Tuesday, April 24, 2007


"Hooray for Hollywood"

I saw a new print of Robert Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE, his adaptation of Raymond Chandler's last novel, starring Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe. The movie is getting a lot of attention lately as an overlooked masterpiece, an attitude which I'm afraid I can only see as having more to do with belated respect for a recently deceased auteur than the actual quality of the film itself.

The story, such as it is, centers on Elliot Gould's Marlowe, who finds himself being investigated after helping a friend of his, one Terry Lennox, cross the border into Mexico. It turns out that Lennox is accused of murdering his wife, and stealing money, and nobody (the cops, some almost amusing reimagined-for-the-1970s gangsters) wants to believe that Marlowe knows as little about what's going on as he does. There's a major sequence involving Marlowe's aborted investigation into the doings of a rather unstable novelist and his wife (who, in typical Chandler fashion, are involved with the departed Lennox and his deceased wife) and so on and so on.

The plot isn't really the point. The point is Altman's personal filmmaking style, as idiosyncratic as any in movies. The delight in actors acting (both good and bad) and Altman's roving camera are what the film is really about, and there are some wonderful moments. A remarkable scene involving a character's late night suicide on the beach, wandering off into the blackest ocean imaginable, is like something out of Kurosawa, and there's a wonderful cameo by an actress who delivers one of the most moving depictions of fear I've ever seen in a movie.

Is there enough to make the film worthwhile? Yeah. See it once. You might want to see it more than once, as I do, mainly to watch Sterling Hayden's performance and to try to see if the plot makes any sense at all. The problem, as with a lot of Altman's films, is the smart-assery that he just can't seem to resist. Altman simply never met a cheap joke that he didn't love. That goddamn title song that keeps popping up over and over and over and over and over again, even as a tune played on someone's doorbell, starts as an intriguing joke on the idea of movie theme songs but eventually just gets annoying. And there's the allegedly ironic use of "Hooray for Hollywood" at the opening and closing of the film. Okay, it kind of works to call attention to the artifice of old Hollywood versus the allegedly updated more realistic film that Altman seems to think he's providing. But Altman's ending is more movie-friendly than Chandler's ending. Chandler's novel ends with a real cynicism and despair, a real non-Hollywood ending that Altman's smart-assery just can't come anywhere near.
Or did I miss the point?

No comments: