Beyond Therapy

March 21, 2013

beyondtherapyIf any American director owned the 1970s, it was Robert Altman. Even Woody Allen’s emerging movie work did not have a comparable impact. Altman charted the rudderless course of an anxious time with films that were by turns hip, revisionist, down-to-earth, and arty.

His prolific output peaked with Nashville in 1975, a film that seems more and more worthy of being put in a time capsule, so future generations can figure out what the decade was all about. By 1980, Altman seemed to run out of gas, and lately he’s been turning out adaptations of plays (Fool for Love most recently) that are often fascinating but also marginal. He’s withdrawn from the front lines.

Beyond Therapy continues the series of stage adaptations (Altman and Christopher Durang wrote the script, from Durang’s play). It is an ensemble farce that satirizes the practitioners of psychobabble and their patients. It is also a puzzling and unsatisfying film.

As it opens, Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) meets Prudence (Julie Hagerty) in a French restaurant. They have been brought together by a personals ad. Imagine Prudence’s surprise, then, when Bruce casually mentions his male lover, Bob.

As it happens, Bruce claims to be bisexual, but is looking for marriage with a woman. Naturally, this causes consternation not only to Prudence, but also to Bob (Christopher Guest), who shares an apartment with Bruce.

All of these people talk about their problems with two wacko therapists (Tom Conti and Glenda Jackson) who have adjoining offices. So do a bunch of peripheral characters.

It’s structured something like a classic French farce, but it’s overlaid with a patina of pure put-on. These people are not characters, they’re caricatures, and they behave in inexplicable and irritating ways. No level of sympathy is approached, and you can’t even admire the film on the level of stylization.

Only one scene begins to have life: when Bruce brings Prudence home to his apartment, where Bob is getting very peevish. The strained attempts at civility give the movie its only potent laughs. Christopher Guest, who used to do a similarly swishy character on “Saturday Night Lives,” is actually the only cast member who clicks with the material.

The movie still looks like an Altman film, with the restless visual movement that recalls his ’70s films. But he appears to take Beyond Therapy strictly as a hollow joke—even the setting is a gag; supposedly New York, it’s very obviously filmed in Paris—but comedy is at its best when the stakes are very serious. That’s something you’d think would be remembered by the director who invested the original film of M*A*S*H with so much blood and cruelty.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Is this Altman’s worst movie? I vote yes, but I don’t want to sit through it again to confirm. He was indeed in the midst of his string of play adaptations, but “Tanner ’88” was lurking just around the corner, and the return to first-rate moviemaking.

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Salome’s Last Dance

November 30, 2011

In Salome’s Last Dance, famed bad-boy filmmaker Ken Russell has chosen to take a cameo role for himself, that of a still photographer recording a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome given for the benefit of Wilde himself. Wilde looks at the photographer and declares, “If your acting is as grossly indecent as your photographic studies, we are in for an outrrrageous evening!”

Russell uncorks this bit of self-lampoonery knowing full well that most critics consider the director of Tommy and Altered States as “grossly indecent” a moviemaker as exists on the planet. But the dialogue certainly gets it right: Salome’s Last Dance is another cyclonic phantasmagoria from Russell’s feverish brain—an outrageous evening, indeed. I think it’s a minor film, when all is said and done, but it is at least mounted with high style and good humor (Russell’s previous movie, Gothic, seemed sour and hopeless).

The Salome performance is given in a brothel on a November night in 1892. Wilde (played in a marvelously florid turn by Nickolas Grace) sits on a bower of pillows and watches his play unfold, and occasionally gets in on the peripheral action.

When Russell visited the recent screening of Salome’s Last Dance at the Seattle International Film Festival, he claimed that staging Wilde’s Salome in this manner was the only way to film the play without building elaborate, expensive sets. True, but there’s another, better reason. When Wilde watches his play staged, we see the way it reflects on his own life; he identifies himself as the play’s John the Baptist, and predicts himself betrayed by his homosexual lover just as John is betrayed by Salome.

In the play, John the Baptist is played by Douglas Hodge; Herod by Stratford Johns; Queen Herodias by Glenda Jackson. The actors are ripe, as befits Russell’s scheme, and none is riper than Imogen Millais-Scott, the petite newcomer who plays Salome. Her lilting, breathy delivery is strange and haunting, and her amber eyes flicker with lust, particularly in the ornate temptations she offers the Baptist. What an exuberantly odd performance!

Salome’s Last Dance might well have been a trashy, glitzy exercise in camp were it not for the tragic layer of Wilde’s own life, as suggested in sharp strokes by Russell. The movie may be crammed with gold-painted bodies, bare-breasted servant girls, dancing dwarfs, and a murderous banana peel, but with all of that, as is true of Russell’s best films, there’s more here than meets the eye.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

A maniac of the movies, Ken Russell died a couple of days ago. The man unleashed a few turkeys, but I can testify to the power of seeing Women in Love as a teenager, already aware of the film’s reputation as an Important Art Movie containing a certain raciness. The Eighties were not a great time for his films, although I am an Altered States fan, but this is a mad little item I somehow saw twice in its Seattle Film Festival and regular-run appearances. Between viewings someone told me that leading lady Imogen Millais-Scott was blind, which certainly gives an unusual dimension to watching the movie. But then all the actors are pitched in a slightly crazed, unreal mode, which seemed to suit Russell just fine. I also like Nickolas Grace; he played Anthony Blanche in the ’81 Brideshead Revisited miniseries, and he nailed the defining-devastating moment when he turns to old friend Charles Ryder to accurately confide that Ryder’s paintings are “tewwible twipe,” despite the fawning of art patrons.