Thursday, January 06, 2011

Thieves Like Us

Robert Altman had a fantastic run of success in the 1970s. No one could touch him. He was the king of independent cinema. Every movie was both fresh and familiar, partly because Altman was often (if not always) trying to demolish one genre after the other. Whether it was a war movie (M*A*S*H) or a western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or a private eye film noir (The Long Goodbye), he always brought his own jaundiced sensibility. The tradition ends here, he seemed to be saying.

The same goes for Thieves Like Us, which I watched again recently for the first time in several years. What struck me about it was something that had escaped me before: that Altman was doing the same thing all over again, taking a well-recognized genre, this time the gangster film, and scrapping every one of its conventions. Forget all that business about sweaty, brutal desperadoes on the run, knocking over banks and killing people before they meet their brutal fate at the hands of the law.

Actually, all that does happen, but Altman's game is to take this whole form just a little less seriously, to take it down a notch. The thieves here live in their own universe and the law barely figures into the story at al until the end. The usual story simply doesn't interest him and as is often the case in an Altman film our own interest comes from the fact that he is going a different direction altogether.

Take, for example, the beginning: a long slow shot of a prison work farm that drifts over a lake where a couple of men are rowing a boat. The viewer does not immediately know that these two -- Bowie (Keith Carradine) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen) -- are escaping from prison, and once you catch on you wonder why the movie isn't a little more aggressive about making the point. They seem a little nervous, but not particularly concerned about getting caught. They get out of the boat and wait for a pre-arranged ride from the third of their trio, Chickamaw (John Schuck), who has hoodwinked Jazzbo, a hapless pot dealer (apparently they existed back then) into providing transportation. Once they carjack Jazzbo, they change into new and ill-fitting clothes, and discard their prison stripes on the side of the road.

Isn't that kind of a bad idea, you think -- just leaving them there, tipping off the authorities? Well, that's the kind of movie it is. They do a lot of dumb things, but the cops barely exist. As our three thieves veer between several domestic hideaways, they are, oh, a little concerned about getting nailed by the authorities, but more concerned with making plans for their next heist, and which of the three gets the biggest play in the newspaper. You could, quite possibly, wonder just what kind of universe these three and their families are living in; shouldn't they be fretting anxiously? That would be a different kind of movie altogether, like maybe They Live by Night, which is adapted from the same novel.

In this movie, far from the usual gangster film, there is nothing glamourous about these bank robbers, and their dialogue is not tough, hard-boiled and witty. They are loud, crass characters and their jokes are always stupid. Also, there's no crackling tension to the story, at least not until the last 30 minutes or so, but that's not a mark against it. It moves at its own slow, dreamy rhythm, a little less concerned with plot than with the world in which these people live, which is another amazing thing about it: by viewing the Depression from the perspective of years, it almost seems more true to the period, more evocative, than the films of its day.

For example, all the way through the film, we hear the sound of the radio: news reports, old serials, orchestras, a dramatization of Romeo and Juliet, interspersed with lots of ads for every new product. The films of the 1930s only used radio to advance the plot; for Altman, it's a part of the plot, a part of the mood. The radio provides the soundtrack of these lives and, along with the newspaper, it helps shape who they are, their idea of themselves.


Nellmezzo said...

Something else from my life that I didn't like when it came out: Altman movies (Tarantino later). I hope I'm not just cluttering up your site this morning, but you have always found ways to enjoy so much that just annoys me. I'm back for more: Why, Rodney, would a man want to say "the genre stops here" ? And why SHOULDN'T we be annoyed, if we love movies?

RW said...

Thanks, Nellmezzo -- Some people ARE annoyed by Altman's movies -- but a lot of movie lovers just see him as someone who is putting new wine in old bottles, which is the way I look at it. He breathes new life into old forms.