Altman: HealtH (1980)

Towards the end of the 70s, Altman’s classic period to reach the end of its lifespan, and his ensemble vision grew zanier and wackier in response. While things were starting to get crazy with A Wedding, the weirdest and wooliest of all his films from this time is HealtH, the penultimate film of his golden age, and the last “naturalistic” film of his golden age before he capped things off with Popeye. HealtH takes place a health food convention at a Florida hotel, and follows three different women as they campaign to become president of the organisation that is hosting the convention – Gloria Burbank, played by Carol Burnett, Esther Brill, played by Lauren Bacall, and Isabella Garnell, played by Glenda Jackson. With the American President taking interest in the proceedings, but never actually appearing, the stage is set for Altman’s unique take on the last days of the counterculture, and the decline of the hippie movement into “the millions of people who have awoken to the call of health.”

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Despite that broad overview, HealtH is one of the hardest films in Altman’s body of work to describe or evoke. Late in the film, one of the characters admits that “I made the mistake of thinking “health” was a noun – it’s a verb transitive,” and that same shift applies to the film as a whole, which starts off seeming like it’s going to be about a discrete set of characters, but quickly balloons into one of Altman’s most improvisational and free-flowing ensembles. In fact, this is the most ambitious ensemble of his career, since virtually every scene takes place in the midst of a massive conference crowd, making it almost impossible to discern very much of the Florida hotel where it’s all taking place. No Altman film is so bursting with bodies, or with visual detail – far too much to take in during a single viewing – and scene is cluttered with too many images and sounds to properly process. People are continually talking over each other, while the constant presence of a singing troupe in the background adds another plane of sound, anticipating the intensified ensembles of Altman’s early 90s output, especially Pret-a-Porter, which has a similar sense of anarchic and provisional flow.

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This makes HealtH a critical moment in the gradual thickening of space that took place over the later part of Altman’s golden period. During the mid-70s, his ensembles moved through spaces fluidly, but as his disillusion with the counterculture grew, the spaces in his films grew more viscous and resistant to movement, culminating with the off-kilter town of Sweethaven in Popeye. In HealtH, there are so many people crammed into Altman’s shots that physical space often feels resistant to physical movement in this way, as the film tries, and fails, to find a stable foundation beneath the ebb and flow of the conference. At times, Altman’s camera seems to be treading water, gliding across the surface of the crowd, exposed to its unexpected eddies and currents, but never able to really strike anchor or find safe harbour. Although the ocean is present, the beach is present, and the hotel is present, they never really separate into discrete chunks of space, as the crowd churns them into a viscous murk that, like so much of Florida itself, never quite feels terrestrial or aquatic, stranding both characters and camera in a precarious position on the cusp of solid ground.

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As in 3 Women, Altman uses a swimming pool to symbolise this ebb and flow of the film as a whole. The swimming pool is the one clear spot in the hotel and, as such, often seems like the stable ground that the film is looking for. If only we could somehow get to the bottom of the pool, or Altman could get to the bottom of the pool, the film suggests, then we could properly orient ourselves within the hotel and the conference. Yet when a man’s body does turn up on the body of the pool, forming a point of focus for all the hotel’s sightlines, the conference participants are delayed in their ability to recover it, or even to properly perceive it, partly because they are enmeshed within other liquids or bodies of water at the time that this body appears. Even when the body is finally recovered, however, it turns out to be a publicity stunt, collapsing the bottom of the pool, and the figurative anchor of the film, into the flow of the conference, before the main conference members fall into the pool in surprise, making the space between them even more viscous and resistant to movement.

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It’s no compliment, then, when a reporter tells Esther Brill that she is “clear as water,” since the swimming pool incident makes it clear that even the most transparent media in Altman’s film have already been coloured and claimed by the conference. In fact, every image and situation in HealtH already seems to have been processed and mediated multiple times by the time we arrive at it, meaning that there is no real distinction between events and representations, or between what we are seeing and the way it has been remediated. In the early stages of the film, Altman follows Dick Cavett as he shoots an episode of his television show at the beginning of the conference, sporadically switching between his camera and Cavett’s camera as the rest of the conference proceeds, defying any clear separation of film and television, or the different media attending the conference. HealtH thus often seems to be operating in a closed circuit, or feedback loop, that grows more histrionic, but also more impotent, as it proceeds, as each character, and each candidate for election, tries, and fails, to remain one step ahead of the voracious appetite of the media.

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More than any of Altman’s other golden age films, then, HealtH is not driven by character, or by narrative, but by a collective propulsion. In Altman’s earlier films, this propulsion was often associated with the collective aspirations of the counterculture. Here, however, those aspirations have been absorbed by a more neoliberal form of networking, driven by the constant recircuiting of energy in the room, the connections that are formed between different power brokers, and the “connectivity” that is presented as a New Age achievement. To that end, Altman continually shifts and rearranges his mise-en-scenes before they can ever settle, never permitting the action to subside or stabilise into a consistent tonal or spatial palette. In that respect, the closest film in his body of work is probably Buffalo Bill and the Indians, although HealtH doesn’t allow us even the fleeting distinction between onstage and offstage that we see in Buffalo Bill. In fact, part of what makes the hotel so disorienting is that it is almost impossible to tell what is “behind the scenes,” just as it is impossible to tell what is meant to be the conference’s main spectacle.

