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.
a wedding by christopher funderburg
So when we first began this Little-Loved Altman series, I had no idea who Paul Dooley was. Well, I would have recognized him as the dad in the bottomlessly awesome Breaking Away and I also frequently quote a line of his from Strange Brew - "Just because I don't know what it is, doesn't mean I'm lying!" – but he's your basic non-descript character actor. Paul Dooley, like most character actors, is just as likely to turn up in some interesting roles as he is to humiliate himself in awful crap. I watched O.C. and Stiggs first, and in my article I didn't even bother to mention him by name as Mr. Schwab, the insurance magnate and target of Stiggian ire. When Stu Steimer in his HealtH article referred to Altman's late 70's tenure at 20th Century Fox as his "Paul Dooley period," I had to look up the name to make sure I knew who he was talking about. Then Paul Cooney's only coherent thoughts on Popeye focused on Dooley, rightfully expounding on the general excellence of Breaking Away and Dooley's personal excellence therein. Now our tales of Dooley come full circle, with the esteemed veteran of Runaway Bride, Slap Shot and Dharma & Greg coming as close to being a main player in a movie as he would ever come with A Wedding.* As is his stees, Dooley plays a bumbling patriarch, the father of the teenaged, braces-bedecked bride whose titular nuptials provide the occasion for this 1978 film. lt's another large, stereotypically Altman-esque ensemble with no single actor really taking center stage, but Dooley gets more screentime and plays a more important role than I can ever recall him being assigned. He co-wrote HealtH, so maybe that one is in the running for "Most Substantial Paul Dooley Showcase," but it's a toss-up between the two Altman films and Breaking Away. There is no denying A Wedding is an important film in the esteemed career of Mr. Dooley, so stop trying to assault my logic by bringing up how 35-year-old women are probably always walking up to him on the street and saying "Oh my god, you totally ignored Molly Ringwald's birthday, you big jerk!" Anyhoo, when I sat down to write this, I went through the cast list looking up who played the various members of the bride's clan. There's Dooley, Mia Farrow as the other daughter, some young lady of whom I have never heard as brace-face the bride...and who played to mop-topped son? The little dude who struck up a perfect rapport with Dooley and provided the film its only genuine emotion and sole likable character? How about Dennis fucking Christopher, that's who! That's right, we have Dooley and Christopher teaming up as father and son a mere year before Breaking Away would win the little 500 of our hearts. The duo of Breaking Away appearing together as father and son constitutes the most exciting aspect of A Wedding. Either that or Mia Farrow** topless, you decide.
Having watched A Wedding after O.C. and Stiggs and Ready to Wear, I am not sure I can judge it properly. Because those films are genuinely as terrible as any film ever made, I am not sure if I am forgiving A Wedding in relationship to their awfulness or being too hard on it because its flaws resemble the flaws of those movies. What I mean is this: A Wedding is clearly not nearly as bad as Ready to Wear or O.C. and Stiggs, but it nonetheless shares a host problems with those steaming piles of rancid cinematic garbage. For instance, to the extent it is a comedy, all three are brutally unfunny. But since A Wedding hinges less on its humor (that it isn't particularly funny doesn't make or break it), the unfunniness isn't such a big problem. It is also relatively funnier than the other two films. Actually, that's not quite right: it is less punishingly unfunny; it doesn't beat you down with its abortive attempts at humor. All three films feature noisy, chaotic plots that meander in a lot of uninteresting directions, there's no narrative force to the films and they all feature a dozen totally boring subplots. But A Wedding at least builds to a climax, even if that climax ends up being a fake-out that forces the film to fizzle out. All three films leave you with the sense that Altman didn't exactly have any concrete ideas for what his story would be, just a general "this sort of thing" notion that creates a pervasiveness vagueness, of characters, of motivations, of themes, of just where any of this is going. At the end, you will have the sense that Altman and his screenwriters simply don't have clarity about any of it, either. This is minor, but points to Altman's clumsiness with comedy: another terrible thing that O.C. and Stiggs and A Wedding have in common is wacky character names. Wacky characters names are generally the lowest form of jokery and generally tough to pull off, Mr. Show and Monty Python being the only examples I can think of off the top of my head to really get away with outlandish appellations. The titular "O.C." in that film stands for Oliver Cromwell, which is just so fucking grating, but A Wedding might top it with folks named things like "Muffin Brenner," "Rosie Bean" and "Bunky Lemay." There are also characters named "Buffy," "Snooks" and "Tulip." Are you laughing yet? I know none of these are as funny as an African guy named "Bongo," but I think you will agree that nevertheless these names are quite the chucklers. Anyway, A Wedding has the same faults as Ready to Wear and O.C. and Stiggs, but is not nearly as faulty a cinematic contraption, that much is clear. What I can't figure is if it's actually a bad movie. I just don't know. I have a suspicion it's not all that bad, but I still sorta hate it because of its analogies to the worst Altman has to offer.
