The director of ‘Nashville’ and ‘M*A*S*H’ gets an informal retrospective in Detroit this week

In detective tale and artist biopic, two film portraits of indelible eccentricity

click to enlarge With the camera frequently capturing him through windows, The Long Goodbye makes private eye Philip Marlowe as much a doer as a watcher. - United Artists
United Artists
With the camera frequently capturing him through windows, The Long Goodbye makes private eye Philip Marlowe as much a doer as a watcher.

In a stroke of luck, Detroit will see two Robert Altman revival screenings this week — and neither is of Nashvillle or of M*A*S*H. The first, a 1973 update of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which will play as part of Cinema Lamont’s “Noirvember” series (organized, I should disclose, by friends), stands as one of Altman’s most durable works, visibly and sometimes coyly planting a foot in the past it draws from while setting the other in the atmospheric much of its own present. The second, Vincent & Theo, returns from 1990: the theatrical feature version of Altman’s Van Gogh-centric miniseries, playing the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA. While Altman’s best known for sprawling ensembles — including Short Cuts, The Player, and the films mentioned above — these two features live by their lead performers’ rich eccentricities, making them feel contemporary as outsider portraits positively bursting with life.

Long Goodbye’s detective story thrives on wry, inevitable collisions of personality, each figure in play crashing up against Elliott Gould’s muttering, eternally, out-of-place private eye. Slinking in and out of jeopardizing situations armed with little but wit and the inconstant aid of chance, Leigh Brackett’s script casts Gould’s Philip Marlowe as an improbable hero stumbling into situations he can barely hope to right. In this friction — which sees his shabby, singular, and charming figure constantly out of his depth — there’s a real thrill to be had, even as it resists conventional approaches to story: twisting familiar beats like resolution, rescue, and climax.

Altman, always a politically conscious filmmaker, makes a home of this queasy existentialism, sold by its details. With a trajectory that seems to wander, accruing both character and details, the pieces of Goodbye’s world harbor more connections than first seems clear — resulting in an existential, faintly paranoid vision that would go on to influence works like The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice.

Due to the combined, pressurizing logics of detective fiction and narrative economy (as well as the story’s transplantation from the ’50s to the ’70s) that paranoia comes to feel like a natural mood. For detective stories are defined by the forces of both gut and hunch, a sense that — in the absence of enough evidentiary pieces to form a complete picture — any move may yield better results than hesitation.

But Gould’s gangly figure proves an avatar more of dogged, wily effort rather than of brute force, and one with some apparent knowledge of the limits of his own power. With “that’s OK with me” forming a kind of cornerstone of his inner monologues, the film seems to concede that intervention to fix small-scale, past, or even broader social ills just isn’t always possible. In such an environment, Gould’s tone of relaxed, if lightly embittered skepticism, with a default mode of bemused observation, comes to seem like the sharpest, most natural sort of possible response. With Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera frequently capturing him through windows, bars, or nested networks of reflections, The Long Goodbye makes Marlowe barely as much a doer as a watcher. Arriving too late to alter much, the job of solving a crime becomes one of assembling and presenting a convincing, or at least credible tale. The job of filmmaking — and of adapting past work — is only so different, but it’s rare to see it done better than it is here.

Vincent & Theo posits eccentricity and instability as character traits, certainly, but ones that also function as responses to a dearth of personal agency or power. With Tim Roth playing Van Gogh as an instinctual, out-of-water figure on the edges of a society driven by norms, carving out a place for himself and his work creates a constant challenge. Despite fleetingly intimate connections with a range of women and a close but fraught relationship with his considerably more buttoned-up brother Theo (Paul Rhys), something in his disposition and his work propels him reliably away from social centers of financial and social stability.

But there’s much to be had on these relative margins — something cinematographer Jean Lépine (who also shot The Player’s backlots, dive bars, and alleyways) captures in convincing long shots in both boudoirs and exterior landscapes. Beaches, dunes, and fields all feel like environments with an intrinsic wildness about them, revolting against the preening and shaping impulses of the society to which they run counter. But like Altman’s Marlowe, Roth’s Vincent — if somewhat less comfortably — makes a home of these spaces, conveying them as a kind of natural habitat with a distinct mood and texture both he and the film work in parallel to capture.

While caving to certain biopic beats — not altogether different than those caught in Vincente Minneli’s earlier Lust for LifeVincent & Theo manages an intimacy with its subject that feels self-reflexive at its heart. In one scene with a model, Vincent sketches her in what’s taken to be a kind of violation — as she kneels above a chamber pot. When she protests, he’s perplexed, having found a kind of unposed expression in a moment whose depiction she calls out as non-consensual theft. This tension — between presenting a controlled image but one also open to the casual, private, and accidental — presents a kind of rebellious impropriety that’s at the heart of Altman’s directorial work. Just as beguiled by offhand mutterings as he is artistic models off their guard, Altman’s colloquial filmmaking always seems to resist the undertow of generic structures through its first loyalties to his own predilections, whether they’re found in biopics or westerns or noir. Filled with images and sounds which seem too casual to not be stolen or overheard, each work of Altman’s is stamped with his own irrepressible, always convivial brand.

The Long Goodbye screens from 7:30-9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17 at Oloman Cafe; 10215 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck. Vincent & Theo will screen at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Detroit Film Theatre; 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit.

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