Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In Memoriam: Robert Altman 1925-2006

The window opens. The window shuts. The window opens... again.

I uniwttingly pulled down the shade on Joni's Window about 4 months ago - my life got in the way of my writing. I never intended to shut down my blog, but my life picked up speed, and I found less and less time to sit down and write about it. More on that in a future post.

It took the death of Robert Altman to lure me back into the blogosphere. The announcement of his death today took me completely by surprise. Although he was 81, he still seemed so sharp and robust, his latest film ("A Prairie Home Companion")so delightful and accomplished - that I believed he would live to make movies forever.

This blog originally started out as a series of movie reviews. I've been writing reviews since I was in my early teens - sometimes for my own enjoyment, sometimes for publication. One of the seminal events which shaped my love of films and of writing about them was seeing Altman's masterpiece "Nashville" for the first time.

How to explain the impact this film had on me? I was fifteen and trapped in a tiny Indiana farm town. "Nashville" played for one week in our local movie house.
It took my breath away. It was big and sprawling with a huge ensemble cast and mutliple intertwined story lines. It was funny and sad and filled with trenchant observations on American greed and ambitiion (yes, even at 15, I could pick up on that.) It was technically dazzling (my first experience of Altman's fabled "overlapping dialogue" technique, with up to eight conversations audible simultaneously in some scenes), yet it packed a huge, emotional wallop. It was unlike any movie I had every seen before.

As a teenager, I rarely saw a movie in the theater for a second time. For "Nashville," however, I used my saved allowance to see it no less than three times. I wrote a rapturous review which I submitted to the Scholastic Magazines student writing competition; it won second place in the Arts Reviewing category. I fell in love with a movie,and I subsequently fell in love with act of writing about it.

To this day - 31 years, many viewings, and one 25th anniversay DVD laster - I still treasure many of the characters and scenes:

SueLeen - the starry-eyed waitress played by Gwen Welles, with her hilarious, godawful, just-below-pitch singing voice and her unshakable dreams of stardom

Barbara Jean - the fragile country singer played by Ronee Blakely (where IS Ronee Blakely these days? ) - who can forget her delirious, cuckoo-bird meltdown on the Opryland stage before an audience of booing, confused fans?

That amazing scene where Keith Carradine sings "I'm Easy" - ostensibly to Lily Tomlin, but nearly every other woman in his nightclub audience believes the song is dedicated to her, and Altman makes a neat round of close ups as each of Carradine's recent one-night-stands respectively beams with pride, trembles and blushes with passion, or squirms in painful humiliation. The brilliance of that scene, I believe, got that otherwise insubstantial song its Best Song Oscar.

Over the years, I sought out Altman's movies. My first trip to a movie theatre after arriving at college was to see "Three Women," his strange, arty film in which Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule sort of swapped personalities. I treasured "A Wedding" for its big, messy, sprawling story and cast, and its weird, off-kilter, dark moments. Altman's films got smaller and stranger, then bigger and better("The Player," "Gosford Park"). But although I always loved him for his renegade attitude towards Hollywood, I never had another of his movies affect me the way "Nashville" did.

Just one other thing, though - one of Altman's recent films, which I loved, but which isn't mentioned often is "The Company" - a look at young dancers in the Joffrey Ballet. It has one scene that I absolutely love in which Neve Campbell and a male dancer (whose name escapes me) perform an unspeakably beautiful pas de deux to "My Funny Valentine." On an outdoor stage. During the early stages of a horrendous rainstorm. The wind gusts, rain pelts the stage - they dance on, flawlessly and sinuously wrapping themselves around one another, too consumed with the emotion of the dance to stop for the inclement weather. I don't know if that rainstorm was planned, or a happy accident of the shooting schedule - but that scene is gold.

Farewell, Mr. Altman. You will be greatly missed.