Robert Altman, Kill the Moonlight, and The Family Stone

In which the recent Oscar winner sneaks one by the studio.

The Robert Altman Collection

Fox, $39.98

In the 1990s, Robert Altman kvetched to me about Stephen Bochco getting credit for popularizing overlapping dialogue, when, of course, he's the one who popularized it in M*A*S*H. His recent lifetime achievement Oscar should spur sales of this four-disc box set. Although, let's admit up front, only his most maniacal fans will watch the numbing 1979 Paul Newman sci-fi experiment Quintet; more may enjoy the loopy 1978 ensemble comedy A Wedding; and a few fewer may like the peculiar 1979 musical A Perfect Couple.

The real value here is the director's commentary for the anarchic, zoom-happy, gloriously gory M*A*S*H (1970), more a document of its rebellious times than the Korean War of the 1950s. Altman explains that he, the studio's "16th choice" for director, only got away with it because "the studio was fighting three wars." Preoccupied by Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton, executives didn't notice Altman's subversive "drive-in movie." Shocked by his apparently formless method and rip-up-the-Ring-Lardner-script improv by the newbie supporting cast, stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland secretly tried to get him fired for ruining their careers.

They didn't know what to make of the messy aesthetic of Altman's party-hearty set. "It was a very mad set," says Seattle's own Tom Skerritt, a veteran of Altman's TV Combat episodes who nabbed the third-banana role. Yet there was method in the madness: Altman labored for a mucky look and medically accurate blood spurts. When Sally Kellerman's reaction in the shower scene was inadequate, Altman shot it again while he and Gary "Radar" Burghoff stripped naked alongside the camera to prompt a better reaction.

The trademark theme song (by Altman's son) and loudspeaker announcements were afterthoughts, he tells us. The studio's steady stream of stupid orders perfectly fit the clueless authoritarian spirit of the actual 1950s military announcements that alternate with Korean pop tunes in the movie. "We were actually using the kind of ridiculous memos they were sending—we would use those as loudspeaker announcements in the film," says Altman.

Appropriately, his next rich stew of voices and songs takes place during a live radio broadcast—his adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion, which opens here June 9.

Kill the Moonlight

Plexifilm, $24.98

Get out the bong, cough syrup, or beer, because only an altered state of mind is going to make you appreciate this newly unearthed oddity. Although you can tell that Moonlight writer/director/producer/editor Steven Hanft tried to frame his shots like Diane Arbus (or so he says in a bonus interview), the results don't hang together in a well-curated, organized manner. To be fair, there are some wonderfully wistful images of doughnuts, spilled syringes, and decaying lots that help even sober viewers get a glimpse of what Hanft was hoping to make in the early '90s: an art-house film with a white-trash vibe.

The story follows the clueless Chance, a down-on-his-luck race-car driver. (FYI, Chance was the inspiration for Beck's song "Loser"; Beck and Hanft used to be in a band together—along with the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants.) Chance (Thomas Hendrix) has long, scraggly hair and normally dresses in a Kiss T-shirt and pants that lace up the sides, appropriate to the film's drive-in '70s vibe. The plot basically involves his trying to make enough money to fix up his prized Camaro. He works odd jobs, picks up cans, and even turns to petty theft. Indeed, he's a loser, and Hanft also directed the video for "Loser," which included clips from Moonlight.

Since then, Hanft has worked with the Cure, Primal Scream, Spoon, and others. Chance may not have turned his life around, but at least Hanft (and Beck) have moved on to better things.

The Family Stone

Fox, $29.98

Can somebody please get John Madden in here? I need one of those X and O diagrams with play-by-play arrows to keep track of the Stones. Uptown, uptight bitch Sarah Jessica Parker gets a chilly New England reception when Dermot Mulroney brings her home to his family's weathered colonial for the annual Christmas get-together. Park Avenue power suit meets toxic liberals.

Mulroney's Stone family siblings and Stone sibling issues begin appearing faster than business cards at a networking event. Which of the five is deaf? In a gay interracial relationship? Married to a deadbeat husband? Who does that brother want to hook up with in this scene? And why the heck are they so mean to Sarah Jessica, anyway? Haven't they watched Sex and the City? (Oh, that's right, they're liberals—they only watch PBS.) Mayhem ensues. Predictable mayhem, but for one tearjerker turn.

Happily, the DVD extras emphasize the movie's real asset: the cast. We see how the big-name smorgasbord of Parker, Mulroney, Rachel McAdams, Claire Danes, Craig T. Nelson, and Luke Wilson amassed easily after Diane Keaton signed on. They joke about the experience in a Q&A. More underwhelming is the Parker/Mulroney commentary. At one point, she runs out of time to say what she "really likes about this scene," so she leaves it up to "your imagination." Huh? As with much of Stone, that's where I needed help clarifying things—up there on the movie screen.

 
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