Tag Archives: Robert Altman

When Film Imitates Art

The Last Supper (1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci) & M*A*S*H (1970, Robert Altman)

One art form “borrowing” from another is nothing new, whether it be an homage or a rip-off. In film, for example, a filmmaker might mime something from another visual art (typically painting) to make a point. Here’s some examples (which are interesting in their own right but really a set-up for an obscure one)…

Robert Altman did it in M*A*S*H (above) for the sake of irony. An army dentist prepares to kill himself and his buddies have a send-off dinner. They ask the army priest to deliver the last rites, and he arrives just in time to see the party inadvertently strike a famous pose. (By the way, his reaction shot is the icing on the cake.) 1

Terry Gilliam was both funny and literal in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: the dinner-time arrival of the goddess Venus recreates Botticelli’s painting, the humorous implication being that this is how she comes to dinner daily.

The Birth of Venus (c. 1486, Sandro Botticelli) & The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, Terry Gilliam)

Ken Russell’s recurring theme of blurring fantasy and reality is key to his use of Fuseli’s The Nightmare in Gothic, his version of the circumstances behind the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In real life, she claimed that her book was born out of a nightmare she had. Russell visually represents it, asking, in a sense, was that nightmare caused by the demon on her chest? 2

The Nightmare (1781, Henry Fuseli) & Gothic (1986, Ken Russell)

Director Herbert Ross and writer Dennis Potter’s depression-era Pennies from Heaven has a mood so similar to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, it made perfect sense to see Potter’s characters momentarily become the painting. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve yet to see if this homage is in the original BBC version.)

Nighthawks (1942, Edward Hopper) & Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

The source materials for all the images above are very famous to begin with, common images in the popular consciousness. Sometimes, however, the filmmaker doesn’t hit you over the head with the reference; sometimes the inspiration is not as well known. For example, George Cukor had keen appreciation for the grace of Degas’s Dancers Lace Their Shoes, which he used as the inspiration for a Cinemascope tableau early in A Star is Born, throwing in a gruff stagehand to modernize it. This shot does little more than establish the backstage mood at a live event, but it sure looks gorgeous on the big screen.

Dancers Lace Their Shoes (c. 1970, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) & A Star is Born (1954, George Cukor)

Here’s my favorite reference in a film. I came to this backward, meaning when I saw the film I had no idea what it was referencing. However, in this post I’ll unfold the information in real chronological order.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was published in 1937, and his tale of the doomed Lennie and George immediately entered the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, photographer Dorothea Lange was in the midst of documenting the day-to-day plight of migrant workers and other victims of the Depression (her most famous photograph is Migrant Mother) and took this picture, which she called Toward Los Angeles, California.

Two years later, Lewis Milestone directed the first film based on Of Mice and Men, starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie. This scene is very early in the film; in fact, it isn’t in the book (it occurs a few hours before Steinbeck’s first chapter). George and Lennie, on their way to a workranch, get off of a bus, being told by a dismissive driver that their destination is “just a stretch down the road.”

Like I said, I came to this in reverse: I saw the film in grade school and a few times after that on TV, and then, about ten years later, in some trendy boutique in the Village, I came across Lange’s picture on a rack of postcards. I experienced major déjà vu, and it took me months to recollect where I had first seen it.

I think Milestone’s allusion to Lange is way more sophisticated than the others listed above. All the others have their merits and fit into the filmmakers’ purpose, so they’re perfectly fine (Hell, this isn’t a competition). But Milestone referenced a largely-unknown photo that was only two years old. (As opposed to the others who were sometimes reaching across centuries.)

The film uses Lange’s image as a way of infusing some topical documentary into the narrative, but I think it runs deeper, a kind of mixed-media mind meld. Even though Steinbeck and Lange were contemporaries using their respective skills to chronicle the times, in 1937 Steinbeck was the more famous of the two. It isn’t a far reach to think that Lange imagined Lennie and George when she took her picture a month after the book’s publication. (That’s the cover to the first edition to the left, with artwork depicting–you guessed it–two guys walking down a road.) And then Milestone’s appropriation posits a possible back story to Lange’s photograph (especially since he staged it so the scene/shot would resolve with the recreation of her Toward Los Angeles, California).

