little-loved altman.

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.

 

o.c. and stiggs by christopher funderburg

Sitting through O.C. and Stiggs is a brutal, near impossible, thing to do. Like everything to come out of the National Lampoon magazine itself* in the 70's and 80's, it is unfunny, self-satisfied and vaguely racist. I have only ever walked out of 2 movies in my life, both under extenuating circumstances** and I've rarely if ever turned off a movie at home. O.C. and Stiggs did all it could to force me to shut it down. I'm not really into hyperbole, but if I hadn't committed to writing about it for this series, there is no doubt that I would have shut off my dvd player and driven to Hollywood, U.S.A. to throw up in screenwriter and series co-creator Ted Mann's daughter's face. The story flops: two hip youngsters*** with the zany titular nicknames**** spend the whole movie committing a series of pranks to get revenge on a stuffy insurance magnate who is cutting off coverage for O.C.'s grandfather. This is a perfectly serviceable plot for a goofy low-brow comedy. Let's be clear: my complaint is not that O.C. and Stiggs is a goofy low-brow comedy. My complaint is that it is terrible. It is, I believe, as bad a movie as I have ever seen. What's strange is that Altman's direction is typically Altman-esque; it's visually layered and complex, the overlapping dialogue and crowded framing that made Altman famous in M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville on full display. As with his best work, his busy staging and cacophonous sound design teeters just on the edge of chaos without ever tipping over into incomprehensibility. The languid opening zoom and extended panning shot reminded me instantly of the opening shot of The Long Goodbye and the extensive use of radio programs as ambient sound brought to mind the amazing sound work on Thieves Like Us. If I squinted, I could see parallels to O.C.'s awful Johnny Paycheck-esque novelty theme-song and Nashville's satiric take on country music. But perversely, the technical aspects of Altman's direction in the image, editing and sound are too sophisticated and they murder whatever slim chances the film might have had at being goofy fun. This is a film that would have been better off with a journeyman nobody shooting it like a sitcom - Altman's crafty orchestration of controlled chaos sounds like a good match with the story of two proponents of fundamentally harmless mayhem, but it actually just creates an inescapable dissonance between the artistry of the filmmaking and the cloying zaniness and punishing "Ain’t I stinker?" jackassery to which it is being applied. Altman's direction is too "good" for this movie. I guess this is one of those ironic instances like with slang where "mad stoopid" means "fresh" and "def" means "not wack as fuck." "Good," in this instance, means "like getting your cheek bitten off by Robert Z'Dar" while "Altman-esque, like M*A*S*H" means "Altman-esque, like Cookie’s Fortune."

Unfortunately, O.C. and Stigg's Wacky Escapades, Vol. I also reminded me of Popeye, the gold standard of Altman failure, in that the performances in the film are a gigantic problem that it doesn't come within a mile of overcoming. The leads are two nobodies you never heard of and they're just zilches on the screen. They're supposed to be "too cool for school" lovable jokesters like Hawkeye and Trapper John in M*A*S*H or maybe rakish rascals like Elliot Gould and George Segal in California Split, but they don't even register as screen presences. They are constantly overshadowed by their crazeeeee outfits – they change into outlandish get-ups in virtually every other scene. For instance, when they go to a sports bar for a 2-minute dialogue exchange, they dress up in full football pads and gear. O.C., did you ever considering taking some of that money you spend on novelty tuxedoes and over-sized sombreros and setting it aside for your Grandfather's healthcare? If I had to write their tombstone (and, oh man, how I would love to) it would read "O.C. and Stiggs: they wore a bunch of zany outfits and talked in 'funny' voices." Jeez 'um crow does this movie love "funny" voices. Aside from the main characters' proclivity for intermittently affecting their dialogue into silly squawks and mealy-mouthed mumbles (they really give it the Robin Williams treatment), there's a host of secondary characters that pull out their wackiest cadences and toss them around with reckless abandon. O.C.'s grandfather, played by Ray Walston (who specialized in portraying characters named "Gramps"), goes all out in bellowing and wheezing like a goofy jackass, but the worst offender has to be Jon Cryer as the son of an insurance magnate. Cryer delivers one of the two***** Giovanni Ribisi-esque performances in the film where so many tics are layered upon affectations that you can no longer tell if the character is supposed retarded, insane or merely incredibly stupid. Cryer's sleep-walking milk & pornography enthusiast ends up being the butt of several pranks, the set-ups of which are so moronic that you have to assume Cryer's character is a high-functioning developmentally disabled youngster (who seems to be attending the same college [high scool?] as O.C. and Stiggs?) But Jesus fucking Christ, I'm supposed to root for two smug assholes who decide to pull mean-spirited, potentially fatal pranks on a harmless handicapped kid who barely understands what's going on around him? I hate to say it, but I hope your grandfather dies, O.C. Maybe if you suffered a painful loss then you'd develop some empathy.

