The director I personally miss the most, one whose humanist contribution to cinema is most grievously felt due to its near-absence in the films of today, is Robert Altman. Altman was one of the few directors I grew up on whose films I always respected even when I didn't always like them. In his dogged insistence on making the kind of movies he wanted to see (not what the market was buying), and branding each with a idiosyncratic stamp of personal integrity and artistic innovation, Altman was a reminder to me that not all mainstream directors gained success by underestimating the intelligence of their audience. Not feeling the need to spell everything out for us, Altman made movies that were smart and insightful, and, best of all, surprising!
|Amy Stryker as bride, Muffin Brenner|
|Desi Arnaz, Jr. as groom, Dino Corelli|
|Silent screen star Lillian Gish as Nettie Sloan, family matriarch and keeper of all secrets|
Perhaps I’m just wallowing in idealized nostalgia here, but it says something about a director when even their misfires (for me, that would be Beyond Therapy, Dr. T and the Women) are more interesting than most director's hits. In the economic landscape of today's film world, a world that demands movies appeal to the broadest audience possible, fewer films are being made that challenge, confront, or contradict the ways audiences already think. In that aspect alone, Robert Altman's sometimes-undisciplined, always-passionate style seems to be of another world. Were Altman around today, I could never imagine the independent-minded filmmaker to be one of these modern directors allowing themselves to be influenced and dictated to by the opinionated tweets and texts of preteen fanboys/fangirls.
|Mia Farrow as Buffy Brenner, sister of the bride with a doozy of a secret|
Directors want their films to be successes because they wish to continue to making more films. Audiences, on the other hand, tend to want directors to keep revisiting the same success over and over again. Fans were disappointed when Robert Altman followed the success of M*A*S*H (1970) with a string of wildly dissimilar (not to mention unprofitable) films: Brewster McCloud - surreal comedy; McCabe & Mrs. Miller - revisionist western; and Images - psychological thriller. Likewise, after the critical triumph of Nashville (1975), audiences were thrown for a loop when Altman went all Ingmar Bergman on them with the enigmatic, 3 Women.
Thus, when in 1977 it was announced that Altman’s A Wedding was going to be a return to the all-star, multi-character, overlapping-dialog formula he had more or less patented with Nashville (but somehow failed to pull off with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson), expectations were understandably high. Alas, perhaps too high.
|Katherine "Tulip" Brenner (Carol Burnett) finds herself the object of in-law Mackenzie Goddard's (Pat McCormick) extravagant affections|
|Socialite Clarice Sloan (Virginia Vestoff) and Sloan household manager Randolph (Cedric Scott) have been secretly involved for years|
|To wed wealthy Regina Sloan (Nina Van Pallandt) Italian waiter Luigi Corelli (Vittorio Gassman) has had to deny his past. Meanwhile, Regina, following the difficult birth of their twins, has become a drug addict.|
|High-strung nurse Janet Shulman (Beverly Ross) tries unsuccessfully to keep Antionette Sloan-Goddard (Dina Merrill) in the dark about a death in the family.|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I saw A Wedding on opening day in 1978. In a nearly empty theater in Hollywood I sat through A Wedding two times in a row, obviously in the minority in finding it to be a delightfully funny film that was even a little touching. (Note: Given the sheer number of characters and stories one has to keep straight, A Wedding is a film that actually plays out better and feels less frenetic with repeat viewings.) As satire, A Wedding is too superficial and broadly farcical to compete with Nashville’s more thoughtful and expansive delineation of America's politics as show business lunacy; but its ensemble cringe-comedy predates the family dysfunction of television’s Arrested Development (including that program’s non-stop, full-frame activity that demands your constant attention), just as the camera’s penchant for capturing characters in moments of unobserved vulnerability anticipates today’s reality TV craze and the mockumentary style of Christopher Guest & Co. (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, For Your Consideration).
Altman’s movies tend to be exceptionally well-cast. I’m not sure how he did it, but he seemed to be capable of casting “to type” and “against type” simultaneously. In this chaotic, culture-clash merging of the working-class millionaire Brenner family of Kentucky with the inherited-wealth Sloans of Illinois society, Altman makes things infinitely easier for us viewers by having the Brenner’s somewhat anemic-looking strawberry blonde and redhead family contrasted sharply with the reedy platinum and gold cool of the Sloans. Wittily, all the actors are cast in groups that believably look as though they could actually be related (Carol Burnett, Dennis Christopher, Mia Farrow, and the wonderful Amy Stryker are a particularly inspired example).
The actors all “look” like the types they’re supposed to embody, but Altman’s well-chronicled technique of getting actors to develop their own characterizations through improvisation and experimentation result in many amusing and surprising twists.
|Geraldine Chaplin is superb as Rita Billingsly, the stressed-out wedding planner|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
A Wedding has been criticized by some for being plotless, but to my eye, contriving a situation wherein a wildly divergent group of people are forced to interact in ways both formally ritualized and circumstantially familiar, is very nearly an irresistible recipe for all manner of human drama. Plot structure can impose a sort of order to the messy business of life that may well be comforting to audiences, but isn't always necessary. Sometimes a free-form film like this, one that exposes human foibles and follies without attempting to ascribe motive and reason beyond those interpreted by the viewer, can provide a far more rewarding experience.
|Ladies in Waiting|
Mona Abboud, Marta Heflin, and Lesley Rogers check out the males
|Society doctor Howard Duff casually dispenses "feel good" drugs to ailing wedding caterer Viveca Lindfors|
|Pam Dawber (here with Gavan O'Herlihy) made her film debut in A Wedding, playing a character 360 degrees away from her Mork & Mindy TV persona. Two years later, Mork himself (Robin Williams) would make his film debut in Altman's Popeye.|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A Wedding is a consummate example of Robert Altman's patented "comedy of proximity." He starts with a wide-angle view of some slice of Americana...a view glimpsed just far enough away so that we can comfortably impose upon these familiar people and situations, our preconceived notions about them.
As Altman methodically draws us into closer proximity to the people (individuals we thought we "knew" by way of cultural stereotyping), we are forced to confront the fact that few of the people and almost none of the events are as we assumed them to be. The beautiful turn out to be pretty monstrous; the self-satisfied, the most delusional; the ones least suspected of having any value are in fact the most authentic. As layers of pretense and self-concealing facades are eroded away (through comedy that often strips characters of their thin veneer of dignity) it becomes obvious that after being made to confront all we thought we knew about these people at the start of the film, we're left being made more keenly aware than ever, that in the end they are all just human. Not in any way different from us and the people we know. No better, no worse.
|Robert Altman's biggest joke is how easily the bride and groom turn out to be the least important people at A Wedding|
A Wedding ranks high on my list of favorite Robert Altman films. Its humor and take-no-prisoners view of humanity an acquired taste, to be sure. But it shows off Altman in particularly fine form, and it's a film that can still make me laugh out loud just as sure as its melancholy conclusion never fails to touch me. It's not Nashville, and it's not Gosford Park...but it's a worthy saga that falls (pratfalls, would be more like it) somewhere blissfully in between.
THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Copyright © Ken Anderson
THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
|Carol Burnett dwarfed by the statuesque Ann Ryerson (as Victoria, a member of the Sloan family who wears a Greek toga and inexplicably addresses everyone in terrible French), and the lovesick Pat McCormick|
|Ann Ryerson - 1978|
Inscription: "I'm more excited than you that you recognized me! I'm happy to sign this!"
|Pam Dawber - 1980|
Copyright © Ken Anderson