Directors: Reviews of Six Movies by Robert Altman protege, Alan Rudolph

Writer director Alan Rudolph is often unfairly dismissed as a Robert Altman clone.  Although Altman gave him his start in pictures, by producing “Welcome to L.A.” after Rudolph had wrapped two exploitation jobs, “Barn of the Naked Dead” and “The Impure,” the nineteen pictures he directed between 1978-2002 are very much his own.  He never reached the highs of  Altman’s “Nashville,” but neither has he stumbled to the lows of the senior director’s “Quintet” or “Health.”

The biggest difference between the directors is that Rudolph writes most of his own material, while Altman’s   best work  was with scripts   penned  by other, better, writers.  Looking over Rudolph’s films, a strong thematic cohesion emerges that makes him a more fascinating subject for study than Altman, whose novel directorial style was never enough to save a bad script.

Remember My Name (1978)  

This modest picture stars Geraldine Chaplin as   Emily, good girl gone bad via marriage.   Having    served twelve years in prison for killing her husband’s lover,  she returns to  play out a revenge scenario on her now ex-husband Neil (Anthony Perkins) and replacement  wife Barbara (played by Perkin’s real life wife Berry Berenson). Despite the pulp premise, Rudolph’s screenplay never follows  a conventional   arc, and   Emily’s motives and schemes are quietly her own until the final reel.

Rudolph is very much under the influence of Robert Altman here.  He uses devices such as recurring   television news reports on a fictional  earthquake in Budapest to establish his timeline of events.  There is also a tendency to  distance  his characters from the camera,  often partially obscuring them with objects in the foreground. But Rudolf is a more careful observer of idiosyncratic behavior than Altman, and  Emily’s periodic outbursts are not isolated, psychotic events, but are tied into a larger portrait of the misfortunes by which she is   defined.

The  use of blues singer Alberta Hunter’s music   is an early example of the tasteful care Rudolph  takes with his soundtracks.    Hunter’s songs work as an interior monolog for Emily, a contrast to the Greek Chorus function of Richard Baskin’s songs in “Welcome to L.A.”  It is not until 1985, with Mark Isham’s score for “Trouble in Mind,” that Rudolph would find a long-term musical collaborator whose instrumental compositions would lend an inner consistency to the films.

There is an oppressive seriousness to “Remember My Name” that the director sheds in his subsequent films which, despite their often downbeat situations,  are infused with an optimistic romanticism.  The problem is a lack of charm in his  characters. Neither Emily nor Neil is at all charismatic in their lost soul anti-socialness, and Barbara, as played by the amateurish Berenson, is barely a cipher of the neglected wife.   The only character having any warmth is Pike (Moses Gunn), a cop with  whom Emily flirts  to get a few necessities of life.  Eventually, his spirit is deflated by his experience with this gang of vindictive losers, and we sense he too will join the troops of irritated aggressors who populate the stores and parking lots of America’s shopping malls.

 

Choose Me (1984) 

The universe of romantic love is compacted into the comic inferno of  one small pick-up bar in “Choose Me.”    Located in that after-era limbo that came in the wake of the great promiscuity boom of the late seventies. As it plays like a sequel to  “Welcome to L.A.” it may be difficult for  those unfamiliar with the earlier film to    understand how Rudolph arrived at such a bleak crossroads of love.

“Choose Me” stands as one of the only films of the eighties to reflect upon the previous decade’s manipulation of love as a free pass to a lifestyle of incessant self-gratification.  Mickey (Keith Carradine) has relations with three women after being released from a mental institution.  His history, which includes stints as a spy behind the iron curtain and a   photographer  for Newsweek, reads like a litany of self-delusion, but every word of it is true. His real madness is a belief in romantic love as  life’s   truest pursuit. He is looking for a girl named Eve who will marry him after the first kiss, and if such a thing happens, it will likely be the end of both of them, disappearing into a Las Vegas honeymoon where they will immerse themselves in each other until their luck runs out.

This Eve (Lesley Ann Warren) is a former prostitute who owns a bar named “Eve’s,” which is more a gratis bordello than watering hole.  Rudolph’s script is  rife with the kind of coincidences that happen in such  claustrophobic, incestuous environments, with a series of comic encounters with between Mickey and Zack (Patrick Bauchau), in the bedrooms of mutual lovers.  Presiding over the chaos of passion and heartbreak that is stimulated by the intrusion of such predators into the lives of lonely women is Dr. Love (Genevieve Bujold), a popular talk radio host who specializes in giving advice to the lovelorn, although she has her own problems in that department.

In “Welcome to L.A,” Rudolph interwove the music of Richard  Baskin  into the story.  Here, he has refined this technique to the repetitive use of a  single riff by Teddy Pendergrass.  “You’re My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)”  repeats the two directives of its title throughout the action of the picture, and Mickey is prepared to choose the first pair of lips to answer his kiss.    His destiny is such that it might be determined by the accident of whomever  comes to  the door when he knocks.

 Trouble In Mind (1985)  

Rudolph’s screwball comedy noir has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its  transformation of Seattle into the kind of mythic soundstage that Coppola discovered money couldn’t buy in “One From the Heart.”  Using shots of the monorail as transitional images between different neighborhoods, he creates  the impression of a city with an elevated  rail system that is both ancient and futuristic.  The use of the Asian Art Museum for the home of the city’s most notorious criminal gives the  city the corrupt opulence of  Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. There are also fragmentary allusions to an obtrusive military  presence in the city, placing it in some an undefined, but near, future,

The most impressive thing about Rudolph’s direction is the way he simultaneously underplays and overstates his scenes.  Keith Carradine’s over-the top caricature of his character from “Atlantic City” is achieved through hairdo, make-up, and costume.  He gets a little    more extreme with every scene until finally he is a raving clown tempting fate and just about everything else he stumbles upon.  The perfectly tailored Kris Kristofferson provides a cool counterbalance to Carradine’s manic foolishness.  The stability of his character is anchored in the consistency of his behavior towards a variety of people in diverse situations.  Carradine, on the other hand, is a different person in each of his social and business encounters. The cast is beautified by the angelic Lori Singer as a doomed Madonna and given spunk by Genevieve Bujold as a discarded Magdalene.

