Mulholland Dr. (2001)

David Lynch’s film, the voted #1 movie of the 2000s, is beguiling but packs an emotional wallop

mulholland-drive-posterThe moment in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” that resonates most deeply with me, and there are a few, takes place inside the club known as “Silencio.” “Silencio! No hay banda,” the announcer “says” to the crowd, explaining that there is no band, no live performance. It’s all taped. It’s all a recording. It’s all an illusion.

Lynch gives us a few shots, one from the balcony where Betty and Irene are sitting, another in close-up of the emcee, and a third from his side profile revealing a blue-haired woman sitting zombie-like in the luxury box above. The lights begin to flicker in a blue haze as the emcee vanishes, and Betty starts to shake uncontrollably in her seat as thunder begins to rumble in the theater. A new host steps out to introduce Rebekah Del Rio, a singer playing herself who performs “Llorando,” a Latin cover of a Roy Orbison song, “Crying.” She’s dressed in red and black with a glint of red and yellow makeup beneath her eye. She’s first seen from afar, then in close up as she builds in dynamics. She’s barely fighting back tears and absolutely wailing, and Lynch cuts back to Betty and Irene unable to hold back their own. And then, she collapses, topples to her side as her siren song continues on tape.

It’s all taped. It’s all a recording. It’s all an illusion. This moment marks an important turning point in the film, in which the reality that Betty and Irene think they belong to begins to unravel. There’s no “unlocking” the tiny blue box they hold, or for that matter any of the movie’s secrets. All of “Mulholland Dr.’s” mysteries, noir trappings and bizarre twists have been part of some surreal movie magic, completely artificial and cinematic. It’s ALL a recording. Continue reading “Mulholland Dr. (2001)”

The Bank Dick (1940)

“The Bank Dick” shows W.C. Fields’s distinct voice as a classic comic actor

wc_fieldsbankdickposterFool me once, W.C. Fields, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It goes to show that in my Rapid Response to “It’s a Gift” just how little I knew about Fields or his movies. Roger Ebert’s Great Movies piece of “The Bank Dick” informs that you don’t have to be familiar with Fields’s movies to be considered a movie buff, and yet if you have never come across him, you’re hardly a movie lover at all.

Ebert describes him as a man who seemed to be drunk at all times, whose louse behavior was par for the course, and whose movies were not especially good, but whose best moments were spread across numerous features and shorts. His best known feature, “The Bank Dick,” made eight years after “It’s a Gift,” shows just how little Fields’s formula had evolved in that time. And to watch the two films in close succession, you begin to develop an affinity for their patterns and their sillier shared qualities.

That doesn’t mean I exactly enjoyed “The Bank Dick.” It’s perhaps even more formless of a story than “It’s a Gift,” and yet taken together it’s much easier to respect the work Fields is doing and the effort that’s gone into making these films, as dumb as they are. Continue reading “The Bank Dick (1940)”

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

the_best_years_of_our_lives_film_posterIn Mark Harris’s book “Five Came Back,” Harris chronicles director William Wyler’s thoughts as he grappled with making “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He talks about his decision to cast the non-actor and real-life amputee Harold Russell as Homer, a man who lost his hands not in the war but during training. In making that choice, Wyler said he was dedicated to honesty and authenticity. He looked at thousands of veterans returning home to watch his movie, and he knew anything that didn’t ring completely true to their experience would fall flat.

Today when we think of authenticity, it’s the opposite of Hollywood endings and drama. It’s grittily real, dark and cynical. Earlier in “Five Came Back,” an early treatment of “The Best Years of Our Lives” became the novel “Glory for Me” by Mackinlay Kantor. Harris describes the book as “more explicitly brutal than any movie of the time could have been,” and that the “hardbitten pessimism of [Glory For Me’ was tonally closer to the budding genre of postwar noir.”

This is the film that would get made today. The returning soldiers have been through hell and back, and the civilians on the home front have taken their jobs and spit in their faces, either oblivious or uncaring to the challenges of PTSD. We’ve seen it in Vietnam movies, Iraq movies and more contemporary World War II stories. And journalists would write about those films as though these were the ones that captured the reality of the world.

Except Wyler’s film today seems the most authentic. It has a classical, Hollywood-friendly love story and uplifting ending despite some tough themes and drama. “The Best Years of Our Lives” doesn’t grapple with the extraordinary cases and nightmares but the ordinary people returning home. It’s 170 minutes long but feels intimate and small in its scope. Whereas other war films have been intrinsically tied to the politics and the pulse of the day, “The Best Years of Our Lives” feels timeless. Continue reading “The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)”

Pootie Tang (2001)

Pootie_Tang_posterThank God for Louis C.K. When he directed the 2001 film “Pootie Tang,” he was still an aspiring comedian, writer and director, not yet a household name, and certainly not the innovator on stage or behind the camera that we’re accustomed to today. Let’s just say no one was calling him a genius yet.

