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Friday, May 18, 2007

Arts & Letters

Suicide is Painless

Y’all take it easy now. This isn’t Dallas. It’s Nashville. This is Nashville. You show ’em what we’re made of. They can’t do this here to us in Nashville. OK, everybody, sing. Come on somebody, sing. You sing.
—Haven Hamilton, after Barbara Jean is shot, Nashville

The anthem sung by the crowd following the impassioned plea above, as Robert Altman’s film comes to its piercing end, is a peculiar—and peculiarly American (this is Nashville, after all)—circling of the affective wagons. The chorus resounds in oxymoronically defiant resignation: “It don’t worry me. It don’t worry me./You may say that I ain’t free,/But it don’t worry me.”

Robert Altman never won an Academy Award. But, then again, neither did Hitchcock or Chaplin or Lubitsch or Hawks or Welles, although they all received honorary Oscars, those “lifetime achievement” consolations meant to assuage Hollywood’s easily assuageable guilt and to camouflage the stupidity, cynicism, and (worst of all) thermonuclear envy that has always driven its prizegiving. Altman got his last year. He was gracious, but also unsparing, if in a characteristically indirect way: “Of course I was happy and thrilled…to accept this award. And I look at it as a nod to all of my films because, to me, I’ve just made one long film. And I know some of you have liked some of the sections, and others you….Anyway, it’s all right.”

Well, no, it wasn’t, and isn’t, but there’s nothing to be done for it now. Altman won’t be making any more movies, as he died last November, and so Hollywood won’t get another chance to make amends. But Tinseltown’s tough. Besides, as Altman once explained, “They sell shoes and I make gloves.” If anything, it’s a miracle the cobblers let him make his handwear for so long.

Nashville was released on June 11, 1975, exactly five weeks to the day after the fall of Saigon on April 30. Less than nine months earlier, on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon had resigned from the presidency. That’s what you call overdetermined. If there was a zeit to the geist of American cinema in the Seventies, it was Robert Altman, although, ironically (or, maybe, pointedly), he had turned 50 a few months before Nashville’s premiere.


Those people who make love while saying: “We’re going to have a magnificent child”; well, they won’t have a magnificent child, they may not have any child at all that evening….The magnificent child comes by chance, one day after a good laugh, a picnic, fun in the woods, a roll in the hay, then a magnificent child is born!
—Jean Renoir

Renoir was, of course, the greatest filmmaker ever known, both in his own time and well after his genius was universally recognized, as an “incompetent.” Writing more than a decade after Renoir’s death, even Andrew Sarris referred to the “lapses and longueurs” in his work. Despite Sarris’s oft- and effusively documented admiration for Renoir, he, too, could feel that the director’s results were often so “messy” that, arguably, none of his films could be considered “well made” (see “The Magnificent Child,” The New York Times, March 25, 1990).

Of course, “well made” is in the eyes of the beholder, just as one person’s mess is another’s riches. To take the most famous “mess” in the history of cinema, even if The Rules of the Game hadn’t suffered its infamous butchery because of distributors and producers (and censors) that relegated almost a third of it to the cutting-room floor, it seems so fractured, so disordered, even today (when it has been more or less restored) that a first viewing of it is exceptionally disorienting. But that’s exactly the point, not only to this work, but to every movie Renoir ever made.

There is a reason Renoir is the greatest naturalist in the history of filmmaking and why, moreover, he is a much greater artist than his father, whose work imprisoned him in a sentimentality that might have been inadvertent but was, ultimately, an inevitable consequence of an emotional entrapment that arose directly from his art. For the son, however, the depiction of the human world meant exactly that: surveying an affective, social, and—something that was always enormously potent for him—environmental topos that could only be determined to the extent it was recorded. This is naturalism shorn of ideological presumption and certainly liberated from sentimental prescription. This is the world as it is: complex, contradictory, often inexplicable, and usually impervious to arbitrary attempts at explanatory order. In other words, “messy.”

