Reflections on Altman – narrative structure for a 72?

I haven’t fallen off the planet. There has been loads of life admin stuff and I’ve been researching lots about Robert Altman. If you remember, I was looking into Altman as we felt like his style would be a fun way to approach a possible 72 project in Derry. I’d previously seen The Player and M*A*S*H in about 1998, but I realised that 1998 was 15 years ago, so I revisited them with a few more movies. I’m going to take this opportunity to go through my notes. If you are interested in the trajectory that a 72 thought process goes in, read on. If not, you should probably stop the bus here and get off.

In total, I watched seven movies. Two were the revisited M*A*S*H and The Player. I also watched Nashville, Short CutsPrêt-à-Porter and Gosford Park. The seventh film was a documentary called Luck, Trust & Ketchup, about the making of Short Cuts. I didn’t go back to Popeye, having seen it in the 1990’s and thinking it pretty much falls outside the remit of this research, and 3 Women is still on the pile to watch. I also read extracts from Altman on Altman from my Projections 2 journal.

The main focus was the narrative structure of some of these films. Most specifically, I was searching to see how he handled the ensemble cast projects, like Nashville, Short Cuts, Pret and Gosford Park. These had no distinguishable protagonists, preferring to show vignettes of different characters who intertwine around different themes. For example, Nashville was country music scene with the reappearing election bus and Short Cuts was television and the repeated medfly crisis. This is appealing for a 72 project, because it would be advantageous to have no lead protagonists who have to carry the majority of scenes on their shoulders. In other words, actors could sleep! The problem is the intersection, whereby the characters overlap. Gosford Park is very static and appealing for a 72, but it defeats the object of capturing Derry exteriors as a character in the movie. Nashville has no central location, or Short Cuts, but the characters intertwine through the storyline. This is trickier but still possible.

In his own words, Altman imagined the narrative structure of the ensemble films to be like a washing line, whereby there was a loose linear thread which had characters hanging off of it and creating digressions of their own. These characters are not necessarily bound by logical behaviours or causality. They could interact in different ways that created an ambiguous impression rather than a ‘hero’s journey’. This is the absolute opposite of how Watching & Waiting and The Ballad of Des & Mo were constructed. In both of those films the narrative structure progressed from scene to scene governed by necessity. Altman did not believe that this was realistic and preferred to subvert this approach. I respect this, but I have a few reservations. The first is that not all characters are equally stimulating, which leads the audience to have preferences and they lull when the boring character is on. Altman combatted this through short scenes, so that you can never really get bored. This leads to my second reservation. Altman’s style eats ideas. It requires tonnes of storylines, all intertwining, which is probably why people love his films. They are so original through the sheer level of ideas that are going on simultaneously, let alone the power of their juxtaposition. It cannot be underestimated how many ideas are crammed into these films. Using Short Cuts as an example; a boy is run down by a stranger and is later hospitalised, a man is sexually repressed whilst his wife speaks dirty to phone sex clients, three fishermen find a dead body in a river. These are all storylines in their own right that could hold an entire film by themselves, but they are only a part of the complexity of Short Cuts. Altman developed these stories loosely and asked for input from his actors to develop them further. This is great if you have time. Which we don’t, so it is a challenge to replicate. But we like a challenge.

I’ll reflect upon his visual and editing styles soon. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

James

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