Although there are many worthy contenders, the main problem with the film is almost certainly that Oliver and Stiggs are smug bullies with no trace of any of the charisma that might conceivably work towards us forgiving them. Or even being willing to endure them. In their first prank against Cryer, they blow up a water fountain in his face – in a moment that the "Homer Goes to College" episode of the Simpsons must have been referencing directly, Stiggs intones "This better work, O.C.!" just before Oliver detonates the spigot via remote. Cryer has barely been introduced as a character at this point and his cringing awkwardness doesn't register as anything naturally in need of comeuppance. When the seemingly harmless retard is merely humiliated by the watery explosion, Stiggs bursts into a rant about how the explosion should have been bigger, how Cryer should have been knocked on his ass and the water should have been dyed blue to stain his face and clothes. He's not content to demean a handicapped teenager: he demands a massive, extravagant, life-crushing annihilation of the poor kid. As I mentioned, the film is vaguely racist. On the one hand, O.C. and Stiggs are weirdly obsessed with Africa and (through the means of hilarious pranking!) replace a dinner theater performance with a Sunny Ade concert.****** But then the movie and the characters both expect us to find it hilarious that there's an African guy named "Bongo." They run this joke into the ground. He’s named "Bongo," get it? Bongo! There's also a black wino they sort of treat like their friend, but as with the mildly brain-damaged guy rounding out their trio, they're constantly condescending pricks to him – it's definitely a "we’re down with the streets, but in an ironic asshole-ish way" situation, where they want credibility (and super grain-alcohol) from hanging out with a bum, but they definitely treat him like a pet more than an equal. They even bury him in the yard when he dies. His alcoholism, vagrancy and home behind a dumpster are played strictly for laughs – when his homeless compatriots crash a fancy fundraiser at the end of the film, the idea seems to be "ewww, gross, bums - ha, ha, ha!" But who knows what we're supposed to think: later on, there's several shots of the hoity-toity socialites chatting casually with the vagrants. The worst of Oilver and Stiggs' tendency towards jerk-ass bullying is their genuinely repulsive harassment of a gay couple, their principal (dean?)******* and a theater director he's dating. Our heroes run into the couple at an amusement park (in, uh, Mexico) and trail the lovers around peppering them with demeaning and obnoxious questions about their sex life and relationship, including such gems as "which one of you is the girl?" Late in the movie, the principal even mentions that Oliver and Stiggs tried to blackmail him with incriminating photos of their relationship. You might be thinking, "well, I don't agree with their angle, but he's the stuffed shirt dean - they've got to take the piss out of him," but again the Simpsons seem to be referencing this movie directly because the dean (principle?) is never anything less than accommodating and reasonable with them. The couple is demure and does their best to ignore being stalked and publicly berated, they make every effort to take the high road and Oliver and Stiggs just keep trailing around doing their best to degrade and discomfit them. Racially paternalistic, homophobic dress-up enthusiasts with zero charisma who bully the handicapped: Out of Control and Stiggs, indeed.**-**

