3.10.2017

From the archives: "Working the room"


When I wrote the following review of Gosford Park sometime in early winter, 2002, I had only seen a couple of other Robert Altman films: Nashville, Cookie’s Fortune, and maybe also Short Cuts and The Player, all on smeary VHS tapes that cropped most of the actors out of frame and suffered from such muddy sound mixing that it was impossible to catch the nuances of the dialogue.  In spite of that, I was already an Altman fan.  But seeing Gosford Park in the theater, projected on a big screen in its proper aspect ratio, with decent speakers, I was finally able to see and hear what made his films so special: the vast canvases of people circling each other, and the steady stream of talk—dumb talk, witty talk, come-ons and insults and awkward stammers and barbed quips and subtle evasions.  I loved Gosford Park immediately.  It’s still one of my favorite of Altman’s films; putting in the DVD to take screen captures for this post, I was tempted to re-watch the whole thing.  As I mentioned previously, I was a die-hard “Paulette” at this point in my life, and that shows in the writing here (I still am, of course, but I like to think I no longer ape the style of Ms. Kael’s prose so obviously):

“Altman divides the action between the wealthy guests ‘above stairs’ (refined, quietly loathing one another, gossiping to no end) and the crew of servants below (tireless, embittered, gossiping to no end)—the result is largely comical, and Altman is right to see it all as one big circus, despite the adultery and the murder and the secrets.  He’s too smart to get preachy or even serious now, and too smart to think that we would fall for it, especially coming from him.  It was thirty years ago that he tripped the country music business flat on its face, and now he’s still busy finding farce in the communion of group activities, taking down the pretty masks to unveil the ghouls.  The intimate scenes in his movies are no match for his crowds, because he’s more of a people person than an artist tortured with introversion.  Altman’s genius has always been working the room to catch the silliness, the great stupid irony of it all; he lost in his last films [e.g. Cookie’s Fortune], and now he’s found it again.  He’s in control, and we can feel it. […]

Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman, 2001).

“It’s strongest in the first half, which culminates in a stunning dinner sequence…As the camera reveals an elegant dining table laid out with all the trimmings, it’s enough to make our mouths water with anticipation, imagining just what will happen when the table fills up with the guests.  And while the lords and their ladies are ambling in with their dinner jackets and gowns, whispering and smoking and shooting glances, sneaking away for affairs in the hallway, the army of servants are cooking and polishing and washing, measuring the distances of the silverware at each place setting.  Thankfully, Altman doesn’t pile on the usual froth about the slaves being nobler than the masters—here, everyone is just as catty and shitty as everyone else.”

Three women: Kirsten Scott-Thomas, Maggie Smith, Kelly MacDonald.
 

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