Chapter 28: "Dismantling the System From Within: The early films of Robert Altman and the politics of anti-establishment," Jacqui Miller. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy
by Brennan Asbridge
New Hollywood ushered in a new era of filmmaking. With the demise of the big studio system, a new countercultural movement was born, bringing more freedom to filmmaking, and giving more power to directors than ever before. With this new era of filmmaking came a new generation of filmmakers, including names who are still big today like Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese. Among the many faces to come out of the New Hollywood movement was writer and director Robert Altman. Altman rose to prominence with his subversive hit M*A*S*H (1970), a satirical black comedy war film set in the Korean war. Altman was a director who rejected convention, many of his films were of satirical and political nature, and he is remembered for his subversion of genre, natural dialogue through use of improvisation, his use of the zoom lens, and for pioneering overlapping sound. Altman is largely remembered for his work from M*A*S*H onwards, with his voyeuristic aesthetic, exploration of human isolation, and explicit and subtle engagement with politics, but it is obvious that his signature style was present in his earlier films. In this chapter, Jacqui Miller focuses on Altman’s early work The Delinquents (1957), The James Dean Story (1957), Countdown (1968) and That Cold Day in the Park (1969), and how it lays the groundwork for him as an anti-establishment director, and set him up for the rest of his career in New Hollywood and beyond. It is safe to say that Altman’s signature style became apparent well before his mainstream success with M*A*S*H.
The chapter begins by setting up Altman as an anti-establishment director, working within mainstream Hollywood. It is established that for a film to count as political, it must either deal directly with a political subject whilst also subverting traditional depictions of reality, present subject matter which is not expressly political but becomes so by the spectator’s understanding past its surface meaning, or, if it’s a Hollywood product, it dismantles the system from within by apparently endorsing mainstream ideology whilst being ambiguous and presenting a noticeable gap between the starting point and finished product. (Miller pg. 354) Altman has films that hit all of these criteria. Miller says that while these are obvious in his later works like Nashville (1975), but that his distinct style is present in his earlier and much less talked about works.
Miller starts by talking about Altman’s early works, and states that threads of his anti-establishment take are present from the get go. The Delinquents was Altman’s answer to the teenage exploitation films of the 1950s. It tackled the theme, touched on by big budget pictures like Rebel Without a Cause (Ray 1955), of juvenile delinquency, which shifted nicely into his next film: The James Dean Story. This was his first picture to make use of the newly invented zoom lens, which would become a feature of his voyeuristic style. “James Dean explores the cult of celebrity and its dangers, both to the idol and their followers, that would run through many Altman films, most notable Nashville. It also anticipates popular culture’s prolonged fascination with James Dean…” (Miller pg. 356). It also explores the medias role in constructing and transmitting meaning into peoples everyday lives, as the antithesis to peoples individualized existence.
Miller than moves on to the 1968 film Countdown. Altman’s first major studio picture, Countdown can be seen as highly political as it features the space race in the middle of real time cold war paranoia. Miller surmises that it may be left out when talking about Altman’s films because it does not match his later style musically, or visually, however it is worth looking at its influence on his later style in terms of technical style and political commentary. This film also marks his beginning as a so called “actors director”, building relationships with actors and allowing them to improvise, as evidenced by Michael Murphy’s testimony. Countdown is also the first movie in which Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue can be found. “This challenges convention in that the audience is given no clue as to which conversation has pre-eminence, disturbing hierarchies of authority; it also sets up the recurring theme of oppositions- America v. Russia, PR and politics v. the space programme as scientific endeavour, conformity v. individuality- in this case between the astronauts who want to continue and ground control which wants to abort the test”(Miller pg. 358). Altman was actually fired by studio head Jack Warner, after principal photography but before editing, because he took exception to the technique. The movie also deals with conformity, the good of the space programme over the good of the individuals. The film deals also with the futility of the whole space race, in the middle of the cold war, questioning the point of it all, whether it is all for PR or science. After being removed from the film, Altman’s original ending, which was more ambiguous, and honoured the dead Russians who had gotten there first, was swapped out for a more pro-America and less ambiguous ending. The last thing that Miller talks about in regards to Countdown that makes it stand out is Altman’s focus on the astronauts wives, showing them always as supportive, but with drink in hand and clearly stressed about the space endeavour.
