The recipient of this year's honorary Oscar, director Robert Altman has meticulously and brilliantly chronicled a Los Angeles we rarely see — the one where regular people like me live.
On the evening of February 14, the New Beverly Cinema screened two classic L.A. stories, California Split and The Long Goodbye. It might have been just an amazing coincidence, but to me the double feature was a clear Valentine's Day gift to the city I've lived in quite happily for the last 13 years.
On March 5, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will bestow its annual honorary Oscar on the director of those two films, Robert Altman. It's fitting that he be recognized here in Los Angeles since few filmmakers have more exhaustively portrayed this town in the last 35 years. Landmarks like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential have created distinctive snapshots of the city — its dangerous excitement, its noir romanticism — but no one else has quite captured the plainness of this metropolis, its surreal atmosphere awash in endless sunlight. With rare exception, Altman's Los Angeles is not the one suffused with movie stars and industry trappings. Instead, it's the one populated by people like me.
Altman's strengths as a filmmaker are, by this point, well-documented to the point of cliché: the overlapping dialogue, the natural rhythms of the actors' improvised performances, the multi-character portraits that form the soul of places as dissimilar as Nashville or an Old West pioneer town. But Altman's documentation of Los Angeles — specifically in four films: The Long Goodbye, California Split, The Player, and Short Cuts — reveals a steady focus that goes beyond his reliable stylistic trademarks. Watching this quartet again, I am reminded that his prevailing attitude towards America's second-largest city feels more authentic than typical movies about Los Angeles ever do. Normally, a film set here simplifies the city into a blissed-out la-la land of beautiful, stupid people. L.A. has those sorts, of course, but Altman (like all of us outsiders coming to the city with illusions of endless glamour dancing in our heads) knows a much different city — one where humdrum existences and deferred dreams are commonplace, and the daily burst of "Hollywood" is nothing more thrilling than running into a B-list celebrity at Whole Foods.
Altman's representation of the everyday Los Angeles began with 1973's The Long Goodbye, one of the director's self-conscious reinventions of a genre — in this case, the Raymond Chandler hardboiled detective novel. While the years have revealed the limits of the experiment's effectiveness — Altman works so hard to do everything differently so as to subvert conventions that the film can sometimes float lackadaisically — his outlook on Los Angeles remains timely.
Elliott Gould is terrific as Philip Marlowe, displaced from Chandler's doomed, honorable 1940s, trapped instead in the '70s when artificiality is preferable to personal integrity. But unlike a film such as L.A. Story, where Steve Martin's wised-up protagonist can take part in and enjoy the phoniness while being above it all, Gould's Marlowe seems eternally bewildered, entirely out of step, never invited to the party. He lives next to sexy (though mush-brained) sunbathers, but they seem to be from another world, and so Marlowe does his best to bide his time taking care of his cat, going to the bars, and occasionally getting around to investigating a murder. Like Marlowe, we are condemned to live in the real world, but we are constantly reminded of just how close we are to a more exciting, fabulous world that has no time for our commonness.
The Long Goodbye emphasizes the vastness of the city, the complete lack of connection between individuals, the disparity between the poor and the rich. (A car trip west on Venice Blvd. will illustrate the same points, albeit not as entertainingly.) Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures a city in transition, stuck between the glowing cultural image of itself and the depressing malaise of its fading downtown and dull suburban communities. And Marlowe (as our stand-in) is the city's lonely center, wondering whatever happened to that more fabulous Los Angeles he's heard about.
A year later, California Split continued that celebration of the Other Los Angeles. In this tale of friendship, gambling, and general irresponsibility, Gould's Charlie and George Segal's Bill inhabit a Los Angeles where a complete stranger might break your nose over a card game while another guy enjoys dressing up as a woman and hiring female escorts for company. This dichotomy — between the rugged lowlife mentality and the it-takes-all-kinds unpredictability of human perversion — exists beneath the glamour of Hollywood, in that netherworld of "normal people" who represent most of the city's population and show up with alarming frequency on the late local news, and California Split sticks its camera into that marginal worldview. But contrary to the claims of his critics, Altman doesn't judge or condescend — he's one of the few American directors who feels comfortable enough with outcasts to make them seem relatable. Not martyrs, not heroes — just relatable. In a city that's growing more congested by the day, Altman's sense of empathy is almost a necessity in order to cope with modern urban life.
Refreshingly, California Split, with its tour of race tracks, poker halls, and local boxing hole-in-the-walls, has none of the dark intrigue of Chinatown's historic L.A. locales — everything looks hazy not sunny, rundown not production-designed. It's the Los Angeles any of us recognize all too clearly when we're trying to show out-of-towners "the sights" and have finished up with Rodeo Drive — frankly, a lot of everything else looks sketchy. But Altman finds nothing lamentable in this fact. Unlike The Long Goodbye, California Split finds comfort in brotherhood — even if your new best friend is probably a hopeless gambling addict — as an antidote to urban dissatisfaction.
