12/15/11

ROBERT ALTMAN'S SHORTS...UH, YEAH...



In the 1960's, filmmaking great Robert Altman ("Mash", "Nashville", "O.C. and Stiggs"--do I really need to go on?) was going through a rough patch. Though not many of his "Mash" and all-things-forward fans knew it, Altman had been around a long time--and not in a groovy, counter-culture kind of way. His career was that of a jobbing television director--from the late fifties through the sixties, Altman directed scores of episodes of shows like "Bonanza", "Combat", "The Roaring Twenties", "Kraft Mystery Theater" and many too undistinguished to mention (all right--"Hawaiian Eye"). Always looking to make the leap into features--and already being left behind by contemporaries like Sydney Pollack, Elliot Silverstein and Mark Rydell--Altman became increasingly fractious with his employers. Always a sharp-tounged provocateur, his drinking brought out a dark edge that frequently torpedoed friendships and business relationships. Result:fewer television assignments for Altman. Meanwhile, his feature projects were not gaining momentum.

So what did Altman do? In a sense, he became an independent filmmaker at a time when being such a thing was not a choice--or even really a category. Lou Lombardo, his longtime editor, once remarked that Altman needed to shoot film like others need blood--it allowed him to live. Looking for any opportunity to keep working, Altman somehow hooked up with a video jukebox outfit called Color-Sonics for whom he made a handful of shorts. The films were, essentially, the first music videos--interesting and amusing visuals designed to accompany popular songs, viewable for a couple of quarters by peering into a jukebox equipped with a window that displayed the screen. I have no idea of how these jukes really worked--could there have been projection equipment inside the juke itself?--and I wonder if there are any of these machines lying around somewhere. (Actually there must be a weird convention of people who collect and restore the damn things that meets once a year somewhere in Nebraska...or LA).

Anyway, posted below are two of the several Color-Sonics that Altman directed--one featuring singer-actor Bobby Troup, the other starring striptease artists Lily St. Cyr. Many thanks to Marc Myers of Jazz Wax for unearthing the Bobby Troup "Girl Talk" video (for lack of a better word), thus energizing me to search for the Lily St. Cyr.

Both films display an admirably free cinematic verve--they are not, simply put, the ordinary work of an unemployed television director of the period (ask yourself: would John Rich or E.W. Swackhammer have shot these in quite this way?) Altman, in a sense, took the opportunity to free himself of the deadening pace and stylistic no-mans-land of his television days to open himself up to the period--these are both shot circa 1965 and straddle early-sixties (which is to say late-fifties) jauntiness of spirit and male-dominated sexual attitude, as well as having a foot planted in the soil of the next generation...(dreadful, Raymond)...anyway, you dig my meaning, no?

Altman directed a couple of other self-financed shorts in this period including one called "The Party" which was shot at his house in Mandeville Canyon during an actual party--I posted about it long ago but alas the youtube account that posted the video is no longer. There's also a marijuana induced short called "Pot Au Feu" (har har) which I've never come across, as well as a birthday present for his wife, Kathryn Reed, that he made one year "when I was broke...and so this was my present to her".That film is called--inexplicably--"The Kathryn Reed Story". If anyone out there has any knowledge of these films whereabouts...





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