Gosford Park (2001)   (damning with one thumb)

Robert Altman

With Gosford Park, Robert Altman once again shows us that even a beautiful film, with great performances and great attention to detail, can still be boring.

From an Email I received:

“have indeed seen "gosford park" - twice. must disagree with you- i find robert altman enthralling. even the long tedious ones ("nashville", "short cuts"), also classics ("mash"). fascinating how much care to detail, and subtle-ness of story- did you gather that the daughter, isabel, was pregnant by the glovemaker’s daughter’s husband? didn’t catch that until round two. also interesting b/c i went in expecting a genteel version of "clue" and was pleasantly surprised.” — Teaches At Harvard

First, I cannot disagree that Mash is a classic, that ‘suicide is painless’, that ‘the game of life is hard to play’ and that ‘the only way to win is cheat’. But even you acknowledge that Short Cuts was long and tedious. As for the pregnancy of Isabel, in order to care about that grand spot of news, I would have to remember who Isabel was and who of the five jillion characters was her husband. But I don’t. This is because I don’t care. Buttercup, your argument assumes the ‘puzzle plot’ film should be treated with the same scholarly drool as a great novel. Let me cure you of this idea. Think of how many truly great films there are out there. Just take the AFI top one hundred. There must be a hundred films right there, all of them more worthy and yet less demanding of your notepad and pencil than Gosford Park—that’s Gosford Park, not Bletchley Park.

On the other hand, this is not to say great films should not be dissected and drooled over. But it’s a different kind of dissection, with different instruments, and different drool. And besides, you just wrote ‘the glovemaker’s daughter’s husband’, which pretty much
rests my case.

The opening credits of Gosford Park tell all when it is proudly announced that the film is “based on an idea by Robert Altman and his co-writer.” As opposed to what? The back of a cereal box? A bit of treebark? “Yeah, because I totally would have thought my cousin directed it. But now I know.” Deny all you want, but this bit of useless pretention is the first clue as to the thinness of Gosford Park and the resulting level of scholarly dissection it should be not generating from audiences everywhere.

Complexity for the sake of complexity is bad writing; the structure of the Great Gatsby is functional. The reader is required to construct the actual chronology of events, much of which is revealed in flashbacks—thereby becoming a collaborator in the narrative.

— The Preface (of Gatsby)

But The Great Gatsby was a book, not an idea. A book is an idea that got refined. A film doesn’t have to be refined. Sometimes it just gets produced. In fact, I believe we should have a law that all period piece films must come directly from novels. Because the plot and teachings of a novel are bound to be better thought through. That’s because modern directors are too busy worrying about giving interviews, throwing parties, and whether to buy a house in Umbria instead. There’s no ocean, but the hills are definitely alive with Tom Snyder. Novelists, on the other hand, do nothing but think about plot and connectedness except when they’re giving interviews, going to parties, and testing out Tom Snyder’s villa. Even so, there are only a few books deserving of such effort. I won’t name names, but suffice it to say not even Pynchon is guaranteed an invitation to this party.

Furthermore, I’m not so convinced you should be out there reading and dissecting novels either. That’s what college professors are for. In fact, the last thing you would ever want to do with a serious work of art is actually think about it. The reason you should buy DVD’s of Bergman and Fassbinder is not because you’re actually going to watch them. It’s because you expect to absorb some moral or psychological advantage just by having them in your collection. Even more so with books. I can at least envision watching most of my DVD collection, but finishing Ulysses? You must be joking? But I am comforted by the fact that hundreds of college students, right this minute, are dissecting away, and will continue to do so in English classes ‘immemorial’, even weathering the occasional squall of revisionism (‘Mark Twain didn’t know what the hell he was talking about!’ ‘Wait, yes he did, my bad.’). Now as to which books or films you should buy, you can murder a college student and take their syllabus. Or I guess you could also just look for the little ‘Penguin Classic’ symbol. I like murder. For movies, it’s tougher. There is Criterion and after that, good luck to you.
Email from another ‘friend’:

