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by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 2006

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is the luckiest untalented son of a bitch in all of Hollywood. Don’t believe it? Well, Sony has just ponied up $4 million large to let this hack hammer away on a Da Vinci Code sequel. That’s right, the one element that critics almost universally pointed out as being the Dan Brown thriller’s atrocious Achilles’ Heel - well, maybe second only to the casting – is being rewarded with another go round, and a shockingly healthy paycheck for the responsible putz. Along with the recent news that Goldsman would be behind the much-delayed take of Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world creeper I Am Legend, film fans definitely have a right to be despondent. It seems like, whenever Tinsel Town wants to totally screw up something, they turn to the man with the Goldsman touch.

And before you think that this highly paid nimrod is just some blessed bastard who always happens to be in the right place at the right time, let’s revisit exactly what his onerous efforts have wrought. Indeed, his creative canon holds many reasons why this insipid, routine writer should be hurt, not hired. Associated with more triumphs than tragedies, there is an entire school of thought that proposes that Goldsman gives great purposeful patchiness. Indeed, his scripts are so scatter shot and sloppy that they allow actors, directors and other important film people to fill in the bewildering blanks. There are others, though, who want Akiva to get all the credit. Success is always subjective, but it seems that someone has stuck a bug in Tinsel Town’s ear, convincing them that Goldsman, not any other element in the wide range of explanations for a film’s potential payoff, is almost single-handedly responsible for the erasing of red ink.

Take his first big screen credit – The Client - co-written with Robert Getchell, who himself had previously penned the amazing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the kitsch classic Mommy Dearest. Guided more by director Joel Schumacher and bestselling boob John Grisham, the ultimate triumph of the film had much more to do with the novelist’s reputation and placement on the best seller’s list, along with the wise decision to cast Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the leads than Goldsman’s minor contributions. Obviously doing the doctoring for an already formed film script, to consider this a Goldsman solo feat is downright foolish. Still, he did manage to claim a sucker – sorry, supporter – in Schumacher, and the two continued their association with the G-man aiding and abetting in his killing of the ‘80s Batman series. He provided parts of the script for Batman Returns (along with several others), and then slammed the coffin lid shut with his solo work on the abysmal Batman and Robin.

With that last abomination alone, Goldsman should have suffered more than just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. One imagines a ball peen hammer to the privates wouldn’t be painful enough. Yet, somehow, he got positioned as the go to guy for blockbuster material (maybe someone misunderstood the concept behind the term “entertainment”) and was again commissioned by Schumacher to give another Grisham legal brief - A Time to Kill – the old Goldsman approach. The combination of racial screeds and arch dramatics seemed to suit the scribe well, and before you knew it, box office receipts where heading skyward. Again, the reason behind the “Kill-ing” was simple – John Grisham was, at the time, the most popular writer in the world. He could produce a description of his own bowel movements (actually, he did, it was called The Chamber) and a rapid, slightly retarded reading public would buy it up like literary Soylent Green.

Yet enough of A Time to Kill‘s gratuitous glitter seemed to land on Goldsman so that, soon, he was pegged to produce an update for the Irwin Allen cult classic Lost in Space. A long simmering effort for New Line, it was all systems go once Goldsman turned in his draft, and it appeared that the company could envision a big boffo weekend payoff followed by a long term stay at the Cineplex. Yet despite some stellar special effects and intriguing casting choices (Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith!!!) something wasn’t right. As a matter of fact, something stunk outright – and it was Goldsman’s grossly ineffective screenplay. Overloaded with leaps in logic so vast that no trip to through the space-time continuum could bring them any closer together, and his usual inept way with dialogue and characterization, the movie actually appeared hollow inside, lacking a single significant “sci-fi” moment. Someone should have reminded Goldsman that, when you’re working on a flight of fancy, it’s a good idea to have items like imagination and intelligence as part of your narrative arsenal.

But there was a bigger scourge set in motion by this remake. Goldsman was given a production credit, the Hollywood equivalent of a first date hickey. Since the title carries a notion of power and importance, the failure of Space washed off the scribbling scrotum like dimensions of his player’s personalities. Luckily, his magic witch malarkey Practical Magic was already bought, sold and staged before the Robinsons found themselves forever misplaced in the marketplace. Panned, but not enough to stick to the suddenly Teflon typist, Goldsman decided to drop out of the business for a while. He didn’t write again until the beginning of the new millennium, his most significant contribution to the culture being as one of the many chiefs on Renny Harlin’s hilarious Jaws jaw-dropper, the super smart shark epic Deep Blue Sea.

