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Career View, Directors: Alan Rudolph, Part 1; Introduction and Before the Beginning

August 25, 2015

From July 17 to August 27, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) spotlighted indie films of the 80’s. Leaving aside the question of what an indie film really is, when it comes to movies, the 80’s are generally thought of as the decade when blockbusters took over, “high concept” became the order of the day, movies became more conservative both politically and financially, and, in general, movies became more homogenized. Also, the thinking goes, indie films weren’t a thing until either 1989 (when sex, lies & videotape won the Palme D’Or at Cannes) or 1992 (when Reservoir Dogs exploded at Sundance). Like many media-written histories when it comes to movies, this is an oversimplification of the times. It is true the 80’s were top-heavy with blockbusters, but it’s also true the 80’s saw the rise, or introduction, of many indie directors who would soon become a force. The series at BAM pays attention to the obvious names, like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and David Lynch, but it’s nice to see they were also spotlighting the names that tend to get forgotten when it comes to movies in general and indie movies in particular, like Victor Nunez (whose A Flash of Green was shown in the series), John Sayles (represented by Matewan) and especially Alan Rudolph.

To be sure, there are probably good reasons why Rudolph isn’t a name brought up too often when discussing directors in general and indie directors in particular. For one thing, Rudolph hasn’t had a movie released since 2006’s Intimate Affairs (aka Investigating Sex), which was actually filmed in 2001 (the last movie he made was 2002’s The Secret Lives of Dentists). For another, Rudolph has never had a big following among audiences; none of his movies have really been hits. There’s also the fact his films all together have garnered two Oscar nominations (Best Original Score for 1984’s Songwriter, and Best Actress for Julie Christie in 1997’s Afterglow). And while his movies have played at various film festivals, and he’s had his fair share of fans among critics (Roger Ebert put Choose Me and Trouble in Mind on his ten-best lists in 1984 and 1986, respectively), many critics have been baffled by, or even hostile to, his films (Peter Rainer once said Rudolph had a “prodigious pretentiousness” when it came to ideas). And all of that has to do with the kind of films Rudolph makes.

With Robert Altman.

When a filmmaker works outside the mainstream and doesn’t get mainstream acceptance, the common line you’ll hear from critics, or fans of the filmmaker, is they don’t fit inside the cookie-cutter, blockbuster-driven standard of most studio films. However, Rudolph is an outsider even along those lines. You may watch a David Cronenberg or David Lynch movie and find them strange or weird, but they’re strange in a way that’s identifiable, whereas that’s not always the case with Rudolph’s films. A former writer for a fanzine I once contributed to called Rudolph’s movies what would happen if Humphrey Bogart took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up in a Fred Astaire movie, but even that sounds inadequate. Rudolph’s most important association during his career, arguably, was Robert Altman – Rudolph served as assistant director on The Long Goodbye and Nashville and co-wrote the screenplay for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, while Altman produced five of Rudolph’s films (Welcome to L.A.Remember by NameMrs. Parker and the Vicious CircleAfterglow, and Trixie) – and that gets a little closer to what Rudolph is about. They both share a love for a moving camera, ensemble casts, improvisation*, jazz music, and deconstructing whatever genre they were working in. Yet even that comparison is imperfect, for while Altman’s movies have a more realistic (some have said cynical) tone, in most of his movies, Rudolph goes for something more romantic (both happy and sad romantic)**. I would argue the closest filmmaker to Rudolph’s sensibility and view of the world is Wong Kar-Wei. Both of them are more interested in the emotion and the character than in the story, and both of them are making fantasies that are set in the “real” world, which is a dissonance that doesn’t seem to be embraced by either audiences or studio executives (as well as some critics), but when it works can be entertaining and moving. It also comes across as a series of “movie moments”; as James Harvey has described them in books like Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges and Movie Love in the ’50’s, that could only happen in movies and yet are incredibly true to life. Though Rudolph has never cited them specifically as far as I know, I would also argue Howard Hawks and Max Ophuls are major influences on him; the latter for his roving camera and his searching for emotional truth, while the former for overlapping dialogue (also an influence on Altman) and for preferring, as he famously once said to Robert Mitchum when pitching him El Dorado, character over story because “stories bore people”. Both of them are also fond of those “movie moments” Harvey has spoken of.