Chris Rock however imagined that C.K. one day could be a genius. C.K. wrote and directed on “The Chris Rock Show” and with Conan O’Brien on “Late Night,” and it was Rock who encouraged C.K. to start developing ideas for himself. But not before C.K. was tasked to adapt a successful sketch and character on “The Chris Rock Show” into a feature length film that would turn out to be the biggest failure of C.K.’s career: “Pootie Tang.”

The sketch is little more than Rock conducting an interview with a jive-talking pop star, and the film (barely qualifying as one at just 81 minutes) isn’t about much more. In fact, it’s a mess. “Pootie Tang” was such a disaster in 2001 that Roger Ebert wondered in his Half-Star review if it was even finished, imagining how such a wild mish-mash of a film could’ve possibly been made and released in this state. “Pootie Tang” is not bad so much as inexplicable,” he wrote. “How was this movie assembled out of such ill-fitting pieces?”

And yet if it weren’t for C.K.’s rise as a director, would anyone have given “Pootie Tang,” truly a cult classic that just had its 15th anniversary, the second look it deserves? Continue reading “Pootie Tang (2001)”

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)

Harlan_county_usaIf Barbara Kopple were making “Harlan County U.S.A.” today it would be focused on environmental ramifications of coal mining and the broader corruption of big business and Wall Street over the little guy, and only then would it look at the health and safety conditions provided to the common working man. And yet it’s remarkable how relevant Kopple’s pinnacle documentary, 40 years after its initial release, still feels today.

“Harlan County U.S.A” came out in the period of Maysles Brothers, fly on the wall documentaries and shares its style, but it set the stage for advocacy documentaries of all stripes. It proved that if you’re in the right place at the right time and turn your camera on, you can tell a story and change the world.

Kopple was able to do so because she and her crew quickly earned the trust of the striking coal miners on the front lines. They needed bodies to be there blocking the roads and holding the pickets, and they did it. So while Kopple doesn’t take the time to introduce many of these people with lower thirds or voiceover, we feel we know them intimately, each with thick accents and tender, passionate expressions as they debate at length about their problems and how to make a difference. The way they’re filmed, gritty and closely, these faces can all adorn LIFE Magazine covers. They are the symbols of depression, poverty and American values.

And “Harlan County” establishes such a beautiful sense of place. Although this is a very political and humanist movie, Kopple’s instinct is to open the film riding the conveyer belts in the narrow two-foot passageways under the coal mountains. The surreal, otherworldly lighting, pitch black waterfalls of coal and dark, grimy visages on the workers all speak volumes.

There’s no ambiguity in Kopple’s film, even going as far as to find a wonderfully compelling and menacing villain. But while Kopple herself doesn’t aim for the movie to feel revolutionary or righteous in the way so many slick, advocacy docs vying for Oscars would today, it boldly asserts that viewers have to choose a side. Hazel Dickens sings, “Which side are you on,” a terrific proletariat anthem, and Kopple is very clear that supporting the miners is strictly a human issue, not one of politics or business more generally.

When the miners take their cause to New York, a cop takes the time to ask what they’re fighting for. He’s astonished by how little they make, how dangerous their job can be, and the light scene stands apart from the rest of the heavier political discourse. Then there’s the villainous strike breaker who demands Kopple’s press pass. To this day when she says, like him, she must’ve misplaced it, the line still gets applause.

Memorable human moments like this are the reason this documentary, above other advocacy docs, demands a second viewing. It’s timeless and innovative even still, and yet few films have captured a time, a place and a moment so well.

Triumph of the Will (1935)

Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial propaganda film depicts Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg in 1934.

leni_riefenstahl_triumph_will_poster_14aEditor’s Note: This piece was written for a class in which we were instructed to review a film that is considered controversial, acknowledging how it can still be viewed as a work of art despite its controversy. 

What’s peculiar about “Triumph of the Will,” the infamous Nazi propaganda documentary from 1935, is that it doesn’t start with a magisterial shot of fascist grandeur and marching citizenry (although there will be plenty of that), but a peaceful image of soaring through the clouds.

Documentarian Leni Riefenstahl imagines Adolf Hitler’s view as he lands in Nuremberg for 1934’s gathering of hundreds of thousands within the Nazi Party to be “reviewed” by Hitler. When he arrives on the ground, the camera rides along in Der Fuhrer’s car and gets a perspective of almost exactly what Hitler would’ve seen that day in 1934.

