In this nine-part series, The Pink Smoke will be plumbing the murky depths of the filmography of legendary director Robert Altman, a master of le cinema who in his wildly inconsistent career created not only some legendarily awful movies, but at least a dozen films overlooked and half-remembered even by his admirers. We'll be skipping consensus "secret masterpieces" like California Split and Secret Honor in order to focus on his most polarizing, universally despised and simply forgotten films.
healtH by stu steimer
The late 1960's and on into the early-to-mid 1970's marked a magical time for the country. Although the decade started rather turbulently, it would go on to mark a truly golden era in our country's history. Jazz was all the rage, Henry Ford unveiled the first Model-T and the seed of the Wright Brothers labors would finally come to bear fruit when they finally discovered flight in creating the very plane that Charles Lindbergh would use to set Japan ablaze with the Charleston. Most importantly, the cocaine came to replace the Benzedrine that gave so many 1950's housewives the pep required to mass-produce a generation of exploitable laborers. And with cocaine came...crippling depression. But before the depression came proliferate stamina and creativity, driving right into the nostrils of the film industry like a surgical drill operated under the carpal-tunnel precision of a mentally disconnected surgeon right into America's pulse and heart - violently severing all ties to the cinema of the past beyond all reasonable mending.
Meaningless, empty hyperbole to pad out and meet the minimum word count? Absolutely. Nevertheless, American cinema of the 1970's defined something. What that something is I'm not really sure, but I do know that it was a time when directors were given more freedom to explore more creatively enriching and personally edifying avenues - stories about real human frailty became the norm. But mostly it was a time best remembered when they showed a lot of tits and people started saying "fuck" and "shit" on a relatively frequent basis. As a fan of obscenities, I am also a fan of the New Hollywood. Amongst the leaders of this batch that included Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin and the best of Peckinpah, was Robert Altman. By 1978, the then-53 year old director had been responsible for some of most memorable films of the period: M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Long Goodbye and McCabe & Mrs. Miller being among them. Even the slightly lesser known films like 3 Women, Images, California Split, Brewster McCloud and That Cold Day in the Park are still often cited as examples of Altman's offbeat and uncompromising capabilities as a director (in my opinion, I prefer most of the the latter examples to many of the former.) By the late post-Nashville 70's, Altman's films started to diminish in critical and financial response, starting with the much-undermentioned Buffalo Bill & The Indians and probably peaking in 1980 with his outright bizarre-and-not-in-a-good-way take on Popeye before again regaining traction in the early-to-mid 1980's with some pretty stellar, if really under-recognized, adaptations of several plays such as Streamers, Fool for Love and Secret Honor, which I think of as less an Altman film and more of a Philip Baker Hall film given his performance as a manic, often belligerent defeated Nixon on the night before the announcement of his resignation. It has to be among the most intense performances I have seen from a movie with just a single actor - it's really no wonder that this performance would open the doors to being cast as Lieutenant Bookman on Seinfeld. Altman would also make a few movies in this period that were as equally dismal as those films were great (I'm prepared to go on a mini-Beyond Therapy diatribe later in this piece.)
But even with Altman's biggest failures, both critical and financial, they all managed to find some major distribution - and that's what sets his 1979 feature HealtH (or H.E.A.L.T.H, a redundant acronymous title for Happiness, Energy, Longevity through Health) apart from the lot. Over 30 years after its "release," it still has never been made available on any home entertainment format; the most likely candidate for viewing it being a media-sharing peer-to-peer site. Even in 1980 the distribution of the film was close to non-existent. After management at 20th Century Fox switched hands in late 1979 the film fell into distributive limbo, making its way into poorly-received test screenings before the studio deemed the film to have no commercial appeal forcing Altman into self-distribution and aligning with the festival circuit where the film ultimately fizzled out and appeared to die a quiet death with no one really missing it and most of the copies shelved in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I'd love to say HealtH is Altman's lost masterpiece, that its distribution debacle is proof of how much far ahead of the satiric curve the film really was. But it's not. It's not necessarily a "bad" film by any means, but it's almost as far away from being a good one.
The film comes at the eye of Robert Altman's Paul Dooley-period (post-A Wedding/A Perfect Couple, pre-Popeye/O.C. & Stiggs) and centers on a nutritionist convention that has gathered in an upscale Florida hotel in order to elect a new president of the organization. Republican candidate Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall) is an 83-year-old virgin who occasionally turns temporarily comatose while declaring that her longevity and youth is attributed to her being a virgin, as every time a woman orgasms 28 days of her life is sucked away, while the Democratic candidate, Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) is a frigid and humorless stick-up-the-ass that runs around reciting Thomas Jefferson and Adlai Stevenson speeches into her tape recorder. The Independent candidate, Gil Gainey (played by Paul Dooley, who also co-wrote the film with Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt) a snake-oil salesman whose only presence seems to engage in lame publicity stunts that I guess the audience is supposed to find funny, like pretending to be drowning in a pool only to be rescued by mascots dressed like tomatoes and cucumbers or someone dressed equally as nutty while in a swimming pool. I'm sure it was funnier on paper.
