The Twin Geeks 163: Robert Altman – Short Cuts & Long Goodbyes, Part 5

Altman’s continued trend of adapting stage plays into feature films proceeded into the end of the ’80s with mixed successes. On one hand there were films like Secret Honor (1984), a scaled-back character study of a fictional Richard Nixon contemplating on the missteps and bitter grudges of his tumultuous political career, carried by an astounding one-man performance from Phillip Baker Hall. On the other you have something like Fool for Love (1985), an oddball testimony of toxic relationships that occasionally dips into the surreal and esoteric, with no clear reasoning or well-defined characters to ground its unaccountable departures. He did make at least one studio film between now and his eventual Hollywood comeback, a supposed satire on the burgeoning teen comedy genre called O.C. and Stiggs (1985), based on a beloved National Lampoon article from the time. Altman himself considered it a total failure, and the questionable politics and sensibilities of the story somewhat call into question the sensitive and socially intuitive Altman we thought we knew from a few films back.

And if that doesn’t assure you completely of his lack of consideration for marginalized characters, then the unmitigated offenses of Beyond Therapy (1987) will surely remind you that the ’80s were a time bereft of needed allies. Fear not, though, as promises of the breakthrough to come manifest in a television mini series he did with Tim Roth and Paul Rhys on the life of Vincent van Gogh that was later truncated and released theatrically, appropriately called Vincent and Theo (1990). There’s something about the tragic arc of the famous Dutch artist’s failed career that fascinates us cinematically. He’s been the subject of so many films, even to this day. It seems only natural that as individual an artist as Altman would take a stab at capturing his life and emotions on celluloid, with greater insight and sensitivity towards his plight than most other hagiographic renderings have lent him.

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