next

film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman will gain that control,

eliminate the ragged edges, and work with more subtlety.

And although his movies will be better, his assurance,

talent, and visibility will hamper his ability to make an-

other personal movie like Brewster, which is both his and

our loss.




For a more detailed and socially oriented treatment
of Daphne and Wright, see Roberta Rubenstein's excellent
review of Brewster in the winter 1971 Film Quarterly.

2More specifically, Shaft is a parody of Bullit, the
blue-eyed San Francisco detective played by Steve McQueen.
3
Another nice touch to Brewster is its patriotic use
of color. In addition to the allusions to the astronauts
landing on the moon is the profusion of red, white, and
blue. Almost everyone wears some combination of the colors,
no one more spectacularly than Daphne, who dies in a red,
white, and blue acrylic knit and Suzanne, who wears a
white blouse, blue skirt, and red lipstick to snare Bernard.
There are also mammoth red, white, and blue banners in
Brewster's lair. Although the motif remains undeveloped,
it is noticeable and amusing.















CHAPTER 5
McCABE AND MRS. MILLER



McCabe and Mrs. Miller, says John Huston, is the great

forgotten movie of our time. It is a serious and compre-

hensive statement about a younger America, a tender love

story, and a stunning photographic essay. Finally, McCabe

is Altman's western. Like his other films that deal with

a particular genre, McCabe does not just refine the western

but carefully uses the genre's conventions to expose its

false underlying assumptions.

Until recently, the western was probably the film genre

closest to people's hearts. One explanation of this appeal

may be that the western directly and positively deals with

the myths and legends surrounding America's development.

These films told of simpler times when values were less am-

biguous, roles more certain and secure.

John Ford's Stagecoach is probably the best example

of the genre. Of the many characters in the film, all are

immediately identifiable. The whore with the heart of gold

is there, as is the doctor who cares for people no matter

how drunk he gets. The driver is, beneath his cowardly

and comical exterior, solidly dependable; the serious and

responsible demeanor of the sherrif disguises a perceptive


44






45


and humane flexibility. Also stereotypical are the gentle

lady of breeding, the misguided but loyal Southern gentle-

man, the meek and ineffectual liquor salesman, the prim

and repressive society matrons, the hypocritical banker

turned thief, and the evil and ruthless killers. And, of

course, there is the hero, Ringo, played, not surprisingly,

by John Wayne.

Ringo is a living representation of moral goodness.

He has the right dream of a simple, rural existence on his

ranch, surrounded by his family and crops. He realizes,

however, that his dreams may be postponed or shelved when

they conflict with his civic and familial responsibilities,

which he must accept. To maintain his self-respect and

his moral superiority over his brother's murderers, for ex-

ample, he must revenge the murder, even though it means

facing the three killers by himself. His failure to stand

up to them would be sanctioning the rule of the gun and

terrorism as a way of life. Given the situation and Ringo's

personality, he has no real choice but to accept the re-

sponsibility to act in a traditionally moral fashion.

In addition to being moral, Ringo is physically strong

and has unpretentious and accurate instincts. His strength

is important because it gives him credibility and the

ability to fight for his values. His instincts are help-

ful because they enable him to see through the facades of

false authorities and values and recognize true quality.

Thus, he knows immediately that Dallas, despite any reputa-

tion, is kind, generous, decent, and worthy of his love.






46


Ringo, then, is a man of superior moral and physical

strength and of unerring instinct. He is not, however,

the only admirable character; others in Stagecoach are

"good." Doc, for instance, may be a drunk, but when needed,

is able to sober himself up and successfully operate. The

cavalry, who have been eluding the stagecoach for most of

the film, miraculously appear at the last possible moment

and avert a massacre. Even the sherrif is humane enough

to realize that, despite Ringo's legal problems, he is

morally justified and thus allows Ringo and Dallas to ride

off and live their kind of life. Despite societal roles

and personal eccentricities, then, the "good" characters

are solidly dependable and successful.

The vindication of the morally good characters goes

further than their receiving rewards. As in all truly be-

nign worlds, the bad people are punished, often by the

same good people. The banker gets caught with the stolen

money and will be returned to the town, where the investors

will try to punish him. The three murderers will not just

die, but they will be killed by Ringo himself. Ringo's

avenging of his brother's death and his subsequent reward

is, in fact, typical of the western's values. Because of

the physical roughness of the terrain and society, the good

people must endure much testing. In the end, however, they

will be rewarded, just as the evil ones will be destroyed

or rehabilitated. For the movies, then, the West is a se-

cure place where values and identities are clear cut and

invigorating.





47


As shown in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altran's West is

much different. He simply does not see the pioneer romance

or the thrill of the frontier. The people who settle in

Presbyterian Church seem no different from the residents of

any other American blue collar neighborhood. Growth is

not a noble and inspiring process here, but is spurred by

commerce and projected profits and is accompanied by its

attendant hypocrisies, dehumanization, and racism. The

West, Altman is saying, was not won but was merely an early

example of suburban sprawl.

Like countless other westerns, McCabe opens with the

mysterious stranger riding into town. The stranger would

like to give the impression of class; he carries his own

linen tablecloth and silver whiskey flask and pays much

attention to his sophisticated, if inappropriate, hat and

coat. Even this pose, however, is enough for Presbyterian

Church. The town's one bar-hotel-restaurant, Sheehan's,

is overcrowded, unfinished, dirty, poorly lit, and uncom-

fortable. It is peopled with unshaven, undistinguished

white men, including a messy drunk, a self-conscious dandy

and his slavish admirer, a faceless group of card players,

and Sheehan, a physically repulsive and nose-picking small

time entrepreneur. This motley and unromantic group of

original settlers represents quite a change from the group

in Stagecoach, who made a much greater and individualistic

impact than McCabe's characters.





48


Although McCabe looks more like the hero than any of

these others, he is still no John Wayne. Although he seems

cool and self-assured and although Sheehan says he is the

well-known gunfighter who killed Bill Roundtree, Sheehan

also says that McCabe's nickname is Pudgy. McCabe's de-

fensiveness and refusal to talk about his past and his in-

sistence that he is a "businessman" give some believability

to Sheehan's story. The nickname Pudgy and McCabe's ridi-

culous aside to Sheehan, "if a frog had wings, he wouldn't

bump his ass so much," indicate that McCabe's reputation and

ability as a gunfighter are considerably exaggerated.

At any rate, McCabe is a businessman of sorts, even if

his business is pimping and gambling. Realizing that the

town of men is a major and captive market, McCabe buys

three prostitutes and three tents and then begins building

a more permanent house for his business venture. Even be-

fore the building is finished, however, the whores are stab-

bing customers and giving McCabe trouble.

Unlike Dallas who is getting run out of town, Mrs.

Miller is seen arriving at Presbyterian Church. She imme-

diately proves herself a more astute businessperson than

McCabe. She tells the skeptical McCabe that he could make

a great deal of money if he would only expand his vision.

"You've got to spend money to make money," she tells him.

Her plans involve "a proper sporting house with clean linen

sheets and class girls." McCabe, thinking of the men of

the town and of the expense of such a house's construction,






49


tells her that she does not know the men's tastes. "Once

they get a taste of it," she answers, "they'll like it all

right." Mrs. Miller convinces McCabe that he does not have

the experience to run a decent whorehouse and prevails;

they form a partnership that will bring an expensive, sophis-

ticated business establishment to town.

Another sign of encroaching civilization arrives with

Mrs. Miller. Ida, a mail order bride, has come on the same

train. Like many of the men, she is ordinary and relatively

nondescript in appearance. Although her hair is frazzled

like Mrs. Miller's, she is frail, frightened, and apologe-

tic. Nonetheless, she represents respectability and the

potential for a family and a middle class in Presbyterian

Church.

The whores and the Jeffersons constitute the next in-

flux of growth and the next increment of civilization. The

whores are cosmopolitan, lively, proud, and eager to enter

into the town life. They are not degenerate or vulgar,

but are decent, religious people accustomed to a relatively

comfortable standard of living. Rather than sabotage the

town's moral character, they complement its developing mid-

dle class atmosphere of hard work and clean living. With

the whores come the town's first black family, the Jeffer-

sons. Immaculate and polite, they are the town's second

most interesting looking couple (after, of course, McCabe

and Mrs. Miller) and sound like the most educated. The

Jeffersons, being black, add another ethnic group to the

town's population and also another level to the class system.






50


With this arrival, the permanent population of the town

is complete; everyone else who comes is temporary and tran-

sient. First are Sears and Hollander, representatives of

the conglomerate Harrison Shaunessy, who want to buy the

businesses in Presbyterian Church. The stereotypical hypoc-

risy of the banker and the comic ineffectiveness of the

liquor salesman in Stagecoach have been changed, then, to

one of a bland, rather petty organization man. Despite Har-

rison Shaunessy's low offers and tendency to capitalize on

other's hard work and to avoid risks, there is one good

reason to sell to them: "They'd as soon kill you," says

Mrs. Miller, "than look at you." Because he is drunk and in-

secure, however, McCabe fails to deal with them, thus con-

juring up a different group of company representatives.

Before they come, however, the cowboy wanders into

town. Like Ringo, the cowboy is primarily a rural creature

who comes to town to stock up on supplies from the general

store and to have fun at McCabe's whorehouse. He relies

on Presbyterian Church as a city and a service center; he

is yet another indication that the town is on its way to

becoming a metropolitan area. Unlike Ringo, the cowboy, as

we shall see, is no hero.

The final group who ride into town are the three hired

killers who are to remove McCabe. Although these three are

as dishonorable and ruthless as the three in Stagecoach,

there is a major difference. McCabe's killers are company

agents who want to kill McCabe because he is an obstacle






51


to the company's plans for the area. Even though they are

sanctioned by one of the largest companies in America, as

hired killers, they are the least moral of all the charac-

ters. Ironically, the completion of their mission will make

consolidation of the town's resources possible and will

facilitate real growth and progress. Its cost, unfortu-

nately, will be intimidation, terrorism, and murder.

In an effort to survive, McCabe goes to Bear Paw, still

the major city in the area, in a futile search for someone

to make a deal with. When he realizes no one is there, he

seeks the sherrif. Instead, he finds a lawyer, an ex-Sena-

tor, who is the film's most articulate, most civilized

character. Rather than help McCabe, the lawyer sees an

opportunity to boost his own reputation and political ca-

reer. Thus, he inspires McCabe with talk of noble prin-

ciples and heroic dreams and sends him back to Presbyterian

Church and certain death. The lawyer, like the company,

is the product of civilization, indifferent to another's

individual's plea for help unless it can directly further

his own ends. Stagecoach's innate sense of community and

justice has no place here.

The final civilizing gesture occurs at the end of the

movie. In the hunt for McCabe, the church is set on fire.

Although the winter landscape mutes the sound of gunshots,

the fire is seen and draws everyone but McCabe, the surviv-

ing killer, Butler, and Mrs. Miller (who is in an opium den)

into a joint effort to save the church. As McCabe lies






52


yards away, freezing to death, the townspeople save the

building, a hollow symbol that has never even been used.

And while they celebrate its salvaging, McCabe dies.

Altman's comment is clear; civilization is achieved

at the expense of individualism and humanity. McCabe and

Mrs. Miller, then, is a comprehensive indictment of the
2
winning of the West. From the beginning, this film states,

there has been social, religious, and racial hypocrisy and

abuses; from the beginning, the corporation has terrorized

and oppressed the individual. There have never been any

heroes or any romance, just people trying to cope as best

they can with forces bigger and more dominant than them-

selves.

Equally important is the essential bankruptcy of the

forms and institutions that appear so important to American

society. According to McCabe, the idea of racial equality,

the functions of the church and the social importance re-

served for marriage, and the notion of the supremacy of the

individual have always been lies. The belief in the forms

may help keep people satisfied or ambitious, but will not

help them transcend the basic conditions of life.

The first fact of Altman's West that is different from

the more traditional presentation is his presentation of

racism. Sheehan's first conversation is full of racist

overtones. "Turn over a rock and you'll find a Chink,"

Sheehan mutters. All they do is smoke opium, which is not

tolerated in the white part of town. In addition to the






53


existence of a ghetto, there is also another type of segre-

gation. In the mines, the dangerous and difficult work is

done by the Chinese. This theme is reinforced later in the

film in a callous speech of Butler's. In it, he argues for

the introduction of a profitable new mining technique. Its

only drawback is the certain death of many of the miners;

but since they will be Chinks, the hazard seems of small

importance.

Mrs. Miller is the only character to violate the color

line. First she brings in an Oriental whore, who is the

source of much curiosity and crude jokes ("If her eyes are

slanted....") and business. She seems, however, a token,

acceptable only because she is under Mrs. Miller's auspices.

More importantly, Mrs. Miller goes to the Chinese section

to smoke her opium. She does not go for companionship or

out of a belief in social justice, however, but to escape

into oblivion.

The black people, the Jeffersons, are also illustra-

tive of the segregated nature of early America. The Jef-

fersons are astonishingly good looking, well-dressed, and

well-mannered. More than any other characters except

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, they hint at interesting pasts and

potential development. Although they meet with polite

acceptance and live in the white part of town, they never

enter into its social fabric. No one makes an effort at

winning their friendship. When Coyle is killed, they are

by themselves and remain so; when the church burns, they






54


help save it but are not a part of the celebration. In-

stead, they slink away, alone and unnoticed. Despite their

obvious assets, the Jeffersons never really integrate into

the town, functioning only in a business role and in emer-

gencies.

The myth of racial equality is not the only empty con-

cept; another is the institution of organized religion.

To deal with this issue, Altman uses one of the film's most

interesting characters, the preacher.

The preacher seems a little strange from the beginning.

His eyes are beady; he shuffles; his presence makes the

other characters uncomfortable. Ill at east among other

humans, he only once is shown with dignity. In a long

shot, the preacher is shown working on the church's steeple.

Even in this shot, however, the dignity is derived from the

beauty of the natural setting; when juxtaposed against his

apparent indifference to people, his solitary efforts at

building a structure loses their nobility.

The preacher's character is definitely established by

his actions in the scene where Coyle is struck on the head.

Coyle is clearly in need of medical and spiritual help; as

everyone rushes to Coyle's aid, the preacher pulls his

collar up and sneaks away unnoticed. Although he has sup-

posedly dedicated his life to doing God's will and helping

people, his only real dedication is to his unfinished, un-

used building.









The following funeral scene is an amusing yet poignant

counterpoint to the preacher's behavior. Armed with the

knowledge of the preacher's conduct and Mrs. Miller's early

remark that "nine times out of ten a good whore with time

on her hands will turn to religion," we see the choir, com-

posed of the whores and the Jeffersons. Their tuneless

screeching and religious fervor seem at first incongruous

and humorous, but their basic decency and fundamental re-

spect for life and death become moving. Although their

faith significantly is not shared by the more worldly Mc-

Cabe, Mrs. Miller, or the dandy and although their vision

is both misplaced and deluded, their essential goodness and

humanity shine.

In the film's final moments, however, the beauty of

this scene turns on itself. The preacher's mania becomes

more dangerous when he forces McCabe out of the church and

into near certain death. Ironically, this action leads to

the preacher's own death and to the burning of his build-

ing. And when the citizens work together to save the

structure and then celebrate their success as McCabe dies,

they seem shallow and foolish and their victory seems hol-

low and unimportant.

Like organized religion, which reveres material goods

rather than human life, the concept of marriage and social

respectability is false. Ida comes to Presbyterian Church

to marry a man she has never seen. Unlike Dallas and

Ringo who meet and fall into the deepest, most romantic






56


type of love, Ida is ordered like a piece of merchandise.

Love has nothing to do with Ida's marriage, which is a legal

transaction and an economic arrangement that is somewhat

meaninglessly sanctified by society.

As Ida is walking with Coyle one night, a man asks if

he has seen her at Mrs. Miller's. Coyle forgets that since

their marriage is essentially a business transaction, Ida

is no different from Mrs. Miller's whores. Also, Mrs.

Miller's girls are respected members of the town. The re-

mark, when considered reasonably, is not that offensive.

Coyle, however, reacts blindly; now that Ida is his wife,

he must defend any slur against her honor. He does so in

the traditional manner with his fists. In the fight,

Coyle is pushed down, strikes his head on a rock and dies.

Coyle's death is the first serious violent incident

in the film and as such is its first documentation of the

waste and foolishness of social violence. Like many violent

occurrences, the fight happens spontaneously and has unfor-

seen tragic consequences. Also like other violence, it is

self-indulgent, shortsighted, and meaningless. The remark

that triggers the fight is almost inoffensive and certainly

not worth dying for. Coyle, however, reacts according to

the best western tradition, a manly defense of his property.

In his childish efforts to defend her (and ultimately his)

'honor, he is killed and thus places Ida's survival, rather

than her honor, in jeopardy. Once again, the empty form

is pursued at the expense of human life.






57


In an ironic twist that makes Coyle's death doubly mean-

ingless, Ida ends up at Mrs. Miller's. Because she has no

other alternative, she must become a whore. Still, she is

nervous about her new calling; she never really liked sex

but did it because it was her duty. "Maybe I'm just small,"

she tells Mrs. Miller.

Mrs. Miller tells Ida to relax and that soon she will

learn to enjoy sex and "do just fine." She also explains

that Ida's status has not changed. "You did it with Coyle

to keep a roof over your head. Here you'll be doing the

same thing, only get to keep a little (money) for yourself.

It's more honest, to my mind." And she is right; within a

few days, Ida is smiling and enjoying herself. Of all the

whores, she is the sorriest to see the cowboy leave; she

stands in the snow waving and calling after him longer than

any of the others. She finds honor and fulfillment, then,

not in a loveless marriage, but in Mrs. Miller's whorehouse.

The false glorification of violence in American society

and in the typical western is more brutally and devastatingly

dealt with in the killing of the cowboy. Despite his menac-

ing entrance into the film, he is a good-natured innocent

without any violent tendencies. While he is enjoying him-

self at the whorehouse, the three hired killers come into

town. Unlike the easy-going cowboy, the killers enjoy hu-

miliating people. When the cowboy leaves Mrs. Miller's, he

meets the youngest gunfighter, who is embarrassed because he

missed a bottle he was shooting at. To save face, the






58


gunfighter goads the cowboy into a gunfight. Claiming that

he cannot hit anything and just carries his gun for show,

the cowboy backs away. As he turns to leave, he listens

to the gunfighter's offer to inspect his gun; perhaps the

gun, not the cowboy's aim, is at fault. As the cowboy

stupidly reaches for the gun, the gunfighter draws his and

shoots and kills the cowboy.

As soon as the shot rings out, Altman shifts to slow

motion to show the cowboy fall into the ice, bleed, and

die. The shift in the film's pace is brutally and cruelly

jarring. As Altman cuts from the dead cowboy to the re-

pulsively smug boy/killer, we feel anger, hatred, waste,

and powerlessness. We see the gunfighter as he really is -

not a romanticized hero, an honorable man of courage, or

even a misunderstood social problem, but a vicious murderer

who preys on innocent, unaware, ordinary people. And be-

cause the gunfighter kills coldly, whether for sport, money,

or ego, he is able to terrorize the more decent people into

submission. Because he makes all the rules, he holds all

the cards. Unlike the traditional western, there is no

necessary punishment or avenging of the gunfighter; he may

or may not be killed himself, but nothing can happen to

make his victim's death meaningful. Rather than being an

object of adoration, then, the gunfighter and his violent

code are treated with disgust and hatred.

The three gunfighters are not, it must be remembered,

after McCabe and in town by accident; they are employees






59


of a major company on a business assignment. Too big,

powerful, and anonymous to worry about conventional morality,

Harrison Shaunessy routinely engages hired killers to get

rid of difficult businessmen. That a corporation would

act this way this early adds a new dimension to violence

in America. In fact, the corporation is seen here as the

central guiding and omnipotent force in early America.

The corporation, according to McCabe, has been with

America from the very beginning. It waited and watched; as

soon as the groundwork and initial efforts of an ambitious

individual proved to be successful, the corporation moved

in, assuming total control at any cost. Because of its

size and power, the corporation was able to operate with

impunity and ruthlessness, co-opting everyone and every-

thing in its path.

The corporation's power explains the faceless, small

nature of the film's individuals. The corporation is so

big that the individual must manage to make a life for him-

self around or through it, almost always serving it as deal

maker, hired killer, manager, clerk, construction worker,

or supplier of goods and services to it and its employees.

Rather than translate the idealistic superiority of the

little people's numbers into realistic power, the indivi-

duals acknowledge the corporation's strength by not ques-

tioning its tactics or power. When the Company is not

around, the individuals are decent, cooperative, and

morally responsible. As soon as the Company is involved,






60


however, the individuals become frightened and servile par-

ticipants in its games.

This change can be seen in the townspeople's behavior.

When they are involved, they are capable of instinctively

good and generous behavior. When Coyle is hit and hurt,

for example, everyone but the preacher rushes to his aid.

When Birdie has a birthday, everyone but McCabe shows up

to wish her well. Most importantly, when the church catches

fire, everyone is capable of working in harmony towards the

common goal. And when the corporation moves in and Sheehan

sells out, no one blames him or resents him for selling out

to the mob. When McCabe, on the other hand, is drunkenly

arrogant to the corporation and tempts its wrath, the towns-

people do not respect his courage, but feel he is a fool.

Later, when McCabe is humiliated by Butler, the townspeople

do not try to ease McCabe's humiliation. The dandy is

openly contemptuous of him; the lawyer is condescending;

the rest are made uneasy. Rather than involve themselves,

they look away and mind their own business.

Indeed their reaction is understandable. When the cow-

boy is killed, the townspeople are forced to witness the

murder. As in the scene with McCabe and Butler, no one

comes to the cowboy's aid; no one makes a moral stand. If

they had, they too probably would have been killed. Al-

though the townspeople want to help, their desire to live

is understandably stronger. Although each is resigned to

hoping he is not the next victim, he cannot be blamed for

not taking on the corporation by himself.









The perception that America is a corporate wasteland

peopled by a sheepish mass is not new; for anyone living

through the last decade, it seems almost taken for granted.

What is new is Altman's insistence that America has always

been this way, that the tales of the frontier pioneers who

had control over their lives have been lies and distortions

used to socialize us into more of the same. Unlike Stage-

coach, the real enemies were never Indians or outlaws; the

only Indian in McCabe is a chippy and outlaws are so non-

existent that McCabe and Mrs. Miller keep all their money

in portable boxes and heart-shaped tins. Not even storms

and fire pose a real threat; through cooperative action,

they are conquered. No, the only realy enemy is the Com-

pany, which will lie, steal, and kill "as soon as look as

you. "

Because the villain is so pervasive and so omnipotent

and because there are such a limited number of options open

to the individual and because traditionally heroic action

leads only to death and waste, there can be no traditional

hero in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But because McCabe does

not have to be a hero, he can be a human being. Because

he can be flawed and even somewhat ordinary, his story and

his relationship with Mrs. Miller can be more realistic and

more moving.

When McCabe arrives in Presbyterian Church, he seems

self-assured, sophisticated, and successful. Establishing

himself as a businessman, his immediate plans for a gambling





62


casino and whorehouse overshadow his obvious shortcomings

as an operator and thrust him into the additional role of

the town's leading citizen. Sheehan confirms this status

when he tries to form a partnership that would prohibit any

other establishment's opening without their approval and

subsequent cut. McCabe turns Sheehan down, telling him

that he has come "to get away from" partners, even though

he does not mind deals. (In the course of the film, how-

ever, he will profit from his partnership and die because

of his failure to make the right deal.) "Sheehan," McCabe

characteristically concludes, "if a frog had wings, he

wouldn't bump his ass so much."

Although their conversation is interrupted by one of

McCabe's whores who is slashing a customer with a knife,

much has been said. McCabe states that he does not like

partners but is amenable to deals. He is soon, however,

to make Mrs. Miller a partner, which is wise because he is

generally incapable of running a business. And ultimately

he will be killed because he does not make a deal or even

understand the deal making process. Rather than act like

a businessman, he treats Sears and Hollander rudely.

Sheehan is right when he tells McCabe that a business-

man has to know how to make deals. He is also right in

understanding that there is a safety in numbers. McCabe,

however, never really understands the power of the corpora-

tion; when he lets his drunkeness and personal problems-

interfere with his business conduct, he ruins himself.






63


McCabe's frog joke is the first concrete indication that

he relies on instinct rather than intelligence. He ob-

viously meant the joke to be a witty, incisive remark that

would make him look intelligent and urbane. Instead of

making him look smart, however, it reveals his stupidity.

McCabe's pretensions are evident during his first meet-

ing with Mrs. Miller. Ill at east because of her self-con-

fidence and as yet unannounced reason for approaching him,

McCabe takes her to Sheehan's and clumsily buys everyone

there drinks. After this transparent attempt to impress

her, he dramatically drinks his usual raw egg in front of

her. To let him know that she sees through his actions and

that they are unnecessary, she playfully pulls him close

and whispers, "If you want to make like such a fancy dude,

you ought to wear something besides that cheap Jockery

Club perfume."

With one sentence, she deflates his airs and poses;

never again can we think of McCabe as suave or sophisti-

cated. Mrs. Miller, then, exposes his image of a cool, shrewd,

and fast thinking businessman. His inexperience, lack of

imagination and foresight, and reluctance to take chances

are revealed by his inability to answer even one of Mrs.

Miller's many questions and by his hesitation at becoming

her partner. In the end, however, Mrs. Miller's confident

and intimidating recitation of the obvious advantages to

the partnership and her demand for an immediate answer

railroad McCabe into acceptance. But even though the






64


partnership is financially and personally successful, McCabe

never loses his initial reservations about the arrangement.

These reservations stem from McCabe's concern for his

reputation. Extremely insecure, he places an inordinate

amount of importance on what others think of him. As such,

he feels the need for others to regard him as sophisticated,

successful, and urbane. Mrs. Miller, however, not only

sees through his facade, but also understands his need for

one. But because she knows so much about him, she is

threatening to him.

An even greater concern for McCabe is his partnership

with a woman. He cannot escape the feeling that his part-

nership with a woman involves a compromise of his mascu-

linity, a public admission of insufficiency, and a result-

ing loss of respect from her and the community. He is also

unable to reconcile her business and professional acumen

as a whore with their personal relationship as lovers and

remains continually frustrated over the two roles.

Because McCabe is so acutely concerned with the way

others judge him, there is a large gap between the public

and private McCabe. He has hidden his inner thoughts and

Skept them non-verbal for so long, he has forgotten how to

articulate them. "I've got poetry in me," he tells him-

self, clearly wishing he could release it to Mrs. Miller.

Actually, McCabe's worries about revealing himself are

unnecessary. Although his dreams are not great, they are

decent wishes for an honorable reputation, a successful





65


business, and an ability to provide for his woman. Al-

though not an intellectual or even particularly intelli-

gent, he is sensitive and alive. After all, he was the

one to develop or at least recognize the opportunities in

the town and was able to get the men to work for him. More

importantly, he is never cruel or jaded, but innocent and

charming. These private virtues excuse the obnoxious ele-

ments of his public personality, notably his incompetence

and delusions of sophistication and resulting need to con-

stantly prove himself. Had McCabe been less concerned with

trying to seem like a successful businessman and more con-

cerned with being John McCabe, he would have been happier

and more successful. He also may have lived longer.

Instead, of course, McCabe tries to maintain his pub-

lic image, even though his attempts lead to increasingly

greater frustrations. McCabe releases these frustrations

through his drunken binges. Unfortunately, Sears and Hol-

lander arrive during one of these binges. Driven into

drinking because of his feelings of inadequacy, McCabe

overcompensates by trying to impress the two agents with

his women, whiskey, and wit. His patronizing behavior in-

sults the already irritable Hollander, who feels the corpora-

t*ion mistreated him by sending him on such a simple and re-

mote assignment. "That man is an ass," he tells the more

patient Sears, "I'm going back." As soon as Hollander

leaves, he triggers the film's remaining events. Once

started, the events cannot be stopped. Thus, McCabe's






66


inability to be himself and his failure to control his pub-

lic personality drive away the people he cannot afford to

alienate.

When Sears and Hollander leave and the deal falls

through, Mrs. Miller begs him to sneak out of town. Not

only does McCabe refuse to consider her suggestions, but

he gets offended by it. "Go into business with a woman,"

he mutters, "and you can't expect her to have reason to

respect you." Thinking he will not sneak away because the

townspeople will think him cowardly, Mrs. Miller loses her

patience. "What are these people to you?" she yells, "Why

do you care what they think?"

McCabe's refusal to run away involves more, however,

than simple pride. After all, McCabe suffered humiliation

in his dealings with Sears and Hollander and then was will-

ing to grovel to Butler in front of his former employees,

friends, and customers. He is also willing to go on a

desperate search for anyone who can make a deal with him.

Something in McCabe, however, will not let him run away

completely, leaving his property and efforts and dreams

to the jackals.

McCabe may not be taken in my the lawyer's high prin-

ciples and may be using them in an attempt to impress Mrs.

Miller and to inflate his own importance, but he does be-

-lieve that he should "stick his hand in the fire and find

out what he's made of." He is no longer thinking about

other people's opinions, but is acting out of his beliefs





67


and for the maintenance of his self-respect. Although he

is like Coyle because he is acting out of a misguided, fu-

tile, and wasteful code, he has finally reconciled his

public and private selves. And perhaps because he believes

in what he is doing, he is able to move purposely and re-

sourcefully for the first time even though he is killed,

he does elude the killers for a surprisingly long period,

manages to kill all three, and almost escapes. Although

his death is still a waste, he does achieve a dignity of

sorts.

While McCabe may put on airs of sophistication, Mrs.

Miller is genuinely sophisticated. She is also witty and

intelligent. When she tells McCabe that his cologne is

cheap, she is not being malicious. Instead, her eyes and

voice sparkle; she is both teasing him and telling him

that she is different and that he does not need those airs

with her. Despite her aggressiveness, she is not emasculat-

ing; even though she devours four eggs and a plate of stew,

she never becomes slovenly or gross like the woman in the

famous eating scene from Tom Jones. Totally self-confident,

she is intriguing, sexy, independent, and fascinating.

Because Mrs. Miller has so much self-respect and con-

fidence, she feels no shame in her profession. Unlike Mc-

Cabe, she is an excellent businessman. Also unlike McCabe,

she does not need to hide behind the title "businessman."

"I'm a whore," she tells McCabe. Not only is she a whore;

she is one of the best. While the other women charge one





6S


and a half dollars, Mrs. Miller charges five dollars for

her services. .And everyone, including McCabe, must pay.

The first time we see McCabe in bed with Mrs. Miller

is the first time their relationship is clarified. Mc-

Cabe's repeated solitary complaints and frustrations with

Mrs. Miller ("Money and pain....") and her impatience and

disappointment over his inability to manage his affairs are

intense enough to suggest a deeper personal relationship

than a simple business partnership. Also, the delicacy

with which Birdie tells McCabe that he cannot talk to Mrs.

Miller because she has "company" and his uncomfortable, em-

barrassed response hint at his personal involvement. Thus,

when the two are shown in bed, we are not really surprised.

What is surprising, however, is that Mrs. Miller stops

to remind him that he has not paid. Smiling, McCabe gets

out of bed and puts his money in the box. But Mrs. Miller

shows that he is no ordinary customer; she curls up under

the covers and pulls the blanket up over her nose. All we

see is her eyes, excited, radiantly alive, and happy. Be-

fore McCabe came in, she had smoked some opium; for the first

time, the drug enhances her mood of pleasure and activity

rather than dragging her into oblivion. Her response to

McCabe and his presence is not mercenary, then, but loving.

Mrs. Miller's charging McCabe is consistent and crucial

to her character. As she says, she asks nothing from no

one. And she knows she cannot be a whore forever; someday

she hopes to run a proper boarding house in San Francisco.






69


Living alone in the present and preparing for the future

takes money. Since she is independent, she has to be con-

cerned with her own welfare. The price of independence,

after all, is the responsibility of caring for oneself.

More importantly, Mrs. Miller, unlike McCabe, has enough

self-respect and awareness to separate her business and

professional lives. In her case, this means separating

love from sex. If McCabe and Mrs. Miller are in love, all

McCabe can expect is her love. This love cannot include

her abandonment of her welfare for his pleasure. To remain

independent and to keep her self-respect and equality in

their relationship, she cannot give him free use of her

body. Until both decide and desire that he should be re-

sponsible for her, she must remain responsible to herself.

She must, then, charge McCabe or enter into a one-sided,

unequal relationship.

When McCabe returns from Bear Paw without the deal,

Mrs. Miller reveals the depth of her self-awareness. She

realizes that the lawyer's principles are empty and that

McCabe's death is inevitable. She leaves the stove (the

only time in the film that she performs a domestic duty),

turns her back, and begins to cry. McCabe looks relieved;

at last she is conforming to a feminine role. Soothingly,

masculinely, McCabe falls into his role. "There, there

now, little lady, don't you cry." Mrs. Miller's reaction

is explosive and immediate "Don't give me any of that

little lady shit!"






70


She stops crying and pleads with him to leave town.

When she sees that McCabe will not be swayed, she composes

herself and closes the discussion with an abrupt "eat your

meal." She knows that everything has been said; she com-

passionately drops the subject without any whining, com-

plaining, or self-pity. She never even reminds him that

she told him so.

Immediately preceding their final scene together, Mc-

Cabe admits to himself that he hates the thought of other

men sleeping with Mrs. Miller; if only, he wishes, she

could be tender and free just once. McCabe does not under-

stand Mrs. Miller and does not realize she hears the poetry

he has locked inside himself. Instead, he thinks she is

"freezing his soul." When he finally comes to her for what

they both know is their last night, he tries to verbalize

his feelings but breaks down. Rather than have him be

further embarrassed, Mrs. Miller tells him that there is

no need to say anything else, that she knows and feels the

same needs. She pulls him to bed without a glimpse or

possibly even a thought of the money box. She is tender,

giving, and human. Regardless of her future or welfare or

situation, she and McCabe have an intense moment of true

oneness.

Before McCabe wakes up, Mrs. Miller sneaks off to the

opium den. Both know what is to happen that morning; her

presence there would be both uncomfortable and painful.

Soon thereafter, McCabe will lie alone in the snow freezing






71


to death; Mrs. Miller's soul will be temporarily frozen

in the opium de.n's oblivion. It is a depressing ending

for we are forced to watch the destruction of two people

whom we have learned to care very much for.

Although there is no way to see McCabe's ending as a

happy one, there are elements of optimism, hope, and beauty

in the film. If at the end McCabe and Mrs. Miller have to

face their fates alone, they are no different than any of

us. And before that end, they are able to build a rela-

tionship based upon mutual respect and care. Neither is

forced to compromise a belief or stance; each recognizes

the other as an individual with feelings and integrity.

Although they do not have a very long relationship, it is

intense and beautiful, punctuated with moments of happiness

and total commitment. Because they attain these moments,

they do create that "momentary stay against confusion";

they really live. And that is a major accomplishment.

Because of the leisurely pace, overlapping dialogue,

and large number of characters, McCabe appears to be a

loosely structured, dissonant film. The appearance is,

however, deceptive; the movie is tightly controlled, direct,

and coherent.

There are many characters in McCabe: the original

townspeople, the whores, the Company men, the cowboy, the

Slawyer, the killers, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Not every

character is developed, however; the facelessness of many

preclude the necessity for any development. The others






72


are defined primarily in terms of their occupation as poli-

tician, gunfighter, company lackey. Only the dandy and

his slavish admirer do not seem related to the rest of the

film; their feud over the moustache is funny but peripheral

and independent from the rest of the film. Every other

character, however, exists primarily to further the film's

central characters and theme. McCabe's first three whores,

for example, exist primarily to illustrate his incompetence

and limited vision, especially when contrasted with Mrs.

Miller's ladies. The black couple comment on the racist

nature of early America; the lawyer is a caricature that

closes another avenue of individual control and exposes as

a myth the idea of an unbiased and helpful legal system in

America. These characters are all visually interesting

but are not allowed to exist independently. Instead, they

all are used to serve a specific function.

This is especially apparent in the cases of the

preacher and of Ida. The preacher's initial appearance in

the film is arresting and provocative; his refusal to help

Coyle and his inching away from the accident is an unmis-

takable indictment of religious hypocrisy. He is also

used as the agent of McCabe's destruction; as such, he be-

comes a major force in the development of the plot. As

soon as he assumes this important function, the function

becomes more important than the character. The statement

Altman is making with the preacher becomes more straight-

forward and more direct. Its content does not really change






73


but the preacher as a character becomes dwarfed by the

point. In addition to diminishing the preacher as a charac-

ter, the change destroys the subtlety and diffuseness the

preacher brings to the earlier part of the film.

Ida suffers the same treatment. Unusual and haunting,

Ida initially shies away from the camera and exudes fear,

timidity, tension. When Coyle dies and leaves her without

any means of support and without anyplace to go, her logical

alternative is Mrs. Miller's. One or two shots, culminat-

ing in her waving good-bye to the cowboy, would have ex-

plained her adjustment. Rather than do that, however,

Altman has Mrs. Miller calm her down and explain how whoring

is as, if not more, honest as marriage. Through this con-

versation, Altman explicitly justifies Mrs. Miller and the

other whores. Since throughout the film they have acted

with decency and pride, their honesty need not be questioned.

When Mrs. Miller talks about her position, her speech seems

unnecessary. Also, because of this conversation, Ida be-

comes more than a character; her transformation from a

scared girl to a mature, sensual woman becomes more than a

happy change. Instead, Ida is turned into a before/after

advertisement and proof of Mrs. Miller's argument. Al-

though she becomes a more important figure in the film, she

does so not because of her individuality but because she

is a connection and key to the larger message.

In McCabe, Altman does not seem ready to let his minor

characters stand alone as individual characters. He is






74


expecting less of the audience than he later will; he seems

here careful to make every connection explicit, to tie

every loose end, to make every detail direct and functional.

Because he does this and also because of the socio-political

nature of his message, McCabe remains Altman's clearest ex-

planation of his social and political philosophy.

The Altman world is a hostile one whose forces are

distant, omnipotent, and indifferent to the individual.