Since it was painfully evident that the one time pairing of Goldy and Schu was on the outs (probably over the whole “nipples on the Batsuit” thing), our hackwork hooker required another pimp to make sure his screenplay services would satisfy a few studio Johns. The answer arrived in former child star turned semi-decent director Ron Howard. Attempting to turn the life story of Nobel Prize winning (and mentally troubled) economist John Nash into a biopic, the older Opie saw something in Goldsman that few today can find with an electron microscope and a gross of radioactive dye. Employing a gimmicky twist that was supposed to shake the audience to its core (you mean, EVERYONE he talks to is fake? A figment of his imagination? No shit?) Goldsman gave Nash a heroic façade that was blatantly false. While no one goes into a Tinsel Town biography for its accurate depiction of history, many of the more “troubling” facets of Nash’s life were whitewashed by Goldsman’s feel good foolishness.

And then Oscar had to go and give the man a statue. In a year that saw the first film in the fabulous Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Zwigoff’s take on Daniel Clowe’s Ghost World, and the intense, introspective In The Bedroom. Goldsman beat out much better material – not to mention writing – to garner his permanent foothold in Hollywood’s unimaginative heart. Granted, not every Academy Award guarantees a studio or agent will pick up the phone (just ask the two juniors – Louis Gossett and Cuba Gooding), but in the case of Goldsman, it seemed to indicate that all the critics were wrong. No, his scripts didn’t suck the moldering feces out of a dead corpse’s butt. No, he didn’t sacrifice cinematic requirements like cohesion and vision for the obvious and stereotypical. Sure, he had his fair share of flops, but this was vindication of his inherent artistry. Along with the trophy for Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind and its soulless screenplay remain two of Oscar’s most indefensible wins.

Thankfully, things haven’t gotten worse – at least, not yet. Goldsman’s grasp of Isaac Asimov was about as strong as I, Robot‘s approach to automatons (I know, let’s make our androids look like ceramic poseable artist’s models), but Will Smith was around to get jiggy with it all. While Goldy’s contribution again felt like a trip to Tinsel Town’s economic era, there are still moments where you can actually see the man messing with the movie. He avoids the obvious ethical debates – paying them the merest of lame lip service – so that there’s more time for chase scenes and flashbacks. Like the overwhelming drive to explain everything in The Da Vinci Code, Goldsman believes that ‘more’ makes a movie. In his case, however, he can’t convince us that excessive exposition – or in the case of The Fresh Prince’s ‘droid story, lots of lame CGI candy – can make for compelling cinema.

Since Howard and his personal plotter appear attached at the hip (Ronny has only made one movie – The Missing - without a floppy Goldsman foundation in the last five years) and the less than successful returns of Cinderella Man more or less failing to stick to anyone in particular (with A Good Year now tanking nicely, Russell Crowe better grab a phone receiver and watch his back) it’s no surprise this witless writer has signed on to decipher another Dan Brown brow-beater. Angels and Demons, the first of the Code-oriented tomes to feature symbologist Robert Langdon, was like a walkthrough for Da Vinci‘s more outlandishly muddled mysteries, and if Goldsman’s treatment of that multi-million seller is any indication of how this film will flow, be prepared for more asides, allusions and illustrations as every single significant and insignificant facet of the plot is trotted out for the uninitiated. It will then be over-explained and then re-referenced, just to make sure you’re along for the ride.

Still no one seems to understand that The Da Vinci Code made money because it was based on an international monster of a book, featured arguably the world’s most popular and beloved actor in the lead, and had one of these inherently controversial storylines that people just wanted to see made into a movie. Sadly, the film that resulted is as turgid and uninspired as the overall casting choices. With all those false positives in its portfolio, Code tapped into its fanbase, sucked up some significant bucks before the rest of the summer season snuffed it out, and ended up being an artistically awful financial success. So who gets the humungous paycheck? The man whose main contribution was making Brown’s page-turner into an exercise in inertia. How typical. 

Goldsman must be dependable and professional, keeping his promises and meeting his deadlines with genial good grace and a fruit basket on the side. There must be something about his work ethic and ability to acquiesce to those above and around him that makes his presence a necessary evil – like craft services, or Teamsters. His writing is indeed horrid, but it doesn’t differ too much from the massively mediocre excuses for entertainment that are released onto theater screens before making a mandatory beeline to the DVD den of iniquity. Yet somehow, Goldsman is the pariah, and it is time he was punished. Making him watch his movies won’t be enough. Like smelling your own farts, some people’s personal offensiveness doesn’t phase them in the least. No, a great crime deserves some mega-time. That’s why Akiva Goldsman must die.

No, not murdered. Not dead in the literal use of the word. No, Goldsman must loose his luster, shave off his indirect successes, and man up to the reality that he’s nothing more than a fortunate friggin’ pawn in Tinsel Town’s never-ending pursuit of the putrid. Ever since the ‘70s (and a few flash years in the ‘90s) the movie business has bastardized itself over and over, repeating and reinventing only the most profitable and franchisable. He is not an Oscar worthy writer. He was never responsible for the accomplishment of a single film he’s been involved in. The Writer’s Guild of America should revoke his credentials and actually let him try to reestablish his $4 million meaningfulness. Of course we all know that he can’t, and that when Angels and Demons makes another confused killing, Goldsman’s price will skyrocket again. As the reports from the set of I Am Legend confirm that Matheson’s material will once again be compromised for the sake of commerciality, it seems that nothing changes in the post-millennial movie biz except the size of the paychecks. Definitely not the pissants getting paid.

by Bill Gibron

25 Nov 2006

The year is 2176. The United States has become a dreary, desolate wasteland. A freak magnetic storm has wiped out all history. A team of scientists is instructed to take a time machine back into the past, to 1776 specifically, to re-discover the principles upon which the once mighty nation was founded. So Adam-11, Chanel-6, and Heinz-57, three hapless temporal explorers make the leap. But a computer glitch lands them in 1976, not quite the year of the Declaration of Independence. A Fifth of Beethoven, yes. As luck would have it, Chris Johnson and Tommy Sears, two California potheads, discover these futuristic fish out of water.

Our bong buddies agree to help the discoverers with their mission to find the true America. But a know-it-all nerd named Rodney Snodgrass threatens to ruin everything by sticking his conspiracy theory, alien obsessive nose into the drug duo’s business. With only twelve hours to obtain pertinent artifacts and a copy of the Constitution, our intrepid trio experiences everything that this enigmatic epoch has to offer: gas lines, recreational pharmaceuticals, and “The Hustle.” But it will take a group effort to avoid Rodney, his seedy brother Eddie, and a couple of bumbling CIA agents if our confused crew is ever going to return to the future to spread The Spirit of ‘76.

From its surrounding show business lineage, one could imagine that The Spirit of ‘76 is either a raucous yet sophisticated comedy (thanks to daddy Carl) or a modern, polished piece of nostalgia from deep inside the Hollywood hit machine (thanks to brother Rob). But Lucas Reiner, he also of the famed last name, tracks his touching take on the Me Decade directly down the middle of both roads, offering broad lampoon style humor with tender tweaks at that most retro of eras to create a gentle, genial farce. This is a very well observed satire, from the little moments (mood rings, space food sticks) to the outrageous fashion trends (it’s a polyester-palooza) and philosophical ideals (the EST like “Be” seminars). While the targets may seem obvious today, in this post That ‘70s Show / Austin Powers flashback media mentality, when conceived in 1989, The Spirit of ‘76 was (and still is) a fresh, friendly look at a much maligned epoch in US cultural history.

This is not a subtle slice of life like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (the inherent truth of that film and its carefully constructed look at a certain people and place make it more documentary than fiction) or an attempt at an actual recreation. It’s just a silly dumb spoof with some nice things to say about freedom. With a wink and a nod to the public’s perception of the entire leisure suit circumstances, The Spirit of ‘76 functions as both a comedy and a comment, presenting the Have A Nice Day dreamscape of 1976 as an enlightened, if decidedly lame, time frame.

One of the reasons The Spirit of ‘76 stands out, aside from its potent visual sense, is its eccentric casting. At first, there is an obviousness to the stars playing the lead roles. After all, what movie exploiting pop culture fads would avoid using ex-teen idols like Leif Garrett (as the hilariously sleazy Eddie Trojan) and David Cassidy (as time traveler Adam-11)? But scattered throughout Spirit are particularly obtuse choices as well. Steve and Jeff MacDonald from the superb rock group Redd Kross (whose brand of electrified pop is highly influenced by the ‘70s) are absolutely hilarious as the valley boy stoners Chris and Tommy. The members of Devo show up as officials of the future government, and other icons of the era (Tommy Chong, Rob “Meathead” Reiner) are matched with unusual cult figures (Earth Girls Are Easy‘s Julie Brown, The Kipper Kids) to flavor the film with an offbeat bouquet. Even regular “actor” Olivia D’Abo and circus clown Geoff Hoyle fit right in.

