Matt Connolly on O.C. and Stiggs

Auteurism is a kind of romance. There’s the rush of recognition when you see that first film by a soon-to-be favorite director, the presence of a unique soul whose predilections and perspective radiate through the familiar confines of cinematic syntax and speak directly to you. The initial thrill deepens into something familiar yet rewarding over the next film or two. Their flaws become all too apparent over time, but perhaps you learned to forgive those. What keeps you up nights is something more fundamental: the possibility that the quirks and oddities and flights of fancy that initially drew you to them might not stand up to scrutiny after all. Watching a bad movie from a revered director is like watching your significant other get drunk at a party. Normally appealing eccentricities become shrill and sloppy. Purported charm and quick wit begin to look suspiciously like threadbare shtick. You can’t just walk away—but you wonder: is this what other people see in them all the time?

This feeling of queasy recognition settled over me as I watched O.C. and Stiggs, Robert Altman’s 1985 would-be teen-flick satire. It’s not like I was expecting wonders. Generally considered among the lowest points in Altman’s roller-coaster career, the film moldered in the MGM vaults for three years after Altman completed postproduction, only to be manhandled by critics and ignored by the public when it received a limited theatrical release in 1987. The 1980s are generally considered a rough patch for the filmmaker. (Mitchell Zuckoff’s 576-page oral biography devotes roughly 50 pages to his output from this decade, titling one section on the period “The Wilderness”.) Still, several films from this time have benefited from ipso facto reconsideration, notably 1980’s loony-tunes musical Popeye and such spatially constricted, richly atmospheric stage-to-screen adaptations as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Secret Honor. Little of this revisionist love has befallen O.C. and Stiggs. The most notable call for reappraisal came in 2007 from the A.V. Club’s
Nathan Rabin, who admits that his measured defense would probably be considered “the minority opinion of one frothing fanboy.”

It’s hard for me to share Rabin’s give-it-another-shot enthusiasm, but I respect the impulse, one frothing fanboy to another. Altman will always occupy a special place in my cinephilic pantheon. He was among my first auteurist crushes, someone who helped shake up my script-centric conception of film quality and consider how the person behind the camera could explicitly shape what was onscreen. My earliest cinematic favorites—Billy Wilder, Woody Allen—snugly fit the idea of filmic value as lying almost exclusively in the realm of character, dialogue, and plot. For my thirteen-year-old mind, the verbal tussles found in films like All About Eve, Double Indemnity, and Annie Hall conveyed a sophistication and urbanity I could only hope to achieve. This aspirational desire for elegance and wit led me to 2001’s Gosford Park, Altman’s murder-mystery-cum-upstairs-downstairs satire. I got my requisite share of withering bon mots, but I had to work to hear them! People kept talking over one another. The camera drifted across crowded rooms and peeked around corridors. No one person seemed to interest the film as much as the whole swarming mass. Whether this seeming disinterest came from a suspicion of the individual or a boundless curiosity of the collective was a question that stayed with me as I exited the theater, pleasantly buzzed by my first visit to the Altman din.

That tension has drawn me into Altman’s teeming networks of friends and lovers, politicians and performers, strangers and soul mates ever since. An unabashed satirist, he picks at the tacky surfaces, storytelling traditions, and structural underpinnings that constitute “America.” His sprawling casts burst with typage. Even his most humane films include at least a couple of representative straw men and women to snigger at. Combine this with his impish, cut-on-the-punch line rhythms, and it’s not difficult to understand those critics who dismiss Altman as too distanced, too callous, too willing to flatten his characters and condescend to his audience. Yet how many self-satisfied misanthropes remain so alive to the endless possibilities of the moment? Some satirists pin down their subjects like butterflies against a board. Altman lets them loose in his multi-channel greenhouse and sees what configurations they flutter into.

It’s easy enough to spot many of these auteurist signatures within O.C. and Stiggs. Playful puncturing of Hollywood tradition? The MGM lion announces the names of the eponymous troublemakers when he opens his mouth, his thunderous roar replaced with a cartoony warble. Caustic state-of-the-union burlesque? The film’s first shot finds an American flag hanging limply in the desert of Scottsdale, Arizona. We pull back to find that Old Glory rests above the sterile McMansion of the Schwabs, whose insurance company is referenced in a twangy commercial jingle that blares over the soundtrack. Patriarch Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley) storms about the compound, launching racist tirades against his Chinese son-in-law and Italian neighbor. Wife Elinore (Jane Curtin) stumbles about in an alcoholic haze that goes unnoticed by fellow family members. (Her creative booze-concealers include a flask in the shape of a pair of binoculars and a chandelier stocked with minibar-sized bottles.) Their daughter Lenore (Laura Urstein) is a bratty shrew, their son Randall Jr. (a baby-faced John Cryer) a squirmy bundle of arrested-development nerves. This toxic clan is the film’s ultimate symbol of Reagan-era moral bankruptcy, and the prime target of teenage hell-raisers O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neill Barry). The pair devote much of their summer to terrorizing the Schwabs, be it by blowing up a water fountain as Randall Jr. goes to take a drink or hosting an unannounced fund-raiser to help local drunks and addicts in the family’s home. (“Elinore!” Papa Schwab bellows upon noticing one of the uninvited guests. “There’s a black man in the house!”)