And in support comes a list of other secondary characters including parts played by Carol Burnett as some kind of nutritionist representative to the White House (I'm not really sure, but her character keeps repeating that she's a White House representative over and over throughout the film, overstepping my boiling point of redundant aggravation) and her ex-husband Harry Wolff (James Gardner) who serves as Esther Brill's campaign manager. Also Dick Cavett reprises the Elliot Gould part in Nashville by playing himself, but we know this isn't the real Dick Cavett because he barely involves himself in any unnecessary name-dropping. He also watches Johnny Carson every night, which apparently was also funny in 1979.
Setting it in this microcosm, the film presents itself as dual satire of both the health food craze that started in the late 1950's and progressed into the 60's and 70's and also, more obviously, as a satire on the sketchy, often deceptive world of politics and political campaigning, particularly as a reflection of the 1980 Presidential campaign between Carter and Reagan.* Unfortunately the film as a whole just isn't very focused, or funny.
The problem with a lot of satires is they trail too far off and end up languishing in the fantastical absurd instead of planting at least one foot solidly in the doorway of reality, augmenting the absurdity of reality. I think why something like Armando Iannucci's series The Thick of It, as well the eventual film In The Loop work is because the humor arises not in extrapolations of wacky physical quirks of the characters (i.e. Carol Burnett's increased sex-drive every time she feels fear, or Dooley's character playing dead at the bottom of the pool to gain notoriety for some reason) but in the idiosyncrasies of the developmental and psychological makeup of the character and their environment. Here we're mostly getting abstract ideas like "politics is a con man's game," without really delving any deeper than the surface, introducing too many scenarios with too little exploration. I'm not complaining that the film necessarily needs to be a deep and meditative statement on political corruption, I just wish its madcap tom-foolery was balanced out a little bit better. It's a lot of quirkiness without any real arc or structure to keep itself together. All of this could have worked wonders in a Vonnegut novel, but as a film most of it ends up falling flat if not feeling more than a little forced. In the simplest of terms, it's a mess. The jury is still out on whether this was a deliberate mess or not.
Though easily the weakest of any movie Altman produced in the 70's that I have seen (I still haven't seen Quintet or A Perfect Couple) it's still not a disaster (all those really big Altman disasters would come years later.) There are a few really nice moments in HealtH, like when Dick Cavett interviews Alfre Woodard's character Sally Benbow, the public relations director of the hotel, about what she thinks about the Healthfood convention in which she replies with a rant of how everyone in the place looks unhealthy and will eat just about anything that is handed to them. And Henry Gibson too is great as the political huckster who shows up in drag to make slanderous claims that Garnell and him both had their sex-change operations at the same time in 1960. This isn't necessarily a great character, or a great scene at all, but you put Henry Gibson as a bit part in anything and it's almost certainly going to be worthwhile. There's something about his cold, deadpan voice and expression that is so comforting, like a friendly old man taking you by the hand and leading you down a wooded path that only he will emerge from after he bashes you in the head with a wrench and has sex with your exposed pancreas. But the strongest scenes in the film all come from Donald Moffat, who plays Colonel Cody the mentally deficient younger brother of Ester Brill who believes himself to be a Rothchild-like figure, the actual runner of the H.E.A.L.T.H organization as well as the master-manipulator in all political realms, influencing elections and controlling the presidency, commanding the role of the puppeteer pulling the strings in secret. It's all a bit tenuous, but his scenes (particular to confrontation with Carol Burnett's character), though brief, are the strongest in the entire film - the most memorable of an otherwise mediocre and forgettable movie has to offer.
Overall, there's nothing really outstandingly offensive or terrible about HealtH other than a large batch of dated jokes, and even though I have mixed feelings about Altman doing straight-forward comedy. With the exception of maybe Brewster McCloud for all its absurdities, all of his best films had their humor structured to more dramatic arcs, tailored in such a way in which the humor evolved more organically than just a barrage of farcical gags and quips that feel like they are shoehorned into the scenes to meet some kind of self-imposed zany joke quota. I still feel that, although very meandering in large patches, he does show some restraint here. As previously mentioned, Altman would do much worse in the years to come. I originally wanted to write about his 1987 film Beyond Therapy, but after a viewing experience that lasted no more than twenty minutes I realized that it wasn't worth it, to write about or even watch. It's a comedy, but I could feel nothing but severe depression followed by an equally severe amount of unease for that brief period of time - the thing felt like I walked into the room full of PCP freaks who just screamed punchlines at me without any kind of a set-up all while swinging a rusted lawnmower blade in my direction, threatening to do something terrible if I didn't laugh, which I just couldn't do. It was like Mind of Mencia all over again, but with more Jeff Goldblum.
It's not a film I'm going to really look back and remember Altman for, one way or another. I've probably watched HealtH three times in order to write this response and I've already forgotten most of it, which I guess is a far more positive reaction than what I had to Prarie Home Companion - almost six years later and I still can't reconcile the fact that Altman's swan song would be an adaptation of the Garison "audio ambien" Keillor program (and don't forget the fart jokes... oh, how could we ever forget the fart jokes?) begging the question: Why not just adapt a Paul Harvey mumblelogue if you hate your audience so much? HealtH is a misfire, but a generally harmless one.
* Ironically enough, Ronald Reagan did see a screening of HealtH at Camp David in 1982. He later called it the "world's worst movie" in his diaries. Although Reagan may have been rapidly approaching senility at the time, it's still got to be a difficult criticism to take from a man who clearly knows bad movies - I mean, his biggest acting role besides playing the president was second banana to a goddamn chimp.
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