Robert Altman on his own TANNER '88
Toshifumi Fujiwara | Tokyo, Japan | 02/19/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Cinema is probably the closest art form to politics, as Robert Altman wisely proclaims, "All movie stars are politicians and all politicians are bad actors".
While the original TANNER '88 was so much about the 'fictional aspects' of political campaign, about how people in politics had to 'act' according to the image they were expected to represent, this 16 years later sequel is about filmmaking and how it deals with reality--in another words, about the representation of a reality which already could be perceived only through representations.
The shift is clearly stressed when Martin Scorsese shows up in episode 1 at Elaine's restaurant in New York, as one of the many "as himself" cameo (a signature carried over from the original 1988 series, as well as in Altman's own THE PLAYER). While in the original series most of the "as him/herself" cameo appearances were politicians or people related to politics (including media personalities, movie stars and musicians, nevertheless still in their political activities), in the sequel Scorsese and Steve Buscemi are given the longest screentime among the cameos. The fact that the scene takes place at this particular restaurant automatically sets up another allusion to cinema, since Michael Murphy who plays Jack Tanner was also one of the stars in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN, the opening scene of which also took place here. Other major cameo appearances are from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, and from John Kerry's daughter Alexandra Kerry--who's also in filmmaking.
One of the major features of the original TANNER '88 was how it deliberately mixed the fiction with the documentary, by throwing a fictional candidate's campaign into an actual presidential elective process, thus permitting a deeply insightful panorama of our political reality. The new TANNER ON TANNER is, as its title literally suggests, about the very theory upon which the original series was based upon. Is the reality that the original series permitted us to glimpse is really "for real"?
This fundamental question must be heightened more than ever when... well, how much of reality there is in today's politics? Compared to what went on during the 2004 presidential campaign, the 1988 reality of the original series seems almost idyllic. That may be why the sequel is not as hilariously satirical as TANNER '88: in the original series, one could laugh because as much of reality there was in it, the intentions of making a rather exaggerated and comical satire was still clear. This reminds me of a very clever comment Altman made when he was asked why there were no agents in THE PLAYER: his reply was "you cannot make a parody of a parody." The political reality in TANNER ON TANNER --that is, the political reality of the 2004 election-- may seem almost a parody of a political campaign, except that its results would dreadfully influence our reality; today, more than ever (after all, the cold was ending back in 1988, while America is now at war in Iraq, and maybe stepping in another one against either Iran or North Korea, or both).
Also, the 2004 election may be the first time since 1960 (when Hollywood strongly supported John F. Kennedy) that the filmmaking community involved itself so heavily and directly in politics: when talking about this election, one can never forget about FAHRENHEIT 9/11, which is a piece of political filmmaking for sure, but not on the same level that Altman's works are political, or the independent filmmakers of the 60's-70's were political. The anti-Vietnam war indies were not in the same game as the politicians. Some of Altman's films like TANNER '88 or SECRET HONOR are political because they observe and analyze the very game politicians have to play, and so were the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, D.A.Pennebaker, the Drew Associates, the Maysles brothers, or Robert Kramer.
The politically oriented films of Oliver Stone, especially JFK and NIXON were already pointing at a somewhat different direction, and with Michael Moore, American political filmmaking became literally (and in a rather over-simplified manner) part of the political game. Or one may say that we are going back to the era of Sergei Eisenstein and BATTLESHIP POTYOMKIN, or Leni Riefenstahl and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, but in a far more developed and complex turmoil of the media-oriented populist politics.
That is probably why Jack Tanner's daughter Alex Tanner (Cynthia Nixon) had to become a documentary filmmaker, and why TANNER ON TANNER focuses on her filmmaking. Also maybe because in 1988 the almost naive sincerity of Jack Tanner still had its place in the election campaign itself, while in 2004 the only area where Altman could find sincere people were the documentary filmmakers covering the election. Jack Tanner was proven to be out of the game when he lost back in 1988, while in 2004 the game became such a heightened one that there's no place to sincerity. And FAHRENHEIT 9/11 may have given us a good example: in a film the protagonists must have some kind of sincerity even when they make mistakes. Not only that the protagonist being a fool but he is also void of any sort of genuine sincerity cannot sustain a dramatic narrative. And one won't be able to make a filmic satire about them.
So TANNER ON TANNER focuses on Alex's desperate endeavor of making a documentary film about her father, and on the course she makes all kinds of mistakes of "what not to do in documentary filmmaking" that nevertheless most filmmakers fall in at least once, and learn never doing it again in a hard way: don't try to put words into the mouth of your subject, don't go out shooting unless you are very prepared, don't fall into panic, don't get lost from your crew when you're supposed to be shooting everything that is happening or may happen, and most of all, don't be to obsessed with your own ego... and so on. These mistakes happen so often in a documentary film production, this film may be able to be seen as a textbook of documentary filmmaking.
Of course some of the questions that those mistakes portrayed in the film evoque involve certain contradictions: one also should add "don't try to follow literally the advice from Robert Redford simply because you think he's ordinary Bob (when after all, everybody has his or her own subjectivity so who's ordinary?)". Every step of filmmaking is a subjective choice; from what do you chose as your subject, how are you going to frame each shot, what questions would you ask in interviews, to what structure would you take in the editing, what would you leave in the final cut and what not. To go through all that you have to believe in what you're doing, you need to have a passion for it. And Alex should have all that since she's making a film about her father that she loves so much, believes in him so much, and she experienced first hand what political campaigning really means. But at the same time, you have to accept what ever is happening in front of the camera. If something that you never expected happens when you're shooting, think twice before you try to control the situation, since this may be more interesting than what you have pre-planned. You must be patient. You must be listening and observing instead of pushing yourself onto the people or the situation-- in one word, your must throw your ego out of your working system.
