Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: A Perfect Couple (dir. Robert Altman, 1979)

When I finally got around to seeing Robert Altman's for-many-years-as-good-as-lost A Perfect Couple, I was extremely impressed. It is a highly unusual piece. Altman biographer Patrick McGilligan says "There is not another movie like it in the Altman canon," and he's not kidding; there is scarcely another movie like it in anyone's canon. The closest I can think of is George Romero's also criminally underrated There's Always Vanilla, which likewise deals with the arc of a romance between "ordinary" people with no touch of Hollywood iconography about them.

A Perfect Couple is conceived in terms of a number of binaries: two families, a rigidly patriarchal Greek family and a rock music collective with its own sort of patriarch; classical music and pop music, which join hands in the climax; a "perfect couple" of two decidedly imperfect, non-glamorous people, and a near-silent "imperfect couple" of two glamour-pusses, whose path repeatedly crosses that of the perfect couple, but in ways that only the audience perceives. (In the image atop the post, the glamour-pusses are on the left, our protagonists on the right.) The perfect couple meets through a video dating service that is a direct precursor to the Internet dating services of our own day; that lends the film an oddly contemporary touch.

The rock music collective, Keeping 'Em Off the Streets, actually existed and concertized a couple of times, but failed to win a recording contract. (The movie soundtrack was preserved on Altman's own Lion's Gate label; it took me a while, but I eventually scored a copy of the LP.) As others have noted, the music is quite delightful, and rather difficult to pigeonhole, with rock, pop, jazz, and theater music elements. There are a lot of musicians, a lot of singers, even a dog just hanging around, in somewhat elaborate and rather magical spaces (courtesy of master designer Leon Ericksen), and the musical numbers seem to emerge from the ambiance. The film is very driven by the songs.

Adding to the flavor of A Perfect Couple is a remarkably casual and positive attitude toward several gay and lesbian characters, so much so that Vito Russo singled the film out in his book The Celluloid Closet as being "special" for its era in its recognition of a "happy, well-adjusted" lesbian couple as a "family."

In the lead roles, Paul Dooley is remarkably winning, and Marta Heflin has a mysterious, somewhat withdrawn quality that is overtaken forcefully in her one solo number, "Won't Somebody Care," which is also one of the great musical sequences in all of movies, if you ask me -- right up there with Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy" in Nashville.

You can listen to the music here, but I recommend seeing the film first. The songs are more fun to listen to once the visual context is in your memory bank:

POSTSCRIPT: I wrote this piece back in 2008, and the film hasn't diminished in my estimation at all. I consider it one of Altman's most cherishable and original films, showing us what Hollywood romantic comedy could be, if Hollywood romantic comedy had ambition to be anything.

A Perfect Couple

No comments:

Post a Comment