Miller continues to Altman’s next film, That Cold Day in the Park, which continues the exploration of the woman’s point of view from Countdown, but with Frances Austen as the focus. Miller believes that this film contains many of the characteristics of New Hollywood, and does not know why M*A*S*H is considered his first real New Hollywood film. That Cold Day focuses on Frances Austen’s obsession with the boy from the park, whom she invites home and keeps locked in her apartment. The film deals with class and money, and instead of subverting the whole genre of physiological thriller on its head, is instead turning the tables on the normal gender roles that usually occur in these films. That Cold Day carefully curates Altman’s voyeuristic aesthetic with the use of the zoom lens, and continues the theme of the solitude of the human condition, both of which are found in much of his work. The whole film is also unusual in its exploration of the female point of view, whereas most films of the era focused on male angst and presented women as emotional satellites. Miller finishes off her point on That Cold Day: “Although not directly exploring a topic as explicitly political as the space race, it is immersed in a countercultural milieu of anti-establishment, anti-authoritarianism that is only hinted at in Countdown, and is all the more impactful because its central protagonist transitions from a highly repressed to a transgressive young woman” (Miller pg. 362).
The chapter ends by concluding that all of Robert Altman’s anti-establishment tendencies were well in place before M*A*S*H, and the they should be included in the study of his work.
Miller’s chapter was an interesting read, and I found myself agreeing with most of her points, but not with her thesis overall. I think that off the top the title of the chapter is slightly misleading, I thought she would be focusing more on the anti-establishment threads in Altman’s early work and how that was dismantling the system from within rather than why his early works should be considered along with the rest of his body of work as anti-establishment. I agree that That Cold Day in the Park should be included in discussions about Altman’s body of New Hollywood work. It embodies his style, it includes his preference for character study over plot, it has subtle political threads running through it, it encapsulates his voyeuristic aesthetic, and it includes his signature zoom lens. However I can understand why it might be looked over, as a small film for a Canadian studio it was not a big picture seen by a lot of people, which may justify exclusion before studying his works with mainstream success. I also disagreed with her point about it subverting the male gaze, which I think is irrelevant, while the point of view and the voyeurism in this film is clearly Frances Austen watching the boy, the camera remains from the main point of view, and still lingers on the nakedness of his sister, not the boy. With Countdown, I am in less agreement that it need be studied as part of his New Hollywood works. I think you can definitely see the beginnings of his style, but overall I think Countdown was underwhelming. You can see the his voyeuristic aesthetic in the shots with the wives standing in doorways watching their husbands, and especially in the shots of Chiz watching Lee in the simulator. It also clearly includes the theme of human isolation, not only in sending Lee into space alone, but in the isolation that the wives feel living on the base. Where Countdown fails for me is that it does not quite deliver on either characters or plot. Altman much preferred a study of characters over plot in a film, but Countdown does not successfully dive into the astronauts as characters, they come across as very surface level, which would not have been a problem had the plot been enticing, like in a movie like All the Presidents Men (Alan J. Pakula 1976) where we never learn a lot about the reporters, but the story is enticing. However perhaps it would have been different had he not been removed from the project before editing, which is also why I think this can’t be properly included in his body of work because he did not have control over the final product. When it comes to The Delinquents and The James Dean Story I think it is clear that they are not included as they were made about a decade before the New Hollywood era began. Overall I agree that Altman’s early works are worth studying as they clearly show the beginning’s of his style, but I do not think they should be included as part of his New Hollywood canon.
This chapter focused on the early works of Robert Altman and why they should be included in the study of his New Hollywood work. Miller talks about the voyeuristic aesthetic, the theme of human solitude, and the anti-establishment spirit that runs through all of Altman’s work, including his early films, therefore they should be included in the study of his New Hollywood work. Miller proves her point that these films are valid to be studied as they do show the beginnings of Altman’s style, but I do agree that they all deserve to be included in his New Hollywood body of work.
Miller, J. (2016). Dismantling the System From Within: The early films of Robert Altman and the politics of anti-establishment. In The Routledge Companion to Cinema & Politics (pp. 354-363). New York, NY: Routledge.