But a platoon of peculiar players would be nothing without a capable director to guide them, and youngest son/brother Lucas shows that, when it comes to helming hilarious motion pictures, there is something special in those Reiner genes. With an incredibly small budget and no major studio support, Lucas manages to create alternative realities, both past and futuristic, without the benefit of special effects or elaborate props. The homemade, thrift store conceit adds a real authenticity to this film. Instead of looking like a bunch of current actors running around in studio-sewn fashions, the lived-in feel of the clothing and sets make The Spirit of ‘76 seem that much more genuine. Reiner is to be commended for finding a way to make the financial limitations work. While not an all-out laugh riot, The Spirit of ‘76 is a well-made, well-conceived comic tribute to flared trousers and puka beads.

by Bill Gibron

24 Nov 2006

Jack Peterson is a pretty great guy. He has a job that he loves (he builds birdhouses), a best friend (a larger-than-life lothario named Alan) who thinks the world of him, and a nice little townhouse in a sleepy North Carolina city. The only thing Jack doesn’t have is…a wiener. A nurse accidentally cut off his woody when he was an infant, and ever since then, Jack has had to live sans schlong. And boy, oh boy, does Jack long for a replacement skin flute. He dreams about it, fantasies regularly over stroking and fondling his newfound noodle. He has tried plastic surgeons and every possible medical professional, but the best they can offer is a faux phallus made out of fat from his arm and stomach. But Jack doesn’t want a belly-based boner. He wants a real life lizard of his very own, and has more or less given up on ever having one.

Then, Alan gives him some good advice. A private doctor in town offers the chance at a new, experimental tool transplant. When a perfect donor is found, Jack will be reconstructed, made more or less normal above the nutsack. Naturally, the anticipation of a new lease on life, thanks to someone else’s surgically grafted groinage, becomes overwhelming. Jack is giddy for some girth. He is hyper for a hard-on. He even starts to date, hooking up with his nice neighbor Jenny. But as he waits for his new knob and starts to consider all the problems and possibilities, Jack starts to have second thoughts. Maybe he doesn’t want a pubic pole after all. Maybe life is just fine the way it is. After all, aside from sex, Jack’s existence has been pretty sweet, even if it has also been Ding-a-ling-Less.

Sounding like a dirty joke taken to a tacky extreme, but actually ending up rather resplendent and very funny, Ding-a-ling-Less marks a substantial turn of events for its writer-director Onur Tukel. Having previously helmed the horrible Drawing Blood (a vampire horror-comedy that was really none of the aforementioned) and the less than successful House of Pancakes (a tired tale of some housemates from Hell), Tukel finally hits a homerun with his third feature film offering, this slightly skewed romantic comedy about a dude in search of his missing manhood. Initially, it takes a little time to get into Tukel’s mannerisms and mindset here. The filmmaker loads his script with dozens of disgusting and dirty ways to describe a dong and the actions that such an appendage can be used for. Indeed, everyone in this fable-like fantasyland of a small town seems to sympathize with Jack and gives him equally course and vulgar advice. These crudity-laced sentiments are a little off-putting at first, but once you get used to their existence, Ding-a-ling-Less begins to fulfill its promise.

Ding-a-ling-Less also marks a turn in the acting fortunes for its lead, Kirk Wilson. Having been unfortunate enough to star in Tukel’s other failures, this film signifies the perfect role for Wilson’s usually forced forlorn wistfulness. Wilson is very adept at playing pathetic, and during the first half of the film, he really gets us sympathizing with Jack’s dilemma. Then, as the narrative continues and issues arise with the upcoming surgery, Wilson makes the change of heart seem natural and viable. There is never an awkward or arch moment in his performance, and it is excellent in its subtlety and sensitivity. Equally impressive in a far less friendly role is Robert Longstreet, as Jack’s womanizing pal Alan. Kind of like a combination of Hank Azaria and Chris Cooper, Longstreet gets the chance to chew a little scenery as he puts on the boyish bravado and tries to walk his buddy through the world of wang. We also get to see a different side of Alan when he describes to Jack what it’s like to have sex with a woman. Longstreet also gets an excellent speech in the final sequence before the surgery. Along with an ensemble of actors that really believes in this project and its premise, Ding-a-ling-Less turns from a juvenile joke into a thoughtful, complicated comedy right before our delighted eyes.

