I (Almost) Ask Robert Altman’s Widow a Snide Question About “Quintet”

By , November 19, 2009 9:54 pm
"Yes, Mrs. Altman?  Love your late husband's work.  Um, Quintet.  WTF?

"Yes, Mrs. Altman? Love your late husband's work. Question for you about his craft. Did Bob even remember directing any movies from 1979 to 1991?

On Monday, November 16th, 2009, Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Robert Altman:  The Oral Biography spoke at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.  Readers of the old Filmsnobs site know the complicated relationship we had with Robert Altman:  Yes, he made four or five of the greatest films American films, but he’s made some of the worst—including the worst movie ever made.  Both are a function of his genius:  The iconoclast who fights for his vision takes an extraordinary risk because he succeeds or fails on his own terms.  That’s why when you think of Altman, you can’t only think of Nashville and The Player to truly understand the man’s craft, you also have to consider O.C. and Stiggs, Beyond Therapy, Ready to Wear, and, yes, Popeye.* 

*I can’t believe how angry some of those reviews we wrote sound.  I don’t think I mean some of what I wrote, but I will stand by the statement that Altman’s bad movies are some of the worst movies ever made by a “name” director.

I haven’t read the book yet, but the premise is awesome:  Zuckoff assembled Altman’s own words (he interviewed Altman extensively before he died) and interviewed dozens of collaborators, actors, friends, and family, and then turned it into an Altman-esque narrative with roving characters and overlapping conversations.  Zuckoff’s presentation took us through Altman’s life, focusing specifically on the Kansas City influence.  Since about twenty members of Altman’s family was there, he, um, skipped some parts about heavy drug use, two wives, some kids, tantrums…stuff we already knew and didn’t need repeated.  Still, Zuckoff’s presentation was steeped in hero-worship, which is probably understandable because of the setting.

The talk ended with Zuckoff fielding questions from the audience with native Kansas City screenwriter Frank Barnhydt (Short Cuts, Kansas City) and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman.  I had been waiting for something like this for years.  I mean, Quintet is the most pretentious, weirdest, and frankly worst movie I ever seen.  I hate to say that about a hometown hero and a man who made some of the greatest movies ever.  But I’ve spent much of my life working with gifted kids, and the hardest thing you have to teach them is that sometimes you have to fail.  And that’s why Altman’s terrible movies fascinate me.  You can see him working…and if you’re thinking along with Altman, you see his usual anti-establishment themes, the Altman technique.  But there’s a bunch of dogs chewing on dead bodies when people are killed after lose at this backgammon like game after the apocalypse.  I’ve just got to know:  What the hell was he thinking then, and when Altman got his third act after The Player, how did he regard those truly awful films he made over the course of literally a decade?

As the session started winding down, so old guy in a flannel shirt gets up and says, “I don’t really like Altman” and goes off on Paul Thomas Anderson for about three minutes.  I’m not going to follow that with my questions about Quintet for Altman’s widow.  I have some class…I think.  My KCFCC colleague Dan Lybarger finished the session by talking about his interview with Altman, where he talked about his evolving opinion of Gosford Park.  Altman told him that he challenged his audience and that you really shouldn’t get his movies the first time.  And I never asked Altman’s widow and his biographer what the hell is going on in Quintet.  It’s probably for the best.  As Altman often said, the art is what you make of it. 

This Is It

By , November 18, 2009 9:59 pm
Kenny Ortega lets Michael direct "High School Musical 4: Troy and Gabriella Break Up by Christmas"

Kenny Ortega lets Michael direct "High School Musical 4: Troy and Gabriella Break Up by Christmas"

Unfortunately, the image I can’t shake from This Is It isn’t Michael Jackson working through the steps of “Billie Jean” or creating the dance sequence for “Thriller.”  It’s Michael Jackson standing at the podium—creamy complexion, misshapen nose, rail thin, wig-like hair, chin dimple like tiny a wedge cut from his skull—in front of a seal for “The King of Pop.” The mega success of Thriller thrust the office upon him, and it wore him down like a president.  Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, which the King of Pop mutated into something so unreal he’s hard to look at.