The film offers some slim justification for the duo’s pranks when O.C. mentions that the Schwab company canceled a much-needed insurance policy belonging to his ailing grandfather (Ray Walston), whom O.C. lives with. Mostly, though, they act out a generalized disdain for the easy-money complacency and unthinking privilege that the Schwabs symbolize: a disdain that Altman clearly shares. Scottsdale is a desert in multiple senses to Altman. A miasma of used-car dealerships and cookie-cutter housing developments scored to the blare of top-40 radio DJs, it exudes oblivious artificiality. One of the film’s wittier visual gags has the boys introduce a flashback to their “utterly monstrous, mind-roasting summer.” We cut to them paddling through a tropical jungle, complete with parrots and leafy ferns, and surfing in a presumed beach paradise. The camera pulls back to reveal their true locations: a tacky amusement park and an oversized wave pool. (“Big Surf,” the red-white-and-blue sign announces, “America’s Beach.”) Altman takes pains to underline his revulsion, going so far as to explicitly connect this film’s world with his earlier—and better—films. Most notably, Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), the unseen but constantly heard right-wing candidate from Nashville appears in televised speeches through the second half of O.C. and Stiggs, suggesting a continuum between the political hangover of the 1970s and the go-go materialism of the 1980s.

Such a move might have also belied a more personal anxiety on Altman’s part: a reminder of his mid-seventies glory days, before he was making films like O.C. and Stiggs (based on recurring characters in National Lampoon magazine). But Altman hardly needed to force connections by inserting characters from previous films. Putting aside the aforementioned auteurist tics, consider the plot. The episodic story of two antiauthoritarian young bros, heckling authority figures and pulling fratty pranks as they soldier through their time in a confined—and confining—milieu sounds an awful lot like M.A.S.H. Altman stated his desire to distance himself from teen comedies with O.C. and Stiggs, viewing the film as a satire of the genre’s sophomoric humor and lazy storytelling. What ends up happening is a kind of double blowback. On the one hand, connections to earlier films provide the opportunity to draw (primarily negative) comparisons between O.C. and Stiggs and other titles in Altman’s filmography. On the other hand, the failures of O.C. and Stiggs retroactively frame some of those previous titles in a less than flattering light.

Take that signature roaming camera, a constant presence in O.C. and Stiggs. Here, he uses it to turn up his nose at whole swaths of characters: the loathsome Schwabs, yes, but also O.C.’s deluded mother and cheating father, a dim-witted fellow student who tags along with O.C. and Stiggs and his promiscuous mother, a queeny drama teacher and his male lover (more on them later). Certainly, these sequences aren’t without their funny moments. Curtin, in particular, embraces the slosh-y hypocrises of her booze-soaked matriarch with relish. (“Drinking…in my house?” she slurs when Randall Sr. informs her of the cocktails being served at O.C. and Stiggs’s anti-addiction fundraiser.) But what do such moments gain from being delivered through Altman’s vivifying dialogue overlaps and nuance-catching slow pans? The presence of his distinctive aesthetic style feels like a way for Altman to distance himself from his own film, asserting his artistic superiority rather than elevating the material.

The effect is stilted at best, annoying at worst. There’s a would-be great moment where Stiggs launches into an impromptu Astaire-and-Rogers-esque dance number with the beguiling Michelle (Cynthia Nixon) during the Schwab wedding ceremony. It’s lovely and unexpected: an oasis of Old Hollywood elegance. So why does Altman keep cutting away to Elinore drinking, to Randall Sr. squawking, to Randall Jr. simpering? Rarely have I wanted Altman’s camera to simply stop moving, but rarely have its movements felt more driven by cheap laughs. The big exception comes when O.C. and Stiggs stage a concert of King Sunny Adé and His African Beats in lieu of a local theater production of Cactus Flower. Altman said in interviews that he included the band essentially because he liked them. It shows. As the crowd melts from quizzical stares to a full-on dance party, Altman luxuriates in Adé’s delicate, infectious rhythms, cutting between the band and the revelers with quicksilver ease. It’s far from the best of Altman’s musical sequences, but it shares their mixture of wry observation and in-the-moment good vibes.

