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Altman...now, more than ever :
b social conflict in the films of Robert Altman
h [electronic resource] /
by Walker Hicken.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 68 pages.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2009.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
ABSTRACT: There is much scholarship to suggest that the idea of America is an idea of a meritocracy. Generally, the ideal construction of American meritocracy involves people working hard and being able to accomplish whatever they set their minds to. Filmmaker Robert Altman constructs a very different America. In Altman's eyes, success is achieved through promotion, either self-promotion or promotion by others. An individual's status, whether it be within a peer group or on a national level, is far more important that the actual work that that person has done. This thesis will also examine how Altman presents this promotion as a form of storytelling, and how Altman creates a relationship between promotion, storytelling, and conflict between different status structures. This analysis will include not only elements of the larger plots and themes of the selected films (Nashville, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park,) but formal analysis as well.
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Advisor: Daniel Belgrad, Ph.D.
x American Studies
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
AltmanNow, More Than Ever: Social Conflict in the Films of Robert Altman by Walker Hicken A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Arts Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Daniel Belgrad, Ph.D. Annette Cozzi, Ph.D. Andrew Berish, Ph.D. Date of Approval: July 9, 2009 Keywords: status, promotion, storytelling, weber, wolfe Copyright 2009, Walker Hicken
i Table of Contents Introduction................................................................................................................... ....1 Altmans America: Th eory and Terminology...................................................................6 Status Group Relationships.................................................................................12 Nashville and the 1970s .................................................................................................19 Leading Up to Nashville: Early Status Films.....................................................19 Nashville.............................................................................................................24 Conclusion..........................................................................................................34 Highbrow and Middlebrow: Conflict in Short Cuts .......................................................36 Formal Storytelling.............................................................................................38 Status in Short Cuts .............................................................................................41 Conclusion..........................................................................................................49 Gosford Park ..................................................................................................................51 Establishing Status Upstairs................................................................................53 Downstairs: Keep it to Yourself.........................................................................55 Conclusion..........................................................................................................60 Conclusion..................................................................................................................... .62 Endnotes....................................................................................................................... ...64 Bibliography................................................................................................................... 66
ii AltmanNow, More Than Ever: Social Conflict in the Films of Robert Altman Walker Hicken ABSTRACT There is much scholarship to suggest th at the idea of America is an idea of a meritocracy. Generally, the ideal constructi on of American merito cracy involves people working hard and being able to accomplish what ever they set their minds to. Filmmaker Robert Altman constructs a very different America. In Altmans eyes, success is achieved through promotion, either self-p romotion or promotion by others. An individuals status, wh ether it be within a peer group or on a national level, is far more important that the actual work that that person has done. Th is thesis will also examine how Altman presents this promotion as a fo rm of storytelling, and how Altman creates a relationship between promoti on, storytelling, and conflict between different status structures. This analysis will include not only elements of the larger plots and themes of the selected films ( Nashville Short Cuts and Gosford Park,) but formal analysis as well.
1 Introduction The narratives that Robert Altman constructs in his films center on a belief that America as a society is built first and foremost not around merit, but around the idea of status. Altmans America exists not as a meritocracy where ones achievements are important, but instead as a place where a person s status within a soci al hierarchy is most valued. The most important component of A ltmans interest in a status-based society deals with the relationship between status and promotion, most particularly selfpromotion. In Altmans films, a persons me rit has become secondary to that persons ability to promote an idealized version of that person. At the same time, these films mirror the di rection of Altmans career, and exist as metaphors for how he sees his own status with in American cinema. While these films are investigations of an American society predicat ed on status, they are also studies in where Altman feels he is in his car eer at the time these films were made. Altmans changing views about the ways that status is either ma intained or obtained mirror what he feels his place is as his career progresses. Early in Altmans career, he embarked on a series of investigations of the ways that people promoted themselves in order to accrue status. In 1970s M*A*S*H* Altman looks at the relationship between talent and rank in the United States Army. Some of the characters in M*A*S*H* are good at their jobs, but how well they do their jobs is not necessarily reflected in thei r ranks. Both John McIntyre and Hawkeye Pierce clearly have more talent than Major Burns, and ye t Burns has higher rank because he follows the chain of command. During the course of the film, the traditional military rank structure
2 erodes, as Altmans characters begin to de velop their own statusphere based upon both a persons talent and that persons persona lity. The alternative statusphere in M*A*S*H* exists as a construction that s uggests that, at this poi nt in his career, A ltman believed that rank and talent have something of an inverse relationship. The following year, McCabe and Mrs. Miller showed that, according to Altman, successful promotion of an image is neither di rectly nor inversely re lated to ones actual talent. John McCabe relies on the fact th at he has a reputati on as a highly skilled gunfighter to gain status in the town of Presybterian Church, Washington. Because McCabe neither confirms nor explicitly de nies the claim of hi s superior gun fighting skills, Altman implies that the reputation is not earned. Altman creates a problematic that would recur in subsequent films (that of th e relationship between talent and promotion) with the final shootout scene. Consequent ly, the image of himself that McCabe is exploiting might be legitimate. This problematic between talent and stat us would lead Altman into his most heralded film of the 1970s, Nashville Nashville was the first film to introduce several of the concepts with which Altman would work in subsequent films. The figurative promotion of McCabe became literal in Nashville Personalities as Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton negotiated their way through th e Nashville statusphere in part through the creation and promotion of a particular c onception of the country music star. Both Hamilton and Barbara Jean successfu lly project the image of the humble, down to earth star. They have a sense of common origin with their fan base, and they eschew the appearance of se lf-promotion. Connie White clas hes with these two by being
3 a character that does not hide her desire to self-promote. She may share other common characteristics with Hamilton and Barbara J ean, but her naked promotion sets her apart from them. Sueleen Gay is consigned to the bottom of Hamiltons statusphere particularly because of her la ck of talent. Sueleen has no singing talent and none of the promotional aptitude that the other characte rs possess. These characters each have their respective places in the statusphere, and their place is determined by both their talent and their willingness to promote. While Nashville is a film that addresses a single statusphere, the focus of Short Cuts is the concern with the difference be tween highbrow and middlebrow cultural formations. Each of these statuspheres has their own criteria for success. Altman uses this film to establish what he believes are the differences between the two statuspheres. In particular, Altman poses the theory that one of the core markers of highbrow status is a lack of concern with ones own status. Sim ilarly, the concern with status automatically denotes middlebrow status. Yet, because A ltman has this concern, it necessarily places film in the middlebrow statusphere. The nature of promotion changes in Short Cuts Wheras in Nashville promotion is the selling of an image to a large group of people, in th is film promotion becomes intertwined with the concept of storytelling, particularly the telling of lies. Many characters lie about some part of their lives in order to preserve their status. These lies can also take the form of delusions, particul arly on the part of th e middlebrows. Altman posits that the inherent middlebrow concern wi th status leads necessa rily leads to selfdelusion. These people delude themselves into believing that they can raise themselves
4 into a higher statusphere, while Altman makes it clear that this belief is a necessary component of middlebrow status. The resistance of status structures to upward mobili ty continues in Gosford Park, as Altman uses the dynamic of newness opposin g longevity as a means of examining the relationship between status and storytelling. Self-promotion in Gosford Park becomes self-protection as statuspheres turn inward on themselves. This conflict between old and new exists in Altmans earlier films, but he makes it the focus of Gosford Park Altman looks at the old/new relationship in the contex t of two statuspheres in an English country house. In the upstairs, people who had old money status seek to preserve th at status by making new money less valid. Downstairs, member s of this statusphere use their relative status as a coping mechanism for their social inferiority. Both of these statuspheres become inwardly focused, often ignoring the other statusphere. In each of the three main films, Altman us es some type of formal bisociation as a key to each texts main preoccupation. In Nashville the opening sequence serves as a promotion for the film itself. This self-reflexivity allows Altman to examine the concept of promotion (and different vehicles for prom otion) as a filmmaking technique. In the later films, self-reflexivity becomes a means of examining the role of film in the world of art. In Short Cuts the self-reflexivity manifests itself in the way that Altman takes the short stories of Raymond Carver and cuts them together to make a single coherent film. This cutting shows Altmans uneasiness with films place with regard to the middlebrow and highbrow statuspheres. Altman struggl es to give film some type of highbrow legitimacy through these tongue-in-cheek cuts. Gosford Parks self-reflexivity highlights
5 the defensive self-insularity of the upstairs statusphere. The film within the film draws attention to the upstairs in ability to acknowledge the downs tairs statusphere beyond its ability to serve. Altmans concept of status changes dur ing the course of his career. In M*A*S*H* Altman is concerned with showing ways in which the traditional concept of rank is undermined. McCabe and Mrs. Miller introduces the problematic of the relationship between talent and status, and how promotion can influence this problematic. Nashville introduces the concept of the promotion of a specific type of image, and how ones status can be affected by the ability (or inability) to projec t that image. In Short Cuts Altman suggests that statuspheres can co mpete with one another, and that members of each statusphere police their status thr ough lies and self-delusion. Finally, with Gosford Park Altman sees status as something that is insular, and storytelling as a way of constructing the walls of that insularity. These changes are also manifestations of the way in which Altman sees hims elf within the film statusphere.
