People, They Ain’t No Good

Nick Pinkerton on the Alan Rudolph retrospective at Quad Cinema

Alan Rudolph, The Moderns, 1988, 35 mm, color, sound, 126 minutes.

ALAN RUDOLPH IS AN URBAN FILMMAKER, particularly if not exclusively so. It is telling that the title of his first major movie, Welcome to LA (1976), reads like a sign you encountered on the way into town. His camera moves like a flaneur’s readily distracted eye, and Rudolph loves the opportunities that a city affords for lives to intersect, cross, and recross while heading along their individual orbits.

As any cityscape is the sum total of the layers of years past, so too are Rudolph’s films, the better part of which can be seen in a twenty-one-film retrospective at the Quad. Rudolph began his career in the 1970s, and his films continue to bear what we have come to think of as the stamp of New Hollywood: an emphasis on character observation, a sort of wistfully dour defeatism, and a modernist attention to film form. At the same time, Rudolph’s work seems to belong to no one period in particular: His brand of modernism is consciously grounded in ideas developed throughout 1920s Paris—the subject of his The Moderns (1988)—while the languorous, caressing movement of his frame contrasts with the jagged Deco- and Cubist-inspired patterns within. A coup-de-cinema moment in The Moderns exemplifies his anarchic anachronism, tracking across a very 1920s café to land on a 1980s cluster of punk rockers.

Rudolph’s first features, Premonition (1972) and Nightmare Circus (1974), are absent in the Quad’s retrospective, where the earliest is Welcome to LA, the movie that shows the time he spent with his mentor, Robert Altman. The Altman movie that Rudolph cowrote, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), is also included in the lineup, as are the two for which Rudolph served as Altman’s assistant director, The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975). From the latter movie’s cast, Rudolph plucked two Welcome to LA stars and repeat collaborators, Geraldine Chaplin and Keith Carradine—who will appear at the Quad, along with Rudolph—as well as an air of ambient neurosis and social collapse: Rudolph’s Remember My Name (1978) unfolds against television reports of an earthquake in Budapest that’s claimed a million dead. The city of Trouble in Mind (1985) appears in the grips of martial law.

Welcome to LA lays out the basic template for a number of Rudolph’s films to come. Like Altman, Rudolph favors zoom shots (his are often low-speed and almost imperceptible), ensemble casts of returning stars (Geneviève Bujold is another favorite), and the building of multiple parallel planes of action and long-take motions that pick up and drop different subjects, while grabbing up stray bits of seeming non-sequiturs. Rudolph, who frequently wrote or cowrote his scripts, seems to have gravitated toward the surreal and fable-like side of Altman, while never having been particularly inclined to naturalism in either dialogue or setting. He gives his characters terse, oblique, sometimes aphoristic turns of phrase, and with DP David Myers, renders Los Angeles as something vague and vaporous, a sun-kissed, sex-scented waking dream. Finally, and most distinctively, Rudolph was unhampered by Altman’s periodic compulsion toward relevance. His settings were both contemporary and out of time. His abiding concern is one of the oldest in narrative art: love—how we fall into it, how we lose it, and how we spread it around everywhere except where it might do ourselves or anybody else some good.

Alan Rudolph, Welcome to LA, 1976, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes.

For Rudolph, Carradine plays a feckless rich kid singer-songwriter back in LA from London. His bed-hopping helps to keep the narrative in hot-potato motion, while the music of Richard Baskin provides the movie’s roundelays of loving and leaving with a near-omnipresent aural carpeting, proclaiming the setting as “the city of the one-night stands.” Music, and the infrastructure of the recording and touring industries, would remain a prominent aspect of Rudolph’s films, including a pair with the music industry as a subject, Roadie (1980) and Songwriter (1984). The first is a rock ’n’ roll picaresque starring Meatloaf as a Mr. Fix It, get-in-the-van prodigy, and featuring a charming Debbie Harry (as herself) bit, but shows Rudolph hapless with cracker-barrel comedy. The second, a loose, ambling vehicle for Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson (from a screenplay by Texas writer Bud Shrake), is the film that best distills Nelson’s shaggy-dog persona, with an understanding of not only Nelson the tunesmith but Nelson the tirelessly hustling snake-oil salesman trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors, still on the grind today––hawking medicinal marijuana and biodiesel fuel and whatever else he can turn a dime on.

