The Restless Romantic Experiments of Alan Rudolph

Whether working in noir or melodrama, period piece or literary adaptation, the director has pursued his obsessions with a scientist’s endless curiosity


Total control so relentlessly eludes even the greatest filmmakers that it’s the ones who most need near-total autonomy to thrive who get it the least. For most artists of the screen, that’s that — either lick the problem, or live with it. With Alan Rudolph, it isn’t so simple. He entered his trade, in the early Seventies, already a fully formed voice with a technical savvy that far exceeded his station. In subsequent years, which included a professional relationship with Robert Altman that would make both men better artists, he vindicated and outgrew his early promise, even on assignments that were beneath him. Rudolph’s cinema became something that could make the medium, for a few moments at a time, a little larger and a little brighter. One now speaks of a Rudolph image as one might a Mizoguchi image, or one by Ford, or Borzage: overfull with emotion that disguises sophistication and cunning. Across the long arc of his career, the writer-director was able to grow his power to influence material almost to a superhuman degree. He wasn’t always a problem-solver, or a smuggler-subversive, or a redeemer. You can’t even say he always seemed to be having a good time. The old shorthand criteria for studio-era auteurs gradually lost its currency as Rudolph — one of the few Seventies-rooted directors who didn’t catch the brass ring until the middle of the Eighties — ascended.

It’s evident from the new Quad Cinema retrospective “Alan Rudolph’s Everyday Lovers” that we haven’t developed an adequate new shorthand to replace the old. On balance, a few of the movies in the series aren’t in the same league as some of the others. But even a second-tier Rudolph work — take the 1991 Demi Moore vehicle Mortal Thoughts, which Rudolph climbed aboard as a last-second replacement for the original director, who’d been fired — permits a meaningful dialogue to take place with the best of them: Remember My Name (1978), Welcome to L.A. (1976), Choose Me (1984), among others. To be forewarned of the obstructions put in the path of Rudolph’s marvelous intelligence — i.e., when his instincts are pitted against weak or uncooperative material — is to be forearmed, to grapple more ably with what happens when he’s altogether the architect, designer, and builder. And when that magic strikes, you get some of the best American movies of the last forty-odd years — ample reason to attend as much of the Quad series as you can.

Timed to the release of Ray Meets Helen, Rudolph’s first new movie since The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002), “Everyday Lovers” skips Rudolph’s two earliest directorial efforts: the surprisingly confident, restlessly artistic DIY thriller Premonition (1972), and the rather mean-spirited Nightmare Circus (1974). It thus starts chronologically with his breakout hit, Welcome to L.A., which — given that it’s a criss-crossy city epic with song scores by Richard Baskin and contributions from two dozen members of the cast and crew of Nashville — was destined to be seen by skeptics as imprisoned in the shadow of Altman’s epic from a year prior. But all the commonalities listed above amount to little more than a superficial resemblance, a fact that’s only been clarified by decades’ worth of retrospection. In its passionate coldness, Welcome to L.A. stands even further apart from the glut of Los Angeles sagas that would crop up in subsequent decades, most of which tend to pursue a philosophy either of believing the baffling bullshit of entertainment-industry charlatans or depicting said frauds in overwrought caricature.

Almost in direct conflict with the order imposed by his analytical mind, Rudolph actually loves clichés, but he isn’t in the least concerned about leaning on the audience for a touch. He resists the urge to dunk the viewer in heady decoupage: His idea of an immersive experience is a pleasant one, like making sure the margins are stocked with gadfly contractors or agitated waitstaff, no bit part too small to be denied a turn at color commentary. If a physical space is too underpopulated (Welcome to L.A. even makes a joke about how only a few people keep running into one another), he’ll make sure it’s at least angular and colorful, like Jacques Demy would. If it’s chock-full of folks, like the diner in Trouble in Mind (1985) or the salons and galleries in The Moderns (1988), he’ll back off and compress the rickety clutter in telephoto. There’s an uncanny balancing act that’s his stock-in-trade — his movies feel at once larger, but in their construction more surgically precise than we’re accustomed to. Don’t let it throw you: Once you’re hip to his game, the pleasures in his fiction-making strategies bloom.

In the most exciting of Rudolph movies, words have a way of landing easy, then burrowing in. Take the moment in Welcome to L.A. when a relatively minor character, the mysterious, ubiquitous photographer Nona (Lauren Hutton), messes with the bow tie of Carroll (Keith Carradine) at a gloomy cocktail party, while Carroll’s father (who keeps Nona as a mistress) observes them from the floor below. “Don’t do that,” Carroll hisses at her, after a bristling delay. She wants to know why not. Maybe his words were too harsh, but they cool in the air after a second or so. The moment that passes between them colors and re-colors the exchange in a quicksilvery shimmer, a flirtation that wasn’t, but was, but wasn’t. But was. Torture couldn’t get these two, who barely share more than a couple minutes of screen time, to release their secrets.