As he has done before, Tukel experiments with the film medium, augmenting his story with asides, blackouts, visual cleverness, and a style that recalls both vintage Woody Allen and modern indie cinema. Though working with a shoestring budget and limited resources, Tukel makes the most of his North Carolina setting, giving us a real feel for the small town location of his film. The director has also cleaned up his compositional act, framing his scenes in artistically interesting fashion. When Alan and Jack have a conversation in the middle of an alley, the actors are perfectly positioned in a long shot that takes in both the buildings in the background and the somber horizon above, creating an interesting canvas in which to have a conversation. Along with a serious message about meaningless sex and the value of human interaction, Ding-a-ling-Less gives us an unusual, unique take on the malady of the modern male. Indeed, most men at one time or another have felt unfulfilled, and wonder what life would be like if they were better endowed. Using this concept to craft a combination of “Jokes from the John” and insightful allegory, this movie marks Onur Tukel’s arrival as an effective filmmaker. All his other films aside, Ding-a-ling-Less is a wonderful, witty movie with good heart buried inside all the dick quips.

by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 2006

As your body continues to process all the L’tryptophan, animal fat and sucrose you’ve stuffed into it over the last few hours, and you’re holiday bloated carcass continues to swell up like a sea frog, what better excuse is there for spending a day recuperating in front of the old idiot box. In at least two instances, however, the premium movie channels still think it’s still Halloween. Actually, you could lump HBO’s offering into the general genre category as well, since it features wizards, magic and all kinds of dungeons and dragons styled rot. So unless you’re willing to give another noble variation of that classic tale of medieval lovers a try, one better prepare for a post-gluttony fright night. Besides, with many members of the viewing audience dreading the drive/flight/fight back home, a little spine-tingling terror may turn out to be the best recipe of the entire weekend. Unfortunately, you won’t find much macabre here – just a loose collection of scary side dishes and unjust desserts. For those still conscious after a fifth helping of Grandma’s glorious Sweet Potato and Pralined Pecan Pie (drool…), the movies offered for Saturday, 25 November are:

HBOHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*

Since founding franchise filmmaker Chris Columbus departed the series, critics have been more or less unanimous – the Harry Potter films have been getting better and better. Following the formula he developed for the Prisoner of Azkaban, screenwriter Steve Kloves pares author J.K. Rowling’s dense, interlocking narrative down to its instantly infectious ingredients while keeping the themes – good vs. evil, youth vs. maturity – perfectly intact. Though director Mike Newell (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) seemed like a strange choice, especially after the flare and passion shown in Azkabah by Y Tu Mama Tabien helmer Alfonso Cuaron, he managed to make a worthy successor. Elaborate, exciting and always engaging, it’s safe to say that all other tween oriented projects pale in comparison to this magnificent set of motion pictures. (Premieres Saturday 25 November, 8pm EST).

PopMatters Review

CinemaxTristan + Isolde*

James Franco may be a lot of things – handsome, charismatic, complex - but he doesn’t have that old world aura necessary to carry off a period piece. Similar to a certain Mr. Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (oddly enough, also directed by T&I helmer Kevin Reynolds), there is just something so contemporary about the consistently busy actor. Still, most critics found his turn as an orphaned swordsman presumed dead after being struck by a poisoned blade to be perfectly serviceable. It’s the rest of Reynolds’ cinematic circumstances that left reviewers unimpressed. Many felt his narrative drive was lazy and uninspired. Others thought his approach to the material was far gloomier than it should be. With a creative canon that includes Waterworld and Rapa Nui, it’s not hard to comprehend such complaints. Maybe a more timeless talent was the answer all along. (Saturday 25 November, 10pm EST).

PopMatters Review

StarzWhen a Stranger Calls (2006)

When it arrived in theaters in 1979, the original version of When a Stranger Calls had a horrifying hook that many in the audience were unprepared to consider. In the film’s classic creep-out moment, our heroine learns that the sinister phone calls she’s been receiving are actually coming from…INSIDE THE HOUSE! In the days before cellphones, that was a real shocker! Today, it’s nothing more than a shoulder shrugging moment. So how did the team involved in the remake revamp this idea? Well, they took out all the police procedural material (which was actually what the first film was all about) and expanded the whole “villain in the vicinity” idea. But since this is strictly PG-13 territory (you know, for kids!) the fear factors are amped way down past pabulum levels. The result is a toothless terror title with little reason to recommend its revision. (Premieres Saturday 25 November, 9pm EST).