No doubt, it’s an incredible sight that we can today recognize as bone-chillingly evil. So many smiling people giving the Nazi salute to their leader, so many star-struck kids gleaming in the sunlight, and all of it so terrifying to today look back and recognize the immense power this monster held over the masses.

But as much as Riefenstahl’s film is made to showcase Germany’s power, it has traces of calling attention to the region’s beauty. Early on the documentary has a travelogue look at the tranquil and old fashioned stone architecture, all the local farmers arriving in traditional lederhosen, the girls in braids and lacy gowns, with the shimmering canals and flags flying gracefully in the wind. You just have to ignore the fact that those flags are all carrying the Nazi insignia.

What’s more, it might be instructive to watch “Triumph of the Will” divorced from its rousing score of victorious marches. With the exception of the film’s several speeches from Nazi elite and Hitler himself, “Triumph of the Will” is practically a silent film, and Riefenstahl’s eye, taking cues from Old Hollywood’s approach to lighting, deep focus cinematography and striking low angles, is not as blindingly celebratory as you might imagine. There is an unconscious, sinister undercurrent to everything you see here, from intense, stoic looks on the faces of the Hitler Youth, to the geometrically precise armies of people gathering in stadiums and plazas that have come to define the look of fascism. In fact, the propaganda proved so powerful and effective, American filmmakers were able to use Riefenstahl’s footage in their own propaganda against the Nazis.

It would be wrong to oversell how impressive “Triumph of the Will” looks, because Riefenstahl’s documentary is by no means a “behind the scenes” account of Nuremberg in 1934. “Triumph of the Will” is exactly the film the government wants you to see, a sparkling, even sanitized look at the Nazi Party. While the film depicts hundreds of thousands celebrating Hitler, it neglects the many more both in fear and in danger of his rise to power. It would be tempting to see “Triumph of the Will” as a powerful historical document, but you quickly realize the film is decidedly one-sided.

That polished, rubbed clean sheen even reflects in the Nazi speeches. Speaking to the Hitler Youth at a massive stadium, the Fuhrer says with all his conviction that the children need to “practice obedience,” “steel yourselves” and “learn to sacrifice,” and you may raise an eyebrow when he says that Germans should be both “peace-loving and strong.” The Nazi leadership all speak of Germany’s greatness in the endurance and fortitude of their culture, economy and jobs. Their words serve as a reminder for how Germany rebuilt itself after the first World War, and Riefenstahl even opens “Triumph of the Will” with a title card that says this all takes place 16 years after the beginning of Germany’s suffering.

While “Triumph of the Will” doesn’t have any of Hitler’s directly inflammatory rhetoric and racism that would prove so terrifying and damning, his speech to close the film evokes and demands a slavish loyalty among the party, an us against them mentality that the enemy must be removed in order for the country as a whole to thrive. You can see how evil can fester under this lens.

But perhaps these images themselves aren’t far different from that of American flag-waving patriotism and militaristic advertisements and propaganda. The Nazis were responsible for some of the greatest evil known to man, but Riefenstahl’s film simply wants to celebrate a country’s power and unity.

Granted, “Triumph of the Will” isn’t exactly thrilling viewing for modern audiences. Have I mentioned the sheer amount of marching? All the parading and mass gathering as Hitler stands firmly in observation makes for the most tedious of pageantry. More interesting would honestly be a documentary about how “Triumph of the Will” was made. Hitler himself said Riefenstahl was his favorite filmmaker (hey, at least the Nazis were progressive in championing female directors) and gave her complete access and free reign to film as she pleased. Riefenstahl deployed 30 cameras and 120 technicians to film the rallies, and the sheer scale and production value necessary to capture everything must’ve required elaborate cranes and detailed, carefully orchestrated tracking shots. Ultimately, the finished, nearly two hour film represents just 3 percent of all the footage Riefenstahl shot.


Even films as massive as “Star Wars” have borrowed liberally from “Triumph of the Will,” and the countless images that have come to define fascism and the Nazis throughout modern popular culture all owe a huge debt to Riefenstahl.

Perhaps the greatness of her propaganda helped stoked the flames of war. Perhaps the world was right to label her a pariah. Or perhaps Riefenstahl’s artistry had the power to put the monstrous evil of Adolf Hitler into perspective.