The institutions of government, religion, and family that

normally are thought to buffer the harsh and invisible

realities of life are empty forms that are used by the real

powers, the corporations. The individual's allegiance to

these archaic institutions foster a false sense of security

and priorities that themselves further, stabilize, and per-

petuate the status quo.

Although we are destined to be born, live, and die

aloner in such a bleak environment, we also have the poten-

tial to create true, if temporary, beauty, meaning, and

happiness. Since our power as individuals is limited by

the composition of the world, Altman says, we are freed

from any compulsion to act like heroes and thus are freed

to be people. So although we are unable to create per-

manence and although we live in a world of false institu-

tions and hostile parameters and although we are destined

to have unhappy endings, we do have continual opportunities

to create spontaneous, intense, and beautiful experiences,

regardless of how long they last.









McCabe and Mrs. Miller can be thought of as Altman's

transitional movie. As in the traditional film, there are

few loose ends. The characters are purely functional; the

values are explicitly explained; the identifications unam-

biguous. Although there is the potential for subtleties,

Altman loses confidence in them and, by the end of the film

directly explains them. The music works in the same way;

the movie is a gentle, quiet one that develops its own

moods. Leonard Cohen's dirge-like and distractingly beauti-

ful ballads are obtrusively heavy. Rather than complement

or help the moods, they push and determine the moods.

Altman's following films, at least until Nashville, will

avoid being so pointed and will require more from the in-

dividual viewer.

McCabe is also related to many of the other Altman

movies in its thematic preoccupation with roles. Like

Marlowe, Charley, Bill, and the MASH and Nashville gangs,

McCabe is playing a role. This time, the role is a business-

man. McCabe, however, never successfully throws himself

into the role. Because he mixes his public persona and

his private feelings and needs, he is never fully convinc-

ing in or understanding of the role. This leaves him un-

able to anticipate the role's demands. Thus, he does not

understand the importance of the deal and acts improperly;

he not only fails to make the deal, but also offends the

principals. Because he does not know the script, then, he

sets in motion the events leading to his own destruction.





76


While the other Altman characters define themselves so

totally in terms of their roles that we never really know

them beyond their roles, McCabe does not play his well

enough and thus dies.

McCabe is like the later films in its visual beauty

and its strong emotional impact. This is the first of his

films that are like paintings; it is a film that can be

watched simply as a procession of beautiful colors and
4
visual images. The film's beauty, however, is not func-

tional since it does not really complement the theme or

the story. Instead, McCabe uses its beauty as its own

justification for its existence. After all, McCabe is a

moving picture and thus can be looked at simply as a series

of moving photographs. There is no reason, then, not to

have those pictures be as beautiful as possible.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, then, is a comprehensive socio-

political statement about a younger but not very different

America, a beautiful and tender love story, and a stunning

visual experience. It also is Altman's last explicit and

thus traditional movie; those that are to follow will be

much looser and more open-ended. But since all the movies

he will make will return to McCabe's core values, McCabe

can be thought of as Altman's key movie, his cinematic home.






77


Notes
1Huston made this statement on the December 9, 1975
Tomorrow Show on ABC.

2 McCabe is not the first, but only one of a number
of revisionist westerns,including Johnny Guitar, Little
Big Man, Bad Company, and Doc. In my opinion, McCabe
is the most sustained and most successful.

3 In "Robert Altman's Anti-Western," (Journal of Popu-
lar Film, Fall, 1972), Gary Engle concentrates on the lack
of heroism in McCabe's final acts. I recommend the article,
which focuses on the social comment McCabe makes.

4 Altman has made several statements about wanting to
make a movie like a painting, but I cannot locate them. I
think the remark was in an interview in Genesis, in Boston's
The Real Paper, and in Films and Filming. Unfortunately,
I cannot find the quote anywhere and thus cannot present
it with the significance and authenticity it deserves. He
also alludes to the remark and concept in the July 17, 1975
Rolling Stone article, "Bob Altman's Nashville," by Chris
Hodenfield.















CHAPTER 6
IMAGES



Images opened in 1972 to almost unanimously poor re-

views and dismal box office grosses in its first few en-

gagements. The results of its first runs were so disap-

pointing, in fact, that the film was withdrawn and never

received national distribution. This is unfortunate because

Images is one of Altman's most interesting movies.

Like the other Altman films, Images reworks a familiar

film genre. This time Altman is working with the subjective

suspense thriller. In these films, we see the movie di-

rectly through one of the character's eyes. In some movies,

like the 1947 Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall Dark Passage,

the subjective viewpoint is introduced as a gimmick; we

literally must see through Bogart's eyes and wait until a

mirror or a pane of glass reflects the character's physi-

cal identity. Because of its obvious and mannered look,

this type of subjective approach quickly becomes annoying;

when it is dropped after about twenty minutes in Dark

Passage, the movie becomes easier to watch and more effec-

tive. There is another, less obvious way to incorporate a

subjective point of view into a movie. A successful exam-

ple of the more subtle subjective film is Roman Polanski's

Repulsion.
78






79


In Repulsion, Polanski deals with the breakdown of a

manicurist named Carol. Rather than give the audience an

objective, nonthreatening vantage point, Polanski forces

the audience to see the world through Carol's distorted

eyes. Thus, the rooms of her apartment become increasingly

elongated, twisted, blurred, and surreal; her fantasies be-

come increasingly strong and vivid enough to intertwine

themselves with reality; her outside and inside worlds coa-

lesce and become terrifying and dangerous.

Throughout the film, as the camera slowly becomes

Carol's eyes, we in the audience are denied any substantial

explanation of the reasons behind Carol's problems. There

are some hints: the photograph of her family, the reli-

gious references, her relationship with her sister. The

clues never assume any definitive significance because the

information that would make sense of them is withheld.

This lack of information guarantees the audience's in-

ability to understand the reasons behind Carol's breakdown

and our resulting inability to objectify her experience.

Polanski deliberately denies us the information. By

not being able to understand Carol's behavior intellectually,

the audience's tendency to treat her clinically as a case

study of madness is hindered. Without this more distant

vantage point, we are forced to look at Carol on a less

analytical, more emotional level. Because the details and

objectivity that differentiate us from Carol are minimized,

we are thrust into her experience. Rather than watch






80


Carol's madness, we are encouraged to feel and experience

it.

Polanski achieves this emotional involvement by care-

fully structuring the film. The first part of the movie

moves slowly; Carol goes about her daily routines. There

are, however, many hints of her impending breakdown. She

moves about in a daze, twitches her nose, is repelled and

fascinated by the noise of her sister's lovemaking and by

any male intrusion into her life (Colin's kiss and Michael,

her sister's lover's toothbrush), and her inability to con-

centrate at work. This part of the movie is shot objec-

tively; although we do not understand why Carol is getting

more disoriented and distracted, we still are watching her

from a rational, somewhat removed position.

Polanski begins to change this with the mirror scene.

As Carol turns around, she imagines a man in the corner of

her mirror. His momentary appearance in the mirror is as

startling, disorienting, and frightening to us as it is to

Carol; it is not an hallucination of madness, after all,

but an ordinary fantasy that many of us have had. This is

the first time the audience has been manipulated into hav-

ing the same emotional response as Carol's. The transition

into her point of view continues until Colin bangs the door

of Carol's apartment down. The only sympathetic character

in the film, he seems genuinely attracted to and concerned

about Carol. When he comes to her apartment, however, we

see him through Carol's eye, the hole in the door that






81


distorts his face. He, like the audience, barges into

Carol's world;.when he breaks down the door and enters her

apartment, he enters her jurisdiction. And since he is

threatening to her, Carol brutally kills him with all the

love/hatred she has. From then on, the camera does not

leave the apartment or Carol's point of view.

After she kills Colin and, later, the landlord, Carol's

breakdown intensifies; the cracked walls crack even louder

and more severely and become more curved and elongated.

They also get softer and more aggressive; hands reach out

of them and try to grab Carol. The apartment becomes darker,

gloomier, more shadow-filled. There are no objective shots

and no relief; the audience is forced to see the world

through Carol's eyes and, at least to some extent, is

forced to undergo her experience.

For all Repulsion's subjectivity, however, it is an

unambiguous movie. Because so much time is spent with

Carol at the initial stages of her breakdown, the audience

gets to know her environment and her situation. The more

subjective part of the film can thus be identified and at

least minimally analyzed. Because we have seen the cracked

walls and the dimensions of the apartment in the objective

part of the film, we know that the more startling cracks,

the twisted walls are imaginary ramifications of the objec-

tive world. Since we are able to make this judgment, we

also can unambiguously identify the men in her bed and the

hands in the walls as figments of her imagination. This






82


lack of ambiguity gives us at least some understanding and

intellectual distance and thus undercuts our disorienta-

tion.

In the film's last scene, the subjectivity is dropped

altogether. Carol's sister and Michael return from their

holiday, find the two bodies and Carol, who is catatonic

and under the bed. Michael picks Carol up and carries her

past the crowd in the apartment building and the audience

into the street. The camera follows them out and then re-

turns to the room, which is disordered but restored to its

original dimensions. Slowly the camera pans to the photo-

graph of the family and zooms in to Carol's eye, separating

and objectifying the audience and reestablishing the dis-

tance between character and audience. The movie and the

experience over, Polanski eases us back into our own worlds.

Images does not give us this security of an objective

framework. Operating without any framing devices, Images

maintains its subjectivity throughout the entire film and

thus demands a more active and more flexible audience.

From beginning to end, Images thrusts us into a schizo-

phrenic experience; not once does it compromise its struc-

tural design of subjective point of view and audience dis-

orientation.

Schizophrenia, popularly thought of as the phenomenon

of a split personality (a notion popularized by countless

films and television programs), is more correctly defined

as a split from reality.1 As Images begins, Kathryn, a






83


children's book author, has already started to break away

from objective-reality. There have been three men in her

life. Rene was the first, a lover who was killed three

years ago. Because she put him on a plane that crashed

and because she "miscarried" his child, she has never been

able to rid herself of that relationship's guilt. The se-

cond is Marcel, a promiscuous artist who lives near her

country home. She slept with him once the previous year

and still is both tantilized and repulsed by their brief

sexual encounter. The third man is her current husband,

Hugh. An ineffective, insensitive person, Hugh has none

of the sexuality of the two others but does offer her the

stability and security of a "good" marriage.

Kathryn's chief problem we quickly discover, is that

she cannot keep the people in her life straight. In the

middle of a kiss or a sentence, Hugh will become Rene who

will soon turn back into Hugh. When Hugh leaves the room

to get the quail, for example, Rene appears to talk, tease,

and abuse her. When she hits him, Rene bleeds all over

the carpet, even though Hugh does not notice the blood when

he comes back inside, possibly because his finger is bleed-

ing all over the carpet too. Kathryn is then forced to

deal with an imaginary Marcel who makes passes at her even

when the real Marcel is in the next room talking to his

daughter, Susannah. Then Kathryn is drawn into a strange

and special relationship with the twelve-year-old Susannah,

who looks mysteriously like Kathryn. Finally, there is






84


Kathryn's alter-ego, a woman who looks just like Kathryn

and who Kathryn often sees standing in the distance watch-

ing and, perhaps, waiting.

In addition to making the country estate quite crowded,

the presence and rapid interchanging of personalities are

confusing and upsetting to Kathryn. Even more frightening

are the ensuing events. Kathryn stops fighting Rene's and

Marcel's advances and indulges in a particularly satisfying

lovemaking session. She is, however, unable to tell which,

if any, man was her partner.

Terrified, she confronts Rene. Realizing he must be

dead because she saw him get on the plane, she asks him

why he cannot be a "good ghost and stay dead." He then

tells her that he is a product of her imagination who can

be exorcized by a ritual act of murder. If, he tells her,

she herself kills him, he can no longer bother her. With

this advice, Rene hands her a loaded shotgun, which she

uses. His advice apparently works, for he does not trouble

her again even if his bloody body does lie on the floor

for the rest of the film. No one else notices the body

although they do hear the gunshot and see the still camera

of Hugh's that the blast has destroyed.

If she can kill Rene, she reasons, she can also kill

Li-e imaginary Marcel. During her first attempted murder

of Marcel, however, Hugh interrupts her. She then waits

until Hugh is called out of town, makes sure the real Marcel

is occupied with a woman from town, and calmly hacks the






85


imaginary Marcel to death. The next day, Susannah comes

without her father; Kathryn has some nervous moments over

whether she killed the right Marcel. But the real Marcel,

she discovers when she takes Susannah home, is very much

alive. Relieved, she turns the car around and starts home.

On the ride back, she sees her alter-ego begging her for a

ride. Ignoring her, Kathryn speeds home, only to be un-

nerved by the two bloody corpses and empty house. Deciding

to join Hugh in London, she gets back into her car and is

again stopped by her alter-ego, who begs for help and pro-

fesses love for Kathryn. Suddenly Kathryn realizes that

she can kill the alter-ego as easily and finally as she

has Rene and Marcel and runs her off the cliff. With all

her ghosts laid to rest, she drives to her London apart-

ment and finds an already steamy bathroom. She gets into

the shower and waits for Hugh. When the door opens, how-

ever, it is not Hugh, but her alter-ego, who is smugly

laughing. Confused, Kathryn's mind is thrown back to the

cliff. At the bottom of the cliff lies a bloody, very

dead Hugh.

Kathryn is suffering, then, from schizophrenia because

she is unable to differentiate between the real world and

her imaginary one. The inability to differentiate forces

her to act in a private world that is a unique combination

of actual and illusory realities. Denied the benefits of

a constant, objective reality, she is a disoriented kaliedo-

scope of moods: bewildered, confident, frustrated, des-

perate, sensual, frightened, rational, irrational.






86


To communicate her experience, Altman has designed a

film so harrowing and so disorienting that we are immedi-

ately thrust into Kathryn's world. Unlike Carol in Repul-

sion, we do not see Kathryn in her early, slower stages of

her breakdown. The first time we see Hugh, he turns into

Rene; fifteen minutes into the film, Kathryn and her alter-

ego become inexplicably intertwined. Without any previous

information, we are expected to handle characters and plot

shifts that we are not equippped to deal with. Like

Kathryn, we are confused and frustrated; denied even the

slender emotional distance Polanski allowed, we have no

more idea which character is who or what really happened

than Kathryn does.

The deeper we become involved, the more confusing and

ambiguous the film becomes. When Kathryn is driving to

Green Cove that first day, for example, she gets out of

the car and stands on a hill to catch the first glimpse of

her house. As she watches, to her horror, she sees her

car drive up to the house and sees herself get out of it,

look toward the hill she is standing on, and then go into

the house. Then there is a shift to the Kathryn inside

the house, who can see the Kathryn on the cliff who is

still watching. This happens several more times al-

though Kathryn's relationship with her alter-ego becomes

more ambivalent as her alter-ego becomes more aggressive,

we can never really know which Kathryn was the one we met

first. Any effort to untangle the two Kathryns leads to






87


an insolvable, frustrating maze that further disorients

the audience. This disorientation becomes a mirror of

Kathryn's mental state; we feel with her rather than in-

tellectually understand her position.

Other insolvable puzzles and intentional ambiguities

abound. Regardless of how many times the scene with Hugh,

Marcel, Kathryn, and Susannah talking after dinner is

watched, the tracing of who is laughing and kissing Kathryn

and who is sleeping is impossible. Also untraceable are

the characters and events of the love scene. Was it mas-

turbatory and illusory or real? Was it one of her ground-

less fantasies or was it Hugh or Marcel? Like Kathryn her-

self, we have no way of knowing; also like her, we want,

even need, to know. Because we cannot, our own feelings

of frustration, dislocation, and confusion are further in-

tensified.

Probably the film's major ambiguity concerns the iden-

tity of the body at the bottom of the cliff. Altman has

carefully allowed for two possible interpretations. The

first, the rational interpretation, is that Kathryn has

had a breakdown. Her confusion over her sexual feelings

and desires, her frustrations with her artistic career, and

her resentment over her contradictory need for the security

promised by a traditional marriage all lead to her subcon-

scious taking control. Once in control, the subconscious

tricks her into killing Hugh.






88


Justifications for this interpretation include the

shot of Hugh's.train returning and someone, presumably Hugh,

getting off the train; Kathryn passing the land rover that

Hugh was to ride home on had he returned early; and Kath-

ryn's alter-ego sounding more like Hugh than Kathryn with

all the "Jesus Christs" and "Goddamns." Also used as evi-

dence of Hugh's death is Kathryn's final phone call to

Hugh in London; although she talks to him, he has never an-

swered the phone. Throughout the conversation, the phone

keeps ringing as it must since Hugh is dead at the bottom

of the cliff. Perhaps the final evidence for Hugh's death

is the genre Altman is working in. Hugh's death makes

sense and gives the film its twist and irony necessary for

a strong conclusion. With this ending, Images becomes a

clever reworking of Repulsion.

This interpretation is accepted, however, only by ig-

noring contradictory evidence. We cannot be sure, for ex-

ample, that the person getting off the train is Hugh; the

camera is too far away and the focus is too soft to make

any identification. Also, shortly after the train shot,

Kathryn declines Marcel's dinner invitation because she

has "something very important to do," thus indicating a

foreknowledge of her run-in with Hugh/her alter-ego on the

cliff. But since she does not and cannot know about Hugh's

return, she must have imagined the train shot and therefore

also imagined the meeting on the cliff. Also, when the

imaginary Marcel asks how she will manage to be alone with






89


him, Kathryn answers, "I'll simply think him (Hugh) away,

just as I thought you here." Shortly thereafter, Hugh is

conveniently called away. Hugh's riddles are further proof

that he is not really dead. "What is black and white,

black and white, black and white?" he asks. "A nun fall-

ing down the stairs," is the grisly answer. And later, the

alter-ego/Hugh falls down the cliff and the film shifts

from color to black and white. Neither the alter-ego nor

Hugh are nuns but both may be figments of Kathryn's imagina-

tion and therefore "none" (nothing) in the physical sense.

Hugh's last riddle continues the veral pun. "What's the

difference between a rabbit? None, one is both the same."

If Hugh is not down at the bottom of the cliff, nothing and

no one is. He, then, is no more real than the alter-ego.2

Still more confusing is Kathryn's speech before running the

body off the cliff. Since "Hugh" and "you" are homonyms,

we can never be sure what she is saying; is it "I know it's

you (the alter-ego) but I found out I can get rid of you,"

or "I know it's Hugh but I found out I can get rid of

Hugh"? Since the two characters speak their lines inter-

changeably, the scene may very well be an extension of

Kathryn's imagination. Finally, when Kathryn enters her

London apartment, the bathroom is filled with steam. If

Hugh had been killed and since the alter-ego is a creature

of the mind, the bathroom could not have been used. Since

someone has been in the bathroom and since Kathryn has

just arrived at the apartment, it is unlikely that anyone

but Hugh, still in London, could have steamed it up.






90


There are, then, two equally plausible explanations,

that the real Hugh was killed and that no one really was

killed. If the real Hugh were killed, the movie is a

chilling, if familiar, psychological suspense thriller.

If he were not really killed, the terror remains the same

but focuses on the horror of Kathryn's madness. Images

then becomes more like a nightmare, equally upsetting but

less tangible.

To decide which of the two is the correct interpreta-

tion is futile because both are included in the film's de-

sign. Unlike Repulsion, which grounds itself to objective

reality, Images cultivates its subjectivity and ambiguities.

If one and not both of the interpretations is true, we will

know what really happened and will leave the theatre secure

and confident. If, however, we are not sure, we will leave

the film confused, disoriented, frustrated. Because Images

never endorses or returns to objective reality and because

its ambiguity insures our dislocation, Images remains con-

sistent to its metaphor of schizophrenia, a split from

reality.

The maintaining of ambiguities and insolvable puzzles

in Images is consistent with the schizophrenic metaphor in

another way. Because emotions are so important to this

film and because Kathryn's moods are so changeable, she

and the film have no one constant emotion. Similarly, we

can never know if Hugh was or was not killed; Altman is

forcing us to have an ambivalent emotional response.






91


Depending on our own mood, our reaction to this variable

film changes each time we see the film. One time we may

be struck by the horror of Hugh's death; another time we

may be drawn more to Kathryn and the power of her madness;

still another time we may just be carried by the beauty of

the film's craft and colors and be oblivious to the drama

of its content. Like Kathryn, we can pick, choose, and

react to whatever we want. All the ambiguities and irra-

tionalities invite and demand our active emotional parti-

cipation.

Images, then, is carefully structured to simulate a

schizophrenic experience. It demands an intense personal

involvement from its audience and rewards this involvement

with confusion, ambiguities, insolvable puzzles, and frus-

tration. Especially frustrating is the desire for a ra-

tional coherence and a definite conclusion; the more we

want to know and try to find out what really happened, the

more frustrated and disoriented we become and the deeper

we are drawn into the schizophrenic experience.

As emotionally powerful and perplexing as the final

confrontation in the bathroom and the flashback to the

cliff are, they are not the film's last moments. After

IaLhryn screams and her alter-ego moves towards her, the

credits appear over the jigsaw puzzle that has been worked

on throughout the film. The missing pieces have all been

found; the puzzle is of Green Cove, Kathryn's country home,

and has a unicorn standing by it. Rather than with the






92


music or abstract sounds of the rest of the film, Images

concludes with. the ending of the children's book Kathryn

has been writing. This time, however, the words are read

not by Kathryn, but by young Susannah. By ending with

this transformation, Altman underscores the importance of

their relationship to the film.

From the beginning, Kathryn and Susannah react to each

other intensely, instinctively, and non-verbally. Prima-

rily because we do not enter into the relationship, it does

not seem intellectually or rationally motivated. For ex-

ample, the first time Kathryn sees Susannah, the girl is

hiding in the cupboard, Kathryn assumes she is just another

ghost and shuts the door on her. When Susannah is finally

let out of the cupboard, she is understandably irritated

and sticks out her tongue at Kathryn, who surprisingly

sticks her tongue out too. Although this may not seem

proper behavior to us, Susannah understands and accepts

Kathryn's action. Next,Kathryn asks how old Susannah is

and learns that she is twelve and a half. Susannah then

asks how old Kathryn is; "Thirteen and a quarter," is

Kathryn's answer. Although we may be surprised by the in-

appropriateness and strangeness of her remark, Susannah

aqain understands instinctively. Altman allows the two

.characters to indulge in almost a private joke and sets

the tone for their ensuing relationship. Throughout the

course of the film, the two become increasingly close, but

the nature of the friendship and their underlying motiva-

tions are never explicitly developed.





93


We do know that they closely resemble each other; the

physical similarities are startling enough for Marcel to

take special notice of them. Kathryn's concern for Susan-

nah's feeling and welfare quickly replace her initial sur-

prise and ease Susannah's initial hostility; when Susannah

asks her to be her best friend, Kathryn is delighted. Be-

cause of their friendship, Susannah stops caring about a

visit from her former best friend, a fifteen year old city

girl. Susannah wants to know if Kathryn looked like her

when she was younger because "when I grow up, "I'm going

to be exactly like you." Later, when Susannah asks what

Kathryn did as a child, Kathryn answers that "I used to go

for walks, tell myself stories, play in the woods." Then

Kathryn asks Susannah what she would do if Kathryn had to

go away. Susannah calmly answers, "I'd tell myself stories,

play in the woods. I'd make up a friend."

We see them drifting closer and closer to each other,

merging their individual identities. Our suspicions and

their verbal exchanges are, however, inadequate preparation

for the final shot of the two of them together. Kathryn

drops Susannah off at Marcel's and is about to drive away.

She looks at Susannah through the glass car window; Susan-

nah looks at her. They do not speak, for they already have

said good-bye, but their faces become superimposed onto

each other. In what is almost a freeze frame, the physi-

cal blending completes the mental merger; the two have en-

tered into a chilling communion.




Full Text

PAGE 1

PERSISTENCE OF VISION: THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN by NEIL FEINEMAN A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY UNI\rERSITY OF FLORIDA 1976

PAGE 2

To Jan, who somehow lived through it

PAGE 3

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS There are many people to thank; you know who you are already. First, my parents who convinced me not to drop out; my grandmother, for caring more than I did; to Charlotte, Tom, my sister Carol, and my other close friends who had to put up with my moods and who seemed to understand; to Dolores and Sid for their concern; to Joy Anderson for being there when I needed her. Also, to Louise Brown and the rest of the English Department for getting the movies; to Diane Fischler for typing this from too many drafts and for forcing me to work; to Jim Flavin, David Dunleavy, and Mark Schwed for running the machines and forcing me not to work; to Russell Merritt for showing me what movies are all about; to my committee members. Dr. David Stryker, Dr. Sidney Homan, and Dr. Alfred Clubok for their time, interest, and signatures. Most of all, I would like to thank Dr. William Childers and Dr. Ben Pickard. You spent an obscene amount of time helping me and just listening to me complain. Your support has always been appreciated deeply; you deserve the credit for whate-/er polish and refinement the work has. I wish I could be more eloquent; I owe you both too much. Ill

PAGE 4

TABLE OF CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGEMENT S ABSTRACT INTRODUCTION Notes CHAPTER 1: ALTMAN ON ALTMAN CHAPTER 2: THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK CHAPTER 3 : MASH CHAPTER 4: BREWSTER McCLOUD Notes CHAPTER 5: McCABE AND MRS. MILLER Notes CHAPTER 6 : IMAGES Notes CHAPTER 7: THE LONG GOOD-BYE Notes CHAPTER 8: THIEVES LIKE US Notes CHAPTER 9: CALIFORNIA SPLIT CHAPTER 10: NASHVILLE Notes CONCLUSION: THE AUTEUR BIBLIOGRAPHY BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH PAGE iii iv 1 5 6 8 18 31 43 44 77 78 102 103 125 126 145 146 172 187 189 209 211 XV

PAGE 5

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy PERSISTENCE OF VISION: THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN by Neil Feineman August, 19 76 Chairman: John B, Pickard Major Department: English Robert Altman is one of the most prolific of all the contemporary American directors; since 1969, he has directed nine feature films. Although only I^IASH has enjoyed major commercial success, Altman has a cult following that includes many of our most respected film critics, actors, and technicians, as well as countless film scholars and students. Because he is so respected by his fellow artists and by visible film people, his influence undoubtedly will be much greater than his box-office clout. But even without the framework of his potential importance to film history, his movies are beautiful, complex, and unusual enough to deserve critical attention. In addition to being its own independent entity, each film draws from and refines the other Altman films. Because they are so varied in genre and period but are so similar in style and theme, Altman seems to be a true American auteur By treating each film as both an individual offering and a part of a collective body of work, this examination of Altman' s movies will capitalize V

PAGE 6

on the structure but avoid the doctrinaire biases of the auteur theory. Altman's first three films, That Cold Day in the Park MASH, and Brewster McCloud are artistically uneven; as individual films, they are less successful than his later movies. These three film.s do establish Altman's basic values of the loneliness of the individual and his inability to succeed and hint at Altman's episodic, non-linear, and emotional way of telling a story. Although each is of some interest in its own right, they are more valuable as illustrations of Altman's as yet unrefined strengths and weaknesses. With his next three films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller Images, and The Long Good-bye Altman develops his visual style and thematic concerns. Each is a reworking of a film genre, but sees the genre through the perspective of the egocentric, isolated individual in a hostile, dangerous world. Each is also a beautifully shot and constructed film, obtaining its continuity and consistency respectively through the narrative and characters, through its editing, and through its music and theme. Thieves Like Us California Split, and Uashville all directly relate to the earlier Altman films. Drawing from the other movies, these three reiterate, deepen, and darken Altman's world view and show Altman *s increasing skill as a film-maker. They also raise a question: after these nine films, which seem to be a com^pleted body of work, where vi

PAGE 7

can Altman go? What can he do that he has not done? The answer lies, of course, with his next nine movies. VI 1

PAGE 8

INTRODUCTION I was not prepared that August 1971 night for what I was to see at the Esquire Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin. After the movie was over, I did not know why I had been so moved; I only knew no other film had touched me so deeply. Hopefully, five years and many film courses since that first exposure to McCabe and Mrs. Miller I am more articulate about my emotional reaction. And as of this writing, there have been eight other Altman movies, with more on the way, and other directors who have moved mie. Still, however, I will always owe most to Robert Altman and, deep down, will always belong to McCabe and Mrs. Miller Unlike many analyses of contemporary auteurs, I have made no attempt to disguise my affection for the films or the personal biases behind the discussions. After all, one of Altman 's most appealing traits is his insistence on the viewer's emotional reaction. Even when his movies are cold and cynical, like The Long Good-bye and Nashville he includes us in his design. As Joan Tewksbury, Nashville 's scriptwriter, says, "All you have to do is add yourself as the twenty-fifth character and know that whatever you think about the film is right, even if you think the film is wrong.

PAGE 9

Once my response is added to the other characters then, my Nashville becomes complete. More importantly, since my response is different from anyone else's, it differentiates my film experience from everyone else's. Since the emotional experience is personal, the analysis must be, as well. After all, who can better explain my reaction than myself. Perhaps because Altman demands this personal and emotional response, rather than an analytical or rational one, and because his films stress the visual and subtle, little has been written about Altman s movies. Even after TSIashville a full fledged media event, much of the belated attention focused on Altman has taken the form of mild gossip or superficial summaries of his career and personality. Had there been an extensive amount of research, however, I still would have concentrated on my reaction to the movies; Altman 's movies are too alive to reduce them to an academic cataloguing of other people's perceptions. Keeping this in mind, there have been several informative articles and interviews that help explain Altman. These include the excellent article about the selling of Nashville in the June 13, 1975 issue of New Times an interview with Altman in the Chicago Reader of July 5, 1975, and the reviews of Brewster Images and The Long Good-bye in various issues of Film Quarterly Whenever a source like these has been helpful or pursues a point differently or more extensively, I have noted the source in

PAGE 10

the chapter notes. For the most part, however, this analysis does not pretend to be a scholarly compendium and review of the Altman literature, but deals more directly with the movies themselves. I have begun my discussion with That Cold Day in the Park. Because I did not have access to Altman' s television work, the James Dean documentary, and Countdown his unsuccessful and mediocre first film, I can only write about the nine films since then. After viewing each of these several times, I found them conveniently grouping themselves into three phases of Altman' s development. The first three. That Cold Day MASH and Brewster McCloud, are uneven movies. Failing to develop themselves fully, they function more significantly as illustrations of Altman' s as yet unrefined strengths and weaknesses. As a result, my discus sions of these three films center on their potential and implications for Altman 's future work. The next three movies represent Altman' s first mature efforts; because each is a variation of a particular genre, I examine it against a classic of its genre. McCabe and Mrs. Miller a complex social study of the settling of the West, a beautiful photographic essay, and an enduring love story, is compared to Stagecoach Images is juxtaposed against a simpler subjective thriller. Repulsion Although similarities exist between the tv70 films. Images uses the metaphor of schizophrenia to develop an abstract investigation of the nature of the film experience that forces the

PAGE 11

viewer to feel Kathryn's madness and accept the film as its own reality. When Altman turns to The Long Good-bye he amalgamates the essences of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep so that he can present the private eye as he really is, a moralistic, egoistical vigilante. With this film, Altman' s style becomes fully developed, refined, and familiar; the overlapping dialogue, the rambling pace, the abrupt and unexplained characterizations and incidents, the unhappy ending, the isolated individual, and the hostile world are by now expected and integrated components of the Altman experience. Because they have so many other Altman films to draw from, the next three films differ. Thieves Like Us Cali fornia' Split and Nashville constantly allude to the earlier films and deal with the same themes of the impermanence of love and the limited power of the individual. Thus, Thieves is more than Altman' s gangster film or answer to Bonnie and Clyde ; it is also Altman 's remake of McCabe and Mrs Miller replacing McCabe s tenderness with a chilling bitterness. In the same way, California Split has more in common with The Long Good-bye than it does with gambling movies like The Hustler or The Sting Finally, a knowledge of McCabe and Thieves makes a viewing of Nashville much easier and richer. In the other films, Altman 's social philosophy provides a context for his characters; in Nashville, the characters are used to make a socio-political statem.ent. McCabe has prepared us well, giving us an

PAGE 12

historical precedent to help judge and understand that statement. Although the last three films are significant and rewarding in themselves, they become even more satisfying and intricate when seen as a continuation of Altman's vision. Thus, these films are treated less as experiments in genre and primarily as parts of Altman's film vision. Before examining the films, however, I would like to present a collection of statements Altman has made at various times in his career on the way he works. '" Joan Tewkesbury, Nashville (New York, 1976), p. 3,

PAGE 13

CHAPTER 1 ALTMAN ON ALTMAN '!r think I'm more of an impressionist. I think I^m dealing with atmosphere and impressions more than realism." Chicago Reader July 4, 1975. Page 10. "I never preplan a shot. Whatever happens almost dictates itself. Whatever the circumstances are. The style has already been set, and it sort of dictates itself." Chicago Reader July 4, 19 75. Page 10. "This film follows the script a lot closer than anyone who worked on it w^ill think, including me." New Times June 13, 197 5. Page 54. "One of the things I'm jealous of is your (the audiences' s) privilege of seeing the movie for the first time. None of us will ever know what that's like." New Times, June 13, 1975. Page 54". "I try to get a little over my head, try to get a in trouble, try to keep myself frightened, do things that are impossible. It helps me keep fairly straight." Midwest Magazine July 27, 1975. 6 Page 13.

PAGE 14

"I don't try to lead you from one place to the other. I try to put you in a place. I'm not going to tell you anything; I'm going to show you something. I'm not even going to show you something; I'm going to let you see something. And if you don't help me, my picture can't be any good. If I have to do all the work for you, m.y picture isn't any good." Chicago Reader July 4, 1975. Page 10. "I'm looking for surprises. If we had just taken what was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary. One head, no matter how good well, it just can't be the same as everyone bringing something to it. So in that sense everything is a surprise, but I'm not surprised by the way it came out. I mean, we knew what we wanted." New Times June 13, 1975. Page 54, "The son of a bitch doesn't pay me anything. But when he wants me, I'll be there. He lets me act." Keenan Wynn on Altman New Times June 13, 1975. Page 55. "The movies don't fail, the audiences fail." Midwest Magazine July 27, 1975, Page 13.

PAGE 15

CHAPTER 2 THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK That Cold Day in the Park Altman's first major feature film, is ultimately uninvolving and pretentious. It does show, however, that Altman has always been dissatisfied with passively watched, unambiguous movies. Also, it offers all of Altman's strengths and weaknesses in their unrefined, easily recognizable states. Perhaps most immediately noticeable is Altman's leisurely pacing. Dealing with the familiar suspense themes of kidnapping, thwarted sexual desires, madess, and murder, That Cold Day's genre suggests a fast pace. But as he will do later in Images, which borrows many of these same themes, Altman does not generate suspense through tense and increasingly quick editing. Instead, audience involvement is heightened through the construction of a dense, claustrophobic atmosphere and through the slow but threatening character development. To achieve this atmosphere, Altman holds the audience captive in and by the oppressively heavy, albeit beautiful ^ Art Deco apartment for the first third of the film. Although Art Deco can be light, airy, and amusing, like the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rodgers musicals that showcased it,

PAGE 16

Frances' apartment is a series of stifling, repetitive, and severe geometrical patterns that allow for no m.ovement or deviation. The apartment, like the movie, traps us; since we can go nowhere else, we are forced into the apartment and the film's events. Unfortunately, however, our involvement is undercut by the characters' lack of appeal and by the events' shallowness. Seeing a boy huddled against the cold rain in the park outside her apartment, Frances invites the boy in. Since the boy does not talk for the first third of the movie, we are forced to listen to Frances' com.pulsive, constant chatter. Her incessant talking and nervousness, not to mention her initial interest in the boy, are indications of her unresolved, repressed, and unhealthy sexual interest. The boy is equally strange, punctuating his weird and silent passivity with short and unexpected bursts of bizarre dancing and musical explosions. Despite their strangeness, however, they remain curiosities, too mild to be generally frightening or threatening and too remote to be alive. Also, rather than focus and thus create and identification with one of the characters, the camera divides its attention between the two. The characters' lack of vitality and the film's failure to establish a point of view keep us in the audience detached and uninvolved. V The diffusion of focus continues in the next segment. The boy, whose name is never revealed, escapes out of the bedroom window and goes to his squalid hippie pad that he.

PAGE 17

10 shares with his sexually voracious sister and her drugdealing, leering boyfriend. Like Garbo, the boy finally talks; his sister explains that he has always retreated into silence, sometimes for weeks. After this information and after an uninspired evening of smoking pot, the boy returns to Frances'. Perhaps he wants to escape from the filthy and cramped pad, perhaps he has nothing better to do, perhaps he is intrigued by the new game. At any rate, the boy gives Frances some hash-laced cookies; they eat them and spend the afternoon playing thinly disguised and unresolved sex games. Before the games become real, however, the boy sneaks into what has become his bedroom and falls asleep. Had Altman made the boy a more attractive character, our interest and involvement in his fate and the movie would have been heightened. But since he is cruelly tantalizing to Frances and since Frances is becoming increasingly pathetic, we have nowhere to focus our emotions. Because we are not directed, we are not pulled into the movie. In perhaps the film's best sequence, Frances next goes to the gynecologist. What is im.portant here is not the scene's contribution to the plot, but Altman' s execution of it. While Frances nervously waits for the doctor, the soundtrack picks up the disjointed conversation of three other patients. One is quite naive and amuses the other two more experienced women by her confusion over the location of the clitoris and over the size of men's genitals.