6 Altmans America: Theory and Terminology Robert Altman suggests an alternative to the traditional discours e of the American dream. Altman sets his films to problema tize America as a place where success is achieved through hard work, talent, perseverance and moral uplift. This construction of American society is typified by the idea of th e craft ethic. The cr aft ethic is a concept through which the act of working is tied directly to a persons characte r. If an individual is hard-working, they will, by vi rtue of their good character, be prosperous in the United States. In his work Chants Democratic Sean Wilentz argues that particularly in early periods of American labor history, work was so valued that it was equated with personal honor.1 Altman constructs his America as a societ y predicated on the concept of status. Altmans statusocracy combines three importa nt factors. The first of these factors is promotion (specifically, self-promotion.) Promo tion, in Altmans films, is the selling of an image about ones self. The image projec tion can become apparent in a variety of ways. Sometimes, promotion ma nifests itself in a literal wa y, such as an interview by a country singer with a chosen reporter or an in-film commerc ial for the film. In other instances, a person does not promote himself or herself but the pe rsons own status. Regardless of how it is done, promotion is an act of adve rtisement designed to either increase of preserve ones social status. The second of these three factors is storyt elling. Within the context of Altmans work, storytelling has several forms. De pending upon the context, it sometimes means the formal techniques by which Altman tells the stories in his films. When applied to the
7 characters, this process is instead a form of promotion in and of itself. These people tell stories about themselves, with the goal of pr omoting a certain image. The final central factor is the relationship betw een people and groups of peopl e in positions of high status and people and groups of people in positions of middle status. While the first two components are important to the establishment of an individuals status, these struggles between competing status groups are vital to the establishment (and maintenance) of the status of groups. Status itself is very significant in A ltmans films, but the relationship between different levels of status becomes more impor tant, particularly during the advancement of his career. Altman constructs a series of cu ltural hierarchies within his films, and often the clashes between high status groups and mi ddle status groups manifest themselves as clashes of cultural hierarchies. When discussing such cultural hierarchies, the term class is inadequate in the context of Altmans films. In particular, class has a great deal of inherent Marxist connotations that deal specifically with a persons (or group of pe rsons) place in an economic or socioeconomic hierarchy. Class is inexorably tied to economics, and is therefore an imprecise term for the purposes of this investigation. Thus, the term class (which would be a term with which a read er could more easily identify but for the inherent economic implications) must be cas t aside in favor of the idea of status. The idea of status (as an alternative to class) comes from the writings of Max Weber. In his essay Class, Status, and Party, Weber outlines his ideas as they relate to status. Weber argues that concepts such as class and status groups are phenomena of the
8 distribution of power within a community.2 In addition to class, which is based on property, Weber discusses the distribution of power within the context of what he calls social honor. Social honor is a concept that Weber equates very closely with prestige; the people who are most well known within a given comm unity are thos e people who have achieved the greatest social honor.3 Weber further expands the concept of social honor to include status honor. Status honor is predicated, naturally, on status, which Weber differentiates from class in several ways. Weber uses the term status group to delineate an actual amorphous group that is defined by a combination of every typi cal component of the life of men that is determined by a specific, positiv e, social estim ation of honor.4 Weber stresses that, unlike class, status is not inexorably tied to property. According to Weber, both people with property and people without property are equally capable of belonging to the same status group. Despite this, Weber argues that while economics do not inherently determine status, people within a given st atus group will ultimately recognize the economic disparities between th e people within that same st atus group. Weber gives an example by saying, The equality of status among Ameri can gentlemen, for instances, is expressed by the fact that outside the subordination de termined by the different functions of business, it would be consid ered strictly repugnant wherever the old tradition still prevails if even the richest boss, while playing billiards or cards in his club would not treat his cler k as in every sense fully his equal in birthright, but would be stow upon hi the condes cending status-conscious benevolence which the German boss can never dissever from his attitude.5 Weber continues by saying that status carries with it certain lifestyle expectations. In particular, the lifestyle expect ations within a certain status group are what compel people
9 to want to become a part of that status group. This is what makes social and status mobility something that is desirable. The lifestyle components of a particular status group are also, partially, part of what Webe r terms submission to fashion. By being fashionable, a person (a man, as Weber asserts, but this claim can easily be applied to women as well) is visually presenting the possi bility that that person is a member of a particular status group. The recognition that this person gets from being instantly identifiable as a member of a status group u ltimately becomes at least as important as their class.6 The great difficulty in simply taking Webers and others1 concept of status groups at face value and applying it to this investiga tion of Robert Altmans films is that, despite many attempts to do so, Weber cannot create a plausible conception of status that is not tied in some way to economics. He distinguishes his own idea of class from the concept of status, but cannot seem to get away from the idea that distinctions within a particular status structure will eventually manifest themselves through the difference in the amount of capital (which We ber considers property that is used to acquire more property)7 between two people in a particular stat us group. So even if status groups are not created by some function of economics, some type of economic concern ultimately shapes the way in which these groups hierarch ically self-organize. Webers concept, particularly the idea of submission to fash ion provides a useful starting point, but 1 Webers definition of class seems to inform most other definitions of class that are provided by subsequent scholars. In How Class Works: Objective and Subjective Aspects of Class Since the 1970s Michael Hout defines class as how people earn their money, how much money they have, or what they do with their money. Kurt Mayer argues that, in a cl ass system, the social hierarchy is based primarily upon differences in monetary wealth and income. These concepts of class grow out of Webers ideas.
10 combining Webers ideas with the ideas of Pierre Bordieu and American author Tom Wolfe provides a clearer picture of the idea of status. While status as Weber defines it can be gained through promotion, in Altmans films it is also acquired thr ough the accumulation of cultural cap ital. According to Pierre Bourdieu in his work Distinction cultural capital exists as a parallel to economic capital in that it is possible for those with great economic capital to accumulate cultural capital.8 However, cultural capital and economic capit al do not necessarily go hand in hand. Skilled and respected visual artis ts may not be particularly wealthy. However, they may still be able to both broker and accrue cultu ral capital by virtue of their work. Some artists and educators are able to accumulate cultural cap ital without possessing economic capital.9 It is for this reason that status is a more apt description than class of the distinctions Altman makes. The cultivation of various form s of cultural capital does not suggest class mobility in and of itself, but it does indicate the possibility of status mobility. According to Wolfe critic and historia n Thomas L. Hartshorne, Tom Wolfes career has been primarily concerned with the id ea of status. Hartshorne writes that Wolfe is interested in how [status] is define d, established, differentiated, and enforced, how people react to status clashes and anxieties, and how various subcultu res erect alternative status systems to those prevailing in the dominant culture or in other subcultures.10 Where Wolfe begins to depart from some Weberian ideas is in his treatment of those who create the conventions surrounding the appearances of particular status groups. Wolfe also constructs status groups in such a manner as to suggest that status is, for
11 Wolfe, the principal mode of self-identification in American culture. In The Right Stuff Wolfe posits that status as a test pilot (and, later, astronaut) is the primary manner in which these men self-identify.11 It is the particular group to which they belong that gives them their own identity. Appearance is important to Wolfe not onl y in his criticism of particular groups (and the methods by which they define themselves ,) but also in the formation of his idea of the status sphere.12 Essentially, a status sphere is a status group that is entirely selfdefined and self-contained, without regard fo r the perceptions of those outside of the status sphere. As Hartshorne writes, [f]rom Wolfes accoun t, it is obvious that [Hugh] Hefner is very, very pleased with himsel f and what he has accomplished. In his own terms, he definitely has it made But how about Wolfes terms?13 Hartshorne continues by saying that, [Hefner] is a sh allow kid, inordinately please with the array of gadgets he uses to insulate himself from the world outside his mansion.14 Hefner has, in Wolfes eyes, created a sphere of influence in which the area outside of that sphere is entirely unimportant. This is the heart of Wolfes idea of the status sphere. The sphere is largely self-insulated from the society in which it operates. The concept of status that I will use in this thesis is something of an amalgamation of these three writers. The ideas set forth by Weber, particularly with regard to the blurring of lines when exam ining the relationship between those who own property and those who do not, are particular ly useful. Additi onally, submission to fashion is extraordinarily important to the understanding of what is meant by the term status. Submission to fashion does not always manifest itself in ways that would be
12 readily identifiable to Weber in Altmans film s. In Altmans films, fashion takes the form of physical status markers. Wolfes concepts of status are also helpful, primarily for the notion of the status sphere. Altmans films are filled with such spheres, though Altman does not always treat particular status spheres with the same disdain that Wolfe often shows, particularly for spheres that a ppear to emphasize wealth and materialism. Status in the context of these Altman films is the way that social standing is recognized. The idea that hard work is an indicator of the possibility for social and economic mobility is not completely absent from all Altm an films; most of his films simply present an alternative idea of America. The people ar e more interested in improving their status than they are in economic gains. If econo mic gains become a part of their increased status, then so be it. Howeve r, the characters in Altmans films ascend status ladders, not economic ones. Status Group Relationships In addition to relationships and conflicts among individuals, Altmans films are concerned with the relationships between status groups. In his book The Culture of Spontaneity Daniel Belgrad outlines the dis tinctions between highbrow and middlebrow culture.2 An idea derived from Harpers Magazine columnist Russell Lynes, Belgrad asserts that social distinc tions that had once been associated with economic status were translated in the 1940s an d s into cultural pos itions, as an elite 2 According to Joan Shelley Rubin, Margaret Widdemers 1933 essay Message and Middlebrow provides an early definition of middlebrow that encompasses men and women, fairly civilized, fairly literate, who support the critics and lecturers and publishers by purchasing their wares. The middlebrow is distinctly separate from high brow, but it also finds itself above lowbrow culture.
13 defended its higher tastes, whether mode rn or genteel, against the onslaught of abundance.15 Lynes himself explains the changes by saying that, The old structure of the upper class, the middle class, an d the lower class is on the wane.16 Belgrad and Lynes both assert that traditional ideas of class (and their corresponding societal implications) have given way to organization related more specifically to culture. In particular, th ere is competition between the high and middle brows. The middlebrow struggles for legitimacy against the highbrow, who seeks to solidify their position at the top of the societ al structure. In pa rticular, the highbrows accused middlebrows of valuing art only as a means of profit and advancement.17 This attitude was in stark c ontrast to highbrow cultures own c ontention that its own interest in art and literature was driven by some de sire to be a positive moral influence.18 Altmans films are rife with exampl es of clashes between highbrow and middlebrow culture. However, not all of the clashes between types of culture in Altmans films can be easily explained by the highbrow/middlebrow dynamic. Indeed, in Altmans films the conflict could be better desc ribed as old brow and new brow. The dynamic of morality against a desire for profit is very much alive in Altmans films, but it is created as an issue not of high versus middle brow, but one of cultural longevity. Altman creates a number of situations in his films in which two types of art symbolize some type of status conflict. These conflicts frequently manifest themselves as issues between a popular form of art and a classical fo rm of art; conflicts in which these proponents of these two types of art vie for the supremacy of thei r respective crafts.
14 Storytelling is important to Altmans Am erican statusocracy in two ways. The first manner in which storytelling is important re lates to the structure of Altmans films. This is the way in which Altman tells the stor y. The formal elements of Altmans films are particularly important, as shots and scenes are often constructed to suggest (but not necessarily specifically delineate) particular pow er relationships. The camera, as used by Altman, is sometimes a democratizing force, gi ving people of different levels of societal status equal value. More importantly, the camera gives the reader of the text the opportunity to discern what in th e story is important to them. This democratization of the camera effectively allows both Altman and the viewer to observe the interactions between both members of the same status s phere and the spheres themselves. As his career advances, particularly in Gosford Park the formal elements of Altmans storytelling become over-emphasized as a m eans of emphasizing the importance of the statuspheric relationships. However, these techniques should not be seen as deemphasizing of storytelling so much as an attempt to highlight how important Altman sees the act of telling a story in America. Altman frequently introduces characters and formal elements in his films that I will call bisociations. Bisociation, a term which Alan Karp appropriates from Arthur Koestler, is a term to describe the balancing of two contradictory na rratives that coexist within one character or formal element. Altm an uses these bisociations to establish one of the key ways he explores the themes of talent, status, and pr omotion: the balance between the indeterminate degrees of self irony in the film (both in terms of the characters and the film itself) and the belief in the truth of ones own image. Altmans
15 characters frequently display some level of knowledge that their own image and position within the statuspheres he examines does not equal their level of talent. At the same time, the characters of ten find themselves caught up in thei r status, believi ng that it is an accurate reflection of their respective talents. Altmans critique of this bisociative is informed by Karp and Koestlers concept of the riddle. Alan Karp argues that most art (specifical ly films and novels) ar e seen to contain an element of the riddle that the spectator must solve through a process of imaginative recreation.19 Implication is a technique that, according to Koestler, shifts the burden of the aforementioned riddle from the artist to the audience for the particular piece of art.20 This idea of implication is the primar y way in which Altman relates his ideas regarding status to the idea of promotion. These implications co mpel the viewer to solve the riddle of each characters relationshi p between their talent, their status, and the way in which they are promoted. Many of the characters, particularly those who are performers, promote an image of themselves th at is often different from the reality of their existence. In order to consider the ideas in thes e films Altmans (film is, after all, a collaborative art form) one must consider Altman an auteur Articulated by French film critics such as Andre Bazin, auteur theory considers the director the sole creative voice of a film. Consequently, both a single film and the greater catalogue of a directors career should (according to auteur theorists) be a reflection of a unified directorial worldview.21 While some of Altmans films are unquestiona bly collaborative (he employs a variety of screenwriters and editors, and most of the dialogue is improvised,)22 some of the formal
16 elements of his films, particularly the self -reflexivity that charac terizes his work must come specifically from him. Self-reflexivity in film is not unique to Altman. In fact, the internal self-reference of Altmans work is often characteristic of the early French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard. Godard notoriously load ed his films with references both to other films and references to film as an art form.23 Altmans use of self-reflexivity is an attempt to associate himself with so-cal led art directors like Godard. This demonstrates his concern, durin g the course of his career, with his own status in the American film statusphere, as he tries to prove his own artistic merit. Altmans films contain some kind of nego tiation of a variety of worldviews by the author. The construction of status groups and status sphere s in the various films hinges upon the manner in which Altman negotiates th ese worldviews. The critical work of Mikhail Bakhtin and his idea of heteroglossia suggest that the author of a literary work negotiates various worldviews within the context of a single text. Bakhtins theory suggests that any text has multiple literary or narrative voices beyond those of the narrator or authorial voice.24 This theory will be particularly invaluable in terms of developing ideas regarding Short Cuts which is a film that revolves around a number of individual stories in both th e high-brow and middle-brow wo rld. However, this concept of multiple worldviews or narrative voices does not apply only to Short Cuts Furthermore, this concept of negotiating vari ous worldviews is not th e only way in which storytelling is important in Altmans films.