This was 1985, before the heavy hand of Tarantino turned  every silly action movie convention into a portentous display of phallic symbols, and nobody took any of this nonsense seriously, so when most of the cast is killed off in a climactic massacre, it is executed with a deft slight-of-hand rather than in sheets of  bloody irony.  The fun Rudolph has with these stale situations resembles such new-wave romps as Godard’s “Pierre Le Fou” and Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player.”  He is not trying, as his mentor Robert Altman did in “The Long Goodbye,” to challenge the old movies with his re-interpretation.  He is simply having a go at them.

Silly as much of this  is, Rudolph never plays it tongue in cheek.  He refuses to betray the  deep strain of romanticism running through the picture.  The surfaces may be the stuff of pulp novels written quickly by drunks who owe back rent, but the emotions beneath it all are the stuff of high drama…delivered like a  champagne flute.

The Moderns (1988) 

“The Moderns” skirts around the  events in the lives of a circle of artistic American expatriates in Paris in the weeks preceding the opening of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Most of the action takes place in parlor rooms, with one of the funniest scenes an attack on Keith Carradine’s cartoonist/art forger by Gertrude Stein.  There are also some in-jokes for Hemingway fans to enliven the sometimes moribund repartee.  Despite the time and place, the triangles are the same that plague Rudolph’s characters in the other pictures.   Linda Fiorentino plays a social climber who has married the rich and powerful John Lone without first getting a divorce from Carradine. Meanwhile Geraldine Chaplin and Genevieve Bujold offer both companionship and career opportunities to the disconsolate Carradine.  It all ends in  the ruthlessly romantic and chaotic optimism favored by the director, with new beginnings that promise to lead to the same dead ends.

Afterglow (1997)  

As someone inclined to impose structure upon formless things, I can’t help but see “Afterglow” as the third part of a trilogy that includes “Welcome to L.A,” and “Choose Me.”    The title seems ironic, as nothing in the film is connected to the dictionary definition of the word, but a more sardonic interpretation might include its reference to the glow of the television set after the glow of the movie that is being broadcast has long faded, just as   Lucky (Nick Nolte) and Phyllis Mann (Julie Christie)  live entombed in a sexless marriage after the glow of its better years has  burned to a black ember.  In the end, there is a sprig of hope in the literal glow of their prodigal daughter’s face, suggesting that perhaps the  post-coital afterglow of married love is the life of the child it has spawned, although in this case the child was spawned in a closet with another man.

Whatever the title means to the director, or would have it mean to the audience, “Afterglow” is a sad, sad vision of domestic betrayal and the limited bliss and limitless pain of infidelity.  The characters are fairly unpleasant, even when they are honest about their self-centered pettiness that prevents any long-tern interactions with other people.  The worst among them is Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller), whose frigidity toward his gorgeous wife Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle) could be the result of a closeted passion for his own sex, a demonstrative obsession with older women, or simply a fear of reproducing another of his own kind.  Lucky is more likable, with a robust façade that conceals the daily misery he shoulders both from guilt and self-doubt.  No matter how many women he uses to betray his wife, nothing he does can rectify her betrayal of him.

As in the case with many of Rudolph’s scripts, the coincidental relationships between the characters are too pat.  His attraction to  narrative symmetry leads to improbable situations such as a man who has raised another man’s son as his own takes advantage of the opportunity to insinuate his seed into another man’s lineage, He is aware enough, however, of his own predilection for synchronicity to  allow unpredictable human behavior to throw a few wild cards into the mix.

Through the physical maneuvering of his characters,  Rudolph  lessons the barriers between social and private behaviors, insisting that humans in proximity are both as near to lovemaking as to the  repudiation of its afterglow.  Such is the paradox facing this optimist when the hidden frightfulness of his favorite subject threatens the well-being of his hitherto freewheeling characters.

 Breakfast of Champions (1999) 

Crackpot literature is difficult to adapt to the screen.     The novel can be  straightened into a somewhat coherent narrative, as George Roy Hill did with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or   the source  material may be skirted altogether to create something approximating the author’s vision, as was the case with David Cronenburg’s  attempt at  William S. Burrough’s “Naked Lunch.” Alan Rudolph’s film of Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” takes an altogether unique route.  It is a faithful adaptation, as nutty as the book itself, that succeeds as a cinematic alter-universe to the written word.

With this in mind, “Breakfast of Champions” takes some getting used to, being as different from other films as Vonnegut’s collision between two unlikely objects of small-town fame is from a normal novel.  At first, Rudolph’s attempts to be zanier than Vonnegut seem irritatingly strained, but it eventually becomes apparent that such  extravagance is a necessary  factor in creating a movie-world in which Vonnegut’s characters can  thrive.

Oddballs abound in Midland city, three of whom are central to the story. Bruce Willis spends a lot of his time as car salesman Dwayne Hoover in unflattering close-ups, surrounded by the chaos of fame.  His chief salesman’s (Nick Nolte)   penchant for wearing women’s clothing  is always a hair away from breaking  through his mask of chiseled masculinity.  Albert Finney is elegantly disenfranchised from the human race as Kilgore Trout, author of numerous science-fiction novels and short stories that have been obscurely published by nefarious printers. The rest of the characters  contribute their individual dollops of  insanity to fill out  Rudolph’s broad canvas of a small-town Nashville on the river Styx.

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