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Why does Robert Altman keep returning to the South for his settings and scripts?

Serious hair 

Robert Altman's new film is called Dr. T. and the Women, and its eponymous physician--a gynecologist, no less--is played by Richard Gere. But let's start with the women, because unlike Richard Gere, they comprise a subspecies you don't see on many movie screens. They are not just Southern women, and not just upper-class white Southern women, but women who live in a deeply peculiar place known as Dallas, Texas.

Shall we argue now or later about whether Texas can described as Southern? Or about whether Dallas deserves to be identified with Texas, or vice versa? I say we set aside all such nitpicky disagreements and proceed directly to the meat of the matter, and I don't mean the ridiculous ketchup-on-a-cow that Texans call barbecue. I mean the Dallas that Altman gives us, this Dallas of many, many women and one woman-loving gynecologist. It is not the Dallas of the old TV show called Dallas. It is more like an alternate universe or rogue planet spun from the brain of some devious interstellar wizard. Which is to say that it might also be as accurate as the most fastidious and painstaking documentary.

But I think not--not exactly anyway. There is, for example, a wonderful scene very early in the film that suggests something about the distance between fact and fancy in this quintessentially Altmanesque satire.

It takes place in a very ritzy mall that just has to be a very real mall in the somewhat surreal environs of Dallas. In the scene, our focus is on three women who sweep into a branch of Tiffany's and who all bear some relation to Dr. T. There is his gorgeous daughter DeeDee (Kate Hudson), who comes to the store as part of planning her wedding; his sister-in-law Peggy (Laura Dern), who after a recent marital bust-up has brought her three kids and moved in with Dr. T, and who now shows a little too much fondness for Tiffany's glasses of free champagne; and, finally, his wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett), who's on the brink of doing that very Southern-matronly thing known as going stark raving bonkers.

So: a bride (who happens to be hiding a deep secret); a sponging relative who's also a divorced lush; and a mom whose mind is about to snap like a twig. Could we have a more discerning and astutely apportioned sampling of upper-crust Dallasite womanhood? I will leave that to you. What concerned me as I watched all this was, first, the hair. Not just on the main three women but on pretty much all of the women in the scene. It is very, very serious hair.

I don't mean archetypal Big Hair, teased vertically like a skyscraper and then held in place by aerosol shellac. No, this is mostly blond or near-blond hair that descends, drapes, declines over napes and shoulders. But there is so much of it! Like those dogs whose eyes you never see, these women all seem to be wearing three wigs at once. And beyond that, they're all wearing hats! Very serious hats. What kind I can't tell you; words fail. All I can say is that they look as if they might have been designed under torture by a troubled Milanese sartorial genius held prisoner in a castle in the Tyrol.

Yes, they look expensive-verging-on-nutty. Anyway, one reason the hairdos and headgear had such a startling impact on my tender senses was that they floated into view in one of those scenes, so typical of the director, where people swirl along in their own erratic orbits, paying only the scantest attention to each other, as the dialogue overlaps catch-as-catch-can and the camera's constant, unpredictable drift suggests that Altman may have had one too many bong hits before calling "Action!" Yet the result here does make its dizzy own sort of sense: Kate starts dropping her clothes and ends up naked in the atrium fountain before her rapid tailspin succeeds in catching the attention of DeeDee and Peggy, who are differently distracted and, in fact, have already left the mall.

Their absence, though, helped me focus on something important. In this scene's background, as the brave Farrah Fawcett (or her stunt double) does her Isadora Duncan-meets-Sally Rand number in the fountain, there are crowds of extras who just have to be real Dallas women. They're all dressed and coiffed to the nines, like spending a couple of days in Mr. Altman's movie must've been the social equivalent of the steeplechase, doncha know. You look at them and know they're the genuine articles, the local flora captured absolutely in situ. By comparison, the movie-version Dallasites we've been watching are--well, different.