It is a very tough contradiction to deal with, and Alex may be too naive and even perhaps too spoiled to go through it. But that makes the dramatic core of TANNER ON TANNER (also can be read as "Alex Tanner on Jack Tanner", but really Alex Tanner on Alex Tanner herself), and Cynthia Nixon gives a lot of credibility to her character. She may be too egocentric, sometimes even stupid, but she's still very sincere in all the mistakes she makes. The series of scene when she walks out of her own premiere screening in the first episode, and the very last scene in which she gives a speech to her student are especially touching.
While Altman is making this show as a comedy, he also can be very sincere and serious in spite of the overall comical narrative. A scene in episode 4 when Alex and her crew are discussing how to use Jack's interview done on a racket ball court focuses on a dilemma that we, film viewers and filmmakers who'd like to consider themselves being serious and sophisticated, have to face at this present time. In another words, our "sophisticated" cinematic culture would somehow discard FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Most certainly our esthetics do not allow such hasty collage of TV footage, nor our political sense would not tolerate such manipulative propaganda montage. BUT, that's what works for the audience today, and if you feel some responsibility about what you're doing, about what you say may mean to the society... what shall we do?
TANNER ON TANNER is a film about those questions and contradictions. By focusing on the dilemma of the filmmakers, Altman makes us realize the fundamental problems of the "reality" as we see, hence the reality that is represented through the media, which is almost the only reality we actually see except for our immediate surroundings. While it is still funny and entertaining, it surface being very light-hearted, what the film deal with is deadly serious--even more so when it is dealing with our own seriousness. The particularly poignant and brilliant touch is Jack Tanner making up the portion of Kerry's acceptance speech dealing with Iraqi war, "Now I know that there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities and I do, because some issues are not that simple." Even seeing complexities that exist in reality becomes part of a simplified political agenda..."
A disappointment, but extras are a treat
Andy Orrock | Dallas, TX | 01/30/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I'll give anything with Cynthia Nixon a fair shake, so we tried to stomach our way through this four-episode compilation. It's most unfortunate to report back that it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to make it to the finish line.
The original "Tanner '88" was groundbreaking, and it's a thrill to go back and see a young Ms. Nixon as the faux-presidential aspirant's daughter. And, in general, I'm a fan of Robert Altman's unique filmaking style, especially when it it comes together brilliantly in works like 'The Player' and 'Gosford Park.' Unfortunately, Mr. Altman lays a stinkeroo from time to time, like the dreadfully bad 'Dr. T and the Women.' 'Tanner on Tanner' is closer to that end of the Altman scale. There's rather stilted polemic-y dialogue (monologue?) from the likes of Mario Cuomo, thrown together with a muddled mix that washes out otherwise neat appearances by the likes of Steve Buscemi and Marty Scorcese.
Why three stars? Well, the extras on the DVD are fascinating. Good interviews with Altman and Gary Trudeau. There's a cool piece called 'The Two Alexs,' which talks about the scene where the fictional Alex Tanner (Nixon) meets the real Alexandra Kerry (also a documentary filmmaker), and they both film an interview with Ron Reagan, Jr. (who's also filming). So, as Altman and Trudeau explain, Reagan and Kerry are there with their film crews, Nixon with her fake crew, and the whole thing is being filmed by Altman himself. Moreover, Tanner on Tanner features a student filmmaker filming Nixon's attempt to make her film. As Altman and Trudeau note, the effect of Tanner on Tanner is to poke as much fun at the seriousness and angst of the documentary filmmaker as at the political process.
Most fascinating is a piece called 'Sex and the DNC' that talks about Nixon and Michael Murphy (Jack Tanner) walking the floor of the Democratic National Convention in character. People recognize Nixon from 'Sex and the City' and call out to her "I love you!" She brilliantly turns that around by deflecting it to her screen Dad and has him plunge into the crowd. Altman adds to that, noting that "no politician is going to answer 'no' when you say to them 'you remember X'" ('Jack Tanner' here). Sure enough, they show a great scene of a befuddled Joe Lieberman, obviously desparately trying to recollect candidate Tanner's face, pumping Murphy's hand saying "of course I remember." I could watch two hours of this kind of stuff. Too bad we only get 15 - 20 minutes of the extras and two hours of the show itself."
Foretold Fate in 08
AZ Written | Redwood City, CA USA | 01/27/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Tanner 88 is a prescient addition to the catalog of mockumentary films initiated by Spinal Tap in 84. The presidential candidacy of Jack Tanner in 88, following a semi-scripted format, foretells the character of a future candidate, Barack Obama, who appears in the reprise, Tanner on Tanner. In that sequel, Obama's actual keynote address in 04 before the Democratic National Convention in Boston smacks of the glittering generalities mouthed by Tanner in 88: "We are not red states and blue states. We are the United States." Altman's skillful satiric skewering of politics, mass media, and in particular documentary film making demonstrate the common thread of style over substance. Early aspirations of pursuers in all three of those fields begin with high hopes for social justice, but substance is eventually gutted by the exigencies of compromise along the road to becoming a power player. One scene late in Tanner on Tanner exemplifies the schism between personal belief and public profession. In that scene, one film editing monitor shows a sweating Tanner in a racquetball court railing against the Bush presidency for taking this country into war with a "swinging dick," while an adjacent monitor shows Tanner telling Charlie Rose why the U.S. should stay the course in Iraq.
Altman's skillful breaking the frame of the journalism's fourth wall and the intermingling of actors and real life characters create a suspension of disbelief that had me caring about what happened to Tanner and his daughter after 04."