This image is the uneasy metaphor of Michael Jackson’s career.  The childhood glee of the Jackson 5 and the personal music of Off the Wall gave way to the tabloids of the post-Thriller era, where the music wasn’t really the story.  For casual Jackson fans—which most of us are—it’s hard to remember how much great music Jackson wrote after 1984:  “Smooth Criminal,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Black or White”—there’s a least a dozen quality songs.  As we watched the King whittle away at his body and descend into genuine weirdness, it became really hard to take him and his music seriously.  Weird Al’s mainstream success is based largely on this proposition.  Only later, away from the Neverland Ranch and marriage to Lisa Marie and hanging his baby of the rail and sexual predator trials and all the rest, can we really appreciate how genuinely moving Michael Jackson’s post-Thriller music is.

This Is It focuses on several late-career Jackson songs, some of which I never thought seriously about until now.  “They Don’t Care About Us,” an acapella “Human Nature,” and a knock-out version of “Man in the Mirror” are highlights, and even the pretentious “Earth Song” comes across as sincere and personal.  Still, “Earth Song” presents us with the paradox of Michael Jackson:  Can you take seriously a song about the beauty of nature from a man with a plastic nose? 

That the answer is yes is a testament to the power of This Is It.  Mega-production choreographer/ director Kenny Ortega (all the High School Musical films, Super Bowls, the Olympics, etc.) has helped Jackson put together a spectacle to dwarf even U2’s 360 Tour spaceship.  Basically, they’ve created a live-action music video for each of Jackson’s hits, tied together by an aesthetic that can only be called Synthetic Intimacy. 

Synthetic Intimacy is what all megastars must achieve in the mass media age.  Once you achieve a certain stardom, the old life of clubs and music halls are left behind and you graduate to the stadium.  To survive without selling out, the key is to create an intimate spectacle.  It’s a paradox only the great ones can pull off.  Michael Jackson is the one pop musician who truly went from being the Prince Hal of Motown and became the King Henry V of pop superstardom.  No matter how big he got, the music was still good.

This Is It the concert achieves Synthetic Intimacy by using the technology of megaspectacle to mimic reality—as if what we’re watching isn’t really a concert stage.  The verdant greens of “Earth Song” burst from a giant electronic canvass, with Jackson convinces us of the soft-spot he’s always had for nature.  The “Thriller” zombies aren’t, well, real—no CGI, just hours of makeup.  Jackson is green-screened into a shootout with Humphrey Bogart, looking like he’s right there with Rita Hayworth in a forties-era gangster movie to introduce “Smooth Criminal.”  The film ends with Jackson singing “Man in the Mirror,” telling us that he going to change his ways.  It begs the question:  What does Michael Jackson see when he looks at the man in the mirror?  Is it the same plastic man the rest of us sees?  Does he see this thing he’s created as the “real” Michael?  Or, as Henry V tells us, when you wear the crown, can be no more “real” you?

All we truly know is the Michael Jackson we’ve seen in the media—the guy who resembles “South Park”’s Mr. Jefferson more than anything else.  The weirdness—the Neverland train, Bubbles the Chimp, nicknaming a child “Blanket”—is likely a manifestation of a sensitive man caught at the advent of smothering celebrity coverage.  This Is It pulls back the curtain to show us an artist who seems like he’s only truly at home on the stage—where he controls his world, where the band looks for his cue to give the music “more booty,” where a man stands alone, unbothered, creating dance moves no one else is capable of.  In these quiet moments, This Is It the film achieves real intimacy.  We see the Michael Jackson that remained unchanged by Thriller—the same kid who told us “I Want You Back” is the same man who told us to “Remember the Time.”  Michael Jackson’s plastic nose still breathed.


The Pitch:


2 Stop Making Sense

2 Stop Making Sense











2 Mr. Jefferson

2 Mr. Jefferson











4  This Is It

4 This Is It


Men Who Stare at Goats, The

Clooney's tries to make the goat understand Solaris.