PAGE 18

11 The conversation, appropriate for a gynecologist's office, continues the film's recurrent sexual concerns, even though it adds nothing to the plot or the character development. It does, however, add texture to the film. Its humor and absurdity are an unexpected and welcome change from the film's heavy mood; it momentarily disorients us. Catching us off guard, it makes us react emotionally, rather than intellectually. Altman will become increasingly reliant on this non-linear narrative technique; even at this early date, it is startlingly effective. The following scene reveals Altman 's talent for structuring his movies. While Frances is out, the boy's sister, Nina, invites herself into Frances' apartment. Over the boy's protests, Nina draws a bath, freely uses Frances' toiletries, and soon pulls the boy into the tub. They splash and cavort; then Nina tries to seduce her astonished and unwilling brother. Curiously, this scene is the first one that elicits an intense emotional reaction; throughout this scene there is an almost obscene air of destruction and violation. This reaction is caused primarily by the film's structure. Although the characters are not people with whom we identify, the apartment is beautiful. Since the first half hour of the movie takes place in the apartment and since the camera lingers more lovingly on its furnishings and objects than it does on the characters, we become comfortable and familiar with the apartment. When Nina breaks into the apartment, then, it is as if she

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12 is breaking into our apartment; when she mistreats and carelessly handles. the objects in the apartment, she seems to be abusing our property. Unfortunately, Altman is not able to transfer our reaction and concern to the characters; the scene's impact is, however, proof of Altman 's ability to develop an emotional response through his careful and almost subliminal structure. The film's momentum continues with Frances' return to the apartment. She is unable to prevent the older doctor who loves her from coming up with her. She checks the boy's room, sees he is sleeping, and locks his door. While she is doing this, the doctor begins to tell her that he wants her. As he talks, she flashes back to the gynecologist's cold and dehumanizing examination, to his rubber gloves and shiny chrome instruments. The connection between the two doctors is unmistakable and effective. The scene's beautiful editing and sophisticated handling of time as non-linear and flexible contrasts with the rest of the film's straightforward presentation. Because it is so jarring and not integrated into the rest of the film, the scene may be considered gimmicky; more importantly, however, it indicates Altman' s as yet undeveloped talent for creative editing and thematic presentation. After the doctor leaves, Frances enters the boy's bedroom and tells him that she is lonely and repulsed by the doctor and the old people around her. As she gets more sexually explicit in her language, she moves closer to

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13 him and becomes bolder. Lying down next to him but on top of the blanket, she tells him to make love to her. Finally, after he does nothing, she reaches for him. She is shocked to find out that his sleeping body is a blanket and his head only a doll. Although she will later repay the boy with the murder in the bed, for now, she is understandably shaken. She has been cruelly humiliated and mocked, while we have been teased into falsely expecting the sexual confrontation the movie has been building to from its first scene. Altman has, in fact, been manipulating and then frustrating our expectations from the very beginning. Frances' first locking of the door was an unexpected twist that cut short any early sexual activity; the boy's silence was robbed of truly grotesque implications when it was revealed to be a childish sham. Even Frances' failure to catch Nina in the apartment worked against the cross cutting of Frances' anxious glances towards the window, or at least the direction, of the apartment. These remain little twists; the bedroom scene is the first in which Altman successfully catches us totally off guard and disarms us comipletely. Later in his career, Altman will become more comprehensive and ambitious in his baiting and then exploiting our expectations. In That Cold Day however, this reversal of expectations is kept on a smaller scale. To repay the boy for his trick and to make sure that he cannot leave her anymore, Frances waits until he returns

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14 and then locks him in the apartment. Even though he still refuses to sleep with her, Frances will not let him go. Torn between her desire to keep him and her fear of losing him, she decides to get him a whore that v/ill keep him sexually satisfied. As she waits in a barren cafe for the whore, two lesbians visually and physically caress each other. Even though they are not directly related to the plot or characters, they, like the women in the film's other waiting room (the gynecologist's), add atmosphere and dimension to the film. Where the three women are used verbally, the two lesbians are visual, if sordid, relief. Both incidents are free from any intellectual or rational explication, but add to the film's emotional impact. The remainder of the film is more plot oriented. The boy and the whore try to make love, Frances listens to their efforts, bursts in, plunges a butcher's knife into the bodies under the blanket, kills the whore, and then tries to comfort the boy. By now quite mad, she tells the boy, who is crying now, that everything will be all right. As the credits begin to roll, Altman adds his final touch, Frances' voice whispering, "I want to make love to you." These final scenes lack the impact of the bar, bedroom, and bath sequences of the middle part of the movie. They do not have the earlier scenes' emotional power; they also do not have much narrative strength. Thus, while they show Frances procuring and murdering the whore, the final scenes fail to explain who Frances is trying to kill. They

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15 also do not satisfactorily develop the action; there is a potentially good story here but it is ineffectively presented. As Altinan will show in Images he does not have to explain the events to convey the emotional content of the characters' lives. In That Cold Day however, he simply does not generate the emotional involvement. By keeping us on the outside of both vapid, unattractive main characters, Altman gives us no human alternatives or dimensions that would emotionally engage us. In addition, by failing to give us a well-developed story, he does not satisfy us on a rational and narrative level either. When four films and four years later, Altman takes many of the ideas and situations in That Cold Day and makes Images he has a better control over his technique and a better understanding of the relationship between styleand theme. Using the metaphor of schizophrenia for the artistic experience, he broadens his concern from the simpler and narrower suspense thriller. He keeps the emphasis on objects, the soft focus transitions, the shots through glass, the fluid use of time, the creative use of sound. In Images however, he has an artistic reason for using them. In addition, he adds a strong point of view that enables him to withhold any clinical background inform.ation but compensates for the lack of focus and audience identification. Although That Cold Day looks more like Images than the other Altman films, it resembles all of them. Its

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16 leisurely pace, emphasis on the emotional response at the expense of the. rational one, its careful structure, its overlapping dialogue, its beautiful photography all will become Altman trademarks and vehicles in his development of an artistic philosophy. That Cold Day also announces some of Altman 's recurrent themes. There are no positive elements here. The rich are empty, bored, and self-indulgent; the poor and the middle class are prim, naive, inconsequential; the hippies are a dirtier version of the rich; those in between are pimps, whores, and older versions of the hippies. Even the doctors are cold, impersonal, disgusting. There is no permanent love or even a satisfying temporary escape in casual sex. From Nina's unbridled heterosexuality to homosexuality to sex for fun to sex for money, there is an absence of dignity or satisfaction. Sex becomes a compulsive way to pass the time, to make a living, or to trigger a psychotic reaction. There is no alternative for lasting happiness or meaning, no hope for the happy ending. The world in Altman' s films, so aptly described in the film's title, is cruel, hopeless, and cold. That Cold Day not only contains clues of Altman' s strengths, but also alerts us to the limitations or faults inherent in his style. The leisurely pace and creative use of sound can lead to self-indulgence and inspire boredom as easily as they can rapt involvement. The reliance on emotional moments and atmosphere can create unnecessary

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17 confusion and alienation, rather than increased viewer participarion. The attention paid to structure and the delight in upsetting expectations may be coldly manipulative and mechanical, instead of intelligent and fresh. By making the type of movies he does, Altman courts these dangers and negative evaluations; since he demands a more active viewer, he invites disappointment, disapproval, disagreement. As viewers of Altman' s movies, then, our responsibility is not to like Altman, but to be active, honest viewers who demand the same integrity and responsibility from Altman himself.

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CHAPTER 3 MASH Although MASH is Altman's most commercially successful movie, it is also his least interesting and most superficial. It is motivated by a single idea, that the military, religion, and marriage are inhumane institutions that imprison the human spirit. To convey this theme, Altman uses effective but stereotypical characters and disarming visual tricks. For all its cleverness, however, MASH is an empty and shallov7 movie. The film begins as Hawk-eye comes to Korea and is mistaken for a jeep driver by Duke, another arrival. Sensing the potential humor. Hawk-eye throws himself into the role of chauffeur and drives Duke to their camp. Immediately, his character and the film's values are established. Rather than be imprisoned by false roles and status. Hawkeye mocks the roles and the system they legitimize. His theft of the jeep and his impersonation of its driver reveal his quick and playful wit, his innate rebelliousness, and his lack of seriousness. Trapper, the other ringleader, displays an even greater aggressiveness than Hawk-eye, as shown in his attacks on Frank Burns and in his maneuvering to get a free

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19 trip to Japan. Sharing the same irreverence and tastes, Trapper and Hawk-eye are the ideal team. Each knows what the other is thinking; they spontaneously act in unison. Because they are so flexible and so quick, they are able to seize control over any situation and defeat the more rigid military establishment. They totally ignore, for example, the military conventions and are thus untouched by the military restrictions. When they go to Japan, they do not acknowledge any of the military hospital's rules; since they are not bound by any prescribed pattern of action, they constantly outwit the hospital staff and thus are sure of getting what they want, be it food, a golf course, or an operating room. The film's other characters are also defined by their ability to get around their roles and function humanely in dehumanizing situations. Colonel Blake, for instance, is a positive, decent character because of his complete indifference to his role as base commander and his incompetence in his enforcement of military regulations. Rather than the military, the Colonel loves fishing and nurses. His assistant Radar, on the other hand, is so efficient that he can anticipate the Colonel's instructions before the Colonel even gives them. Radar is positive because he uses his efficiency to twist the Colonel's instructions to the group's advantage. Radar, as his name implies, is a key figure in keeping the MASH unit going, be it by stealing the Colonel's blood or hooking the loudspeaker

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to Hot Lips' tent. The priest, Dago Red, is also sympathetic, primarily .because he listens more to the men than to God. Kindly and devout. Dago never pushes his role as a man of God but abdicates it whenever challenged. When giving last rites to a soldier who has just died, for example, he obeys a doctor who tells him to stop paying attention to the dead and help assist a patient who is still alive. Also, when he learns of Painless ^s problem of impotence, he realizes his personal inability to help and turns the matter over to Hawk-eye. Even though he ultimately is reduced to blessing a jeep, he is a flexible and unceremonious person. Like these three, the rest of the characters are likeable and positive, primarily because they are pleasant components of this zany group. Painless, for example, has the biggest penis in the Army; Duke is Trapper's and Hawkeye's friend and tent-mate; Dish forgets her vow of fidelity to her husband and her desire for Hawk-eye by going to bed with Painless 's enormous organ; Colonel Blake's girlfriend keeps his mind off military matters; even the General is an overgrown college boy, unable to concentrate on military affairs when football is men cloned. These are happy, funloving people, with whom we identify. There are only two sustained negative portrayals in the film, Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan. Of the two. Burns is the more threatening. His religious fanaticism is cued by his teaching Ho John, the Korean gopher and

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21 camp mascot, to read the Bible, his ostentatious and lengthy public prayers., and his unwavering seriousness and superficial righteousness. Despite his faith, however. Burns bullies a male nurse into falsely accepting responsibility for a soldier's death. Also, Burns, unlike the other MASH doctors, is professionally incompetent, even though he is the only one that is impressed with the title and implied status of his roles of doctor and major. The Burns' saga is continued in his relationship with Hot Lips. Kindred spirits, they decide to write a letter to their superiors that will expose the nonmilitary character of the MASH unit. In effect, they are "squealing" to the authorities because no one is playing by the rules. As they become involved in their conspiracy, they also become involved in each other. They look at each other, suddenly and passionately and noisely kiss each other, and just as suddenly straighten their clothes and rush to the mess hall. For them, sex is like the military; they have respect for the form and look of the act but miss its emotional intensity and feeling. Later, when they finally make love, it is only after agreeing that God brought them together and that his "will (must) be done." Unlike the rest of the camp, then, they must hypocritically rationalize their nonreligious desires through the misapplication and emptiness of their religious doctrines. Even their lovemaking is indicative of their absurd personalities. Devoid of any grace, naturalness, or

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22 dignity, it consists of clumsy grabbing and overly loud and heavy moaning. "Kiss my hot lips," she begs him repeatedly. Unknown to them, their noisy coupling is being piped through the camp's sound system for the entire base's amusement. Although the humor in this sequence stems from Hot Lips' and Burns' humiliation and is thus ugly, they are so unsympathetic that the cruelty becomes humorous. When Burns is taunted into a nervous breakdown by Hawkeye the next day and is carried out of the camp and film in a straight jacket, the loudspeaker plays "Sayonara" and the audience laughs. Because Burns is so absurd and because the rest of the MASH unit is so likeable and happy. Burns' mental condition and mistreatment by Hawk-eye is minimized. Even at the end, he never becomes sympathetic but remains an object of ridicule. Altman's tacit approval of the camp's treatment of Burns is continued with Hot Lips' transformation. When she arrives, she is a ridiculous character, making small talk in the operating room, referring to the military as her home, and thinking that Frank Burns is the fine specimen of military excellence. Her mating with Burns gives her a nickname and continues her degradation. The shower scene adds to it; she is forced to shower nude in front of the camp so that a bet over her natural hair color can be ascertained. Once again the unit's cruelty is disguised and endorsed by the film's structure of heroes and villains. Because her unflagging devotion to the military

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and her resulting disdain for the MASH people have caused an alliance with Burns, she becomes a target for laughs, regardless of the joke's underlying brutality. Hot Lips is, however, different than Burns; although she too has a misguided loyalty to the military, she does not share his religious fanaticism. She is also different because whatever her faults, she is a "damn good nurse." When she breaks down in front of a bewildered Colonel Blake, she does not get carried out but instead begins her acceptance into the group. Soon she and Duke will go to bed, signaling her certification as part of the MASH team. And shortly thereafter, she will become head cheerleader for the football game, the traditionally prestigious symbol of female leadership. Unlike Burns, then, she has the ability to change and adopt a new set of values that give her greater happiness. When Hot Lips changes her values, she changes from a "bad" or ridiculous character to a more likeable and happier one. Burns, however, is less flexible; because he never changes, he is destroyed and sent away. Although Hot Lips changes her code from an oppressive reliance on empty authoritarian roles and institutions and becomes freer and healthier as a person, her transition from bad to good character must be looked at skeptically and carefully. As long as she and Burns do not have the correct standards, they undergo much humiliation, which seems both humorous and justified because of the inhumanity and

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24 boorishness of their beliefs. The hiimor of the film is, then, in great part based upon the intolerance and insensitivity of the MASH unit and, by implication, the laughing audience. Burns and Hot Lips can be laughed at with immunity because they are charicatures and stereotypes, too broadly drawn to the fully human. The stereotypes give us a distance and superiority that dehumanizes them and thus makes them safe targets. In the same way, the good guys are stereotypes; we like them because of external conditions, not because they are good individuals. We see Hawk-eye and Trapper battle hypocrisy and bring life to any situation they enter; their fundamental honesty and refreshing rebelliousness, plus their expertise as surgeons, make them likeable and identifiable, even despite their cruel streaks. The other characters, however, are defined primarily by their integration with the group; if they do not detract from the free-wheeling values of the MASH unit, they are positive characters. When they threaten to upset the maintenance of the group, however, they are ostracized and humiliated and scorned. MASH is more like a summer camp than an adult military establishment; its anti-authority values, emphasis on fun and games, absence of relationships that entail responsibility, and power of the group norms give MASH an adolescent quality. This immaturity is reflected in the puerile nature of many of the jokes and the hidden degradation and superficiality of much of the humor of MASH.

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25 Both the characterizations and the hiiinor ox MASH then, depend upon our unambiguous identification with the obviously right values and with our acceptance of their broad, fast presentation. The situations with Hot Lips and Burns have, had they been treated humanely, an inherent sadness and cruelty to them. If Dish had been a more fully defined character, Painless' suicide and its underlying sexism and anti-homosexuality would be patently offensive. If the importance of winning and the rampant cheating in the football game had been treated with more subtlety, the football game could have become a serious satire rather than a hilarious lark. MASH however, is so sure of its values that it is oblivious to these ambiguities, intolerances, and weaknesses. Rather than aiming for important insights, the movie settles for a broad, easy, slapstick presentation. The Last Supper sequence illustrates the adolescent quality of MASH s humor. Painless decides to cheat on his three fiancees; this is the first cheap joke Painless is so well endowed that he needs and is able to satisfy three women. He then is unable to perform, which he interprets as evidence that he is a latent homosexual. Rather than accept this. Painless decides to commit suicide, which explains the film's title song, "Suicide is Painless." The rest of the group understandably do not share Painless' panic and depression, but decide to humor him. They plan to stage his suicide and then provide him with a woman who will unexpectedly disprove his fears. After an

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26 elaborate satire on "The Last Supper, everyone gives Painless his last regards and he solemnly takes the big black pill that will kill him. It is, of course, a fake pill; as he sleeps. Hawk-eye and Painless' equipment convince Dish to go to bed with him. As she snuggles next to him. Painless wakes up and regains his form,. The next day, he has forgotten his troubles. This scene is undeniably funny; the religious parody, the elaborate and meaningless ceremony and seriousness, and the group's sincere if irreverent concern for Painless' mental condition all contribute to the scene's success. The idea, however, is devoid of any subtlety or insight; it does not reveal anything about the plot or the characters. Regardless of the charm and humor of the scene, all its details reinforce the final effect. Once that is obtained, the idea loses its freshness; on the second or third viewing, the scene becomes tedious. In addition to the lack of subtlety, the scene is fueled by an adolescent assumption, the idea of a large penis and sexual pleasure. Painless is defined in the film solely by the size of his penis; his size and subsequently his prowess make his impotence and his depression more notable, just as it makes Dish's reactions explainable and humorous. Again, although it is funny, especially on a first viewing, the scene rests upon an adolescent preoccupation with the size of Painless' penis. And like all adolescent jokes, the humor wears thin after a while.

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27 Even Altman's stylistic devices, usually used to add diffuseness, ambiguity, and texture, are used in MASH to single-mindedly add to the unambiguous statement on the inhumanity of war, the military, and religion. The overlapping dialogue, for instance, does not add levels of structure and contrasting detail but merely reinforces already apparent relationships. At the film's beginning, for example, the women officers are almost inaudibly talking about soap and sex, foreshadowing their definition by sexuality. When the doctors in the operating room mumble about the nurses' "boobs getting in the way" or about a particular nurse's figure, they only reiterate the loose and prevalent sexual atmosphere of the camp. And when someone asks if a patient is an enlisted man, who get bigger stitches than the officers, the satire on the military is repeated. Like the cheerleaders' chant, "69 is Divine," the comments are funny but, if missed, leave no gaps or ramifications in this film experience. If they are caught, they add another laugh, a slightly different version of the same joke. The loudspeaker is no different. It adds to the noise on the soundtrack, is an editing device, and provides structure and foreshadowing with its announcements of missing drugs, VD epidemics, absurd regulations, and medical warnings. It predicts Ho John's attempt at draft evasion by taking handfuls of amphetamines and also the pot smoking at the football gam.e; both by now dated attem.pts at topicality

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28 and courting of safe and predeteinrtined audience responses. Again a device .is used not to add depth but to further an already clear statement. The loudspeaker is used in another way as well. In addition to playing music that directly comments on the visuals, as with the "Sayonara" to Burns' exit, it announces the showing of movies on the base. The films are usually war movies like The Halls of Montezuma and are announced by the reading of the films' press releases. At mash's end, the loudspeaker tells us the film is over by reading MASH s own press blurb and introducing the cast. There are other movie allusions as well. Hawk-eye's first appearance in the film is accompanied by the traditional and unmistakably dramatic movie music of the hero; Burns' and Hot Lips' first kiss is a parody of the old movie kisses; Dish's and Painless' lovemaking to a Handel-like choir and a shot of the sun rising over the tent are satires of Hollywood's traditional inability to treat sex naturally; Hawkeye's and Trapper's roles when they deal with the military police in Japan are stolen from countless American "B" movies. Unlike the later Altman films, however, these allusions do not seem artistically purposeful. Instead, they resemble Mel Brooks' self-conscious attempts at drawing attention to the medium for a laugh. Rather than expand the film's focus, the allusions are cute but superficial and thrown away.

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29 The blood in the operating room is still another successful gimmick. Veins pop and guts flow amidst wisecracks and sexual games. The juxtaposition of humor and gruesome blood is effective, making real the human waste of war, exploiting the potential for black comedy, and breaking new ground for the film. Its repetition in the film wears thin, however; since it never really develops beyond the obvious contrast between gore and laughs, it becomes a predictable and easy device. MASH then, is an explicit and savage attack on the abuses and hypocrises of the military and religion, empty forms that shackle people to false values and legitimize inept leaders. Impulses and spontaneity, MASH says, are more important and more beneficial; if followed, they will lead to at least temporary happiness. Thus, Hot Lips learns by the end of the film to love, laugh, jump, and scream; even though her relationship with Duke is only temporary, she does have the moment. Despite the humor and superficial good will generated by the movie, much about MASH is ugly and questionable. The portrayal of Frank Burns is callously one-sided, as is Hot Lips' transformation. They exhibit an almost frightening reliance on the group norms and on conformity, even though the MASH group has understandable and identifiable values. There is also a smugness to the anti-military, anti-religious, and pro-drug references that seem to capitalize on already prevalent audiences' prejudices. When

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30 MASH was released, the climate of the time disguised and perhaps justified MASH s style. Now, seven years later, however, the sexism, condescension, adolescence, and cruelty of much of I^L^kSH detracts from the movie and badly dates it. As we are to learn from Images we must take a film on its own teorms. And MASH is so single-minded, unambiguous, and broad that we must admit that yes, it is a broad, single-minded, unambiguous and funny comedy. On its own modest terms, it succeeds. But because it set its sights so low, because it traded art for a quick laugh, it has dated itself and lost much of its effectiveness. Instead' of the timeless work of art it might have been, MASH now is only a reminder to those who share MASH s values that we too are capable of intolerance, sexism, and dehumanizing behavior.

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CHAPTER 4 BREWSTER McCLOUD Although Brewster McCloud is as broad, excessive, and reliant on stereotypes as MASH, it is also a more whimsical, innocent, and personal movie. Rather than aim for MASH' s realism, Brewster is a fantasy, developing its own world that works on its own values. The first scene establishes Brewster's tone. After a brief speech by the lecturer, who tells us that man has always wanted to fly or at least wanted "the freedom that true flight seemed to offer," we see Miss Daphne rehearsing "The Star Spangled Banner" in the empty Astrodome. As the opening credits unfold, we hear her scream that the band is off key. "And I want that scoreboard lighted...." As the band begins again, the credits also reappear; this time, the scoreboard has rockets bursting everywhere. As the credits continue, we read "title song Frances Scott Key." Rather than. sophistication and subtlety, then, the humor is obvious and pointed. The next scene continues this broad style of comedy. Brewster drives Abraham Wright, the invalid, almost senile brother of Wilbur's and Orville's, on his weekly collection of the rents from his chain of rest homes. Obscenely ugly, 31

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J4i Wright obviously enjoys himself; he hideously giggles, insults everyone,, and demands rent from patients who have died during the week. A contemporary Scrooge, his inhumanity and grotesque personality make him an absurdly unbelievable and comic villain. So when he and his wheelchair are pushed onto the freeway, when his body lands on the pavement, desecreated by bird droppings (an integral part of the killer's modus operandi), we laugh. Too broadly drawn to assume human dimensions, Wright becomes a caricature, a cardboard villain created only for our am.usement. Underneath the scene's absurdity, however, lie subtle details that increase the discerning viewer's enjoyment. Reflecting the film's concern with birds, the rest homes have bird names like the Feathered Nest Rest Home and the Blue Bird of Happiness. In addition, Wright's license plate reads OWL, another detail reinforcing the aviary theme of the movie. In the shots of Brewster and Wright in the car, Altman adds an arresting visual pattern by shooting the action through the colored automatic windows. As we hear the two characters, we watch the playful motion of the window, which goes up and down, reflecting, obscuring, or revealing Brewster, Wright, and Houston. Finally, the dialogue, often lost in the visual confusion and quick pacing, is surprisingly funny. As an old woman gives Wright the week's rent, for example, he asks her if she has given him everything. As she tells him he has "every last penny," he reaches into her blouse and grabs two bills,

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33 As he drives away, he excitedly cries, "Two big Georges." Although a funny line, it is relatively hidden; the line may not add any ramifications or refinements to the overall situation, but it rewards the more attentive viewer unsatisfied by the farcical nature of the scene. In the later films, the details will do more than just support and reinforce the main idea. In Brewster however, the hidden details add to the film's single-minded, broadly comic mood. Even the movie allusions, usually Altman's most subtle device, add to Brewster's outrageous absurdity. Margaret Hamilton plays both the witch in The Wizard of Oz and Miss Daphne in Brewster She dies in Brewster when a black "nigger" bird opens her giant bird cage (shaped like the Astrodome) and it falls on her. The wicked witch, of course, was killed when Dorothy's house fell on top of her. As the camera pans across Miss Daphne's body, we hear an AM radio news report of her death. While the radio announcer describes her red, white, and blue acrylic knit dress and red rhinestone shoes, we see that she is wearing the ruby red slippers of The Wizard Thus, all of the scene's visual and verbal components combine to make its single, absurd, unrefined joke. Unlike the later Altman movies, the sound and background visuals do not extend the scene's boundaries, but merely reinforce the primary idea. When the radio announcer tells us about the red shoes, for example, we also see them. The lecturer describes a Crested Peacock; we

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34 then see Frank Shaft, the strong, silent, professional detective, wearing shoes that match his luggage. After that, we see him open a suitcase full of turtleneck sweaters of different colors. Since Altman had already made his point, this second illustration is repetitive and unnecesarily obvious. As befitting the humor, the characters remain broadly drawn parodies. Had Brewster been a realistic film, the use of caricatures could have detracted from its effectiveness. Since Brewster is a fantasy, however, the characters need not be realistic, only recognizable. Frank Shaft, for example, is defined by his serious and vain self-consciousness and his intimidating, if meaningless, professionalism. He is a villain and his suicide is laughable not because he is the most serious threat to Louise and Brewster, but primarily because of his tiresome pomposity. Johnson, on the other hand, has the same job as Shaft, although he does not have the title or the reputation to uphold. Unlike Shaft, Johnson bumbles his way through the job; he whispers into the microphone, speaks into its wrong end, and enjoys Captain America comic books. Because of his incompetence, his sense of humor, and humanity, we like him, even if he is a cop. Louise works the same way; she murders and steals, but she also laughs and protects Brewster. A cross between a bird and a person, she bathes like a bird, has scars on her back from her raw shorn wings, resorts to bird sounds

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35 when under emotional stress, and understands the true importance of flying. She tells Brewster that "people. ... accept what's been told to them. They don't think that they can be free. They don't even believe they can be free. ... something happens to them as they grow, and then they turn more and more towards earth. And when they experience sex, they simply settle for it." Because she understands the value and elusiveness of freedom, Louise acts like Brewster's mother, making sure he obeys training rules, warning him that sex will sap his energy and destroy him, rocking him to sleep by singing lullabies, and protecting him from strangers wishing him harm. Like most mothers, Louise can seem unduly repressive and overprotective. Louise, then, offers Brewster the knowledge and ability to fly. She has the film's secret; she alone has refused to compromise and knows where freedom can be found. Loyal to Brewster, she represents his chance to be free; when she kills Wright, Miss Daphne, Breen, Billy Joe, Shaft, and Weeks, she is protecting Brewster. She does not kill anyone who in the context of the film does not deserve his fate; thus, she still keeps our empathy and admiration. In a similar vein, Brewster becomes a positive characte-L because he is, by definition, the hero of the film. The archetypal individual, Brewster does, not have personality or individuality; he is more like a blank face that each of us can identify with and substitute ourselves.

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36 Because he has Louise to look out for him and because he attempts to fly and thus be free, Brewster is the hero, the character we would like to be. As a fantasy, then, Brewster establishes its own world with its own code of values. Since the characters do not have to function in our everyday real world, they have no responsibility to behave like real poeple. All they have to do is present their characteristics and roles in a recognizable manner; once we understand their function, we know how to react to them. Thus, Shaft is the typical professional; Wright, the all too familiar money-mad absentee landlord; Louise, maternally loyal and perceptive. We can identify their roles and, within the context of the story, believe them. Interestingly, the only unbelievable character in the film is the most original, the least developed, and the most typical of the later Altman films. Hope, the health food cashier, knows nothing about health foods. In addition to supplying Brewster with health foods, she crawls under a blanket and thrashes herself into sexual ecstasy. Unlike the other characters, she is not grounded to a recognizable type. We cannot believe her here because our imaginations arS already engaged in making the larger fantasy work; although a minor and specific character, her strange actions overload our imaginations by drawing attention to the artifice of the entire fantasy. Because she violates the internal consistency of the fantasy, then, Hope becomes an ineffective and distracting character.

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37 Brewster s plot also depends on the suspension of our disbelief. As a fantasy, it depends on our compliance. We cannot demand realism and cannot ask usually normal questions like how Louise got out of the camera store, how Haines and Mrs. Breen got to Lost World's River Adventure, how Shaft knew where Brewster and Susan would drive to, or what Louise did with Johnson. If we ask those questions, the movie obviously would not work. Instead, we accept the film's events at face value. Like the humor, the story either works for the individual or it does not. Although this demand forces the viewer to accept a very broad style and an implausible plot, many original and satisfying details remain in the movie. The lecturer, who hilariously turns into a bird, may not be subtle, but he does break the plot's linear motion. Although his comparisons of the characters with birds only reinforce our perceptions, like Shaft's vanity or Louise's maternal protectiveness, and thus become repetitive and unnecessary, the lecturer is original and very funny. Another effective and more peripheral scene is introduced by the lecturer. While the lecturer talks about the bathing habits of certain species, Altman cuts to a shot of Louise frolicking in the Astrodome's fountain. Suddenly, she becomes aware of the camera, smiles, and covers her breasts. Although it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, her action convincingly conveys her exhuberance joy, and dignity. Three movie allusions are also handled with subtlety. When Shaft

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38 checks into the hotel, he notices the incessant sirens. Johnson explains that a group of doctors from Boston who do heart transplants "just sit around and wait until a stiff dies." Could Johnson be talking about our Boston doctors from MASH the pros from Dover? Altman teases us with his next allusion, a poster of the film The Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher Although shown three times, the full title is visible only the first time; by obscuring the last three words of the title, Altman playfully frustrates the viewer who did not read the poster that first time. The MASH poster in Suzanne's apartment, also only fleetingly seen, makes another pleasant contrast with most of the film' s pointed approach. The scene in the amusement park does not really further the story, but provides a comical visual aside. The Lost World River Adventure has a native god with rolling eyes; the tour guide explains that it is called Shirley's temple. Should they paint Shirley's temple black, she wonders. Perhaps more than any other detail, Shirley's temple foreshadows Altman 's eye for the cinematically absurd and his willingness to make a place for it in 3 his films. More interestingly than these details, isolated from the rest of the film, is the flying sequence in the middle of the film; it compresses the entire film into a single, short episode. Louise lulls Brewster to sleep; he dreams of rolling clouds, beautiful vistas, and the true freedom of flight. His brief dream ends, however, as a swish pan

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39 brings us from the clouds to a dead white bird lying on the ground. The camera then moves to the funeral, which quickly becomes a circus of multi-colored umbrellas. Brewster, of course, will suffer the same fate; after a brief flight, he too will plummet to the ground and lie there, encased in white. And as soon as he hits the ground, the circus will arrive. More than a mere interlude in the film, the dream sequence acts as a surprisingly subtle microcosm of the film. As such, it hints at Altman's increasing concern and skill with his films' structure. Even with these inventive, subtle details, Brewster remains an obvious and simple movie, a fantasy. Because it is a personal little fable, the individual viewer must decide for himself whether it successfully captures and holds his imagination. More universally demonstrable, however, are the values that structure the fantasy. Since Brewster operates in an imaginary world created by Altman, his values can be seen in pure, discernible states. "The desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind of Man," the lecturer begins, at once establishing that Brewster's quest is primal and universal. But, Louise cautions Brewster, the ability to fly and to be free becomes possible only after intensive training, discipline, and sacrifices. As an archetypal individual, Brewster is warned about sex and passion, which hinder discipline and obscure the vision of freedom. Sex causes people, Louise tells him, to rationalize their lives and to ultimately believe what society tells them.

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40 Brewster's temptation, of course, is Suzanne. (Hope seems quite happy without Brewster's active sexual participation and is, therefore, no real temptation.) Suzanne proves irresistible; to Brewster's surprise, sex with her feels good and does not appear to sap his strength or resolve. Hurt because Louise has lied to him, Brewster tells Suzanne about his ability to fly. And although Louise's advice has seemed typically unreasonable and maternally overprotective, she does know best. Before Brewster has even finished telling Suzanne about his plans to fly away, she is happily merchandising him into a mansion in Houston's most fashionable neighborhood. As soon as he tells her of his responsibility for the murders, Suzanne drops her pose of "feminine" stupidity and becomes a coy schemer. She quickly gets Brewster out of her house, reports him, wins back her old boyfriend, and transforms a case of premature ejaculation into a marriage proposal. In almost any other film, her reluctance to lie next to a confessed mass murderer would be understandable. In this movie, however, Brewster is the harmless hero; when Suzanne turns him in, she betrays him and the film's positive values. As such, she proves Louise's advice. Brewster's indulgence in sex does destroy him; a passionate woman does betray him. The climactic scene is at once heartbreaking and ex— hilirating. Louise, who has grasped the situation, has already left (but not before doing one final favor, murdering Weeks). Brewster knows he must fly. He puts on

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41 his wings and, in full view of the Houston Police Department, triumphantly soars to the top of the Astrodome. As he rises, we remember the lecturer's initial warning, "It may someday be necessary to build enormous environmental enclosures to protect both Man and Birds. But if so, it is questionable whether Man will allow birds in. .or out, as the case may be." Although we hope for Brewster's escape, we know he cannot. As the lecturer screams that man will never equal the natural flight of birds, Brewster plummets to the ground. As soon as he hits the astroturf Altman cuts to a tiny section of the Astrodome, which is filled with politely applauding spectators. The scoreboard lights up and the Greatest Show on Earth, a circus of sorts, pours into the arena. We realize that the circus is Brewster s costumed cast taking a curtain call; even the dead characters are resurrected and take their bows. Only Brewster, the individual who has tried to be free, remains dead. His insistence on remaining dead reinforces his failure to be free. Although Altman has prepared us for Brewster's death, the movie might have supported a happy ending. Had the dome opened and Brewster flown out, he could have been a comtemporary Peter Pan. Even at the risk of sentimentality, we would have believed it. But Brewster does not break away; he fails. This inability to escape reveals how deeply Altman believes in man's inherent limitations.

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42 Perhaps Brewster does not deserve to escape because he ignored Louise's advice; in any case, he was doomed from the start. Louise told him he must remain pure and dedicated, if he were to succeed; the professor told us at the beginning and end of the film that he was not going to get out of the dome; Brewster's own dream ended with the death of the white bird; most importantly, the freedom of flight was never even verified. Freedom is not only attainable, then, but may also be illusory. The refusal to let the individual exist in a state of freedom connects Brewster which superficially seems so different, with Altman's other, more realistic films. Not only are the values the same; some of Brewster will be used in other Altman movies. Abraham Wrighfs priorities and speech about his money will be repeated by Marty Augustine in The Long Good-bye ; Shaft's slow motion death in water will reappear in McCabe and The Long Good-bye ; his repeated use of "Jesus Christ" will characterize Images Hugh's speech pattern; the climactic death by betrayal will resurface in Thieves Like Us But most importantly, all the films will concern themselves with the individual's inability to be free. Although Brewster is more successful than That Cold Day, which was a collection of techniques in search of a theme, and more original than MASH which was an adolescent collection of stereotypes and slapstick comedy, it still does not have the tightened structure, totally integrated

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43 design, and depth of Altman's later films. With his next film, McCabe and Mrs Miller Altman will gain that control, eliminate the ragged edges, and work with more subtlety. And although his movies will be better, his assurance, talent, and visibility will hamper his ability to make another personal movie like Brewster which is both his and our loss. For a more detailed and socially oriented treatment of Daphne and Wright, see Roberta Rubenstein's excellent review of Brewster in the winter 1971 Film Quarterly 2 More specifically. Shaft xs a parody of Bullit, the blue-eyed San Francisco detective played by Steve McQueen. 3 .... Another nice touch to Brewster is its patriotic use of color. In addition to the allusions to the astronauts landing on the moon is the profusion of red, white, and blue. Almost everyone wears some combination of the colors, no one more spectacularly than Daphne, who dies in a red, white, and blue acrylic knit and Suzanne, who wears a white blouse, blue skirt, and red lipstick to snare Bernard. There are also mammoth red, white, and blue banners in Brewster's lair. Although the motif remains undeveloped, it is noticeable and amusing.

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CHAPTER 5 McCABE AND MRS. MILLER McCabe and Mrs. Miller says John Huston, is the great forgotten movie of our time. It is a serious and comprehensive statement about a younger America, a tender love story, and a stunning photographic essay. Finally, McCabe is Altman's western. Like his other films that deal with a particular genre, McCabe does not just refine the western but carefully uses the genre's conventions to expose its false underlying assumptions. Until recently, the western was probably the film genre closest to people's hearts. One explanation of this appeal may be that the western directly and positively deals with the myths and legends surrounding America's development. These films told of simpler times when values were less ambiguous, roles more certain and secure. John Ford's Stagecoach is probably the best example of the genre. Of the many characters in the film, all are immediately identifiable. The whore with the heart of gold is there, as is the doctor who cares for people no matter how drunk he gets. The driver is, beneath his cowardly and comical exterior, solidly dependable; the serious and responsible demeanor of the sherrif disguises a perceptive 44

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45 and humane flexibility. Also stereot;^''pical are the gentle lady of breeding, the misguided but loyal Southern gentleman, the meek and ineffectual liquor salesman, the prim and repressive society matrons, the hypocritical banker turned thief, and the evil and ruthless killers. And, of course, there is the hero, Ringo, played, not surprisingly, by John Wayne Ringo is a living representation of moral goodness. He has the right dream of a simple, rural existence on his ranch, surrounded by his family and crops. He realizes, however, that his dreams may be postponed or shelved when they conflict with his civic and familial responsibilities, which he must accept. To maintain his self-respect and his moral superiority over his brother's murderers, for example, he must revenge the murder, even though it means facing the three killers by himself. His failure to stand up to them would be sanctioning the rule of the gun and terrorism as a way of life. Given the situation and Ringo' s personality, he has no real choice but to accept the responsibility to act in a traditionally moral fashion. In addition to being moral, Ringo is physically strong and has unpretentious and accurate instincts. His strength is important because it gives him credibility and the ability to fight for his values. His instincts are helpful because they enable him to see through the facades of false authorities and values and recognize true quality. Thus, he knows immediately that Dallas, despite any reputation, is kind, generous, decent, and worthy of his love.