Rudolph is perhaps fond of “movie moments” because he grew up in the movie business. His father, Oscar Rudolph, started out as an actor before moving onto directing, mostly for television (he worked on Batman and The Donna Reed Show, among other shows), and Rudolph even appeared, at age 6, in a film his father directed that featured Lenny Bruce. You can see how that would lead him to want to twist genres around, like Altman did, and not take them seriously. Yet, at the same time, it also led him to fully invest in the idea that movies are like dreams and fantasy (in a profile American Film did on him in their March 1986 issue, Rudolph dismissed the idea that movies could ever be “realistic”). As a matter of fact, Rudolph’s first projects dealt with dreams – or, rather, nightmares.

Neil (Carl Crow) in “Premonition”.

Rudolph tends to think of Welcome to L.A. as his first film as director, but it was actually Premonition (aka Head or The Impure), which came out in 1972. It also showed his interest in music right away, as the main characters were wannabe musicians. However, it’s in the horror genre, though unlike other directors of the time who cut their teeth on low-budget, exploitation horror films, Rudolph doesn’t show much facility or interest in the genre. The story he came up with could have conceivably worked. Neil (Carl Crow), a guitarist/harmonica player in his mid-20’s, strolls around what looks like a ghost town, and tells the tale of how he was in Mexico with a professor (Victor Izay) one night when they came across a skeleton, and Neil, who had been smoking pot at the time, was freaked out by visions he had with some kind of boogeyman, which causes him and the professor to crash their truck. Neil never spoke of what happened, but he quit smoking pot and quit playing the guitar, concentrating on the harmonica instead. And several months later, he’s formed a trio with Andy (Tim Ray) and Baker (Winfry Hester Hill), two guitar players. They go out to an old house to rehearse for a possible gig, but the same red flowers that Neil saw in Mexico that night are at the house, and Neil, along with Andy, starts to have the same nightmares.

If you approach Premonition as a curio, there is certainly value to be had. Alex Del Zoppo, from the band Sweetwater, co-wrote the music for the movie (along with Ray and Tom Akers). This was the first feature that John Bailey served on as cinematographer (he went on to do such movies as Ordinary People, MishimaGroundhog Day and the upcoming A Walk in the Woods). Carol Littleton, who worked on the sound effects, went onto be an editor for Lawrence Kasdan (The Big ChillThe Accidental Tourist) and Jonathan Demme (Swimming to Cambodia, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate). Jan Kiesser, who would serve as Rudolph’s cinematographer on five subsequent films (beginning with Rudolph’s documentary Return Engagement), was in charge of special effects. And the effects Rudolph and his crew bring off involving the dreams Neil and Andy have are quite striking considering the budget and the time period; they’re both haunted by a strange wood-like creature, and thanks to the way the film is shot, and the electronic score, the creature does come off as creepy. Yet, for someone who would go on to write memorable characters, and for someone who always claimed the actors and characters were his primary concerns, Rudolph seems strangely uninterested in either. Admittedly, no one was a big name before or after (Crow ended up drowning seven years later), but everyone seems awkward except for Hill, who might have a great range, but at least shows a warm presence. And while the score is fine, the music Crow and the others play isn’t very interesting. Finally, while story has always been the least of Rudolph’s concerns, it really doesn’t add up to much at the end.

Andre (Andrew Prine) gets his comeuppance in “Nightmare Circus”.