Put another way, this is the world seen agnostically: layered, diffuse, inconstant, self-defining, but, in the end, accessible to us, even if not particularly familiar or amenable to uncomplicated understanding. Lapses? The camera in Renoir’s films is so often not where it “should” be because human understanding is so often a result, not to say a function, of accident rather than purpose. Renoir’s editing is also frequently less than “seamless,” but, then, human consciousness is repeatedly jarred into comprehension, as the confrontation between being and otherness almost habitually results in disjunction rather than connection. As for his “longueurs,” what makes human relations so poignant if not the cumulative paralysis of men and women frozen by their very need to communicate with one another? What is psychoanalysis, in the end, but an endless “longueur”? Indeed, it is precisely Renoir’s longueurs that make his work so utterly, and consistently, revelatory, if for no other reason than that silence is the most ancient and effective form of expression, in its directness even more so than in its ambiguity.

And then, of course, there is Renoir’s roving camera and depth of field. Well, yes, getting at “truth”—as much as it can be established—is a bit of a bother. You’ve got to figure out which cranny to look into, which hint to follow, which “obvious” and “self-evident” truth is no more than strategic mendacity and self-interest disguised as moral certitude. There’s a reason why classical decoupage—i.e., Hollywood’s esthetic of (apparent) continuity and contiguity, of shot/reverse-shot, master and cover shots—is the most effective form of propaganda ever conceived by the human mind: it works. Which is to say, it deceives. One’s mind—one’s entire affective universe—is guided in a way that only music can duplicate (something that Ingmar Bergman always understood), except that the movies’ narrative singularity give them a power (and verisimilitude) that music cannot begin to compete with.

As the two dominant paradigms of filmmaking, editing and mise en scène (to use shorthand to denote visual style in the frame, as opposed to one based on the relationship of frames), are both famously associated with left-wing filmmakers (Eisenstein and Renoir, respectively), ideology doesn’t help much in explaining artistic structure. Furthermore, any theory of art claiming greater (or more “authentic”) reality is, fundamentally, belied by the fact that art is always artifice, and making art a series of subjective interventions on (against?) the objectivity (and innate contingency) of the world. Which is obviously why there’s also no such thing as documentary filmmaking per se, let alone “direct cinema” or “cinéma vérité.” The best we can hope for is honest self-consciousness on a filmmaker’s part, so that the nature of his or her deception is both transparent (which transparency, of course, is precisely what classical decoupage strives so hard to conceal) and, even more so, of a mimetic quality that reproduces, even if only in the faintest form, the actual perception (and perceptual obstacles) of human beings in the world, as opposed to outside of it, literally watching it roll on—a physical impossibility in “real life,” but precisely the position in which most movies always put us.

The critical problem is (accounting for) the world’s contingency. How does an honest filmmaker depict what’s what in the world, and why that is? Renoir’s answer was also his response to classical decoupage: a redefinition of the temporal (continuity) and spatial (contiguity) as emanating not outside but inside the frame—in other words, through the camera, as opposed to on the flatbed (and to decoupage, be it classical, Eisensteinian, or otherwise).

This is the world of messy movies, of lapses and longueurs. Of a realism that is the closest film will ever get to reality, of a naturalism that is as faithful to—and structurally mimetic—of natural contingency, if not exactly nature, as artifice can ever be. This is the cinema of Renoir and Robert Altman, in which what happens, happens, not because it must but because it will.


“Remember, son,” Buffalo Bill counsels his nephew in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, “the last thing that a man wants to do is the last thing he does.” When he died, Altman was in preproduction for his next (quintessentially Altmanesque) project, a fictionalized remake of the 1997 documentary, Hands on a Hardbody. This was, after all, the man who, when asked about it, likened retirement to death. Still, there is an eerily elegiacal quality to his last film, A Prairie Home Companion: it almost seems to be a requiem, not so much for a man as for an entire culture.

“We come from people,” Garrison Keillor says early on in the movie, “who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle, and if you should feel really happy, be patient: this will pass.” Hearing that line in the theater in Paris, where my wife and I have been living for the last couple of years and where we saw the movie, after Altman’s death, I immediately thought of the lunatic euphoria in which Americans have been sunk for the last quarter of a century since the dawning of morning in America. It just seems that, somehow, in some way, the long, postwar march from 1945 to 1980 had become, by that latter year, too difficult, too painful, too demanding of general sacrifice and needful of genuine citizenship. Somehow, in some way, by 1980, just five years after Altman released what is probably his most resonant movie, the American people decided to collectively stick their heads out the window, exhale, and scream—following the now-famous advice of the film made the following year by Altman’s fellow fifties-something director, Sidney Lumet—“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

As so often before in the twentieth century, however, the injunction by an artist to his fellow citizens to express and then channel their rage ended up having radically different results from those intended. The man elected fortieth president of the United States in 1980 was not the man that that infinitely lucid ranter, Howard Beale (“We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions….None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds—we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs. In God’s name, you people are the real thing. WE are the illusion.”) would have voted for, as he was the absolute embodiment of the tube’s domination of American life. (It is vain but instructive to speculate on what Howard Beale would have made of YouTube.)

