Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Robert Altman: Tanner '88

I spent most of last weekend watching the mini-series Tanner '88 and its sequel Tanner on Tanner both directed by Robert Altman and written by "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau. Overall eight hours pretty well spent. I think these two will serve as excellent companion pieces to Altman's classic Nashville - all together they are like a mini-course in American politics, media and culture. Besides being educational, it is also hugely entertaining even for those like myself who are not really keen and attentive followers of nuts and bolts of American politics.

The basic idea of the series was quite revolutionary at that time though it has become very familiar now, in this age of ubiquitous reality TV. They created a fake democratic presidential candidate Jack Tanner, played marvelously by Michael Murphy who also played a similar role in Nashville, complete with a past career etc, gave him a fake campaign management team and sent him on a real (as in really real) campaign trail where he meets and greets real people and real politicians and public figures. The main theme of the series is that there is no (okay, make it very little) reality or authenticity in American democracy or politics. And for this same exact reason, Altman seems to remind us, a reality TV show can capture the essence of the American democratic process because there is very little reality in reality TV either! It is also a fabrication, it is all about image!

What makes it so interesting and engrossing is that the series shows this process by which a normal human being gets transformed into an image created by TV and media. We are introduced to Jack Tanner as a professor with a PhD and his campaign slogan is an obvious joke: "For Real". Soon we see a random sample of people disapproving of the promotional video which prompts his team to do a video critique and do alterations which will be more in line with people's expectations and opinions. Like for example, he can't hold a baby properly (ruining a photo-op) so his staffers bring in a fake baby so that he can train himself. He goes to some self-help pseudo-Yoga institute where he gets to learn how to never get tense and lose his cool by controlling his abdominal muscles and on and on.

Jack Tanner is just one of the huge cast of characters and in typical Altman fashion even the most secondary characters get chances to shine in front of the camera at some point or the other. Other than Tanner we have his chain-smoking hyper-energetic chief campaign manager "T.J. Cavanaugh" played wonderfully by Pamela Reed. Her assistant is a little ditzy, and a bit dim female staff who has many funny moments. His daughter is again a hyper-energetic politically idealistic teenager who is always getting her dad into trouble, like getting him arrested in an anti-apartheid protest. There are usual bunch of journalists all portrayed in typical Altman-esque fashion - in short they are all wonderful. Their polyphonic banter and chaotic tos and fros reveals more about human character that even a well-written monologue won't be able to do. There are lots of scenes in the series which are memorable. One of my favourite is when Tanner's Dad, an army man, raises a toast to his son's wedding (a shotgun wedding to be particular but I won't reveal the details here). Another wonderful scene in which Tanner breaks into a monologue about "the favourite Beatle". Yet another memorable and powerful scene is when he visits Detroit and listens to a rap performance about urban decay and street violence. It is really spine-chilling. Youtube doesn't seem to have the clip.

Of course one needs to know all the names to fully appreciate all the jokes: Mike and Kitty Dukakis, Gary Hart, Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Schlaffy but in an in-joke Studs Terkel says that he supports Jack Tanner because he is the only candidate who knows the name of some obscure labour leader (I have already forgotten the name) indicating that even the American public and people in active politics also don't know all the finer aspects of the politics so may be it is okay to see it from a point of view of ignorance. In another joke, one of the guys on his staff says that he would like to marry Gloria Steinem just by looking at her picture on TV without knowing who she is (a feminist critical of the institution of marriage)!

Tanner on Tanner the sequel which came 16 years later keeps all the good things from the original show and ups the ante on drama and self-reflexivity even higher. His daughter Alex Tanner is now an activist documentary film maker who is planning to make a documentary on his father's presidential run in '88. After a disastrous screening at the "rough cut festival" and getting an advice from Robert Redford himself (for real) she follows her dad to the ongoing democratic convention to record his interviews with his colleagues asking them to reminisce about what the 88 campaign really meant to them. She has an absolutely hilarious three way confrontation with Alex Kerry, daugher of John Kerry and a documentary film maker in real life, and Ronald Reagan Jr which is really just one of many great moments in the film. This is also much more self-reflexive than the original show. Everybody seems to have a video camera. There are documentary film makers who are making documentaries about documentary film makers. There is a student who is following Alex to make a film for his class project etc etc. As Martin Scorsese, in a hilarious cameo, exasperatedly says in the beginning "Everybody is making pictures these days!" Cynthia Nixon in the role of Alex just steals the show as it is much more focused on her character than the original which was much looser. Besides politics Tanner on Tanner works as a satire of documentary film making itself too.

Altman in the interview says that it is the most creative work he has ever done which may or may not be true but it is without doubt a very complex and fascinating piece of work which at the same time is also illuminating and also entertaining and that is really a lot. More details from these articles in Slate and New Yorker


puccinio said...

"All movie stars are politicians, and all politicians are bad actors."

---- Robert Altman.

''Tanner '88'' is one of the very few films that give you insight into how politics actually works in the real world which means that more people should see it.

And see it at least two to three times. They were made for TV but somehow it's pure cinema.

Alok said...

yes totally agree. i think it should be a part of school curriculum - much better than those boring civics lessons!

Lynda Marks Kraar said...

I can't stop watching it. It's like we're in a time warp. nothing has changed.

Alok said...

yeah, its a great time to revisit the show!