17 Altman constructs many of his characters as unrelia ble narrators of their own stories. James Phelan construc ts the unreliable narrator in his Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration In any form, according to Phelan, the narrator has three functions interpretati on, reporting, and evaluating within the context of the narrative. When a narrator offers an account that differs from the account offered by the implied author, that author becomes unreliable.25 As educator Michael Smith noted, an unreliable narrator as desc ribed by Phelan must be regarded with skepticism when that person makes a statement, as that person has a personal interest in either the information itself, or the manner in which the information is disseminated.26 This is true of the bulk of Al tmans principal characters. In Altmans films, he cr eates characters which are often clearly deluded about their own circumstances and, perhaps more im portantly, how these delusions affect the stories about themselves that they tell to people within their own status spheres. Altmans characters are also often unreliable because of their tendency to engage in lies of omission, which are mo st often apparent in Gosford Park These characters conceal information about themselves for a variety of reasons with regard to status hierarchy. The next chapter presents the disc ussion of the first major film, 1975s Nashville Using other contemporary Altman films to provi de some personal historical context, the purpose of this chapter is to establish Altmans idea of a society that is based primarily on status and promotion. This chapter contains an examination of the power-plays that are at the heart of Nashville and how these power plays make ta lent secondary to image. The Nashville chapter also pays special attention to the campaign of Hal Philip Walker, and
18 how this campaign parallels not only the sel f-promotion of various characters but the self-conscious manner in which the film promotes itself. The fourth chapter changes the focus to the 1993 film Short Cuts The focus on Short Cuts in this chapter serves two functions. Th is chapter explores the various ways in which the cultural formations of middlebrow society accrue cultural capital in the traditional Bourdieuan sense as a way of a ttempting to become highbrow. The second purpose of this chapter is to investigate the ways in which Altmans ideas about promotion of status evolve into ideas abou t storytelling to ma intain status. To accomplish this, it is necessary to examine th e ways in which characters either lie or engage in self-delusion There is one more component of storytel ling that is examined; the formal components. Many of Altmans cuts in the film seem self-congratulatory. The self-referential cuts are examined as an integral component of the ways in which stories are told. The fifth chapter focuses on the final film, 2001s Gosford Park The analysis of Gosford Park focuses on how the dynamic between l ongevity and newness is related to the concepts of status and promotion. In Gosford Park the statuspheres become selfinsulating In this film, Altman posits that telling stories serves as a way of maintaining that defensive insularity. Members of the two statuspheres tell stories about their respective societies in order to pr eserve these insular units. In Gosford Park promotion becomes a means of insulating and maintaining the place of a particular group within a statusphere.
19 Nashville and the 1970s Robert Altmans 1975 film Nashville was long (and sometimes still is) considered his masterpiece. This seminal film in the R obert Altman catalogue is the most direct and specific example of the directors interest in American statusocracy. Altman uses three primary female characters in Nashville to show the manner in wh ich people achieve and improve their status in the United States. A ltman constructs a world in which the act of promotion, particularly self-promotion, is one way in which these people improve their status. This promotion manifests itself in many forms, from the cultivation of personal relationships that enhance status to the proj ection of certain images of the country music star. The film examines the ways in whic h characters promote themselves (and are promoted,) and how these various means of pr omotion allow them to function within the Nashville statusphere. The film also examines the struggles for supremacy and legitimacy among the various statuspheres in Nashville. Leading Up to Nashville Early Status Films Altmans early ideas about status, particul arly status relationships and promotion, are linked in large part to his interest in th e deconstruction of the myth of the American dream. The ways in which he undermines th e conventions of the American dream are best articulated within the context of two films; 1970s M*A*S*H* and 1971s McCabe and Mrs. Miller McCabe and Mrs. Miller solidified Altmans re putation as a director who subverted genre (in this case, the wester n) as a means of providing a template for some type of cultural criticism (in this cas e, the American dream myth.) Alan Karp argues that Altman uses the western formula as a supe rficial, but noneth eless essential,
20 foundation [to] virtually explode the myth of the American dream in a way that would not be possible in any other genre.27 I would further argue that McCabes optimism and belief in the image he has culti vated for himself is crushed throughout the course of the film by his own lack of se lf-knowledge with regard to his limitations. McCabe believes that he is the quintesse ntial American frontiersman, capable of conquering any obstacle usi ng his own ingenuity. Within the film, the depiction of McCabe as the western hero exists on two levels. Warren Beattys McCabe is recognizable as the American hero of the old west to the viewing audience. Altman shows McCabe si multaneously as cultivating that very image to the other characters within the film. This image within the film, as it is projected to the townspeople, and the role that McCabe and other characters play in constructing that image, is largely ignored by both Karp and Keyssar. When the film first introdu ces McCabe, one of the pa trons in the saloon (Rene Auberjonoiss Sheehan) confronts McCabe about his reputation as a feared gun fighter. McCabe neither confirms nor denies Sheeha ns intimations regard ing his reputation. Consequently, Sheehan circulates the idea that McCabe is, in fact a dangerous gunman. The fear within the community that this st ory elicits affords McCa be the opportunity to become an increasingly important member of the community. McCabe is engaging in a kind of promotion. Initially, he self-pro motes in a passive manner: by not denying Sheehans speculation, he is encouraging a pa rticular image of himself to be spread around the community.
21 Altman places a great deal of emphasis on the exploration of the ambiguity of the relationship between McCabes status, the wa y his status is promoted, and his actual talent. McCabe remains largely silent with re gard to the question of his own status as a legendary gunman. This allows Altman to s uggest that McCabes status is somehow not legitimate. Viewers of the film are intende d to watch the film under the assumption that McCabes status within the community is earned without McCabe possessing any talent of his own. McCabe kills the first two of thes e three men hired to kill him, but he shoots both of them in the back rath er than in the archetypal west ern film shootout, with the men standing far apart in a long alley or cleari ng. McCabes killing of two gunmen might reasonably call into question the degree to whic h his status is undeserved (relative to his talent,) but these killings might also be attributable to luck on McCabes part. With the last killing, McCabe draws the Derringer pistol which he is famous for using. With the revelation of the pistol, Altman forces the audience to question the relationship between McCabes promotion and his talent. McCabes use of the legendary pistol suggests that, at the very least, the story about hi m killing a man is probably true. If McCabe and Mrs. Miller developed Altmans ideas about the relationship between status and promotion, M*A*S*H* provided a template for the status conflicts that define Nashville M*A*S*H* takes place during the Korean War, and follows the actions of a groups of doctors at a mobile military hospital as a means of examining the statuspheric structures of the American military. Like the Wolfian statuspheres of The Right Stuff in M*A*S*H* there are two important types of statusphere. The military is organized by rank, and rank is the most
22 apparent form of status organization in th e film. Colonels outrank majors, who outrank lieutenants, who outrank sergeants, who outrank pr ivates. Many of the main characters of M*A*S*H* hold the higher ranked officers in high re gard simply because of their rank. But this chain of command is not as important to many of the major characters as is the alternative statusphere. The al ternative form of status in M*A*S*H* is something much more akin to an informal fraternity than to rank.28 (This type of st atusphere is also present in Wolfes stories, particularly The Right Stuff .) Within the confines of the military hospital, the characters in M*A*S*H* organize themselves into these two distinct and competing statusphere s. The first is led by Robert Duvalls Major Frank Marion F erret Face Burns a nd, initially, Sally Kellermans Major Hot Lips O Houlihan. In particular, Bu rns is a stereotypically by the book and rather self-righteously religious military officer. Early in the film, he blames an assistant for the death of a patient by saying that the death occurred because his assistant failed to bring him a particular type of needle. Burns calls the man an idiot and tells the assistant, you killed him despite the fact that the patient was clearly already dead. Burns berate s the young assistant as a wa y of maintaining his rank. Altman uses Burnss reaction to this deat h to suggest that Burnss ability as a surgeon does not match his lofty rank within the M*A*S*H* unit. Despite his reaction to the death of this patient, it is clear that the death is Burnss responsibility. The fact that he is a superior officer gives him the means to browbeat the junior officer, which is in turn an opportunity for Burns to disguise his own incompetence.