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46 Ringo then, is a man of superior moral and physical strength and of unerring instinct. He is not, however, the only admirable character; others in Stagecoach are "good." Doc, for instance, may be a drunk, but when needed, is able to sober himself up and successfully operate. The cavalry, who have been eluding the stagecoach for most of the film, miraculously appear at the last possible moment and avert a massacre. Even the sherrif is humane enough to realize that, despite Ringo 's legal problems, he is morally justified and thus allows Ringo and Dallas to ride off and live their kind of life. Despite societal roles and personal eccentricities, then, the "good" characters are solidly dependable and successful. The vindication of the morally good characters goes further than their receiving rewards. As in all truly benign worlds, the bad people are punished, often by the same good people. The banker gets caught with the stolen money and will be returned to the town, where the investors will try to punish him. The three murderers will not just die, but they will be killed by Ringo himself. Ringo s avenging of his brother's death and his subsequent reward is, in fact, typical of the western's values. Because of the physical roughness of the terrain and society, the good people must endure much testing. In the end, however, they will be rewarded, just as the evil ones will be destroyed or rehabilitated. For the movies, then, the West is a secure place where values and identities are clear cut and invigorating

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47 As shown in McCabe and Mrs. Miller Altrtian' s West is much different. He simply does not see the pioneer romance or the thrill of the frontier. The people who settle in Presbyterian Church seem no different from the residents of any other American blue collar neighborhood. Growth is not a noble and inspiring process here, but is spurred by commerce and projected profits and is accompanied by its attendant hypocrisies, dehumanization, and racism. The West, Altman is saying, was not won but was merely an early example of suburban sprawl. Like countless other westerns, McCabe opens with the mysterious stranger riding into town. The stranger would like to give the impression of class; he carries his own linen tablecloth and silver whiskey flask and pays much attention to his sophisticated, if inappropriate, hat and coat. Even this pose, however, is enough for Presbyterian Church. The town's one bar-hotel-restaurant, Sheehan's, is overcrowded, unfinished, dirty, poorly lit, and uncomfortable. It is peopled with unshaven, undistinguished white men, including a messy drunk, a self-conscious dandy and his slavish admirer, a faceless group of card players, and Sheehan, a physically repulsive and nose-picking small time entrepreneur. This motley and unromantic group of original settlers represents quite a change from the group in Stagecoach who made a much greater and individualistic impact than McCabe s characters.

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48 Although McCabe looks more like the hero than any of these others, he is still no John Wayne. Although he seems cool and self-assured and although Sheehan says he is the well-known gunfighter who killed Bill Roundtree, Sheehan also says that McCabe' s nickname is Pudgy. McCabe' s defensiveness and refusal to talk about his past and his insistence that he is a "businessman" give some believability to Sheehan 's story. The nickname Pudgy and McCabe' s ridiculous aside to Sheehan, "if a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass so much," indicate that McCabe s reputation and ability as a gunfighter are considerably exaggerated. At any rate, McCabe is a businessman of sorts, even if his business is pimping and gambling. Realizing that the town of men is a major and captive market, McCabe buys three prostitutes and three tents and then begins building a more permanent house for his business venture. Even before the building is finished, however, the whores are stabbing customers and giving McCabe trouble. Unlike Dallas who is getting run out of town, Mrs. Miller is seen arriving at Presbyterian Church. She immediately proves herself a more astute businessperson than McCabe. She tells the skeptical McCabe that he could make a great deal of money if he would only expand his vision. "You've got to spend money to make money," she tells him. Her plans involve "a proper sporting house with clean linen sheets and class girls." McCabe, thinking of the men of the town and of the expense of such a house's construction.

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49 tells her that she does not know the men's tastes. "Once they get a taste of it," she answers, "they'll like it all right." Mrs. Miller convinces McCabe that he does not have the experience to run a decent whorehouse and prevails; they form a partnership that will bring an expensive, sophisticated business establishment to town. Another sign of encroaching civilization arrives with Mrs. Miller. Ida, a mail order bride, has come on the same train. Like many of the men, she is ordinary and relatively nondescript in appearance. Although her hair is frazzled like Mrs. Miller's, she is frail, frightened, and apologetic. Nonetheless, she represents respectability and the potential for a family and a middle class in Presbyterian Church. The whores and the Jeffersons constitute the next influx of growth and the next increment of civilization. The whores are cosmopolitan, lively, proud, and eager to enter into the town life. They are not degenerate or vulgar, but are decent, religious people accustomed to a relatively comfortable standard of living. Rather than sabotage the town's moral character, they complement its developing middle class atmosphere of hard work and clean living. With the whores come the town's first black family, the Jeffersons. Immaculate and polite, they are the town's second most interesting looking couple (after, of course, McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and sound like the most educated. The Jeffersons, being black, add another ethnic group to the town's population and also another level to the class system.

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5 With this arrival, the permanent population of the town is complete; everyone else who comes is temporary and transient. First are Sears and Hollander, representatives of the conglomerate Harrison Shaunessy, who want to buy the businesses in Presbyterian Church. The stereotypical hypocrisy of the banker and the comic ineffectiveness of the liquor salesman in Stagecoach have been changed, then, to one of a bland, rather petty organization man. Despite Harrison Shaunessy' s low offers and tendency to capitalize on other's hard work and to avoid risks, there is one good reason to sell to them: "They'd as soon kill you," says Mrs. Miller, "than look at you." Because he is drunk and insecure, however, McCabe fails to deal with them, thus conjuring up a different group of company representatives. Before they come, however, the cowboy wanders into town. Like Ringo the cowboy is primarily a rural creature who comes to town to stock up on supplies from the general store and to have fun at McCabe 's whorehouse. He relies on Presbyterian Church as a city and a service center; he is yet another indication that the town is on its way to becoming a metropolitan area. Unlike Ringo, the cowboy, as we shall see, is no hero. The final group who ride into tovvni are the three hired killers who are to remove McCabe. Although these three are as dishonorable and ruthless as the three in Stagecoach, there is a major difference. McCabe -s killers are company agents who want to kill McCabe because he is an obstacle

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51 to the company's plans for the area. Even though they are sanctioned by one of the largest companies in America, as hired killers, they are the least moral of all the characters. Ironically, the completion of their mission will make consolidation of the town's resources possible and will facilitate real growth and progress. Its cost, unfortunately, will be intimidation, terrorism, and murder. In an effort to survive, McCabe goes to Bear Paw, still the major city in the area, in a futile search for someone to make a deal with. When he realizes no one is there, he seeks the sherrif. Instead, he finds a lawyer, an ex-Senator, who is the film's most articulate, most civilized character. Rather than help McCabe, the lawyer sees an opportunity to boost his own reputation and political career. Thus, he inspires McCabe with talk of noble principles and heroic dreams and sends him back to Presbyterian Church and certain death. The lawyer, like the company, is the product of civilization, indifferent to another's individual's plea for help unless it can directly further his ov7n ends. Stagecoach's innate sense of community and justice has no place here. The final civilizing gesture occurs at the end of the movie. In the hunt for McCabe, the church is set on fire. Although the winter landscape mutes the sound of gunshots, the fire is seen and draws everyone but McCabe, the surviving killer, Butler, and Mrs. Miller (who is in an opium den) into a joint effort to save the church. As McCabe lies

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52 yards av^ay, freezing to death, the townspeople save the building, a hollow s;iTnbol that has never even been used. And while they celebrate its salvaging, McCabe dies. Altman's comment is clear; civilization is achieved at the expense of individualism and humanity. McCabe and Mrs. Miller then, is a comprehensive indictment of the 2 winning of the West. From the beginning, this film states, there has been social, religious, and racial hypocrisy and abuses; from the beginning, the corporation has terrorized and oppressed the individual. There have never been any heroes or any romance, just people trying to cope as best they can with forces bigger and more dominant than themselves Equally important is the essential bankruptcy of the forms and institutions that appear so important to Tianerican society. According to McCabe the idea of racial equality, the functions of the church and the social importance reserved for marriage, and the notion of the supremacy of the individual have always been lies. The belief in the forms may help keep people satisfied or ambitious, but will not help them transcend the basic conditions of life. The first fact of Altman' s West that is different from the mi^re traditional presentation is his presentation of racism. Sheehan's first conversation is full of racist overtones, "Turn over a rock and you'll find a Chink," Sheehan mutters. All they do is smoke opium, which is not tolerated in the white part of town. In addition to the

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53 existence of a ghetto, there is also another type of segregation. In the mines, the dangerous and difficult work is done by the Chinese. This theme is reinforced later in the film in a callous speech of Butler's. In it, he argues for the introduction of a profitable new mining technique. Its only drawback is the certain death of m.any of the miners; but since they will be Chinks, the hazard seems of small importance. Mrs. Miller is the only character to violate the color line. First she brings in an Oriental whore, who is the source of much curiosity and crude jokes ("If her eyes are slanted....") and business. She seems, however, a token, acceptable only because she is under Mrs. Miller's auspices. More importantly, Mrs. Miller goes to the Chinese section to smoke her opium. She does not go for companionship or out of a belief in social justice, however, but to escape into, oblivion. The black people, the Jeffersons, are also illustrative of the segregated nature of early America. The Jeffersons are astonishingly good looking, well-dressed, and well-mannered. More than any other characters except McCabe and Mrs. Miller, they hint at interesting pasts and potential development. Although they meet with polite acceptance and live in the white part of town, they never enter into its social fabric. No one makes an effort at winning their friendship. When Coyle is killed, they are by themselves and remain so; when the church burns, they

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54 help save it but are not a part of the celebration. Instead, they slink away, alone and unnoticed. Despite their obvious assets, the Jeffersons never really integrate into the town, functioning only in a business role and in emergencies The myth of racial equality is not the only empty concept; another is the institution of organized religion. To deal with this issue, Altman uses one of the film's most interesting characters, the preacher. The preacher seems a little strange from the beginning. His eyes are beady; he shuffles; his presence makes the other characters uncomfortable. Ill at east among other humans, he only once is shown with dignity. In a long shot, the preacher is shown working on the church's steeple. Even in this shot, however, the dignity is derived from the beauty of the natural setting; when juxtaposed against his apparent indifference to people, his solitary efforts at building a structure loses their nobility. The preacher's character is definitely established by his actions in the scene where Coyle is struck on the head. Coyle is clearly in need of medical and spiritual help; as everyone rushes to Coyle' s aid, the preacher pulls his collar up and sneaks away unnoticed. Although he has supposedly dedicated his life to doing God's will and helping people, his only real dedication is to his unfinished, unused building.

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55 The following funeral scene is an amusing yet poignant counterpoint to the preacher's behavior. Armed with the knowledge of the preacher's conduct and Mrs. Miller's earlyremark that "nine times out of ten a good whore with time on her hands will turn to religion," we see the choir, composed of the whores and the Jeffersons. Their tuneless screeching and religious fervor seem at first incongruous and humorous, but their basic decency and fundamental respect for life and death become moving. Although their faith significantly is not shared by the m.ore worldly McCabe, Mrs. Miller, or the dandy and although their vision is both misplaced and deluded, their essential goodness and hiimanity shine. In the film's final moments, however, the beauty of this scene turns on itself. The preacher's mania becomes more dangerous when he forces McCabe out of the church and into near certain death. Ironically, this action leads to the preacher's own death and to the burning of his building. And when the citizens work together to save the structure and then celebrate their success as McCabe dies, they seem shallow and foolish and their victory seems hollow and unimportant. Like organized religion, which reveres material goods rather than human life, the concept of marriage and social respectabi.lity is false. Ida comes to Presbyterian Church to marry a man she has never seen. Unlike Dallas and Ringo who meet and fall into the deepest, most romantic

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55 The following funeral scene is an amusing yet poignant counterpoint to the preacher's behavior. Armed with the knowledge of the preacher's conduct and Mrs. Miller's early remark that "nine times out of ten a good whore with time on her hands will turn to religion," we see the choir, composed of the whores and the Jeffersons. Their tuneless screeching and religious fervor seem at first incongruous and humorous, but their basic decency and fundamental respect for life and death become moving. Although their faith significantly is not shared by the m.ore worldly McCabe, Mrs. Miller ^ or the dandy and although their vision is both misplaced and deluded, their essential goodness and humanity shine. In the film's final moments, however, the beauty of this scene turns on itself. The preacher's mania becomes more dangerous when he forces McCabe out of the church and into near certain death. Ironically, this action leads to the preacher's own death and to the burning of his building. And when the citizens work together to save the structure and then celebrate their success as McCabe dies, they seem shallow and foolish and their victory seems hollow and unimportant. Like organized religion, which reveres material goods rather than human life, the concept of marriage and social respectability is false. Ida comes to Presbyterian Church to marry a man she has never seen. Unlike Dallas and Ringo who meet and fall into the deepest, most romantic

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56 type of love, Ida is ordered like a piece of merchandise. Love has nothing to do with Ida's marriage, which is a legal transaction and an economic arrangement that is somewhat meaninglessly sanctified by society. As Ida is walking with Coyle one night, a man asks if he has seen her at Mrs. Miller's. Coyle forgets that since their marriage is essentially a business transaction, Ida is no different from Mrs. Miller's whores. Also, Mrs. Miller's girls are respected members of the town. The remark, when considered reasonably, is not that offensive. Coyle, however, reacts blindly; now that Ida is his wife, he must defend any slur against her honor. He does so in the traditional manner with his fists. In the fight, Coyle is pushed down, strikes his head on a rock and dies. Coyle s death is the first serious violent incident in the film and as such is its first documentation of the waste and foolishness of social violence. Like many violent occurrences, the fight happens spontaneously and has unforseen tragic consequences. Also like other violence, it is self-indulgent, shortsighted, and meaningless. The remark that triggers the fight is almost inoffensive and certainly not worth dying for, Coyle, however, reacts according to the best western tradition, a manly defense of his property. In his childish efforts to defend her (and ultimately his) •honor, he is killed and thus places Ida's survival, rather than her honor, in jeopardy. Once again, the empty form is pursued at the expense of human life.

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57 In an ironic twist that makes Coyle's death doubly meaningless, Ida ends up at Mrs. Miller's. Because she has no other alternative, she must become a whore. Still, she is nervous about her new calling; she never really liked sex but did it because it was her duty. "Maybe I'm just small," she tells Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller tells Ida to relax and that soon she will learn to enjoy sex and "do just fine." She also explains that Ida's status has not changed. "You did it with Coyle to keep a roof over your head. Here you'll be doing the same thing, only get to keep a little (money) for yourself. It's more honest, to my mind." And she is right; within a few days, Ida is smiling and enjoying herself. Of all the whores, she is the sorriest to see the cowboy leave; she stands in the snow waving and calling after him longer than any of the others. She finds honor and fulfillment, then, not in a loveless marriage, but in Mrs. Miller's whorehouse. The false glorification of violence in American society and in the typical western is more brutally and devastatingly dealt with in the killing of the cowboy. Despite his menacing entrance into the film, he is a good-natured innocent without any violent tendencies. While he is enjoying himself at the whorehouse, the three hired killers come into town. Unlike the easy-going cowboy, the killers enjoy huiiiiliating people. When the cowboy leaves Mrs. Miller's, he meets the youngest gunfighter, who is embarrassed because he missed a bottle he was shooting at. To save face, the

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58 gunfighter goads the cowboy into a gunfight. Claiming that he cannot hit anything and just carries his gun for show, the cowboy backs away. As he turns to leave, he listens to the gunfighter' s offer to inspect his gun; perhaps the gun, not the cowboy's aim, is at fault. As the cowboy stupidly reaches for the gun, the gunfighter draws his and shoots and kills the cowboy. As soon as the shot rings out, Altman shifts to slow motion to show the cowboy fall into the ice, bleed, and die. The shift in the film's pace is brutally and cruelly jarring. As Altman cuts from the dead cowboy to the repulsively smug boy/killer, we feel anger, hatred, waste, and powerlessness. We see the gunfighter as he really is not a romanticized hero, an honorable man of courage, or even a misunderstood social problem, but a vicious murderer who preys on innocent, unaware, ordinary people. And because the gunfighter kills coldly, whether for sport, money, or ego, he is able to terrorize the more decent people into submission. Because he makes all the rules, he holds all the cards. Unlike the traditional western, there is no necessary punishment or avenging of the gunfighter; he may or may not be killed himself, but nothing can happen to make his victim's death meaningful. Rather than being an object of adoration, then, the gunfighter and his violent code are treated with disgust and hatred. The three gunfighter s are not, it must be remembered, after McCabe and in town by accident; they are employees

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59 of a major company on a business assignment. Too big, powerful, and anonymous to worry about conventional morality, Harrison Shaunessy routinely engages hired killers to get rid of difficult businessmen. That a corporation v7ould act this way this early adds a new dimension to violence in America. In fact, the corporation is seen here as the central guiding and omnipotent force in early America. The corporation, according to McCabe has been with America from the very beginning. It waited and watched; as soon as the groundwork and initial efforts of an ambitious individual proved to be successful, the corporation moved in, assuming total control at any cost. Because of its size and power, the corporation was able to operate with impunity and ruthlessness co-opting everyone and everything in its path. The corporation's power explains the faceless, small nature of the film's individuals. The corporation is so big that the individual must manage to make a life for himself around or through it, almost always serving it as deal maker, hired killer, manager, clerk, construction worker, or supplier of goods and services to it and its employees. Rather than translate the idealistic superiority of the little people's niambers into realistic power, the individuals acknowledge the corporation's strength by not questioning its tactics or power. When the Company is not around, the individuals are decent, cooperative, and morally responsible. As soon as the Company is involved,

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6 however, the individuals become frightened and servile participants in its games. This change can be seen in the townspeople's behavior. When they are involved, they are capable of instinctively good and generous behavior. T'Jhen Coyle is hit and hurt, for example, everyone but the preacher rushes to his aid. When Birdie has a birthday, everyone but McCabe shows up to wish her well. Most importantly, when the church catches fire, everyone is capable of working in harmony towards the common goal. And when the corporation moves in and Sheehan sells out, no one blames him or resents him for selling out to the mob. When McCabe, on the other hand, is drunkenly arrogant to the corporation and tempts its wrath, the townspeople do not respect his courage, but feel he is a fool. Later, when McCabe is humiliated by Butler, the townspeople do not try to ease McCabe' s humiliation. The dandy is openly contemptuous of him; the lawyer is condescending; the rest are made uneasy. Rather than involve themselves, they look away and mind their own business. Indeed their reaction is understandable. When the cowboy is killed, the townspeople are forced to witness the murder. As in the scene with McCabe and Butler, no one comes to the cowboy's aid; no one makes a moral stand. If they had, they too probably would have been killed. Although the townspeople want to help, their desire to live is understandably stronger. Although each is resigned to hoping he is not the next victim, he cannot be blamed for not taking on the corporation by himself.

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61 The perception that America is a corporate wasteland peopled by a sheepish mass is not new; for anyone living through the last decade, it seems almost taken for granted. What is new is Altman's insistence that America has always been this way, that the tales of the frontier pioneers who had control over their lives have been lies and distortions used to socialize us into more of the same. Unlike Stage coach the real enemies were never Indians or outlaws; the only Indian in McCabe is a chippy and outlaws are so nonexistent that McCabe and Mrs. Miller keep all their money in portable boxes and heart-shaped tins. Not even storms and fire pose a real threat; through cooperative action, they are conquered. No, the only realy enemy is the Company, which will lie, steal, and kill "as soon as look as you Because the villain is so pervasive and so omnipotent and because there are such a limited number of options open to the individual and because traditionally heroic action leads only to death and waste, there can be no traditional hero in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But because McCabe does not have to be a hero, he can be a human being. Because he can be flawed and even somewhat ordinary, his story and his relationship with Mrs. Miller can be more realistic and more moving. When McCabe arrives in Presbyterian Church, he seems self-assured, sophisticated, and successful. Establishing himself as a businessman, his immediate plans for a gambling

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62 casino and v/horehouse overshadow his obvious shortcomings as an operator and thrust him into the additional role of the tovm's leading citizen. Sheehan confirms this status when he tries to form a partnership that would prohibit any other establishment's opening without their approval and subsequent cut. McCabe turns Sheehan down, telling him that he has come "to get away from" partners, even though he does not mind deals. (In the course of the film, however, he will profit from his partnership and die because of his failure to make the right deal.) "Sheehan," McCabe characteristically concludes, "if a frog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass so much." Although their conversation is interrupted by one of McCabe s whores who is slashing a customer with a knife, much has been said. McCabe states that he does not like partners but is amenable to deals. He is soon, however, to make Mrs. Miller a partner, which is wise because he is generally incapable of running a business. And ultimately he will be killed because he does not make a deal or even understand the deal making process. Rather than act like a businessman, he treats Sears and Hollander rudely. Sheehan is right when he tells McCabe that a businessman has to know how to make deals. He is also right in understanding that there is a safety in niombers. McCabe, however, never really understands the power of the corporation; when he lets his drunkeness and personal problemsinterfere with his business conduct, he ruins himself.

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63 McCabe's frog joke is the first concrete indication that he relies on instinct rather than intelligence. He obviously meant the joke to be a witty, incisive remark that would make him look intelligent and urbane. Instead of making him look smart, however, it reveals his stupidity. McCabe's pretensions are evident during his first meeting with Mrs. Miller. Ill at east because of her self-confidence and as yet unannounced reason for approaching him, McCabe takes her to Sheehan s and clumsily buys everyone there drinks. After this transparent attempt to impress her, he dramatically drinks his usual raw egg in front of her. To let him know that she sees through his actions and that they are unnecessary, she playfully pulls him close and whispers, "If you want to make like such a fancy dude, you ought to wear something besides that cheap Jockery Club perfume. With one sentence, she deflates his airs and poses; never again can we think of McCabe as suave or sophisticated. Mrs. Miller, then, exposes his image of a cool, shrewd, and fast thinking businessman. His inexperience, lack of imagination and foresight, and reluctance to take chances are revealed by his inability to answer even one of Mrs. Miller's many questions and by his hesitation at becoming her partner. In the end, however, Mrs. Miller's confident and intimidating recitation of the obvious advantages to the partnership and her demand for an immediate answer railroad McCabe into acceptance. But even though the

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64 partnership is financially and personally successful, McCabe never loses his initial reservations about the arrangement. These reservations stem from McCabe 's concern for hxs reputation. Extremely insecure, he places an inordinate amount of im.portance on what others think of him. As such, he feels the need for others to regard him as sophisticated, successful, and urbane. Mrs. Miller, however, not only sees through his facade, but also understands his need for one. But because she knows so much about him, she is threatening to him. An even greater concern for McCabe is his partnership with a woman. He cannot escape the feeling that his partnership with a woman involves a compromise of his masculinity, a public admission of insufficiency, and a resulting loss of respect from her and the community. He is also unable to reconcile her business and professional acumen as a whore with their personal relationship as lovers and remains continually frustrated over the two roles. Because McCabe is so acutely concerned with the way others judge him, there is a large gap between the public and private McCabe. He has hidden his inner thoughts and kept them non-verbal for so long, he has forgotten how to ; articulate them. "I've got poetry in me," he tells himself, clearly wishing he could release it to Mrs. Miller. Actually, McCabe' s worries about revealing himself are unnecessary. Although his dreams are not great, they are decent wishes for an honorable reputation, a successful

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65 business, and an ability to provide for his woman. Although not an intellectual or even particularly intelligent, he is sensitive and alive. After all, he was the one to develop or at least recognize the opportunities in the town and was able to get the men to work for him. More importantly, he is never cruel or jaded, but innocent and charming. These private virtues excuse the obnoxious elements of his public personality, notably his incompetence and delusions of sophistication and resulting need to constantly prove himself. Had McCabe been less concerned with trying to seem like a successful businessman and more concerned with being John McCabe, he would have been happier and more successful. He also may have lived longer. Instead, of course, McCabe tries to maintain his public image, even though his attempts lead to increasingly greater frustrations. McCabe releases these frustrations through his drunken binges. Unfortunately, Sears and Hollander arrive during one of these binges. Driven into drinking because of his feelings of inadequacy, McCabe overcompensates by trying to impress the two agents with his women, whiskey, and wit. His patronizing behavior insults the already irritable Hollander, who feels the corporation mistreated him by sending him on such a simple and remots assignment. "That man is an ass," he tells the more patient Sears, "I'm going back." As soon as Hollander leaves, he triggers the film's remaining events. Once started, the events cannot be stopped. Thus, McCabe 's

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66 inability to be himself and his failure to control his public personality drive away the people he cannot afford to alienate. When Sears and Hollander leave and the deal falls through, Mrs, Miller begs him to sneak out of town. Not only does McCabe refuse to consider her suggestions, but he gets offended by it. "Go into business with a woman," he mutters, "and you can't expect her to have reason to respect you." Thinking he will not sneak away because the townspeople will think him cowardly, Mrs. Miller loses her patience. "What are these people to you?" she yells, "Why do you care what they think?" McCabe 's refusal to run away involves more, however, than simple pride. After all, McCabe suffered humiliation in his dealings with Sears and Hollander and then was willing to grovel to Butler in front of his former employees, friends, and customers. He is also willing to go on a desperate search for anyone who can make a deal with him. Something in McCabe, however, will not let him run away completely, leaving his property and efforts and dreams to the jackals. McCabe may not be taken in my the lawyer's high principles and may be using them in an attempt to impress Mrs. Miller and to inflate his own importance, but he does believe that he should "stick his hand in the fire and find out What he's made of." He is no longer thinking about other people's opinions, but is acting out of his beliefs

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67 and for the maintenance of his self-respect. Although he is like Coyle because he is acting out of a misguided, futile, and wasteful code, he has finally reconciled his public and private selves. And perhaps because he believes in what he is doing, he is able to move purposely and resourcefully for the first time even though he is killed, he does elude the killers for a surprisingly long period, manages to kill all three, and almost escapes. Although his death is still a waste, he does achieve a dignity of ^ 3 sorts While McCabe may put on airs of sophistication, Mrs. Miller is genuinely sophisticated. She is also witty and intelligent. When she tells McCabe that his cologne is cheap, she is not being malicious. Instead, her eyes and voice sparkle; she is both teasing him and telling him that she is different and that he does not need those airs with her. Despite her aggressiveness, she is not emasculating; even though she devours four eggs and a plate of stew, she never becomes slovenly or gross like the woman in the famous eating scene from Tom Jones Totally self-confident, she is intriguing, sexy, independent, and fascinating. Because Mrs. Miller has so much self-respect and confidence, she feels no shame in her profession. Unlike McCabe, she is an excellent business]^^'." Also unlike McCabe, she does not need to hide behind the title "businessman." •=I'm a whore," she tells McCabe. Not only is she a whore; she is one of the best. While the other women charge one

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68 and a half dollars, Mrs. Miller charges five dollars for her services. .And everyone, including McCabe, must pay. The first time we see McCabe in bed with Mrs. Miller is the first time their relationship is clarified. McCabe s repeated solitary complaints and frustrations with Mrs. Miller ("Money and pain ") and her impatience and disappointment over his inability to manage his affairs are intense enough to suggest a deeper personal relationship than a simple business partnership. Also, the delicacy with which Birdie tells McCabe that he cannot talk to Mrs. Miller because she has "company" and his uncomfortable, embarrassed response hint at his personal involvement. Thus, when the two are shown in bed, we are not really surprised. What is surprising, however, is that Mrs. Miller stops to remind him that he has not paid. Smiling, McCabe gets out of bed and puts his money in the box. But Mrs. Miller shows that he is no ordinary customer; she curls up under the covers and pulls the blanket up over her nose. All we see is her eyes, excited, radiantly alive, and happy. Before McCabe came in, she had smoked some opium; for the first time, the drug enhances her mood of pleasure and activity rather than dragging her into oblivion. Her response to McCabe and his presence is not mercenary, then, but loving. Mrs. Miller's charging McCabe is consistent and crucial to her character. As she says, she asks nothing from no one. And she knows she cannot be a whore forever; someday she hopes to run a proper boarding house in San Francisco.

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69 Living alone in the present and preparing for the future takes money. Since she is independent, she has to be concerned with her own welfare. The price of independence, after all, is the responsibility of caring for oneself. More importantly, Mrs, Miller, unlike McCabe has enough self-respect and awareness to separate her business and professional lives. In her case, this means separating love from sex. If McCabe and Mrs, Miller are in love, all McCabe can expect is her love. This love cannot include her abandonment of her welfare for his pleasure. To remain independent and to keep her self-respect and equality in their relationship, she cannot give him free use of her body. Until both decide and desire that he should be responsible for her, she must remain responsible to herself. She must, then, charge McCabe or enter into a one-sided, unequal relationship. When McCabe returns from Bear Paw without the deal, Mrs. Miller reveals the depth of her self -awareness She realizes that the lawyer's principles are empty and that McCabe s death is inevitable. She leaves the stove (the only time in the film that she performs a domestic duty) turns her back, and begins to cry. McCabe looks relieved; at last she is conforming to a feminine role. Soothingly, masculinely, McCabe falls into his role, "There, there now, little lady, don't you cry." Mrs. Miller's reaction is explosive and immediate "Don't give me any of that little lady shit!"

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70 She stops crying and pleads with him to leave town. When she sees that McCabe will not be swayed, she composes herself and closes the discussion with an abrupt "eat your meal." She knows that everything has been said; she compassionately drops the subject without any whining, complaining, or self-pity. She never even reminds him that she told him so. Immediately preceding their final scene together, McCabe admits to himself that he hates the thought of other men sleeping with Mrs. Miller; if only, he wishes, she could be tender and free just once. McCabe does not understand Mrs. Miller and does not realize she hears the poetry he has locked inside himself. Instead, he thinks she is "freezing his soul." When he finally comes to her for what they both know is their last night, he tries to verbalize his feelings but breaks down. Rather than have him be further embarrassed, Mrs. Miller tells him that there is no need to say anything else, that she knows and feels the same needs. She pulls him to bed without a glimpse or possibly even a thought of the money box. She is tender, giving, and human.. Regardless of her future or welfare or situation, she and McCabe have an intense moment of true oneness Before McCabe wakes up, Mrs. Miller sneaks off to the opium den. Both know what is to happen that morning; her presence there would be both uncomfortable and painful. Soon thereafter, McCabe will lie alone in the snow freezing

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71 to death; Mrs. Miller's soul will be temporarily frozen in the opium den's oblivion. It is a depressing ending for we are forced to watch the destruction of two people whom we have learned to care very much for. Although there is no way to see McCabe's ending as a happy one, there are elements of optimism, hope, and beauty in the film. If at the end McCabe and Mrs. Miller have to face their fates alone, they are no different than any of us. And before that end, they are able to build a relationship based upon mutual respect and care. Neither is forced to compromise a belief or stance; each recognizes the other as an individual with feelings and integrity. Although they do not have a very long relationship, it is intense and beautiful, punctuated with moments of happiness and total commitment. Because they attain these moments, they do create that "momentary stay against confusion" ; they really live. And that is a major accomplishment. Because of the leisurely pace, overlapping dialogue, and large number of characters, McCabe appears to be a loosely structured, dissonant film. The appearance is, however, deceptive; the movie is tightly controlled, direct, and coherent. There are many characters in McCabe : the original townspeople, the whores, the Company men, the cowboy, the la-.>A-er, the killers, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Not every character is developed, however; the facelessness of many preclude the necessity for any development. The others

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72 are defined primarily in terms of their occupation as politician, gunfighter, company lackey. Only the dandy and his slavish admirer do not seem related to the rest of the film; their feud over the moustache is funny but peripheral and independent from the rest of the film. Every other character, however, exists primarily to further the film's central characters and theme. McCabe's first three whores, for example, exist primarily to illustrate his incompetence and limited vision, especially when contrasted with Mrs. Miller's ladies. The black couple comment on the racist nature of early America; the lawyer is a caricature that closes another avenue of individual control and exposes as a myth the idea of an unbiased and helpful legal system in America. These characters are all visually interesting but are not allowed to exist independently. Instead, they all are used to serve a specific function. This is especially apparent in the cases of the preacher and of Ida. The preacher's initial appearance in the film is arresting and provocative; his refusal to help Coyle and his inching away from the accident is an unmistakable indictment of religious hypocrisy. He is also used as the agent of McCabe's destruction; as such, he becomes a major force in the development of the plot. As ;.soon as he assumes this important function, the function becomes more important than the character. The statement Altman is making with the preacher becomes more straightforward and more direct. Its content does not really change

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73 but the preacher as a character becomes dwarfed by the point. In addition to diminishing the preacher as a character, the change destroys the subtlety and diffuseness the preacher brings to the earlier part of the film. Ida suffers the same treatment. Unusual and haunting, Ida initially shies away from the camera and exudes fear, timidity, tension. When Coyle dies and leaves her without any means of support and without anyplace to go, her logical alternative is Mrs. Miller's. One or two shots, culminating in her waving good-bye to the cowboy, would have explained her adjustment. Rather than do that, however, Altiaan has Mrs. Miller calm her down and explain how whoring is as, if not more, honest as marriage. Through this conversation, Altman explicitly justifies Mrs. Miller and the other whores. Since throughout the film they have acted with decency and pride, their honesty need not be questioned. When Mrs. Miller talks about her position, her speech seems unnecessary. Also, because of this conversation, Ida becomes more than a character; her transformation from a scared girl to a mature, sensual woman becomes more than a happy change. Instead, Ida is turned into a before/after advertisement and proof of Mrs. Miller's argument. Although she becomes a more important figure in the film, she does so not because of her individuality but because she is a connection and key to the larger message. In McCabe Altman does not seem ready to let his minor characters stand alone as individual characters. He is

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74 expecting less of the audience than he later will; he seems here careful to make every connection explicit, to tie every loose end, to make every detail direct and functional. Because he does this and also because of the socio-political nature of his message, McCabe remains Altman s clearest explanation of his social and political philosophy. The Altman world is a hostile one whose forces are distant, omnipotent, and indifferent to the individual. The institutions of government, religion, and family that normally are thought to buffer the harsh and invisible realities of life are empty forms that are used by the real powers, the corporations. The individual's allegiance to these archaic institutions foster a false sense of security and priorities that themselves further, stabilize, and perpetuate the status quo. Although we are destined to be born, live, and die alone in such a bleak environment, we also have the potential to create true, if temporary, beauty, meaning, and happiness. Since our power as individuals is limited by the composition of the world, Altman says, we are freed from any compulsion to act like heroes and thus are freed to be people. So although we are unable to create permanence and although we live in a world of false institutions and hostile parameters and although we are destined to have unhappy endings, we do have continual opportunities to create spontaneous, intense, and beautiful experiences, regardless of how long they last.

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75 McCabe and Mrs. Miller can be thought of as Altman's transitional movie. As in the traditional film, there are few loose ends. The characters are purely functional; the values are explicitly explained; the identifications unambiguous. Although there is the potential for subtleties, Altman loses confidence in them and, by the end of the film directly explains them. The music works in the same way; the movie is a gentle, quiet one that develops its own moods. Leonard Cohen's dirge-like and distractingly beautiful ballads are obtrusively heavy. Rather than complement or help the moods, they push and determine the moods. Altman's following films, at least until Nashville will avoid being so pointed and will require more from the individual viewer. McCabe is also related to many of the other Altman movies in its thematic preoccupation with roles. Like Marlowe, Charley, Bill, and the MASH and Nashville gangs, McCabe is playing a role. This time, the role is a businessman. McCabe, however, never successfully throws himself into the role. Because he mixes his public persona and his private feelings and needs, he is never fully convincing in or understanding of the role. This leaves him unable to anticipate the role's demands. Thus, he does not understand the importance of the deal and acts improperly; he not only fails to make the deal, but also offends the principals. Because he does not know the script, then, he sets in motion the events leading to his own destruction.

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76 While the other Altman characters define themselves so totally in terms of their roles that we never really know them beyond their roles, McCabe does not play his well enough and thus dies. McCabe is like the later films in its visual beauty and its strong emotional impact. This is the first of his films that are like paintings; it is a film that can be watched simply as a procession of beautiful colors and 4 visual images. The film's beauty, however, is not functional since it does not really complement the theme or the story. Instead, McCabe uses its beauty as its own justification for its existence. After all, McCabe is a moving picture and thus can be looked at simply as a series of moving photographs. There is no reason, then, not to have those pictures be as beautiful as possible. McCabe and Mrs. Miller then, is a comprehensive sociopolitical statement about a younger but not very different America, a beautiful and tender love story, and a stunning visual experience. It also is Altman' s last explicit and thus traditional movie; those that are to follow will be much looser and more open-ended. But since all the movies he will make will return to McCabe s core values, McCabe can be thought of as Airman's key movie, his cinematic home,

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77 Notes '' Huston made this statement on the December 9, 1975 Tomorrow Show on ABC. ^ McCabe is not the first, but only one of a number of revisionist westerns, including Johnny Guitar Little Big Man, Bad Company and Doc In my opinion, McCabe is the most sustained and most successful. In "Robert Altman's Anti-Western," (Journal of Popular Film Fall, 1972) Gary Engle concentrates on the lack of~heroism in McCabe 's final acts. I recommend the article, which focuses on the social comment McCabe makes. ^ Altman has made several statements about wanting to make a movie like a painting, but I cannot locate them. I think the remark was in an interview in Genesis in Boston's The Real Paper and in Films and Filming Unfortunately, I cannot find the quote anywhere and thus cannot present it with the significance and authenticity it deserves. He also alludes to the remark and concept in the July 17, 1975 Rolling Stone article, "Bob Altman's Nashville," by Chris Hodenf ield.

