Robert Altman: Let it Bleed (The first article in a series of three)

The Long Goodbye: Rip Van Winkle wakes up in 1973
By I.M. Clarke

“[In The Long Goodbye] I decided that the camera should never stop moving. It was arbitrary… We would just put the camera on a dolly and everything would move or pan, but it didn’t match the action; usually it was counter to it. It gave me that feeling that when the audience see the film, they’re kind of a voyeur… You’re looking at something you shouldn’t be looking at. Not that what you’re seeing is off limits; just that you’re not supposed to be there.” – Robert Altman

 

In most films a meandering narrative, morally ambiguous protagonist, and whimsical plot distractions, might undermine an overall impact or intent. But we’re in AltmanLand now, a place where so-called cinematic weaknesses actually empower the end results. Magic baby.

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye has managed, over the past 40 years, to build an enthusiastic underground following (Disclaimer: I am a 20-year member of that underground), probably the first step to cinematic sainthood.

More than once, on most of his films, Altman would ask cast members to show up for every day of filming, in case he wanted to “bleed” them “into a scene.”

If you’re interesting in unlocking the main gate guarding AltmanLand, keep the bleeding in mind. It’s the master key. Seamless, organic editing.

The 1973 film is based on a 1953 novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler. Altman’s brave conceit is to structure the film as if ‘private dick’ Philip Marlowe, the above-mentioned morally ambiguous protagonist, just woke up after a twenty-year snooze. In fact, Altman said that he thought of the character as Rip Van Marlowe.

So how does a 1953 hard-boiled detective get along in 1973’s drugged up, sexually progressive, non-smoking, Los Angeles? “It’s okay with me,” says Philip Marlowe/Elliot Gould about 100 times – and he still can’t convince himself – or us.

To say Robert Altman had a very distinct style of filmmaking is an understatement, which is appropriate, because he was deceptively understated. From half-heard dialogue to voyeuristic camera placement, you become complicit with the man, sitting right beside him as he pulls back the curtain on a desperate, lost, well-tanned people.

He never judges them. He’s too smart for that. The camera always swings away just before any ethical pronouncements come down. That was for later – and not for AltmanLand, and hey, it’s okay with me.

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Ah, as a last minute addendum, you will notice that only one song plays – in odd variations – throughout the film. Why? That song, appropriately named The Long Goodbye, has since become a lounge classic. (O man, this film is like a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. It’s alive).

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In future reviews I look at two other Altman films that are like nothing else on the planet except, of course, other Altman films,:, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and M*A*S*H.

I.M. Clarke’s musings on 1960s pop culture can be uncovered at http://60spop.blogspot.ca

 

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Philip Marlowe on the beach – in a suit. Existential detective. A man out of time in sunny 1973 L.A.

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Very-pre-Governor Schwarzenegger is about to punch out Gould

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Altman directs van Pallandt and Gould

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Nina van Pallandt: A blonde femme fatale who went on to have a kind of noir-style life…