Clooney's tries to make the goat understand Solaris.

The Men Who Stare at Goats wants to be Three Kings for the second Iraq War.  We know this because it stars George Clooney in desert fatigues in what seems to be a Strangelovian comedy of war.  And to be fair, the trailer is pretty hilarious:  Clooney, in full O Brother slapstick mode, takes down a goat with only his eyeballs.  How could this go wrong—you’ve got Jeff Bridges playing what looks to be Colonel Lebowski, Kevin Spacey as the arch villain, and…Ewan McGregor? 

This where the movie goes wrong.  Ewan McGregor plays the naïve reporter who goes to Iraq looking for a story because his wife is sleeping with his editor.  In Kuwait, he somehow runs into Clooney, who knew some guy back in his hometown he interviewed once about the military’s attempt to be the “first superpower to actually have super powers.”  Clooney tells him that this top secret battalion was nicknamed “The Jedi Warriors.”  And he tells this to Ewan McGregor.  Who played OB-Wan Kenobi.  And he explains who the Jedis are.  To Ewan McGregor.  OB-Wan.

And that’s the joke. It’s what’s wrong with the entire movie:  The set-up seems ripe for some sort of anti-establishment genius, like how Three Kings predicted the failure of Iraq War II way back in 1998.  But first time director Grant Heslov (who wrote the screenplay for Clooney’s monochromatic love letter to Edward R. Murrow Good Night, and Good Luck) doesn’t connect the dots the way a sharp satire should. The Men Who Stare at Goats is about torture, or in the very least, the military’s ethically-questionable use of psych ops.  Bridges’  “First Earth Battalion” is some sort of new age, hippie platoon dedicated to winning wars through peace, mostly stemming of his harrowing experiences in Vietnam with poor shooting draftees and LSD.  There’s some funny stuff with FEB’s learning to dance psychedelically wearing fatigues…but the movie does nothing with the premise.

After a decent half hour setup, the movie grinds to a halt, with McGregor and Clooney wandering the desert.  Heslov doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say about torture, so he doesn’t say anything.  Clearly, he thinks torture is bad, and in his depiction of how screwed up the former FEB’ers are, he seems to be arguing that torture is as bad for the torturer as the torturee. Seymour Hersch and others have made the same argument.  But Heslov doesn’t make the connection.  He doesn’t show us how you get from the Vietnam era new age hippie mentality to post 9/11 sadistic Cheneyism.  Maybe Heslov could get there via the Jonah Goldberg Liberal Fascism route (it wouldn’t be unprecedented).  If he had made the point, or any point, the scene where Clooney and Bridges unleashes the goats from a barn might have been the “24” era’s Slim Pickens on the bomb.  But as it stands, this movie cries out for direction from someone like Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) at the helm.  Watching Christopher Hitchens getting waterboarded is way more entertaining.


The Pitch

Three Kings

1 Three Kings

1  Christopher Hitchens Getting Waterboarded

1 Christopher Hitchens Getting Waterboarded







The Men Who Stare at Goats

2 The Men Who Stare at Goats

Even The Chiefs Think They’re a Comedy

By , November 16, 2009 8:53 pm
The Chiefs' front office could probably use some Cornell grads.

The Chiefs' front office could probably use some Cornell grads.

The Kansas City Chiefs have lost 31 of their last 36 games, but someone at One Arrowhead Drive is enjoying themselves.   In fact, something downright subversive is happening at Truman Sports Complex.  The same NFL franchise that brought you Warpaint, the Tomahawk chop, Stealth Bomber flyovers, Ace Frehley performing the national anthem, and Bush campaign events are now doing…NBC sitcom parodies?  What exactly is going on here?

