Reel Talk

Robert Altman and Secret Honor

So last night I was flipping through Netflix, trying to find something to watch, and I came across a documentary from last year about Robert Altman. Simply called Altman, the documentary looked at the director’s life and influences, going through his filmography with interviews of family members, colleagues, and the actors he frequently worked with, all while asking various people what the term “Altmanesque” means to them. It was an interesting and well made documentary about a very interesting artist. He never seemed comfortable in the Hollywood machine, and grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of support the film industry was giving him to make the kind of movies he wanted to make.

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I was surprised to find that I haven’t seen many Altman films. He’s one of those directors that seem to tower over the New Hollywood movement, a guy that I really should have seen more of. Looking through his filmography, I’m of course aware of most of his movies, they’ve rightly considered classics, but I’ve only seen MASH, Secret Honor, Thieves Like Us, and the Long Goodbye. So far, of the few I’ve seen, the Long Goodbye is far and away my favorite. I absolutely love Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels, and while this movie is certainly one of the least conventional of the adaptations, I really think Altman got it right. By moving the setting to the then current time period of the 70’s, we really got an interesting look at the character, and the story. But I want to talk about the Long Goodbye in length at a later time, because I haven’t seen the movie in a couple of years, and would love to have both a refresher of the film, and the novel it was based on before I talk about it. I’ve queued up several Altman movies to watch over the next couple weeks, and I’ll probably give my impressions on them as I get through them, but right now, I wanted to talk about the film of his I’ve seen most recently. And it’s a strange one.

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Secret Honor was released in 1984, and Altman filmed it with the cooperation of students at the University of Michigan who were acting as his crew in exchange for college credit, which sounds like Altman just didn’t want to pay for a real crew, but it worked, so who am I to judge. It’s an exceedingly odd movie, with one on screen actor, and one set. It starts to always great Philip Baker Hall as an increasingly drunk and insane Richard Nixon who’s sitting in his study, rambling into a tape recorder and a closed circuit television, apparently recording him memoirs. It’s just 90 minutes of Richard Nixon yelling at people who are not in the room, blaming them all for his woes, and occasionally admitting his own wrong doing. It’s obviously a fictional account, as crazy as Richard Nixon seemed, I don’t think he would have let a recording his rambling and incoherent out into the public. Philip Baker Hall turns in a great performance as he runs around the study, drinking, contemplating suicide, and yelling “Fuck ‘em!” a lot. The monologue becomes ever more manic and schizophrenic, contradicting himself and reiterating points to a ridiculous degree. We obviously don’t know if these are Nixon’s real opinions about his life, but from what we do know about the man, I could really see it being true. Altman was famously critical of Nixon, to say the least, so at points it does come off as kicking a man you don’t like while he’s down, but overall, it’s a fascinating movie.

There’s a similar movie, stylistically at least, that came out last year called Locke that I would also recommend heartily, but this movie’s structure is really something to behold. Seeing Philip Baker Hall rant and rave without anyone else to act against is a tremendous thing, and I feel like a weaker actor wouldn’t be able to pull off the role. In the end, the movie doesn’t really have a plot, it’s just a long rambling monologue that doesn’t really reach any major conclusion, and it’s just a fictional insight into a fascinating man. I first found this movie while going through a phase of being fixated with Paul Thomas Anderson, and seeing Hard Eight. I was enamored with Philip Baker Hall, and had a desire to see more of his performances, and came across this strange, captivating film. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but if what I’ve described sounds at all interesting, I would recommend checking it out. It was hard to look away from, and very intriguing.

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Secret Honor was directed by Robert Altman, and waswritten by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone.

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