So began our excellent adventure of moral and existential deregulation (and ideological re-regulation): from the Reaganite Eighties, when greed was good, to the Clintonite Nineties, when greed was even better because it was now “globalized,” to the Bushite Noughts, when greed just wasn’t good enough and had to be pumped up by empire. There were hiccups along the way (there always are in hostile takeovers)—a couple of towering Manhattan infernos here, a Madrid train-station massacre there, mass murder even farther away, in Mesopotamia—but, hey, “stuff happens,” to quote our former secretary of defense.

And yet, according to Keillor/Altman, we came “from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle….” Well, yes, we did, once upon a time and long, long ago. But we don’t believe that anymore. What we believe now is that struggle is a burden, a misfortune—bad financial planning. That only happiness matters in life (my happiness, my life), that happiness is the sum total of human purpose, that happiness is the only goal in a “goal-centered life,” to echo the autistic instrumentalism of America’s professional purveyors of existential sedation. And what is “happiness”? Indefinable, perhaps, but, like pornography, recognizable as such. Like pornography, too, able to transform genuine desire into coopted, commercialized, alienated—thoroughly exploited and therefore thoroughly exploitable—need. Happiness as it ever was, except more so, excessively so, not merely material, but freighted, not simply accumulative but a Himalayan swagheap, as if sumptuary exchange is equal to, better than, sexual exchange, which has now become so prosaic, so easy, so ubiquitous, so spectacular (as defined by Debord, not DeMille), and, thus, so utterly boring that accumulation in itself—massive, disproportionate, irrational, endless, verging on, indeed, spilling over into, psychic disorder—is the only way to reconstruct our erotic lives, is, in truth, the only eros we have left in our civilization.

You may say that we ain’t free, but it don’t worry us because we’re fat and rich and happier than hogs in shit—or at least we think we are, which is all that matters in the end. In Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Ned Buntline explains the rise and fall—and self-deception—of nations (and, presumably, empires): “A rock ain’t a rock once it becomes gravel.” Later, he points to an existential chasm: “Injuns gear their lives to dreams….The white men—they’re different. The only time they dream is when things are going their way.”


It is not hyperbole to say that most of Robert Altman’s films were about America’s reveries, and of the delusions arising therefrom. Altman made a lot of movies (about 50), a few of which deserve an entire volume each. Suffice it to say that when future historians look back on the cultural terrain of the last quarter of the twentieth century, M*A*S*H; McCabe & Mrs. Miller; Nashville; Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Secret Honor; Short Cuts; A Prairie Home Companion, and about 40 other movies together will constitute a chronicle of that time (and of the times before and after) with which very few other accounts—artistic or academic—will be able to contend for sheer poignancy and narrative power.

It is telling of his global influence that three of the four filmmakers competing with Martin Scorsese for the Best Director Oscar this year—American Clint Eastwood, Englishman Paul Greengrass, and Mexican Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu—were honored for making the kind of multilayered, multiperspectival movie most associated with Altman. In Iñárritu’s case especially, the artistic line from Altman is so direct as to be almost genetic. Not that multiple perspectives, or apparently disparate stories coming together in the (usually terrible) end, prove that Iñárritu (or Greengrass or, to take another obvious example, Paul Haggis, who not only directed last year’s Oscar-winning Crash but wrote Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) would not have made the films he’s made had Altman not made his. Indeed, Altman himself was always the first to point to Hawks’s influence when film illiterates credited him with “inventing” overlapping dialogue. (“People talk about my signature, but I ask them if they ever saw Howard Hawks’s films,” he inquired of a Guardian interviewer last year.) In Eastwood, in fact, it is clear that we’re dealing with an entirely different, and autonomous, esthetic (and moral) model. (Letters from Iwo Jima is not only a work of genuine genius and uncommon complexity that will forever change the genre of which it is a part and of which it has immediately become a classic, but a remarkable dissection, of devastating lucidity, of the “American century.”) Still, virgin birth is a theological concept, not a biological one and certainly not an artistic one.

