Saturday, June 5, 2010

Behavior, compulsive and otherwise

During that blessed interregnum of the late 1960's and early 1970's when the grand pooh-bahs of the movie business admitted they had no idea what kind of movie to make, filmmakers were permitted to control the filmmaking process. Then came Jaws and Star Wars and concept films and guys like Syd Field started analyzing the scripts of gazillion-dollar films in order to duplicate them precisely and we have been living for the past 35 years in the era of highly structured narrative. "I'm a storyteller," says every maker of the next whiz-bang toy-based action film, "I love interesting characters and interesting stories." Bleeah. What they like is exactly what the distribution machine cranks out--noisy movies and high salaries...and formulaic stories.

Movies didn't have to go that way. Not until D.W. Griffith began to develop a brilliant grammar for narrative during 1910-1914 did American film become primarily storytelling. Displaying scenery, historic events, rare performing skills--all these held equal sway in film until Griffith (and perhaps the Europeans who preceded him slightly). John Cassavetes was widely feted in the late 50s and early 60s when he rediscovered the fascination of mere human interaction in his improvised actor-fests. Personally, I find Cassavetes's stuff hard to watch because I have no idea where we're going and therefore no idea what to pay attention to. But Cassavetes was an actor and seemed to think everything actors did was inherently interesting.

Robert Altman is to me, arguably, the king of the filmmaking era of the 70s, rejecting everything about the sausage-making studio style. It's not that he didn't know how to do that. He had spent 15 years toiling in television, tying up all the plot strands in 26 or 52 minutes (it was a long time ago) and leaving everyone unchanged, except the villains who went to jail. Maybe it was because of that long apprenticeship that Altman started tearing up the script, rounding up wonderful improvisatory actors, setting up an environment and a few simple goals and more or less seeing what happened. But the result was not accidental, unplanned or unstructured. Altman worked it all minutely, leaving himself open to the happy mishap. But the structure was deeply buried under a rich tapestry of real, recognizable human behavior.

You might guess I'm an Altman fan, so it's a little surprising that I didn't get around to his study of two compulsive gamblers, California Split (1974) until now. It immediately preceded his masterpiece, Nashville (1975) and parts of it seem to be rehearsing aspects of the latter film, especially the characters played by Gwen Welles in both films. Everything you read about this film mentions the cutting-edge sound design, but that is merely historical now, as the procedures used in the film are universal today, and so no longer remarkable.

What is remarkable is how little this film judges or condemns its characters. Yeah, they're compulsive, so what? A scene between George Segal and one of his creditors begins with all the usual cliches, but doesn't end with them, like Segal getting beat up or his fingers broken or his apartment trashed. He promises to pay and his loan shark is exasperated, but walks away exasperated. Segal and his pal Elliot Gould become enamored of two hookers, but none of the obligatory hooker-and-drunk-gambler scenes follow. In fact, the hookers aren't even present for the big gambling climax.

And what is the big climax? [SPOILER ALERT] They finally have good luck. A lot of good luck. They run up a big win. Then you know what happens next--they lose it all. But they are happy because they still have their friendship. Except they don't lose. They take their big win, walk into another room, split up the money, admit it doesn't feel that special (although they're glad to have a lot of money), take the money and walk away in two different directions, never to see each other again. Oh, and they settle their debts.

There is not one story conference that would sign off on an ending like that. But I can't tell you how satisfying it is. You gotta be there. That's true for all Altman films. There's no logical explanation for most of them. You just gotta be there.

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