After his '70s peak, Altman struggled during the Reagan years. Maybe he lost his way, maybe his muse deserted him. But, in retrospect, it's not entirely shocking that his comeback was keyed to a cinematic return to the City of Angels.
Though hailed as a return to form, The Player (1992), ironically enough, examined the very Los Angeles his '70s films had eschewed. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Player's version of Hollywood resembles than of an outsider's — it was as if Gould's Marlowe was finally allowed to stroll around beyond the velvet rope.
Nevertheless, of all the filmic satires about the entertainment industry, The Player is, fittingly, the least awestruck by famous people. Look at how, say, Get Shorty ogles its celebrity cameos and then notice how Altman inundates his movie with so many stars that they lose their special aura. He's merely reflecting the manner of many blasé Angelenos who are conditioned to be unimpressed by the famous since, after all, they're just people, right? Just like our trade papers, The Player regards the moviemaking empire of Los Angeles as just a business, a product that lost its ability to be magical once we started meeting some of the hideous people in positions of power. No wonder the film felt so cold to the touch.
With his reputation reestablished, Robert Altman now had the latitude to make a much more ambitious and warmer work — 1993's Short Cuts, still the definitive big-city mosaic piece of our time.
Despite loud praise in many quarters, Short Cuts, which encompassed the lives of 22 very different characters over the span of about a week, was regarded with some hostility in the very city it portrayed. How dare Altman transplant Raymond Carver's Pacific Northwest sufferers to L.A.? How could such a sour, mean-spirited film pretend to show the essence of our fair city?
That last knock especially has always confounded me. What's sour about Short Cuts? What critics are responding to, perhaps, is Altman's change in protagonists — specifically their age. The young fools of Altman's earlier films were now begrudgingly domesticated — Short Cuts is stuffed with wives and kids and jobs you can't quit because you need to pay that mortgage on your mediocre house on the outskirts of the city. There's a palpable sensation running throughout the film that this may, in fact, be it — that those rambling, shambling dreams of the '70s have calcified into adult responsibilities that don't quite mesh with the perpetual adolescence of Los Angeles. (As myself and other friends take that next step into married life, Short Cuts speaks to the sheer ridiculousness of attempting to become a mature adult in a town where most everyone lies about their age and 12-year-old boys are the future of a flailing film industry's livelihood.)
Some knocked the film for its bevy of white characters — isn't L.A. a multicultural city? — but Altman was simply looking at a particular group of people he understands quite well. (In fact, you might say he's watched them, and their city, grow and change over the course of 20 years.) Disenfranchised, although in their gut they know they still have it better than L.A.'s minority groups, these nondescript whites travel through their day with quiet desperation; every once in a while bumping into someone like Alex Trebek at an art auction. While it might not be a cornucopia of racial diversity, Short Cuts overpowers us with the nervous energy of big-city life, the daily confrontations regarding economic disparity, the lingering impression that, quite honestly, we're better off not knowing what some of our neighbors are up to.
Other filmmakers have tried for a similar panoramic look at Los Angeles, but none have come close to what Altman achieved in Short Cuts. Grand Canyonis underrated but nonetheless a Westwood resident's privileged slant on the city. Magnolia is too wrapped up in its angst-ridden characters and Altman-esque style to offer much in terms of geographic specificity. Menace II Society was shocking at first, but repeat viewings demonstrate how generic its thug-life storytelling is. As for the lamentable Crash, Paul Haggis's ham-fisted message movie works so hard to stay on point that its attempts to include all nationalities turn every character into a preachy mouthpiece for race relations.
By comparison, Altman alone accepts Los Angeles on its own terms — he doesn't have any interest in trying to change the city's basic nature like some of his do-gooding contemporaries. This attitude seems appropriate — all of us who move here from somewhere else come to understand that we're just a small component of a sprawling city, that we're only temporary visitors going about our business amidst the backdrop of one of the most mythologized locations in the western hemisphere.
Maybe that's why I've always rejected the notion that Robert Altman dislikes his characters. If anything, he gets off on the chaotic nature of their messy lives — he sees these people as joyful works in progress. (Ultimately, isn't that how we'd like to think of ourselves too?) At a time when so many L.A.-based programs — whether it's the hip insider appeal of Entourage or the insular luxury of Curb Your Enthusiasm —sell the city as a closed-off fantasyland only enjoyed by the lucky few, Altman has waged a three-decade-long counterargument to that conventional wisdom. The rest of us live here, too, and we actually like it quite a lot. I may be a permanent resident of Altman's Other Los Angeles, but to quote Elliott Gould's common refrain from The Long Goodbye,it's okay with me.