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CHAPTER 6 IMAGES Images opened in 1972 to almost unanimously poor reviews and dismal box office grosses in its first few engagements. The results of its first runs were so disappointing, in fact, that the film was withdrawn and never received national distribution. This is unfortunate because Images is one of Altman's most interesting movies. Like the other Altman films, Images reworks a familiar film genre. This time Altman is working with the subjective suspense thriller. In these films, we see the movie directly through one of the character's eyes. In some movies, like the 1947 Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall Dark Passage the subjective viewpoint is introduced as a gimmick; we literally must see through Bogart's eyes and wait until a mirror or a pane of glass reflects the character's physical identity. Because of its obvious and mannered look, this type of subjective approach quickly becomes annoying; when it is dropped after about twenty minutes in Dark Passage the movie becomes easier to watch and more effective. There is another, less obvious way to incorporate a subjective point of view into a movie. A successful example of the more subtle subjective film is Roman Polanski's Repulsion 78

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79 In Repulsion f Polanski deals with the breakdown of a manicurist named Carol. Rather than give the audience an objective, nonthreatening vantage point, Polanski forces the audience to see the world through Carol's distorted eyes. Thus, the rooms of her apartment become increasingly elongated, twisted, blurred, and surreal; her fantasies become increasingly strong and vivid enough to intertwine themselves with reality; her outside and inside worlds coalesce and become terrifying and dangerous. Throughout the film, as the camera slowly becomes Carol's eyes, we in the audience are denied any substantial explanation of the reasons behind Carol's problems. There are some hints: the photograph of her family, the religious references, her relationship with her sister. The clues never assume any definitive significance because the information that would make sense of them is withheld. This lack of information guarantees the audience's inability to understand the reasons behind Carol's breakdown and our resulting inability to objectify her experience. Polanski deliberately denies us the information. By not being able to understand Carol's behavior intellectually, the audience's tendency to treat her clinically as a case study of madness is hindered. Without this more distant vantage point, we are forced to look at Carol on a less analytical, more emotional level. Because the details and objectivity that differentiate us from Carol are minimized, we are thrust into her experience. Rather than watch

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80 Carol's madness, we are encouraged to feel and experience it. Polanski achieves this emotional involvement by carefully structuring the film. The first part of the movie moves slowly; Carol goes about her daily routines. There are, however, many hints of her impending breakdown. She moves about in a daze, twitches her nose, is repelled and fascinated by the noise of her sister's lovemaking and by any male intrusion into her life (Colin' s kiss and Michael, her sister's lover's toothbrush), and her inability to concentrate at work. This part of the movie is shot objectively; although we do not understand why Carol is getting more disoriented and distracted, we still are watching her from a rational, somewhat removed position. Polanski begins to change this with the mirror scene. As Carol turns around, she imagines a man in the corner of her mirror. His momentary appearance in the mirror is as startling, disorienting, and frightening to us as it is to Carol; it is not an hallucination of madness, after all, but an ordinary fantasy that many of us have had. This is the first time the audience has been manipulated into having the same emotional response as Carol's. The transition into her point of view continues until Colin bangs the door of Carol's apartment down. The only sympathetic character in the film, he seems genuinely attracted to and concerned about Carol. When he comes to her apartment, however, we see him through Carol's eye, the hole in the door that

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81 distorts his face. He, like the audience, barges into Carol's world; .when he breaks down the door and enters her apartment, he enters her jurisdiction. And since he is threatening to her, Carol brutally kills him with all the love/hatred she has. From then on, the camera does not leave the apartment or Carol's point of view. After she kills Colin and, later, the landlord, Carol's breakdown intensifies; the cracked walls crack even louder and more severely and become more curved and elongated. They also get softer and more aggressive; hands reach out of them and try to grab Carol. The apartment becomes darker, gloomier, more shadow-filled. There are no objective shots and no relief; the audience is forced to see the world through Carol's eyes and, at least to some extent, is forced to undergo her experience. For all Repulsion's subjectivity, however, it is an unambiguous movie. Because so much time is spent with Carol at the initial stages of her breakdown, the audience gets to know her environment and her situation. The more subjective part of the film can thus be identified and at least minimally analyzed. Because we have seen the cracked walls and the dimensions of the apartment in the objective part of the film, we know that the more startling cracks, the twisted walls are imaginary ramifications of the objective world. Since we are able to make this judgment, we also can unambiguously identify the men in her bed and the hands in the walls as figments of her imagination. This

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82 lack of ambiguity gives us at least some understanding and intellectual distance and thus undercuts our disorientation. In the film's last scene, the subjectivity is dropped altogether. Carol's sister and Michael return from their holiday, find the two bodies and Carol, who is catatonic and under the bed. Michael picks Carol up and carries her past the crowd in the apartment building and the audience into the street. The camera follows them out and then returns to the room, which is disordered but restored to its original dimensions. Slowly the camera pans to the photograph of the family and zooms in to Carol's eye, separating and objectifying the audience and reestablishing the distance between character and audience. The movie and the experience over, Polanski eases us back into our own worlds. Images does not give us this security of an objective framework. Operating without any framing devices. Images maintains its subjectivity throughout the entire film and thus demands a more active and more flexible audience. From beginning to end, Images thrusts us into a schizophrenic experience; not once does it compromise its structural design of subjective point of view and audience disorientation. Schizophrenia, popularly thought of as the phenomenon of a split personality (a notion popularized by countless films and television programs) is more correctly defined as a split from reality. As Images begins, Kathryn, a

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83 children's book author, has already started to break away from objective -reality There have been three men in her life. Rene was the first, a lover who was killed three years ago. Because she put him on a plane that crashed and because she "miscarried" his child, she has never been able to rid herself of that relationship's guilt. The second is Marcel, a promiscuous artist who lives near her country home. She slept with him once the previous year and still is both tantilized and repulsed by their brief sexual encounter. The third man is her current husband, Hugh. An ineffective, insensitive person, Hugh has none of the sexuality of the two others but does offer her the stability and security of a "good" marriage. Kathryn's chief problem we quickly discover is that she cannot keep the people in her life straight. In the middle of a kiss or a sentence, Hugh will become Rene who will soon turn back into Hugh. When Hugh leaves the room to get the quail, for example, Rene appears to talk, tease, and abuse her. When she hits him, Rene bleeds all over the carpet, even though Hugh does not notice the blood when he comes back inside, possibly because his finger is bleeding all over the carpet too. Kathryn is then forced to deal with an imaginary Marcel who makes passes at her even when the real Marcel is in the next room talking to his daughter, Susannah. Then Kathryn is drawn into a strange and special relationship with the twelve-year-old Susannah, who looks mysteriously like Kathryn. Finally, there is

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84 Kathryn's alter-ego, a woman who looks just like Kathryn and who Kathryn often sees standing in the distance watching and, perhaps, waiting. In addition to making the country estate quite crowded, the presence and rapid interchanging of personalities are confusing and upsetting to Kathryn. Even more frightening are the ensuing events. Kathryn stops fighting Rene's and Marcel's advances and indulges in a particularly satisfying lovemaking session. She is, however, unable to tell which, if any, man was her partner. Terrified, she confronts Rene. Realizing he must be dead because she saw him get on the plane, she asks him why he cannot be a "good ghost and stay dead." He then tells her that he is a product of her imagination who can be exorcized by a ritual act of murder. If, he tells her, she herself kills him, he can no longer bother her. With this advice, Rene hands her a loaded shotgun, which she uses. His advice apparently works, for he does not trouble her again even if his bloody body does lie on the floor for the rest of the film. No one else notices the body although they do hear the gunshot and see the still camera of Hugh's that the blast has destroyed. If she can kill Rene, she reasons, she can also kill Li)e imaginary Marcel. During her first attempted murder of Marcel, however, Hugh interrupts her. She then waits until Hugh is called out of town, makes sure the real Marcel is occupied with a woman from town, and calmly hacks the

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85 imaginary Marcel to death. The next day, Susannah comes without her father; Kathryn has some nervous moments over whether she killed the right Marcel. But the real Marcel, she discovers when she takes Susannah home, is very much alive. Relieved, she turns the car around and starts home. On the ride back, she sees her alter-ego begging her for a ride. Ignoring her, Kathryn speeds home, only to be unnerved by the two bloody corpses and empty house. Deciding to join Hugh in London, she gets back into her car and is again stopped by her alter-ego, who begs for help and professes love for Kathryn. Suddenly Kathryn realizes that she can kill the alter-ego as easily and finally as she has Rene and Marcel and runs her off the cliff. With all her ghosts laid to rest, she drives to her London apartment and finds an already steamy bathroom. She gets into the shower and waits for Hugh. When the door opens, however, it is not Hugh, but her alter-ego, who is smugly laughing. Confused, Kathryn 's mind is thrown back to the cliff. At the bottom of the cliff lies a bloody, very dead Hugh. Kathryn is suffering, then, from schizophrenia because she is unable to differentiate between the real world and her imaginary one. The inability to differentiate forces her to act in a private world that is a unique combination of actual and illusory realities. Denied the benefits of a constant, objective reality, she is a disoriented kaliedoscope of moods: bewildered, confident, frustrated, desperate, sensual, frightened, rational, irrational.

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86 To communicate her experience, Altman has designed a film so harrowing and so disorienting that we are immediately thrust into Kathryn's world. Unlike Carol in Repulsion, we do not see Kathryn in her early, slower stages of her breakdown. The first time we see Hugh, he turns into Rene; fifteen m.inutes into the film, Kathryn and her alterego become inexplicably intertwined. Without any previous information, we are expected to handle characters and plot shifts that we are not equippped to deal with. Like Kathryn, we are confused and frustrated; denied even the slender emotional distance Polanski allowed, we have no more idea which character is who or what really happened than Kathryn does The deeper we become involved, the more confusing and ambiguous the film becomes. When Kathryn is driving to Green Cove that first day, for exampJe, she gets out of the car and stands on a hill to catch the first glimpse of her house. As she watches, to her horror, she sees her car drive up to the house and sees herself get out of it, look toward the hill she is standing on, and then go into the house. Then there is a shift to the Kathryn inside the house, who can see the Kathryn on the cliff who is still watching. This happens several more times although Kathryn's relationship with her alter-ego becomes more ambivalent as her alter-ego becomes more aggressive, we can never really know which Kathryn was the one we met first. Any effort to untangle the two Kathryns leads to

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87 an insolvable, frustrating maze that further disorients the audience. This disorientation becomes a mirror of Kathryn's mental state; we feel with her rather than intellectually understand her position. Other insolvable puzzles and intentional ambiguities abound. Regardless of how many times the scene with Hugh, Marcel, Kathryn, and Susannah talking after dinner is watched, the tracing of who is laughing and kissing Kathryn and who is sleeping is impossible. Also untraceable are the characters and events of the love scene. Was it masturbatory and illusory or real? Was it one of her groundless fantasies or was it Hugh or Marcel? Like Kathryn herself, we have no way of knowing; also like her, we want, even need, to know. Because we cannot, our own feelings of frustration, dislocation, and confusion are further intensified. Probably the film's major ambiguity concerns the identity of the body at the bottom of the cliff. Altman has carefully allowed for two possible interpretations. The first, the rational interpretation, is that Kathryn has had a breakdown. Her confusion over her sexual feelings and desires, her frustrations with her artistic career, and her resentment over her contradictory need for the security promised by a traditional marriage all lead to her subconscious taking control. Once in control, the subconscious tricks her into killing Hugh.

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88 Justifications for this interpretation include the shot of Hugh's. train returning and someone, presumably Hugh, getting off the train; Kathryn passing the land rover that Hugh was to ride home on had he returned early; and Kathryn s alter-ego sounding more like Hugh than Kathryn with all the "Jesus Christs" and "Goddamns." Also used as evidence of Hugh's death is Kathryn' s final phone call to Hugh in London; although she talks to him., he has never answered the phone. Throughout the conversation, the phone keeps ringing as it must since Hugh is dead at the bottom of the cliff. Perhaps the final evidence for Hugh's death is the genre Altman is working in. Hugh's death makes sense and gives the film its twist and irony necessary for a strong conclusion. With this ending, Images becomes a clever reworking of Repulsion This interpretation is accepted, however, only by ignoring contradictory evidence. We cannot be sure, for example, that the person getting off the train is Hugh; the camera is too far away and the focus is too soft to make any identification. Also, shortly after the train shot, Kathryn declines Marcel's dinner invitation because she has "something very important to do," thus indicating a foreknowledge of her run-in with Hugh/her alter-ego on the cliff. But since she does not and cannot know about Hugh's return, she must have imagined the train shot and therefore also imagined the meeting on the cliff. Also, when the imaginary Marcel asks how she will manage to be alone with

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89 him, Kathryn answers, "I'll simply think him (Hugh) away, just as I thought you here." Shortly thereafter, Hugh is conveniently called away. Hugh's riddles are further proof that he is not really dead. "What is black and white, black and white, black and white?" he asks. "A nun falling down the stairs," is the grisly ansv/er. And later, the alter-ego/Hugh falls down the cliff and the film shifts from color to black and white. Neither the alter-ego nor Hugh are nuns but both may be figments of Kathryn' s imagination and therefore "none" (nothing) in the physical sense. Hugh's last riddle continues the veral pun. "What's the difference between a rabbit? None, one is both the same." If Hugh is not down at the bottom of the cliff, nothing and 2 no one is. He, then, is no more real than the alter-ego. Still more confusing is Kathryn 's speech before running the body off the cliff. Since "Hugh" and "you" are homonyms, we can never be sure what she is saying; is it "I know it's you (the alter-ego) but I found out I can get rid of you," or "I know it's Hugh but I found out I can get rid of Hugh"? Since the two characters speak their lines interchangeably, the scene may very well be an extension of Kathryn 's imagination. Finally, when Kathryn enters her London apartment, the bathroom is filled with steam. If Hugh had been killed and since the alter-ego is a creature of the mind, the bathroom could not have been used. Since someone has been in the bathroom, and since Kathryn has just arrived at the apartment, it is unlikely that anyone but Hugh, still in London, could have steamed it up.

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90 There are, then, two equally plausible explanations, that the real Hugh was killed and that no one really was killed. If the real Hugh were killed, the movie is a chilling, if familiar, psychological suspense thriller. If he were not really killed, the terror rem.ains the same but focuses on the horror of Kathryn's madness. Images then becomes more like a nightmare, equally upsetting but less tangible. To decide which of the two is the correct interpretation is futile because both are included in the film's design. Unlike Repulsion which grounds itself to objective reality, Images cultivates its subjectivity and ambiguities, If one and not both of the interpretations is true, we will know what really happened and will leave the theatre secure and confident. If, however, we are not sure, we will leave the film confused, disoriented, frustrated. Because Images never endorses or returns to objective reality and because its ambiguity insures our dislocation. Images remains consistent to its metaphor of schizophrenia, a split from reality. The maintaining of ambiguities and insolvable puzzles in Images is consistent v/ith the schizophrenic metaphor in another way. Because emotions are so important to this film and because Kathryn's moods are so changeable, she and the film have no one constant emotion. Similarly, we can never know if Hugh was or was not killed; Altman is forcing us to have an ambivalent emotional response.

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91 Depending on our own mood, our reaction to this variable film changes each time we see the film. One time we may be struck by the horror of Hugh' s death; another time we may be drawn more to Kathryn and the power of her madness; still another time we may just be carried by the beauty of the film's craft and colors and be oblivious to the drama of its content. Like Kathryn, we can pick, choose, and react to whatever we want. All the ambiguities and irrationalities invite and demand our active emotional participation. Images then, is carefully structured to simulate a schizophrenic experience. It demands an intense personal involvement from its audience and rewards this involvement with confusion, ambiguities, insolvable puzzles, and frustration. Especially frustrating is the desire for a rational coherence and a definite conclusion.; the m.ore we want to know and try to find out what really happened, the more frustrated and disoriented we become and the deeper we are drawn into the schizophrenic experience. As emotionally powerful and perplexing as the final confrontation in the bathroom and the flashback to the cliff are, they are not the film's last moments. After IvdLhryn screams and her alter-ego moves towards her, the credits appear over the jigsaw puzzle that has been worked on throughout the film. The missing pieces have all been found; the puzzle is of Green Cove, Kathryn 's country home, and has a unicorn standing by it. Rather than with the

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music or abstract sounds of the rest of the film, Images concludes with, the ending of the children's book Kathryn has been writing. This time, however, the words are read not by Kathryn, but by young Susannah. By ending with this transformation, Altman underscores the importance of their relationship to the film. From the beginning, Kathryn and Susannah react to each other intensely, instinctively, and non-verbally Primarily because we do not enter into the relationship, it does not seem intellectually or rationally motivated. For example, the first time Kathryn sees Susannah, the girl is hiding in the cupboard, Kathryn assumes she is just another ghost and shuts the door on her. When Susannah is finally let out of the cupboard, she is understandably irritated and sticks out her tongue at Kathryn, who surprisingly sticks her tongue out too. Although this may not seem proper behavior to us, Susannah understands and accepts Kathryn 's action. Next, Kathryn asks how old Susannah is and learns that she is twelve and a half. Susannah then asks how old Kathryn is; "Thirteen and a quarter," is Kathryn' s answer. Although we may be surprised by the inappropriateness and strangeness of her remark, Susannah aqain understands instinctively. Altman allows the two .characters to indulge in almost a private joke and sets the tone for their ensuing relationship. Throughout the course of the film, the two become increasingly close, but the nature of the friendship and their underlying motivations are never explicitly developed.

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93 We do know that they closely resemble each other; the physical similarities are startling enough for Marcel to take special notice of them. Kathryn's concern for Susannah' s feeling and welfare quickly replace her initial surprise and ease Susannah's initial hostility; when Susannah asks her to be her best friend, Kathryn is delighted. Because of their friendship, Susannah stops caring about a visit from her foinner best friend, a fifteen year old city girl. Susannah wants to know if Kathryn looked like her when she was younger because "v/hen I grow up, "I'm going to be exactly like you." Later, when Susannah asks what Kathryn did as a child, Kathryn answers that "I used to go for walks, tell myself stories, play in the woods." Then Kathryn asks Susannah what she would do if Kathryn had to go away. Susannah calmly answers, "I'd tell myself stories, play in the woods. I'd make up a friend." We see them drifting closer and closer to each other, merging their individual identities. Our suspicions and their verbal exchanges are, however, inadequate preparation for the final shot of the two of them together. Kathryn drops Susannah off at Marcel's and is about to drive away. She looks at Susannah through the glass car window; Susannah looks at her. They do not speak, for they already have said good-bye, but their faces become superimposed onto each other. In what is almost a freeze frame, the physical blending completes the mental merger; the two have entered into a chilling communion.

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94 As Susannah reads the book's v7ords, we see the unicorn superimposed over the puzzle and learn that the name of the book is In Search of Unicorns The unicorn, a mythical beast, can be fed, as the legend goes, only by a virgin. Kathryn not only is no virgin, but is a repository of unresolved sexual conflicts; she cannot feed or even find the unicorn. She can, however, find Susannah, a virgin who can feed it. At the end of the film, Kathryn has mystically transmitted her identity to Susannah and has thus initiated Susannah into a circular process that will someday see Susannah become a Kathryn in search of her own Susannah. The idea of a circular process is reinforced by the artistic circle of Images The film opens with the camera looking through the window at Kathryn while the opening of the book is being read aloud. At the end, the unicorn replaces the camera and looks through the window at exactly the same angle. The constantly searching camera finally rests on the object of its search, the unicorn. The rest is, however, deceptively temporary; soon Susannah will grow up to be just like Kathryn, will lose her ability to feed the unicorn, and will reenact the story of spiritual possession. Because Kathryn knows about the pain, confusion, and terror that eventually will descend upon Susannah, she is clearly apprehensive and upset over the transmission of identities. Whenever Susannah makes a verbal or an emotional progression into the merging of their identities.

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95 Kathryn reacts with a look of anger, unhappiness, and warning. When Susannah tells her that she is going to grow up to be just like her, that she does not need any other friend besides Kathryn, and that she will behave just like Kathryn used to, Kathryn does not look pleased, but worried and frustrated. However troubled Kathryn is, however, she does nothing to stop Susannah's increasing involvement; it is almost as if Kathryn is a powerless bystander watching an irreversible process. And after the two faces merge in the car window, the symbolic merger of their two identities, Kathryn speeds away, her face contorted and grim. The idea of possession is primal and familiar. Although the idea is not intellectually frightening because it is so improbable, it is emotionally terrifying on a nonrational, non-verbal level. Similarly, we can experience the bizarre side to Kathryn and Susannah's relationship without knowing why intellectually. In review after review, Altman was criticized for not sufficiently, or more properly, intellectually and rationally developing their relationship. This criticism, like the complaint that Images is too subjective, seems invalid because it stems from a failure to understand and accept the film on its own terms; we cannot understand the relationship, but can feel it. And feeling, not understanding, is what Images is all about. A classic symptom of schizophrenia concerns a faulty perception of stimuli that lead to responses that are

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96 inaccurate. In other words, the schizophrenic takes ordinary stimuli, perceives them differently than a nonschizophrenic does, and thus behaves differently than a non-schizophrenic. Because Kathryn perceives the world differently, she can look at a room and conjure up ghosts that seem real or can listen to Hugh and suddenly turn him into Rene, Marcel, or her alter-ego. Misinterpreting her environment, she turns the mundane into a grotesque private world. We in the audience have a difficult role in Images because we are expected to enter Kathryn 's private world and experience with her. Because her world is not based on rationality but instead relies so heavily on her moods, predispositions, and emotions, her world is disorienting to us. As we sit through the film, we logically try to make some sense out of Kathryn s actions and look for some pattern that we can use to understand what is happening. Because we are trying to filter this grotesquerie into our more mundane, non-schizophrenic value systems, we are bound to be frustrated. After all, these values are unable to translate, much less explain, the irrational components of Kathryn s world. More important than the frustration and the futility of our efforts is the ironic reversal Altman plays on us; he gets us to exhibit a schizophrenic reaction similar to Kathryn' s. Although she takes the mundane and makes it grotesque and we take the grotesque and try to make it mundane, both are taking

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97 stimuli, misinterpreting the context, and then acting according to the resulting false perceptions. Although we may be irritated, then, we must admit that Altman has moved us one step closer to Kathryn's schizophrenic experience. Images embodies another symptom of schizophrenia, loose 4 association. Suspense and horror films are noted for their relentless pacing that keeps us on the edges of our seats. Repulsion for example, builds from a slow first third to an increasingly quick rhythjn. To help the faster pace, Polanski relies almost entirely on the straight cut, the fastest editing device. Images, however, goes against this pattern, using non-functional transitions like superimpositions, wind chimes, and hanging mobiles. Although they form a pattern of visual consistency and are beautiful, they are distracting because they slow down the film and draw attention to themselves, not to Kathryn and to the events. Also, the camera wanders over the rural landscapes for no other reason than the countryside's beauty, thus distracting from the functional rhythm normally associated with the genre. This dreamy, non-direct style breaks the continuity and pacing necessary to generate sustained suspense. Altman undoubtedly knows this. He also knows that the faster moving, more linear style that would achieve a superficial suspense would sacrifice the film's subjectivity. By employing a loose style, he is using the camera as Kathryn's eyes; he is making us see the world in the

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98 same loose associational way she does. In this way, he successfully intertwines Image's theme and style. The final symptom of schizophrenia that Altman incorporates into the design of the film is the loss of ego. A non-schizophrenic has no trouble distinguishing between himself and other people and objects; he knows where his body ends and where some other one begins. A schizo5 phrenic, on the other hand, cannot. Thus, Kathryn s ego perception becomes so disoriented that she sees her alterego, an extension of herself, watching her actions and trying to integrate into her ego. Kathryn is also confused enough to be unable to separate her husband from her alterego and her other male fantasies. Because she cannot tell who is real and who is not, we cannot either. As we wonder which one is real, we experience a similar, if less immediate, loss of ego boundaries and are forced to deal with one more aspect of schizophrenia. Even more than that, however, the loss of ego boundaries is the bridge between schizophrenia and Altman' s idea of the artistic experience. Kathryn' s ability to detatch and watch herself is not much different from the detatched way we watch movies; there is always a separation or distance between film and audience. This distance inhibits a complete integration with the film and, as a result, inhibits the ability to feel and experience the film. Since there is this distance and lack of total involvement, there is a shift from feeling to understanding, which is an intellectual concept

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99 requiring some differentiation between the screen and the audience. Placed in this context, Altman's desire to make a movie like a painting that is looked at and emotionally responded to becomes especially important; his use of schizophrenia as a metaphor for the artistic experience seems inspired. If, like the schizophrenic, we can be disoriented and separated from our objective reality, then we can be shaken loose from our rational vantage points, can minimize the inherent distance between us and the movie, and can feel the film. The demand that we feel, rather than understand. Images motivates the film's design. Had Altman wanted us to know what really happened or why Kathryn was sexually frustrated and schizophrenic, he would have told us. Instead, he has built a series of insolvable puzzles and ambiguities that prohibit a rational, definitive interpretation. And since we cannot react securely and rationally, we are forced into an emotional response. Altman purposely confuses the conventional relationship between film and audience even further by intertwining the reality of his actors' lives with their characters' lives. As the movie begins, develops, and ends, Kathryn is writing a book called In Search of Unicorns The book was actually published; its author, a woman named Susannah York, who is also the actress who plays Kathryn. In addition, Kathryn 's young friend, called Susannah in the movie.

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100 is played by Kathryn Harrison. Rene Axiberjonis plays Hugh; Hugh Millais plays Marcel; Marcel Bozzuffi plays Rene. Roles, reality, and illusion are thus blurred and eventually indistinguishable; a rational response to the movie is made even more unlikely. The first and the final clue to the film is in its title. Images Altman gives us a series of images that ultimately must be taken as their own reality. He uses glass, mirrors, lenses, windows, and transparent wind chimes that all make images or reflections of the real world. In Images however, they have a life of their own; they are transitory devices because they often are used to shift the locale or to indicate movement, but they are not used to establish a pattern or hint that the film or Kathryn is moving from "reality" to "fantasy." Instead, they become beautiful objects that reflect and create images for their own sake and their own justification. When we try to make them replicas of our own lives, the lack of a clear pattern and satisfying purpose frustrate and disappoint us. But when we accept the images on their own terms, forgetting to bend them to our own preconceived values and viewing habits, we are ready to enter the artistic experience. Yes, the men in the film may be real characters in a traditional sense; yes, they may only be images generated from Kathryn s imagination; yes, they can be both real and imaginary. Freed from the false rational need to mean something and be explainable, Altman is

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101 presenting a series of images and letting us respond to them. As he says, "I'm not going to tell you anything.... I'm not even going to show you anything; I'm going to let you see something. And if you don't help me, my picture 6 can't be any good." Images then, is a uniquely explicit plea for an alert and aware audience. Surrender, it begs us, to the artistic vision; abandon the insistence on the rational and mundane world and revel in the beautiful and horrifying new world of Images Just as McCabe is Altman's clearest explanation of his socio-political philosophy. Images is his most overt statement about the film experience. Movies should not have to tie up loose ends or be simple reflections of the outside world; unless they want to, movies should not have to cater to passive audiences. And since Images demands a more active and flexible audience, those not willing to accept their new roles will find themselves shut out and bored by it. But those willing to help, willing to suspend demands for rationality and reality in place of the more individual standards set by the movie itself, may be rewarded by a more expansive, more emotional, and more artistic film experience.

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102 Notes Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Springfield, Mass., 1968), p. 2030. 2 For a similar discussion of Hugh's riddles, read Mark Falonga's review of Images in Film Quarterly summer, 1973, pp. 46-48. 3 Arieti Silvano, "Schizophrenia," Encyclopedia Bri tannica 1969 ed. v. 19, p. 1161. Webster's, op. cit p. 2030. ^ Ibid. Terry Curtis Fox, "Nashville Chats: An Interview with Robert Altman," Chicago Reader July 4, 1975, v. 4, no. 39, p. 10.

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CHAPTER 7 THE LONG GOOD-BYE Just as McCabe and Mrs. Miller is Altman's western. The Long Good-bye is his contribution to the detective film. And just as Altman did with the western, he examines the conventions of the detective genre and carries them to their logical ends. From the beginning, movie private eyes have dealt with the seamier aspects of life, regardless of the social class involved. By necessity, and with the notable exception of The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles, the private detective has been isolated from the rest of society, including the police and the legal authorities. The world may be amoral or immoral, but the private eye consistently remains true to his personal, often old-fashioned standard of morality. Because he is a moral force in a non-moral world and because of his peculiar occupational demands, he usually must sacrifice a traditional lifestyle and must exhibit a healthy disrespect for conventional social behavior, especially behavior revolving around the nine to five, forty hour a week job. This helps explain the typical private eye look the rumpled, unshaven, chain smoking, rough talking, smart alecky, solitary outsider. 103

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104 Although rarely wealthy, he is attractive to women, especially those of. high breeding, who do not often meet a man of such honesty and masculine sexuality. And like the best whores, the best private eyes hide a sentimental streak behind their cynical, hard exteriors. The prototype private detective is unquestionably Humphrey Bogart; the definitive movie, probably The Mal tese Falcon ; the key scene, the one where Sam Spade (Bogart) refuses to listen to Bridget's plea for love and mercy and turns her in to the police. Yes, he admits, she is the only woman for him; yes, he does love her but she has killed his partner and "that has to count for something." Also, if he lets her go, she can use his action against him whenever she needs to. His combination of cynical awareness and moral considerations leaves him no real choice; he must make a personal sacrifice and report her. Although he is composed and determined when he makes this decision, he is honest enough to admit to the loneliness and pain he will feel because of it. If The Maltese Falcon is the most popular detective movie, the most beloved cult private eye film may be The Big Sleep Bogart moves easily from Hammett s Sam Spade to Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. Although he plays basically the. same role in both, the two films are totally different. Where The Maltese Falcon is tight and fast. The Big Sleep is incoherent. There were many scriptwriters, including William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett (who wrote the

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105 screenplay for The Long Good-bye ) who worked on The Big Sleep The result is a plot that is unusually indecipherable. Characters drop in and out of the movie as fast as the bullets fly; coinplications develop without regard for length, theme, or story; one liners exist independently from the rest of the film. The brilliance of some of these scenes and the undeniable chemistry of Bogart and Bacall make the film memorable; over the years, the film's confusion has even attained a reputation for uniqueness and charm. Indulge, its devotees say, in its obtuseness; get lost in its meanderings. Thirty years later, Altman would take this looseness and intentionally incorporate it into his thematic design. In addition to the Bogart Marlowe, there is another Marlowe from the forties. Two years before The' Big Sleep Dick Powell played Marlowe in a film called both Farewell My liOvely and Murder My Sweet Although not widely remeinbered, it is arguably a better film than The Big Sleep Complicated but reasonably coherent, it is important here because it offers Powell's personal brand of befuddlement instead of Bogart's gutsy persona. Under Altman *s guidance, the two Marlowes would eventually coalesce into a peculiar alliance. For as he did with the western, Altman has unsentimentalized the detective genre and has taken its traditions to their logical conclusions. We first meet Altman' s Marlowe in his typical private eye apartment. Framed by a wall scarred with the residue

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106 of struck matches and by a bed with dirty, criampled sheets, Marlowe is pried out of his bed by his cat, who is hungry but particular. Regardless of the hour, the cat will eat only Curry Brand Cat Food, which, of course, Marlowe does not have. After a futile search at an all night grocery store for the obscure brand (they all taste alike anyway, the stock boy tells him) Marlowe returns home to meet a scratched Terry Lennox. In terms of the plot line, the cat episode is meaningless; the film really begins with Lennox's request to be driven to Mexico. It is, however, an extremely funny and original sequence. In addition, it subtly establishes several important motifs. First, it begins the pattern of Marlowe being inconvenienced and used by others; the cat is just the first of many to ask him for a favor. It also introduces the idea that Marlowe is a loser; not only does he fail to find the cat food, but ultimately cannot even keep the cat. Finally, Altman sets up the first parallel between Marlowe and Lennox. Despite Marlowe's apparent loyalty and generosity, which later seems to distinguish him from Lennox, both have been scratched on the face; Marlowe by his cat, Lennox by his wife. The meeting with Lennox not only sets the plot in motion, but also demonstrates the importance Marlowe places on friendship. In the middle of the night, Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Tiajuana. Although Marlowe is understandably unhappy about the long drive, he feels his

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107 friendship with Lennox obligates him to drive Lennox to Mexico^ which he does, no questions asked. When Marlowe returns to Los Angeles, the police are waiting to question him about his role in the Lennox affair. The police are thugs with badges who thrive on the abuses of authority and brutality that their role can encompass. As such, they do not understand or believe Marlowe's refusal to pry into Lennox's situation just because the two were friends. So the police bully Marlowe in an ineffective search for some answers. But partly as a result of Marlowe's distaste for the way they ask questions, partly because Lennox is not there to defend himself, partly because of Marlowe's ignorance, and partly because of his professional ethics and reputation, Marlowe refuses to answer their questions. Rather than be intimidated into disloyalty and submission, he breaks into an Al Jolson routine and gets thrown into jail. Although Marlowe's use of fingerprinting ink for blackface and his choice of Jolson as a role are original, Marlowe's behavior is conventional movie private eye behavior. He distrusts cheap force and corrupt authorities and refuses to be intimidated by them. Regardless of his own comfort and situation, he remains loyal to his friend. And, perhaps most of all, he has a sarcastic and irrepressible sense of humor that complements his courage and stamina. Because Marlowe has so much humor and the others have no sense of hijmor at all, he is the only one who can

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108 laugh and not take himself seriously. Because he is more likeable and more refreshing than the other characters, he wins our sympathy and emotional identification, just like Bogart s did. Marlowe not only demonstrates a fidelity to many of his role's traditional values, but also maintains its traditionally high standard of professionalism. When he accepts the assignment of locating Eileen Wade's missing husband, Roger, he quickly finds him even though he has only one obscure clue. Roger Wade, it turns out, is a patient-prisoner at Dr. Verringer's private sanitarium; after Marlowe finds Roger, he then must rescue him. Which Marlowe easily does. Marlowe not only succeeds in rescuing Roger, but also succeeds in not being overwhelmed by this oversized, hard living man. Although Wade is more famous, more imposing, more financially successful, and more complicated than Marlowe, Wade is unable to awe or manipulated Marlowe into becoming Wade's servant. Wade does extract Marlowe's promise to return to the writer's home, but he fails to convert Marlowe into another parasitic and slavish hanger-on. Marlowe never surrenders his integrity and functions humanely, responsibly, and as his own man. From Wade, Marlowe moves to another set of characters, Marty Augustine and his ecumenical gang of hoods. Marty, a very rich and powerful gangster, threatens Marlowe and gets the same bravado that the police got. Although

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109 Augustine hits harder and plays more dangerous games than the police, Marlowe still refuses to be intimidated. He m.ust accept some physical pain here but uses his wit to beat the gangster at his own game. Marlowe's eluding of Harry, his inept tail, his own effortless success at following Augustine, and his refusal to cower further emphasize Marlowe's self-confidence and agility. In addition to the traditional private eye character, Altman gives us the traditional complications of the private eye film. First, Marlowe, who has never accepted the labeling of Lennox's death as a suicide, gets a $5,000 bill from Lennox. He learns that Lennox was Augustine's delivery boy; he catches Eileen Wade lying about her relationship with Lennox and about her husband Roger's possible relationship with Lennox's wife; he finds out that the Wades and Augustine are involved in a dispute about money; he witnesses the mysterious return of Augustine's money and the horrifying suicide of Roger; he finds that Eileen has disappeared. Each complication intertwines Lennox's fate with the other characters' activities; Marlowe's concern for Lennox's reputation and his substantial commitment of time and emotions continue to draw him deeper into the mystery. Though everyone else is satisfied, Marlowe takes his obligation to his friend and to the truth more seriously. Even without a client, Marlowe is determined to finish the investigation

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110 His path leads, of course, back to Mexico and to Lennox. With Lennox's $5,000, Marlowe buys the necessary information. Lennox, who is Eileen Wade's lover, killed his wife. Roger Wade, however, was convinced that he killed her in one of his drunken rages; Eileen and Lennox use this belief to drive Roger to suicide. With the spouses out of the picture, Eileen and Lennox planned to meet and live in wealthy anonymity in Mexico. Armed with this information, Marlowe is realy to confront Lennox. In their meeting, Lennox is unable to understand Marlowe's anger. Lennox was in trouble, knew Marlowe was there, planned to pay him well for the inconvenience, and so had used him. "After all," he asks, "what are friends for?" Marlowe sees it differently. Friends, he says, are "To turn to, Terry. Not to use. You put my neck right under the ax. What's worse, you lied to me." Lennox justifies his actions by telling Marlowe that Marlowe is out of the mainstream of contemporary ethics. "You're always going to be disappointed in people. In this world, you've got to look out for number one, and that's something you've never learned. I guess you never will learn. Marlowe's answer and reaction is surprising. "Just a born loser, that's me. I even lost my cat. (Produces a gun) Terry, there's such a thing as being too damned smart. (Shoots and kills Terry)

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Marlowe kills Lennox, then, but not because Lennox has brutally killed his wife. Instead, the real reason he has to die is because he abused Marlowe's friendship and violated Marlowe's code of conduct. Marlowe's murder of Lennox recalls an earlier speech given by the gangster, Marty Augustine. "He was a criminal. He murdered his wife. (But) That was just a m.inor crime. A misdemeanor. The real crime was that he stole my money. The penalty for that is capital punishment." For Marlowe, money is not that important; his standard of conduct, however, is. When Lennox violates this code, Marlowe is as personally offended as Augustine is over the theft of his money. And when Marlowe executes Lennox, he is acting no differently than Augustine would or than Lennox did. Marlowe has placed his own value system over every other standard and thus feels totally justified in punishing the offender. That the punishment is motivated by revenge and involves muder does not matter. In Augustine's words, Lennox deserves capital punishment. And if Marlowe does not administer the penalty, who would? With this scene, Altman has taken the private eye's glorification of the righteous individual to its logical 2 conclusion. Marlowe is the only positive force m the movie likeable, witty, secure, competent, loyal, dedicated. He is also smart, much too smart to believe that our existing institutions would effectively and impartially administer justice. So if morality and justice are to be

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112 upheld, Marlowe himself must be the avenger, the hand of justice. Thus,. Marlowe, a decent man, seems to act out of decent and moral motivations. He is so convinced of the moral correctness of his stance that he calmly executes a once good friend. And after administering the punishment, he feels so cleansed that he dances down the street. Unlike Sam Spade and his sleepless nights, Marlowe will sleep soundly, untroubled by any twinge of conscience. By making Marlowe a vigilante capable of murder and by thus identifying him with all the other characters, including Lennox and Augustine, Altman has shown that the private eye is really no different than any of the others and that the moral superiority, integrity, and heroism of the private eye is just another myth. The characterization of Marlowe as a self-styled agent of justice is not only the film' s radical departure from conventional private eye movies, but also the structural device that gives The Long Good-bye its coherence. Like the other Altman films. The Long Good-bye appears to be loose and non-linear a la The Big Sleep Characters wander in and out of the film with little apparent reason; the episodic pace of the film continues oblivious to the more central concerns of the plot. Thus, such loosely related characters like the cat, the yoga ladies, and Dr. Verringer find their way into the film, adding depth and atmosphere even though they do not further the story line. Upon closer examination, however, the episodes and characters

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113 are all directly related. No matter how subtle the connection, each character and each episode reiterate the film's major concern, the unrelenting pursuit of one's own desires, regardless of the needs of and cost to others. The opening episode with the cat is a good example of this. Even if it were saying nothing about the rest of the film, it would still be an excellent first scene because it is very funny and arresting. No one sitting in the audience would be confused or thrown off by the scene, even if the more subtle nuances were missed. Although the movie could have begun with Lennox barging into Marlowe s apartment, the cat scene works cinematically In fact, however, it also immediately defines Marlowe's relationship to the outside world. Throughout the film, people will use Marlowe for their own purposes, regardless of the inconvenience to Marlowe. Despite Marlowe's efforts, he is unable to successfully interact and maintain relationships with his cat or with his other characters. Marlowe's next door neighbors, the candlestick ladies who prance around nude in a yoga-drug induced state of mindlessness are another example of a set of characters that seem unrelated to the rest of the film. They play no part in the plot; as Marlowe says, "They aren't even there." Concerned only with their own pleasures, they do not hesitate to ask Marlowe to buy them groceries even though they never do him a favor in return. But the ladies are never unfairly used by Altman; there are no cheap or prurient

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114 zooms in on their naked bodies. Although they are pursuing their own desires more obviously than any other character, they are not criticized for wasting their lives nor are they extolled for having fun without hurting anyone else. Instead, they are used because they are visually interesting and amusing, because they elicit some very humorous and immature reactions from the male characters, and because they further the film's concern with the pursuit of personal pleasure. Dr. Verringer, the quack who is treating Roger Wade, also has little to do with the film's story line, especially since his original importance as Wade's alibi has been cut from the film. But like the others, he adds depth and atmosphere to Marlowe's story while remaining an independent cinematic character. While Verringer 's hospital is obviously comic, his final confrontation is unsettling and strange. The unusual little doctor wanders into Wade's party, demands his $5,000 (curious how this sum keeps popping up) and slaps Wade on the face. We are still reeling from the film's first slap, Atagustine's Coke bottle scene, so we empathize with the stunned Wade, who obediently writes the check. Verringer demonstrates the way of the world; like Marlowe, Lennox, Augustine, and Eileen, he feels he has been abused and feels justified in behaving insensitively, forcefully, and selffishly so that he can regain what he feels is his.