There's actually a bit of a plot this time, even if the structure follows Altman's common "get a bunch of people together in one place and have them all talk at the same time" tactic. A gauche Southern teenage girl is marrying into an old money family, but the new groom has also supposedly impregnated his bride's mute sister (the aforementioned Mia Farrow.) That's a real conflict and gives the story more focus than some of his most lumbering messes - films like Ready to Wear where nothing resembling a story emerges. As with all these sprawling Altman ensemble satires, there's a boatload of superfluous nonsense that adds cacophony without much of a point or a payoff, so having a little bit of narrative thrust goes a long way towards making the proceedings endurable. The basic concept follows the two wedding parties as they butt heads and end up engaging in various foibles/monkeyshines during the reception at the groom's family's luxurious country estate. Aside from the problematic pregnancy, the stakes are pretty low. None of the guests show up because the old money family is hated for reasons that aren't clearly explained.***
The groom's caddish roommate and sassy ex-girlfriend show up, act catty, cause trouble and die in a fire. Pam Dawber, heading straight into her halcyon days of Mork and Mindy fame, gets an "introducing" credit as the horseback-riding temptress ex. In fact, the film is full of sad non-stars like Dawber: Desi Arnez, Jr., Geraldine Chaplin, way-past-her-prime Carol Burnett, Lauren Hutton and (heck, if I'm being honest with myself) Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher. The only actor of any real stature and lasting success to get a major role is Vittorio Gassman**** of Big Deal on Madonna Street fame. Altman seems to be a real fan of classic Italian cinema and films Gassman with a reverence and patience uncommon in his satires - he actually gives Gassman a few moments of quiet emotion and allows him space to develop a few comedic bits. Altman similarly cast iconic Italian movie stars Marcello Mastrionni and Sophia Loren in Ready to Wear and gave them whatever dignity there was to be had in that film - maybe he should've made a movie in Italy. It seems like even if it had been bad, it would have been less shrill and unpleasant than a lot of his work. A lot of Altman's ensemble films feature wildly variable acting with seemingly no consensus among the actors and Altman as to just how broad or subtle anything should be played. A Wedding skirts this problem with very few actors getting completely out of hand and messing with the meandering, naturalistic approach to the plotting. Sure, there's some over-the-top drunk acting towards the end and a pretty bad recurring portrayal of "high on pills," but it's much less all-over-the-place in terms of tone than stuff like Cookie's Fortune, Ready to Wear or Prairie Home Companion. I would be tempting to say that the film in general is more focused and assured than a lot of (bad) Altman, but that's just not the case.
Lack of focus is still the problem. There are several similar stories floating around out there about how A Wedding came to be. Most of them sound apocryphal and all of them indicate that Altman didn't have any ideas for the film beyond the title. It's even more clear that when he started out, he certainly didn't have any good ideas for the film that would justify its existence. The tales of A Wedding's inception boil down to this: while doing press for 3 Women, Altman was asked what his next film would be about and gave the joke answer "a wedding." That such an answer somehow constitutes a joke in Altman's mind says a lot about his problems with overtly comedic films. Apparently, he decided that there were a lot of magazines devoted to weddings***** and thought that the burgeoning conspicuously consuming wedding cultural was ripe for the ol' Altman skewering, worthy of being given the same devastating rope-a-dope he gave to country music in Nashville and would later give to the health food industry in HealtH, those therapy phonies in Beyond Therapy, fashionistas in Ready to Wear and corporate bakers in The Gingerbread Man. When Altman gets a subject in his sights, hoo-boy, watch out. They will get skewered. Like, all those people in therapy because of their crippling depression or inability to understand themselves and why they make bad decisions or maybe were even tortured and raped as political prisoners, those jerk-asses can't even look themselves in the face after what Altman did to their whole culture. Roasted! Obviously I think that his sprawling, insistently "comedic" satires are his worst movies and most folks would agree - although, again, A Wedding is probably the best result from an approach in which Altman was at his worst. Over the course of this series, it has become achingly clear that Altman botches a film most easily by forgetting to have anyone even mildly likable on screen and focusing on "satire." "Satire" should mean humorous situations exposing the foibles, short-comings and hypocrisies of his chosen target, but in Altman's hands it ends up being a bunch of puerile sex humor and mean-spirited humiliation scenarios. Altman clearly thinks taking the piss out of these characters and modern weddings is worth doing, but the problem seems to be that he believes his audience will whole-heartedly agree with him, so he doesn't feel the need to state his ideas coherently or offer any characters that might generate sympathy. Actually, maybe he just fails at generating sympathetic characters: Mia Farrow's mute acts like a prankster, playing the fool to pop the bubbles of those around her. Her wanton sensuality and refusal to play her role in the proceedings supposedly throwing into relief the absurdity of everything around her. The problem is that she's roughly one-thousand times more annoying than anyone else in the film. Her fake-mute shtick and smug irreverence makes her the least bearable character in a cast jam-packed with punchable faces. I think she's supposed to be roughly analogous to Hawkeye and Trapper John whose wacky irreverence in their mobile army surgical hospital brought into sharp relief the crushing absurdity of war, but she actually better deserves to be lumped in with despicable purveyors of irritatingly self-satisfied zaniness Oliver Cromwell and Jeffrey H. Stiggs. She's just so dislikable. Altman rightfully assumes we're on his side, these big fancy weddings are grotesque spectacles that attract awful people like flies, but his tin-ear for comedy and the self-congratulatory mean-spiritedness of his world-view make it tough to stay with him.
