Monday, June 27, 2016

Robert Altman | A Wedding

the estate of holy matrimony
by Douglas Messerli

John Considine, Allan F. Nicholls, Patricia Resnick, and Robert Altman (screenwriters), Robert Altman (director) A Wedding / 1978
Robert Altman’s 1978 film A Wedding, with its absurdly farcical plot, its outlandish stereotypes, and its often ridiculous mish-mash of American north-south sensibilities, ought to  have been a disaster. Certainly, the first time I saw this film, sometime around its original release, I felt that was the case. But over the years I’ve become more and more fond of Altman’s excesses, and this time around I perceived the movie as less a raucous excess and more of a pointed satire of all the things that might happen to destroy a wedding, beginning and ending with the deaths of the grand matriarch and the wedding couple themselves. Today it appears more like a rollicking version of Father of the Bride or Neil Simon’s “Visitor from Forest Hills” section of Plaza Suite than the mess of a movie I first thought it to be. Indeed, Altman’s work here is almost a tribute to the movies, as young one wedding-goer spouts the plots of numerous horror films, and the director throws in several references to film and television history even through the choices of his cast: Gish, Gassman, Chaplin, Burnett, Arnez, Dooley, etc.

Big weddings are all embarrassing in one way or another, as two different families and hordes of relatives and friends all gather to drink and celebrate or possibly mourn the coming together of two young lovers. At least, that’s the presumption of writers John Considine, Allan F. Nicholls, Patricia Resnick, and Robert Altman. You can almost see them sitting round a table listing all the terrible things that might logically (an illogically) happen at such an event.

       First of all, the two families must be completely incompatible: in this case the noveau riche southern family, the Brenners joining together with the waspish midwestern Sloans who have already mixed blood with the Italian Corellis. The ceremony itself, particularly when officiated by an older fumbling and bumbling, Episcopal bishop, brought out of mothballs (as matriarch Nettie Sloan—played by the wonderful Lillian Gish—declares) is close to chaos. Add a traditional, slightly hysteric, possibly lesbian wedding planner (Geraldine Chaplin), who admits early on that nearly all the guests have turned down the invitation to the reception. Begin the entire event with the death of Nettie, and you just know this is going to be fun.
       It’s nearly impossible, and clearly unnecessary, to list all of the events delicious goings on, which include various highjinks of the adolescent boys and a running mob of young siblings. When you have both a nurse and a doctor in the house you know that everyone, in way or another, is going to get sick. As the wedding party descends upon the mansion, nearly everyone is desperate to pee. Regina Sloan Corelli (Nina Van Pallandt), moreover, is a drug addict; the caterer, Ingrid Hellstrom (Viveca Lindfors) has fainting spells and, after swallowing the doctor’s pills, gets high; the bride’s brother is epileptic; and poor Tulip Brenner (Carol Burnett) gags at the very thought of the unwanted advances of Mack Goddard (Pat McCormick). Later, however, after it is established that Tulip’s husband, "Snooks" Brenner (Paul Dooley), has an incestuous crush on his beautiful but nearly mute elder daughter Buffy (Mia Farrow) and that he regularly verbally abuses his wife, Tulip permits herself to consider a tryst with her new admirer.

       Why shouldn’t she, when nearly everyone in the wedding party is having an affair, and several have been married numerous times? Clarie, Regina’s sister is in love with their black butler. Two late wedding guests, Tracy Farrell (Pam Dawber) and Wilson Briggs (Gavan O'Herlihy), have been the previous lovers of the bride and groom; and nearly every male at the military academy the groom attended (next door, incidentally to the Brenner home) has slept with Buffy, whose only words in the film are that she is pregnant with the groom’s baby. By film’s end even the gay groomsman Captain Reedley Roots appears to engage in sex with the groom.
        Then there is the wedding couple themselves, the not so pretty Muffin Brenner (Amy Stryker) whose teeth are still in braces and the not so smart Dino Sloan Corelli (Desi Arnaz Jr.), whose brain, equally, is in need of straightening.
     Obviously, they will soon likely be as unhappy as everyone else. Indeed, it appears that, speeding away from the wedding the party in their new Mercedes, they strike an oil tanker and are killed in the fiery crash. But this is a comedy, after all, and after the families trade their pain and anger through an old-fashioned civil war, the couple is resurrected when the families discover they have been sleeping upstairs, their former lovers having been the ones who have run off with their car.
         By movie’s end, at least, order is somewhat restored. Tulip tells her would-be lover that she will not meet him in Tallahassee, Muffin makes it with the father’s, Luigi Corelli (Vittorio Gassman), long-lost brother, and, most importantly, Luigi, who it turns out was a former restaurant waiter—freed at last from the dictates of Hettie—drives off with his brother into the sunset, leaving behind the looney world in which he has for so long been entrapped.
         The real targets of Altman’s satire, it becomes apparent, are not these absurd figures, but love and the “the estate of holy marriage” itself. Loving and living, the director seems to argue, are always an unholy mess. And, indeed, if one wanted to explode the metaphor, one might suggest that movie-making, particularly given the large ensemble groupings of Altman films, is the same kind of chaotic marriage of larger-than-life personalities with libidos to match. Such relationships to the auteur-father are always fraught with every peril imaginable; but, at least, he can always drive off, like the father of the groom, into the future, leaving the messy result of his “marriage” behind. Perhaps only now can I understand my early reactions to this film, for it is a kind horror film, a disaster film as well.

Los Angeles, June 27, 2016