Robert Altman, the Blackguard of American Elections

William Gombash
Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor (1984)

At times it feels as if Altman is forcing us to drink drain cleaner in order for us to feel the gut wrenching pain of the farce that American democracy has become.

“You know what I didn’t do today? I didn’t vote.”

-- Kansas City

At the end of Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996), Carolyn Stilton, wife of Kansas City political boss Henry Stilton confesses to her husband that she did not vote. Her reasons for not voting may seem painfully obvious, given that she was kidnapped by a woman who was trying to save her crook boyfriend and that Carolyn has just shot her kidnapper in the back of the head. However, in the cinematic universe of Robert Altman failures of American democracy are seldom as simple as trivial felonious acts.

In films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), Secret Honor (1984), and Kansas City (1996), Altman portrays the process of American elections as a dark, sometimes nightmare comedy full of crooks and swindlers whose plans go awry with a resolution that ends in death. In Secret Honor, a dishonored and isolated Nixon informs us that the electoral process was in the hands of “The Committee of 100” and that the secret cabal “had a plan, 1946, 1948, 1950, and all the way through...”

In Secret Honor, the conspirators, from the very beginning of Nixon’s political career, control Nixon like a marionette and keep pulling on the strings even after he becomes President of the United States. What Nixon never knows, until it's too late, is that he is a condemned man standing on the trap of a gallows waiting for the executioner to pull the lever.

Altman’s films that either directly or even tangentially address the American election process in terms of their biting tone of sarcastic humor have parallels to Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book (also known as The Devil’s Dictionary). When Bierce defined the cynic as a “Blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”, that cynical person could be a description of Altman and his narrative skewing of the American political process.

For example, Altman’s Tanner 88 is a brilliant attack on the American election process that's so relentlessly biting in irony and sarcasm that a resurrected Bierce would probably recognize Altman as a fellow political traveler. However, Tanner 88 will not be included in this analysis. In terms of Altman’s war on the American democratic system Tanner 88 is his masterpiece, it's his Sherman’s "March to the Sea", and therefore, can stand on its own. Whereas Tanner 88 may be Altman’s grand strategy on his war on the fallacies of democracy McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Secret Honor, and Kansas City are more like tactical skirmishes and fierce cavalry charges whose cumulative effects are most apparent when studied as a combined whole.

Altman’s themes of the American election process are not just cynical -- they are often both venomous and caustic. Altman is indeed the blackguard in Bierce’s definition of a cynic:

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.

At times, while watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Secret Honor, and Kansas City it feels as if Altman is forcing us to drink drain cleaner in order for us to feel the gut wrenching pain of the farce that American democracy has become. To the discerning lover of cinema there's a certain masochistic pleasure in watching Altman eviscerate the myth of American democracy with the same pleasure he disemboweled the myth of the American west in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976). Integrated within these observations of the selected Altman films are quotations from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary as well as references to Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (The selected words and definitions by Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary are delineated in italics).

If there is one underlying theme that connects Altman and Bierce, it is death. For Bierce, death, either with a capital or lower case “D”, played a significant role in his work: “Perhaps it is true that Death is Bierce’s greatest character” ("The Dark Delight of Ambrose Bierce", Mason, 2012: 82), and that “Death haunted nearly all of his work...” ("The Devil and Ambrose Bierce", Silverstein, 2002: 52).

DEAD, adj.

Done with the work of breathing; done

With all the world; the mad race run

Through to the end; the golden goal

Attained and found to be a hole!

Death plays a significant role in the works of Robert Altman. Whether it's the opening theme of M*A*S*H's (1970) “Suicide is Painless” or Altman’s surprise ending in The Long Goodbye (1973) that ends, to the dismay of purists of the detective genre, with a revenge killing by the private eye Philip Marlowe, death is a prime mover in the narrative. In Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the Angel of Death walks around the backstage of a theater during the final performance of a once popular radio program. Altman himself has explicitly stated: “I think this is a film about death” ("Interview with Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor", Sterritt, 2006).

Intertwined with Altman’s recurring theme of death is the theme of politics. In Altman’s The Player (1992), producer Griffin Mill listens to a pitch from director Alan Rudolph. “What's your pitch?” Mill asks Rudolph. “Does political scare you?" Rudolph asks. “Political doesn't scare me.” Mill responds. “Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.”

By contrast, Altman is no Griffin Mill. Political, radical or otherwise never scared him. However, the politics of his cinema is never straight forward. For both Mill and Rudolph the challenge is to make a political film disguised as something else. “This is politely politically radical,” Rudolph continues, “but it's funny.”

As the pitch continues, Mill continues to look for the right adjectives to describe this political film without making it sound too political. “It's a cynical, political thriller comedy” is the direction that Mill thinks Rudolph is going, but he cannot see the twist in the plot. “Someone gets killed at the end”, Rudolph concludes: “They always do in political thrillers.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

In Altman’s revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller John McCabe is a businessman, possible gunfighter, but most of all he's a gambler. Gamblers understand the inherent risks of their profession and are skilled in terms of recognizing the most opportune times to raise, call, or fold. Unfortunately, for McCabe when it comes to business, politics, the politics of business, and the business of politics, he's too naïve to realize that the deck is stacked against him and that his last hand is a losing hand that will cost him his life.

Warren Beatty as John McCabe in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe builds a house of prostitution in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church. His business is so profitable that the mining company, Harrison Shaughnessy, wants to buy him out.

CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

When McCabe fails to accept the offer in a timely manner, the company sends three hired killers to force him to run, or to kill him if he's foolish enough to stay put. In desperation, McCabe seeks the help of a character only identified as The Lawyer (LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law ) to protect him from the mining company. “The law is here to protect a little guy like yourself, McCabe,” The Lawyer assures, “And I'm at your service, free of charge.” “Free?” McCabe responds with surprise. “That's what I said. You don't have to pay me anything. It would be an honor for the next senator (SENATE, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors) from the state of Washington... to be your servant before the scales of justice.”

JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

The Lawyer is not working pro bono nor is he interested in justice for McCabe or anyone else, for that matter. He wants to be to “the next senator from the state of Washington” and his interest in being “your servant before the scales of justice” only extends as far as how much McCabe’s interests advance his interests. The Lawyer will do whatever is possible to get elected by any means possible even if it means sacrificing people like McCabe in the process.

“What do we do? Get the Marshal?” McCabe logically asks. Unfortunately for McCabe, an opportunistic lawyer with aspirations for elected office abides by his own logic. “You don't need the Marshal,” The Lawyer pontificates: “We're going to do this through the courts.”

LITIGANT, n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones.

It's irrelevant to speculate whether The Lawyer is ever elected senator. What's relevant in the political world of the blackguard Altman is that the process of election is corrupt and leads to the death.

In the words of The Lawyer and candidate for the United States Senate, “a man goes into the wilderness... and with his bare hands, gives birth to a small enterprise... nourishes it and tends it while it grows.” Yet in the end, McCabe bleeds to death from a gunshot wound, alone, without anyone there to witness his last breath.

“Someone gets killed at the end. They always do in political thrillers.”

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