23 The competing statusphere is similar to Wolfes concept of the fraternal statusphere that exists in The Right Stuff John Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould,) along Donald Southerlands Benjamin Frank lin Hawkeye Pierce and Augustus Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) form the core of this status group that is in opposition to Major Burns and Major OHoulihan. This group, which Helene Keyssar describes as primarily fraternal,29 subverts almost all possible ideas of proper military behavior while competing with Major Burns. The two status spheres are in compe tition for control of the base. In M*A*SH* promotion exists as a kind of weapon in th e struggle between the statuspheres. The promotion of the fraternal stat usphere is typified by the pran k that McIntyre, Pierce and Forrest pull on Hotlips while she is in the s hower. The three surgeons organize what is essentially a viewing of Hotlips showeri ng by removing the cover on the shower tent.3 Keyssar writes about the manner in which wo men become essential to the continuance and the expansion (in more general terms) of the idea of fraternity.30 While the external audience (the viewers of the film) never sees Hotlips nude, the external audience does see the internal audience r eacting to the display. Rev ealing Hotlips in the nude solidifies (and promotes) this particular frat ernity. When the curtain is drawn on the shower tent, a great number of people who we re not originally part of the show stop what they were otherwise doing and being watching Hotlips. Some of these characters begin to interact more with McIntyre and Pierce than they had before. 3 Keyssar suggests that the way this sequence is co nstructed, with Hotlips nude form visible to the spectators within the film (what Keyssa r and other refer to as the interna l audience) only, is an attack on Hollywood conventions regarding feminity and sexuality.3
24 The revelation of Hotlipss naked body also allows Altman to introduce the problematic of authenticity in relation to st atus. Much as the death of a patient calls into question Major Marions comp etence (and, as a result, the legitimacy of his status,) Hotlips being put on display calls into que stion the authenticity of her character. Hawkeye and Trapper John seek to determine whether or not her pubic hair is blonde, ostensibly to determine whether or not she is a natural blonde. However, Altman does not actually answer this questi on of authenticity. The unvei ling of Hotlips consists of a series of close-ups of Hotlips from the neck up cut between various shots of enlisted soldiers waiting in anticipation. However, Altman does not directly answer the question of Hotlips as an authentic blond. A series of medium-close shots of the various male characters shows that the question is answer ed for them. Altman leaves the question open to his viewers, thus introducing authenti city as a problematic without necessarily providing an answer. This open investigation of the authenticity of Hotlipss personal image would serve as a template for future films, particularly Nashville These two early 1970s films serve as templates for Altmans ideas about status and promotion. McCabe and Mrs. Miller functions as a study in individual promotion. M*A*S*H* is an investigation of the relationshi p between competing statuspheres. Both of these examinations of status that Altman undertakes would inform his investigation of the country music world in Nashville Nashville Nashville is a film which explores the rela tionship between talent and promotion within the context of status a dvancement. It is an investigation of the ways in which a
25 variety of characters with a variety of relationships to the country music industry negotiate their own movement within the stat uspheres of Nashville, TN. Altman uses these characters to examin e the relationship between ta lent, promotion, and selfpromotion. Additionally, Altman expands upon the interstatuspheric conflicts at which he hints in M*A*S*H*, as well as introducing elements of intrastatuspheric conflict. Some of Altmans investigations are inc onclusive, but the dynamic of the relationship between talent, status, and promoti on is explored in great depth. David Breskin comments that of all of Altmans films, Nashville is the most American. He argues that the film is a portrait of America by digging for and then dynamiting all [of] the myths and clichs that make Americans Americans .31 This includes, most notably, the notion that hard work, perseverance, and persistence are integral to success. In particular, Altmans characters are studies in the erosion of the ideal American work ethic. These characters are also studies in the relationship between talent and the American work ethic. As w ith McCabe, some of Altmans characters are legitimately talented. Some of them are co mpletely devoid of talent. The common theme through these various characters (according to Breskin) is that none of the major characters achieves status through th e traditional American dream story.32 The beginning of the film its elf is in actuality a prom otion for the film. Alan Karp4 describes the introduction of the film as a bisociative assault [that] is unleashed through the efforts of an unseen announcer who ba rks out a stream of superlatives as he 4 Alan Karp writes about the manner in which Altman plays on the bisociative ideas of appearance and reality as they relate to the character s and bicentennial themes in the film.4 Karp borrows the neologism bisociation from Arthur Koestlers The Act of Creation Koestler uses the term bisociation as a means of providing a formal analysis.4 Karp clarifies the concept of bisociation by placing it not in the context of the creation of art, but instead to the consumption of art.4
26 introduces the films twenty-four stars, many of whom the audience has probably never heard of.33 The introduction continues by bomba rding the external audience with pictures of these various stars and repetition of the name of th e film. The title of the film flashes across the screen in a variety of bri ght colors. This self-conscious recognition of the idea of promotion at the beginning of the fi lm serves as an indicator that the film is about promotion. The most complex character with regard to status, promotion, and self promotion is Henry Gibsons Haven Hamilton. Hamilton is the most easily recognizable character to the internal audience of the film, a nd Altman gives the ex ternal audience the impression that Hamilton is a veteran of the country music i ndustry through the connections within country music that th e audience sees Hamilton exploit. Hamilton exists as the archetypal old guard country star as described in Bill C. Malones Country Music, USA The early country music star was expected to have some type of roots in rural America. It is important to note that these roots were not necessarily real roots. For ex ample, Jimmie Rodgers, who Ma lone calls the first country singing star, is claimed as a native son by th e state of Texas, wher e he was most popular. However, he is not a native Texan.34 During the 1930s in particular, the country music world paid special attention to those who cultivated this down-home image and who managed to keep their rural, everyman or ev erywoman appeal. The trick, with regard to the promotion of these images, is to not project the image of promotion. According to Malone, the ideal country star has a balance of accessibility, the ability to identify with the co re fan group, and the ability to balance self promotion with
27 the appearance of a lack of interest in self promotion.35 The country star must be able to project an appearance that s/he not only unde rstands country music fa ns, but is essentially one of them. This identifia bility as a member of the country music community is essential to being able to constr uct the country music star persona.36 Haven Hamilton is the best, most readily identifiable example of the established country music star. Altman first introduces Hamilton by showing him recording a hyperpatriotic country anthem commemorating the Am erican bicentennial. When the external audience is introduced to Ha ven Hamilton, he is recording a song that sounds very much like a country standard. The st yle of music establishes him as a member of this old guard of country music. Another way in which Altm an establishes Hamilton as an example of a classic country music personality, and an as established figure within the Nashville statusphere, is Hamiltons interaction with t hose who work for him but are outside of his particular statusphere. During the recordi ng of We Must Be Do ing Something Right, Hamilton stops the recording and is critical of Richard Baskins Frog, a studio musician. He tells Frog to get a haircut and that he doesnt belong in Nashville. While Hamilton is the archetypal coun try music star, Frog exists more as a stereotype of rock music culture of the early 1970s.37 His hair is long, he wear s brightly colored shirts while recording in the stud io, and he wears sunglasses inside while recording. Hamiltons reaction to Frog is the earliest indicator that Hamilton is an established personality within the country music community. Hamilton establishes the power that he has over Frog and demonstrates this power by kicking Frog out of the studio, ostensibly
28 because Frog has an appearance that runs contrary to Hamiltons idea of what Nashville should be like. However, it is not simply Frogs app earance that makes him offensive to Hamilton. Hamilton takes issue with the way th at Frog plays music. He believes that Frog does not have the talent to make it in Nashville, because his musical background is not in the traditional Nashville style. Fr og becomes another investigation by Altman of how the idea of talent is perceived and cons tructed. Frog may be a capable musician, but he does not suit what Haven Hamilton seeks in a musician. The result of this exchange is another one of Altmans open investigations of what it means to be talented, and how talent can affect ones status. Altman also uses the count ry-folk trio of Tom, Bill, and Mary as a means of providing a contrast to Have n Hamilton. The trio, two of whom are married, combine many traditional and easily identifiable genre markers of country music with a style of personal appearance that is more characteristic of the 1960s countercultu re. In particular, Keith Carradines Tom has long hair and wears leat her clothing and projects an image that is often described as dirty by various characters under their breath. The establishment of a hierarchy within Nashville, at the top of which sits Haven Hamilton, is aided by the hier archys rejection of the alte rnative style represented by Tom, Bill, and Mary. While both the trios music and Toms solo work are enormously popular within the fan community, these arti sts are marginalized by Hamilton and those within his statusphere. The establishment of Hamilton as this type of country music
29 figure affords him to be a particular kind of power broker, not only within the old guard of country music, but within Nashville as a whole. Hamiltons status as a power broker with in the Nashville statusphere is most apparent when he deals with two women in the film: Barbara Jean and Connie White. While there are many personalities within Ha miltons old guard statusphere, the two who are the most prominent are Karen Blacks Connie White and Ronee Blakeleys Barbara Jean. Both of these women are dressed similarly to Haven Hamilton, with showy, flowing gowns. Both characters appeal to a similar group of people; namely, those for whom more traditional country music is mo st likely to be appealing. However, the characters exist in something of an unspoken rivalry. Subsequent to Barbara Jeans breakdown, Haven Hamilton states that he will appear onstage with her, but not with Connie White. Hamilton has no qualms about introducing Connie White onstage, as he demonstrates by introducing her prior to her pe rformance as a substitute for Barbara Jean at the Grand Ole Opry. Howeve r, Hamilton states plainly that he will not appear on stage with Connie White as a performer. Hamilton does not wish to appear onsta ge with Connie White because she is willing to engage in clear self promotion. He even goes as far as to damn her with faint praise, introducing her at the Grand Ole Opry by saying she is a great singer in her own way. The implication here is that she is not a true country personality. She is rejected because her concern is becoming a successful country music star and she is unafraid to self-promote. Unlike Barbara Jean and Ha ven Hamilton, Connie White does not attempt to hide her ambition or her willingness to self-promote. Ultimatel y, this willingness to
30 appear as though she is self-promoting causes her to be situated below Hamilton and Barbara Jean in Hamiltons statusphere. Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton both consider themselves legitimate or authentic country musicians because they refuse to engage in the sort of self promotion in which, by Altmans Koestlerian implication, Connie White engages. While listening to Connie Whites performance at the Grand Ole Opry, Barbara Jean bemoans the fact that her husband will attend a party later with Connie White. In particular, Barbara Jean reacts with disgust at the idea of her husband hobnobbing with influe ntial people within the Nashville statusphere. Barbara Jean cl early understands the va lue of this hobnobbing, and understands that it is a vital way of self-promoting. However, both she and her husband balk at the idea of, as her husband states, hob-knobbing with them [sic] phonies. It is important to note here th at while Barbara Jeans objection to hobnobbing appears genuine, the husband actually seems to relish the thought of being able to promote the image of Barbara Jean. He does not have to adhere to the image of the country music star, because it is instead his job to be a promoter. Altman creates an important bisociative relationship that centers on Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton. Both disdain self-promoti on as a concept, and yet they allow their images to be promoted. Conversely, Connie Whites unwillingness to disguise her interest in self-promote inhibits her ability to ascend the status ladder. Altman constructs promotion as something that is often reciprocal. Barbara Jeans status is achieved in part from he r relationship to Haven Hamilton. Hamilton is not the sole vehicle promotion for Barbara Jean, but he is nevertheless important.
31 Similarly, Barbara Jean is an important ve ssel for Hamiltons promotion. Hamiltons willingness to go onstage only with Barbara Jean is important to Barbara Jeans ability to operate in the Nashville stat usphere. Because he is an influential power broker, Hamiltons name recognition can bring Barbara J ean to a performance. At the same time, Barbara Jean is the most popular personality in Nashville. The fact that Haven Hamilton can get Barbara Jean to appear onstage with him is a demonstration of how influential he is in Nashville. While characters like Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton examine the relationship between talent, status, and promotion, Sueleen Gay (played by Gwenn Welles) represents an extreme example of the promotion culture in Nashville. Sueleen promotes herself (and is promoted by Ned Beattys Delbert Rees e) as a sexier version of Barbara Jean.38 During a performance in a nigh tclub, she introduces a song she will si ng by saying, Hi, yall, Im going to perform one that Barbara Jean wrote. Sueleen tries to fashion an image that is as close to Barbara Jeans as possible. Unlike Barbara Jean, however, Sueleen has virtually nothing to offer Nashville that can be marketed in terms of talent. In addition to a lack of talent, she also lack s Barbara Jeans characteristic gentility. At one club where she is singing, several of the ma le characters suggested that she take her clothes off and dance (which she does.) Altm an uses Sueleen to suggest that there is a thin line between a relationship that is betw een promoter and promoted and one that is between a pimp and a whore. Sueleens lack of talent means that all she has is promotion, and the only way that Altman sees her able to promote he rself is through her body.