The Crowd (1928)

Crowd-1928-PosterHas any single image in film history better captured the idea of conformity and order than the endless rows of identical desks in a vast office building in King Vidor’s “The Crowd”? Shot on a slant and tracked overhead to infinity, it’s one moment of many that display 1920s New York City as a futuristic, even surreal cityscape representative of all the world’s uniformity and ceaseless rat race. Vidor films at towering low angles that give New York such gravitas and immense presence, from skyscrapers that look like temples and the glistening lights of Coney Island that look heavenly.

Vidor’s film has inspired countless artists, with the desks alone cropping up in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” the Coen bros. “The Hudsucker Proxy” and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” But rather than a satire like those films, “The Crowd” is a steep melodrama that manages to run the gamut of the human condition. It feels universal and innocent even as the film’s bleak melancholy sinks in.

Released in 1928, “The Crowd” is one of the last silent films of the early era of cinema (with the exception of some Chaplin stragglers). Like “Sunrise” the year before, Vidor had reached the peak of what was capable with silent filmmaking, the camera sweeping, the set design stylized and the lighting dreamy, all before talkies took over Hollywood and tied the camera down again for several years. Look at an early shot in the film, the camera angled down a flight of stairs that both illuminate and cave in on a boy slowly creeping up to learn his father has died.

Vidor uses these cinematic techniques to lend a macro sensibility of patriotism and worldliness to the micro story of a man hoping to amount to something. The generically named John Sims (James Murray) arrives in New York and hears from a passerby, “You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.” All John needs is an “opportunity,” and “The Crowd” is a film about how he’ll eventually conform to that crowd in order to make his own opportunity.


John’s attitude is one of entitlement, elitism and condescension, laughing at a man juggling to promote a billboard and believing with little evidence or work ethic that he’s better than the rest. Murray bites and licks his lip in a way that gives him a snobby quality and increasingly makes John unlikable. Within that characterization there’s a class dynamic at play. John’s in-laws are disapproving members of the bourgeois; they loath how he and his wife Mary (Eleanor Broadman) live in poverty beneath an El train.

John is detestable to the point that Vidor, in a pre-Code era, gets away with making the Sims’ Hollywood ending still fairly tragic, with society unwilling to mourn his family’s loss in one horrifying scene, and with John and Mary sinking into a sea of faces all laughing like buffoons at a vaudeville stage in “The Crowd’s” closing shot. “The crowd laughs with you always but will cry for only a day,” reads one ironic title card. John succeeds in the end, but not as a man who was so good he could beat the crowd, just join them.

“The Crowd” perhaps has not aged as well as some of the German Expressionistic silent films it was inspired by. But the film is a remarkable relic of 1920s New York prior to the Great Depression, and its influence is undeniable. In an age when Hollywood would seek to make escapist fantasies and popcorn entertainment, Vidor’s film had the audacity to stand out.

Stalker (1979)

StalkerIn Andrey Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, three men leave their desolate reality and enter The Zone, a verdant yet isolated slice of nature that breathes, changes, evolves and punishes those who don’t respect it. The men are in search of a mysterious room rumored to grant wishes to any who enter.

To reach it however, the men aren’t braving obstacles or challenges, but revealing themselves to the higher power and unseen hand that watches over The Zone.

They pass through a sinister sewer, with metallic crunches accompanying every careful step. The camera tunnels behind the lead man and follows him shell-shocked for agonizing minutes. When he reaches the end, he gives up his only form of protection, a pistol, and makes himself entirely more vulnerable. He then descends a staircase into a room flooded with water, baptizing himself as he comes out the other side. And in a new chamber full of odd sand dunes, he collapses and bares his soul as though crossing a desert. The Zone has let him live for this long. “Yes, but why not forever”, he asks, tormented that he has escaped death but still not found solace or eternity. Finally, standing just on the precipice of the room capable of granting his inner most wishes, he adorns himself with a crown of thorns.

The spiritual and religious symbolism in “Stalker” is unspeakable, and yet the film takes a 180 in tone. People are shallow. The world is bleak. Solace is hopeless. Like Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” before it, “Stalker” is a gripping and tense sci-fi full of atmosphere and danger, but it profoundly grapples with themes of humanity and spirituality. It poses a fairly cynical idea that a room capable of granting all of humanity its innermost wishes is something of a paradox. “Unconscious compassion is not ready for realization.”

The film begins in a world so awash of color and life that it looks as though the apocalypse has struck. The opening shot creepily peers in at a sleeping couple, with the camera inching through barely open doors in a filthy room. Everything in this world is dank, with stagnant pools and junk scattered everywhere. The first man we see is a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy), who helps shuttle paying customers to The Zone to care for his wife and sick daughter.

His two passengers to The Zone are the Professor (Nikolay Grinko) and the Writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), who each seem at odds with one another as they debate the concept of truth in a bar. “While I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap of…pardon, I’d better not name it,” the writer says.