PopMatters Review

Showtime2001 Maniacs

Outside of a dedicated group of exploitation fiends, Herschell Gordon Lewis is virtually unknown – and that’s sad, really, because this articulate and intelligent man produced some of the most mind-boggling bizarre films ever fashioned. One of his most famous was the “Brigadoon with buckets of blood” entitled 2000 Maniacs. Recently ‘re-imagined’ by first time feature director Tim Sullivan, this gore-laced groove will have you whistling Dixie in no time. The premise – a group of college kids accidentally arrive in a Georgia ghost town loaded with vengeful Confederates – is straight out of Lewis’ flick, and Sullivan wisely matches the legend’s own stylized sick humor as well. While devotees might pale at the thought of one of the grindhouse’s greatest hits getting re-tooled, most will be pleased with the amiable arterial spray provided here. (Saturday 25 November, 9pm EST)



For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 24/25 November, the Cabbage Patch Elvis himself, Arch Hall, Jr. is the featured atrocity:

The Sadist
Talk about your suspension of disbelief – Arch is a homicidal maniac ala Charles Starkweather in this fairly effective JD (juvenile delinquency) joint.
(2am EST)

Wild Guitar
Pushing the limits of legitimate believability even further, Arch becomes an overnight pop sensation – yet has a hard time living the rock star celebrity lifestyle. Yeesh.
(3:45am EST)


The Cream of the Crop

In honor of IFC’s month-long celebration of Janus Films, SE&L will skip the standard daily overview of what’s on the other movie-based cable outlets and, instead, focus solely on what it and the Sundance Channel have to offer. Beyond that premise, however, we will still only concentrate on the best of the best, the most inspiring of the inspiring, the most meaningful of the…well, you get the idea. For the week of 25, November, here are our royal recommendations:


: Every Tuesday in November is Janus Films night. For the 28st, the selections are:

It’s the trials and tribulations of life during wartime, as director Kenji Mizoguchi explores the Japanese civil war of the 16th Century.

Miss Julie
August Strinberg’s play about a mismatched love affair between the daughter of an aristocrat and a lowly servant gets a gentle touch from fellow Swede Alf Sjoberg.
(10:35PM EST)

Floating Weeds
The story of an aging acting troupe traveling across Japan is brought to magical life by legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.
(12:25AM EST)

Sundance Channel

26 November - Gimme Shelter
During the infamous concert at Altamonte, Albert and David Maysles captured the Rolling Stones in all their demonic glory – as well as the murder of an unlucky fan.

26 November - Grey Gardens
The Mayseles brothers make magic again, this time focusing on the forgotten relatives - Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale – of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
(7:30PM EST)

28 November -Riff-Raff
British bad boy Ken Loach explores his unique brand of socialist realism in this clever outing of England’s disenfranchised lower classes.
(10PM EST)

by Bill Gibron

22 Nov 2006

In photos, he often appears as the wistful old uncle who shows up at reunions to regale the family with stories of wars he may never have fought in and meetings with people more imaginary than real. But that was the beauty of Robert Altman. He could be whimsical and mischievous one moment, dour and dark the next. At age 81, he remained one of cinema’s most accomplished artists, giving real credence to the use of the term auteur to define his filmmaking acumen. The past year had seen a resurgence in audience and industry interest. He took home an honorary Oscar (his one and amazingly ONLY Academy trophy) and saw his big screen adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion meet with an unusually warm reception. Unfortunately, here’s where the story must end. While in pre-production for a feature he was planning for a February 2007 start, Altman succumbed to an 18 month bout with cancer, and died.

His passing on 20 November is shocking for how sudden it seemed, but it really wasn’t unexpected. Altman surprised audiences during his acceptance speech at the 2006 ceremony by disclosing that, for the last ten years, he had been living with another human’s heart. In frail health during the ‘90s, the director had received a total transplant. The most amazing thing about the circumstance was not the surgery, but the fact that in a gossip hungry town like Hollywood, he managed to keep it a complete secret. Certainly there were rumors and rumblings – he was considered uninsurable for Prairie‘s shoot, and had to stipulate to having another director on set with him at all times. Luckily, he ended up with Altman aspirant Paul Thomas Anderson, responsible for similar styled efforts of his own like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

In truth, the lack of limelight over Altman’s physical well being says something significant and extraordinary about the man as it illustrates the main issue with his entire career – when he was hot, audience and media interest was also. When his artistic indulgences turned off ticket buyers, this formidable American genius was all but ignored. It’s been that way ever since he started out in the business. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925, the young Altman was Catholic school educated and Air Force trained. Hoping to combine his love of film with his fascination with sound, he headed off to Hollywood to seek his big break. There, he tried almost every facet of the industry before becoming disillusioned with his lack of success. Heading back to his hometown, he found acceptance in a local production company in charge of industrial and training films. It was here where Altman began to find, and fashion, his muse.

