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DID YOU READ

The Long Goodbye

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By Aaron Hillis, Michelle Orange, Matt Singer, R. Emmet Sweeney and Alison Willmore

[Photo: “A Prairie Home Companion,” Picturehouse, 2006]

When Robert Altman passed away last week at the age of 81, it put an end to one of the most innovative and diverse careers in the history of American film. Though he made movies that became cultural touchstones — 1975’s “Nashville” and his breakthrough, 1970’s “M*A*S*H” — Altman wasn’t afraid to make a movie just for himself if he believed in it passionately enough. Even die-hard fans have Altman movies that leave them scratching their heads, be they his death-by-apocalyptic-board game boondoggle “Quintet” or his goofy Max Fleisher homage “Popeye” (to name a few of mine). But Altman’s unpredictability made him more lovable and made being an Altman fan exciting: you never knew what was coming next. He was just as likely to chronicle a year in the life in a ballet troupe (in “The Company”) as he was to adapt a John Grisham novel (“The Gingerbread Man”).

In my review of “A Prairie Home Companion” a few months ago, I called Altman “the cinema’s greatest tourist,” in that he would test a new genre or an unusual topic, make his mark, and move on. He redefined the Western (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller”), the private eye story (“The Long Goodbye”) and the parlor game mystery (“Gosford Park”), and tried everything from musical to sci-fi to romantic comedy to biopic. He wasn’t too much of a snob to work in television, and with his landmark political mock-doc series, “Tanner ’88” he practically reinvented it. For any other filmmaker, that could have defined a career. For Altman, that might not make his personal top five.

In Altman’s final film, 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” Virginia Madsen, who plays a radiantly beautiful angel of death, says “the death of an old man is not a tragedy.” The IFC News team begs to differ. Because Altman’s filmmography is so variegated, everyone has their own favorite. Here, we present ours. —Matt Singer

“California Split” (1974)

Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliott Gould) bet on everything: poker, horses, fights, even their respective knowledge of the complete cast of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (“Sleepy, Grumpy, Doc…” says Bill. “That’s four,” says Charlie. “That’s three,” says Bill). The stars are so utterly charismatic, their free-flowing and largely improvised conversations so irresistibly charming, that we’ve fallen in love with them before we realize that they are basically degenerates who enable each other’s compulsive gambling. “California Split,” eternally overshadowed by Altman’s next picture (that’d be “Nashville”) is one of the most powerful movies ever made on the topic of luck, both good and bad, and how one can quickly slip into the other. The idea begins with the title itself, which appears in the credits along with a graphic that shows a diamond flush draw spoiled by a spade. And while our heroes’ luck waxes and wanes, Altman offers us glimpses of how their good or bad fortune impacts seemingly minor characters around them, whose brief but powerful appearances suggest whole lives that exist beyond their few scenes (one of the director’s particular specialties), like the woman Charlie talks out of betting on a horse that eventually wins its race, or the girl who innocently interrupts Bill’s once-in-a-lifetime shoot at the craps table to bet on her birthday. Altman, at his most self-consciously playful, repeatedly toys with our emotions and subverts our expectations. The movie builds to a high stakes poker game in Reno — Altman barely shows it. And the climax is so beautifully and poetically tragic not because Bill and Charlie lose, but because they get everything they’ve always wanted and discover that everything they’ve always wanted simply isn’t enough. —MS

“The Long Goodbye” (1973)

Wherein the title of my favorite Altman film conveys the cinephile’s healing process. Maybe “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or “Nashville” or even “3 Women” is his masterpiece, but nothing in his honest-to-god oeuvre makes me giddier than this sunny California anti-noir, starring Elliott Gould as an anachronistic reinvention of Raymond Chandler’s private dick Marlowe, one foot still in the 40s and the other in the Sexual Revolution. Exhaling line after brilliantly thrown-away line through a half-mumble and a cloud of cigarette smoke, Gould’s trademark “that’s okay with me” could almost be happy-go-lucky if he weren’t always on the chump’s end of an ass-kicking, crackin’ wise ’til his deadpan bleeds. What’s great about rewatching vintage Altman is that it’s always through his camera eye and reel-to-reel ear. Clearly, Gould was in peak form as an improviser this decade (see also: “M*A*S*H” and “California Split”), but it’s the director who provides the bounce, that easygoing momentum that allows his cast to be so loose and nimble. Then his instincts decide where to focus, revealing happy surprises that feel precise: The film starts, Marlowe’s hungry kitty jumps on his chest while he’s asleep, and I laugh every time. A vicious gangster suddenly slashes his girlfriend’s face with a Coke bottle to prove a nasty point (“That’s someone I love, and you I don’t even like”), and though I know it’s coming, I flinch every time. When an uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger turns up as a henchman, wearing only a porno moustache and yellow man-panties, well… I laugh AND flinch every time. —Aaron Hillis