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115 Since we are shown Verringer's behavior but are not given the information necessary to understand it, Verringer is a typical Altman peripheral character. Because of a lack of background information, we are forced to respond to the character instinctively, emotionally, but not intellectually. Because most movies are artifically closed and omniscient, we are not used to this less rational style of film-making. But as Citizen Kane warns us as it fades out on a "No Trespassing" sign, movies do not always succeed in getting inside and revealing a character. The Long Good-bye does not even try. Thus, we are amused and then as shocked and confused by Verringer's behavior as the guests at the party are. And Verringer leaves as quickly as he came, answering no questions, adding emotion and mystery to the film but prohibiting a safe intellectual response. Although Wade is slightly different because he is totally unsuccessful in getting what he wants, he does try to inflict his problems and needs onto everyone else. Afraid that he can no longer love and write, he tries to bully his wife and intimidate Marlowe into being his servant. When neither of these efforts works, he surrounds himself with his eager army of parasitic freeloaders. Underneath his brash facade, however, he is alone and afraid. When he is publicly assaulted and humiliated by Verringer, Wade cringes and cries. He does not have the self-assurance and toughness of Verringer or Eileen; he

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116 cannot cope with their sense of purpose and tactics so he writes the check and he commits suicide. More than anyone else in the film. Wade is the victim, the weak prey who cannot survive in The Long Good-bye s harsh, egocentric world. Like the other characters. Wade is developed enough to make the plot line intelligible but not enough for us to respond intellectually. We know that he is a heavy drinker who is subject to amnesiac blackouts, that he loves his wife and threatens to commit suicide to keep her love, that he is afraid he has killed Lennox's wife and lost his talent. We know he is a loud coward, full of meaningless sound and fury. We do not know enough about him, however, to really understand the private Roger Wade, who remains enigmatic and distant. His role in the film is frustrating because he is a potentially interesting but undeveloped character. By dying before we really get to know him, Wade intrigues, fascinates, and involves us on an emotional, '•iOt a rational, level. Altman thus insures our freshness and our interest. Augustine and his gang of hoods are more engaging than Wade, but not as challenging. As respectable hoods, they offer the obvious commentary on success in the seventies. Augustine, the head hood, is rich and acceptable enough to live next door to Richard Nixon. Like the other characters, Augustine is eccentric, affable, and even benevolent until his interests are threatened. Then he is capable of

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117 casual and extreme brutality. His willingness to scar his lover so that Marlowe would take him seriously and his speech labeling the theft of his money as the real crime are the two most explicit explanations of The Long Good bye's world, especially since the acts are juxtaposed against Augustine's no3rmally ridiculous and seemingly harmless personality. Had his capacity for cruelty and violence remained undeveloped, his obsession with physical fitness and his cluinsy, inefficient gangsters would remain clever satires about California society. But Augustine and the others in the film only appear harmless and humorous when their self-interests are not threatened. As soon as someone takes something from them that they value, they are capable of any cohesive action to retrieve the object and are brutally able to punish the offender. Like Augustine, Lennox is a familiar and superficial character. More than any other, he exists to give the plot direction; his murder of his wife, his escape, and his fake suicide motivate the entire movie, Marlowe's efforts to say good-bye to him, to clear, explain and finally get even with him provide the framework for the film. And Lennox is probably the purest representation of the film's theme. When asked to justify his unnecessarily brutal beating of his wife, he tells Marlowe he had no choice. She threatened to turn him in to the police, scratched him, and made him lose his temper. In other words, she inconvenienced him and interfered with his pursuit of the good

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118 life. Because she caused hiin trouble, she deserved to be eliminated from Lennox's point of view. When he killed her, then, Lennox had no guilt feelings or pangs of regret. People, after all, are there to be used. And Lennox, like all the other characters, do not mind using them. Perhaps the most inscrutable character of all is Eileen Wade. She is beautiful, cunning, and ambiguous. A quick but not totally convincing liar, she claims to love Roger and be terrified of his violent and erratic behavior. At the same time, she seems malevolently manipulative, cold, and unforgivingly judgmental. She is suggestively teasing and helpless around Marlowe (except domestically) and is constantly using her sexuality as a tool to get information. Her amorality is frightening; because she loves Lennox, she is able to forgive his brutal beating and killing of his wife and is able to help push Roger into suicide. Eileen, like the others, is interested in getting what she wants. In her case, it is a life with Lennox. To realize her ambition, she is pragmatic, ruthless, and aware. To achieve her happiness, she is willing to use Marlowe and to destroy her husband. All the characters, then, act on the assumption that their immediate desires and values deserve primacy and fulfillment, regardless of the cost to others. On a first viewing of the film, the tendency is to separate Marlowe from the rest; Marlowe seems more like a refugee from a forties detective movie than a contemporary of the other

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characters. He almost could have gone to sleep thirty years ago, woke up, and was then forced to deal with the more cynical and egocentric world of the seventies. When Marlowe kills Lennox, then, Hollywood and justice seem to triumph. Unfortunately, however, Marlowe is no different from the rest of the characters. Because The Long Good-bye is Marlowe's movie, we see the events from his perspective; by the end, we not only like him but accept his actions as proper. When viewed from a less personal, more objective perspective, however, his uniqueness fades. His bemused tolerance that lets him shrug off all weirdness with "It's okay by me," applies only when his self-interest is not directly threatened. More than a bemused tolerance, his reaction is more properly an indifferent passivity. As soon as his interest is involved, however, he becomes as cold and vengeful as the others. He may have more charm than the rest of the characters, but his persistence in tracking the truth and his happiness when he avenges it prove that he is no different than any of the other characters. The Long Good-bye may be thought of, then, as McCabe and Mrs. Miller told from Butler, the hired killer's, point of view. Rather than the warmth and tenderness that emanates from real human interaction in McCabe The Long Good bye is cold and cynical. There is no sincere interaction between people, only continual manipulation and game playing aimed at self -maximization.

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120 The movie's cynicism is structurally reflected in its most brutal and striking scene. Augustine's mistress, JoAnne, walks in on his effort to scare Marlowe and asks for a Coke. One of Augustine's hoods gets the only Coke in Marlowe's apartment; it is almost empty, warm, and flat. The state of the Coke triggers an Augustine monologue on the general state of Marlowe's apartment and on JoAnne s beauty. As Augustine is talking, he quickly and unexpectedly smashes the bottle into her face. As we watch in slow motion, the bottle breaks into her skin and flies off her face. Like Marlowe, we are totally unprepared for this violent intrusion; even though we have no personal investment in JoAnne, we are sickened by the senseless and horrifying brutality. Marlowe is surprised and stunned by the sudden cruelty, as we in the audience are; Altman has acted with the same mentality as Augustine. First, he has disarmed us by showing the ridiculous, seemingly harmless antics of the zany hoods. Then, without warning, Altman thrusts a minor character forward and mutilates her in slow motion. The action happens so quickly and is so skillfully suspended by the use of the slow motion that the -oment becomes hypnotizing and compelling; we cannot look away. So we sit there, cleverly manipulated and coldly exposed to the same ugly and dangerous violence that Marlowe sees. The camera work also integrates style and content. This movie does not try to penetrate the minds of its

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121 characters; it is not a film fraught with psychological insights. Similarly, it is not a movie that is interested in absolute value judgments; people are out for themselves as a matter of fact, not a matter of morality. Some are likeable, some are not; still, their appeal and fate have little to do with abstract moral evaluations. Lennox, for example, is a negative character because he is vain, overly self-confident, and boorish. Augustine, on the other hand, is much more brutal but is likeable because he has so many amusing eccentricities. The technical reflection of this lack of moral absolutes is the film's constantly moving camera. As if to avoid any definitive or judgmental comment and to keep the movie outside the characters, the camera never settles on one object or perspective. In adnition to the constant motion, the film is shot in pastels, which are neutral colors that also work against any overt, cl-^f initive statement. Like Altman's other non-linear films. The Long Goodbyesacrifices a tight plot for a more episodic pace. Because the movie seems to ramble, its events are not enough to generate continuity and consistency. The use of pastels and the moving camera help for they tend to blend one scene into the next. Perhaps more important for the film's continuity is the thematic similarity of all the characters and their overwhelming concern for their respective desires. Even more significant, however, is Altman's use of movie allusions and music.

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122 The movie allusions first. There are several reminders of Altman's own films. The death scenes of Terry Lennox and of McCabe"' s cowboy are shot the same; both show the victim's same look of surprise, they both fall into the water and turn over in slow motion the same way. Also, the cowboy's death and the Coke bottle scenes come at the same time in both movies and evoke the same stunned response from us. The sunset in the Mexican mountains recall the sunset shots in McCabe and Images while the soft focus colors when Marlowe chases Eileen are reminiscent of Kathryn's ride back to London in Images Even more noticeable are Marlowe's allusions to other films and the Malibu Colony guard's impersonations. The guard spends his entire day and role imitating famous movie stars like James Stewart and Walter Brennan. Although everyone else is puzzled by the guard, Lennox and Marlowe are immediately appreciative of the guard's act (still another connection between Lennox and Marlowe) Marlowe puts on blackface from the fingerprint ink and breaks into an impromptu tribute to Al Jolson, the first talking film star. Then he meets Asta, the dog from the non-Marlowe type Thin Man detective series, who will not get out of Marlowe's car's way. There is also an hilarious encounter with the Invisible Man, a curious metaphor for Marlowe who can be both invisible and highly visible. "Loved all your movies," Marlowe casually remarks.

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123 These allusions do more than draw attention to Altman's previous efforts, favorites, and influences. Instead, bycons tantly drawing attention to the movies as an art form, he is telling us that we are watching a movie. Thus, he reminds us that The Long Good-bye is not an imitation of life or literature, but its own art form. For the first time, Altman lets his allusions emerge full screen. They are no longer left in the corner of the frame as a flapping movie poster, nor are they thinly disguised. Now the allusions are an integral part of the movie, confident with being self-conscious. Because of their presence, the allusions naturally help create the boundaries and character of the movie. Even more important is the way Altman establishes overt continuity within his diffuse, non-linear framework by the use of music. The only music in the film is the song "The Long Good-bye"; no matter what scene, character, or setting is on the screen, the accompanying music is a recognizable variation of the song. It plays, for example, on the car radio as an easy listening song; a Musak version hums through the supermarket; a Mexican funeral band plays it as a dirge; a bartender tries to learn it for the lunch trade; people dance to it at the Wade's party; even a doorbell chimes the song's first three notes. The song weaves in and out, giving unity and coherence to the diverse, episodic parts. Using the theme this way, Altman is cinematically coherent in a non-literary, non-visual.

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124 non-linear, and artistically exciting manner. Tying all the parts together, the music gives The Long Good-bye the style and identity that Altman was so self-consciously striving for in Images He has finally made the movie that is conscious but not self-conscious about being a movie. With this in mind, the ending of the film with the song "Hooray for Hollywood," the only time the music is not a variation of "The Long Good-bye," has several implications. As already mentioned, it is a sign of Marlowe's exhuberance over his retribution. Also, Hollywood is an easy target whose faults are widely known and accepted; the swipe at it here is cliched and jaded enough to be in keeping with the film's cynical mood. At the same time, "Hooray for Hollywood" is an extremely appropriate song for Marlowe to sing; after all, the role of the self-sufficient vigilante has been endorsed and popularized by countless American movies. Finally, and somehow simultaneously, "Hooray for Hollywood" has another dimension. The movie is over, ..Fllliot Gould is pulling out of the role of Phillip Marlowe. T^id so, to leave The Long Good-bye and the world of the movies, he does a little song and dance, a cinematic curtain call, that takes us out of Hollywood's reality and puts us back into our own realities. The Long Good-bye then, is a sustained, original, and complete work. When grouped with McCabe and Images it represents Altman 's achievement of a personal film style and forms a body of work that justifies his status as one

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125 of today's more prolific and more important auteurs. Also, after The Long Good-bye Altman has produced a wide enough range of films to begin drawing more from himself and his films than from any other source. Which brings us to Thieves Like Us. Interestingly, a scene in both the novel and the screenplay had Marlowe going to a central information-type agency and buying a computer analysis of his clues and finally of Verringer's whereabouts. This omniscient, invisible agency certainly is consistent with Altman' s pressentation of omnipotent corporations in McCabe and could easily exist in The Long Good-bye s world. Its omission, for whatever reason, strengthens the impression of Marlowe's professional competence and self-sufficiency. 2 Actually, the idea that the private eye would actually give up his quarry to the legitimate authorities at the end of the movie was always illogical. For almost the entire movie, the police would be seen as ominous, corrupt, inept, interfering; the private eye, who was honest, persistent, and dedicated, was harried and hassled by them. At the very end of the film, however, the police would suddenly become friendly rivals with the detective and responsible administrators of blind, fair justice. Even in the context of these original private eye movies, the concept of benevolent authority that the ending depends on seems inconsistent; in Altman' s world view, the idea has no place whatsoever. All Altman has done, then, is remove the inconsistency; the law as administered by the legal authorities is as arbitrary and corrupt at the end of the xTiovie as it is at the beginning. Since Marlowe cannot trust or interest the police at the beginning, there is no reason why he should do so at the end.

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CHAPTER 8 THIEVES LIKE US Thieves Like Us draws from many sources, including the 1937 Edward Anderson novel of the same name; the 1948 Nicholas Ray film adaptation, They Live By Night ; and the 1967 Arthur Penn film, Bonnie and Clyde As he does in McCabe, Images and The Long Good-bye however, Altman personalizes and demystifies its film genre. More than just another gangster picture, then. Thieves becomes an examination and restatement of those films. In addition to this redefinition of the genre, Thieves also puts Altman' s film style in a new perspective. Following three of Altman 's most sustained and influential films. Thieves works within a familiar visual style. As we shall see, it demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of that style. Before Thieves can be considered, however, its relationship to Bonnie and Clyde must be noted. Bonnie and Clyde turned insignificant and unfulfilled characters into romantic and mythic heroes. Both Bonnie and Clyde were poor, restless, and anonymous. Realistically perceiving that their conventional futures looked bleak, they became bank robbers. In their increasingly violent exploits, however, they found fun, fame, and riches. Especially when 126

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127 contrasted to the blandness of Eugene and Vilma and the evilness of Malcolm and the law, Bonnie and Clyde became "somebodies," heroes of the people. Thieves Like Us does not share this romantic view of crime. The gangsters here never seem to have as m.uch fun robbing banks as the Barrow gang did, nor do they find the same famie and fulfillment. Instead, Thieves paints a darker, less glamorous picture. Rather than depict the relentless pursuit of the authorities, Thieves concentrates on the more mundane, commonplace pressures that lead to the gang's destruction. Bowie, Chicamaw, and T-Dub are not destroyed because they are romantic outlaws that threaten society, then, but instead are governed by the same conditions of existence that constrain all of us. The first sound in the film, the call of a bird over the United Artists logo, establishes the film's context. In addition to capturing the sound of a Mississippi swamp, it also suggests Brewster McCloud and his unsuccessful attempt to break free. The film's first shot, an excruciatingly long pan shot, picks up this comment; its seemingly circular motion foreshadows the group's ultimate inability to escape, even as it prepares us for the scene's unexpected humor. For despite the tension of this first shot, this scene is comical. Chicamaw explains that Jazzbo, who they will kidnap, sells marijuana to the prisoners; we see Jazzbo swerve across the road and hit a "pothole" in the road. T-Dub buys size 14 shirts ("Do you think we're

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128 midgets?") and size 46 overalls ("Do you think we're giants?") for their getaway outfits. Even Jazzbo tells a joke about a little boy who gives his turtles blisters by rubbing their feet on a table. Even more than the jokes, however, Jazzbo' s character provides much of the scene's humor. Like many other peripheral Altman characters, Jazzbo' s obesity makes him instantly identifiable, as does his whining fear of personal harm. As the three fugitives leave his car, which has a blown out tire and a flat spare, the camera zooms in on Jazzbo' s face and hands and the soundtrack captures his bizarre and terrified assurance that he will follow Chicamaw' s instructions. Although his name is briefly mentioned once more, we never see Jazzbo again. Still, like Verringer, the preacher, and the other peripheral Altman characters, Jazzbo' s unusual physical appearance and personality develop his character effectively and efficiently. Other Altman-esque details abound. The overlapping soundtrack, even more inaudible than usual, offers a direct commentary on the film's action. T-Dub reveals his amateurism not only by counting the number of his bank robberies, but by exaggerating the number of them. He begins by saying, "This will be my twenty-eighth bank." The next bank job, however, will be his "thirtieth"; the following one, his thirtythird. T-Dub' s tendency to exaggerate is further compounded by his counting the hold-up game at Mattie's as a real bank job. More importantly, the first

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129 two bank robberies are accompanied by radio soundtracks of old Gangbuster. programs, which make the three's operation seem ridiculous and juvenile. The context of the broadcasts also warns of their eventual destruction; "they blazed their way across the state before being brought down by the guns of the law," the radio blares. The connection between the soundtrack and the characters is further emphasized by the leader of the radio outlaws being called the Octopus. Shortly thereafter, in Mattie s house, Lula tells T-Dub, who functions as the group's leader, that he is an "octopus." Equally obvious is the "Romeo and Juliet" broadcast. Keechie and Bowie have been growing increasingly close; as they make love for the first time, the radio blares out "thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first interview by falling madly in love." Although Altman may have been trying to foreshadow the disintegration of Bowie and Keechie 's relationship by contrasting them with the most romantic, most idealized love affair in history, the verbal intrusion seems cynical and distracting. Later that evening, when Bowie and Keechie make love twice more, Altman repeats the line from Shakespeare, even zooming in to the radio. The device does not only distract us, but it robs the scene of its dignity. Altman seems unable to humanize his characters and let them enjoy a tender, fulfilled moment.

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130 Altiuan spends a great deal of time developing Bowie and Keechie; their unusual physical appearances (so different from the Hollywood glamour of Warren Beatty's Clyde and Faye Dunaway's Bonnie), their innocence, honesty, and vulnerability make us respond to them as people, not characters in a film. Unlike the typical gangster movie that glamorizes gangsters, we see Bowie and Keechie as people, not as the gangster or social problem and his gun moll. Unlike Clyde, who totally defines himself through his occupational role of outlaw, Bowie's and Keechie' s Love has nothing to do with his being a thief. Similarly, Keechie' s objections to Chicamaw and T-Dub have little to do with the morality of living outside the law. Instead, she seems jealous of the times and loyalties the men share. Since this himaan dimension of the characters is crucial to the film's success, Altman should be maximizing, rather than minimizing our relationship with Bowie and Keechie. In the Romeo and Juliet sequence, however, Altman' s insecure and insensitive use of the soundtrack makes fun of their innocence. For the first time since McCabe, Altman lets his self-conscious, highly visible style separate himself from the characters. As the result, he degrades them, cheapens the scene, and, at least momentarily, undermines his film's effectiveness. Thieves camerawork can also be distracting. The film's dominant camera movement is the slow zoom, which reflects the use of the camera to direct our attention.

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In the scene where the three are reading the account of the escape, for. instance, the camera tells us exactly how to react. The camera watches Bowie and then Keechie as she approaches the house; from the beginning of the scene, Bowie is separated from Chicamaw and T-Dub, allied with Keechie. Bowie and the camera move into the living room, just before Keechie, who carries the newspaper. As the three read about their escape, the camera moves in slowly until it rests on the three and empahsizes the words of the article. When it lists the three's identities, Bowie leaves the room; the camera follows and shows him staring at Keechie. We only hear the few lines about T-Dub and Chicamaw; we are more interested in Bowie's longing for Keechie. When T-Dub reads the longer part of the article about Bowie, however, the camera moves back to Chicamaw and T-Dub, who clearly resent the extra coverage devoted to Bowie. As the article moves back to a description of the authorities' reactions, the camera cuts to Bowie, who is 3till watching Keechie. Then, as T-Diib begins reading the article's punch line, "If you can't trust a trustee, who can you trust?" the camera returns to the room and rests on T-Dub and Chicamaw. Afterwards, Chicamaw and T-Dub elaborate on their dissatisfaction with the article's treatment of them; as each speaks, he is isolated in the frame by a still camera. This scene also illustrates Altman's functional and thematic use of the camera. The content of the article.

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132 Bowie's leaving the room, and the camera's constant reminder of his physical isolation and desire for the even further isolated Keechie all cooperate in underscoring the potential discord between the characters. For an Altman film, however, the relationship between the camera and the action is unusually obvious. The trustee line is funny, for example, but the pointed camera work draws too much attention to it. When climaxed by the set monologues of T-Dub and Chicamaw, the obtrusive camera movements create a contrived, stagey impression. Like the gangbusters and Romeo and Juliet jokes, the obviousness of the camerawork in this scene distracts us and self-consciously interferes with the material. Fortunately, Altman subdues both his camerawork and stylistic mannerisms in the latter part of the film; the distractions occur earlier in the film. Rather than a major problem, they become minor irritations, important primarily because they suggest limitations of Altman" s style. Except for these few excesses, Altman does restrain himself; as the film progresses, he drops the artificialities and contrivances of the earlier scenes and lets the material present itself. Except for these earlier lapses, Altman handles his details and characters with his usual skill. Mattie, for instance, is seen as the radio plays the introduction to the Shadow ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?") but only after the radio has been unobrustively

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133 incorporated into the fabric of her home life. Later, when Bowie and Keechie come to her Pickin Grapes Motel, the radio calls her "the heart of gold." Ironically, Bowie and Keechie turn the radio off. The door falling on Dee Mobley's head as he leaves the wounded Bowie is humorous but will turn on itself as the door to Bowie's cabin falls off during the shootout. Bowie's birthplace in the Ozarks is reflected in the title story of the pulp detective magazine; "Fiend of the Ozarks," the magazine advertizes. And when Mattie decides to let them stay, she gives them cabin thirteen. "It figures," mutters Bowie, whose superstitious nature has been hinted at by his earlier reluctance to meet in a "haunted" house. In addition, Thieves is shot through a filter that effectively captures the feel of the past and the Depression without resorting to the overused and sentimental soft-focus look. The costiimes, sets, and objects used in the film add to its authentic appearance; the faded Coca-Cola signs, thirties' radios, and old southern buildings give the film a lived-in air. The soundtrack helps, too. Altman drops the gangster programs and replaces them with political broadcasts; in the third bank robbery, for example, we hear Roosevelt's inauguration and in the train station, a speech by Father Coughlin is broadcast. More interesting than these details are the minor characters of Thieves ; each one is impressed on our memories. Lula, T-Dub's young wife, dedicates herself to

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134 cosmetology; she continually redoes Noel Joy's hair, dyes T-Dub's hair, and gives him manicures. When she hands Bowie her marriage certificate, Bowie humorously mistakes it for her beauty school diploma. Although superficial and only shabbily sexy, she radiates warmth; beneath the stereotype of the gun moll lies a likeable and decent person. Less likeable but equally effective is the jail warden. Totally self-centered, he gluttonously eats an enormous meal in front of Bowie. Too rude to invite Bowie to share his dinner, too lazy to walk a few yards, he reveals the extent of his self -preoccupation during the escape. "This is gonna cost me plenty, boys, this is gonna cost me plenty. A reflection of the world of The Long Good-bye all that matters is his own welfare. Dee Mobley also impresses us with his negative quality. A drunk who does nothing without some sort of renumeration, he appears menacing but is more sound than fury, easily handled even by Keechie. He becomes important, however, because he foreshadows Chicamaw' s mental deterioration; when Chicamaw brings the wounded Bowie back to Dee's, Dee explodes that he has never enjoyed the benefits of fame and fortune. An uncharacteristic outburst for a worthless drunk, it lifts Dee out of his stereotype and gives him a measure of humanity. Even more memorable are Mattie's two children, Noel Joy and Bubba. Noel Joy is a strange, passive girl, chained to Mattie's rules of training that will supposedly mold her into a model southern woman. Her strikingly different face

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135 and her sadly docile manner help her, tap dance her way into our hearts. Bubba is more familiar and more entertaining; he has the face of an old man and the mind of a master criminal (a fate he may be destined for) He plays with firecrackers, incessantly lights matches (a habit that humorously pays off when he alone can give T-Dub a match) blows ashes all over the table, and jumps in puddles when dressed in his Sunday best. All of Mattie s determination and punishments cannot tame him. However effective and interesting Jazzbo, Lula, the children. Dee Mobley, and the warden are, they remain minor characters. Although they provide atmosphere and depth to the movie, they cannot carry the film. This task belongs to the major characters, Bowie, Keechie, T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Mattie. We spend more time with these people than with the others; because we know them better, we feel their degeneration more. Altman deals first with Chicamaw, T-Dub, and Bowie. Prisoners and later criminals together, they compare themselves to the three musketeers; "There'll never be another group like the three of us," T-Dub constantly repeats. Despite this boast, however, they rarely function as a unified group. In the beginning, Bowie's youth, inexperience, and notoriety sets him apart from the more seasoned older men. Chicamaw and T-Dub laugh at his naivete and even throw a petrified bat at him. When they pull their first job, they force Bowie to drive the car; after all, 'tie don t know how to rob a bank

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136 The alliance, however, soon shifts. When Mattie goes to the railroad station and leaves the three alone, T-Dub and Bowie dream of a more normal life. Although not ashamed of their actions, they realize the risks they run. "I made my mistake when I was a kid," T-Dub decides, "I should have been a doctor or a lawyer or run for office and robbed people with my brains instead of a gun." He dreams of a farm in New Jersey, where he can put mistletoe on his coattails and let the world kiss his ass. Bowie does not dream of a farm, but of pitching pro ball. He too has no illusions about the romance of robbing banks. Chicamaw interrupts this reverie by pushing his hung-over head out the window and turning them back to the business of robbing banks. Just as Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde cannot envision any other occupation than bank robbery, Chicamaw can think only of drinking, loving, and robbing banks. Because of this inability, Chicamaw cannot share T-Dub and Bowie's dreams of a different future. This difference is accentuated by Chicamaw' s problem drinking, his violent personality, his increasing resentment of Bowie, and his total dedication to his role of a thief. The scene where Chicamaw, T-Dub, Noel Joy, Bubba, and Lula play bank robbery reveals Chicamaw' s dependence on his role and his potential for violence. Noel Joy plays at being a teller and Bubba makes a very funny porter, but T-Dub plays only so he can frisk Lula. Lula wants no part of the game, thinking it "dumb," until Chicamaw screams

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137 that she had better take it seriously. He scares her into submission, showing how dangerous he can be. His behavior also demonstrates how deeply engrained his role is; unlike the others, he cannot play-act or have fun with the game. Instead, he takes his role so seriously that it has already begun to destroy him. Despite the friction and differences between the three men, they do have a relationship that demands Bowie's loyalty. Because he feels an obligation to his partners, he returns to Yazoo City over Keechie's objections. After T-Dub dies, Bowie privately grieves, movingly saying goodbye to T-Dub as he stokes the fire. And he calls Chicamaw his only friend and hopes to get to Mexico with him. Although the partnership elicits a loyalty and gives the three the means to live, it fails to satisfy their personal needs. T-Dub wins Lula, who loves the luxuries money buys and thus offers no real resistance to the demands of the three's association. Bowie, on the other hand, must deal with Keechie's insistence that he "go straight." Less realistically and materially motivated than Lula, she hates Chicamaw and has little use for money. Bowie, as a result, is torn between Keechie and the two men. Chicamaw, denied the benefits of a love relationship, becomes the most unsatisfied and least stable. Resentful of Bowie's charm and competence from the beginning, Chicamaw has no other source of satisfaction outside the group. When this does not fulfill him, he degenerates into a psychopathic rage.

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138 When Bowie smoothly frees him from prison, Chicamaw explodes. Bowie. makes him "look like thirty cents. It just rips my guts out. By the end of the movie, then, their relationship has become destructive and debilitating. T-Dub is dead, possibly because his love for Lula made him put his real name on the marriage license; Bowie's attempt to save Chicamaw provides the excuse and rationale for his death; and Chicamaw' s rationality has been destroyed by his jealousy. As in all Altman relationships, then, what seemed beneficial and positive turns out to be destructive and dangerous. This depiction of the disintegration of the gang in Thieves makes it a much less romantic movie than Bonnie and Clyde Throughout Thieves T-Dub and Bowie have shown that they are not ashamed of their work; Bowie's only regret was getting $19,000 instead of $100,000. Keechie does not object because Bowie is a thief, but because he must divide his attention between her and the boys. Although devoted to form, Mattie does not mind when T-Dub reads a newspaper account of their robbery at the dinner table. Even there, they treat their occupation matter-of-f actly; the discovery that they are wanted dead or alive has a sobering, but not a moralistic, effect on them. And, unlike Bonnie and Clyde the law does not play a very visible role in the film; the gang does not seem to be chased at all. Rather than focus on the spectacular and dramatic, Altman concentrates on the more banal, ordinary events of their existence.

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139 The film neither condemns nor glorifies them, then, for being gangsters living outside the law. As bank robbers, they steal and kill, but only Chicamaw seems to enjoy the violence. (T-Dub tells Bowie that the money is insured and the bankers just hand it over, steal some themselves and thus turn a personal profit; "It's like a piece of cake," he says.) Although they take more risks and are more visible, then, they are no different from lawyers, doctors, politicians, gasoline attendants. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, who become mythic heroes destroyed by the forces of society, T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie remain "thieves like us," ordinary people who are defined and destroyed by desires, pressures, and conflicts common to all human relationships and occupations. Mattie, Bowie's agent of betrayal, specifically reflects the film's unsentimental approach to gangsters. When T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie celebrate their first bank robbery and plan for their future, Mattie refuses to join in the euphoria; "It'll take more than money to get Bud out of jail," she tells them. Still, even with that awareness, she accepts T-Dub 's $12,00 motel. When Bowie begs to stay there, she simply tells him that T-Dub is dead and no longer matters. Bowie cannot understand her attitude, especially after T-Dub financed the motel and called her "real people." Mattie, however is pragmatic; with T-Dub only a memory, continued association with his gang could only hurt her husband's chance for parole. Bowie's forceful

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140 insistence eventually wins him cabin 13; as he will soon learn from Chicamaw, however, no honor exists among thieves. Although Mattie reluctantly allows Bowie to stay, she quickly turns his presence to her advantage. Presumably to hasten her husband's release from prison, she betrays Bowie's presence to the police. In the name of love, and for her own self-interest, she accepts responsibility for Bowie's and Keechie's murder although Keechie saves herself by wandering over to Mattie 's to get a Coke just before the gunfight. Mattie' s tears at the gunfight and her sincerely solicitous concern for Keechie during the shooting show that she understands her role and condemns herself to a life-long guilt. Consistent with other Altman characters, then, she is driven to an abominable and destructive act so that her role in a permanent relationship could be maximized. More important than Mattie, however, is Keechie's final reaction. Rather than blame Mattie, Keechie blames Bowie; he has crossed and lied to her "cnce too much." Keechie feels that Bowie has chosen the men over her. Like Mattie, she has defined herself totally through her relationship to Bowie; had the roles been reversed, she would have acted just as Mattie did. As in the other Altman movies, the love relationship raises expectations that cannot be fulfilled and leads to destruction. When we first meet Bowie and Keechie, they are both young and immature. Bowie (his name even sounds like "boy")

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141 has bangs tkat accentuate his baby face, appears gangly, clutches his baseball glove, adopts a stray dog, and misses his mother. Keechie is unkempt, has straggly hair, wears ill-fitting clothes, and does not inhale her cigarettes. They cannot meet each other's gaze and shyly refuse to commit themselves to an acknowledgement of their feelings. "I have a watch for you, if you want it. Do you want me to have it? I guess so. Well, I guess I want it then." Gradually, however, they become more adult; she cuts her hair while he combs his more stylishly, wears flattering suits, and gains more assurance because of his material success. After she cares for his wounds, they make love. And although they exhibit a winning ignorance about sex as they wonder how many times to make love and if they should during the day and although they still talk in juvenile cliches ("I like you a million, billion, trillion bushels full."), Bowie can now simply tell Keechie that he loves her. The transition from the awkward, evasive, and \ euphemistic baby talk to Bowie's simple, sincere, and committed statement of love gives this moment and scene a rare beauty and poignancy. After this scene, Bowie and Keechie are quickly propelled into adulthood. Keechie loses her passivity and reticence by demonstrating a surprising self-assurance. She tries to make Bowie choose between herself and the gang, claiming that Chicamaw is no good and that she does not care about money. Bowie, however, sees their plight

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142 more realistically. Besides being a fugitive with no means of support, he. has an obligation to his friends. His continued identification with the gang is hinted at by his use of Chicamaw's "Keechie Keechie Koo" after they sleep together. Keechie, who is ignorant of the origins and sexual implications of the remark, answers v/ith her own refrain, "Bowie Bowie Boo." Rather than the private bed talk that brings the two closer together, this verbal exchange foreshadows the inevitable friction that will separate them. When Bowie goes to Yazoo City, Keechie feels betrayed. Instead of trying to understand and help Bowie, she acts selfishly and shrewishly. She accuses him of lying to her, using her, and choosing his friends over her. The difference between the easily satisfied and easy going Keechie of the film's first part and the new Keechie is emphasized by a startling shot of the distorted reflection of her face in a warped mirror. No longer the sweet innocent, Keechie has become twisted and ugly. As if realizing the change, Keechie runs to Bowie. Since she has nothing without Bowie, she convinces herself that Bowie, who has been so stunned by the day's events that the cannot even speak, would never let her leave. Instead of leaving him, she throws herself onto him. This sequence illustrates the relative immaturity of both Keechie and Bowie. Although they are forced to deal with the adult world and although they are no longer the

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143 youthful innocents of the first part of the film, they cannot cope with their problems. Thus, Keechie childishly expects Bowie to devote all his time to her and to magically establish a conventional existence. Even though Bowie has a more realistic perception of their future and thinks more about Keechie' s welfare than his own, he also fails to act maturely. When faced with Keechie' s tantrum, he is rendered speechless. More importantly, he cannot imagine getting to Mexico by himself; this lack of faith in his own abilities makes him free Chicamaw, which in turn results in Bowie's death. Had Bowie been more selfreliant and more willing to act on his own, he might have survived. Their transformation into adulthood is not complete, then. They lose their innocence; they gain little beyond the beauty of their initial sexual experiences. Although Keechie agrees to stay with Bowie, her feelings of rage and betrayal return all too soon. Sick because of her pregnancy, she does not realize that he freed Chicamaw so that she could escape to Mexico and have the normal family life she wants so badly. Instead, she interprets Bowie's escape plan and death as a further betrayal of her. This feeling motivates her final bitter and chilling action. Earlier in the film, when Bowie is playing catch with Alvin, a young boy, Keechie brings up the possibility of their having a baby. Bowie says he heard that children are important because they are the way men become immortal;

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144 although he cannot imagine having a child immediately, he wants one sometime in the future. When Keechie tells the woman at the train station that her husband died of consumption (one of Altman's more ironic jokes) and that she hopes her baby will be a boy "who will not be named after his daddy," she shows her deep hatred for Bowie. Rather than mourn his death, Keechie feels sorry only for herself, And to pay Bowie back, she plans to punish him horribly by denying him his chance for immortality. The impact of this action, intensified by the film's final shot of the crowd of passengers moving slowly up the stairs, going nowhere "for a long time" and swallowing Keechie up, is even more devastating when compared to McCabe and Mrs Miller The two couples undergo similar fates; they fall in love, are driven apart by societal presures and occupational roles, and end with the men being murdered and the women surviving. Of the two women, Mrs. Miller is better off. She never defined herself totally through McCabe, understood McCabe's death, and could support herself. Keechie, on the other hand, cannot understand Bowie's death and feels betrayed. Even worse, she is pregnant and consiomed with hatred. Her bitter and aimless emotional state, soon to be coupled with the demands of parenthood, makes Keechie "s situation unpleasant and pathetic. Keechie 's depressing end indicates a darkening of Altman's vision since McCabe, then, because she proves

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145 that love is not only an impossible emotion to maintain, but leads to betrayal and hatred. Thieves also suggests inherent limitations to Altman's self-conscious style of film-making; at times, his allusions and mannerisms distract us from the movie and undercut the actions of his characters. The gangbusters and Romeo and Juliet radio broadcasts suggest a separation of Altman from Bowie, Keechie, T-Dub, and Chicamaw. The devices are unsuccessful because they throw us out of the film and undermine our relationships with the characters. Altman has built into his film style an inherent limitation; too much omniscence, self-consciousness, and distance from his material guarantees a noticeable failure. Unfortunately, Altman will not learn his lesson; he makes the same mistake and suffers the same failure, on a larger scale, in Nashville For a sustained comparision of Thieves Like Us and They Live by Night, read Robert Kolkers "Night to Day" in the Autumn 19 74 Sight and Sound Also recommended is Marsha Kinder' s "The Return of the Outlaw Couple" ( Film Quarterly Summer, 1974) which concentrates on the relationship between Thieves and Bonnie and Clyde

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CHAPTER 9 CALIFORNIA SPLIT By the time Altman made California Split he had already developed a noticeable array of personal trademarks: overlapping dialogue, episodic pacing, pessimistic endings and optimistic moments, sudden appearances of superficially unrelated and intellectually undeveloped characters, a preoccupation with whores and gamblers, frequent allusions to other movies, and a reworking of a genre. And California Split has them all. Its genre seems to be the gambling movie but, like Thieves Like Us it is more a commentary on the other Altman movies than on the broader genre. It is more about McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Good-bye then, than The Lady Gambles The Lady Eve The Cincinnati Kid The Hustler and The Sting. Calif ornia Split is basically the story of two men, Charley and Bill, who are classic opposites. Charley is spontaneous, sloppy, free, irreverent, and self-confident. Whether he is being mugged, playing poker, or getting drunk, he never breaks character or stops his brash, witty, and colorful mutterings. An exciting personality, Charley operates on his dynamic and irresistible energy. Bill, on the other hand, is middle-class, successful, bored, 146

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147 repressed, and rational. Unlike Charley, who trusts and acts on his instincts, Bill needs facts and justification before he can act. After a race that ends in a photofinish, for example, Charley dances to the ticket window before the winner is announced; he just knows he has won. Bill cannot understand how Charley knows and looks worried and apprehensive. Only after he sees that they officially have won does he celebrate. Not surprisingly. Bill is fascinated by Charley, who seems to be the ideal person to teach Bill how to enjoy life. The interactions between the two not only constitute the film's major plot line, but also determine the film's structure. The first part of the movie is shot from Charley's point of view and is consistent with his personality; it is fast paced, carefree, and constantly alert to the humorous absurdities inherent in the film's events. The second part of the film belongs to Bill; instead of the humor, there is an underlying desperation and ugliness. The final part of the movie is a mixture of the two points of view; Charley's humor is present but seems empty and false when framed by Bill's more serious needs. Because Charley focuses on the humorous possibilities of every incident, the first part of California Split ignores the latent ugliness of its characters and settings and favors their lighter elements. The first scene at the poker palace, for example, is played for laughs; the poker players are grotesque or nondescript in a harmless.