I’m spelling this out explicitly because in 1940 when John Ford directed his film of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he and Director of Photography Gregg Toland also borrowed imagery from Lange and photographs taken by the WPA—and that artistic give-and-take has been fastidiously chronicled. You can’t read five sentences about Ford’s film without the writer going on about that. Look, I dig it and all, but I’ve never read anywhere that director Lewis Milestone did it, too—a year before John Ford did!

Of Mice and Men 1st edition dustjacket (1937, artist unknown), Towards Los Angeles, California (1937, Dorothea Lange) & Of Mice and Men (1939, Lewis Milestone)

Yeah, I’ll admit it: as much as I love Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve always had a soft spot for Milestone’s Of Mice and Men. The cast is exceptional; the filmmaking both technically sophisticated 3  and elegantly simple; and Aaron Copeland’s original score is pretty damn brilliant. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and Netflix it. (And fer Christ’s sake, stay clear of the 1992 Sinise/Malkovich version, unless you want to see the oxymoron of all oxymorons: Malkovich’s thinking man’s Lennie. Yeesh…)


BACK TO POST 1 Thanks to Altman’s love of gritty cinematography, it’s hard to truly appreciate the amount of detail in this frame grab—and all of its humor. This production still, although from a slightly different angle, reveals two particularly nice touches: the shape of the tent’s wall-of-gauze creates a marvelous frame-within-the frame, and the red cross on the top of the tent is an extra allusion to religion.

BACK TO POST 2 Ken Russell’s work does not lend itself to extreme simplification, and odds are I’ve misrepresented his intent with his use of Fuseli’s painting. My apologies to the Russell fans out there, especially to Michael Worrall, an old friend who helped me considerably with this post.

BACK TO POST 3 If you want to see something really cool, check out this clip, which is a slightly longer version of the clip above. It includes George’s conversation with the bus driver, half of which is shot on a soundstage. After the insert shot of the bus driver’s foot on the brake, it cuts back to the conversation, only now the actors are in a real bus. It’s really cool; in fact, if I hadn’t pointed it out, I wonder if you would have noticed it?


Filed under Books, Film

Polish Posters Revealed

Last week I posted some Polish film posters with their identifying information blurred out. Traffic was strong, participation not so. Well, what can you do? I’m still just getting up to speed here.

You can see the blurred versions at the original post, but here they are in their unadulterated form.

Considering the Sex and the City franchise is so firmly in place, it’s surprising that in Poland they’d create something so different, something that doesn’t use Sarah Jessica Parker’s face.

The Shaggy Dog (1959), the one with Fred MacMurray. Yeah, even Disney got the highly-imaginative Polish treatment.

I’m at odds with this one. True, it does evoke one of the most sinister elements of Altman’s 1975 film–it may even be a kind of a spoiler (I have to be delicate here since I don’t want this post to be a spoiler!)—but it’s just so horrific it could be counter-productive to welcoming people into the film Still, on its own terms, it’s striking as Hell.

And here’s one more for the road: Mel Brook’s Silent Movie (1976).


Filed under Film, Posters

When Audio Commentaries Stick in My Craw

Sidney Lumet: Dementia sufferer…Robert Altman: Stoner…Frank Sinatra, Jr: Numbskull.

What a lazy commentary producer might look like.

These aren’t things I want to think about when I listen to an audio commentary, however, before this post is done, you’ll understand why I almost did.

I’ve produced, engineered and/or edited several commentaries over the years, and one of the reasons I was hired is because I’m very a detail-oriented film geek. And since some of my subjects were people that hadn’t watched their films in years, I was there to help out, to make sure they had the names right or, at the very least, to give them printout of the credits from IMDB.

I always looked at my job as a responsibility to the filmmaker (or whoever is commenting). I want to show them in the best light possible; to protect them oversights that are a by-product of the ravages of time; and to capitalize on the fact that I have spent way too much time pondering their work.

I’d think—hope–I have a solid track record of producing factually accurate audio commentaries. And therefore when I’m listening to one I didn’t produce and there’s a glaring mistake, you can understand why it stokes my ire.

