Saturday, July 18, 2015

Film Review: Health

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Robert Altman. When you hear the name you probably association it with movies like "M*A*S*H" (1970), "Nashville" (1975), "3 Women" (1977) or "The Player" (1992). But "Health" (1980) is perhaps the most obscure of all of Robert Altman's pictures and it is a shame. Heck, you can even find "Quintet" (1979) on DVD!

"Health" was the last picture Robert Altman made at 20th Century Fox and was not even given a wide theatrical release by the studio. In David Thompson's book "Altman on Altman", where Thompson interviews the filmmaker and discusses his work film by film, Altman states, when referring to Fox's attitude toward his movie, "There was a whole change of management at Fox. Sherry Lansing came in, and they felt there was nothing in the picture that was going to attract an audience."

"Health" is a comedic look at a health convention taking place at a hotel in St. Pete Beach, Florida where there will also be an election for the next president of the organization. The movie was to serve as a commentary on American politics and the 1980 presidential election, which had just wrapped up its own political conventions. In the same book Altman explains his intention was to release the movie in 1980 when all of this was fresh in the public's mind, however 20th Century Fox decided to shelf the movie for two years.

The candidates at the convention are Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall) and Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) whom Altman says were based on Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson with Brill representing Eisenhower and Garnell as Stevenson. There is also a third party candidate running, Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley) who like all third party candidates is fighting for the attention of the public and the media.

Of the contenders Esther is the most popular. She declares herself as "the first lady of health". She is also a best selling novelist whom at every speech she gives yells out her motto "feel yourself" that is when she is not falling asleep during her speeches or interviews, which the campaign desperately tries to conceal from the public. Isabella represents the lofty intellectual who makes grand speeches which she borrows directly from Stevenson and tape records everything, perhaps Altman's nod to Nixon.

But not everyone at the convention is running for office. The media is there to comment on it, the great American conversationalist Dick Cavett is filming his television show there and at night watches Johnny Carson. This joke might pass over the head of younger viewers, Cavett really did have a television show and competed against Carson for a while. He was also a writer for the Tonight Show at one time.

The White House has sent a representative, Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett) to give the president's perspective, "the president is pro-health" she declares and there is Harry Wolff (James Garner), a womanizer who was once married to Gloria and now works for Esther Brill's campaign. Will sparks fly when they see each other again?

Two interesting supporting characters in the movie are Colonel Cody (Donald Moffat) and Sally (Alfre Woodard) who works at the hotel. I think Cody represents corporate interest. He talks about how he "owns" politicians and at one point threatens Gloria that she and the White House should keep out of this election. The president's job is to do what he says.

Sally I believe represents the American public that looks at politics and scratches its head thinking, "what is wrong with these people". Because of that disconnect the public doesn't even bother to pay attention.

When we view "Health" understanding Altman's intentions, what makes "Health" so interesting is what it has to say about the political process and the people who run. In this movie's make believe election, the real 1952 and 1956 presidential election and the 1980 election, the public is given the choice between the "traditionalist" and the "intellectual" and it is the traditionalist that wins every time.

Altman argues all campaigns are comprised of nothing more than slogans and not meaningful policies. "Yes we can" is a good modern example. Politics is advertising which never turns into a meaningful discussion in the public square where all voices are heard because no one has anything of value to say and those that do (i.e. the intellectuals) are boring and lack public appeal. They come off as if they are lecturing their audience and look down on people not as smart as them. When Adlai Stevenson was told he had the votes of "every thinking person" he said "but I need a majority"!

The movie also suggest political candidates are self-serving creatures who are out to promote themselves and their products. Esther pushes her book and signs autographs, Gainey has health pills he wants to sell. These aren't noble people interested in "the greater good" but rather people with an agenda for themselves. And those that truly do want to do good, to make a difference, have a difficult time getting the public to listen because they aren't flashy candidates with snappy catchphrases.

Despite its lack of commercial appeal "Health" nicely fits into the cannon of Altman films. Altman usually made movies which commented on "America" and "American idealism". Great examples are "Buffalo Bill & the Indians" (1976) which pokes fun at American history and show business, suggesting they are one in the same, there's "Nashville", "M*A*S*H", which takes place in Korea but was widely seen as a criticism of Vietnam, and "Secret Honor" (1984) about Richard Nixon. "Health" wants to burst the pretentious bubble of politicians and expose the back handed nature of politics with secret meetings and dirty tricks.

Some may want to criticize the movie and say there is no real plot. My friends, this is Robert Altman. That criticism doesn't hold water. That is the appeal of a Robert Altman movie, the effortless structure, the "plot less" nature of his movies and the moments which seem improvised. You might also hear people say these aren't real characters. Perhaps. There really isn't a character to latch on to and invest your emotions in but this isn't that kind of movie and I believe was not Altman's intention. It is what these characters represent which is important. It is the ideas being discussed which make the movie enjoyable.

"Health" is not Altman at his best but it is far from Altman at his worst. Those that have seen the movie have a mixed reaction to it. Clearly I like it. I like the setting, it opens itself up for a lot of jokes, I like the acting and most of all I like the ideas presented. I love the movie's cynical nature. This is a smart movie. I hope one day Fox releases this movie on DVD and properly gives the public a chance to find it.