Saturday, November 21, 2009
You Let The Moment Fly
As anyone who knows the film well might realize, the idea of a special screening of Robert Altman’s masterpiece THE LONG GOODBYE at the Hammer Museum in Westwood Village was very appropriate if only because the museum is located by the corner of Wilshire & Westwood, situated exactly where Elliott Gould’s Phillip Marlowe chases after the Mercedes driven by Nina van Pallandt’s Eileen Wade late in the film. No way I was going to pass that up. The screening seems to have been held in conjunction with a recent donation from Altman’s family to UCLA including the very print we were seeing that evening. I suppose there was a function held before the screening which I did not attend but did see several people who seem to have come from there. Soon after I arrived and waiting to be let in I spotted Elliott Gould, there for a post-film discussion, lurking around near the edges of the Hammer’s courtyard almost unnoticed. All I could think was, there’s Phillip Marlowe, right there. I chose not to disturb him. Incidentally, the actor just guest-starred on LAW & ORDER and it was kind of nice seeing NBC trumpet him in the promos. Once inside the Billy Wilder Theater, I soon realized that the great Vilmos Zsigmond, the legendary cinematographer on the film, was sitting right behind me. Sitting behind him was Paul Dooley, familiar from a million things, and I could hear him chatting with Zsigmond about the Robert Altman films he had appeared in—When I heard, “We were there for six months, we had Fellini’s crew,” it was easy to figure that he was talking about POPEYE. A number of other familiar people were there and I have a feeling I missed a few but Lauren Hutton was somewhere in the row in front of me and shortly before the film started I spotted Sally Kellerman walking around the packed theater looking for an open seat, a sight which seemed rather…Altmanesque. The film started soon enough (and I noticed she had indeed found a seat) and we were treated to a beautiful-looking print of a film that I’ve already seen numerous times and still can never get enough of. I might watch my DVD again before the night is through.
What exactly is it about THE LONG GOODBYE? It was somewhat notoriously hated at the time of release, trashed by fans of the detective genre with the Maltin book proclaiming that “Altman’s attitude toward the genre borders on contempt,” in terms of the film's unorthodox approach to adapting Raymond Chandler's novel. But by this point in time the film has achieved acclaim as at least a minor classic and to some people something considerably more, one that they are genuinely attached to. I know I am. The audience in the Billy Wilder Theater was clearly at least partly made up of the faithful, judging from the laughter heard right at the start as Marlowe lit his first cigarette of the movie, of course the first of many. The feeling was that everyone was settling in, ready to follow this version of the character through his travails one more time as he navigates this early 70s version of Los Angeles. Over 35 years after it was made, it seems as mysterious to the stranded-from-the-40s Phillip Marlowe as 2009 Los Angeles can seem to anyone who finds themselves there and wonders how they’re supposed to be acting from day to day. The film seems designed for anyone who has found themselves at a party like the (admittedly pretty groovy looking) beachfront barbecue that the Wades are throwing for their presumed friends who have turned up from I don’t know where. Marlowe has nothing to say to any of them, they take no interest in him and the only one who does show any interest is the dog who never stops barking in his direction—he must know something about the cat.
I’ve seen the film enough times by now that I don’t need to spend too much time thinking about the plot so instead I pay attention to various moments that make that much more of an impression when seen on the big screen. Marlowe’s reaction to the dried apricot Eileen Wade tosses him, Henry Gibson’s Dr. Verringer laying the slap on Sterling Hayden at the third “Write the CHECK, Roger,” Jack Riley’s careful rehearsing on the piano in the bar and that almost unspeakably horrific look on Nina van Pallandt’s face just before Sterling Hayden shouts “BALLS!” at her. Not to mention the continued rewards at studying Elliott Gould’s face throughout, wondering how much he’s actually revealing to someone he’s talking to, wondering how much things really are ok with him as he always says. As well as every conceivable version of the main theme famously heard at every possible point during the film (favorite unheralded version: the one heard on sitar wafting over from the girls next door outside of Marlowe’s pad, but the rendering performed by the marching band down in Mexico is strangely haunting), that one song that sticks in your head in this town, just like that girl that you never seem to forget even years after the first time you spend a few minutes desperately trying to just talk to her. Although one or two things still bug me a little even now: when we jump from the late night crime scene at the beach to Marlowe being dragged into Marty Augustine’s office, how much time has passed? An hour? A day? A week? It doesn’t matter, I suppose.
