“Saturday Night Fever” (1977)

There are quite a few films on my to-watch list this summer, most of them being films from the 1970s in order to better situate myself in the period of Altman’s golden period of filmmaking. The goal in watching these films is to view and analyze women’s roles in the films and how they are portrayed. This, in effect, will either help support or disapprove my stance that Altman’s portrayal is much more pro-woman than any of the other films or filmmakers in the New Hollywood period. So keep that in mind as you read this write up and any of my write ups on films from the 1970s; these write ups are essentially references for me when I write my paper.

On the social realism aspect, Saturday Night Fever was fantastic. This film is anything but a simple and fun dance movie. You think there will be a typical, formulaic romance between Tony (John Travolta) and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney)? Wrong. Stephanie sees herself as older and a bit better than Tony. Despite her warming up to Claire De Lune in the dance studio, Stephanie does not know a thing about high class culture. Instead she aspires to it and pretends to be it whenever she is with Tony. Obviously this is not Tony’s area at all, a 19 year-old Italian boy living in Brooklyn who goes to the disco every Saturday night.

It is clear to the viewer that Stephanie is not one of the Manhattan people. Her lower class dialect is just one of the giveaways that she is a wannabe. Later she admits to Tony that she was living with the guy she works with because he could help her “get somewhere” in the office. Before that she was alone and didn’t know what she was doing. This brief scene shows that this woman who says and pretends to act like she is older and more independent than Tony isn’t. She has to rely on a man to help her in the office, rather it is an exchange for sex. Essentially she is not a positive portrayal of women.

Even though Stephanie tells Tony that she does not want to date him, Tony still thinks that he will someday win her. The night they win the contest, Tony blames Stephanie for taunting him. He ultimately takes her into the car and tries to rape her. Fortunately Stephanie escapes and goes home. Early the next morning Tony goes to her place in Manhattan to apologize. She tells him that she doesn’t usually let her attempted rapists come in her home, but eventually lets him in to talk. The film ends on a note that could indicate romance or friendship, but I believe it communicates more of a friendship.

While Tony lusts after Stephanie, Connie lusts after Tony. She is the push aside girl who Tony is not nice to. Throughout the movie she wants to date Tony and ultimately sleep with him. The time she gets her chance, she doesn’t have any protection because it is her first time. This indicates that she is uneducated about sex and birth control. Tony stops everything and she loses her chance. Towards the end of the film, Connie is drunk and with Tony’s friends. She says that she wants to sleep with them; Tony tries to keep his friends from her but they tell him that he could care less about Connie. So Connie gets in with Tony and his friends and they drive to the bridge. In the backseat Connie and Tony’s one friend start to have sex; it is obvious Connie is only doing it to make Tony jealous. When she sees he doesn’t care, she yells that she doesn’t want to do it anymore. Yet Tony’s friend says that he’s going to do it and does. Connie continues to cry and yell that she doesn’t want to do it anymore; once the one friend is done, the other goes in the back to rape her. Once they’re done they go play around on the bridge. It is very obvious that Connie is disturbed and upset. All Tony does is turn and ask her if she’s proud of herself because now she’s a c-word.

That scene and the scene where Tony tries to rape Stephanie did it for me. In terms of women in the film, they are not humans but sex objects. When they don’t get permission, they keep going (or try to, at least). This film came out the same year as 3 Women, the main film of my paper, and in comparison to Saturday Night Fever, 3 Women is much more positive. In here women are very much stuck in patriarchy, in the city, whereas 3 Women the women break from the system and are located in the desert. Whenever I think of 3 Women, I can’t help but think of Varda’s comment about 3 Women being dangerous to women. Perhaps Altman is not exactly in sync with exact second-wave feminist criteria but in terms of what is being released in the same year (Saturday Night Fever, Looking for Mr. Goodbar), it is a huge step from the representations of women in those films.

