slightly carla: day nine

day nine adopts more of a provincial tone, starting with robert altman's thieves like us (1974).

it's the story of a trio of depression-era criminals that make their way across the south, periodically robbing banks, falling in love and/or getting tossed back in the clink. the focal point of the story is the relationship between keith carradine, the youngest of the crooks, and shelley duvall, the daughter of a gas station owner who is comprised of odd angles, inside and out. it is full of excellent period detail and good performances but, overall, this is very minor altman for me. it qualifies as such because it is one of the rare films in his catalog that held no surprises for me. there was a moment about twelve minutes in when the most senior of the criminals delivered a line and i immediately saw how the rest of the picture was going to play out. the line is irrelevant and i can't quite put my finger on what it was about it that made me feel that way, but from that moment on there was no longer any mystery to the film for me. it may be partially attributable to the familiar bonnie and clyde (1967) vibe or it may be that i already knew, and strongly prefer, nicholas ray's stab at the same source novel, they live by night (1949), though altman made several changes from ray's rendition. don't get me wrong, there are several reasons to recommend it. keith carradine practically made a mini-career out of playing these naive weedbenders in the early seventies. he is exceptional at it and this film makes a nice trifecta with emperor of the north (1973) and altman's own magnificent mccabe & mrs. miller (1971). he has an easy chemistry with duvall, herself awkward and halting. together they are dumb, lonely, needy, reckless when they should be circumspect and vice versa and hardly conventionally attractive - in short, very real. a number of altman's regular players show up in this, actually, and they all acquit themselves admirably. i have no trouble believing that none of these people are very smart and that a life of crime during the depression was hardly glamorous. these aren't handsome thrill seekers nor are they working class robin hoods. they're just taking a shortcut, perhaps a victim of bad circumstances initially, but too dumb or too lazy to right their own ship. the fact that you can still find sympathy for some of these characters is a testament to altman's ability to mine poetry out of common desires and his actors' ability to put it across. like i said, minor altman, but minor altman is still better than a lot of directors' best work.

next, we keep it real with s.r. bindler's hands on a hard body (1997).

every year, jack long nissan in longview, texas holds a promotional contest in which they give away a fully loaded nissan hardbody truck. they draw twenty-four names at random, those people put their hands on the truck and the last person to remove a hand wins. it's a simple premise, really, but a simple premise can tell you an awful lot about people.

this is a document of the contest they held in 1995 and it's a diverse cast of characters that shows up for this event, all with their unique motivations for participating. one girl plans to sell it right away if she wins to alleviate her debt. another guy will use it to work, as he sums ups succinctly here.

in fact, almost everyone involved in the contest seems to truly need this vehicle. for some, it almost seems like the outcome is a real make or break point for them and when you see them exit early you truly feel, or even fear, for them. only one man is here as what sort of seems like a lark, benny perkins. he won the contest in 1992 and acts as a sort of de facto narrator for us, guiding us through what the experience is like and how grueling and absurd it is. it is most certainly no picnic. sleep deprivation, hallucinations, delirious laughing fits and swollen, numb extremities all threaten to undo our contestants. they each have their own strategies for coping, be it prayer, music, smart breaks with proper nutrition or just a good pair of shoes. they all think they have the key. it's fascinating to watch the varying degrees to which those things work (or don't) and heartening to see a complete lack of enmity on the part of the contestants. for such an arduous, competitive task you see a lot of compassion for one another. even the one participant that gets angry ultimately points to the fact that she herself cheated and is leaving the contest because she didn't want to win it that way. other people that bowed out early on come back to support those still standing. eventually it gets down to two and it looks like it might go on forever until, in the seventy-seventh hour, the woman whose church had organized a prayer chain for her to win the truck raised both hands for a moment to praise the lord and lost the contest. god cost norma her truck. it is a truly fascinating document and a fantastic pairing with the other film. in this combination, you are led to understand a lot of things - truth is indeed stranger than fiction, what is a little thing to you may be quite vital to someone else and fable and myth are nothing more than an attempt to, sometimes quite unnecessarily, magnify the everyday.

and the films are an inspired pairing for reasons other than theme. i don't know if carla was aware of these things when she chose them (i am almost sure she was), but a feature film version of hands on a hard body was the last thing robert altman was working on before he died. also, keith carradine is starring in a musical adaptation of the film that opens at the la jolla playhouse on 4.27.12. funny how things work out.

ok, we are nearing the finish line. one more day to go. play us out, mr. hein.

see you tomorrow.

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