obert Altman, once America’s most idiosyncratic director, now seems mainstream, even tame, compared to today’s crop of younger directors whose offbeat sensibility seems to take cues more from current avant-garde trends in art and theatre than from independent cinema traditions of the past forty years. The works of Wes Andersen (“The Royal Tenenbaums
”), Tod Solondz (“Storytelling”), and The Farelly Brothers (“Shallow Hal
”) derive their humor and their bite not from the everyday or the conventional, not even from the unexpected or the bizarre that may underlie the conventional, but from the shock value of the taboos that a culture keeps at bay in order to respect itself and to sustain itself. The spirit and the humor of the independent artist appears to be vanishing. All that remains is a spoiled child crying out for attention and affirmation.
Altman, to his credit, continues to maintain a strong independent spirit. He is one of America’s great film artists. He has overreached sometimes, making some disasters that were painfully didactic and maudlin (“Brewster McCloud”, “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”, “Health”). During other more inspired periods he worked his camera like a loom, weaving together characters and stories in a way that shone a new light on the American experience (“Nashville”, “Thieves Like Us”, “Short Cuts”). I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a Western the way I used to after I watched McCabe and Mrs. Miller
in the early 1970s. Altman did not debunk the Western myth, or laugh at it. He didn’t even try to reshape it. With “McCabe”, he told the often repeated story about life on the frontier from a new perspective. The movie was a breakthrough, the only good western made in the 1970s. Its effect at the time was exhilarating.
“Gosford Park” at first seems like a departure for Altman. A period mystery set in rural England in 1932, the plot involves the murder of one of the inhabitants of a large manor house by someone who lives in the house, works in the house or is visiting the house. The events take place during a weekend in the country when the hosts and guests spend their time pheasant hunting, dining and cardplaying, and the servants work diligently to assure that their charges are well cared for. Altman weaves traditional mystery plot elements (shady characters with undefined pasts, noises in the dark, strategically placed poison bottles and knives, well timed red herrings) with real character development. The houseguests are interesting as people, not just as suspects. The clues don’t dominate. They simmer in the background while Altman allows the characters to breathe and develop personalities of their own without the baggage of always having to look suspicious. I have a hard time watching the Agatha Christie film adaptations (“And Then There Were None”, “Murder on the Orient Express”) because I tire too quickly of people standing around in drawing rooms or in dining cars button-mouthed and tremulous and unwilling to divulge anything about themselves. A lot of stuff gets divulged in “Gosford Park”, and not all of it has to do with murder. Altman probes the lives of the rich landowner family, their wealthy or wanna-be wealthy guests, and their large staff of servants on whose shoulders the day to day operation and subsistence of the manor depends.
The workings of the staff are fascinating to watch. Their daily routines, whether it be making jam or rinsing out a blouse, are stirring profiles in simplicity and devotion. The “upstairs-downstairs” interactions reflect the social inequities and class struggles common to every society and always magnified in British life and lore, but Altman doesn’t let that friction drive the plot. Nor does he preach to us about it. He lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves, and he allows the mystery unfold with enough clarity to ensure some good suspense and enough compassion to let us fully understand, and enjoy, each character.
The cast is large, and except for two Americans, all British. It’s the best bit of ensemble acting I’ve seen on screen in a long time. Maybe it’s the best I’ve ever seen. All the performers are perfect. Even Maggie Smith for once has refrained from chewing the scenery. Altman seems to have stepped back and given the performers a minimum of guidance allowing them to work magic amongst themselves. They even glow during wordless moments when they listen to music while huddled on the stairs or exchange woeful glances while dining by candlelight.
I haven’t formally summarized the plot because I’m afraid of giving away too much. I mentioned earlier that Altman’s approach at first seems traditional. He’s not out to debunk the murder mystery genre, not the way he turned the private eye story on its head in “The Long Goodbye.” He keeps the train on the tracks until he approaches the station. The ending veers away from the traditional mystery closure, something which has become a trend in modern mystery fiction. It is a trend that I find disturbing. A new kind of justice emerges in these tales, a conviction which seems to excuse the breaking of the Fifth Commandment under certain circumstances. If a murder victim exploited the poor, traded in substances that led to one or more individuals’ deaths, committed rape or inflicted sexual abuse on a minor, the author or the filmmaker shifts the point of view toward the victim’s misdeeds and away from the murderer’s act. In our expanding culture of death we seem to be acknowledging the insignificance of terminating a life for our own justification or our own convenience. A similar value system (one which makes excuses for breaking the Eighth Commandment) was at work in the recent remake of “Ocean’s 11
.” Andy Garcia’s
character is greedy, exploitative, mean, and a lot less cool than Danny Ocean (George Clooney
). He, therefore, deserved to get ripped off, and the thieves could not be faulted for picking on such a jerk. Ocean’s 11
celebrates corruption and is a rip-off of a movie (as were Soderbergh’s other films: “Erin Brockovich
,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”). Altman’s film is rich and moving entertainment, as well as a mature social commentary, but it is still a story that lacks a moral core.
Justice ensures that morality and society are upheld. If justice is not upheld society deteriorates into the morass we see crystallized in “Ocean’s 11.” In “Gosford Park”, the social and moral fabric of life doesn’t crumble as it does in the Soderbergh film, but it is left standing on shaky ground.