Songwriter plays a tune about the struggle for artistic independence that Rudolph knew well. Released only a few months earlier and starring Songwriter’s Lesley Ann Warren, Choose Me (1984) was the film that gave him some real agency, and established the milieu and aesthetic in which Rudolph would work in for several years to come: film noir–inflected, rain-slicked, and neon-lit. The usual word for this sort of thing is stylized, but movies like Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, and Love at Large (1990) capture something true to the tenor of American urban cores before money started pumping back into them, in certain underpopulated spaces nearly free of family life, with little pockets of prewar-vintage Edward Hopper anomie still to be found in the linoleum-countertop diners and unrenovated buildings. (Rudolph’s films are also distinguished from much of contemporary mainstream work by the free-and-easy interaction that they depict, including romantic dalliances between mixed black and white fringe dwellers.)

Choose Me, like Welcome to LA, confines itself to a society in which solitude is the rule, even among the coupled, and heartsickness is epidemic. Again the movie is premised in part on Carradine’s newly released-from-the-booby-hatch irresistibility to the opposite sex. (Following characters fresh out of some kind of lockdown is a cherished premise for Rudolph, one also found in Remember My Name and Trouble in Mind.) Teddy Pendergrass holds down Choose Me’s soundtrack, as do the dialogues from the call-in advice show that Bujold’s character hosts as “Dr. Nancy Love,” a sort of lost soul Mrs. Lonelyhearts character endeavoring to give succor to Californians. Trouble in Mind, shot in Seattle but set in the fictional Rain City, moves further into genre territory, with Kristofferson a crusty ex-cop and Carradine a newcomer to city life who turns from a genially bearded family man to a whoring stick-up artist dressed like a member of the Stray Cats. The clothes are New Wave hepcat but the spirit of the movie is barrelhouse blues—bad news men and sad women go around and around in wary circles.

Alan Rudolph, Trouble in Mind, 1985, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.

Rudolph was always something of a niche, lone-wolf figure himself, belonging neither to the world of consciously hip low-budget independents nor to the pop-oriented neo-noir revival, though on occasion he did nearly brush against the zeitgeist—the Rain City setting of Trouble in Mind isn’t so far from the Gotham of Batman (1989). By the time that Tim Burton’s film came around, however, Rudolph had begun to move on from contemporary movies infused with the spirt of the past to honest-to-God period pieces: The Moderns is set among the bohemian expat community, while Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) imagines the atmosphere of the Algonquin Round Table group as led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dorothy Parker.

Rudolph asks that the viewer put in work to find the human pulse beating beneath the often-distancing approach of his films, and the reward doesn’t repay the effort in these glacéed art-historical pieces. It is hard, though, to really dislike anything as idiosyncratic as The Moderns, and in both films you can see Rudolph pushing his interrogation of the relationship between creative production and romantic illusions into new territory. (Really pushing, that is—they’re toilsome affairs.) This sense of each new work fitting into an articulated artistic trajectory wasn’t to last much longer. As a kind of bridge between the New Hollywood of Altman and the Lees and Soderberghs and Tarantinos, who for many defined American independent films in the 1990s, Rudolph lost whatever limelight he had to new names during the Clinton years. (Hal Hartley was the nearest natural inheritor of Rudolph’s sensibility to emerge in the new class.) This is not to say that there weren’t individually interesting films still to come, but previously purposeful evolution had been replaced with catch-as-catch-can work. A fair point of comparison might be another theory-driven stylist who never had much of a knack for narrative architecture, Paul Schrader, who in the mid-1990s experienced his own wilderness years.

Schrader has continued to repeatedly claw his way back into film cultural consciousness by whatever means necessary, while Rudolph has only just reemerged—the occasion of the Quad retrospective is the release of his first feature in fifteen years, Ray Meets Helen. It remains to be seen if this will be a return to form. Like Schrader or Hartley, Rudolph practices an anomalous, experimental method involving a seemingly counterintuitive combination of direct address to the sentiments and distancing style. When it goes wrong, it goes very wrong; when it goes right, the results are unlike anything else in cinema. Case in point is Remember My Name, with the oft-fragile and neurasthenic Chaplin giving her most cornered-animal aggressive performance as an ex-con pursuing a reunion with ex-husband, Anthony Perkins, without regard for law or consequences, lashing out when threatened with pencil shiv-thrusts and prison-yard titty-twisters. Unavailable on domestic home video, it’s probably the least known of Rudolph’s great works and should prove for many a real discovery in a retrospective full of them. This is a film in which the heat of Chaplin’s performance and the cool of Rudolph’s approach combine for a startling sizzle, a breakthrough only available to one working with volatile materials.

“Alan Rudolph’s Everyday Lovers” opens at the Quad Cinema on April 27 and runs through May 10.