32 Altman uses these three women to esta blish a continuum with regard to the relationship between talent, st atus, and promotion. At one end sits Barbara Jean. The quintessential country star, Barbara Jean e ffortlessly blends her natural talent with Malones constructed image. Connie White shares much of Barbara Jeans talent. Unlike Barbara Jean, Connie White embraces the appearance of being self-promoting. She sits somewhere in the middle of this continuum. At the other end of the continuum, as far from Barbara Jean as possible, is Suel een Gay. Her lack of talent casts Sueleen as figure who is pure promotion. Haven Hamiltons concept of this conti nuum, which is different from Altmans, allows Altman to offer two competing views of this continuum. Wh ile Connie White sits at some point on this continuum between the other two women, Altman and Hamilton have differing concepts of which woman she is closer to. Hamiltons disdain for her willingness to self-promote causes him to see her as being closer to Sueleen than to Barbara Jean. On the other hand, Altman s eems to think that the difference between Connie White and Barbara Jean is smaller th an the difference between Connie White and Sueleen. Altman does not have the same bisociative relationship to the Nashville statusphere that Haven Hamilton does, so th e disdain he may have is for the status system, rather than Connie Whites interest in self-promotion. Altman treats the major stars of Nashville as if their self-promotion is bisociative. The stars react with what seems to be genuine interest to the attenti on from their fans, but only so long as is necessary to maintain th eir images. For example, Connie White has a confrontation with a fan before one of her shows, and she is in itially very receptive to the
33 attention she receives from the fan. However, as the fan becomes more persistent, Connie becomes more dismissive. The fan begi ns to offer songs that she has written as suggestions for Connie to record. Connies re sponse is to repeated ly thank the fan for being a fan, while not acknowledging the fans de sire to have the songs recorded. This particular type of dismissal of a fans ideas undercuts the idea that Connies love for her fans is genuine. In addition to his treatment of Conni e White, Altmans treatment of Haven Hamilton in particular suggests that Hamiltons promotion is al so not always of a genuine nature. Hamilton cultivates the persona of a man who understands and sympathizes with country music fans, because he is just like them. However, Altman exposes this image Hamilton promotes as disingenuous. John Tr iplette, played by Michael Murphy, is a regional director for the Hal Phillip Walker cam paign. During the course of the film, he moves around Nashville, looking to secure ac ts for a country music festival, which will also serve as a campaign rally for the third party candidate for President. He remarks to several characters, including both Haven Ham ilton and Bill (of Tom, Bill and Mary,) that the idea of using country music is appea ling to Walker because the yokels and rednecks will, as Triplette suggests, eat th is stuff up. While Triplettes assertion is merely an attempt to manipulate people into voting for his candidate, it is important to note that both of the country music personaliti es with which he shares his idea actually agree with him. These statements certainly further undermine the apparent authenticity of country music artists. However, these statements serve another important function within Altmans critique. The stars ac knowledgement of (and ag reement with) what
34 Triplette says show that they are knowingly complicit in the sale of a product that is at least partially inauthen tic. Altman uses th e possibility of the di singenuousness of Haven Hamilton as a means of suggesting that th e self-righteousness of Hamiltons entire statusphere can be ca lled into question. While Haven Hamilton may be the closest character to a personification of status, presidential candidate Hal Phi lip Walker is a character w ho embodies promotion. Walker is a third party candidate who is running in the 1976 presidential election. In creating Walker, Altman set the goal of creating a charac ter that said the stuff politicians dont say, so we might actually be interested in it.39 Walkers campaign vans drive around the streets of Nashville, blasting out of a loud speaker his message that paints him as an alternative to mainstream politics. Walker exists only in the vans, campaign flyers, and news reports that are a part of the mise-en-scene of the film. While both the characters in the film and the audience are being bomba rded with information about Hal Philip Walker, Walker is never seen, and he exists more as an idea of a presidential candidate than as an actual candidate.40 The conspicuous lack of an actual person portraying Hal Philip Walker is meant to drive home the idea of promoting a president.41 It is not so much that the character of the man is unimpor tant, or that he may be dishonest in his pursuit of the presidency. Hal Philip Walker is a character who exists only as a promotion. Conclusion In Nashville Altman exposes the relationshi p between talent, promotion and status. Those who are successful within th e country music statusphere must combine
35 talent with the ability to be willing to be promoted while simultaneously appearing to reject that same promotion. Successfully navigating the Nashville statusphere necessitates believing that one is as talented as ones status indicates, while also cultivating an image that is an intentiona lly inaccurate representation of ones true personality. This is part of Altmans biso ciative paradox characters regard themselves with a sense of irony, and yet at the same time often believe the hype surrounding their promoted image. The 1970s also establish, for the first time, where Altman sees himself in the American film statusphere. M*A*S*H* and McCabe were Altmans first commercial successes, but their subversion of traditional genres and statuspheres established a reputation for being someth ing of a radical filmmaker.42 Nashville did nothing to dispel that reputation, and perhaps cemented it in his own mind. The self-reflexivity with regard to promotion suggests that Altman iden tifies his career with that of Connie White. Both are talented, and both are willing to out wardly promote in ways that resist the traditions of their re spective industries.
36 Highbrow and Middlebrow: Conflict in Short Cuts Altmans 1980s films diverged significan tly from his intere st in exploring America as a statusocracy. Fo llowing the critical success of Nashville and other films of the mid 1970s, Altmans career took someth ing of a dive, bottoming out critically, commercially, and artistically with 1979s Quintet This Paul Newman driven postapocalyptic thriller was centere d on a game played by the char acters in an environment most closely resembling a nuclear winter. A ltman centers the action on the game (a game he invented and marketed as a companion to th e film) as part of a larger game metaphor he associated with the film. According to Altman, the film existed as a game on several levels; from his primarily European cast, to the game itself, to Paul Newmans solitary characters relationship to hi s snowy environment as a meta phor for Altmans somewhat frosty relationship to the major studios of the mid to late 1970s.43 This antagonistic relationship carried itself well into the 1980s as Altman shifted his focus away from investigations of status and toward project s in which he focused on the interactions between characters in private relationships. A ltman seemed to be making films that were in direct contrast to what a studio executive mi ght want in a film, even going so far as to make 1980s Popeye, which was a musical wi thout professional singe rs and dancers, a comedy without jokes, and a fantasy w ith a minimum of special effects.44 Altman filmed a series of plays, created a TV se ries, and was largely out of the American cinematic limelight until the early 1990s. 1993s Short Cuts builds upon some of the concepts that Altman established with his films in the 1970s. In Short Cuts Altman shifts his primary focus away from the
37 manner in which individuals accrue status. Instead, he focuses more on the conflicts between status groups. In particular, Altman is concerned with exploring the relationship between high brow statuspheres and middlebrow statuspheres. Altman also examines the way in which people engage in self promotion in a private context (rather than the public context of the country music industry) in early 1990s Lo s Angeles. In Short Cuts the ideas of promotion and storytelling begin to merge. Altmans concept of promotion becomes less about the selling of a public im age, and more about the projection of an image privately. Many of the characters in Short Cuts are delusional about themselves in some way with regard to their status. Cons equently, these characters tell stories about themselves with varying degrees of truth. A ltman negotiates these stories that people tell about themselves, often with an eye toward determining both the degree to which these stories are accurate and the degree to whic h these peoples places within their own statuspheres are a function of th eir ability to tell a story. Much like Nashville Short Cuts also introduces a bisociative paradox. In Short Cuts Altman problematizes the concept of midd lebrow culture. In particular, Altman examines how particular aspects of middleb row culture aspire to become highbrow. Within Altmans highand middlebrow status st ructures, lack of status consciousness is a necessary component of participating in the highbrow statusphere. While an entity within the middlebrow statusphe re (either a person or a cu ltural formation, such as a group of producers of a certain type of music) may aspire to become highbrow, it is, ironically, that very aspirati on that necessarily prevents middlebrow people or cultural forms from ascending the status ladder.
38 Short Cuts departs from Nashville not only in the manner of promotion which Altman examines, but also in the role that the formal elements of the film play in Altmans investigations of status. Apart from the opening montage in Nashville that films formal elements have little relations hip to the ways in which Altman constructs status. In Short Cuts as well as 1992s The Player (which served as a formal template for some of the visual components of Short Cuts ,) the formal components of the film become more important to Altmans investig ation, particularly in the way he tells his stories. Formal Storytelling It is through the formal elements of th e film that Altman first introduces the bisociative paradox of middlebrow culture. Altm an constructs cultural formations within the middlebrow statusphere as possessing the de sire to gain highbrow status. However, the paradox of highbrow status th at Altman creates is the lack of status consciousness on the part of the highbrows: in order to be highbrow, one must reject the concept of ascending the statusphere. This paradox manifests itself first in Altmans construction of the film. On the one hand, Altm an understands that he is maki ng a film, an art form that is decidedly middlebrow in status. At the same time, some of his methods of constructing his films suggest, as Alan Karp states, that Altman has the desire to be received as a serious artist45 within the highbrow statusphere. Altman himself struggles with the dis tinction between highbrow and middlebrow, particularly within the contex t of film as an art form. Short Cuts is based upon a series of unrelated stories written by Ra ymond Carver in the 1970s. Ca rvers stories are highbrow
39 works, particularly because of the style. Mu ch of Carvers work is minimalist, with the responsibility for filling in the gaps of th e story resting upon the reader. In order to take these stories and mold them into a coherent film, Altman integrates the stories together; the stories become intercut, so that each story can be followed chronologically. These cuts are the foundation of the self-awareness of the film.5 Altman understands that, because of its lack of cultural longevit y, film is a middlebrow form of art. Through his stitching together of the stories of th e highbrow author Raymond Carver, Altman demonstrates his own concern with becoming highbrow. In Short Cuts the cuts from one scene to the next often establish a relationship between two scenes. These cuts are Altman s type of tongue-in-cheek matching one scene to the next. For example, during an argument between Ra lph (Matthew Modine) and Julianne Moores Marian Wyman about th e economic merits of various artists, the camera lingers on one of Marians paintings of a nude woman. The camera then cuts to the nude form of a woman found in a river by Stuart Caine (Fred Ward) and his fishing buddies after she had been murdered. There is no connection between the stories that Altman has connected, save the familiarity be tween some of the characters. Altman has established a visual connection between the two scenes. This visual connection also serves as a reminder of the status differe nce between the two groups of people. The 5 This self-awareness is not unique to Short Cuts and is in fact rooted both in Nashville and 1992s The Player The Player beings with a tracking shot that enco mpasses the credit sequence while introducing many of the characters that are present on a movie st udio lot. During this tracking shot, Fred Wards character begins discussing what he believes to be th e greatest tracking shots in all of film. For viewers who know what a tracking shot it, this discussion serves as something of an inside joke that lets the viewers know that the film is somehow self aware of its status as a film. The cuts in Short Cuts work in a similar way.
40 viewer is effectively jarred from the hi ghbrows (Marian Wyman) to the non-highbrows (Caine and the fisherman.) The visual connection exte nds through this scene as Caine and his compatriots ignore the body of the dead woman and contin ue to fish. Altmans camera focuses on a particular fish, and then proceeds to cut fr om this scene to the next, where Robert Downey, Jr.s Bill and Lili Taylors Honey Bush are looking into the fish tank of the friends from whom they are apartment sitt ing. Again, the viewers are made aware of status distinctions. In this instance, Altman cu ts from a fish to another medium close, this time of the Bushes, who spend a significant percentage of their time onscreen at the apartment of their friends; an apartment that is an indicator of thei r neighbors high status. The commonalities within these three scenes serve to highlight the distinctions between the statuspheres. These self-consci ous and tongue-in-cheek cuts serve as a method of creating a sequence of events runni ng through the various stories that is easy for the viewer to interpret. This cognizance of the storytelling serv es as a bridge from this film to 2001s Gosford Park where the relationship between Altmans storytelling and the storytelling of the charac ters becomes more intertwined. The cuts from story to story also draw attention to the statuspheric relationships. Altman begins the cut by first showing Zane Cassidys Casey Finnigan medium close while drinking a glass of milk. Rather than stay on the boys face, the camera pans over to a nightstand, upon which the boy has places his cup. The camera zooms tight onto the glass of the milk, and Finnigan knoc ks the glass over. As the gl ass falls, the scene cuts to a small old television in need of repair, on which is footag e of a glass of milk being
41 spilled. The camera then pans across the house of Jerry and Lois Kaiser (Chris Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh.) The relatively small a bode with minimal furniture allows the cut between milk glasses to serve as another remi nder of the change in statuspheres. This cut, like the fish cuts, serves to highlight the difference between the statuspheres. Altmans interest in film ascending to highbrow status is not unique to Short Cuts In his preceding film, 1992s The Player Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins ) stands at an awards banquet and gives an impassioned speech in which he discusses the necessity of film being considered as more than entertainment. At a gala event for filmmakers, Mill says, [The Los Angeles County Musesum of Ar t has] long fostered the art of motion pictures as a serious and valuable ar t form in this community. Many people across the country and around the world for too long thought of the movies as a popular entertainment more than serious art. And Im afraid a large part of the press supports this atti tude. We want great films, w ith long shelf lives, we want the films of the new John Hustons, Orson Welleses, and Frank Capras. We and the other major film studios have a respons ibility to the public, to maintain the art of motion picturesmovies ar e art; now, more than ever. On the one hand, there is nothing to suggest th at Mill is speaking with Altmans voice. The fact that a director uses the voice of a particular charac ter does not mean that that character is taking on the directors voice.6 That being said, ma ny of the sentiments about film expressed by Griffin Mill in The Player mirror the struggles through which Altman attempts to elevate film to a highbrow cultural formation.46 Status in Short Cuts In Short Cuts the accumulation and spending of cultural capital appears, to those in the middlebrow statusphere, to be the door into the highb row statusphere. 6 According to Robert T. Self, Altman always consider ed his actors the primary artists. Because of this, he tended to prefer adlibbed dialogue. This speech was written, not adlibbed by Tim Robbins. (see endnote 39.)