The Zone is well guarded, and Tarkovsky stages some expert, stealthy tension as they slink through this labyrinth of slums guarding the entrance. They reach a trolley that will take them to The Zone, and after several long takes of the back of the riders’ heads patiently awaiting this forbidden place, the camera smash cuts into color.

This “Wizard of Oz” effect though is the exact opposite of not being in Kansas anymore. For the Stalker, The Zone is home. It’s full of ruin and death of those who have failed to reach the Room before, but it has a beautiful solitude. Rather than take the direct route to the entrance and risk being punished, Stalker leads Professor and Writer on the scenic route through caverns, fields and watery tunnels.

Tarkovsky keeps his camera at a distance. They’re treacherous and observant, but also strangely calming and hinting at a higher power. He shoots through doors and grates that act as portals and amp the nervous tension of being watched and judged by nature. We never actually see the danger, but we constantly sense it.

Better yet, we believe. “Stalker” is a film about faith, and it forces its characters to become pious, to give up their human boastfulness and certainty in favor of tapping into their innermost feelings. Tarkovsky stops the film several times for dreamy prayers and meditations that preach such piety. Here’s one that speaks volumes:

Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.

Other films that consider similar themes of faith and humanity stop only at channeling The Book of Job. And others still could extract a slick action thriller out of “Stalker” (based on the Russian novel “Roadside Picnic”) but leave the spiritual ideas on the table. “Stalker” goes further and has an ending that grapples with the paradox of achieving our deepest desires and knowing the feeling of immortality or the afterlife. It’s not a cathartic ending, but in the film’s final shot we witness Stalker’s daughter resting her head on a table. The scene is in color, and she has taken a little of Stalker’s color with her. She moves a glass with her mind until it falls off the table, and we’re left with just a little hope at something more powerful lingering in our world.


The Essentials: The Maysles Brothers

The documentarians the Maysles Brothers found nuance and intimacy in all of their films, including “Salesman”, “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”.

One of the most heart-rending tracks on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” album is “Voices from Old People”. Not even a song, it’s a collection of elderly, frail, shrill voices not directly clear but echoing throughout the room. It’s ambient, natural sound reverberating off the walls, with overlapping discussions about death and life and everything in between. One woman speaks about how she still sleeps on her half of the bed long after her husband has passed. It’s lonely, devastating, and endlessly fascinating.

In the sprawling halls and rooms of the once great mansion Grey Gardens, Edith and Little Edie Beale’s voices travel throughout their home in much the same way. In just the way Albert and David Maysles allow us to listen to them chattering about their former glories, we get a poignant sense that the people we’re observing and the home in which they live are relics. The Beales are a pitifully saddening portrait long past its prime, in desperate need of restoration. Perhaps most painful of all is that in “Grey Gardens”, they still present themselves as though they’re an elegant museum piece.

In “Grey Gardens,” “Salesman,” and “Gimme Shelter” the Maysles Brothers captured life and people in a way that they felt somewhat pained. All of their movies could at times be funny, exciting, insightful, and intimate, but there’s a sense of pain that runs through all of them, that these are somewhat lonely or wounded people.

Albert Maysles passed away at the start of March. His documentary style that he adapted with his brother has grown somewhat out of fashion. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris would be more aggressive and cynical. Many others would be more topical or political. And others still doing portraits and slice of life movies would move away from the “Fly on the Wall” type of documentary filmmaking.


But the Maysles still hold incredible influence and have their fingerprints on many facets of contemporary documentary filmmaking. In the case of “Grey Gardens”, both Albert and David are actually quite present. Little Edie speaks and even performs for the camera. It heightens the idea that she’s a socialite and debutante, simply lighting up once the camera shines in her face.

The story of the Beales isn’t told during “Grey Gardens” but is simply introduced. Both Big and Little Edie are relatives of Jackie O, President Kennedy’s wife. They had been thrust into the public spotlight when their home at Grey Gardens estate was threatened to be condemned. Landlords had discovered the wretched state in which the two lived, under filthy conditions and crumbling disrepair. Jackie O personally helped them remain in the home, but two years later, the Maysles pick up with them to see how they’re faring.

Suffice it to say things have not improved. In the Blu-Ray reissue by the Criterion Collection just released, we have a pristine look at the filth, grime and mess littered around their home. Bugs are crawling on the walls in numerous frames. Little Edie leaves an entire loaf of white Wonder bread for raccoons and cats to pick from. When they have guests, they drink champagne from Dixie cups. They’re a hideous wreck.