And you of all people who loves Kubrick — the man who
always has beautiful scenes and pictures but whose characters and stories
are subservient, should love the tableaux of GPark — the look and sheen of it.
Ah yes, how could I forget the ‘then why do you think Barry Lyndon is so great’ argument? Sure, Kubrick’s films are winsome, but don’t let’s be fooled into thinking of them as mere wallpaper. Indeed, Barry Lyndon is beautiful, and were it convenient, I would wallpaper my entire house with it, but without a real film there, I do not think the beauty would be remembered so strongly by a few. But there is an answer to your question. In a word, ‘depth’. The depth of emotion generated by any one scene in Barry Lyndon is enough to embarass a hundred Gosford Parks. Now I’m not referring to intellectual ‘depth’ as in holding up to scholarly dissection like I was talking about before. Here, I’m talking about the kind of emotional depth that some directors convey and some don’t. With great directors, there is a sense you are learning or at least being exposed to something real and profound whether you can put it into words or not. It’s not even that it can’t be put into words, it’s just that there’s no easy language to do it, which is why most film scholars toil in relative obscurity. Anthony Lane has found a way to overcome this problem by eschewing the truth. But Pauline Kael wasn't always any different. But I think our ‘friend’ underestimates the important role Kubrick’s characters play in his films. Jack Nicholson (The Shining), Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Jason D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) come quickly to mind.

Although an interview with the director is hardly admissible evidence, I saw Robert the Altman giving some television interview—which makes him fair game. I couldn’t believe it, but watching Altman, the man, talk about his film, I actually started falling asleep. And that was in just three minutes. I mean, it turns out he’s just a nice old guy with white hair—someone you’d want for an uncle or friend of the family. But this guy wouldn’t put the fear of God in a door knob. This is clearly not someone to be trusted with three hours of one’s life, and hopes. Contrast this with Ingmar Bergman. I watched an interview of him on the Cries And Whispers DVD. Apparently, he once walked up to some film critic who had given him a bad review and punched him in the stomach.

Setting aside the issue of how people should be receiving Gosford Park, let’s look at the downside of having a bunch of actors walking around with microphones buried in their unspeakables. First, there is the opportunity cost. In trying to develop so many characters, Altman neglects some of the more deserving ones. Take the red-headed, snide valet who comes in with the guns saying something like ‘I know what to do with them, thank you.’ What a great introduction to a character that goes begging. He and the coffee-spilling butler are two characters who deserve more. On the other hand, the lead butler, with his secret past and the servant girl who loves him could just as easily be left out, or even inserted somewhere in the middle of The English Patient with no harm done. Even within this ‘puzzle movie’ framework, there is still much room for improvement by simply editing up and down the appropriate storylines. To be sure, there are a lot of really good actors in the film, and some great performances nearly happened. Derek Jacobi, Steve Fry, Maggie Smith, and some others—all rather splendid. I should like to spank Altman for having such a great cast, but then spreading them too thin like so much pate on a Carr’s table water cracker. Table water? And for those who just can’t keep their ‘Best Supporting Actress’ in their pants, there is nothing that little Irish girl did that Cordelia Gray didn’t already do on BBC One, five years before. And for those who love the film because they have difficult to control spasms of nostalgia for anything to do with the twenties, then I am with you. There is never too much pheasant hunting or shags and fags between servants. But it’s time you were in on a little secret called Mobile Masterpiece Theatre, Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster. The list goes on.

Positive things? Well, he’s got England right—heavy, damp, gray, like I would know. And the film looks good. I mean really good. And there are several subtly amusing instances too, in particular any scene with Steve Fry. The pure snobbery of that lady played by Maggie Smith was a real treat. Her comments about things ("difficult color green") were exquisite. But these came in clusters too far and few between. I counted fourteen pheasants being shot to death. Rules of the Game had twenty-six. Also good were the two late-comers, their moment sharing a cigarette with the servants outside and their being ostracized to the billiard room for being late to dinner. Brillat-Savarin would have winked an eye.

And not only that, but Altman is to be commended for the adequately restrained manner in which the film reflects on itself pondering questions like ‘why do servants obssess about their employers personal lives’ and ‘how many servants does it take to scrutinize a lightbulb, a lightbulb with a dark secret past?’ In this way, Gosford Park provides an always welcome peep into the upstairs—or was it downstairs—you know, the servants’ perspective. In conclusion, you should watch movies carefully and dissect them and not dissect them. You should have read more books in college, but it’s too late now, so tough. And Gosford Park is probably over-rated, but I can’t prove anything.

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