Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Altman pretender

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2001)

Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Claim, a Western set in the snow of the 1870’s Sierra Nevadas, is regarded by some as one of the best films of the year – a premise that’s often been articulated by reference to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The two films certainly have a similar setting and general look, and there’s a broad parallel in some of the characters and themes, but I think this comparison represents an even greater misappropriation of Altman’s name than the recent comparisons between Traffic and Nashville.

Robert Altman

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was completely convincing as an evocation of time and place, full of fascinating characters and incidents, and dense in meaning and allusion, The notes I made when I last saw it are barely coherent to me now (the movie rather overwhelms your faculties), but they’re certainly gushing – Altman contrasts romantic idealism with entrepreneurial excesses, the stuff of legend and fable with pragmatism and calculation, the brutally clear with the mistily mystic. And just as in Nashville, he engineers a staggering finale, contrasting the death of McCabe with the effort to save a burning church, suggesting that community and symbolism – however embryonic – might provide a better basis for endurance than capitalism. Not that anything about the film is that straightforward.

As Altman films go, The Claim reminded me not of McCabe as much as of Quintet, his weird 1979 science-fiction thriller in which an icy city of the future is obsessed by a murderous game. Quintet stars Paul Newman, but resolutely resists the actor’s charisma: the notional dramatic highlights are wantonly understaged, and the film as a whole is distinctly off-putting, although not without a modestly persuasive, depressed vision of humanity. In the end, Newman heads off into the frozen waste, despite being told he’ll freeze there, and the camera watches him for a long long time as he recedes into the whiteness, balancing the similarly extended beginning (except that at the outset he was accompanied by a pregnant lover who’s killed during the course of the film) and suggesting that the film is primarily about emptiness and negation.

Victory over the elements

Accurately or not, Quintet looks like one of Altman’s rush jobs, as though he needed the money, but it seems to me that even this minor work provides greater satisfaction than Winterbottom’s film (which I take to be a conscious attempt to make a masterpiece). As The Claim begins, the wagon train brings into the remote town of Kingdom Come a party of railway surveyors. If they choose to bring the railroad through town, riches will follow. The town is run as the feudal property of its Scottish founder, a man who’s already made a fortune from gold, and dreams of more to come. Years earlier, as a struggling young immigrant, he sold his young wife and baby to a prospector in exchange for the land claim that would provide the root of his riches. Now the woman is dying and the child is a young adult, and they’ve arrived on the same wagon train in search of him.

Based on Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, the story provides an odd, unpredictable group of character dynamics in a volatile setting. America is in its infancy here, still discovering itself day by day, possessed by energy and ambition; Kingdom Come, however, is perpetually covered in snow, as if in premature hibernation, and every human contact is like a small victory over the elements. Winterbottom emphasizes the uncertain and evolving nature of the community here: for example, Milla Jovovich’s character is both a brothel keeper and as respectable a figure as there is in town.

I can’t decide whether or not Jovovich is an interesting actress. She seemed so in Million Dollar Hotel, and her conviction in the derided Joan of Arc epic The Messenger was largely persuasive. For now at least, she’s finding parts which render her stylistic flatness mysterious, even challenging. At best though, she seems to me to represent a limited avenue of investigation (to admit a predisposition that may color my opinion here, she doesn’t strike me as a great beauty either, contrary to reputation). Nastassja Kinski, on the other hand, has fascinated me for her entire career (and it’s astonishing to realize we’re talking about more than two decades there). The Claim essentially casts Kinski as the woman of the past and Jovovich as that of the future, which I think is quite a problem in itself.

Personal tragedy

Neither of these actresses is a particularly robust personality, and not really is anyone else in the cast. The characterizations are muted and largely distant – a far cry from the presence of Beatty and Christie in McCabe. In Mullan’s case, this seriously undercuts the personal tragedy that’s supposed to grip the film’s final passages. The intention seems to be to evoke a Lear-like madness, but instead it’s just one man’s folly.

When The Claim depicts the construction of a new town, overseen by Jovovich, one remembers Claudia Cardinale’s similar evolution into a frontier matriarch in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which merely provides another perspective on the limitations of Winterbottom’s film. I sometimes find Leone’s desire for grandeur to be more than individual scenes can bear, but his film’s scope and confidence are unmistakable, and the long final camera pan across the diverse activity of an embryonic new American community is both as striking as documentary and as thrilling as giddy fantasy. The Claim never makes such an impact. It’s not about anything, except what it’s about. It tries to construct structures that might generate classic meanings and allusions, like McCabe, but seems to end up aimlessly shuffling the cards, like Quintet.

Michael Winterbottom is a remarkably versatile film director, apparently adopting a different style and outlook for just about every movie he makes, and that usually works fine for small-scale British movies. Personally I thought Welcome to Sarajevo was overrated, and I Want You underrated, but these are not issues that are likely to get too many people’s blood boiling. Even if The Claim were one of the year’s best films, at best I think the case would come down to a happy accident. Whereas Robert Altman, for all his love of chaos and sprawling canvases, has never been anything other than deliberate.

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