But enough about the title characters. I'm not sure they even warrant that much consideration. The film is also filled with weird, unfunny cameos. Some of them have become post-facto distracting, like a young, curly-blonde Cynthia Nixon*-* in coolots playing the love interest or Jane Lynch as a buxom, husband-murdering car saleswoman named "Bunny." Neither actor was famous when the film was made, but both end up seeming wildly wrong for their parts knowing how their star personas would shake out. There's also a long cameo by mainly forgotten sports/comedy figure Bob Uecker******** that the film itself ignores, letting him deliver a long-winded and utterly pointless monologue that the camera slowly zooms away from to follow the main dialogue exchange of the scene. The most baffling aspect of the cameo is that once the zoom is complete, it's clear Uecker isn't addressing anyone. There's literally nobody within five feet of him, nobody even pretending to listen. He's just talking towards the camera, doing a little comedic monologue to himself. Worse are the turns by Jane Curtain and Dennis Hopper. Dennis Hopper's cameo isn't so much weird as thuddingly obvious: he reprises his outfit and voice from Apocalypse Now to play a Vietnam-loving burnout, marijuana farmer and machine-gun eroticizer. The character as it is written doesn't really resemble his strange toady from Coppola's film apart from the signature vest, camera, sunglasses and bandana ensemble and distinct vocal stylings – there's not really any joke there, other than "hey, remember when Dennis Hopper played this other dude who is associated with Vietnam and blowing things up? He sure had a funny voice, didn't he!" As the insurance magnate's wife and Jon Cryer's mom, Jane Curtain has one of the most thankless roles ever written – honestly, there's more dignity to be had as the middle dude in the human centipede. All she does is get drunk. The gimmick is that she has her booze hidden in various zany places like a pair of fake binoculars or atop an ornamental tree or in a milk jug (along with, uh, milk?) She does literally nothing but pull booze out of wacky places and chug it while looking frail and broken. At the end of the movie, there's suddenly a joke where the insurance magnate upon seeing the (hilarious prank) fundraiser featuring sloshed socialites and homeless folks, barks "there’s to be no alcohol in my house!" A tanked Curtain feigns agreement with the sentiment and surprise at the hooch in question. There are parts of this film that are simply depressing to recount. I know I told you I wouldn't mention them again, but Stiggs and Oliver are so fucking lame – a fake fundraiser? A surprise Sunny Ade concert? At the end of the film, they force the magnate into a helicopter then drop him in a lake. The end. That's his big comeuppance: a fake fundraiser at his house, a bottle rocket fight in his basement, a helicopter ride and being dropped about 15 feet into a pond. I can't even remember how Oliver gets the money to take Gramps out of the nursing home. It can't be because the magnate was dropped in a lake, can it?

I'll wrap this up by talking about really the essence of this "Little-Loved Altman" project and the impulse of fans to re-evaluate begotched works by their favorite artists. On a certain level, artworks are bound to the time and place in which they were first created and exhibited. It's very difficult for a film, or any artwork, to overcome the initial critical and audience reactions, reactions that are often heavily dependent on context: serious artist makes a fart-swilling frat comedy, so every review tangles with the work in relationship to a still-developing career. Is this the serious artist's new low? What does his bid for the low-brow mainstream mean in relationship to his previous serious work that still found major success? You will be outraged. Or forgiving. Curious to see what this means for his future, sad about what it means in regards to his past, surprised, offended, iconoclastically intrigued, disappointed, energized, exhausted. Time, of course, has a way of clearing through this particular fog, but I am hesitant to go so far as saying that it helps us see artworks for what they truly are. Frequently, the films that are saved from their initial reputations are rescued by true believer acolytes who see greatness (or at least elements of interest) in whatever an artist has touched – it creates another kind of fog around the artwork, one based in self-deception and dishonesty that comes from reverence. Film criticism, dominated and driven by the Cahier du Cinema brand of the auteur theory since the late 50's, succumbs to this tendency to a degree possibility more unwarranted than in any other medium.********* There's a wrong-headedness that should be obvious to proclaiming the beauty and value of the barest marginalia, but the impulse often wins out regardless. I understand that impulse. I'm the one who, after all, came up with this series. Being honest, though, requires that you don't forgive a film totally unworthy of forgiveness - or worse, pretend to have specialized understanding that absolves your beloved artist of responsibility for failure. Despite the ineffectual abundance of slowly zooming pan shots, I'm not sure Altman deserves the blame, but it would just as dishonest to let him off the hook. You can never perfectly pick apart the bones of the deceased, every act of critical archaeology is necessarily incomplete, just as actual archaeologists will probably never know if the meglosaurus had scaly purple skin or neon green feathers. The truth of O.C. and Stiggs is that I don't know how it came to be such an excrutiator, only that it is the ultimate cinematic excrutiator. It is, in fact, as bad a movie as I have ever seen.

