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Robert Altman, 1925-2006

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Altman on the set of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Picturehouse]

The great gray recalcitrant lion king of the American New Wave has finally shuffled off the mortal coil — years after many of us were surprised to realize he’d hung in there this long. The Academy may have waited too long to pelt him with an Oscar, but at least they did it, genuflected at his massive body of work less than a year before he died (rather than, say, yet again piss away a Lifetime Achievement slot on the likes of Michael Kidd or Blake Edwards). For the postwar generations, only Stanley Kubrick maintained as lofty a station in the public forebrain for as long as Robert Altman. It’s been a uniquely scattershot career, as rife with textural innovations and astonishing rigor as it was with pariah loathing and crash-landings — 2001’s “Gosford Park” was merely his sixth or seventh comeback in almost 50 years of professional movie-making. Who knew, ever, if an Altman film would turn out rippling with silk-smooth sublimity or howling miscarriage? His lapses in judgment seem to flow from the same source as his wisdom. Compare the surgeon’s grace inherent in “Gosford Park” to the soused baboonery of “Prêt-à-Porter” (1994), and you glimpse a restless and conflicted intelligence plunging into the combat of cultural intercourse without the benefit of superego.

He began in the 50s, making promotional and educational shorts for a small Kansas City outfit, before branching out in 1957 into indie teen exploitation (“The Delinquents”) and feature docs (“The James Dean Story”), the two of which steered him toward steady network-TV paychecks doing grunt work for two dozen series, including “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Peter Gun,” “Sugarfoot” and “Combat.” He reentered the feature world in the late 60s, coming quickly upon the assignment that continues to be his branding product: “M*A*S*H” (1970).

The 70s turned out to be also Altman’s one summer of semi-consistency, a time when Hollywood’s new-wavey thaw on formula, cliché and pap was precisely what the maturing journeyman had been waiting for (at 45 when “M*A*S*H” was released, he was a full generation older than contemporaries Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Rafelson, Hellman, et al.). Altman’s halcyon decade has had plenty of laurels laid upon it, but today some of them wilt badly — “M*A*S*H” is an unfocused anti-war farce better remembered than freshly seen, and “Nashville” (1975), a fabulously detailed dose of Americana-mania, is at closer look constructed from simplistic vignettes. The famous Altmanic textures — spontaneous narrative collage, Babel-like aural chaos, superbly evoked off-screen space, focus-challenged compositions, foreground foofaraw — are indelible, but the jokes and caricatures can be shockingly cheap.

Good thing the masterpieces yowl louder than ever. The ’70s were a wise era kind to satire, and Altman’s best films are Lasik cuts into American mythology, starting with “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), a seminal, foggy frontier odyssey that looks like it was shot in a muddy 1830 mining town and that has come to occupy its own exclusive sub-genre: the neo-realist anti-northwestern. One of cinema’s wittiest and savviest deconstructions, “The Long Goodbye” (1973) transposes Chandler to the ‘Nam era and ends up an anti-noir anthem, with Elliott Gould as a beleaguered, slovenly Marlowe slumming around glitzy 70s L.A. like an old dog who’s lost his sense of smell. “Thieves Like Us” (1974) is a still-underrated, wide-eyed adaptation of Edward Anderson’s slackjawed-outlaw-lovers novel, capturing the Depression-era landscape with dusty fidelity and remaining an underseen American New Wave incarnation of nostalgia reflux. “California Split” (1974) is even more bitter, tracking a contemporary Gould and George Segal into a maelstrom of obsessive gambling. In many ways, “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” (1976) caps off Altman’s 70s project, cynically boiling down his accomplished naturalism into a death march of commodified suffering. This grim parade of mutated history — which focuses almost entirely on the eponymous Wild West show and its heroic depiction of Native American subjugation — barely acknowledges the requirements of dramatic narrative in its disgusted litany of showbiz prevarications.

His subsequent disasters were truly disastrous — few filmmakers could emerge from the landfill of “H.E.A.L.T.H.” (1979), “Quintet” (1979), “Popeye” (1980), “O.C. and Stiggs” (1987), “Prêt-à-Porter,” “Dr. T and the Women” (2000), and “The Company” (2003) with their honor intact. He spent the best part of the 80s making lean theatrical filmizations which were only and exactly as interesting as the play they adapted, which were in any case always lackluster. His last few decades were a coin toss — no director has veered so alarmingly from cretinism (that includes, for me, the smirky-comic rape of Raymond Carver in 1993’s “Short Cuts”) to bedazzlement (including 1992’s “The Player,” of course, and “Gosford Park”) in such short spans. “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) is no kind of career testament, but by this time we’d learned that the ever-tetchy Altman would always follow his own temperamental star.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.