Robert Altman and the Femininity of Gosford Park
Gosford Park is a Robert Altman movie. Therefore, it is approximately eight hours long, difficult to make out what everyone is saying, a cattle call of twenty plus actors, and also - very, very, very good.
Gosford Park (2001)
Could you imagine someone being hanged for something I said?
It's "officially" two hours and seventeen minutes, but you tell me it doesn't feel twice as long. In a film billed as a murder-mystery, it takes exactly one hour and nineteen minutes (I timed it) for anyone to be killed. That's 57% of the way through the movie. Altman spends more than half the film shooting the prep and aftermath of a dinner party (and one clumsy foray into hunting). It's tedious. It's absurd. On my fourth watch of the first Altman film I ever saw, I've finally decided - it's a parody, a lampoon, a big old laugh at everything he did before, and everything he'd continue to do after. Gosford Park is Robert Altman at his signature, long-winded best.
Also, Maggie Smith. MAGGIE SMITH.
Meet Constance Trentham, the original Countess of Grantham
Speaking of the Dame, long before she was doing Downton Abbey, she invented the character here in Constance Trentham. In fact, Altman's cowriter on this film - Julian Fellowes - is the creator of Downton. Lovers of the show will see plenty of familiar pleasantries here.
There are many jokes in Gosford Park, but Trentham lands the best of them. She's a bit of a joke herself, but the eldest of the group, and seemingly the wisest, you indulge her every bit of it.
Underneath her seniority are several other women that truly take charge. From the downstairs, run by Mrs. Wilson, and the upstairs, run by the modelesque Mrs. McCordle, Gosford Park is chock full of women who run the show (whether the men surrounding them realize it or not). Which brings me to an interesting observation about Mr. Altman's filmmaking:
The Altman camera is feminine
In film theory, we often try to code things that have no gender (i.e. a stylistic choice, aesthetic, etc.) as masculine or feminine. In a medium rife with old Hollywood practices like Laura Mulvey's Male Gaze (see this article for a bit more background), it is important to note when the choices a director makes seem to break a gendered stereotype. In this case, where we typically see a male director hone a camera that views things from an inherently male perspective (again, this article will be helpful), I see Altman's camera as inherently feminine. From the way it moves, peers from the periphery, observes, and layers... in fact, here's a helpful list:
- The camera is on the periphery - like women of this time period would be. Like the downstairs servants are.
- The perspective moves delicately from room to room, with beautiful panning shots from one scene to the next. It moves like a member of the dinner party shifting from conversation to conversation. And it moves softly and quietly - as feminine as the other women in their silk gowns.
- Altman loves to let actors talk over each other. While the main dialogue proceeds, in the background, another conversation is occurring. Per traditional film tropes, men act and women talk - Altman's camera prefers to let the people talk.
Enough evidence? Probably not, but if you watch some of his best work, you'll see the immense amount of time devoted to female characters. In my opinion, Altman was a tremendously feminist filmmaker, not only in the way he shot, but in the subjects he chose to take on. See Dr. T and the Women, 3 Women, and A Prairie Home Companion for further proof.
Watch the original trailer:
"Yummy, yummy, yummy," and Constance's first breakfast in bed. This is where the Countess was born. And her ability to detect store-bought marmalade is uncanny.
As for editing, the actual murder is beautifully choreographed and expertly shot. From the muddy shoes, to the planting of the knife, to the insufferable Cole Porter-esque tune playing in the background. This is a gorgeous sequence, ending in one of the best "lady screams" in all of film. Real hardcore faint to finish it out, too.
And of course, Bob Balaban, chatting up his producing partners about the latest Charlie Chan picture - that happens to have a plot just like this one. His insistence that they find a real British actress, like Claudette Colbert - "is she just affected, or is she British?" - is laughable, because it feels true.
Other Things to Notice:
Altman had an ability to pull in large casts of notable actors like no other director in Hollywood. There is probably not a face in the crowd here that you haven't seen before. And his pull was so great, you'll see big-time actors playing smaller roles - Richard E. Grant plays a butler, Stephen Fry as the inspector, Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson. Early career roles are made here, too - a pre-fame Clive Owen plays Mr. Parks.
Emily Watson as Elsie is a favorite for me. She plays that cool older sister type. And there is not a woman on Earth who won't enjoy watching her shut Ryan Phillippe down.
Also in love with Kristin Scott Thomas here as Mrs. McCordle - another woman gifted at telling men exactly what she wants them to do. Contrast this performance with her turns in The English Patient and Only God Forgives and you may not even recognize her as the same actress. Underrated, wonderful.
If You Like it, Watch:
This wasn't one of the better received Altman movies, but it's a personal favorite. The concept is perfect - an OB/GYN (Richard Gere), can't get away from the women in his life. Be they his wife, his daughters, his patients, his would-be-girlfriend. It's a shit-show, and it's a great one.
I've recommended this before (and should just do a review on it already), but it's just imperative to the Robert Altman as a feminist cause. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek play two roommates who have a complicated friendship, to say the least. It is gorgeous and psychologically haunting.
And if you just want to laugh more about murder-mysteries, there's always Clue.
Want in on the February Challenge?
Start with the first post – All That Jazz is a Chick Flick (another dance movie!)
Check out previous picks, like yesterday's review of The Turning Point.
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