 

* I'm not counting the associated films Animal House and Vacation or European Vacation (although I could come awful to describing them as "funny, self-satisfied and vaguely racist") which don't have much of anything to do with the Harvard-based publication. I am definitely counting this movie (its characters first appeared in the magazine), John Hughes, P.J. O'Rourke and a whole other pile of shit.

** I left Magnolia after 2 and a half hours because I had raging strep throat, a 103 degree fever and it was the second film in a double feature following The Cider House Rules. I walked out of Private Parts because it was a special bonus preview after a screening of Grosse Point Blank and I just didn't have any interest in it - it's a movie with which I never would've bothered if it weren't free and happening right now in this very movie theater you don't even have to get up, Chris. I guess it really takes a double feature to even have the chance of trying my patience.

*** One wears sunglasses constantly, even indoors!

**** O.C. is technically short for – get this! – Oliver Cromwell, but can also be short for "Out of Control." Stiggs is just the other dude’s "idea" of a "joke." There is no explanation for why one of these fuckheads is named after a revolutionary 17th Century English politician, but making no sense and being faux-erudite are this shitpile's specialty.

***** Two! There are two performances like this in the movie! There's another dude who plays their friend and really should warrant inclusion in the title for how much he's involved in their antics. O.C., Stiggs and the Ugly, Possibly Developmentally Disabled Simpleton. Anyhoo, he delivers the exact same kind of performance as Cryer that leaves you wondering "Is he supposed to be some kind of autistic fellow? Why is he talking in a silly nasally drawl? Why does he look like Zippy the Pinhead? Why are O.C. and Stiggs so fucking mean to him?”

****** I should point out that unlike the Swanky Modes, Sunny Ade and his African beats are the worst cheesy 80's "world music" pseudo-rock.

******* They seem to be in high school, but I honestly can't say. The actors are in their 20's, but that doesn't mean anything. Oliver and Stigmund have a level of independence and access to drugs/alcohol/Kalashnikov rifles that seems well beyond what any high school kid could ever dream. Plus, when O.C.'s grandfather and sole guardian gets put in a nursing home, O.C. continues living on his own. I'm not sure they let high school kids in between their junior and senior year do that. Then they buy a beat-up, ugly old car and deck it out with hydraulics and air-horns and whatnot. That's like...not high school kid stuff, right? I guess all these jarboni writers involved in creating the concept went to Harvard and probably could buy a fucking car whenever the fancy struck them, so they don't really understand that buying a car is the biggest purchase many folks ever make in their entire life, not just a spur of the moment pick-up of a novelty accoutrement, the vehicular equivalent of snagging an over-sized sombrero. Shit Oliver, forget the cash spent on wacky outfits, use the car and hydraulics financing to buy him an iron lung or something. I'm beginning to think these dudes might not deserve their outrage at Mr. Schwab (hm, anti-Semitism too?) the insurance magnate.

******** One of Uecker's t.v. shows was called "The Wacky World of Sports." Never has a film been devoted so far down into even its minutiae to the concept of "Wacky."

********* The reason auteur worship is most unwarranted in film is that the dominant Hollywood process is the most collaborative process of creating art to be found in any medium, requiring hordes of manpower and a wild diversity of creative input that spars regularly with equally diverse business considerations. When you factor in stuff like the fact that titanic critics like Pauline Kael famously don't even know what decisions a cinematographer makes on set or what the director's responsibilities actually entail, you end up with a critical mindset that comes precariously close to being objectively full of shit.

*-* I'd like to point out that Altman has just awful taste in women: Cynthia Nixon, Julie Hagerty, Sissy Spacek, Greta Scacchi, multiple instances of Shelley Duvall, Sandy Dennis and Geraldine Chaplin as objects of erotic fixation? He likes 'em skinny and bug-eyed, that’s for sure. I guess the cast of Ready to Wear - Kim Basinger, Sophia Loren and Anouk Aimee - would be the exception, although none of those actresses were exactly in their prime by then.

**-** Bongo.

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