(Although the less said about this year’s Best Director Oscar, the better, I have to add that rarely has an honoree been so mismatched with an honor. Put aside the fact that Scorsese got the award for what is arguably the worst film he’s ever made—although with appallingly pretentious examples such as The Aviator, Kundun, The Age of Innocence, and The Last Temptation of Christ, that’s a hard call—or that he competed against four other directors who crafted films superior to his in every possible way. The problem is that he is the most overrated director of the most overrated generation of directors in the history of American moviemaking. With the exception of Francis Ford Coppola—whose The Godfather, Part II and The Conversation both deservedly competed for the Best Picture Oscar in 1974 and are essential works of American cinema in the Seventies—it is sobering to realize how much less than first seduces the eye there really is in the work of the “iconic” Gang of Four standing on the stage after this year’s Oscar for best director was awarded.)

So, what did Altman give to succeeding generations of filmmakers? Essentially, what Renoir gave him: everything. “The Rules of the Game,” Altman once famously acknowledged, “taught me the rules of the game.” I’ve always suspected that this recognition of debt referred to more than moviemaking. In any case, Altman shared with Renoir a sense of his own work. At the outset of this article, I quoted Altman’s judgment that he had made “just…one long film.” Renoir, too, believed that a “director makes only one movie in his life” and then “breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” (A major problem with Scorsese has always been precisely that the course from Raging Bull to Kundun, and Taxi Driver to The Age of Innocence, shows not so much “evolution,” let alone an unappeasable and encyclopedic esthetic, as a confused and utterly unfocused sense of his own work.)

Altman’s most important inheritance from Renoir—in actuality the singular one, encompassing all others—was the notion of plenitude, which is not merely an esthetic vision but a moral one. I said before that Renoir’s perception of the world—and, so, consequently, his filming of it—was “agnostic.” What I meant was that, as opposed to so many other filmmakers, many of them as great as he, Renoir did not approach the world as a problem but as a fact. Although he was (deeply) a man of the left, he did not believe that human rationality could be imposed, but, rather, that it could only be extracted from the social ecology (and accretions of custom and cohabitation) that human beings had developed both among themselves and, even more important, in active relationship with the natural world into which they’d been born. The greatest illusion for Renoir was precisely the notion that humanity could force any rules at all on the world’s self-regulating game, which, for him, was always one in which society was actively delimited by the realities of nature. Which was also why, in the end, it was obvious that “tout le monde a ses raisons”—although what is so often forgotten is the judgment that leads to that brutal certainty: that that is “Ce qui est terrible sur cette terre.”

It is ridiculous—a gross and utter miscomprehension—that this profoundly demystifying and disenchanted artist is now lauded as a “romantic” or even an idealist. Of course he was an idealist; what is any artist, after all, but a practicing idealist? It’s just that he didn’t believe his ideals defined actually existing humanity. He undoubtedly wished they would, but, in the end, it was more important for him that human beings understood that, regardless of ideals, the world was what it was, and had to be accepted as such. That was precisely the meaning of his agnosticism. The world—our world, made up equally of culture and nature—was, after a certain point, not amenable to reason, but only to acceptance. Life is hard, and then you die. Except that (thank the world for the small pleasures that are actually the greatest ones we can possibly imagine) there are occasional days in the country and picnics on the grass.

“I just think, um, there’s so many people in the world nowadays, it’s hard for Him to give the personal attention that He used to,” Sissy says about God in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. This is Altman’s translation into American demotic of Renoir’s agnosticism. Indeed, every aspect of Altman’s style—the multiple storylines, overlapping dialogue, dense soundtracks, ensemble acting and improvisation—confirmed an artistic and moral conviction that God is always in those details that may or may not be discernible at first glance to us mortals. It goes without saying that since this vision of the world was stubbornly democratic, it was just as obstinately opposed to the weird division of human beings into them and us, friends and enemies, good and evil. In fact, as far as his own country was concerned, Altman believed that everybody had a stake in, a right to, the American Dream—which, however, was, time and again, more American than dream. “I am the American Dream. Period,” Richard Nixon says in Secret Honor. “That’s why the system works. Because I am the system. Period.” Or, to echo Renoir one last time, “What is horrible about this Earth is that everybody has his reasons.”

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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