Robert Altman Turns On His Radio

andybeta | August 29, 2008 12:30 pm

Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he looks at the sounds of two mid-’70s movies by famed director Robert Altman, California Split and Thieves Like Us:

Film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum contributed an essay to Stop Smiling (#35: The Gambling Issue), that connects the sound design in Robert Altman’s underappreciated 1974 film California Split to that of group-improvised jazz. The movie was the first to use an eight-track mixer, and Altman was finally able to deftly move the mix between scripted dialogue and improvised background chatter, highlighting riffs or lines that would’ve been lost otherwise (see 1970’s MASH to hear how such dialogue was previously, uh, mashed together).

Throughout his career, Altman’s soundtracks were striking affairs. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he deployed Leonard Cohen’s music to devastating effect; 1973’s The Long Goodbye takes Johnny Williams and Johnny Mercer’s song “The Long Goodbye” and inundates the southern California landscape with it in such a way that it resounds from every nook and cranny, be it the canned music of a supermarket or the chime of a doorbell.

But California Split made extant Altman’s long-held love for the art of jazz, particularly the more ensemble-based strains as rendered by Dixieland ensembles and Count Basie in Kansas City (see 1996’s love letter to the form, Kansas City). That jazz metaphor extends to Split‘s leads themselves, as Rosenbaum notes: “[George] Segal plays…a sort of inner-fire Miles Davis to [Elliott] Gould’s Charlie Parker, smoldering with brooding intensity.” Such an ability to mic up and mix his ensemble’s scripted lines, improvisations, accidents, and riffing in ways that revealed new nuances and coincidences would reach its apex in 1975’s Nashville.

In 1974’s Thieves Like Us, Altman went for a completely different stylistic approach. In telling the doomed love story between escaped convict Keith Carradine and naïf counter girl Shelley Duvall against the backdrop of the Great Depression-era Mississippi, Altman emphasizes a nearly silent sound design. The film hews to his insistence–as he noted in the 2005 collection, Altman on Altman–that his movie’s “music be indigenous, so that there’s not going to be any violins that you can’t see, that it won’t come from nowhere.” As much as his later work would emphasize jazz, Thieves also draws on the other music from Altman’s childhood.

He notes in the same book that “in the 1930s all I did as a kid (was) listen to the radio for two hours when I got home from school. Radio was everywhere, filled with commercials–it’s what created the consumer society.” The film’s convicts, shopkeeps, farmhands, and others all pass the evening hours by the radio out on the patio, sipping nickel Cokes or whiskey while rocking in their chairs. As critic Catherine Plumb noted in her 1974 essay on the film, “the characters are not merely products of the American Dream; they’re the dreamers who keep it going, as well. They’re myth buyers, consumers who devour the Dream as if their identities and then their very lives depend upon the intake.” She goes on to add that the radio is the antagonist itself: “Radio functions here as myth barker, hawking its American Dream of love songs and glamour and Norge Home Appliances to people who can’t afford the price.” Stemming from such a blanketing of delusions, the radio and its old-time programming provides the soundtrack for the film while furthering the plot.

“I’m not much interested in music that just goes along with the action,” Altman once stated, and the meticulously curated radio selections back that up. Snatches from bygone shows like Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police and radio announcements about Seabiscuit either buoy or offer juxtapose to the on-screen proceedings. While Gangbusters, with its hammy organ chords and Tommy gun sound-effects, cartoonishly frames the film’s first bank robbery, later on a bloody heist gets scored by a speech from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The sinister laugh and announcement “Who knows what evil lies in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” provides foreshadowing even during something as innocuous as washing the dishes after dinner.

Naturalistic as the radio is in its appearance, in one lone scene, it breaks from the reality entirely. It occurs when Carradine’s Bowie invites Duvall’s Keechie to “listen to the radio” with him. This awkward, gawky, though wholly endearing beanpole couple–all teeth, elbows, knees, and ear cartilage–comes together while listening to that evening’s program, “The Radio School of the Air Presents Romeo and Juliet.” Three times the new couple copulate to the heave of Shakespearean strings. And thrice the radio announcer states: “Thus did Romeo and Juliet consummate their first interview by falling madly in love with each other.” Time itself ruptures here, which raised the ire of critics and audiences for being too cloying and clever.

For a film that has kept to the realistic, this is an awkward and unnatural occurrence, but what’s interesting is that the first instance of the radio in the film also marks the first appearance of Keechie herself. And while the radio trades in delusions, myths, “American dreams” and is (in Plumb’s rightful estimation) the antagonist, Duvall proffers instead the exact opposite. For one fleeting instant, this naïve love scene hints that what’s between the two characters might somehow be more real than reality itself.