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148 good-natured way. The woman with the bulldog face who thinks she is an expert gambler is not ridiculed but presented as a peripheral, eccentric, fleetingly revealed, and refreshing personality. We do not make fun of her; she is absurd but we like her. Even Lew, the thug Charley fights and is later mugged by, is so obnoxious, so big, so boorish that he is almost a caricature of a movie villain. He is so mean and so broadly drawn, in fact, that he loses his reality; in keeping with Charley's attitude, he is too much. He thus becomes an absurd annoyance, rather than a serious danger. The fight at the poker table lets us know that Altman's world view has not changed. As the two men accuse each other of cheating and begin fighting, no one else gets involved. Instead, they avert their eyes and complain about the interruption of their game time. Even Bill gets involved only reluctantly, gets punched by Lew, and quickly escapes by crawling away from the table. Charley, however, does not hid from the fight or bemoan the failure of the others to get involved. Rather than moralize about the incident, Charley's constant chatter is fast and energetic enough to dispel any unpleasant implications of the fight. Because of Charley's reaction, the game remains very amusing and non-threatening; the fight seems only a calculated, safe, and playful risk on Charley's part. Later, Charley pushes on to a topless bar. Here he overhears a conversation between a waitress and her girl

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149 friend, who presumably is a junkie in need of thirty dollars. The waitress, with Charley's unasked for support, borrows the money from the cash register and leaves the film. The character is as curious as any other incompletely overheard and incompletely explained conversation. Although she remains an unsolved little mystery, the waittress benefits from Charley's benign tolerance and ability to accept people on their own terms, devoid of any overbearing moral judgments. The sordid potentialities of the two women's relationship are thus downplayed in favor of a more amused, indifferently curious, and mysterious presentation. The bar scene is crucial to the development of Charley's and Bill's relationship. Bill is characteristically sitting at the end of the bar, hugging anonymity. Charley pushes himself on Bill, who, despite himself, responds to Charley's charm and warmth. Almost immediately, they are happily drunk, betting on the names of the seven dwarfs (an allusion to Marlowe's betting on the dollar bills' /serial numbers) singing, dancing, and getting mugged. For the first time. Bill looks relaxed and happy. Even the mugging is not allowed to destroy the film's light mood. We hear Charley and Bill being kicked, beaten, and robbed by Lew. Since the scene is shot in very dark, blue on black tones and is very short, however, the beating is relatively bloodless. Altman thus insures our sympathy for Charley and Bill and our continued disgust for Lew, but minimizes the pain of the mugging.

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150 The jail sequence reestablishes the film's light mood. Charley and Bill are bailed out by Charley's friend, Barbara. This scene is stolen, however, by a white, middle class family who has mistakenly been hauled into jail. Although the family mutters unintelligibly and is never visually placed in the foreground, their looks of bewilderment and their appearances in their bathrobes make them absurdly funny. They reinforce the negative portrayal of the police, who have also mistakenly picked up Bill and Charley, the victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators of it. The family makes a point, then, but does so without forcing a seriousness or preachiness onto the movie. Charley's and Barbara's home is seen through this same perspective. Although the dishes are dirty, although Charley's relationship to Barbara and her roommate Susan are never explained, although breakfast is Lucky Charms cereal and a bottle of beer, although the furniture is lumpy, the apartment is wainri and comfortable and the people who live there care about each other. When Susan, the younger prostitute, comes in crying because the man she "loves" has left her, Charley and Barbara help her get over the rejection. Charley does not give advice or moralize; instead, he tells her about the weight of the tongue of the great white sperm whale. And even though Susan can see through his transparent attempt at cheering her up, she responds to his silly, irrelevant, but sane approach to life and laughs. Ignore the problem at hand, focus on

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151 something more amusing, and watch the problem disappear, says Charley. .At least temporarily, his strategy works. Barbara's, Susan's, and Charley's home is not at all usual, but is consistent with the film's point of view. A dirty apartment of a gambler and two prostitutes could easily have been treated as immoral, degenerate, unhealthy. Instead, however, their home is stable, zany, and humane. Its inhabitants are generous, uncomplicated, concerned, and honest. Because we are seeing the film through Charley's unconventional, spirited, and relaxed eyes, the apartment seems secure, warm, and even beautiful. When Bill leaves the apartment to go to work, he is still under Charley's influence. So although Bill's attitude towards his work is reflected by the magazine's working cover, rows and rows of identical graves in a California cemetery ("Who in his right mind would put a cemetery on the cover of a magazine called California ?" his secretary Barbara mutters off camera) the death-in-life theme is casually and ironically treated and then obscured by some other activity. Only when Bill assumes control of the movie will observations like this be allowed to linger and be emphasized. The differences between Bill and Charley are made explicit in this scene. Unhappy about being in his office. Bill calls Charley. While Bill is neatly dressed and surrounded by the superficially romantic glamour of a magazine writer's existence, Charley is relaxing in his bathrobe

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152 picking his teeth. Charley, who is answerable to no one, feels like going to the race track and invites Bill along. Although Bill wants to go just as badly, he owns his time only after hours and must lie like a schoolboy to go. The following scenes on the bus and at the track are among Altman's most comic and rhythmic. On the bus to the track, Charley meets an avid, superstitious woman who is betting on the horse Egyptian Fem because she bet on her last year, lost, and feels that the horse owes her money. Charley uses every rational reason he can think of to convince her to change her bet because the horse is a loser. At the track, however, he decided to bet on the horse too. When the astonished Bill sees Charley so confident, he demands an explanation for the strange bet. "She owes me money. She owes my friend money," Charley answers. After the race, before the official results are in, Charley runs to the ticket window. Bill cannot believe Charley's assurance; Charley tells Bill he can feel the win. Bill remains unconvinced but finally, after he has proof of the win, he too becomes exhuberant. "We won! We won!" he screams. "No foolin'" is Charley's deadpan reply, "Where 've ya' been?" The difference between the two's approach to winning is the clearest proof yet of the fundamental differences between the two. Charley is not just an instinctive gambler, but also has fun gambling. Totally at ease and at home at the track, he belongs there because gambling seems

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153 a natural activity and a celebration for him. Bill, on the other hand, gambles as if he were slumming; gambling seems exciting to him because it is risky and unsafe. Lacking confidence in his own instincts and feelings, Bill never looks like he is having a good time. Thus, he needs written assurances that he has won; once certified, he then allows himself to have fun. Because of his repressions and caution, he never really integrates into the spirit of the track. At the end of the scene. Bill once more shows that he is on strange territory. The girl on the bus, who has taken Charley's advice and bet on another horse, sees Charley at the winner's window, realizes that he bet on her horse, and screams and yells at him. Then she begins throwing oranges at the fleeing couple and finally hurls her purse at them. Charley is naturally amused and just grins; Bill, on the other hand, overreacts and throws one of the oranges back at her. Typically, the orange does not come near the girl. "You can't even throw, you asshole," she yells. Wanting to celebrate their win. Bill and Charley return to Barbara's and Susan's. To their disappointment, they find out that the women have already agreed to go to dinner with one of their regular customers, a transvestite called Helen. Imitating the police in The long Good-Bye Charley and Bill wait for Helen, announce they are the vice squard, intimidate and frighten Helen away, and salvage their evening. Despite the prankster humor and the unerring

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154 accuracy of their vice square routine, their behavior is cruel, unpleasant, and self-centered. This is still Charley's scene; the other characters stifle laughs and allow themselves to be carried by Charley's force and intensity. Although still light, this scene is the first in which Charley intimidates and victimizes a helpless person for sport. There is, then, an undertone of cruelty that is a foreshadowing of the film's later mood. The unpleasant undertones vanish, however, as the movie moves to its most touching scene. The four go to a boxing match; they become two couples on a pleasant double date. Even if Susan cannot bear to watch the boxers hit each other, she cheers with the rest of the crowd. The arena is alive and active; strangers are betting both on the fight in the ring and on the fights that have broken out in the audience. "I'll bet five on the man in the suit," laughs Charley as they are leaving the auditorium. Comfortable and happy with each other, the four are having a good time; because the four are so likeable, we too have fun watching them. Their happiness is unexpectedly cut short in the parking lot, where Bill and Charley are again mugged. Once more, Charley takes control and salvages the situation by his fast thinking and faster talking. Even in this confrontation, which is potentially the most dangerous and most unexpected, Charley proves his ability to instinctively control events and to maintain his healthy sense of humor.

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155 Although they come av^ay from the mugging unharmed and relatively unfazed, Charley's and Bill's luck begins to turn. Charley and Bill return to the poker casino. This time, however, Charley and Bill are playing at different tables and are adrift in a sea of matronly ladies. Earlier in the film, Charley had explained that he likes the casino because the players there are suckers who think they are good gamblers. "Boy," he says, "do I love to beat those suckers!" Now, however. Bill and Charley are being beaten by those same suckers; none of their fast talking is able to minimize their losses. Charley's arrogant attitude and boasting has backfired; for the first time, we sense a superficiality behind Charley's routines. The film's transition from Charley's to Bill's point of view continues with Bill's call from Sparkey, his angry and unpaid bookie/loan shark. Under Charley's supportive gaze, Bill puts on a fake show of bravado and succeeds in postponing the payment deadline. Even though the delaying tactic is successful, it is the first ugly and real challenge of Bill's responsibilities to Charley's more spontaneous lifestyle. In the first part of the film, Altman has intertwined the characters, moods, and events. Charley's light, playful, and impulsive personality dominates and determines the perspective by which the events are presented. Thus, the ugliness of the confrontation between Charley and the other poker players is glossed over by Charley's fast wit and by

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156 Bill's comical escape; the first mugging is softened by the preceding warm. drunk scene and following comic jail scene. Charley's, Barbara's, and Susan's unusual home life is framed by the concern each has for each other and by the sanely eccentric and child-like quality of their behavior. The Egyptian Fem sequence is so well paced, comic, and good natured that it buffers the nastiness of the encounter with Helen, leaving only a hint of the imminent mood shift and ultimate reassessment of Charley's character. At least in the first part of the film, then, the sheer force of Charley's personality puts everyone, including the audience, under his dazzling spell. As soon as Charley leaves, however, the mood of the film changes. With Charley gone. Bill becomes the film's controlling force. And from the first moment, the shift is noticeable. In an especially degrading scene. Bill meets Sparky, the loan shark, and grovels for more time. We watch Bill plead, beg, and endure Sparky' s insults and contempt. Had Charley been in the same situation, his ability to fast talk may have made the scene funny. Bill, however, lacks his charm and instincts; his inadequate attempts at hustling are ugly and unpleasant to watch. Bill's efforts to raise the money display none of the film's earlier compassionate and gentle humor. Harvey's ESP flash about Bill's need for some new house paint is more ludicrous than funny, especially when juxtaposed with Bill's real needs. Had Harvey been introduced earlier and

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157 been seen through Charley's sense for the absurd, he may have been genuinely funny and likeable. Appearing in Bill's segment, however, he loses the element of respect and healthy humor and becomes instead a character to laugh at, not with. Failing to get money elsewhere. Bill goes to a poker game held in a dirty building in a decaying neighborhood. To enter the game, he has to walk through a dark, cluttered apartment where he is jadedly propositioned by a black whore. In the room adjoining the game, there are an expressionless woman and baby. The contrast between this house and Barbara's and Susan's home is striking; instead of warmth, light, and love, there is only squalor, poverty, and broken people. The disintegration of a healthy environment is continued in the film's second bar sequence. Bill is drinking alone in a bar much like the bar he met Charley in. But there is no conviviality here, only an abusive drunk woman who, like Bill, has run out of luck. Although her clothes and appearance indicate a former dignity, she is now shrill, embarrassing, and depressing. She dominates the scene, making it as uncomfortable for us as it is for the bar's patrons. The hiimor, good will, and optimism of the first part of the movie are now totally absent. Bill goes back to Barbara's and Susan's house in the hopes that Charley has returned, but finds Susan alone. Bill is still reeling from the increasingly difficult

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15 8 demands being placed on him; Susan is still in between rejections; both, then, are in need of genuine human contact. When Susan tells Bill that she finds him sexually attractive, he awkwardly explains that he has no money. Since even McCabe had to pay for Mrs. Miller, there is some tension hinging on Susan's reaction. Susan, however, is no Mrs. Miller; she smiles, tells Bill that she really likes him, and will do it for free. Despite or perhaps because of her sincerity and tenderness. Bill is embarrassed and clumsy. As they try to struggle out of their clothes and get comfortable, Barbara comes in and further embarrasses Bill into leaving. As he leaves, he becomes one of the many men who have broken Susan's heart. As he shuts the door, the camera moves in on Barbara's tear stained and suddenly old face; she clings to Susan and tells her of the two men they are going to Hawaii with the next day. Susan and Barbara do not return to the film; they leave California and our field of vision. Their exit is to be followed by Charley's return and thus is the final segment of Bill's segment of the movie. Despite their relatively early departure from the film, however, Susan and Barbara are very important characters. Susan is a painfully naive, vulnerable, and open person. She is more a child than a woman, wearing silly pajamas, exhibiting a very short attention span and an unlimited gullibility, vacillating from deep depression to a joyous belief that her "lover" will become her husband.

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159 Barbara, on the other hand, is older and wiser. She is the one who copes with the daily living requirements, from bailing the men out of jail to managing the evening with Helen to setting up the Hawaii trip. Although she tries to keep Susan hopeful, Barbara's eyes and face show that she knows Prince Charming will pass them by. Like Mrs. Miller, Barbara probably would not give her body, her livelihood, away for nothing, which perhaps explains the lack of physical intimacy shown between Charley and Barbara and also their separate sleeping quarters. Despite this similarity, however, Barbara lacks Mrs. Miller's self-confidence, business mind, and foresight. Where Mrs. Miller takes a book to bed, Barbara takes the TV Guide Both women are approaching their last years of active whoring, but Barbara seems financially and mentally unprepared for the transition to a future means of support. In fact, Barbara seems more like one of Mrs. Miller's whores, a decent, sensitive "class girl" who lacks Mrs. Miller's strong survival instinct and ambition. Although Barbara and Susan do not have a bright future or a permanent love relationship with a man, they do have each other's respect and love. They have a home, complete with Christmas tree lights, and are committed to each other's welfare. Barbara offers Susan physical, nonsexual, and psychological comfort; in the rarer instances when Barbara herself is in need of reassurance and affection, Susan is capable of providing it. At first glance, their

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160 relationship appears to be a reversal of the Altman pattern of the isolated individual incapable of sustaining a permanent relationship. Upon closer examination, however, and despite Barbara's and Susan's genuine and deep concern for each other, their relationship is incomplete. It is based upon their lack of sustained relationships with men and the more practical need of having someplace to live. Given the chance, each would choose a relationship with a man. Since there is no man, they rely on each other. Thus, regardless of how functional or comforting their relationship is, it still is a substitute for a total fulfilling one. Unlike Susan and Barbara, Bill and Charley choose to be together. Charley thinks Bill is a good gambling partner; Bill expects Charley to help him loosen up and enjoy himself more. But like Susan's and Barbara's relationship, there is an incompleteness and quiet desperation to their friendship. When Charley gets back from Mexico and they become partners again, there is an unresolvable tension between Charley's absurd, fast talking style and Bill's more sober, more troubled needs. Because of the conflict between the two moods, the last part of the film is a mixture of both; we still laugh but it is no longer funny. When Charley appears in Bill's window, complete with Mexican hat and paper bird. Bill is organizing all his pawnable goods. Bill is hurt by Charley's abrupt departure and feels left out. Rather than deal honestly with

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161 Bill's emotional, if neurotic, reaction, Charley characteristically reverts to the crudely funny one-armed piccolo player joke. Bill laughs too long, too loud, too hysterically to be laughing at the joke; he is also exhibiting relief at the reestablishraent of their relationship. Partners again, the two set out to raise as much money as they can so that they can enter a big poker game in Reno. While Bill pawns all his possessions, Charley resorts to street hustling, beating cocky young basketball players and mugging Lew, who he runs into at the track. And although we still sympathize with Charley and still laugh at his efforts at hustling, the humor is more forced. Even though he still is likeable, he no longer seems as harmless and healthy as he did in the earlier part of the movie. As soon as they get the money, the two go to Reno. Bill tells Charley he feels like he is going to win everything and must play the hands, listens to Charley's instinctive and correct assessment of the other payers, and then ki.cks Charley out of the room. From this point, the humor stems from Charley's efforts to keep busy and pass the time while Bill plays. After a slow start. Bill becomes the big winner at the poker table. When he exhausts that, he turns to twenty-one, roulette, and craps. His streak holds ; he finally stops, after winning eighty-two thousand dollars. Understandably ecstatic, Charley is already making plans on which tracks to spend the next months at. Bill, however, is strangely subdued. "Do you always take a big win so

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162 hard?" jokes Charley. "I lied," Bill admits, "there was no special feeling." Charley looks at him disbelievingly ; "I know that," he answers, "everybody knows that." This is not enough for Bill, who stares at Charley. Finally, realizing he must say something, Charley fumbles with his money and then looks at Bill. "It don't mean a fucking thing," he quietly says. A knowledge of The Hustler helps make Bill's disillusionment over the absence of a special feeling more understandable. In that movie, Sarah tells Eddie, a pool hustler who loves the game, that he is a winner. Even though he has no money and no security, he feels magical when he picks up the pool cue. Because he loves what he is doing, because he is one with the pool cue, he has something much more valuable than material success. That feeling distinguishes him from the other characters; since they have no activity that they can feel at one with, they are losers. This is the same feeling that Bill hopes to find in gambling. Bill, an educated, conventionally successful person, is unhappy with the routine banalities of the middle class world. He is irresistibly drawn to gambling, but is too cautious and reserved to be secure in the gambling world. Charley seems to be his perfect mentor. Despite a streak of cruelty and overpowering self-centeredness Charley is fun loving, street smart, impulsive. Having no job, no family, no real home, Charley is free of all traditional

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163 responsibilities. Most importantly, Charley appears to work purely by instinct and feeling, rather than reason. His ability to enjoy himself and control any situation suggests that he has captured the essence of gambling. Because so much of Charley's appeal to Bill stems from his spontaneity and naturalness, his admission that people only act as if there is such a feeling is particularly damaging. In a world of increasing standardization and distrust, Charley's honesty and integration of his public and private selves are refreshing and rejuvenating. His admission of only acting like there is a special gambler's instinct is also an admission that he is playing a role. This undercuts the concept of Charley as a spontaneous and natural person, acknowledges a gap between the public and private Charley, and raises the question of Charley's posturing. He did not know, then, that Egyptian Fem had won before the results were posted, but only acted as if he knew. In his own way, he is just as studied, mannered, and confined to a role as Bill is. His role may be more attractive, mainly because it passes itself off as an instinctive non-role, but it is a role nonetheless. If Charley can convincingly act out a special feeling that he does not feel and use the feeling as the cornerstone of the core activity of his life, he can also act out the more peripheral roles. His talent for conveying a role explains the zeal and effectiveness he brings to his police impersonation, the success and ease he has in

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164 hustling the kids on the basketball court and handling the black mugger. Charley is as convincing in these roles as he is in his performance of a gambler. His entire act rests upon the premise that he moves naturally and instinctively, that gambling is right for him because it feels right. Without that instinctive feeling, the role of the gambler becomes kin to that of a con man. It is no longer a question of feeling, but of giving the impression of feeling. The realization that there is no special feeling or instinct to gambling has important implications to Bill. Instead of an exhuberant and spontaneous activity, gambling is merely another game that does not "mean a fucking thing." At the beginning of the film, there is a machine that flashes a still from McCabe and tells whoever puts a quarter in (Charley, in this case) that the film will teach him how to play the game. And at the end of the movie. Bill has learned to play with style. But he still does not feel anything; he has merely escaped from one rat race into another. At the end of the movie, then, Bill sits alone at the bar. He has absorbed everything he could from Charley; he has learned all the moves and has learned them well. And he has won. But the winning has been devoid of the feeling, the excitement, the emotion; this emptiness negates the win and makes it a far more serious loss.

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165 So although Bill has won a great deal of money, he has spent many, agonizing and joyless hours v/inning it. And in spite of the money, the personal pain and disillusionment that he has undergone make him a loser. There is no special feeling, Bill finds out, only a manufactured sense of false excitement that cheapens and degrades gambling and gamblers. Had Bill lost the money, there would still be potential winners; by making him such a big winner and still a loser, Altman shows that there are no winners in the gambling world. This comment is reiterated and underscored by two beautifully understated details. The first occurs when Charley and Bill are about to enter the Reno poker game. They stop to pet Dumbo, an ivory statue that recalls the film's first bar scene and the flowering of their friendship, for luck. As they do so, a player that has just been beaten walks out of the poker game they are about to enter. Although Bill and Charley do not notice him, they have seen him before. In the film's first scene, there is a collection of individual types playing poker. One man is middle-aged, mild mannered, white collared, and Jewish looking. Although he does nothing distinguishable, he is memorable principally because he looks like Bill's father and just like what Bill will probably look like in twenty years. When he walks out of the Reno game Bill is going to walk into, the implication is that Bill will not disassociate

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166 himself from the gambling world he finds so little satisfaction in. Even though it is not satisfying, gambling is a habit that is hard to break. This detail is further amplified by the movie's final shot. While the singer sings, the credits pass by and over a spinning wheel of fortune. About twothirds through the credits, the credits begin to follow the wheel's rotation until they are picked up and roll with it. The film ends, then, on a circular motion everyone is where they began. Some are a little more disillusioned, all are a little older, and all are still on the circular treadmill. Once on, there is no getting off. As the film ends, Charley and Bill, like all the other characters, are alone. Bill shakes his head; "I'm going home," he tells Charley. "Oh, yeah," Charley snaps, "Where do you live?" Bill sadly smiles; he cannot tell Charley V7here because he himself does not know. So instead, he jr<-t says "I'll see ya The camera pulls them apart and the deeply depressed and disillustioned Bill leaves. Charley is more resigned to life's lack of meaning and is more comfortable in his role; he bounces back much faster. Thus, after Bill leaves, we see Charley give the wheel of fortune its final spin and then hear him banter and sing with the Reno singer. "It's the story of my life," he tells the singer as she begins to sing "Bye Bye Blackbird," a bittersweet song of endings. "Pack up all my cares and woes, here I go, singing low. Bye, bye, blackbird," they

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167 sing. The next line is even more appropriate. "No one here can love or understand me." Even though he has perfected the role to the point where it seems natural, it is still a role; we do not know the real Charley who is behind the role. And since we cannot know him, we certainly cannot love or understand him. Altman has, of course, been dealing with the essential isolation of the individual in all his movies; the movie allusions in California Split help remind us of this running concern. Although there are several references to Disney films, including Snow White, Dumbo, and Bambi and to The Cincinnati Kid the majority of the allusions are to The Long Good-bye and McCabe. More than entertaining trivia, the allusions are used to establish contexts, depth, and comments on the characters and events of California Split The still from the gambling scene in McCabe and the verbal cue that the movie will teach how to play the game is in the first scene. This is especially interesting because McCabe died because he could not play the game and could have used the lessons. The next scene also uses an allusion, this time to The Long Good-bye Bill and Charley bet on the seven dwarfs, just as Marlowe and Lennox bet on the three brothers and on the dollar bills' serial numbers. Soon thereafter, in both The Long Good-bye and California Split the male leads are thrown into jail. And when Charley imitates the cops in Helen's scene, he is imitating the ones who shook Marlowe down.

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168 The allusions go beyond specific references; the characters themselves allude to and define themselves in reference to the other movies. Susan and Barbara, for example, are directly contrasted with Mrs. Miller. When they cling to each other, they do so against Mrs. Miller's question, "What do you do when two whores get sweet on each other?" Whey they take down their Christmas lights and plan for next year's display, they recall Mrs. Miller's observation that "a good whore with time on her hands will turn to religion nine times out of ten." And when Susan offers herself to Bill, she does so against Mrs. Miller's insistence that McCabe pay. The association with Mrs. Miller gives us an immediate context for Susan and Barbara. When taken alone, Barbara and Susan appear to be unable to satisfactorily shape their lives. But when the religion they turn to is dime store Christmas lights and when they cannot even get genuinely sweet on each other or even begin to manage their future, they show that they are in need of a woman (or man) like Mrs. Miller to take care of them. Without seeing McCabe, the same observations could be made; a knowledge of the comparison between Mrs. Miller and Susan and Barbara, however, makes Barbara and Susan even more poignant and more vulnerable. Although Images Kathryn and The Long Good-bye s Roger Wade are writers. Bill does not share their creativity or their colorful nature. Instead, Bill's inability to fit comfortably into his chosen role, his relationship with

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169 Susan, and his final losing in winning all suggest a kinship with McCabe. McCabe spends his time trying to become a respectable middle class businessman; Bill, on the other hand, tries to disassociate himself from its repressive role demands and wants to capture the more immediate emotional intensity and romanticism of the gambler. Neither, of course, can succeed. Although McCabe has Mrs. Miller and thus, however temporarily, achieves a beautiful and intense emotional relationship, he never learns his role. Bill, on the other hand, has Charley and learns his role well. But he learns that gambling is a role, not a spontaneous or instinctive activity. At least McCabe has his misguided adherence to the empty code of heroism; Bill knows that his dreams of gambling as a meaningful lifestyle are empty. Bill is also less enviable than McCabe because he is denied even the few moments of life and love that McCabe gets. Charley is a more obvious continuation of an earlier character, Phillip Marlowe. Partially because they share the same actor, the two share a tendency to mumble, a touch for the absurd, an affinity for gambling, and a potential for violent and egocentric behavior. Both are engaging and magnetic; both are their films' most charismatic figures. And most importantly, both delineate the world in which the films move. Charley defines California Split most clearly when he mugs Lew, gets his money back, and gets to beat him up.

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170 Although Charley is unnecessarily brutal and is obviously enjoying himself, our sympathy remains with Charley. Lew has, after all, beaten and robbed Charley and has gone unpunished. If he is to be punished, Charley must be the agent. So once more revenge becomes necessary and acceptable. Nothing has changed; it is as if Marty Augustine was in the background screaming that the man "took my money" and therefore deserves "capital punishment." And since the principle of self-maximization of personal interest is still operative, Charley's mistreatment of Helen, his unannounced departure to Tiajuana (still another allusion to The Long Good-bye ) and his hustling all seem understandable and justifiable. These comparisons and refinements do not mean that California Split is no more than The Son of McCabe Meets The Long Good-bye Although it does deal with the same themes and character types as the earlier Altman movies, it expands the vision to the contemporary American middle class. It also is the first of his to explicitly detail a character's moment of realization that his dream is empty. And most importantly, California Split finds still another way to attain continuity. Relatively early in the film, we and Bill become aware of the large number of women characters named Barbara. At about the same time we notice it. Bill remarks, "I'm meeting an awful lot of Barbaras these days." He is right; the female lead is Barbara, his receptionist is a

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171 Barbara and is played by an actress named Barbara (Colby) a writer at his magazine is Barbara, as is a waitress. When Bill is in need of assurance at the beginning of his Reno fling, he sees a female casino employee's name tag Barbara. Bill smiles, having found his sign and his courage. Then, as the film ends, comes the final Barbara. "For Barbara," the credits read. Barbara, then, ties together all of the film's episodes because the name enforces a continuous thread. It gives Bill critical comfort and gives Altman a heightened personal involvement; the film is special because it is for her. And because we too can discover all the Barbaras with Bill, we are also participants and beneficiaries in the device. California Split is, then, a derivative work. Even if it does not have the originality of McCabe, Images or The Long Good-bye it is a sustained and complex film. There is the totally new method of continuity here and there are more major and better developed characters. Also, there is a more varied emotional range and mood shift in California Split than in the other Altman movies. His funniest and warmest comic moments are here, along with some of his quietest and most effective tragedy. Unfortunately, in his next movie, Nashville Altman will strive for even greater range, but will sacrifice the depth and humanity he achieves in California Split.

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CHAPTER 10 NASHVILLE Since NashviLle is the first Altman film since MASH to receive widespread media attention, it may be remembered as the movie that brought him back into the public eye. It also may be remembered for its kaleidoscopic motion and intertwining of its characters' lives. It will not be remembered, however, for its thematic depth or its well drawn characters. When Altman decided to make a two-and-one-half hour movie about twenty-four characters (or a little more than six minutes for each one) he had to resort to caricatures, stereotypes, and simplifications. Since there simply is no time to effectively develop so many characters, Altman 1 utilized these devices in order to tell the story. Several character types exist in Nashville Perhaps most striking are those characters that are least developed but original, like the Tricycle Man. He never speaks, but appears mysteriously throughout the movie, doing his magic tricks f giving characters silent support, or just moving through the frame. Although his role cries out for interpretation, no clues are given to his identity and he remains an entertaining visual mystery. The soldier is 172

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173 another unusual character. Since his mother saved Barbara Jean's life years ago, the soldier has been raised in awe of Barbara Jean. Rather than enjoy her music, he hovers respectfully around her, a frightening representation of the total fan. Rather than enriching himself, his slavish 2 devotion to his idol has dehumanized him. Lacking the intellectual information necessary to categorize these two characters, we can only respond to them emotionally. Just the opposite is true of several other characters. We know too much about them to react emotionally, but not enough to react intellectually. Lady Pearl, for example, seems gracious and competent, but is also tearful and withdrawn as she reminisces about the Kennedy boys' Presidential campaigns. Although her preoccupation foreshadows the film's climactic assasination and contrasts the Kennedy charisma with Hal Phillip Walker's anonymous media politics. Pearl's inability to adjust to the present conflicts with the rest of her personality. Since we do not know enough about her to reconcile her two sides, we fail to believe in her. Like Lady Pearl, Barbara Jean is incompletely developed and, as a result, ineffective. Although we can see her instability and fragility, we cannot understand her nervous breakdown. Although her eager acknowledgement of the fans at the airport and the hospital suggests her happiness with the role of a star, the private Barbara Jean cannot mentally withstand its demands. Again, we do not know why. We are

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174 always kept on the outside of Barbara Jean; we watch her collapse and get murdered, but never get to know or understand her. As a result, we never develop a sustained identification or personal relationship with her. Had our involvement with her been more deeply cultivated, her murder 3 and the film's ending would have had more of an impact. Other stereotypcial characters are merely trite. Triplette, for example, is Nashville s company man. Anonymously good looking and innocuous, he sneaks into hotel and hospital rooms, quietly pursues his interests, and perseveres. All image and no substance, Triplette is one of the film's most dangerous and negative characters because he packages the events and climates of the times. His facelessness and reliance on superficiality and style make him a familiar evil of our age. Kenny, the assa-ssin-, is another stereotype. A "tourist4 drifter," he is polite and nondescript. One of those quiet losers of life, we only see him at a distance: his car blows up in the traffic jam; he gives Mr. Green comfort and sympathy; he talks to his mother on long distance and assures her he has not picked up a fungus from the rooming house's sheets; he fails to attrack L.A. Joan's interest. At the end of the movie, when he shoots Barbara Jean, he becomes another of those repressed individuals who uses violence to gain attention. Unfortunately, Altman uses the cliche without illuminating, refining, or explaining the stereotype. Because Kenny remains a stereotype, our

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reaction to the murder is dulled; we have seen too many similar situations to respond to Barbara Jean's murder in a less jaded way. Although our reaction reinforces Nash ville s criticism of America as violent and egotistical, the reaction is obtained cheaply and deceptively. Had Altman developed Kenny and Barbara Jean as people, our reaction to the assassination would have been more telling. But by keeping us so distant from both characters, Altman 5 creates and guarantees a detached audience response. Although most of Nashville s characters are stereotypical, Sueleen Gay, Wade, and Linnea Reese transcend their types and become real people. Sueleen, a talentless singer who dreams of being a star, demonstrates the strength of her dreams. Even after being ridiculed and forced to strip at the smoker, she still hopes for the big break. More promising than her show business future, however, is her friendship with a loud, crassy co-worker. Wade. Because he really cares for her, he tells her that she cannot sing and tries to get her out of Nashville. We do not find out if he succeeds or even if she could be happy without her dreams; we do not even know enough about Wade to substantiate our positive response to him. But Sueleen 's refreshing innocence and Wade's honesty and insight into Nashville's false values, when added to the human affection they demonstrate towards each other, give them a dimension of humanity and individuality missing from Nashville s other characters.