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This dispersed approach is all the more dramatic in that the film is helmed by three actors – Burnett, Bacall and Jackson – who have traditionally played big characters in big stories. Uncoupled from any clear narrative or character arc, their charisma takes on an incredible volatility as it circulates around Altman’s mise-en-scenes, where one figure after another tries and fails to co-opt them, especially the President, who is reportedly keen to make the most of the growing fascination with health food. In the process, political discourse becomes uncoupled from any clear political objective, as the screenplay subsists on solipsistic statements that mirror the circular logic of the film as a whole: “Once you get a policy you must stick with the policy.” As familiar phrases and promises, along with fragments of the Constitution, circulate within Altman’s mise-en-scenes, they are divested of any referent, and instead become a form of political play, as the language of neoliberal public relations and managerial politics starts to emerge via the nascent self-help industry.

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This produces a new kind of political sensibility – what one of the characters describes as the “extreme middle,” in opposition to both the “extreme left” and the “extreme right.” The extreme middle is presented by Altman as a logical conclusion of the picaresque masculinity of his golden age, and the gender values of the counterculture that it reflected. Parsed in different ways, it can mean two different things. On the one hand, it can mean an extreme attachment to centrist politics, and an extreme dislike for both right-wing and left-wing political agendas. However, it can also mean that the middle-of-the-road is an extreme position in and of itself, partly because it involves adopting political ideologies that are never properly articulated as such. Altman seems to see this “extreme middle” in the second light, since it is mainly voiced, here, by the kinds of picaresque men who populated his films from the early 70s – men who prided themselves on being apolitical, even as they perpetuated structures of power and modes of behavior that were as conservative as ever.

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In the first part of HealtH, Altman still seems to have a residual alignment with these men, taking a couple of potshots at the female politicans in the film by questioning whether or not they can really be called women and continue to lead. Early on, Esther Brill reveals that she has never had sex, and has never become a woman sexually, since “sex is the killer – each orgasm shortens life by twenty-seven days.” Similarly, later in the film, Donald Moffat makes an appearance as Colonel Cody, a business man who claims to be controlling the convention, and who sets out to put Gloria Burbank in her place, telling her that “you are just a female, spelled fee-male,” before assuring her that “the NRA will blow your head off.”

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Yet these more conservative moments are complicated by a complex series of transgender tropes that are remarkably ahead of their time. During one key scene, Bobby Hammer, a campaigner played by Henry Gibson, plays the role of a trans woman, assuring Gloria Burbank that “there are more of us than you probably care to admit,” while confessing that “I feel we are between worlds – the one I envisage and the one we all inhabit,” before coming out as “having been trans-formed.” In the early 70s, Altman might have played this sequence for a picaresque laugh, or a cheap joke, but now he cuts to a collection of men and women discussing the anticlimax of heterosexuality, before a man casually comes out as gay, and another straight man reflects “somehow I feel the oddball here – well, maybe I am.” In this chain of images, and this trans-formative play, Altman seems to be finally putting the more regressive elements of the counterculture to bed, opening himself up to the more emergent queer collectivity that would structure the look of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, along with the bleaker social commentary of Streamers.

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This trans-formed attitude towards masculinity produces a conclusion that replays the assassination scene in Nashville as farce. In this version, the president is announced, as Altman hones in on two dramatic vertical sightlines from opposite balconies in the hotel. Both of these sightlines initially seem to betoken an assassination of Esther Brill, the winner of the presidency, but instead perform a kind of assassination of Altman’s own masculine hubris during the early 70s. The first of these balconies is occupied by Gloria Burbank, who has just slept with Harry Wolff, her ex-husband, played by James Garner. While Harry has been trying to woo her all film, he only succeeded the night before. His strategy was to listen to her story about her trans encounter and then seduce her by reassuring her (falsely, as it turns out), that he can tell whether people are trans or not: “I’m just a man and a man knows these things.” The second balcony is occupied by Colonel Cody, who initially seems to be unpacking a gun from a suitcase. However, we soon learn that he is psychologically deranged, that his threat to Gloria Burbank was a farce, and that he is just unpacking a suitcase of toys, before throwing a tantrum after he accidentally destroys one of them, inducing another conferencer to observe that he’s just a performer, “just like Buffalo Bill.”

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Between these two final visions of masculinity – a man seducing a woman by boasting about being able to separate trans and non-trans men, and a man breaking down after his toy set breaks – Altman seems to grasp that the  masculinity his 70s heroes exhibited was complicit in the very structures they set themselves against. He would return to these heroes once more, and once more as farce, in Popeye, but in some ways HealtH is the final grace note of his golden era. As pronouns grow more muddled and gender grows more fluid, the reassuring voice of paternalism grows more impotent and venal, culminating with a final outburst of hate speech from Colonel Cody before Altman cuts to the conference sign being taken down. Dick Cavett packs up, but Dinah Shore is there to meet him – she’s covering a hypnotists’ convention the last day – as the credits roll over a final performance from the conference troupe, and the film never fully extricates itself from the other media covering the conference. It’s a fitting non-ending to one of the densest, most difficult and most visionary of Altman’s films – less a representation than an enaction of political discourse shifting from the 70s and 80s, as the counterculture comes of age in front of our very eyes.

About Billy Stevenson (695 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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