I'd like to use this piece on A Wedding to try to reach some kind of a summary for the overall Little-Loved Altman series, try to figure out just what it is I was trying to accomplish and what most of us ended up actually doing. Initially, my thought was this: gosh, I sure do love Thieves Like Us, California Split and The Long Goodbye. I bet those are three of my 100 favorite movies. Altman sure had a long and varied career, didn't he? What other movies did he make? Why, look at this - what the hell is A Perfect Couple? I know some of these films like Secret Honor and 3 Women because they got the Criterion treatment. A bunch of them are based on plays, like Fool for Love and Beyond Therapy. What's Quintet about? Hm. A sporting event in a post-apocalyptic wasteland starring Euro-art-cinema icons? I'm not sure I know anything about half of these movies like HealtH or A Wedding or Streamers. I love several Altman films. Perhaps all of these crazy movies he made that no one really talks about or have awful reputations, perhaps these films are worth looking into. Maybe some of them are even great! For instance, I love The Company, but I know folks despise that movie and it got terrible reviews. And it's not like California Split and Tanner '88 are these over-played films that everybody already knows everything about. Let's really dig into the over-looked Altman films, the ones that got bad reviews or failed to secure proper distribution because they tested poorly. Let's look at the ones based on plays in the 80's when Altman and the New Hollywood guys were shunted to the side and barely able to stay afloat, let's go beyond M*A*S*H and Nashville to really dig into the career of one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. Let's write about the over-looked, the reviled, the confusing and confused, the little-loved works from a much-loved master. That was the idea. To me. The idea wasn't to bash terrible movies, but to explore a deep and varied filmography. I've always hated writing about films I don't like because it's just so easy to merciless tear things down and it rarely appeals to any audience but the one that already agrees with you. Explaining to folks why a film is great or interesting or worth their time is a twofold more satisfying endeavor because a) you can convince someone to give a movie a chance and expand the audience for an artwork you like and b) it gives you, Mr. Writer, a deeper and more complex understanding of the artwork about which you are writing – it increases your pleasure. I never intended to spend 10,000 words over 3 articles being relentlessly negative, irritated and insulting. Really, I didn't. I genuinely expected to enjoy O.C. and Stiggs, hoped to find the good in Ready to Wear and came in with a blank slate for A Wedding.
But here's the flaw in this project: Altman at his worst is as bad as there is. That's not hyperbole. I genuinely believe O.C. and Stiggs is the worst movie I have ever seen. It's indisputably my least favorite. Ready to Wear only gets a reprieve in comparison to O.C. and Stiggs. And then A Wedding bests those movies, but if I saw it in isolation, I have a sinking feeling I would quickly dismiss it as pretty freakin' bad. Altman made some of the worst movies of all time. The proof is in the pudding: you'd have to be doggedly iconoclastic to defend Popeye.****** You'd have to be literally insane to defend Dr. T and the Women. Films like Ready to Wear, Beyond Therapy and The Gingerbread Man deserve every ounce of ire they draw, there is no insult or condemnation below them. To have focused on the positive in this series wouldn't have been dishonest, it would have been impossible. But I'm not happy about it. It makes me sad to think that the chances are that Altman films I haven't seen like A Perfect Couple are every bit as bad as their reputation. I'd like to think there's another California Split or Secret Honor lurking out there amongst the dross, but I just don't have it in me to keep searching. After the experience of this series, I'm just not sure I have it in me to give Fool for Love a try, even though less than a month ago I would have been perfectly happy to see it. I certainly won't give something like Cookie's Fortune a second chance. Maybe even worse is that divisive Altman films about which I felt ambivalence like Brewster McCloud have been tipped into the "negative" category in my mental filing system. Even Nashville, a consensus classic towards which I feel cool, got transformed by this process into a film I don't think I will ever re-visit - I might even be tempted to think something like "it’s one of his shitty, noisy, go-nowhere ensemble satires like Ready to Wear or HealtH." When I look through Altman's filmography, his terrible films out-number his masterpieces. What should I make of that? Maybe it doesn't matter. I really thought about A Wedding and how to tie it into everything I've thought since the series began, but I still feel conflicted – conflicted maybe for the reason that digging into the depths of Altman has left me with something bordering on disrespect for the man's work. A Wedding isn't the worst, but it fits perfectly with the other Altman films that really are the worst. It's clearly the work of the same smug, condescending, hopelessly unfunny, mean-spirited, puerile artist behind the worst of the films in this series. Its striking technical accomplishments (the gorgeously choreographed circle of limousines arriving at the palatial estate, the beautiful confusion caused by a mirrored-door-lined bathroom) neither overcome nor augment the missteps and headaches of the film. I wish I could end this article with a clever or decisive statement about A Wedding, something about it being good or bad, representative of Altman's best or worst, but this series has left me on completely unsteady footing in regards to Altman. I am no longer sure what I think of the legendary filmmaker. What then could I possibly write?