I have some examples, and you’re may think I’m a old grump that’s getting hung up on details. But that’s exactly what a producer should do: get hung up on details.

-In director Sidney Lumet’s great commentary for Dog Day Afternoon, he talks about the real life events that inspired the film and their relation to the gay rights movement that was blossoming in NYC: “[The robbery was] way in advance of the gay movement. Stonewall had not happened yet.” However, the robbery detailed in Dog Day Afternoon took place in August, 1972; the Stonewall Riots happened in June, 1969. Would it have killed the commentary producer to say, “Uh, Mr. Lumet, can we go back to this one section and take another shot at it. I think your timeline is a little off”? Or if that opportunity was missed, then the producer could say to the editor, “Ditch that section about Stonewall. Lumet’s got it backwards, and we don’t want this great man to look old and doddering.”

-It’s clearly noted in Nashville’s closing credits (and on the soundtrack) that the song “For the Sake of the Children” is written by Richard Baskin and Richard Reicheg, yet during the commentary, director Robert Altman has an isolated moment where gives full credit to actor Henry Gibson. And when I say “isolated,” I mean isolated: it could have been easily removed with a keystroke. Instead it was left in there, and when I saw the songwriters’ names in the credits, I thought, “Oh, man. Some producer fell asleep at the wheel.”

-On Frank Sinatra Jr.’s commentary for the Rat Pack film Sergeants 3, he makes this bold statement about the film’s director John Sturges: “Like his father before him, Preston Sturges, John just had a way with the movie camera.” Which is all the more daring when you realize that not only were Preston and John not father and son, but that Preston Sturges’s first born was hatched 31 years after John Sturges was born.

Rocky has a wonderful cast-and-crew audio commentary, including director John Avildsen, actors Talia Shire, Burt Young, Steadicam operator/inventor Garrett Brown and others. About 99% is great—and well edited—but this one spot really pissed me off. There’s a scene at Philly’s legendary Pat’s Steaks. Now I know this because I was raised in the suburbs of South Jersey and am therefore familiar with this establishment. Oh, and I also know because it’s incredibly clear in the scene’s establishing shot. That being said, why, oh, why did the commentary’s producer leave this in?

Did the person driving that ship even watch the film?

And it didn’t even need to be in there! Steadicam operator Garrett Brown says “Jim’s Steaks” apropos of nothing; it was purposely edited into the tapestry, in between Avildsen’s comments. Lame. (By the way, Stallone gets the name right on his commentary track, which was recorded a few years after this multi-person one.)

(I’ll take it a step further: As someone who grew in that area, I have news for Mr. Avildsen: Rocky did not put Pat’s Steaks [est. 1930] on the map—or Jim’s Steaks, for that matter. On any map. But that’s just me being a local boy, being all hair-trigger.)

Full disclosure: I’m partial to this scene because as the shot continues, Rocky crosses S. 9th St and we see the front of the St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, which is where my grandmother was baptized in 1921.

Good thing Rocky put it on the map.


Filed under Film

Plucked from Obscurity: Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy”

For those approximately my age, we can remember a few years ago when patience was not only a virtue, it was a necessity. Because anything you wanted in the way of media—books, film, music—you had to wait for (and even pay for). Thanks to DVRs, the interweb, iPods, etc., there’s no longer much of a chase, meaning the detective work or skill needed to acquire something truly obscure. Let’s face it: obscure ain’t what it used to be. (And by the time this post is done, another song will come off the obscurity list.)

Having tastes and passions that are left of center, I spent my entire adolescence and twenties searching, searching, searching for the obscure. Sometimes this was my motivation to leave the house, so I started calling these items carrots (as in ‘carrot on a stick’). I used to keep a notepad in my back pocket where I’d scribble these carrots, such as:

        •“Lee Dorsey–a pop-y ballad that is NOT called ‘Give It Up’”

        •“What were those puzzles that the Courier Post used to have in the Sunday Editions in the early 80’s?”

        •“Marianne Faithful album w/alot of obscenities”

You get the idea. I would hit yard sales, used book stores, and libraries; scan for song titles in the small print of film closing credits; sing melodies to record store employees; write letters to publishers, film studios, music producers; etc. It was a marvelous hobby, kind of like being a geeky Indiana Jones.

