September 5, 2010

Thoughts on A Wedding (1978), directed by Robert Altman

Of all the films by Robert Altman, the one I revisit the most is A Wedding (1978), a film he made after the incredible and puzzling 3 Women (1977).

3 Women is my favorite Altman film, but not one I watch often as it is too eerie and too mysterious to watch regularly. It’s something you want to savor and pull out only on special occasions, kind of like Christmas decorations. To have it around all the time would make it lose its magic.

On the other hand, I could watch A Wedding anytime. It’s a lot more accessible than some of his other films and I find it a lot more watchable than MASH or even Nashville. As much as I like Nashville, in which I view A Wedding as a sort of sister, companion piece – I get a bit overwhelmed by Nashville’s sprawling narrative and characters, whereas I’m fascinated by A Wedding’s similar all-star cast and multiple story lines. Perhaps it’s because the characters are a lot more cartoonish and ridiculous and the fact that the whole film is set in one location. A location where the characters HAVE to be…they aren’t there by choice.

Tulip and Mac share a dance.

Of all the story lines, my favorite is the (desired) love affair between Carol Burnett and Pat McCormick. Visually it’s a perfect match-up; with two actors of dramatically different physical appearances that contrast in a loopy, Fellini-esque sort of way.

Tulip rediscovers her sensuality.

I enjoyed the character of Tulip (Burnett), who is this sort of clueless, dopey mother who tries so hard to fit in and relate only to be pretty much ignored by the rest of the family members and guests. When Pat McCormick’s character suddenly confesses his love to her, Tulip's world opens up to possibilities that she had probably never experienced before. There is a great scene where Tulip examines herself in a mirror, originally starting to fix her hair in its regular style…only to change it to make herself appear more desirable. I liked this moment and it’s something we have seen before in many films, the sort of rediscovery and reawakening of a woman’s sexuality. This moment reminded me of Lily Tomlin’s role in Nashville, where she played a similarly bored housewife character who found a certain appeal in having an affair, but ultimately realizing her responsibility to her children and family.

Mac and Tulip share a secret meeting.

It is interesting to note that both actors are primarily known for their comedic roles, so it was refreshing to see them in something a bit more subtle – although there are plenty of sight gags related to the relationship. As I was watching the film, I wanted to see these characters more and thought about what an entire film would be like based on these two. I envisioned it as a John Cassavettes-type picture, or something akin to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Martin Scorsese. A story that would chronicle the failed attempt of an affair between two people who are disappointed in what life has given them. They aren’t miserable per say, just sort of…settled. Plus the final moment would be the realization that they were merely in love with the IDEA of an affair, as opposed to actually participating in one.

Viveca Lindfors as Ingrid Hellstrom: Worst Wedding Guest Ever

My second favorite bit in the film is provided by Viveca Lindfors who played the caterer for the wedding. Complaining of not feeling well, she is given all sorts of pills from different people and winds up completely out of her mind for the rest of the film, flitting into rooms and scenes and just getting on everyone’s nerves. Viveca is perfect in these types of roles, where she can dash about and be wild. At a certain point in the film she sort of vanished and I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to her. Was she passed out in a room somewhere? Did she go off outside, perhaps harassing a neighbor?

That’s another reason why I really enjoy and love Robert Altman’s films. He leaves a lot up to the viewer’s imagination. Not everything is explained and there are no pat endings. It leaves this delicious mystery and ambiguity that the viewer can either expand upon or not care whatsoever. One of my favorite things to do while watching a movie, is to latch onto an unusual side character or plot line and elaborate on it, asking questions of what if and what now? It's this reason why I love films so much, taking them beyond simple entertainment and creating a fully involved experience where you can incorporate your own ideas and imagination and make something entirely new and unique.