Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Goodbye Robert Altman, Hello Béla Tarr

by Ryland Walker Knight

Yesterday, around noon, I finished my mindless temp assignment early and went into my gmail to print off a timesheet. There I found Matt's email about Robert Altman's passing. My brow furrowed and my head cocked to the side. This is real? Wow. That's sad. I didn't have time to process as I was using my boss' computer (they didn't have one for me, I was constructing press release packages all day). So I left the office and walked a couple blocks to the Elliot Bay Book Company in a haze, aimless, not really processing that news about Altman. Luckily, I found the store and bought Allison an early Xmas present, which I immediately regretted having gift wrapped. The wait for the bus was interminable and windy; I drained my Nalgene bottle.

Riding through downtown I stared out the window, instead of reading like usual, and thought about what I might offer in eulogy. We turned north towards Seattle Center and the sky was black behind the Space Needle, crowded by a massive, ugly thunderhead. The rain didn't start until we were in Wallingford, turning onto 40th Street, and only got heavier by the time I paid my $1.25 and exited the bus holding my raincoat over the bag from Elliot Bay. I ran down Sunnyside and up the driveway and through the door, down home.

After peeling my layers and hiding the gift in a drawer I, naturally, went to the computer, to the internet, to Keith's moving memorial over on The House. I realized I didn't need to offer a summation of his life -- it had been done by so many already -- and offered a comment with "a few moments that illuminated him for me, raising him above the throwaway label of 'condescending hauteur':

1. First, of course, is McCabe telling his Mrs Miller "I've got poetry in me" only to be shot dead in the snow while she tokes opium in the hazy den down the hillside. Perhaps the most genuine of saddest film moments I've witnessed.

2. Lyle Lovett's resigned apology in SHORT CUTS. While it did not bowl me over as in the Carver story that inspired the film moment, Lovett's (non-)performance underscores both men's tact of taking on life. Sometimes, you swallow your monster pride and offer a small, good thing to those in need. SHORT CUTS is no small matter but there is a heart underneath its bleak posturing. I remain faithful to the Carver works but the film feels a precise conflation of the two artists, negating any niggling by the literary fan in me. Plus, the cast is damn impressive.

3. The humor of Shelly Duvall's skirt perpetually caught in her car door in 3 WOMEN. Oh how Stanley spoiled her...imagine the roles she would have had had she not been subjected to such treatment on the set of THE SHINING. Then again, we wouldn't have the same SHINING we know and love today...but that's besides the point here. The point is there was a time when her flippant line readings meant something and this detail, observed again and again, illustrates her abilities to portray a dolt with precision and passion and empathy. Forget Pinky, it's Duvall's Millie that loses this battle.

I was sadder still. It surprised me how low I felt. I've never been the biggest Altman fan, as friends know, but recently I've acknowledged he was, as Baudelaire would say, a true poet, and we're all poorer for his passing. Now I just have to make good on that and watch CALIFORNIA SPLIT and THE COMPANY and maybe re-watch NASHVILLE at some point soon. But, first, I will undoubtedly watch MCCABE again and surrender to my emotions.

I walked to my other job in the misting rain with two hoods ontop of my A's hat, my eyes on the ragged pavement. It felt all too appropriate. Then I entered the Metro and saw the fresh delivery of The Northwest Film Forum's new Winter Schedule. Right on the front page is a splash image from SATANTANGO -- the same one that adorns the cover to Facets' DVD release (due out Nov. 28th, for those in the know) -- announcing the upcoming series, The Harmonic Resonance of Béla Tarr. You gotta be kidding me! It was my own early Xmas present. I will be able to see, at the least, SATANTANGO in a cinema auditorium for the first time. There is a snag, though, of course. My mother is due to arrive for a visit on those three days it is playing. She may already have plans to hang out with my godbrother on Saturday, so it makes sense to forfeit that day to the endeavor, but I do want to spend time with her as well, having not seen her in a year. The trick will be to convince her this is necessary for my return to school and my plans for an Honors Thesis all about sculpting in time. (Whadduya say, Mom?)

I was so giddy at this news that I didn't let the scheduling of yet another Mizoguchi retrospective after I leave another city get me down. There will be a time and a place for me to devour his oeuvre. It even made me forget about how saddened I was by Mr Altman's death until I brought it up with Mike, who just moved and does not have the internet at home yet. I decided to forgo sadness for the remainder of the shift and enjoy those around me. That's what life's for, right? Right, except for when there's a seven hour Hungarian opus to take in...


  1. Man, you are pure cinema. When will you grab time to see Soul Plane?

  2. Wow. Satantango and a Mizoguchi retrospective?

    I'm excited, depressed and annoyed, all at the same time.

  3. And this week they're playing Days Of Heaven in a new 35mm print.


  4. mom is coming...

  5. Wish I was living in Seattle!!!! 3 Beta Tarr movies - you fortunate people.

    Satantango is a grand masterpiece - very uplifting despite its dire settings. You're crazy not to experience it.
    d-j from L.A.