“Nashville” (1975)

To say that “Nashville” is the movie that made me love Altman is ridiculously flimsy, like saying “Let It Bleed” is one of the Rolling Stones’ better albums, or that Arthur Miller is one of the top 50 most important American playwrights. But there’s a reason that “Nashville” is canonical — it is the essential Altman sprawl, one that’s almost aggressively unwelcoming at the beginning in its unwillingness to settle into a narrative. There are dozens of characters, each drawn in with strange, sharp strokes — Lily Tomlin’s gospel-singing, adulterous housewife; Ronee Blakley’s brittle country star; Shelley Duvall’s vacant-eyed visiting groupie; Keith Carradine’s sadistic ladies’ man — and not one of them afforded more sympathy or focus than the next. And yet, halfway through, what seems a somewhat removed portrait of a time and place becomes something greater and remarkably warmer. Maybe it comes with the realization that we, as the audience, are as enfolded in the film as any of its characters, all but one of which seem ready to willfully bustle on long after the credits have rolled. Maybe it’s that the wide-angle take turns from observant to completely caught up, as if it were all the camera could do to keep up with the teeming minutiae of moment-to-moment living. Or maybe it’s that the chaos converges marvelously into one of the greatest endings ever given to a film. When Barbara Harris launches into “It Don’t Worry Me” (an anthem more appropriate now than ever), it’s hard to imagine a scene that more perfectly, reprovingly, lovingly and joyously encapsulates America. Just writing about it gives me goosebumps. —Alison Willmore

“A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)

“A Prairie Home Companion” is the sweetest of elegies, mourning the death of an art form and it’s creator with wit and pratfall. It’s the final performance of Garrison Keillor’s romanticized Midwestern radio variety show, and Altman orchestrates his patented multi-character tableau with generous expertise, his elegant backstage tracking shots and sprinkles of magical realism (in the person of a haloed Virgina Madsen) uniting the actors’ manic maneuverings. The warm gold tones of Edward Lachman’s cinematography envelops the performers in a frame of ready-made nostalgia, their performances an instant memorial to a time already past. Each song becomes a folksy, bouncy dirge. It’s a set-up that could turn sickly sweet, as Keillor’s stock in trade is broad caricatures of small town types, but the cast is uniformly superb, enriching each stock figure with sharp humor and deep wells of pathos. Maya Rudolph creates a complete character through the chewing of gum, Kevin Kline acts the fool with suave buffoonery, and Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin trade loving gibes between cracked harmonies. Altman’s final work may be his most optimistic, shedding much of his previous cynicism and embracing a pragmatic and deeply hopeful view of the resiliency of popular art. —R. Emmet Sweeney

“Short Cuts” (1993)

With “Short Cuts,” Robert Altman revisited the interwoven narrative structure that brought him so much success with “Nashville,” and yet it’s the former film’s moment, story, and setting — combined to create a perfect storm of style serving subject — that sets directors imitating to this very day. From “Happiness” to, perhaps most notably, “Magnolia,” on to Iñáarritu’ s “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel,” to “Traffic” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” this month’s “Fast Food Nation” and television’s “Six Degrees,” the stylistic shorthand of overlapping narratives as a reflection of the irony and bittersweetness of pre- and post-millennial alienation has only gained momentum since Altman made what is certainly one of the best examples of the form.

L.A. plays itself in “Short Cuts,” though the Raymond Carver stories that inspired it were set in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a very specific choice, and the 22 principal characters (the film won a special ensemble Golden Globe), whose stories smoothly intersect or reluctantly collide, suggest both the urban sprawl of Los Angeles as a symptom of the country’s larger loss of community, and the private fiefdoms Americans were getting better and better at creating. Indeed, only a year or two after the film was released, our computers were where an ever-increasing number of us truly lived. That’s the most remarkable thing about “Short Cuts”: how prescient it feels now. Altman pinpointed a collective malaise and disaffection, after the L.A. riots and on the cusp of an economic boom, that evolved into entitlement (to “happiness” and fame, if not money), loneliness and rage — a new holy trinity of the American psyche. —Michelle Orange

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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.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.