Monthly Archives: June 2014
There is a scene in After Hours where the main character, Paul, is asking a bouncer whether he can enter a club, and the bouncer responds by paraphrasing Kafka. This might seem like just an academic in-joke, but actually I think it has a lot to do with the spirit of the film. Joseph K., the central figure in Kafka’s novel The Trial, is a mid-level bureaucrat who finds his life slowly being consumed by a vast bureaucracy he can’t begin to understand. Paul, the central figure in After Hours, is an office worker who goes out one night to meet a girl and finds himself caught up in a web of events that threaten his sanity and his life. Both characters start as young, smug, middle-class men. Both run into situations that overwhelm them, eventually turning their world upside down. Both end up realizing how little control they really have over their own lives.
Joseph Minion’s script for After Hours starts by showing us Paul in his office, training a co-worker, completely bored with his situation and disengaged from the people around him. Later we see him alone in his apartment, impatiently flipping through the channels on his TV, looking for something that will hold his interest. Finally he goes out to have a cup of coffee and read a book. (The book is Tropic of Cancer, and to my mind the fact that Minion references both Henry Miller and Franz Kafka in the same movie says a lot about the conflicts the author is dealing with.) Unexpectedly, a young woman, Marcy, starts speaking to him. Paul is immediately interested, and she ends up inviting him to the loft she’s staying at. But what he thought would be a simple rendevous turns into an extremely uncomfortable, emotionally charged situation. Paul tries to back out, but it’s too late. From that point on, everywhere he turns there’s a new challenge, and it seems there’s no way he can win. Minion draws us into situations that at first seem completely realistic, then slowly become incredibly bizarre. But the development is so carefully structured that we’re with the film all the way.
Minion’s script meshes beautifully with director Martin Scorsese’s vision. At the time he got involved with After Hours, Scorsese had seen another project fall through and he was anxious to get started on something else. He was given the script and it impressed him. He may have recognized something of himself in Minion’s work. The story has elements that are familiar from the director’s other films. Like many other Scorsese heroes, Paul’s finds that the pursuit of sex can be dangerous, even life-threatening. He meets an attractive woman, and all he wants to do is go to bed with her. But the kind of encounter he’s looking for, the easy comfort of holding his body against someone else’s, keeps eluding him. In Scorsese’s world, the flesh is inherently corrupt. There is no such thing as simple sex. Paul goes to the woman’s loft hoping to hang out for a while and then slide into her bed. But in the course of talking to her, he finds out that she has some major issues. What’s more, she may be a burn victim. Paul is attracted to her physically, but he’s freaked out by what he might discover if she takes off her clothes. And the crazy thing is, he still wants to know.
For Scorsese and Minion, the body is a seductive, fragile, creepy threat. Marcy’s roommate is a wiry New York artist who makes sculptures of human forms writhing in agony. In a restroom, Paul glances at the wall and sees a drawing of a frightening castration scenario. Hiding on a fire escape, he watches as a woman shoots her husband. Symbols of sex, violence and death permeate the film. There is no safe haven. Even places and people that might at first seem benign slowly morph into ugly encounters. A friendly waitress becomes a clinging psycho. An ice cream truck roams the neighborhood carrying angry vigilantes.
The beautiful and scary nighttime landscape that Paul finds himself lost in is photographed by the amazing Michael Ballhaus. The film was shot on a really low budget, and Scorsese needed somebody who could work fast. Fortunately he connected with this talented German cinematographer, who gave the film an eerie, haunting beauty. Ballhaus’ work appears to be simple and straightforward, but he has an amazing knack for capturing subtleties of light and color. He was the perfect choice for After Hours. Howard Shore’s sinister score complements the look of the film nicely. The music is fairly minimal, and that was the right approach to take. The subtle synth tones that accompany Paul’s manic journey through the dark Manhattan streets are an effective counterpoint to his increasingly frazzled state of mind.
As the light of dawn creeps over the city, Paul, tired, exhausted, tattered, is dumped out of a van in front of the office building he works in. He slowly picks himself up off the street. The massive front gates swing open magically. And Paul, rather than questioning the situation, rather than cursing his fate, walks quietly inside. He takes the elevator up to his floor, walks across the empty office, and sits down at his desk.
He’s stopped struggling. He’s learned acceptance.
I would guess I was thirteen or fourteen when I first saw M*A*S*H. I loved it, but it also kind of freaked me out. I had never seen anything like it before, and it was unsettling in a way I couldn’t explain at the time. Part of it was certainly the black humor and the rampant sex, but also it just felt different. It wasn’t like a Hollywood movie. The director had broken a lot of the rules that commercial films were supposed to follow, giving M*A*S*H a rhythm and a vibe that was startling and liberating. A lot of that had to do with the sound.
Robert Altman was thinking about sound in a way that nobody else was at the time. He had a brash, iconoclastic approach to filmmaking that not only asked audiences to change the way they looked at movies but also the way they listened to movies. Up til nineteen seventy, the vast majority of American filmmakers mostly thought about sound as a matter of recording dialogue. If you could hear the actors clearly and understand what they were saying, that was good sound. Altman trashed that approach. He spent the early seventies trying out different ideas, looking for ways to make his work as rich aurally as it was visually.