Here’s a story of one of my carrots…

A highlight from Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) is Keith Carradine’s song, “I’m Easy.” His character is Tom Frank, a heartless rogue of a country-rock star—a jerk, really–and when he performs this song on acoustic guitar in a bar, several women assume the song is intended for her alone. It’s Carradine’s own composition and it’s an Oscar-winning killer song and performance…

I first saw this in 1990 while recovering from surgery at the base of my spine (not relevant, really, but a nice detail nevertheless) and became fixated on that song. As the soundtrack was not on CD and I didn’t have a turntable, I spent years trying to find a recording of it. I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Carradine in 1992 (see right); I was going to ask him to sing it for me but I didn’t have a tape recorder handy.

I learned it was a minor hit as a single and began combing the various CD collections at Tower Records: Billboard, Country Hits of the 70s, Film Hits, etc. Jesus, did I comb. (I haven’t combed that much since I was thirteen, if you catch my drift.)

One night in late December, 1995, I found it on a collection called Only Love 1975-1979, where it was in aesthetically-questionable company (i.e. Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel,” Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain,” and England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”). Also, it was the usual Tower Records whopping $17 (Tower had a lot, but it wasn’t cheap).

So, here I was, unemployed, broke and taking a gamble on a CD for one damn song. But I had to have it—it had been in my notepad for five years, which made it a carrot with honors–so I put the money down and eagerly made my way to Spin Cycle Post. This was a post facility where I had done some work as an assistant sound editor, and the office manager had generously let me have a set of keys so I could practice my editing chops over the Christmas break. It was midnight when I went in, and I set up shop in an edit suite, cued up the song on the CD player—setting it to Repeat, since I intended to make up for the Lost Years—and hit Play.

And it was dreck. Just garbage. The antithesis of what it was in the film. I knew it would be a re-recording of the song, sure, but gimme a break…Wait, check it out for yourself (and let it play while you read the next few paragraphs, for maximum impact).

I was appalled, stunned, furious. I left the suite, probably to get some water or some distance and inadvertently closed the door. Upon returning, a minute later, fully expecting to come to terms with the 17 bucks I just wasted, I discovered that the door was now locked. And I didn’t have a key. And I was the only one there. And maybe you’ve been in this position before, but I was in major ass-kissing mode, trying to get a job with these folks, so I had to solve this problem on my own.

I frantically rummaged the office for about an hour, looking for keys to the individual offices, growing more and more panicked, and the whole time being taunted by this 70s easy listening version of the Tell Tale Heart. It was driving me insane as Keith Carradine country-crooned in front of a faceless, ball-less bunch of studio musicians—oh, those drum fills!—it just going and going and going…

I gave up and curled up on a cold leather sofa, staying the night for fear that if someone came in the next day and found a locked room with a song playing endlessly that it would spell doom for my future in NYC postproduction.  I was as far as possible from that office, but I could still hear the muffled song through the door, my precious carrot by way of a Viet Cong war camp.

A low-level assistant arrived in the morning, took the keys from the one place on the floor I didn’t look, and graciously agreed to keep my misstep a secret. I turned off the CD player—I had heard the song approximately 200 times—and never played it again.

I don’t know. Maybe you had to be there.

In 2000, the Nashville came out on DVD, and I immediately loaded it into a computer, editing the shit out of it. I made an isolated audio track of Carradine’s acoustic performance—meticulously removing as many glass clinks as possible—and sat back with a big Goddamn smile. Oh, and I did all this at Spin Cycle as an employee. A sweet victory, to be sure, and I crossed that song off my carrot list.

I’m Easy (acoustic version, 3:02, right-click to download)

Postscript: In 2000, the Nashville soundtrack came out on CD, and it turns out there’s a third version of “I’m Easy,” this one with an arrangement falling in between the other two.

I’m Easy (soundtrack version, 3:02, right-click to download)

In fact, if this is what I got my hands on in 1995, instead of that crappy Muzak-with-vocals version, you’d be looking at a blank webpage.


Filed under Film, Music