Monday, December 17, 2007

Two Altman films: California Split & Buffalo Bill

I've always proclaimed myself an Altman fan before i saw a lot of his films, mainly because the other new wave directors seemed so obsessed with violence and he had a wider range of interest in other subjects. I also really liked the ensemble feel of his films.

I love his work in MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Player, and Prairie Home Companion. Other than that, I saw Dr T and the Women but didn't like that as much.
Recently, I've seen a couple more in Buffalo Bill and California Split.

Buffalo Bill is interesting but vague. It's an incredibly interesting story and I notice that auteurs with a very strong sense of personal style have a tendency to drown out a good story. The very idea of Buffalo Bill is such a great pitch that a director with no personal style who's just guided by studio deadlines and a script could turn it into a relatively great movie, which is why it's slightly annoying that Altman felt he had to work much magic into it at all, because it distracts from the story: Mainly confuses it. I had to watch the story twice to really understand it, because the main plot points are deeply hidden in indistinct conversations. Some advice to anyone watching an Altman film: Use subtitles to get past the overlapping dialogue. I also expected something akin to Bronco Billy or Greatest Show on Earth where they actually show more of the circus or the show. I saw a little bit of Annie Oakley shooting, but I don't think the movie has a scene of the recreated battles that the characters are all talking about and I would have been excited to see.

I was at the video store recently trying to redeem myself by choosing a bad Altman film by trying to chose a good Altman film. I was trying to decide between California Split and Long Goodbye, and I should've taken Long Goodbye. California Split has some good acting and one of the strengths is that I got to see the guy from Just Shoot Me as a young matinee idol. What a treat! I also felt the high-tension atmosphere of the poker room in the opening scene was engagingly convincing.

California Split has that trademark Altmanesque style, but if you strip away the Altmanisms, it's just a gambling film that I've seen done better (even in recent entries like Lucky You and Rounders). I think the theme of California Split was that Elliot Gould represented George Segal's sense of temptation. You know that gimmick in TV shows and movies where an angel and devil are on each side of the character's head and trying to persuade you to either make the right choice or the sinful one? George Segal would have been the devil in that scenario. Still, the movie kind of rambles on through its plot to a fairly obvious conclusion.

So, I guess Altman's tally for me comes to 4 brilliant films (McCabe, The Player, MASH, Prairie Home Companion), one decent one (California Split), and two that are not worthwhile to watch (Buffalo Bill, Dr T.)