Thanks to the chance offer to direct a juvenile delinquency quickie (1957’s The Delinquents) Altman was again back in the movie business. This lead to work in the fledgling medium of television, and it was here where he really thrived. Over the next decade, he would contribute to almost every small screen genre imaginable, from live performances to war and western dramas. He was instrumental in steering the WWII-themed Combat through its initial phases, and guided audience favorite Bonanza through a few of its earliest paces.  But it wasn’t until 1968 and the space race saga Countdown, that Altman regained his filmmaker footing. In combination with the thriller That Cold Day in the Park, it gave the director enough of a profile to position him as a candidate for another military-based movie being considered by 20th Century Fox.

The making of M*A*S*H* has its own epic anecdotal history, a story worthy of, perhaps, an Altman-esque Hollywood satire? Originally positioned as the lesser of two combat comedies coming out that year (Mike Nichols 1970 version of Catch-22 was viewed as the preemptive favorite) Altman took his production under Fox’s fidgety radar, using the studios obsession over their own Patton and Tora!, Tora!, Tora! as cover for what he was creating. This didn’t mean the more avant-garde elements of his approach avoided scrutiny. Everyone, from Ring Lardner Jr. who penned the screenplay (most of which was discarded), to stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, questioned Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue, extensive improvisation and the unorthodox conceptual ideas. Though it was set in Korea, Altman had purposefully removed all references to the locale, making his link to the then divisive war in Vietnam that much more potent. The studio, of course, insisted on a title card to clear up the confusion.

It wouldn’t be the last time an executive interfered with Altman’s ideas. But at first, such meddling didn’t matter. The amazing success of M*A*S*H* allowed the filmmaker the freedom to make whatever movie he wanted, and the follow-up remains one of his most unusual – and controversial choices ever. One of those typical ‘70s headtrips involving a boy who wants to be a bird and fly around his home – which just so happens to be the Houston Superdome – Brewster McCloud exposed the capricious side of Altman’s aesthetic, a foundational need for his own flights of fancy. It was an ideal that would come to clarify, and occasionally mar, the rest of his cinematic output. Tossing out reams of dialogue, keeping only the barest bones of Doran William Cannon’s original script, Altman also began another peculiarity that came to define his overall career and creativity. Resolved to make only the movies he wanted without exception, it was this maverick’s mannerism that would guide him for the next three decades.

MGM hated Brewster, and buried it with little fanfare. Frustrated, Altman next revisited the Western, giving the genre a meticulously reproduced period naturalism that the John Wayne-worn category had never possessed before. The result, the masterful McCabe and Mrs. Miller, saw the director battle with lead actor Warren Beatty throughout the production, a stand off that threatened to undermine everything. Of course, when the film failed to catch on with audiences, the superstar’s stance was indirectly vindicated, and led to a further distancing between Altman and the industry. Follow-ups, including the psychological thriller Images, the gambling drama California Split, and the exceptional noir revamp of The Long Goodbye were critical triumphs. But without the benefit of companion box office receipts, Altman started looking like a one hit wonder.

All that changed – albeit briefly – with Nashville. An epic dissection of middling America locked within the complementary – and complicit – worlds of show business and politics, Altman formulated the film around his own interest in country music. Featuring a storyline that suggested the general malaise and unease in the nation, along with a collection of cast-created songs, he forged an entirely new style of filmmaking. Using multiple stories that at times seemed completely unrelated to each other, the director found himself free to indulge in all manner of subplots, personalities and eccentricities. What started out as a meditation on performance and public accolade turned into a dense, in-depth look at the disintegration of the American dream. Praised for its innovations and insight, Nashville went on to win Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. But just like M*A*S*H* before, Altman’s inability to deal with the people in power may have cost him the award. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dominated the Academy that year.

Again, popularity allowed Altman to do whatever he wanted. His response this time was a tone poem about the power of femininity drawn from one of this own dreams. Also touching on personality processing and the need for self-discovery, 3 Women arrived with little fanfare, and instantly became lost within an ill-prepared and indifferent populace. It is safe to say that, of his ‘70s period films, 3 Women is Altman’s best. Powerful without being intense, mysterious without being confusing, this seemingly simplistic story about a pair of spa workers on the outskirts of the California desert actually hid a multi-layered look at how we perceive ourselves. Featuring fabulous performances from Sissy Spacek and Altman discovery Shelley Duvall, the movie met with more myopic disinterest. It would be three more years before Altman’s name became associated with the mainstream again. And in typical style, it was mostly for bad, not good.