For all of its flaws, Premonition is at least worth watching, which is more than can be said for Rudolph’s follow-up as a director, Nightmare Circus (aka Terror Circus and Barn of the Naked Dead). Throughout his career, Rudolph did take on a few for-hire gigs where he didn’t write the script (it’s credited to Roman Valenti, based on a story by co-producer Gerald Cormier; for each of them, this is their only writing credit), and this is not only the first example of this, but also the worst movie Rudolph ever made. It’s about three showgirls – Sheri (Sherry Alberoni, best known as the voice of the scheming Alexandra on the Josie & the Pussycats animated series), Corrine (Gyl Roland, daughter of famed actors Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett), and Simone (Manuela Thiess) – who are on their way to Las Vegas when their car breaks down, and end up getting kidnapped by Andre (Andrew Prine, known for his work in westerns – Chisum – and exploitation films such as The Centerfold Girls), a psycho who chains women in his barn and plans to use them as a circus act. And there’s an even bigger monster being locked away in a tool shed just at the edge of the barn grounds. To his credit, Rudolph doesn’t seem interested in sleazing up the film; except for one shot of the women bathing themselves, they stay mostly in regular clothes, and he also cuts away from the violent acts instead of exploiting them as well. But Rudolph, Cormier and Valenti also don’t seem very interested in the women as characters, the villains aren’t well-defined either (there’s a halfhearted attempt on the one hand for giving a reason for Andre’s craziness, but it’s done in an unoriginal and ham-handed way, and the same goes in providing context for the other bad guy in the film), and it’s still a sleazy story. About the only thing worth of interest in the film is the song “Evil Eyes”, sung by Pamela Miller over the opening credits.

Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill.

By this time, Rudolph had already met and began the first of his most important creative partnerships (the other two will be discussed in a future post), and that was working with Altman. While Rudolph had also served in a capacity of assistant director on several episodes of The Brady Bunch, as well as such films as Riot (the prison movie starring Jim Brown and Gene Hackman) and the first version of Elmore Leonard’s novel The Big Bounce (with Ryan O’Neal), nothing he had done to that point was up to the quality of what he did with Altman, being the second assistant director on The Long Goodbye and California Split, and first assistant director on Altman’s crowning achievement, Nashville. Rudolph then moved up to co-writing (with Altman) Altman’s follow-up to NashvilleBuffalo Bill and the Indians, Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. Today, the film is best remembered as the film that cost Altman the chance to adapt E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a novel many fans thought was tailor-made for him, because the financial failure of the film caused producer Dino de Laurentis to look elsewhere. But at the time, Altman intended the film (loosely adapted from Arthur Kopit’s play Indians) to be a commentary on American iconography in general (though he would always deny it was a specific commentary on the American bicentennial, which happened the year the film came out).

While the play centers on the relationship between Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman in the movie) and Wild Bill Hickcok as much as the relationship between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), the movie drops Wild Bill completely, instead playing up Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), the man who helped make the legend of Buffalo Bill. It also plays up Buffalo Bill more as a fraud, not so much in what he promised Sitting Bull in reference to helping him and his tribe (Rudolph and Altman drop the device of the Senate hearing from the play), as in the general idea Buffalo Bill was merely a braggart when it came to his acts of heroism. The problem with the movie, at least from the point of view of the writing, is Rudolph and Altman never make Sitting Bull anything more than a symbol (it doesn’t help he remains mute throughout the entire film, speaking only through a translator played by Will Sampson). Thanks to this, and Newman’s strangely uncomfortable performance as Buffalo Bill (he did much better in another film deconstructing a Western legend, John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), the movie is a disappointing entry in Altman’s catalog, albeit a fascinating one. As I’ll show in my next post, Rudolph, on the other hand, was able to move on from this to doing what he called his first real film, even if both the story and the personnel he used borrowed heavily from his mentor.

*- Lili Taylor, one of a handful of actors who worked with both Altman and Rudolph, confessed in an interview with the Toronto Star – when Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle played the Toronto Film Festival – that she felt overwhelmed by the constant improvisation in Rudolph’s film (she played Edna Ferber). However, Jennifer Beals, who also had appeared in the film (as Robert Benchley’s wife Gertrude), and who had been cut out of Altman’s Short Cuts, called it a great experience, and praised in particular the spontaneity of the filming (she also said Taylor was the one who told her not to worry about anything).

**-In the oral autobiography of Altman, Rudolph talked about the scene in Short Cuts when Chris Penn’s character kills the young woman, and about how while he admired the scene, he had a more romantic view of life than Altman and would never be able to film something like that.

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