42 However, this belief ignores what is, in A ltmans view, one of th e essential components of highbrow status lack of status consciousness.47 For example, the physician Ralph Wyman attempts to gain highbrow status thro ugh the accumulation of cultural capital. Cultural capital is acquired in Short Cuts through an increase in interaction with various types of media or art. The goal is not so much to learn about th is art as to consume it. In the instance of Ralph Wyman, 7 the accumulation of cultural cap ital is vital to retaining his status in the social world of medicine a nd his attempts to climb out of the middlebrow statusphere, and thus his attendance at the c oncert is necessary to foster the accumulation of cultural capital.48 In Short Cuts Altman uses groups of two people (often married couples, but not always) as a means of illustrating the c ontrast between highbrow and middlebrow statuspheres. In these relationships, the mi ddlebrow character often displays some level of status insecurity. Altman uses the Wy man family as an example of two people who are very close but operate in diffe rent statuspheres. Marian Wyman8 is an artist who is married to Dr. Ralph Wyman.49 The couple meets Claire (Anne Archer) and Stuart Caine at a cello recital, and the differences between the Dr. and Mrs. Wyman become immediately apparent. Marian and Claire notice popular ce lebrity Alex Trebeck at the concert, and this common interest of th eirs sparks a conversation amongst the two couples, which ultimately leads to an invitati on to dinner. In contrast to the women, Ralph Wyman has a different attitude about Trebeck and the Caines. 7 According to Self, Altmans films frequently demonstr ate the remarkable fertility of social motivation. However, Self does not address the accumulation of status markers and cultural capital. 8 Self discusses how Altman establishes his women within the context of contradictory formations of power. However, Self ignores the possibility that women (particularly Marian Wyman) could be a type of cultural capital.
43 In keeping with her highbrow status that stems from her career as an artist, Marian Wyman is unconcerned with the appear ance of being high status. The Caines do not have the same cultural standing as the Wymans. The Caines are working class (Claire is a clown, and Stuart is a salesman) and their status elicits different reactions from Marian and Ralph. Marian seems uncon cerned with the status of the Caines. She argues to Ralph that they seem to be nice pe ople, and that this should be sufficient for friendship. In contrast, Ralphs reaction to the Caines implies that he believes his attempts to raise his status will be hurt if he is associating himself with people outside of his desired statusphere. When Marian invite s the Caines over for dinner, Ralph asks his wife, Why did you do that? The Wymans pr oceed to debate who invited the Caines, with Ralph asking once again, Why did you invite them to dinner? Similarly, Ralph makes a point of not not icing Alex Trebeck. While both Marian Wyman and the Caines notice Trebeck and co mment on his presence, Ralph Wyman acts as though he does not know who Trebeck is. This self-proclaimed lack of knowledge about Trebeck is undercut later in the film. During the dinner to which the Caines have been invited by the Wymans, the couples engage in a board game version of Jeopardy! The fact that the Wymans own this game suggests that Wyman has some knowledge of Alex Trebeck. His self-professed inability to recognize Trebeck is exposed as an attempt to seem highbrow by being detached from middlebrow culture. This difference in the view of the statusphe res is also established in the different ways in which the Wymans engage high-br ow and middle-brow culture. Marian is engaged with middle-brow popular culture, b ecause it does not threaten her highbrow
44 status. While she has some degree of interest in the concert, she is at least similarly fascinated by the presence of Alex Trebeck, a pop-culture icon. At the same time, Marian is an artist who is more concerned w ith the critical reception her work gets than its marketability. During the course of the film, she is seen painting a number of paintings, particularly female nudes. She also has conversations with both her sister and her husband about her art. During the convers ation about art, Ralph reveals that he sees art simply as a commodity. He suggests th at Mitchell Anderson, a former acquaintance of Marians, was a failure as an artist because of his inability to sell any of his paintings. Ralph refers to him as, The lousy painter, the one who ne ver sold anything Mitchell Anderson. This is a sentiment expressed by other lowbrow or middlebrow characters. Tim Robbins police officer Gene Sheppard sco ffs at the notion that Alex Trebeck might purchase one of Marians paintings, simply because he believes that she does not sell very well and therefore is not a good artist. His wife, Sherri (Madeline Stowe,) says that, [Trebeck] might buy one of [Marians] pain tings, to which he r husband says, Nah (sic) I dont think so. I dont see how she could even give those things away. Much like Ralph Wyman, Gene Sheppard equates sales with artistic merit. Ralph Wymans attitudes about art and his presence at th e concert raise an issue that is a prominent status related theme of the film. There is a conflict between the highbrow and middlebrow statuspheres that ma nifests itself through the types of music that characters listen to, as well as the place s in which they listen to music. People who have some type of professional job (par ticularly Ralph Wyma n,) or a job which necessitates attempting to reach the highbrow statusphere are shown as more likely to be
45 listening to classical music. This is also true of Alex Trebeck, who actually does some straddling of the line between highbrow status and middlebro w status. On the one hand, he is a popular figure, well known for his televi sion program Jeopardy. As a result, he is popular with people who are members of th e middlebrow statusphere. At the same time, he attends the same concert as the Wy mans. He also considers purchasing one of Marian Wymans paintings. Because of his cele brity status, he is able to straddle the demarcation between these two statuspheres in a way that the other characters are not. Alex Trebeck functions as one of several symbols that Altman uses to illustrate the attempts by middlebrow cultural forms to become highbrow. As a television game show host, Alex Trebeck has a definite pl ace within the middlebrow statusphere. His profession is certainly middlebrow. Howeve r, it is not only his profession, but the medium in which he works that is identifiable as middlebrow. Jeopardy! is a game show not unlike most other game shows. However, it has a decidedly different appeal than the quiz shows that have been a st aple of American television since the 1950s. However, with questions often focused on art and literature, Jeopardy aims to appeal to more than the middlebrow audience of television. While the show appeals to this audience, Jeopardy! also targets people who are either highbrow or ha ve highbrow aspirations. Ostensibly, Jeopardy! is an attempt by television as a cultural form to apologize for its place in the middlebrow statusphere. In contrast to those within the highbrow st atusphere, Altman constructs a structure of association between the middlebrow and working class characters and jazz music. For example, Robert Downey, Jr.s Bill Bush is a makeup artist who frequents a local jazz bar
46 with his wife, Honey, and a couple with whom they are friends. The use of a jazz bar (as opposed to a type of music more easily identif iable as popular) is another example of the attempt by people within the middlebrow statusphere to acquire cultural capital. Jazz, much like Alex Trebeck and Jeopardy! is a historically middl ebrow cultural form that has attempted to ascend the status ladder and, ultimately, become highbrow. This attempted transition began as early as 1930 with saxophonist Lester Young. A member of Count Basies swing band, Y oung suggested to his fellow bandmates that they were all belly, and that, perhaps unlike his bandm ates, he was taking a more intellectual approach to his music. This inclination toward cerebral playing marks an attempt by bebop jazz musicians as an attempt to reinvent jazz as a more intellectual pursuit, rather than a more emotive one.50 Bebop entertainers began to comport themselves onstage less as entertainers and more lik e serious classical musicians.51 This concern with appearance and with intellectual pursuit establishes the inte rest jazz musicians (a nd aficionados) have in elevating jazz to highbrow status. The conflict between jazz and classical music as an example of cultural status conflict is typified52 by the Trainer family.9 The mother, Tess Trainer (played by Annie Ross,) is a jazz club singer who deludes herself with rega rd to her own talent and importance in the jazz world as she strugg les for acceptance from her daughter. While Tess is hardly devoid of talent, she believes that her talent is being masked to some degree by the fact that she is stuck in Los Angeles because the Los Angeles scene does not lend her to being rediscovered. She sugge sts that the audiences in Los Angeles are 9 Self discusses the Trainers in terms of parallel structures, but ignores the status implications of the mother-daughter opposition.
47 only interested in snorting coke and talking, rather than hearing her sing. She deludes herself into blaming others for her curre nt status as a has-been jazz singer. By contrast, Trainers daughter Lori Singers Zoe, is a cl assical cellist (the same cellist who performed at the reci tal that began the film,) who has a great deal more talent than her mother. Tess resents Zoe because Te sss chosen method of musical expression is not universally accorded highbrow status. This conflict between mother and daughter is perhaps the best example of Altmans c oncept of friction between levels of social status being manifested in this film. As he demonstrated in Nashville with presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker, Altman often uses absurd and extreme exampl es as an illustration of his ideas about status. In Short Cuts this excessive illustration that Altman constructs is more metaphorical in nature than Hal Philip Walker. It is also, rather than being an illustration of promotion, a caricature of the ways in which the people of Los Angeles delude themselves. In order to constr uct the character Altman wants, it was necessary for him to change certain elements of the personalities and circumstances of the particular character. Altmans over the top illustration of delu sion takes the form of the motorcycle policeman Gene Sheppard. Sheppard is based primarily off upon Al, an employee of an aeronautics company and the first person narrat or of Raymond Carvers story Jerry and Molly and Sam. In the story, Al lies to his wife about th e way the dog, Suzy, disappears. The dog had been driving Al crazy, and so to rid himself of this menace, he takes the dog to an adjoining neighborhood and drops it off. The changes from Carvers Al that Altman makes are what transform hi m into the fantastic example of delusion.
48 When Al becomes Sheppard, the lies com pound themselves to include a series of infidelities and an exaggerated sense of self-importance within the police department. As a form of bisociative storytelling, he tells hi s wife a number of (what she later says she knows to be) bald faced lies to cover for the affair he is having with a local woman. 10 To create this cover, Sheppard manufactures an imaginary stin g operation on which says he is working to bring down a gang of criminal s responsible for selling crack cocaine to school teachers. In the films final sequence, Los A ngeles experiences a minor earthquake. Sheppard takes his LAPD bullhorn out behind th e house and orders people to stay in their homes and remain calm. These instructions are barely audible over the sound of the shaking of the ground, and thus they will not help anyone in any meaningful way. The stories that Sheppard told his wife, as well as his use of the bullhorn, have become a part of his self-delusion. Gene Sheppards delusions and the stories he tells allow him to cope with his relatively low level of status. Sh eppard is not the only character in his own house that Altman changes from Carvers template to fit his extreme example of delusion. Altman also makes one significant change to Sheppards wife. Altman constructs a link between two of Carvers stories by maki ng Sherri Sheppard th e sister of Marian Wyman. One the one hand, this link is one of many sutures that Altman uses to fuse Carvers stories together. However, this particular association also establishes a relationship between Sherri Sheppard and th e highbrow statusphere. Through the use of 10 Self (84) describes the conversa tions between the Sheppards as arguments related to infidelity. This seems a slight misreading, as Sherri Sheppard seems uninterested in his infidelity and is more focused on the story itself.