Nashville is one of the early peaks in Altman’s career. Aside from all its other virtues, it has a soundtrack that is incredibly dense and dynamic. Layers of dialogue are mixed with background noise and source music to create a sprawling aural landscape. You won’t catch every line of dialogue, and you don’t need to. The movie doesn’t single out the stars, doesn’t tell you what you should be paying attention to. There are multiple stories that criss-cross and overlap, sometimes tin a single scene. You get to decide what you want to focus on.
One of Altman’s key innovations was to get away from the standard boom mike, which records dialogue and background noise together. He started using multiple mikes attached to the performers. This way each actor was recorded on a separate track, which could then be mixed in any way the director wished. This process was way more complicated than the traditional approach, and Altman was lucky to have a number of skilled people working with him. Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin handled the multi-track recording. William A. Sawyer served as the sound editor and Richard Portman was the re-recording mixer. I don’t know of anyone before Altman who even came near to creating this kind of complex aural environment. He gives us layers, he gives us textures. When you watch the movie, don’t just focus on the dialogue. Listen to the sound.
The script, by Joan Tewkesbury, was written with this approach in mind. Nashville was conceived as a panorama of America, a tapestry with multiple stories woven together. Tewkesbury and Altman discussed the basic structure, talked about specific characters, and she spent some time getting to know the city. Though the film has a loose, spontaneous feel, Tewkesbury has said that for the most part Altman stuck to the screenplay. But some actors did offer their own ideas about the characters they played, and in some cases these were incorporated into the film.
One of the most important instances of this is the scene where Barbara Jean, the frail country music star who’s just gotten out of the hospital, is performing in a crowded amphitheatre. According to Patrick McGilligan, Tewkesbury initially had the character fainting in front of the crowd. But the actress, Ronee Blakley, felt she needed to take the character farther and came up with a meandering, stream-of-consciousness monologue which makes it clear that Barbara Jean can barely keep it together. Altman, after first telling her to stick to the script, allowed the actress to go and ahead and play the scene her way. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the movie.
This character, the country music star whose life is falling apart, is central to Nashville. You might even say she gives the movie its soul. Barbara Jean is both radiant and ethereal. Overflowing with warmth and kindness when she’s with her fans, but bitterly unhappy when she’s alone with her husband/manager. She’s going to pieces, and doesn’t seem to be able to pull herself together, but when she’s onstage singing she soars. In her music, in her voice, she’s the embodiment of the humble simplicity that’s at the center of country music mythology.
That mythology isn’t just central to Nashville’s image of itself, it’s central to America’s image of itself. The film was released just before the nation’s bicentennial, and it’s clear that Altman is using the country music capitol to offer his vision of America. The ideal of the simple, hardworking men and women who do their jobs and care for their families without raising their voices to complain is one that country songwriters have returned to over and over again. And politicians have taken up the refrain in countless campaigns, singing the praises of the God-fearing folks who live in the heartland, the great “silent majority” that keeps the country going through thick and thin.
Altman skewers that myth over and over again in Nashville. But he doesn’t discard it. In fact, though Altman spends a lot of time tearing away the lies and the hypocrisy, it’s because he wants to find the truth at the heart of that myth. The director does spend a good deal of time holding his characters up to ridicule, but he lets us know that they have other sides, too. There are moments in Nashville where these people surprise us, where they turn out to be better than we thought they were.
One character who surprises us is Haven Hamilton, and in large part this is because Henry Gibson plays the part with such smooth cunning. As obnoxious as Hamilton is at times, the actor keeps him from becoming overbearing. He strikes a careful balance between arrogance and innocence. Gibson is a wonderfully gifted actor, but Altman is one of the few filmmakers who knew how to use him. The director gets remarkable performances from many of the cast members. I mentioned Ronee Blakley above, and she is phenomenal as Barbara Jean. It’s to her credit that she immersed herself in the character so thoroughly that she was able to build on what Tewkesbury had written, taking it even farther. And musically, her performances are among the highlights of the film. Michael Murphy is appallingly confident and cool as a political hustler who’s laying the groundwork for his candidate’s campaign. He’s everybody’s friend, smiling and shaking hands, saying whatever’s necessary to get what he needs.
There are many other fine performers in the film, but it would take forever to give them all their due. Briefly I’ll say that Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Robert Doqui, Barbara Harris and Lily Tomlin are all outstanding. And aside from playing their individual parts, they work together beautifully. Altman was known for making films that utilized a large cast of characters, and this is one of the finest ensembles he ever worked with.
In Nashville Altman presents a sweeping landscape of American music, American culture, American life. Though at times he seems to be filled with bitter cynicism, it’s clear he also has tremendous love for his country. The movie is shaped by this conflict, and Altman doesn’t try to resolve it. At the end of Nashville, a crowd of people that has just witnessed a tragedy comes together in song, lifting their voices with the performers on stage to affirm that they will keep moving forward no matter what. However the song’s refrain, “You may say that I ain’t free, But it don’t worry me,” is deeply disturbing. Is it that they aren’t paying attention to the lyrics? Or is it that they really don’t care?
Altman lets you decide what it all means. The camera pans slowly upward, away from the crowd, and the voices fade as the sky fills the frame.