Altman had taken on the task of bringing E.C Segar’s comic strip sailor Popeye to the silver screen, mostly as a chance to experiment with something he called “fanciful realism”. His idea was easy enough to understand – take reality and tweak it just enough so that it suggests, not mimics, the world of animation. He built his own village on the Mediterranean island of Malta, approached Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks about providing the studio-mandated musical numbers, and then went out and hired non-singers like Duvall and star Robin Williams to fill the lead roles. Rumors of natural disasters and cast infighting found their way into the then fledgling tabloid media machine, and Altman felt the press was preparing to doom the project before it was eventually released. So far ahead of its time that today’s comic book movies still only scratch the surface of the conventions Altman created, Popeye was popular, but it wasn’t the mega-smash high concept entertainment Disney was looking for, and even though it made money, the entire project was viewed as an albatross sized failure.

By this point, Altman was fed up. He hated functioning within a dynamic that suggested art was only as valuable as the money it could make, and he distrusted almost everything about a business that bolstered you one moment, only to tear you down the next. Like all mythological heroes, he set off to wander the wilderness of his own insular aesthetic. When he got the chance, he directed for the stage, even filming some of his efforts as a sort of a reminder and record of his work. A few of these experiments – Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, Fool for Love - kept him just on the edges of fame. There really was no need, however. With his past constantly revisited and remembered, Altman was never completely gone. But a great many of his contributions were definitely being forgotten.

The Player changed it all - again. Michael Tolkin’s exposé of Tinsel Town’s cutthroat creative corruption was a red hot property when it came out in book form, and Altman appeared an odd choice for the project. Granted, his anti-studio stance was well documented, but the director had also found his greatest personal triumph while working within the confines of industry. Thanks to a stellar cast and a sharp, satiric script, Altman had at least a partial last laugh. There were more Oscar nods (though no wins) numerous accolades and awards from around the world (Best Director at Cannes) and – in the standard pendulum-like swing of his career – rekindled interest in what he wanted to do next.

This time up, however, Altman was prepared. As he would for the rest of his career, he used the incalculable clout of decades considered one of cinema’s main masters to fulfill the personal promise of only making the movies he truly wanted. The Player was followed by the phenomenal Short Cuts (a brilliant breakdown of ‘90s neurosis that found their foothold in the literary brilliance of Raymond Carver’s short stories) and several personal projects, including looks at his interest in fashion (Prêt-à-Porter), his love of jazz (Kansas City) and his deep seeded desire to stay connected to the current trends in filmmaking (The Gingerbread Man, a big screen adaptation of the John Grisham story). With Gosford Park again stirring Academy buzz, it seemed that Altman could really live out the rest of his life doing only the projects he felt passionate about.

It’s too bad then that such a strategy was cut short. No one looking at something like A Prairie Home Companion was arguing that Altman was back, but then again, it’s really hard to say if he every really left. Words like iconoclast, renegade, rebel and dissident were frequently used to describe the director, but the bigger question remains what, exactly, was he rebelling against? Lousy scripts overflowing with clichés and formulaic flaws? Movies lacking heart, passion, artistry and intelligence? A system that sticks by a baffling business plan that rewards financial success without ever taking any other element of a film’s achievement into consideration? That lack of instant approval for the enormous amount of work that goes into making a movie? A fickle fanbase that slams you one day, only to coronate your creations long after their possible impact could actually matter?

No, Altman was not an insurgent. He wasn’t out to change the industry or pout until the studios came around to his way of thinking. No, what this singular cinematic voice was avoiding was the brainwashed belief that you had to give into the sloppy and sub par elements of the game in order to be a viable member of its unconscionable cabal. He refused to acknowledge the fad-oriented facets of the medium, making his own statements about issues and incidents without the slightest concern for populism or pragmatism. He was forward thinking in a system that consistently looks back, and brave without wearing his considerable courage on his frequently slapped wrist. To say that he will be missed is an understatement. No one, not even his impressive impersonators will be able to replace Altman’s integrity and importance. So with his passing, perhaps it’s time to put the whole revolutionary idea to rest. He wasn’t a rebel. In fact, he had the right idea the whole time.

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