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April 19, 2007

For Altman Buffs

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Although the film director Robert Altman died a short while ago, Altman fans have a few new (or new-old, or newish) Altman treats in store anyway.

* Altman's 1974 "Thieves Like Us" (from a first-class novel by Edward Anderson) has just become available on DVD. One of the least well-known of Altman's movies from his great '70s period, "Thieves" is small-scale, atmospheric, and gorgeous. (It's also one of my all-time favorite movies.) Although a Depression-era-set gangster movie, in feeling, tone and approach it has more in common with such patient, unwinding-naturally-through-time neorealist works as Jean Renoir's "Toni" and Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" than it does with anything pile-driving and hard-hitting like "Little Caesar" or "Scarface." I once took a young friend to see "Thieves Like Us" at a New York revival in the 1980s; he was amazed that such a quiet, rich, and unhurried movie had ever been made in America.

Carradine and Duvall inhabit the rural South

The film has always been hard to find. Despite good reviews, it received a very small-scale initial release, and by the 1980s it had been all but forgotten. Over the years a few editions of the movie came and went, barely-noticed, on videocassette. But this is the first time that it has been issued on DVD. (I think it is, anyway. Please correct me if I'm wrong.) Though I'm sorry to see that the disc seems to have no extras, the price on it is very good. "Thieves Like Us" is a wonderful and very sensual movie, featuring an inspired (as well as an appropriately raw-boned and eccentric) cast of Altman finds and regulars: Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher, Bert Remsen, and John Schuck.

Gould emerges from the Pacific in "The Long Goodbye"

* On the occasion of a revival of Altman's 1973 "The Long Goodbye" at New York's Film Forum, the Village Voice's J. Hoberman recalls the early '70s years when Elliott Gould was king. (Altman's movie was a series of essayistic riffs on Raymond Chandler's luscious late-period detective novel, starring Gould as a very unlikely Philip Marlowe.) Although Hoberman spoke with Gould (who is now almost 70) for his piece, what he wrote is more nostalgic film criticism than a feature article. Still, it's also a vivid flash back to a very different movie era. I confess that I was such an unworldly rube at the time that I barely registered that Gould was/is Jewish. Hoberman makes Gould's Jewishness the backbone of his article, though, even referring to the era (during which Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, and Mel Brooks also emerged) as Hollywood's "Jew Wave." Interesting to read too that working with Ingmar Bergman on "The Touch" nearly drove Gould crazy. Literally crazy: He didn't work for 18 months after filming "The Touch," and when his name was floated for "The Long Goodbye" the studio demanded proof from docs that Gould was sane before they let him be hired. Those who can't make it to the Film Forum can catch up with the film -- a memorably layered satire that manages to be both dreamy and quick-witted -- as well as with Gould's jazzy performance on DVD.

* I recently enjoyed making my way through "Altman on Altman," a 2006 collection of interviews with the director by David Thompson. Thompson leads Altman through a look at his early years, his TV career, and then his moviemaking life. Although there are some big gaps -- Thompson can't get Altman to say much about botches like "A Perfect Couple" and "O.C. and Stiggs," for example -- even Altman junkies will learn some new facts about their hero. Mostly, though, the book is a chance to groove along with Altman's resourceful and unstoppable Zen-disarray of a mind. The biggest surprise is what was on that mind. Not genre subversion, not American mythology, not even overlapping sound. What mostly seems to have occupied Altman's mind was the question of how to keep on making movies. I don't know why I was as startled by this as I was. A seasoned painter friend of mine often smiles about the way people tend to attribute a lot in the way of thinking to artists. "What they're mostly thinking about is how to make a living as an artist," he laughs.

I blogged about Altman's "The Company" here, and about his "A Prairie Home Companion" here.



posted by Michael at April 19, 2007


I haven't read the Thompson, but it doesn't surprise me that Altman doesn't spend a lot of time musing on genre subversion etc. I always felt watching his movies that his style and attitudes came to him subconsciously, intuitively. It was how he saw the world, and like a lot of artists he probably resisted articulating those attitudes at conscious level, for fear of extinguishing the spark.

Posted by: Steve on April 19, 2007 6:27 PM

Am I the only Altman buff around who actually likes "A Perfect Couple"?

Posted by: Jon Hastings on April 19, 2007 6:29 PM

Steve -- Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. There are a couple of times in the conversations where Thompson asks Altman to volunteer some thinking about his movies, and Altman declines flat-out, pretty much saying what you suspect he'd say: that it wouldn't be productive for him to do so.

Jon -- I've never met anyone who likes "A Perfect Couple," so that makes you even more hardcore an Altman fan than I am.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 19, 2007 6:33 PM

Wow. Altman's Thieves Like Us is on DVD! That is the one film that I have wanted to see more than any other. I knew that it had been unavailable on DVD which is why I haven't seen it. It's funny about Altman; some people respond more to his movies than others. I remember seeing Gosford Park with my family. We were sitting in the top row and my dad fell asleep and almost kicked the person sitting in front of him. I was glued to the screen. I guess Altman's overlapping style can make some people bored out of their minds. Personally, I can not fathom the reason as to why? Have you ever seen Vincent and Theo? God, what a passionate film.

Posted by: David Brown on April 19, 2007 8:09 PM

This is a chemical thing. If you have a chemical aversion to Shelly Duval and Elliot Gould, if at no point do the vibes these two give off intersect with your vibes (admittedly Shelly Duval vibes and Elliot Gould vibes are very very different vibes, but if neither one makes human sense to you) and if Altman films are full of such no human sense types, which they are, then...heh,'re not an Altman fan -- like me.

Posted by: ricpic on April 19, 2007 9:13 PM

heh, heh...thanks for the info. I would like to know what your definition of human sense is? Is it any different from making just plain sense?