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176 Linnea Reese is perhaps the film's most intriguing, most complex character. An outsider within Nashville's power structure, she is the only white gospel singer in a black choir and goes to the black church. Seemingly unimpressed by the false tinsel of show business, she is happiest when at home with her two deaf children. Quietly dissatisfied with her marriage, however, she uneasily goes to Tom's motel room. After they make love and she begins to leave, Tom calls another girl. Despite Tom's insensitivity, Linnea smiles, kisses him, and tells him in sign language that she is happy to have met him. Because she seems so giving, so vulnerable, and so unhappy, Tom's shallowness and callousness angers and embarrasses us. Unlike the other characters, Linnea seems to deserve much more. We see Linnea one more time, at the final rally. There too she differentiates herself. After Barbara Jean is shot, Linnea alone acts humanely. Realizing that a life has just been taken, she "stands devastated, somehow unable to reconcile any of it with the song." Linnea, unlike the others, recognizes the value of life; she needs, respects, and strives for genuine human interaction. Although we do not spend much time with her, Linnea projects a troubled but alive presence that makes her unique and effective. Even though Nashville has twenty-four major characters, it is more a socio-political statement about contemporary America than a character study. Although the nature of

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177 society has not changed since McCabe, although Z^erica is still ruled byinvisible corporate powers, the ordinary people have changed. In McCabe, people were sufficiently selfless, albeit misguided, to work together so that the church, the symbol of civilization, could be saved. By the nineteen-thirties and Thieves Like Us people had lost the ability to work together; the question was no longer the survival of society but of the individual. In addition, McCabe 's and Mrs. Miller's love had been replaced by Keechie's ultimate hatred for Bowie. In today's society, even this hatred, a deep and personal emotional commitment, vanishes. Instead, Altman finds modern America composed of individuals uncommitted to another person or a social group. The concept of social responsibility has been replaced by the carnival-like megaphone of Hal Phillip Walker, who himself is invisible. Triplette understands that politics and show business have become indistinguishable. Thus, Haven supports the rally because he has been tantalized with the promise of Tennessee's governship. Bartlett, Barbara Jean's manager-husband, thinks that Walker is an unacceptable candidate, but hopes Barbara Jean's appearance at the rally will make up for her cancelled concert. People in Nashville are, then, no different from those in The Long Good-bye ; in both, they act only out of self-interest. Although both Nashville and McCabe end in scenes of public crises, the endings are only superficially similar. In McCabe, the townspeople, who know each other, respond

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178 selflessly to save a common symbol of their lives. In Nashville the anonymous crowd cares only about hearing a concert. When Barbara Jean is killed, the human impulse is to panic and run. As soon as Albequergue gets control, however, the crowd calms down, cooly accepts the shooting, and joins Albequergue in singing "It don't worry me." Rather than affirm the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of people to work together in a crisis, the ending ironically and depressingly comments on the lack of human feeling in today's world. Unlike McCabe, Nashville shows us a faceless crowd interested only in self -survival. This comment on America is not new; Altman made it in The Long Good-bye and, to a lesser extent, in California Split. Los Angeles, gambling, and sleuthing are, however, idiosyncratic and specific worlds that do not easily generalize to the rest of America. With Nashville Altman is able to be more comprehensive and inclusive. Nashville is the center of the new South, a place 'A-here the traditions of the past blend with the optimism and material prosperity of the present. Although it, like Hollywood, is a dream factory for those who want to be show business stars and although it revolves around its success stories, the dream and the stars seem more accessible, more human, and more committed in Nashville. The heroes, including Haven, Linnea, and Tommy Brown, sit in the same bars that the locals do and drive the same types of cars. They all go to neighborhood churches, sing in local choirs and

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179 live in comfortable but modest homes o Uninsulated from the outside world, they deal with the more ordinary people, including lawyers, doctors, nurses, farmers, tourists, waitresses, chauffeurs, patients, soldiers. When Barbara Jean is in the hospital, for example, she sings in the church choir and cares about Mr, Green and his sick wife. She is not a prima donna or temperamental star, then, but an interested person too. When Tom wants to call Linnea, he does not have to go through personal secretaries and answering services; he just picks up the phone, dials her number, and talks to her. Nashville then, is not just about a rich and atypical group of country-western stars, but about us all. The characters in the film encompass every economic, occupational, and social group; if someone is not in Nashville he or she is probably not in America either. So when Joan Tewkesbury, the scriptwriter, says that "All you need to do is add yourself as the twentyfifth character," she is explicitly including us as a vital 7 part of Nashville This inclusion goes beyond the usual Altman demand for an active viewer. This time, Altman is making a political statement about America today. As American viewers, we are a part of that statement. What is said in the movie, then, is applicable to us as well. By using Nashville and such a broad range of characters, then, Altman has obtained maximum generalization; he has forced us to confront ourselves in the film.

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180 As the twentyfifth character, we are not spared from the film's climax. We may get caught up in its pageantry, may be shocked and sickened by its sudden violence, may be bored by it, or may even try to analyze and thus detach ourselves from the ending. Ultimately, however, we will return to our own more egocentric and private interests. The problem of the quality of American life and the enormous task of reform is too big for our individual abilities; we will retreat into our smaller, more manageable private lives. In the end, then, "it don't worry us" either. Nashville is not at all a pleasant movie. Its humor is often ironic and sordid; its characters, petty and negative stereotypes; its events, bleak and degrading; its possibilities for solutions and hope, minimal. Cold, cynical, impersonal, it offers little to laugh about or identify with. Despite Altman's comment that he and his lack of knowledge and superiority are represented by Opal, the BBC re8 porter, Altman seems very sure of himself in Nashville There is no debate in this movie; it shows us the way things are in Nashville, Tennessee, the South, the United States of AiTierica. It knows America is a dismal place and demonstrates this point by moving twenty-four characters, without true human complexity, through situations that prove their emptiness and lack of fulfillment. Despite all the improvisation that went on before and during the

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181 filming, the characters remain puppets who reinforce a predetermined political statement. Rather than unfamiliar or shocking, TSIashvi lie s message is not a hard one to argue against. Since the message, although not palatable, is not troublesomely offensive, since the twenty-four characters keep the film moving breathlessly, since the acting and technical skill behind the film are uniformly excellent, and since the advance publicity, critical acclaim, and extensive advertising all suggested a major blockbuster, why was Tsrashville a financial failure? Failure is an ambiguous term unless its criteria are adequately established. Although some reviews of Nashville were ecstatically favorable, many, especially the nonEastern and later reviews, have been unfavorable. Many in the Altman cult have been disappointed by the stereotypes and superficialities of the movie, especially after viewing it more than once. But as Altman taught us in Images we must let the movie generate its own standards. For Nash ville that criterion does not seem to be critical acclaim, but box office receipts. From the moment that Nashville began becoming the new media event (a phenomenon helped by Pauline Kael's obnoxiously self-confident advance rave) Altman made no secret that he hoped that Nashville would make millions. He thought it would "clean up. I think it's going to take all the money in the world. But then," he added, "I'm pretty

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182 naive about commercial success." To the end, he, the producer, Jerry Weintraub, and Paramount agreed to promote the film without any quote ads or "highbrow appeal. Advertise it as an event, not as a film," Thus, Nashville was not "an orgy for movie-goers," but "the damndest thing you ever saw." So with almost the entire East Coast critical establishment, a cover story from TSiewsweek and a broadly based advertising campaign, 1975 's biggest movie was launched. Even if unaware of their commercial hopes for the film, the opening sequence makes Nashville s ambitions clear. The soundtrack album spins towards us, accompanied by the voice of a late night television salesman. "Now after years in the making. ... Robert Altman brings you the long awaited Nashville with twenty-four, count 'em twenty-four of your favorite stars." The music comes in, loud, seguing from one song to the next, and he continues with a hype on each until everything has whirled and spun and played through your senses. "And along with the magnificent stars the magic of stereo sound and livingcolor picture right before your very eyes, ^2 without commercial interruption. Nashville A satire, of course, but also an accurate representation of the movie. Like MASH this one is a commodity, a packaged piece of merchandise.

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Nashville is a kaleidoscope, a blur of characters and motion. Like Charley in California Split or like its own Triplette, it is a movie that has replaced substance with style; in an appropriate cliche of the times, "what you see is what you get. But while this lack of depth may cause resentment from the relatively small group of intellectual film goers and would be a possible cause of their disappointment with Nashville the general public in the year of Jaws would not be adversely influenced by a superficial but exciting movie. No, TSTashville certainly did not fail because it substituted flash for intellectual depth. The key to Nashville s limited appeal may instead be in its unique focus for audience identification. Unlike an Airport which offers familiar stars like Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, and Jacqueline Bisset and immediately lovable old ladies like Helen Hayes, Nashville offers actors familiar primarily to Altman fans. Not only are there no stars, there are also no enviable or instantly attractive roles to identify with. Unlike the other multi-character movies that deal in stereotypes, there are no pre-established audience favorites or larger than life super-heroes or villains. The "ordinary" viewer does not get immediately rewarded, nor does he have enough time with a character to develop an emotional relationship beyond the stereotype or exterior. As a result, he becomes bored, lost, and confused.

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184 For Altman fans, however, there is an instant target of identification with Altman himself. We have been following most of the actors for nine films now and have a surprisingly deep affection for them. As veterans of the Altman scene, we are able to welcome his newest discoveries because we are old members ourselves. Too, we know about his tricks; we are attuned to the constant verbal action, are primed for his cinematic moments and share or at least are comfortable with his values. Instinctively, then, we relax and let the movie happen; we sit with Altman above the characters and share in his vision of TSIashville and movie-making. Because of this, Nashville becomes almost like an in-joke or an exclusive and self-congratulatory secret. The in-joke is typified by the cameo appearances of Julie Christie and Elliot Gould. Elliot Gould comes to Haven's party; we hear his unmistakable voice and then we see him. When asked why he is in Nashville, he mumbles, "I'm just coming to a party.... I'm promoting a movie, not 13 making one." Then Julie Chrxstie wanders into a bar; Haven welcomes her to Nashville, the others wonderabout her. "Is she the one that got off the train in the snow?" Del whispers to Triplette. Although most of us who have seen McCabe smile at the unmistakable reference, the walkons, even to those of us in the know, seem distracting, self-conscious intrusions.

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185 As with all injokes, Nashville becomes an elitist film. Since the identification is made with the director and since that identification is derived from a foreknowledge of Altman or an extremely heightened cinematic perceptivity, most people in the audience will not be able to make the connection. Since the events are disconnected and only superficially developed and since the characters are so shallow and unattractive, the more casual viewer has nothing to engage him. Similarly, the more serious viewer cannot enjoy Nashville in the challenging, inexhaustible way he can some of the other Altman films; he does not bring anything new out of the theatre. So while Nashville cuts itself off from the traditional, admittedly small, Altman audience, it also fails to be acceptable to the general public as well. Since 1968, Altman has turned out an amazing, probably unparalleled body of work. Since MASH he has mastered his craft and has directed movies of extraordinary range, depth, and beauty. His lack of commercial success is not his fault, but the American movie-going public's. Nash ville was Altman' s attempt to woo the public, to out-MASH MASH The result, however, is his least successful movie, both from an artistic perspective and from its own financial criterion. Perhaps the failure stems from the knowledge Altman has gained from the last eight movies; Nash ville is Altman slumming. Unlike the others, which appear to be personal movies conceived, filmed, and edited with an artistic and a private purpose, Nashville seems like it

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186 was edited for what he thought other people, the American public, wanted. And for the first time, Altraan seems detached, uninvolved, mechanical. Nashville, then, is a turning point for Altman. It is his culminating political statement. It updates his political concerns and broadens his message to specifically include us all. Because he has now presented the sociopolitical vision so completely, he has exhausted the issue; it is now time to move on to new issues. If he does not, he risks repetition and stagnation. Also, Nashville has given him a much greater degree of visibility; instead of just a brilliant cult director, he is now an authentic celebrity. As such, he has the status to assume total control over his career; he does not have to worry that the movie companies will mishandle and then quietly drop his movies, as they have done since MASH. But he has also alienated many of his old fans, who hate the idea that "their" film director has gone public or who simply did not like Nashville For the first time, then, many are skeptical, uncommonly critical, and hostile. Altman is confronted with an uncertain audience and is entering a new stage in his career. He can learn from Nashville and can continue to develop artistically, hoping one day to receive the popular acclaim that he deserves. He can stagnate and remake his old movies until he runs out of money and syncopants Finally, he can continue to go after the broader commercial market. His past record and

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187 artistic awareness give us hope that he will continue to artistically grow; although current accounts of his associates indicate that he is already surrounded by people who shield him from criticism and negative comments that 14 are necessary for artistic growth. His upcoming Buffalo Bill and the Indians offers stars like Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, and Joel Grey; adopted from Arthur Kopit's Indians it may be a political diatribe, a fine movie, or another commercial attempt. His plans to film the mediocre but popular Breakfast of Champions with an all-star cast and Ragtime with an even bigger cast, indicate he still wants that big movie. Thus, he can go in any direction; the only certainty is that the choice is his. For an interesting account of TSIashvil le s shaping, read Jack Viertel and David Colker's "The Long Road to Nashville in the June 13, 1975 New Times 2 The mformatxon about the soldier's background does not appear in the movie, but appears in the screenplay. It is unclear how much background information Altman assumes the viewer gets about each character. In any event, when information is drawn from the screenplay, I have footnoted it. 3 Albequergue is another character whom we cannot believe in. Since she carries the ending and becomes a star, she is working within the Ruby Keeler mold. She seems too vacant, too stupid, and too lucky for us to believe in her or disbelieve in her enough, however, to give the ending the power it deserves. 4 Joan Tewkesbury, TSrashville (New York, 1976) (There is no pagination in the screenplay.)

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188 Notes (continued) All of the. characters are stereotypes; I did not develop each because the point had been made. Tom is the typical rock star; L.A. Joan, the typical groupie. Mr. Green exists only to suffer. Del conforms so predictably to the stereotypical perception of the new southern lawyer that he loses his believability. Typically prosperous-looking in his well tailored but pedestrian suit and his pot belly, he is superficially a pillar of the community. Thus, he goes to church each Sunday and appears to be a devoted family man. His private behavior is much different, however. After the smoker, he realizes Sueleen's vulnerability and uses his position to gain a sexual favor. More importantly, he has never even bothered to learn the sign language of his children, who are deaf-mutes, in order to communicate with them. To make the point of the successful yet hypocritical professional, Altman milks the stereotype, strips Del of his humanity and believability, and robs him of his effectiveness. He seems to like his children and be conventionally interested in his wife; he would have had to make a deliberate effort not to learn how to sign speak in twelve years. Although Altman seems interested in underscoring the hypocrisy and inhumanity of Del's stereotype, he has overdrawn it instead. And as a result, Del becomes unbelievable, contrived, and ineffective. 6 Tewkesbury. 7 Ibid g Terry Curtis Fox, "Nashville Chats," Chicago Reader July 4, 1975, p. 1. 9 Nashville, at last report, had made about one million dollars profit. In light of the hopes for the movie and the spectacular profits reaped by the big hits of 1975, Nashviile remains a box office disappointment, in spite of its modest profit. """^ Jack Viertel and David Colker, "The Long Road to Nashville New Times June 13, 1975, p. 56. Ibid. p. 59. 11 12 Tewkesbury ^^ Ibid. 14 Chris Hodenfield, "Bob Altman 's Nashville Rolling Stone, July 17, 1975, p. 31.

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CONCLUSION THE AUTEUR Although the nine films from That Cold Day to Nash ville hopefully represent only the first part of Altman's film output, they constitute an already impressive body of work. Because they share a coherent socio-political philosophy and an evolving visual style, they prove that Altman is a true auteur, a director whose command over his medium and his material is strong enough to make each film a personal statement. From these nine films, then, we can extract both the intellectual and artistic framework that guide his movies. Perhaps most constant in the nine films are Altman's beliefs about society. From the beginnings of modern America, he tells us in McCabe the individual has been a helpless, if willing, victim of civilization. As represented by the church and Ida's empty marriage, civilizations s symbols are hollow and fradulent, ultimately useful only to the real winners, the invisible power centers of the ruthless corporations. Still, the ordinary people believe in civilization's promise of middle class security and have no real alternative but to cooperate with the corporations' s demands.

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190 By the time of the depression and Thieves Like Us the quest for survival shifts from the survival of society to that of the individual. By the Thirties, the institutions of civilization are strong enough to exist without the support of the individual and are indifferent to the plight of the people. The people, however, need help. Without any marketable skills or resources and without any aid from government, big business, or the church, these people must fend for themselves. Because they are powerless and isolated, they become trapped into miserable, doomed lifestyles. The invisibility of the power structure denies them a visible target for their frustrations and anger. Instead, they turn their rage inward and destroy their personal relationships, too. Thus, Mattie turns Bowie in, wins back her husband (for as long as he can stay out of jail) and adds guilt to the list of hardships she must endure. And unlike Mrs. Miller, who still loves McCabe, Keechie can only feel bitterness and hatred for Bowie, her dead lover. Although MASH deals with the Korean War in an adolescent, absurd manner, its humor depends on the same negative world view. Alone in an inhiomane war and world, the MASH unit establishes a supportive, zany, positive environment. Sex, drink, drugs, and fun, themselves a juvenile (if inviting) concept of happiness, are readily available to its members. Threats to group stability are either neutralized and then assimilated, like Hot Lips, or expelled, like

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191 Frank Burns. Because the real world is harsh, dull, and repressive, MASH s own demand for conformity to its norms seems a small price to pay for MASH s appeal. Because the MASH unit looks so implausibly healthy when contrasted with the world beyond the theatre, because MASH functions as a sane reprieve from the outside world's values, MASH depends on the same bleak world of McCabe and Thieves And, just as the movie must end, MASH exists as a temporary aberration. Dish, Duke, and Hawk-eye must leave Korea and return to their more conventional and ordered American existences. Even in this fantasy, then, the values of the hostile, dehiomanizing world intrude and conquer. Brewster Mc Cloud more clearly illustrates the strength of the real world's hold. Essentially a contemporary retelling of Peter Pan and Daedulus Altman keeps to the spirit of the fantasy until the film's end. There, he changes Peter Pan's bitter-sweet ending to the sterner, more mythological, and unhappy one. Brewster takes place in the Astrodome, a man-made, controlled environment that ultimately constricts Brewster. Although he does fly, Brewster cannot break out of the dome and escape his earth bound fate. Even in dreams, man cannot free himself from society's boundaries and control. And if he tries to escape, he guarantees his destruction. The Long Good-bye Nashville and California Split bring Altman' s vision of America into the seventies. In these movies, the strong emotions of McCabe and Thieves

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192 have been muted by an improved material prosperity and by the increasingly complex power structure. The social responsibility of McCabe and the rage of Thieves have been replaced by a pervasive indifference to anything larger than one's own immediate and individual self-interest. Thus, until Marlowe's values and self-esteem are questioned, everything he sees is "okay by me." Charley and Bill hustle other gamblers and victimize Helen because they need the money for their big game or want to have a good time. Tom can casually sleep with women because he is "easy"; Haven can support Walker so that his own political ambitions can be furthered; Barbara Jean can opportunistically use the rally to make up for a cancelled concert. And when Barbara Jean is killed, thousands can sing the new national anthem, "It don't worry me." Until, of course, their selfinterest is threatened. The pursuit of self-interest has its consequences. Mrs. Miller explains that if no one else is going to take care of her, she must take care of herself. Because the individual's survival rests only on his or her own efforts, self-reliance becomes necessary. To rely on another person is foolish; the other person may die, fail, or just leave. No, in a hostile world, the individual who survives must depend only on himself. In such a world, then, isolation is both the natural and desirable state of the individual. Since the business or marriage partner will not always have the same interests.

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193 he or she will someday be a liability. When the inevitable conflict occurs, psychic and material loss will result; the individual will be hurt by the partnership. Since they will turn out disadvantageously, long term associations have no place in Altman's world. Their traditionally depicted security and fulfillment never materialize; not one major character in Altman's films is involved in a healthy permanent relationship. Society destroys McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Bowie and Keechie, Duke and Hot Lips, Barbara Jean and Barnett, and even Eileen and Terry. Some relationships self-destruct: Suzanne turns Brewster in. Bill leaves Charley. The other characters do not even have relationships to destroy. For Altman, then, the world is not made up of couples, but of individuals. To survive in this world of isolated, egoistical individuals, one minimizes his vulnerability by learning and using roles. Without these roles, or prescriptions for behavior, personal problems and needs might interfere with the individual's performance and put him at a disadvantage. McCabe, for example, who does not understand his role fully, permits his trouble with Mrs. Miller to interfere with his dealings with Sears and Hollander. Because he fails to act within his chosen role of businessman, he ultimately dies. No other Altman character will repeat his mistake; at the beginning of California Split Altman tells us that we "are going to learn how to play the game" and emphasizes the game's importance by showing us a still from McCabe.

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194 The best example of Altman' s hiding his characters behind roles is Calif or na Split's Charley. Through the film, Bill envies his spontaneity and refreshing impulsiveness. When Charley impersonates the vice squad cop or the arrogant, aging, and inept basketball player, he is surprisingly convincing and amusing. At the end of the film, however, Bill is startled by Charley's admission that he has been im.personating a gambler, as well; "Everyone knows there's no special feeling," Charley says, "you only act like there's one." Only then do we realize, with Bill, that we have never seen the Charley behind the roles; the Charley we know is the one he presents for piiblic consumption. That is why Charley succeeds; he has learned the role and game well enough to be resilient, invulnerable, and self-sufficient. Thus, at the end of the film, after their partnership has been dissolved, Charley quickly bounces back. As the singer sings "Bye Bye Blackbird/' he is already bantering with her. "That's the story of my life," he jokes. The realization that Charley is playing a role causes us to re-examine our relationship with the other Altman characters. Those characters who seemed to know what they wanted and how to get it have, we realize, been adept at playing their roles, at presenting public images well. Even those v/hom we thought we knew well turn out to be intensely private characters; we know them only by observing them in public situations and can only guess at their

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195 innermost nature. Because we see Mrs. Miller's expressive face and watch, her handle McCabe in a variety of situations, for example, we think we know her. But, as McCabe says, she "spends more time behind a locked door than any other female." When she retreats into her private drug-induced reveries, we too are excluded; her private life and thoughts remain unknown. Marlowe works the same way; probably because Elliot Gould plays both Marlowe and Charley, the two characters share many traits. Like the police, we witness Marlowe's brash impudence; as viewers, we follow his pursuit of the truth and thus deduce his personality. Although at the end we can evaluate his values and his motivations, we know little more about Marlowe than Lennox does. Like Charley, Marlowe is always acting the role of the private eye; like Charley, he never lets us get close to his inner self. The necessity for roles aliso explains Altman's unparalleled use of stereotypes. Perhaps no other director has been able to take a stereotypical character and make him seem so unusual and original. The entire MASH unit, Brewster's characters, Nashville's cast. Dr. Verringer, Marty Augustine, all depend upon our immediate identification with a stereotype. After the initial identification is made, an individual quirk or trait that gives the character his immediate impact and individuality is established. Augustine, for instance, depends upon our familiarity with the successful, respectable, corrupt, and inept nouveau

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196 riche; his amusingly absurd monologues, affectations, and inept henchman, are doubly comical because they are representatives of successful suburbanites. Lulled by the conventionality of the stereotype Augustine is defined by, we and Marlowe are astonished by his sudden, uncharacteristic, and brutal smashing of a Coke bottle into his mistress' face. Especially since he has seemed so absurd and inept, his unexpected and dramatic display of violence stuns us into believing his power and status. Verringer uses the stereotype in the same way; one of the film's most absurd and seemingly ineffectual quacks, Verringer and his strange hospital are genuinely funny partially because they reflect the almost equally absurd faddists of today's society. His bold entrance into Wade's party and his surprising show of strength there go against the stereotype; like Augustine, he reverses his portrayal and establishes a new and credible dimension to his character. Because they understand their roles, Verringer and Augustine become successful. They realize that most relationships are superficial and brief; conforming to a stereotype or role is essential if the relationship' s time is to be used effectively. But to differentiate themselves from everyone else and establish an individual identity, they use the stereotypes creatively; they let the type work for them by adding an original and unexpected twist. Thus, with one well placed move, they make themselves potent and memorable. They transform their harmless, amusing eccentricities into serious power bases;

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197 their demands no longer seem annoying trivialities but become unavoidable and formidable. Those characters who remain stereotypical, who quietly and unimaginatively play their roles, fall flat and fade from our memories. Another set of characters, however, either fail to learn their roles or are unable to find roles that work for them. California Split 's Susan and Brewster, for example, are too innocent and unsophisticated to have learned a role. Ignorant of the ways of the world, they cannot function without the maternal aid of Barbara or Louise. We respond maternally to them as well, accepting their incompetence and vulnerability more readily than we do Altman's troubled adults, who have had more time to learn. Frances, of That Cold Day Wade, of The Long Good bye, Barbara Jean, of Nashville and especially Kathryn, of Images, are all too troubled to maintain their roles and thus lose their abilities to function rationally or socially. Totally out of control, they place themselves at the mercies of other people, as Wade does, or of their uncontrolled emotions, as do the women. Losing the ability to cope means losing control over one's existence. As we find out most painfully from Kathryn, who occupies an entire movie with the search for her identity, underneath the roles lie not a healthy and engaging honesty, but a horrifying helplessness and terror. Rather than being more positive and appealing, these individuals that do not hide behind roles are disturbed, depressing, and doomed.

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198 One character does not fit into any of these characters. California Split 's Bill is dissatisfied with his ordered, rational, and predictable existence. Instead, he wants to be like Charley, who appears to live by his instincts in a spontaneous, exciting world of gambling. The film is Bill's education; he learns to become a gambler and, under Charley ^s tutelage, wins thousands of dollars in the big game. He also learns that there is "no special feeling," that gambling too is a role. At the end of the movie, the awareness that even gambling is not spontaneous and genuine leaves Bill stunned and empty; although there are clues that Bill will resign himself to this insight and play the role, we can only speculate on his next step. Because Bill is the first Altman character to discredit the artificiality of social roles and because he is the first relatively controlled and coherent figure without a role, Bill's future seems especially interesting. Unfortunately, Altman' s next installment, Nashville does not address itself to his predicament. Instead, Altman retreats and reverts to a diverting but stereotypical and superficial collection of character vignettes. Amazingly, then, the nine films do not present a single fulfilled and open individual; all the characters either search for or already have a satisfactory public role. Perhaps Altman feels that the happy individual makes dull art; perhaps he just does not see one. In any case, the person who is free from roles and happy simply does not show up in Altman' s movies.

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199 Although the perception of a hostile universe filled with egoistical role playing individuals is depressing and pessimistic, it does not eliminate exhuberance, joy, and beauty from Altman's films. In fact, the realization of pain and loneliness heightens the films' moments of happiness. The predetermined unhappy ending frees the beginning and the middle; since the outcome is known, the emphasis on the climax can be relaxed and the preceding events can become more independent and more valued. Brewster may fall to the Astrodome's floor, for example, but he does fly to the dome's top. Even though the flight does not last long, Brewster experiences life at its most meaningful. Similarly, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Keechie and Bowie, Charley and Bill, Susan and Barbara end up alone, but they all enjoy moments of communication and fulfillment. And those moments of beauty, excitement, and love make life so valuable. This perception of life as a series of moments squeezed into a finite existence not only motivates Altman's thematic investigations, but his visual style as well. Underlying every stylistic trait of Altman's, from his episodic pacing to his overlapping dialogue to his tangential details and movie allusions, is this belief in life's little moments. And since the beauty of these moments heightens the emotional response to other people, to the environment, and to oneself, Altman cultivates the viewer's emotional, nonrational reaction.

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200 The episodic pacing in Altman's films is consistent with this philosophy. We know the dimensions of the ultimate ending; the destination becomes less important than the quality of the journey. By slowing the pace down and freeing it from the demands of an unrelenting narrative plot line, Altman gives himself the opportunity to include any shot, object, character, or incident that strikes him as cinematic. These superficially unrelated episodes may be single shots, like the beautiful, nonfunctional sunset scenes in McCabe Images and The Long Good-bye Hugh' s gloves in Images, and the old woman's quivering face in Brewster McCloud On a more extended level, Altman develops entire sequences and characters, including Brewster's lecturer, California Split s Egyptian Fem sequence, and The Long Good-bye s Dr. Verringer and cat scenes. Although their elimination would tighten the plot lines and quicken their films' pace, these sequences, results of Altman's commitment to an unhurried pace, contribute much of the films' hiomor and originality. To cut them in the interests of a more controlled story line would be unthinkable. The emphasis on episodic pacing gives Altman the freedom to use tangentially related or even superficially unrelated material". It also gives him a method to effectively minimize our rational distance from his movies and thus force our emotional reactions. Since he can include episodes of varying length, he can control the amount of background information we have. He can quickly present a

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201 character or situation about whom we have no intellectual information; denied the rational referential points, we can only react emotionally. Since thinking can do us little good, we are forced to feel the situation. The lesbians in That Cold Day the cowboy's death in McCabe the Coke bottle scene in The Long Good-bye Barbara Jean's breakdown in Nashville happen too quickly and without proper intellectual preparation for us to react any other way but emotionally. Images is the best, most sustained example of Altman's demand for emotional involvement; throughout the film, he carefully withholds information we need to react analytically. Because we are denied the answers to the characters' real identity and to what "really" happened, we are confused, frustrated, and forced into a personal, emotional reaction to the movie. And because we are so used to being told how to feel, we may be uncomfortable with our emotions and with this style of film-making. Are we supposed to laugh at Barbara Jean? Cry? Squirm? That insecurity soon passes; since Altman courts an emotional response, any emotional response is correct. Once the fear of an individualistic emotional reaction is accommodated, the viewer can relax with the film and become totally involved in it:. The alert viewer is not only rewarded with a more intense emotional experience, but with a more complete awareness of the movie's action. Unlike many other directors, Altman keeps subtle, clever, and important details hidden

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202 behind the main action. A careful viewer would catch Mrs. Miller peering, out of the door at Bear Paw, birds' names on the rest homes and license plates in Brewster the Art Deco apartment of That Cold Day the older George Segal look-alike walking out of the Reno casino in California Split Bowie saying good-bye to T-Dub in Thieves Although these details are not necessary to the understanding of the films, they greatly increase our enjoyment and appreciation of them and spur us on to even more careful viewing. This increased involvement greatly enhances the total film experience. Altman's use of multiple levels of dialogue makes it difficult for the casual viewer to understand what is being said. In addition to adding a realistic atmosphere to the film, the overlapping dialogue allows Altman to deal with more than one subject at a time. As with the visual details, the film's general movement can be followed without the careful concentration necessary to cc.tch the words. As soon as they are understood, however, the -v;ords add immeasurably to the film. In Brewster for exauvple, one of the funniest lines, "two big Georges," is almost lost because Wright mumbles it. If caught, it adds dimension to the already comic visual of the old woman trying to embezzle two bills from the miser. On a more serious note, Bowie whispers a moving and private good-bye to T-Dub as he stokes a fire; although it adds a dimension of sincerity and loyalty to Bowie's character, the good-bye is voiced so softly and quickly that it can be easily missed.

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203 The overlapping dialogue does more than add humor or give characters more development, but functions as a creative thematic component. At the end of That Cold Day for example, Frances' almost inaudible "I want to make love to you," voice-over demonstrates her degeneration and adds impact to the film's final shots of the boy crying. Even more effective are Images' sounds. In addition to the moody abstract sounds of the soundtrack are the faint, eerie, and compelling whispering of Kathryn's name, beckoning her into madness. Perhaps more importantly, at the end of the movie, Susannah, not Kathryn, reads the children's book. Although this concludes a major concern of the film, we hear but do not see the transference. The soundtrack, then, becomes a crucial part of the film. Sound is equally important in the other Altman movies. In addition to placing its climax in perspective. The long Good-bye s use of varied versions of the theme song gives the movie its consistency. In Thieves Like Us the radio defines the gangsters' competence, undermines their efforts at professionalism, and distances us from Bowie and Keechie s lovemaking. And in Nashville the songs, which were written by the nonmusician actors, lend a more personal authenticity and realism to the film. Although the inaudibility of much of the sound in an Altman movie may at first seem chaotic, then, it soon reveals itself to be a very carefully and creatively used component of the film. Although, like Citizen Kane, the sound may be too dense to be understood

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204 in a single viewing, it must be fully heard before the movie can be truly appreciated. Another favorite Altraan device is his frequent allusions to movies. Like the French New Wave directors, Altman loves the movies and does not hesitate to refer the viewer to a wide range of movie jokes and references. From the loudspeaker of MASH which blares out names, descriptions, and capsule reviews of old war movies, to Brewster s movie posters to Marlowe's asides to movie heroes of the past, Altman characters continually remind us of old favorites. Altman does not use the allusions pretentiously or self-consciously, however. Instead, they delineate the boundaries of his works, telling us that we are watching a movie. Rather than imitate reality, his movies remind us that movies are a legitimate art form that demands its own reality. Because movies operate as a unique combination of reality and illusion, they borrow from both. Altman uses the actors' real names and Susannah York's real book in Images ; Elliot Gould's real car in The Long Good-bye ; builds a real town for McCabe ; and keeps Gould's and Julie Christie's identities and the singers' real songs in Nash ville And since California Split is dedicated to a Barbara, Altman calls most of its women Barbara and lets Bill use the name as his good luck charm. He even begins Nash ville with a blurb about its being years in the making and with a satire on the merchandising of its soundtrack album. At the end of MASH, he uses the loudspeaker to introduce

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205 the cast; at the end of Brewster he lets the characters change costumes and take bows as part of "The Greatest Show on Earth." Altman goes out of his way, then, to remind us that we are watching a movie, a work of art that determines its own reality. The allusions serve still another purpose, especially in the later films. Since Altman presents a basically unchanging universe and similar types of characters, each movie plays off the others. McCabe Thieves and Nashville, for example, are three separate and independent films. When taken together, however, they show the progression of attitudes of the last hundred years and thus help place the individual characters in a more meaningful historical perspective. When the still from McCabe is placed in California Split accompanied by a verbal explanation that we are going to learn how to play the game, we can immediately understand Billys predicament and more quickly feel his situation. Also, when we see Barbara and Susan act, we have Mrs. Miller to compare them to; again a context is "feotablished that reverberates against an entire network of relationships. Thus, new life is given to the earlier movies and immediate contexts are established for the more recent ones. The repertory nature of Altman' s actors, technicians, and artists also encourages this non-linear, unfinished style of film-making. The reputed degree of openness and improvisation of an Altman set gives Altman' s crew a great

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206 deal of individual opportunity and freedom to create. Not an assembly line film-maker, Altman expects actors to be on the set the entire time the film is shot. Too, Altman tries to shoot in sequence. Lines can be written the night before; the change cannot possibly jeopardize the ending since it has not been shot. This keeps Altman free to use unexpected resources and sudden inspirations, like the circus ending of Brewster. Sensing the possibilities, Altman thought of it while the film was being shot, filmed it, liked it, and included it. In addition to the flexiblity, shooting in sequence in an open atmosphere gives the cast a chance to grow into the material and into each other. In McCabe for instance, they built Presbyterian Church; as the filming progressed, so did the town. By the end, then, life and art had become so intertwined that those people did live there. Performing was made much easier and more natural because of the personal relationship to the sets and to each other; the results show in the finished product. The improvisation, the episodic pacing, the seemingly unrelated incidents and characters, the overlapping sound, the movie allusions might give the impression that Altman is a loose, undisciplined film-maker whose films consist of strung together moments, some of which work and some of which do not. Although he may be that kind of person, however, the amount of improvisation in Altman 's movies has been exaggerated; despite the films' appearances, they are

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207 deceptively tight and structured. Perhaps no other contemporary film-maker pays such careful attention to the relationship of his theme and technique. In an Altman movie, even the most superficially unrelated detail reflects back on the film's main concern. Although more true for the later movies, which show him in a more total and mature control of his medium, even That Cold Day shows his preoccupation with the film's structure. Frances' apartment is a perfect representation of her mental rigidity; the half hour spent in it is a direct clue to her mental state, as is the superficially unrelated and naively amusing sex talk in the gynecologist's waiting room. The random camera work and the transitions on reflective wind chimes of Images ultimately reinforce the emotional experience of schizophrenia and the legitimacy of the artistic experience, while the random camera, pastel colors, and bizarre characters of The Long Good-bye illustrate the breakdown of moral absolutes, which, after all, is what the film is about. What makes Altman so exciting, then, is not his rejection of disciplined or formal film-making, like, perhaps. Ken Russell. Instead, Altman constantly looks for new ways to unite his cinematic details with his overall, subtle design. As a result, his films demand an open, alert audience. If we in that audience are perceptive enough, we will be rewarded with an emotional and exhilarating experience or, as in the case of Nashville a disappointing

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208 failure. But at least we will have been active; regardless of the quality of the individual film, we will come away from it more demanding, more articulate, and more aware than when we entered. Perhaps Altman's greatest influence will be this training of a more alert audience. He has reminded film-makers of the power of details and of the ability to rely on atmosphere and theme, rather than narrative. Already, Altman's influence can be seen in films like Taxi Driver (the constant background action and conversations and the soft focus. Images -like colors in the cab) and Don' t Look Now (the insistence on an irrational structure for an irrational subject) Even more important, however, is the development of an Altman cult, a small but vocal and demanding group of people who have had their expectations raised and who now will accept nothing less than an emotional, intelligent, involving, and honest film experience from Altman or anyone else.

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BIBIiTOGRAPHY Burgess, Jackson. McCabe and Mrs. Miller ." Film Quarterly, Winter, 1971-72, pp. 49-53. Byrne, Connie, and Lopez, Williain 0. "Nashville" (An Interview Documentary). FiJjn Quar^e^lXr Winter, 1975-76, pp. 13-26. Cutts, John. MASH/ McUloud and McCabe ." Films and Filming November, 1971, pp. 40-44. Engle, Gary. "Robert Altman' s Anti-Western. Journal of Popular Film Fall, 1972, pp. 268-289. Falonga, Mark. Tmages ." Film Quarterly Summer, 1973, pp. 43-46. Farber, Stephen. "Let Us Now Praise Not Overpraise Robert Altman." New York Times September 29, 1974, p. 1. Film Heritage Fall, 1975. (Entire issue devoted to Nashville. ) Fox, Terry Curtis. "Nashville Chats: An Interview with Robert Altman." Chicago Reader July 4, 1975, p. 1. Gregory, Charles. "The Long Good-bye ." Film Quarterly, Summer, 1973, pp. 46-49. Hodenfield, Chris. "Bob Altman' s Nashville ." Rolling Stone July 17, 1975, p. 31. Kinder, Marsha. "The Return of the Outlaw Couple." Film Quarterly Summer, 1974, pp. 2-10. Kolker, Robert Phillips. "Night to Day." Sight and Sound, Autumn, 1974, pp. 237-239. McClelland, C. Kirk. Brewster McCloud. New York: Signet, 1971. Michener, C. and Kasindorf, M. "Altman's Opryland Epic." Newsweek, June 30, 1975, pp. 46-50. 209

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210 Quinn, Sally. "Robert Altman is Easy." Midwest Magazine July 27, 1975, p. 13. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville." Sight and Sound, Spring, 1975, pp. 91-95. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Nashville ." Sight and Sound Autumn, 1975, pp. 204-05. Rubenstein, Roberta. Brewster McCloud ." Film Quarterly Winter, 1971-72, pp. 44-48. Stewart, Garrett. "'The Long Good-bye 'from Chinatown."' Film Quarterly Winter, 1974-75, pp. 25-32. Taratino, Michael. "Movement as Metaphor: The Long Good bye Sight and Sound, Spring, 1975, pp. 98-102. Tewkesbury, Joan. Nashville New York: Bantam Books, 1976. Viertel, Jack, and Colker, David. "The Long Road to Nashville." New Times June 13, 1975, pp. 52-58. Williams, Alan. California Split ." Film Quarterly Spring, 1975, pp. 54-55.

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Ne BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH il Feineman is and has been since October 2, 194i 211

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I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 'I /JK Ben Pickard, Chairman ly^ Professor of English I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. William C. Childers Professor of English I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Alfred B. Clubok Prof esse Science Professor of Political This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences and to the Graduate Council, and was accepted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. August, 1976 Dean, Graduate School


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