49 a series of phone conversations between th e sisters, Altman informs the audience Altmans insertion of a bridge between Mr s. Sheppard and the highbrow statusphere establishes the connection between Ge ne Sheppard and the middlebrow. The Sheppards are not the only married c ouple engaging in a bi sociative lie about the nature of their relations hip. Marian has lied for ye ars to her husband about being unfaithful at a party years earlier. During th e course of a conversation with her husband, she ultimately reveals that she has, in fact, been unfaithful in the past. The initial lie serves to preserve her marriage, which ultimately serves to preserve Dr. Wymans status. Marians lie serves as a parallel to the self de lusions with regard to status mobility. While there is certainly some element of guilt on Marians part, her embrace of storytelling (and lying in particular) as a mean s of maintaining the marriage also serves to allow Ralph to maintain his fantasy of being a member of the status elite. Conclusion In Short Cuts Altmans focus shifts away from the ways in which status is achieved. Instead, the film focuses on the conflict between highbrow statuspheres and middlebrow statuspheres. Altmans middl ebrow characters have a paradoxical relationship with their own statusphere. Hi s middlebrow characters are consumed with the goal of becoming entrenched in the highbrow statusphere. However, as he demonstrates through the attitudes of his hi ghbrow characters, Altmans construction of the highbrow statusphere itself includes a lack of status consciousness. The Wyman sisters and Zoe Trainer have no real interest in ascending the status ladder, and this establishes them as being highbrow. In c ontrast, the middlebrow status seekers have
50 deluded themselves into thinking that they can move up this ladder through the accumulation of cultural capital. In reality, their desire to ac cumulate this cultural capital prevents them from ever being ab le to enter that statusphere. Altmans interest in statuspheric conflict in this film once again mirrors where he sees himself in the American film stat usphere. Much as the middlebrows of Short Cuts strive for some level of highbrow status, A ltman is unsure of his place in the American film statusphere. The self-reflexivity of Short Cuts draws specific attention to the ways in which Altman appropriates highbrow art as an attempt to elevate his art from middlebrow to highbrow status.
51 Gosford Park In Gosford Park, Altman reintroduces the theme of longevity versus newness that he applied peripherally in his previous films. This theme appeared to some extent in both Nashville (in the conflict between Haven Hamilton s statusphere and that of Tom, Mary, and Bill) and in Short Cuts (in the resistance to some form s of art becoming high brow.) In Gosford Park the conflict between longevity and newness pervades all of the statuspheric relationships that Altman examines Status in Gosford Park is very different than status in Altmans previous films. Because the film takes place in post-World War I England, status appears very sim ilar to what Weber would define as class. The film is, in some ways, a classic upstairs/downstairs film that focuses on the interactions between Englands wealthy elite (the upstairs) and th eir servants (the downstairs.) These two statuspheres are rigidly define d, and the film shows that it is virtually impossible to move from one statusphere to the other. And yet, within each statusphere, there is a hierarchy of status. The upstairs statusphere is divided essentially in two substatuspheres old money and new money. As their respectiv e names suggest, the divisions within the upstairs statusphere are ba sed upon how long they have ha d their wealth. Those who are part of the old money status hierarchy have most likely inherited their money (though some may have married into it.) People who are new money, on the other hand, have earned it in some way (either through business ventures or, in the case of characters such as Jeremy Northams Ivor Nove llo, through a film career.)
52 Similarly, the downstairs statuphere exists as a place where status is accrued primarily through experience. With the downsta irs statusphere, Altm an is returning to one of the primary issues he explored in Nashville the importance of talent in determining status. In Gosford Park he equates talent with be ing good at ones job. The downstairs statusphere is one of the few places in any of Altmans films where there is a simple equation involving talent and status. The more talented (or experienced) you are, the higher your positi on within the statusphere. Much as in Short Cuts status is maintained through so me form of storytelling. In Gosford Park however, the stories that the characte rs tell about themselves are stories that conceal the truth, rather th an the self-delusion present in Short Cuts While it is difficult to move up quickly in ones given stat usphere, it is possible to lose ones status rapidly within a statusphere. Status can be lost when other members of the statusphere learn that the stories one tells are untrue in some way. Therefore, status maintenance in Gosford Park takes the form of telling stories in a way that withholds information, rather than sharing information. While Altman became more prolific (and commercially successful) during the 90s, it was not until 2000s Dr. T and the Women that he began to return to his investigation of fo rms of status. Dr. T is the story of Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere,) a Dallas, TX, area gynecologist w hose practice caters primarily to women of high status. However, the film drew criticism for its portrayal of these high status women,53 and ultimately has very little to say about these women. Rather, the women are seen simply as manifestations of their status. These wome n have the goal of being seen in places of
53 high status. What is unusual about Dr. T is Altmans relative lack of commentary on these women. The women serve mostly as a manifestation of a group of people that Altman examines more closely in Gosford Park people in the new money statusphere. Dr. T and the Women functions to introduce the concept of new money status to Altmans library. Establishing Status Upstairs Altman creates a delineation between old money and new money in the upstairs statusphere. The line he creates is, in many ways, a study of longevity both cultural longevity and actual long life. People who are old money view those who have new money with some degree of contempt. This contempt manifests itself in the form of disgust on the part of those who are old m oney with the ways in which the new money characters try to fit into the old money statusphere. Some of the old money characters, such as Michael Gambons William McCordle (the head of the household wher e the film takes place) are simply indifferent to people with new money. In fact, McCordle largely ignores everyone in the film, regardless of their status. The character who best mainta ins the self-perceived superiority of old money status over new money status is Maggi e Smiths Constance Trentham. Constance Trentham takes every possible opportunity to be little or bemoan peopl e who are a part of the new money statusphere. Trentham fre quently interacts with Natasha Wightmans Lavinia Meredith, a younger woman who appear s to have married into her money. Meredith wears the same dress at several f unctions during the course of the weekend, and this draws comments from Trentham. Trentham tells the women with whom she is
54 playing bridge that she would not know wh at would possess someone to come for a weekend without more than one frock. She makes the comment within earshot of Mrs. Meredith, and the implication that she makes is that, becau se Mrs. Meredith is new money, she does not properly understand how to behave around others who have money. In addition to critiquing Merediths clot hing, Trentham also demeans the chosen form of entertainment of the new money stat usphere film. The concern that Altman expresses in Short Cuts with regard to film as a high status form of art returns in Gosford Park Bob Balabans Morris Weissman, a Hollywood film producer, has made the weekend trip to the McCordle household along with Ivor Novell o, the star of a series of Hollywood films. Early in the film, Trenth am asks Novello how it feels knowing that, because of medium in which he works, his car eer is unlikely to last for much more than the next, say ten years. Similarly, later in the film a group of the old money characters ask Weissman about his work.11 Trentham tells Weissman that theyre asking him, because none of them are going to see th e film, and she takes as an absurdity the suggestion that perhaps they should. Once again, Altman is examining the role of film in the art statusphere. Whereas in Short Cuts Altman was concerned with trying to give film some highbrow legitimacy, in Gosford Park he suggests that those in high statuspheres believ e that film is (or was) connected to the new money char acters. Altman depicts film being harmed by its relative lack of cultu ral longevity. 11 Weissman has come to McCordles to do research for a mu rder mystery that he is producing, which is supposed to take place in a setting very similar to the setting of Gosford Park
55 Downstairs Status Keep to Yourself Status in the downstairs st atusphere is based primarily upon job continuity. Thus, much as in the upstairs statusphere, hierar chy in the downstairs statusphere is based upon longevity. Within the context of the downstairs, Altman cons tructs status and influence as being established based upon who has th e most experience waiting on those in the upstairs. The way that status is rooted in expe rience downstairs makes it extraordinarily difficult for those who work downstairs to ascend the statusphere. However, Altman constructs the statusphere as a place where it is possible to lose ones status. Much like the characters in Short Cuts the downstairs characters tell stories about themselves in order to prevent the loss of one s place in the statusphere. Unlike the people of Short Cuts the people downstairs tell are designed to withhold information, not to give it. This desi re to withhold informa tion starts at the top of the statusphere, with Alan Batess Jennings the head of the downstairs staff. While his status grows in part from the amount of experience he has in the McCordle household, he is also respected by the ot hers for serving his country du ring World War I. During the film, it is revealed that he did not actually se rve in the war. Instea d, he was arrested as a conscientious objector, a fact which he has concealed from his fellow servants. When Jenningss deception is revealed, his primar y concern is not that he may become
56 incarcerated12; he is worried about the way he will be viewed within the downstairs statusphere. Altman also constructs the downstairs st atusphere as a formation in which people who are concerned with doing th eir job well. Altmans downstairs characters, unlike their upstairs counterparts, are or ganized in a hierarchy that is based, at least in part, upon talent. Consequently, construc ting the appearance of being concerned with doing ones job well is an essential component of estab lishing ones self downstairs. As long as someone does their work in an honorable way, their identity remains largely unquestioned. This is why Clive Owens Robert Parks, who is something of a mysterious figure, is able to insinuate himself into the downstairs statusphere. Parks creates an aura of mystery about hi mself, deflecting questions about his past as a means of maintaining his status. At one point in the film, when his past comes into question, he is very specific with his word choice. Mary Maceachran, a fellow member of the service statusphere (played by Kelly Macd onald), uncovers a part of Parkss reason for being at the McCordle home. Parks has come to the estate to kill McCordle, because McCordle is Parkss father, but Parks wa s abandoned and sent to an orphanage. Maceahran says to Parks, You cant know w ho your father is. You said you were an orphan. Parks responds, saying No I didnt. I said I grew up in an orphanage. Parks tells a story about himself that is partially true. This partia l truth deflects enough questions to allow Parks to ge t close enough to McCordle. 12 The film is not specific with regard to whether or not conscientious objection to a war is punishable by imprisonment. However, Jennings believes that it is possi ble he could go to jail. This concern, however, is secondary.
57 The character of Ryan Phillippes Henry Denton establishes a bisociative paradox for analyzing the familiar problematic of the relationship between storytelling and status. Initially, Altman depicts Denton as a member of the downstairs statusphere like many of the other characters. He does his job diligentl y, and although he is a bit more interested in learning about the people of the statuspher e (including an attempted sexual assault of Ms. Maceahran, which causes Maceahran to th ink that there is something unusual about Denton) he is largely left alone and allowed to do his job. However, the attitude that the other members of the downstairs statusphere have toward Denton changes when they learn that he is actually an actor working for Morris Weissman. After he is exposed as an inauthentic member of the downstairs status phere, the other members of the statusphere treat him with disdain. On multiple occasions, he tries to go downstairs to interact with the servants, and he is turned away at the st airway. Later in the f ilm, after his discovery, another servant, George (Richa rd E. Grant,) spills the coffee that he was serving Denton into Dentons lap, under the guise of accide ntally losing control of the cup. The downstairs statuspheres attitude toward Denton changes because he has breached a particular unspoken code of eti quette between the two statuspheres. Each statusphere is insular in some way. The upsta irs statusphere, particul arly the old money, resists the changes to the upstairs that the ne w money brings as a m eans of staving off the impending demise of their statusphere.54 Altmans downstairs k eeps their characteristic pride in their hard work as a means of ignoring their own so cial inferiority. Dentons ability to cross between these two insulated statuspheres is what draws the ire of the members of the downstairs statusphere.