Posted by: David Brown on April 19, 2007 9:55 PM


Do you have a list of favorite movies listed on 2BHs? If not would you make one up for us (yer fans)?

Thank you!

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 20, 2007 12:56 AM

"...definition of human sense...any different from making just plain sense?"


Posted by: ricpic on April 20, 2007 3:23 AM

I love Thieves Like Us. Definitely a top-tier Altman.

Is it possible to be better than Altman was from 1970 through 1975? Maybe Godard in the '60s was that good, or Renoir in the late '30s, or Mizoguchi in the early '50s. But few others.

I think the best Altman that's still nowhere to be found on DVD is Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Posted by: Ron on April 20, 2007 7:59 AM

David -- I'm awestruck that you even know about "Thieves Like Us". How'd you ever run across the movie? I hope it works OK on video. Be sure to let me know how you react to it.

Ricpic -- I think all of art (or at least our responsiveness to it) is a chemical thing. But you're right, whether or not you go for Altman is somehow even more a chemical thing than most art-reactions are. If you're attuned to his frequency it can be great. If you aren't it probably holds no appeal at all. The oddest one for me was "Gosford Park," because I could see that it was a good Altman -- he was in charge, working well, doing his thing, etc. But it didn't do all that much for me. More usually for me, I really-really go for it when he's on, and feel kinda depressed when he's off. But here was this one movie where he was on his game ... and it didn't do a lot for me. Bewildering. Fun to hear him and his colleagues yak on the commentary track, though.

Doug -- I'm flattered you'd ask, tks! I don't really think my tastes are that interesting or original, though I like to think I sometimes say something fun or helpful about what I watch. I'm a pretty generic '70s-formed moviebuff -- Pauline Kael and Manny Farber and the French New Wave guys formed me. If you're really curious, you can check out the archives on this blog in the blog's left-hand column -- "archives by category." You can click and see a list of movies postings. In any case you've made my day, tks.

Ron -- "Jimmy Dean" hasn't been out on DVD? I wonder why. I wonder if Altman got a chance to do a commentary track on it before he died. Too bad he doesn't seem to have done one for "Thieves." The other big Altman DVD that's lacking is "California Split." I have the DVD that came out a few years ago, and there's a commentary track on it. But I've kept away from watching it because I read somewhere that two or three minutes were cut from it -- the scenes involving that wonderful heavyset gal at her Reno piano. Evidently they couldn't obtain music rights to what she was performing. I hear rumors -- hope hope -- that that DVD has been withdrawn and that they may bring out a new, uncut one.

Then we'll all have to buy anew when we've switched over to Blu-Ray ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 20, 2007 11:23 AM

I have kind of the same reaction to GOSFORD PARK, Michael. Maybe it's because I've always loved his take on America and Americana. I see him as uniquely *ours* somehow, and seeing his techniques applied to such quintessentially British material was discombobulating.

Maybe that's also why I don't like PRET A PORTER--though maybe it's just because it's a crappy movie.

Posted by: Steve on April 20, 2007 12:24 PM

OTOH, he did great with VINCENT & THEO -- so there goes that theory.

Posted by: Steve on April 20, 2007 12:34 PM


Your favorite fiction list was interesting and unconventional. Are you being modest about your movie Picks? Nudge nudge.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 20, 2007 12:58 PM

If you're an Altman fan, see his The Long Goodbye. If you're a Chandler fan, don't.

Posted by: Roger Sweeny on April 20, 2007 1:14 PM

Gotta disagree with Roger. Chandler's novel is great and so is Altman's movie, and there's no reason why liking one would preclude liking the other. Each is terrific in its own way. I was so impressed with some of Altman's 70s output that I'm almost afraid to revisit them. "Thieves Like Us" is one of these, but I'm going to take a chance. "California Split" is another. I've seen "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" so many times I can practically run it in my head, and can almost say the same for "3 Women", my pick for Altman's strangest movie. Funny, though, how little regard I have for his most famous movie, "M*A*S*H".

Posted by: Michael P on April 20, 2007 3:09 PM

Altman is hit and miss with me. MASH is great, although it shows its age big time. HATED The Long Goodbye. Gould's performance in that is one of the most affected I've ever come across, and I like him as an actor, usually. Short Cuts is good, The Player is excellent, Gosford Park I really enjoyed. Never could get into McCabe and Mrs Miller, which many Altman fans point ot as his best work. Haven't seen Thieves Like Us, so I'll have to check it out.

As a figure, Altman is incredibly alluring. He pretty much lived as he pleased and made the movies he wanted to make. It's interesting that he didn't even make a ripple until he was into his 40s. And as an influence on later filmmakers, he's near the top.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 20, 2007 3:18 PM

I suspect Jimmy Dean isn't on DVD simply because whoever owns the film doesn't care much about it. Was it ever on VHS or Laser? If it was, I bet it was only briefly. The bootleg DVD I have of it looks to have been taken from an old TV broadcast.

I don't think it's a GREAT movie, but it's a treat for anyone who likes Altman. I also see it as a forerunner in some ways of A Prairie Home Companion. The use of mirrors, the enclosed indoor spaces, the focus on Americana...all are similar to Prairie, even though the tones of the two movies are quite different.

I'd forgotten that the California Split DVD was edited (and I've never had a chance to see the original version). Sadly, I don't think it's been withdrawn to be restored. It went out of print with a slew of other discs when Columbia decided to cut back on older titles.

FWIW, I also can't muster a ton of enthusiasm for Gosford Park. And I find Short Cuts to be a downer. I've thought frequently about why this is, and I have some thoughts about it, but I'm not sure I could express them adequately.

Posted by: Ron on April 23, 2007 8:27 AM

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