Early this season, kcchiefs.com brought you “The Chiefs,” a parody of “The Office” that posits KC Wolf as the new “Director of Shenanigans” whose fur and clumsy feet make life difficult for prissy women in the copy and break rooms.  There are some funny moments here, like KC Wolf high-fiving Chiefs President Denny Thum and the dive tackle of some guy in a Raiders hat who’s probably just doing advance work to make sure Al Davis’ oxygen tank will work in the private suite. 

But something this weird and pointless can’t simply be taken at face value.  They mastered the faux-documentary camera angles, created several props, coached the actors…a lot of time went into this by people who know what they’re doing with a camera (the second time I watched it, I laughed out loud at the picture of Todd Haley chewing somebody out to the gentle piano of Scranton).  They even hold the reaction shots just a beat too long, as if there’s a real attempt at satire here.   

There has to be something else at work.  Is KC Wolf a metaphor for the last ten years of the Carl Peterson Era—KC Wolf as The Arrowhead Experience, which Carl spent his energy turning into profit rather than actually building a winning football team.  But this is a lost opportunity, right?  Doesn’t it make more sense to turn Carl Peterson into Michael Scott, desperately trying to be cool with Tony Gonzalez and rapping with Larry Johnson?

Better is the Chiefs’ new “30 Rock” parody “One Arrowhead” (yes, the Chiefs’ official address is One Arrowhead Drive), featuring Voice of the Chiefs Mitch Holthus as Jack Donaghey, former Chiefs wideout Danan Hughes as Tracy Jordan, and “Cheerleader Kerri” as Liz Lemon.  Consider the detail here:  the rhythm of the opening credits framed by Chiefs fans that looks like a reddened version of the original, the shots of Arrowhead spliced together like Rockefeller Center, the perfect timing of the smash-cut flashback gags (with “30 Rock” style strategic product placement), the camera’s tracking of the always-moving Donaghey character, the peppy music that greets Liz Lemon at the office…this is lovingly made skit.  Again, a lot went into this—Mitch Holthus’ Alec Baldwin is very practiced; he nails the Baldwin mannerisms as much as you’d hope a play-by-play radio guy could.  There may not be brilliance here, but there’s clearly extraordinary competence at work.

The Promotions Department must see this as some sort of ongoing saga—notice the continuation of the plot from “The Office” parody. The question is how to make sense of this.  The only theory I’ve got is that this is some pent-up anger at Carl Peterson in the promotions department, and these are just subtle satires of King Carl’s management style.  There’s actually some overlap here:  the tough-negotiator, hardened worldview, arch-conservativism worldview is common to both the Peterson and Donaghey ethos. 

But that seems a little high concept for the average Chiefs fan, don’t you think?  Still, the production quality shows that at least some time, money, and creative energy went into these skits.  But, again—why?  I understand that when you’re battling the Lions, Browns, Raiders, and Rams for League Joke honors, you’ve got to think outside the promotions box to get people to the stadium.  That’s how the Royals end up with Hot Dog Derby t-shirt night.

But which constituency of Chiefs Nation are NBC sitcom parodies aimed at?  Can’t be disaffected western Kansas Bronco haters. Closet liberals from Johnson County who’ll pay $150 a ticket just to skip church and load the Tahoe up with smoked meat and baked beans?  Maybe.  Have the Chiefs raised ticket prices so high that only fundraiser-circuit city liberals can afford them? Perhaps.  But still, this media personality speaks more to your average Chiefs fan (even if beer commercials try to convince us this is an average Chiefs fan).  I mean, do these guys look like they think Tina Fey is even a little hot?

This advertizing campaign makes only slightly less sense than “From the fifty, anything’s possible.”  That slogan at least symbolizes the grand mistake of Scott Pioli and Todd Haley, who actually thought they had an 8-8 team.  A more honest Chiefs promo would have Trace Adkins baritoning “Backed up against goal line, anything is possible.”

From a distance, it seems like the Promotions Department has no idea what to do with this crappy football team, so they’re just entertaining themselves.  Fair enough, and more power to them.  I can’t wait for KC Wolf to go back to community college or become head of Kansas City Parks and Recreation.




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