But the Maysles aren’t here to necessarily judge or ascribe a reason as to why they feel unwilling to improve their horrid conditions or leave. We’re allowed to make that assertion on our own, and both Big and Little Edie need barely any prodding to speak their mind and make a case for their pitiful delusion. Together they bicker about tiny details and do so in a high-pitched shrill befitting a decade well before the ‘70s. And despite the mess of their condition, Little Edie still seems concerned with décor, wall patterns and fashion choices. We never see Little Edie without her shawl, and she deliberately makes choices to wear frumpy skirts inside out with mismatched blouses.

The Maysles get a look at old photos of the two, and it’s impossible to imagine that the brimming debutantes photographed are the same people. In providing that backwards look, it would be easy to say the Beales are simply mentally ill, unable to cope with the present. But the Maysles are smart enough to get intimate with the details of Big and Little Edie’s conversations. Little Edie expresses a desire to leave, to do more and to relive so many opportunities she has missed out on, but the Maysles make it clear that the two together thrive on their bickering and their reminiscing of the past. They bring out the best and worst in each other, and though they’re keeping a dangerous illusion alive, they also maintain their charm and poise.

Modern reality shows like “Hoarders” or shows highlighting the garish and the ugly are only interested in those extremes. The Maysles saw the Beales and could’ve condescended. Instead they made a portrait with nuances and shades.


They were possibly the only documentarians to do the same for a bunch of rock stars, The Rolling Stones. Looking at the Maysles visual technique, they’re an unusual bunch to be filming a rock documentary complete with concert footage. During the Stones various performances, the camerawork is without many of the usual flourishes that are typical in the genre. In fact, they appear transfixed with Mick Jagger’s face in tight close ups, arguably not a bad subject.

But what they do call attention to in their live performances is just how ragged and raw the Stones were back in their heyday. Today the Stones live show is so polished, complete with pyrotechnics, orchestras and choirs, but the Maysles demonstrate that they were once just five guys on stage with a lot of energy.

They also bring to the film the inspired idea to sit the Stones down and show them the footage. “Gimme Shelter” documents the band’s struggle to stage a free concert out in California. So many kids were expected, the location had to be altered numerous times, and the logistics just seemed impossible. 300,000 arrived in 80,000 cars lined for miles along the road. But it became really controversial once security arrived. The Stones hired the Hell’s Angels biker gang, who were largely uninterested in protecting the band or others. The Maysles simply observe the mayhem, and the way they shoot it, without comment or fanfare, truly makes it seem like a cultural event (they did the same when documenting The Beatles arrival in New York). One gang member pulls an entire motorcycle from underneath a group of bodies in the crowd. And when things really go wrong, the Maysles are there to confront and humble the Stones with the consequences of their performance.

The Maysles even brought this humble, observational quality to a short they did titled “Meet Marlon Brando”. Filmed at a press event in 1966, it’s easy to see why Brando was not just a great actor, but a true movie star. The Maysles edit out the substance of the press questions and focus on Brando’s charm and irreverence. We see him here as handsome, flirtatious, and best of all, unexpected in everything he says. On the whole, “Meet Marlon Brando” is not an essential moment for the Maysles but a neat novelty to see Brando in an unusual position.


But just two years after, the Maysles did film their first essential documentary, “Salesman”. The simplicity of this story with these characters would be almost unheard of today, better reserved for a magazine article or indie film. But in four wandering salesman, the Maysles capture one of the toughest lifestyles of the ‘60s as well as some of the American hardship and culture of the time.

The Badger, the Gipper, the Rabbit and the Bull. All four salesman have their own styles, experience and level of success as we see each try and hock some expensive Bibles for nearly $50 each, which would be a lot even in 2015. The Bibles are massive, filled with ornate lettering and images and perhaps completely unnecessary, but sell them they must. The Maysles never comment on whether this is a worthy endeavor (even in the ‘60s, this way of life already seems to be fading), but view the men themselves as upstanding.

We relate to them in a curious way. “Salesman” vaguely reminds of the profane dialogue found in “Glengarry Glen Ross”, and surely Jack Lemmon could play one of these men in a movie, but they’re largely pitiable. They’re charming and slick, vaguely racist, and perhaps unflinching, even when certain clients seem to be hiding home and financial troubles, but we feel for them when time and again they hit a wall when failing to close. They’re stuck driving around suburbs in Florida, away from any wives or children we never see and whom they may not even have.

The Maysles are given surprising access into people’s homes and truly do feel like flies on the wall, but that’s not to say “Salesman” is any less intimate or understanding. They bring that rare quality of touch and nuance to all four of these films, and no one did it better.