But different how is the key thing. The portraits of Texas women Altman offers are loopy and absurdist and larger-than-life, but they're not vicious or scathing. Lots of people, Yankees who live in Yankeeland or who've been transplanted to the South, of course can't imagine artistic representations of white, well-off Southerners that aren't dripping acid or condescension. But Altman, unlike most of Hollywood (a town he's never belonged to spiritually, after all), isn't interested in that kind of outsiderist viewpoint. His vision of Texas and its women is a fond, idiomatic, knowing form of satire. The angle of view, in fact, is consummately insiderist.

The reason is simple. A few years ago Altman crossed paths with a first-time Texas screenwriter named Anne Rapp. Her Cookie's Fortune script became Altman's best film in nearly a decade. A hilarious, wonderfully complex satire of small-town manners, the movie had the kind of authentic, full-blooded appreciation of Southern eccentri-cities that you find in various novelists who practice south of the Mason-Dixon. Coming from Altman, this made more sense than might've first been evident. Not only did Rapp's daffy array of characters fit his penchant for ensemble pieces full of actors he likes, but making a stand for Southern life was like a making a stand against all the bland Hollywood and New York phoniness he's always despised. It was like he was an honorary Southerner to begin with.

Also scripted by Rapp, Dr T and the Women gives us Richard Gere in a terrifically appealing performance as Sullivan "Sully" Travis, a successful, well-to-do Republican gynecologist, duck hunter and golfer who finds his life suddenly coming apart at every conceivable seam. Besides the women already mentioned, the film stars Helen Hunt, Shelley Long, Tara Reid and Liv Tyler, all of whom add up to a considerable asset. Moment to moment, the movie skims along beautifully on the charm and skill of their performances, and Gere's. But let me now skip directly to the bottom line. Overall, Dr. T is only second-level Altman, largely because Rapp's script and his direction display only a portion of the consistent inventiveness that distinguished Cookie's Fortune. It's as if in the new film Altman and Rapp contented themselves with a premise and a cast, and assumed the rest would fall into place.

Well, sometimes Altman films just fall into place, but most of the time it takes a script as sharp and original as Rapp's first to make the magic happen. Of course, Dr. T's comparative weaknesses, the feeling that its satire is often a bit pat and predigested, won't dim Southern interest in Altman's current allegiances, nor should it. Artistically, his latest may not be his best. But anthropologically it's an absolute hoot, one that shows his heart is in exactly the right place.

Over dinner I asked a friend, a rock 'n' roll diehard like myself, if he'd caught up with Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous yet. Fork poised in the air, he narrowed his eyes and growled, "Cameron Crowe is the guy punk rock was created to destroy."

Point well taken. Crowe grew up to be the big Hollywood writer-director of Jerry Maguire and other movies. Almost Famous makes a soft-edged comedy-drama out of where he started in showbiz: as a 16-year-old reporter covering all the big rock acts of the era for Rolling Stone. Problem was, this was the early '70s, when rock 'n' roll was at its pretentious, bloated worst. Little Cameron got to ride on the bus with Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, et al, and write long, puffy, flattering articles that older writers presumably were too wised-up and disgusted to write.

Why would a young writer would be handed such plum assignments? Duh: Youthful naiveté made Crowe excellent at missing the truth (that much of the music he covered sucked) and thereby pandering to audience and industry bad taste. Almost Famous shows that he still has a knack for both things. A vanity project writ large, it skirts the tougher aspects of every issue it invokes (sexism, drugs, industry corruption, rock-star self-delusion) in order to tie everything up with a bow of bland, phony, television-style feel-goodism.

Most telling of all, you come out of the movie and don't know what Crowe makes of Stillwater, the fictional band his young stand-in follows on the road. Are they supposed to be demigods like Led Zep or instantly forgotten mediocrities? The fact that viewers would have to debate this question reveals the movie's most damning weakness: the lack of any coherent point of view regarding its main subject, rock 'n' roll. The movie boasts some very nice performances--by Frances Macdormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee and, especially, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs--but its gassy self-regard and musical obtuseness cry out for the return of Johnny Rotten. EndBlock

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