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 He’s withdrawn from the front lines.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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Aria

January 24, 2012

Theresa Russell, in mustache

Even to non-opera buffs, the idea behind Aria must sound fascinating: The movie rounds up 10 distinctive directors, and lets each make a short film to accompany the operatic aria of his choice.

British producer Don Boyd gave the directors no constraints when it came to approach or subject matter. Which means that Aria is essentially an omnibus of high-brow music videos, and a chance for some top-flight filmmakers to flex their muscles. Predictably, what results is a very mixed bag.

There’s a framing story, about an opera singer (John Hurt) entering a theater and preparing for a role. This serves as a bridge between the individual pieces, the first of which is a witty narrative to the strains of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

This is directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), who tells the true story of an assassination attempt on Albania’s King Zog in 1931. Zog, who survived the attack, may be the only assassination target who ever saved himself by shooting back. Adding a ripple of perversity is Roeg’s casting, which puts his wife, Theresa Russell, in drag in the role of Zog.

This is a promising start, but the next piece, with music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, directed by Charles Sturridge, is uninspired and obtuse. Next is Jean-Luc Godard, who takes the veg-o-matic approach to Lully’s Armide, chopping up the music as he shows some bodybuilders ignoring the attractions of two women in the gym. It’s a typically Godardian workout, full of repetition, ambient noise, and a large knife.

It’s Verdi again—Rigoletto—for the film’s centerpiece, a 15-minute farce directed by Julian Temple. Temple mounts a comedy of adultery, as two marrieds (Buck Henry and Anita Morris) enjoy other partners at a motel with “theme” rooms (the Neanderthal Room, Heidi’s Hideaway).

This one’s amusing, but aside from a great moment when the aria is lip-synched by the motel’s Elvis impersonator, this entry isn’t significantly better than some of Temple’s long-form music videos (such as “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean,” with David Bowie).

Australian Bruce (Crimes of the Heart) Beresford brings his literalist approach to an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt—he simply has a couple sing to each other—and then Robert Altman checks in with a curious ode to the 18th-century habit of letting people from insane asylums attend the opera on Sunday afternoon. The music is from Rameau’s Les Boreades.

Next, Franc Roddam (The Bride) does a haunting update on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which a young couple (James Mathers and Bridget Fonda—Peter’s daughter) go to Las Vegas, make passionate love, and commit suicide. Very nice.

You expect Ken Russell to bring the house down with this sort of thing, and Russell’s fantasia on Turandot by Puccini is one of the film’s weirdest turns. It’s a surreal glimpse of what appear to be the near-death thoughts of a woman who has just been in a car accident. She is played by England’s most famous stripper, Linzi Drew.

The film is rounded out by Derek Jarman’s impressionistic take on Charpentier’s Louise, and by the end of the framing story, which closes with Il Pagliacci, directed by Bill Bryden.

Well, I liked the three Rs—Roeg, Roddam, and Russell—and Godard’s thing. Even though it’s something of a disappointment overall, Aria is still an intriguing concept. Now, can we do the same thing with rock ‘n’ roll?

First published in the Herald, July 1988

Tilda Swinton was in the Jarman segment, one of her first screen roles. Some of this movie was pretty dull, as I recall, and not because of the opera, but because the filmmakers fell down.