The Essentials: Robert Altman in the ’70s

“Nashville,” “MASH,” “3 Women” and “Thieves Like Us” each speak to why Altman defined the ’70s in film.

In his breakout film “MASH”, Robert Altman set his war comedy in the midst of the ‘50s and the Korean War, but every line of dialogue and moment of anarchy was pure ’70s. The characters are obsessed with sex and the swinging, free love attitude that carried over from the ‘60s. They’re anti-establishment in a way that’s more “Cool Hand Luke”-cheeky than “Rebel Without a Cause”-angst-y. And the visuals on display are often somber and bloody in the New Hollywood fashion rather than melodramatic.

Robert Altman was the ‘70s. Across multiple genres and points in history, Altman always made movies for his time. Directors make biopics so generic they have little to say about the present or the past. Some films are iconic relics of their time because of the effects they used, the stars they championed and the look they adopted. Altman’s style was his own and it became the look of the ‘70s. His best films from this period seem to embrace their own influence and legacy and eventually even come to challenge it.

“MASH” so quickly became a hit and a staple for how storytelling and dialogue could be done that it looks less revolutionary compared to films he would release even a few years later. But Altman’s knack for transforming stories into his present day didn’t end at the war.

To adapt Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” Altman took the rugged Philip Marlowe of Old Hollywood and made him a chain-smoking, pitiful PI muttering one-liners under his breath. “Thieves Like Us” is dripping with period styling emblematic of the early 20th Century, but the film plays like an anti-“Bonnie and Clyde,” modern, scandalous and violent, but with a new self-aware mentality and style. In his Western classic “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, the overlapping dialogue adds to the film’s rugged, observational quality and strengthens the sprawling cast of Western supporting players. And in Altman’s masterpiece “Nashville”, the drama is focused on just a few days in this American country town in the 1970s, but it feels like a portrait of the entire country writ large.


The universal nature of “Nashville” makes it a good place to start; nearly all of the players Altman amasses here will turn up across his other ‘70s pictures, and the storytelling and character arcs are all free-flowing, non-traditional and emblematic of Altman’s style across all his films. Roger Ebert wrote in his Great Movies piece that “Nashville” may not be about any one thing. It’s a tone poem and musical that moves from character to character, full of some of the same dry humor and busy sense of activity first seen in “MASH”.

It could be about nothing in particular, as Ebert says, specifically the idea that life is messy, always overlaps and never occurs in a straight line. But if it’s about anything, it’s Nashville itself. What makes it such a ‘70s movie is that everything Altman observes has a sense of irony and even an air of criticism to it. When the Coen Brothers spoke about making “Inside Llewyn Davis” and recording the song “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” they explained that it’s a joke song, but not a bad one.

In “Nashville”, the songs are a bit ironic, but they’re far from parodies. Haven Hamilton’s (Henry Gibson) opening number adorning the credits is a hollow political anthem befitting Hamilton’s garishly country attire, but you instantly know the song to be one of a famed veteran with a respect for the art. When Hamilton performs again later at the Grand Ole Opry, it’s a purely stylish, endearing and magnetic performance of a country classic. But Altman includes a sly wink when Hamilton is caught adjusting the microphone stand towering above him.

Even the sillier characters aren’t merely one-dimensional. Altman looks at them through two separate eyes and plays up their flaws and their finer points. Sueleen (Gwen Wells) is a cocktail waitress who can’t sing a lick, but aspires to be a singer. Her voice is its own punch line, but we’ve seen her ambition in her dressing room mirror, and pity her humiliation in a devastating striptease scene. Keith Carradine plays a womanizing jerk who calls up another girl in his black book as soon as he’s finished with Lily Tomlin. But he’s a guy with talent and charm all the same, and his performance of the Oscar winning song “I’m Easy” is another of the film’s high points.

A friend once commented about the show “Modern Family”, saying he loved the show because it has no “B-story”. All the plot threads matter equally and comprise the whole. “Nashville” works in that sense. Characters aren’t lead and supporting. They all have nuances, expressiveness and layers. And when they’re all together at the film’s closing political rally, it’s hard to imagine any film’s cast as rich and as sprawling as this.


Two years after “Nashville”, Altman made another contemporary drama, and while he retained the non-linear story, the observational character building and subtle nuance, he reduced the sprawling scope into something intimate and eerie. “3 Women” takes those big emotions and seems to magnify them in two peculiar characters, and never has Altman made a film as surreal.