This much is true: if you want to see Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher together in a charming film, stick with Breaking Away. It is less likely to cause an existential crisis.
* I have nowhere to mention this, but I thought you should all be aware of this bit of trivia from IMDb regarding Altman's follow-up to A Wedding, a movie I know nothing about called A Perfect Couple: "The role of Sheila Shea was originally written for Sandy Dennis. Paul Dooley was seriously allergic to cats though, and when cat-lover Dennis would come to the script readings with up to five cats at a time, he was briefly hospitalized. The role was then offered to Shelley Duvall, who turned it down. As a result, Allan Nichols re-wrote the role of Sheila Shea from an Earth Mother type to the young singer/groupie played by Marta Heflin." Everything about that just sounds so awful. Is that what making movies is like, having to put up with Sandy Dennis and the half-dozen cats she insanely brings to fucking rehearsal?
** That these articles have constantly harped on Altman's terrible taste in women makes me a little embarrassed, but it is more than a little striking his strange choices for overtly eroticized figures of sexual focus. Mia Farrow is probably to some dude's tastes, but it's just weird to see how insistently sexual he is in his treatment of women like Tracy Ullman, Shelley Duvall and Geraldine Chaplin. I hope I haven't come across as misogynistic or sexually reductive, but it's just really jarring how frequently Altman leers at Sandy Dennis or Glenda Jackson.
*** I don't really have any place to mention it because, like most of the plot, it essentially doesn't matter, but the ancient old-money matron passes away early in the film. That struck me for two reasons. First, when she dies, she just looks off into space, says something pointed and then closes her eyes. She goes instantly from being completely coherent and not seemingly in any danger of dying to gently fading off to traverse the great divide. It reminded me of the beginning of Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Earth, where the old farmer is in the field with his smiling family and he looks around with satisfaction and warmth at the beauty of nature and the wholesomeness of his family life and says "I guess it's time to die now." And then he closes his eyes. And dies. It just seems like an insane way to portray death, is all. "Time to die, just let me close my eyes and I'll get out of here." That can't be how it works, can it? When you have a heart attack one of those can kill you pretty quick, but you're still having a massive organ failure that results in intense pain before eventual brain death. Do people just go from healthy and coherent to dead like flipping an off-switch? Secondly, the corpse of the deceased matron spends the whole movie laying around in a side room as wacky hijinx develop around it. Altman used that exact same shtick with Prairie Home Companion. It's a lame idea with which he does nothing interesting even though he used it twice.
**** Lillian Gish also has a small role, but she's not in the film much more than her co-stars Jeffrey Jones, Dennis Franz and John Malkovich, who are basically invisible.
***** Supposedly, there was a copy of a wedding magazine randomly laying nearby which spurred him to give the "joke" answer. I can't decide if I'm more disappointed it wasn't an issue of Cat Fancy or Hustler. The whole course of his career might have been changed. Also, don't films like Ready to Wear, HealtH and National Lampoon's O.C. and Stiggs reek of "well, I wanted to make this movie because there was a magazine laying around?"
****** It never fails to amaze me how many defenders that film has. Notably, Paul Thomas Anderson loves it, but lots of Altman fans have taken it as a badge of honor to reclaim it. My friend Toby Leaman in high school used to insist he genuinely liked Popeye. He also once insisted he genuinely liked Garfield comics. I got into a heated argument with him that the lyrics to the Beach Boys "Be True to your School" weren’t insipid. There's no real conversation to be had in those sorts of contexts.
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