Why I Love Robert Altman (and Why I Think You Should Too)

Think of the directors of the New Hollywood era and write down the first few names that come to mind. The names you most likely wrote down are Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, etc. AKA the big directors we still talk about and worship today. However, I’ll bet you that one name that you didn’t write down was Robert Altman. Why? Well, were you to ask me two years ago during what period Robert Altman directed, I probably would have asked if you meant Robert Aldrich, because who is Robert Altman? My poor eighteen years-old self.

Why is it that one of America’s greatest directors is forgotten and hardly discussed in that crucial turning point in film? Is it because of his being labeled as a misogynist (which I do not agree with and believe is an overused and misused label), or because he didn’t have a consistent string of popular, money making films like so many of the other New Hollywood directors? It really boils down to a one word question: why?

I can’t answer that question, and I don’t think I ever will be able to answer it for it’s beyond me. All I can do is enlighten others to the unique world that is solely Robert Altman’s in hope that some day he will be given the recognition he deserves. With that, I wanted to tell you why I love Robert Altman and, thus, why I think you should love him (or at least give him a chance) too.

Perhaps it is best to start with, quite simply, the Altman style: long takes, long lens with zooms, overlapping dialogue, in essence, everything I’d aspired to do if I wanted to be a director. There is nothing in the Altman style that suggests mindless movie-watching. In fact, if you’re not active enough, you may find yourself becoming “bored” with what is on the screen. Instead, Altman respects the audience’s intelligence and patience. Why “cut, cut, cut” when you can shoot with long takes and let things play out as they do in real life? In a world today where everything is about immediate gratification and getting to the point, Altman is a relief for this poor, stressed college girl. Why? Because Altman trusts me with his films.

For most of this post I will be focusing on Nashville, as it is the Altman film I have seen the most. I have yet to watch Nashville (a movie I have seen at least 20 times, I kid you not) and not have seen or heard something new. Every single time I sit down and watch it, I discover some new layer to the plot or another dimension to one of the characters. Every rewatch has been worth it and not a waste of time. Perhaps that is what drew me back the second time; I had only grasped the surface of the film, maybe because I was tired or I didn’t realize just how much Altman needed from me, and I knew I needed to go back for more for a clearer understanding. Yet here I am, a good 20 rewatches later, and I feel there is so much more to be discovered.

As if his directing wasn’t enough, Altman’s personality and attitude is everything that I aspire to be. I had never heard of someone say one bad thing about John Ford (whom I am not a fan of) but right there in an interview, Altman said he never liked any of Ford’s films. In that same interview, Altman dismisses the notion of being an auteur for, truly, he is not. While he is the director and one of the editors, he encourages everyone on the crew to contribute, most notably for the actors and actresses to improvise. The contribution of everyone is essentially the number one no-no of the auteur theory; while it is the Altman style, this does not mean he is the sole creator because he did not tell his actors and actresses what to do. As you may guess, the auteur theory isn’t exactly my favorite theory nor do I believe it should be the ultimate mode of production. What I admire about Altman is his ability to reign in all of what everyone has contributed into one complex and rich theme. Now how impressive is that?

When you watch an Altman film, there is always much more than just the surface. It is impossible, especially in his large ensemble casts, to just have a surface level. Overlapping dialogue and long shots tracing over multiple actions on the screen beg you to look deeper and make connections. To me, Altman is pure cinema as he can only exist as cinema. As screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury says, Nashville “literally moves through time and space,” and that’s it. You cannot write a book or paint a painting of the plot of Nashville; it’s impossible.

There are so many other films of Altman’s that I’ve yet to see. Like any director, not all of them are fantastic or a masterpiece, but they are still important to watch. I’m going to take my time with Altman because there is so much to learn from him. Altman is my favorite director and I refuse to let the ride end too soon.

So I leave you with this post and encourage you to seek out some Altman films. You will not be disappointed, I promise. While I have not seen all of Altman’s films, these are some that I have seen and highly recommend: Nashville, The Player, The Long Goodbye, and 3 Women. {Other films (I have not seen) include: McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Godsford Park}

(If you loved this post on Robert Altman, stay tuned for this spring I will be beginning my undergraduate thesis on women in Robert Altman’s films!)