I read the Chandler book maybe over ten years ago so memories are vague but the basic plot of the novel is in the film and structure wise the changes made aren’t necessarily any greater from how most 379 page books are ever adapted down to a two hour running time. It makes me think that screenwriter Leigh Brackett, the legend who had worked with Howard Hawks on THE BIG SLEEP and RIO BRAVO, deserves more credit than she has ever received for her work here and even if the actors tossed out the script (or used it as a loose outline in a way that maybe something like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is now put together) it feels like Altman always had it in mind—if he was going to verge from it, he at least knew what he was verging from. It could be one reason why this film is so much stronger than certain other Altman films which don’t already have such a strong spine in place (I guess something like PRET-A-PORTER comes to mind). And it’s all in the service of not the two mysteries that Phillip Marlowe stumbles into which become one but the greater meaning of what it all means in the end. Friends betray you (“That’s what friends are for,” as someone says near the very end), women toss you aside as they drive off with “LOV YOU” on their license plate and you’re left with that memory with them still lingering in the air as you wonder what happened—the long goodbye.
And I find myself looking forward to the performances of everyone in front of the camera caught by the eye of Altman and Zsigmond, whether Sterling Hayden and Nina van Pallandt in their scenes with Gould or David Arkin muttering “I remember when people just had jobs,” Mark Rydell’s ferocious pragmatism as Marty Augustine, Ken Samson’s guard at the gate of the Malibu Colony (“I just don’t understand why I don’t understand,”) or Jo Ann Brody’s ultra-innocent Sharon Tate-ness as Augustine’s girl who has no idea what she’s in for as she asks for a Coke. Naturally, there was audience laughter at the Billy Wilder Theater as Arnold Schwarzenegger made his silent appearance as one of the goons (Altman’s proud declaration on the DVD that “Arnold never speaks of this film” was proven untrue when our Governor did just that in the official statement released at the time of the director’s death). And instead of going on for pages about the work of the lead actor here, in his first film after returning from working for Bergman, I’ll simply say that almost more so than any other screen work by an actor that I’ve ever seen, Elliott Gould gives the performance of a free man and the only example that ever needs to be offered of how good he was. I wish I could somehow be this free.
The post-film discussion with the star and Mitchell Zukoff, author of the recent “Robert Altman – An Oral Biography” (recommended) got into how Gould got involved with the film and also touched on his starring roles MASH and CALIFORNIA SPLIT (the only other times Altman and Gould worked together, not counting a few cameos). Gould talked about specifics of the production a little bit, including how he almost drowned while shooting the late night scene out in the Malibu surf and then after that they did two more takes. The talk perhaps revealed how for Gould it seems to sometimes be difficult to put the improvisatory nature of the specifics of working with Altman into words but enough of the feeling got across and more importantly he was able to express what Altman who he referred to as a “force of nature” and how he was able to provide all the creative people he worked with “life”. As a sort of summation late in the evening when trying to express how they worked together Gould simply stated, “Bob deserves all the credit.” Not much else needed to be said after that.
This is all rambling, I know, maybe kind of like the film. Maybe there’s no way to fully put into words what the work of Robert Altman and Elliott Gould here means to me and all I can do is look forward to someday getting the chance to express that by showing it to someone who’s never seen it. And I hope she likes it too. After a lousy day earlier this week all I could really do at the end was let that Williams/Mercer theme song into my head and say to myself, “It’s ok with me,” as I walked off from the day alone, imagining myself in my own homage to the end of THE THIRD MAN. No one was around to hear me when I said that, but that doesn’t really matter. When it comes right down to it, I think I love this film so much that I don’t even want to tell you. And, let it always be said, Hooray For Hollywood.