It stars Shelley Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux and Sissy Spacek as Millie’s obsessive admirer and friend Pinkie. The two work at an old folks therapy home, and Millie is showing Pinkie the ropes. Spacek was no longer a teenager by the time she played Pinkie, but she still had that immature, girlish quality to her that makes her perfect casting as a lost deer in the headlights type. When Pinkie moves in with Millie and the two slowly become friends, it becomes increasingly clear what a blank slate Pinkie is. She doesn’t have other clothes, friends, a background or possessions. She’s creepy, clingy and desperate for Millie’s attention.

But Altman plays a little trick. The dialogue is still in his signature style, casual, overlapping and ordinary. He develops Millie as a perfectly normal individual chatting it up with friends and colleagues, going out to bars and shooting flirtatious smiles at her cute neighbor Tom. But slowly we pick up on the fact that Millie seems to be making small talk to no one in particular. She makes up conversation topics as she goes, seemingly talking through her colleagues and neighbors as though her presence doesn’t even register. “Don’t look now, but its Thoroughly Modern Millie,” one of her neighbors scoffs. Both Mille and Pinkie are equally bizarre empty shells, and what we know about these characters slowly erodes.

What’s so unique (it does however bare a lot of similarities to “Persona”) about “3 Women” is that Altman is now taking the tricks he has established throughout the ‘70s and using them to the point that nothing feels quite right. The dialogue is not just muted but it creates an awkward silence so thick you can cut it with a knife. He uses quick zooms and cold, distant characters that still have as many tiny intricacies as those in “Nashville” or “MASH”, but they’re packaged in a way that makes the movie beguiling and hypnotic instead of observational and inviting.


To be fair, that peculiar mood setting is not too far off from “MASH” in the first place. The TV show of the same name, which has become far more iconic over the years, is purely conventional and silly. While Altman stages sequences of zany anarchy that would rival and pay homage to the Marx Brothers, particularly the long football finale, so much of the film feels almost solemn and too quietly subtle in its humor, enough to make an unprepared fan of the show bristle.

That’s because while war was the setting in the TV show “MASH”, Altman makes it an actual background. We don’t see any images of war, but we see the aftermath Hawkeye and Trapper are stitching up. They mask their wartime stress behind deft double entendres and prank filled, stick-it-to-the-man attitudes that would become the decade’s hallmark. The audacity of some of these set pieces, like drugging an officer and photographing him with prostitutes as blackmail, removing a shower wall to publicly gawk at their naked female commander, or a football player touchily named “Spearchucker Jones”, all work because of how cavalier and coolly unaffected Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould play Hawkeye and Trapper under Altman’s direction.

“MASH” also ends with a knowing wink to the time in which it belongs. The announcer on the PA reciting silly Old Hollywood films has now rattled off the cast and plot description to “MASH” as the film’s sly sign-off. Altman knows even at the breakout of his career where he stands and how his film belongs to both New Hollywood and Old.


Because of that fear of being lumped in too easily, his 1974 film “Thieves Like Us” has the gangster vibe of “Bonnie and Clyde,” the definitive New Hollywood movie, and makes a slower, more anti-climatic heist movie by design. The opening shot is a long, unbroken nature shot without the punchy editing reminiscent of the era. It fools our eye and delays introducing us to our real protagonists and point of focus. Once the thievery does begin, Altman keeps us outside the bank and away from the action. “I should’ve robbed people with my brain instead of my gun,” Keith Carradine’s Bowie says. The thieves then begin to lay low, and the romance between Bowie and Keechie comes not from a sense of excitement but almost from a lack of it.

Shelley Duvall shows up here as well, and across three of Altman’s films she is never cast the same. She was the obnoxious flirt in “Nashville” and the oblivious socialite in “3 Women”, and here she plays Keechie plain to fit the period simplicity Altman is aiming for.

Sadly, “Thieves Like Us” is not up to Altman’s same par as the other films included in this overview. His writing is ordinary and observational, but less layered and intricate. And despite a resistance to be “Bonnie and Clyde” during the rest of the film, that’s exactly how it ends.

But Altman’s films were made to be messy. That style defined his day, and he laid the groundwork for Paul Thomas Anderson and many more. At the end of “Nashville”, Altman has brought all his characters together, only for hell to finally break loose. It’s a powerful scene, in which everyone emerges in the heat of the moment and shows their true colors. Haven Hamilton takes the mic and proclaims, “You can’t do this to us in Nashville!” He rallies the crowd, and they blindly but nobly carry on the torch. Altman’s films in this time are like “Nashville’s” crowd, each so flawed, colorful and distinctive, that when brought together make up a universal whole.

For more, also check out previous writing on McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, each masterpieces and certainly worthy of being called “essential” ‘70s Altman.