58 Altman establishes two investigating po lice officers as storytellers representing each of the statuspheres. These police o fficers represent the archetypes of both statuspheres that Altman has created. During the latter half of the film, William McCordle is murdered in his study. Unlike th e film, the investigation focuses primarily on members of the upstairs statusphere. Stephen Frys Inspector Thompson, the investigating officer, questions almost every member of the upstairs statusphere, while ignoring those downstairs, arguing that they have no connection to the murdered man. While Thompson conducts interviews, he gath ers very little actu al evidence. The evidence gathering is left to Consta ble Dexter, Thompsons subordinate. The character of Constable De xter, played by Ron Webste r, is established as an extension of the downstairs statusphere by the way in which he does his job very well and without complaint. Though it is not a part of Inspector Thompson s investigation, the Constable takes it upon himself to do some re search on the servants of the McCordle household. It is Dexter who exposes many of the secrets of the downstairs, including the fact that Jennings was a conscientious object or during the First World War. At the scene of McCordles death, it is De xter who notices both a teacup that McCordle had shattered on the floor (which Thompson dism isses, saying Dexter, they have people to clean that up) and the lack of blood around McCordles stab wound. Thompson appears to dismiss both of these, and continues to question th e social elite staying at the home. His unwillingness to consider the evidence that Dexter presents manifests the same upstairs status insularity as his interest in the onl y people he thinks could have any connection to McCordle.
59 By making the more highly ranked polic e officer less competent, Altman establishes the upstairs statusph ere as having no relationship to merit. The constable is the police officer with ability, but it is th e Inspector who has the rank, much as the members of the upstairs statusphere are largely members of that status phere by birthright. Altman reintroduces rank in a similar way to the way rank exists in M*A*S*H* In both instances, the most talented people are not n ecessarily the people w ith the highest rank. In most of Altmans films, he creates a character that is an absurd example of the point he is trying to get across. In Nashville Hal Philip Walker was a presidential candidate who was pure promotion. In Short Cuts the Sheppard family is an extreme metaphor for the differences between high a nd middlebrow status. In Gosford Park, Altman uses Morris Weissman to furthe r examine the relationship between the upstairs/downstairs divide and the ways that these respective statuspheres police their own self-images through insularity. If Constable Dexter is the epitome of th e hard working, talented member of the somewhat more open downstairs statusphere, film producer Morris Weissman represents openness at its most absurd. He is nave, pa rticularly with regard to the way that the British system works. Weissman is visiting the McCordle household to do research for a murder mystery that he will film later that year. Shortly before the actual murder of McCordle, Weissman receives a phone call from a fellow producer in Los Angeles. During this phone call, Weissman describes the story he wants to tell, and the audience learns that he is in fact describing the film that they are watching. Weissman does not know that he is describing the murder of W illiam McCordle. Altman cuts back and forth
60 between possible suspects for the killi ng and Weissmans phone conversation. As Weissman talks, Altman uses a mixture of slow tracking shots and close-ups, both emphasizing Weissmans turned back and thus his ignorance of the situation transpiring around him. This phone call is another example of Altmans use of bisociatives within his own films. The call also em phasizes the self-reflexivity of Gosford Park Like the cuts in Short Cuts and the commercial for the film in Nashville this phone call establishes that Altman wants his audience to know that he knows hes telling a story. The film that Weissman wants to make beco mes a type of film w ithin a film, although Weissmans film has yet to be made. The absurd character of Morris Weissman highlights the insularity of the upstairs stat usphere. Using Weissman (the character who is the most open in terms of his attitudes about statuspheres) as the tool of the selfreflexivity suggests th at Altman is once again coming dow n on the side of newness, but in this film, he is doing it as a member of the old guard. Conclusion In his previous films, Altman create d a world where the relationship between talent, storytelling, and status is increasingly complex. In Gosford Park Altman explores how status is affected by the dynamic that exis ts between what is ol d and what is new. This old/new dynamic manifests itself not only in the upstairs statusphere (as old money and new money,) but in the downs tairs statusphere as well. The focus on longevity leads to a reasse ssment of the function of statuspheres by emphasizing their defensive insularity. These statuspheres delude themselves in order to preserve something about their identity. Th e upstairs statusphere, particularly the old
61 guard, has insulated itself from the so-calle d new money. This insu lation has deluded the old money into thinking that they have some degree of invincibility, despite the implication that the influence of new money will ultimately eclipse old moneys influence. Similarly, the dow nstairs statusphere deludes itself through their emphasis on hard and quality work. The job being done well must be a reward in and of itself as a means of distracting the members of this stat usphere from the fact that they are social inferiors. As these insulations show, the manner in which status is either achieved or maintained evolved as Altm ans career progressed. In Nashville status was both accrued and maintained through the promotion and se lf-promotion of ones abilities. With Short Cuts Altmans concept of promotion had change d into a series of white lies that his characters told as a means of either maintaining their status or deluding themselves with regard to their status. In Gosford Park the concept of self-p romotion becomes selfprotection. Gosford Park represents a complicated turn in Altmans filmography. For the bulk of his career, he embraced newness in various forms. In the films that I have covered to this point, Altman tends to side with whatever cultural formation is newer and resists the cultural formations that have greate r cultural longevity. By the time this film was finished, Altman had established a great d eal of his own cultural longevity within the film statusphere.
62 Conclusion With the release of M*A*S*H* in 1970 and McCabe and Mrs. Miller the following year, Robert Altman established hims elf as a director who was willing to turn a critical and satirical eye to most of the conventions of American film. It is in part for this reason that he made Nashville a film which manifested no t only Altmans interest in ideas of promotion and status within the United States, but shed some light on how Altman viewed himself in Hollywood. Altm ans self-reflexivit y, particularly the attempts to use the film as a promotion fo r the film itself, suggests a cognizance of wanting his career to be viewed as somethi ng more than a man who made films to buck trends. Nashvilles lessons in status ascension, and pa rticularly the character of Connie White, are as representative of his disdain fo r established statusphere s as his irreverent look at the military in M*A*S*H* If Nashville is representative of Altmans rejection of entertainment industry statuspheres, Short Cuts shows Altmans concern with be ing considered an artist. After a decade of dabbling in various projects such as th e filming of stage production, Altman returned to major Hollywood productions determined to help push film into the highbrow art statusphere. However, Altman falls victim to a bi sociative paradox he himself suggests. While the se lf-reflexivity of the film displays a cert ain cognizance of highbrow culture, it also betrays the very stat us consciousness that prevents Altman from becoming a highbrow artist. In some ways, Altman reasserts his ideas from Nashville in Gosford Park Altman is still critical of established statuspheres. He still condemns them while
63 constructing a favorable view of newness re lative to longevity. However, by the time Gosford Park was released, Altman was a member of the top of the American film statusphere. By the end of his career, Altman maintained the irreverent disregard for the highest statuspheres that he demonstrated in M*A*S*H* and Nashville In Gosford Park that irreverence comes from within the statusphere, rather than a man trying to claw his way up the rungs of Hollywoods status ladder. Beyond this thesis, there is precious little scholar ship on the films Altman released after the 1970s. Perhaps because he was seen in many ways as a quintessential 1970s filmmaker, scholars felt that his late r works were somehow less worthy of study. Hopefully, this work will begin to change that perception. Short Cuts is a fantastic example of the recent American trend of filmmaking that in terweaves several disparate stories into a single narrative. The use of Alex Trebeck, within the context of Altmans frequent use of pop culture icons, holds promis e for further research. The possibilities for Gosford Park are substantial as well. In many ways, Gosford Park is the archetypal Altman film. It defies and parodies a genre, is self-reflexive, and contains a variety of formal tricks, from overlapping dialogue to a constantly moving camera. Altmans films he made after the 1970s were still influe ntial and worthy of study. The academic attention paid to them did not reflect this.
64 Endnotes 1 Sean Wilentz. Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class, 17881850 (New York; Oxford Univer sity Press, 1984.) 17 2 Max Weber. Class, Status, and Party. Essays in Economic Sociology Richard Swedberg, ed. (Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press, 1999.) 83. 3 Weber, 83-84. 4 Weber, 88. 5 Weber, 88. 6 Weber, 89. 7 Weber, 84. 8 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1984.) p 54. 9 Bordieu, 13. 10 Thomas L. Hartshorne. Tom Wolfe on the 1960s. Tom Wolfe. Harold Bloom, ed. (Philadelphia, Chelsea House, 2001.) 88. 11 James N. Stull. The Cultural Gamesmanship of Tom Wolfe. Tom Wolfe. Harold Bloom, ed. (Philadelphia, Chelsea House, 2001.) 12 Hartshorne, 89 13 Hartshorne, 89 14 Hartshorne, 89 15 Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity. (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1998.) 233. 16 Lynes, Russell. Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow. Harpers. 1949. 19 17 Belgrad, 234. 18 Belgrad, 234. 19 Karp, 3-4. 20 Koestler, 87. 21 David Gerstner. The Practices of Authorship. Authorship and Film. (New York: Routledge, 2002.) Pp 8-9. 22 Jan Stuart. The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altmans Masterpiece. (New York; Simon & Schuster, 2000.) p. 16 23 Kevin J. Hayes. "Godard's Comment a Va? (1976): From Information Theory to Genetics." Cinema Journal. Volume 41, Issue 2 2002 24 Mikhail Bakhtin. From the prehistory of novelistic discourse. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. (Austin, TX; University of Texas Press, 1981.) 25 James Phelan. Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. (Ithaca, NY; Cornell University Press, 2005.) pp 49-50. 26 Michael W. Smith. Understanding Unreliable Narrators. (Madison, WI; NCTE Publishing, 1991.) 17. 27 Alan Karp, The Films of Robert Altman. (London; Scarecrow Publishing, 1981.) p. 65. 28 Keyssar, 65 29 Keyssar, 65-68 30 Keyssar, 81 31 David Breskin. Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation (New York; Da Capo Press 1997.) 167 32 Breskin, 167-169. 33 Karp, 52. 34 Bill C. Malone. Country Music, USA (Austin, TX; University of Texas Press, 2002.) p 89. 35 Malone, 120. 36 Malone, 120.
65 37 Karp, 57. 38 Karp, 56. 39 Robert Altman, Altman on Altman. David Thompson, ed. (London; Faber and Faber, 2005) p 93. 40 Connie Byrne and William O. Lopez, Nashville Robert Altman Interviews David Sterrit, ed. (Jackson, MS; University of Mi ssissippi Press, 2000.) p 22. 41 Karp, 52. 42 Altman, 67. 43 Altman, 115-116. 44 Altman, 120 45 Karp, 7. 46 Robert T. Self, Robert Altmans Subliminal Reality (Minneapolis, MN; Univers ity of Minnesota Press, 2002.) pp xv-xvi. 47 Bourdieu, p 54-55. 48 Self, 55. 49 Self, 11. 50 Belgrad, 179. 51 Belgrad, 183. 52 Self, 56. 53 Altman, 191. 54 Altman, 192.
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67 Hochschild, Jennifer. Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. Karp, Alan. The Films of Robert Altman. London: Scarecrow Publishing, 1981. Kass, Judith M. Robert Altman: American Innovator. New York: Popular Library, 1978. Keyssar, Helene. Robert Altman's America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Lynes, Russell. "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow." Harper's Magazine May 1949: 1928. Malone, Bill C. Country Music, USA. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002. McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. O'Brien, Daniel. Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor. New York: Continuum, 1995. Phelan, James. Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. Ragen, Brian Abel. Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion. London: Greenwood Press, 2001. Schulman, Bruce. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Publishing, 2002. Self, Robert T. Robert Altman's Subliminal Reality. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Sharff, Stefan. The Elements of Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Smith, Michael W. Understanding Unreliable Narrators. Madison, WI: NCTE Publishing, 1991. Stuart, Jan. The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altmans Masterpiece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Stull, James N. "The Cultural Ga mesmanship of Tom Wolfe." In Tom Wolfe by Harold Bloom, 123-135. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Thomson, David. "Altman's Astonishing Decade." New York Times June 11, 2000. Weber, Max. "Class, Status, and Party." In Essays in Economic Sociology by Richard Swedberg, 83-96. Princeton, NJ: Pr inceton University Press, 1999.
68 . The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947. Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York Cty & the Rise of the American Working Class, 1780-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.