Although Rudolph’s pilot light was doused both by the failure of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) and the box-office nonstarter that was Welcome to L.A.Remember My Name turned out to be one of the last great movies of the now-fabled, mid-budget American cinema revolution of the Seventies — that period when the country began to manifest Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence.” A nonchalant, pay-what-you-like masterpiece, Remember My Name is a quiet, funny little film with trouble in mind, starring Geraldine Chaplin (in a great, crackling performance you might not have known she had in her) alongside Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson. It’s a stalker/home-invasion thriller held at bay by a polyvalent kook comedy; the latter triumphs, but not in the way you expect. Not unlike Premonition (a cabin-in-the-woods chiller that spends so much time on set-up it forgets its own mandate), the movie gets so tangled up with fascinating, revealing behavior, sending its principals rolling across the dramaturgical field like billiard balls, that it lets the clock run out on its own genre programming, preferring instead a hungover, entropic reversion.

After some assignments that brought Rudolph varying levels of acclaim (or not), including the Oscar-nominated Songwriter (1984), it was the go-for-broke Choose Me, infused hotly with the cold blood that ran through Welcome to L.A., that seemed to turn a number of tides. It made a splash at what we now call the specialty box office, and landed on many year-end best-of lists. (Its screenplay was first runner-up at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.) Ever since his rookie days running second units in the Sixties, Rudolph had fired several rounds, of different calibers, from different angles, into the impermeable, scaly surface of the movie industry’s establishment, in an effort to make his mark. But while Choose Me was not, in retrospect, his first great movie, it has a pivotal quality in the timeline of his career that can’t be inscribed on anything he made before or since. There’s before the polyamorous, Teddy Pendergrass–scored love roundelay, and there’s after. At the very least, Choose Me’s magnitude of success, and its kind of success, sent the writer-director a clear message: Be Alan Rudolph. Hell or high water, there would be no turning back.

Nothing that came after Choose Me lacks interest entirely, but some films loom larger than others. The Moderns, Rudolph’s first try at a period picture (unless you count the punky pastel futurism of Trouble in Mind), exhibits the spastic Rudolph menagerie in 1926 Paris; somehow both casual and frantic, it’s rich and strange in a way that would defeat other writer-directors, pursuing historical verisimilitude above all. Mingling real figures (like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein) with fictional ones, The Moderns also furthers Rudolph’s fascination with rudeness and villainy, featuring one of his most vicious antiheroes, the permanently enraged yet sadly deluded Bertram Stone (John Lone).

Rudolph has directed 22 features, almost all of which are included in the near-complete series (the first devoted to his work since “Say It With Feeling,” at the Museum of the Moving Image, in 2000). Four Altman movies that Rudolph worked on as writer or assistant director serve as cornerstones to the other eighteen, and their inclusion is more than trivia; they illustrate Rudolph’s origins, and also his subsequent artistic evolution. Until he passed away in 2006, Altman remained Rudolph’s friend and mentor, producing several of his projects, up to and including Trixie in 2000. The two artists gave to each other and stole from one another, like Hawks and Ford. You get a whiff of Altman in the dialed-up backgrounds and zoom-outs in everything from Trouble in Mind to Love at Large (1990), while Rudolph helped develop Altman’s signature cross-talk and network storytelling by encouraging his teacher to keep his characters grounded and individuated. Rudolph had a knack for writing outbursts and flare-ups that gave his characters an alibi for deeper, more mysterious feelings and motives, and Altman was better for incorporating this tendency.

Rudolph soon became even more confident in parlaying his impatient camerawork and jitterbug world-building, on various projects that run the gamut from square to hysterically strange. Genre, source material, visual design, even something as fundamental as tone: All have obeyed the command of his personality. Conceptually, each new movie has been totally alien to the one before it, but only in a way that continually demonstrates the broadening and deepening of Rudolph’s control — or, more accurately, the controlling influence of his desire to experiment, to create reactions, as a kind of scientist filmmaker, forever clinically curious about his own fever. He’s able to take on anything: a chamber piece about sexual mortification and liberation (2001’s Investigating Sex), a comic pulp tale (Love at Large), a surreal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation (1999’s Breakfast of Champions), even a hectic tale of seriocomic suburban woes (The Secret Lives of Dentists).

Whether the raw material of a given project seems readymade for obedient, conventional treatment, or cosmically weird, requiring an imagination that the head types of the Sixties would call “turned on,” nothing appears capable of eluding Rudolph’s ambidexterity. History, melodrama, noir, dreamscape, spectacle: Out of each concept, Rudolph spins a crystalline kaleidoscope of his own imprint. You’ll see other movies after Rudolph’s and feel they’re peculiar, somehow malnourished in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. Outside the picture show, you’ll wander around, listening to real people. Maybe they’ll be lovers on a park bench, billing and cooing, or strangers flirting, or maybe it’s a waitress smarting off to a customer. In a heartbeat, Rudolph will loom large again, in the illusions we project of ourselves upon the screens of whoever will see our silly little shows.

‘Alan Rudolph’s Everyday Lovers’
Quad Cinema
Through May 10

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