The duo’s love of Adé is but one signifier of their proto-hipster tastes. Against the tidal wave of sun-baked, new-money crassness that bombards them daily, O.C. and Stiggs develop a fondness for collecting countercultural burn-outs, societal rejects, and exotic pets. Altman casts these characters with an extratextual wink, assuring us that these are the people whom one can count on in the film’s plastic world of blustering insurance salesmen and their bubblehead wives. Dennis Hopper pops his eyes and flares his nostrils as Sponson, a paranoid Vietnam vet who affectionately refers to O.C. as “crazy boy.” Wino Bob, an affably soused homeless man who lives in a trash heap next to the liquor store, is played by Melvin van Peebles: automatic sheen of blaxploitation cool! These casting choices intrigue for a number of reasons. (We haven’t even gotten to the aforementioned Walston as Gramps or Martin Mull as a boozy purveyor of plus-sized women’s garments.) Mostly, they form a coalition of Hollywood eccentrics, many in career limbo at the time of filming, that can easily be read by the knowing viewer as Altman thumbing his nose at the Tinseltown conglomerates that sidelined them—and, of course, him.

But if O.C. and Stiggs are on the right side of the film’s culture-war divide, how aligned are we supposed to be with them? I find it a tad naïve that Altman does not raise an eyebrow at O.C. and Stiggs’s unblinking cultural appropriations and too-easy rejections of the trappings of their straight, white, middle-class milieu. It’s clear that O.C. comes from more money than Stiggs, but it hardly matters. Both teenagers flaunt their gaudy thrift-store ensembles with equal relish, and drive around their tricked-out pseudo monster truck—affectionately named the Gila Monster—with an eye towards offending the “good taste” of their neighbors. Were Altman’s alarm bells not triggered by these ostentatious attempts at self-definition, or did he simply not bother to pursue this trickier line of satiric inquiry? I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between O.C. and Stiggs and another pair of disaffected teen misfits clinging to their life raft of ironic obsessions while drifting through a suburban swamp: Enid and Rebecca in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Zwigoff’s suspicion of contemporary society runs as deep as Altman’s. He also has the good sense to turn the tables on his cynical protagonists, exposing the immaturity and fear that undergirds their self-conscious poses even as he salutes their defiance of the brain-dead mainstream. It’s a balancing act worthy of Altman; too bad the master himself takes the less thoughtful path here.

Then there’s the issue of the sluts and the gays. Two characters are actually referred to as the former (repeatedly) by the boys: a pair of bimbo-licious airheads whom O.C. and Stiggs call upon mainly to make Michelle jealous. Many of the film’s female characters are either defined by sexual availability or are shrewishly closed off to the idea, from the naughty school nurse to the Schwab’s henpecking daughter. Then there’s the off-putting treatment of local theater director Garth (Louis Nye), a fedora-wearing, show tune-singing swish of whom O.C. inquires as to why he sounds like “an old lady.” A major joke in the movie comes when O.C. and Stiggs discover Garth and school disciplinarian Rusty (David Ziskie) on a lover’s vacation in Mexico. They follow them onto a Ferris wheel at a local carnival and loudly ask them “who’s the girl”-type questions about their clandestine affair. Given the blanket misanthropy with which O.C. and Stiggs views many of its characters, one can argue that such harsh treatment is in keeping with the film’s spoofing of middle-class hypocrisy. Until you begin to see that almost any character that gets a pass in the film tends to be a heterosexual male. More troubling for me is how we are expected to square our alignment with O.C. and Stiggs and their blithe proclamations of misogyny and homophobia. Altman cannot really hide behind the safety blanket of satire here, as it seems clear that O.C. and Stiggs are positioned primarily as avatars for Altman’s own rejection of Regan-era social mores and are therefore “trustworthy” characters.

One hopes to write off these moments as isolated missteps, but turning to his larger filmography leads to disappointment at best, suspicion at worst. On the LGBT front, there simply isn’t an excuse. Come Back to the Five and Dime and Streamers tackled, respectively, issues of small-town transphobia and the connections between homosexuality and military culture in smart, clear-eyed fashion. That with O.C. and Stiggs Altman indulged the gay stereotypes in Ted Mann and Donald Cantrell’s screenplay—indeed, enhanced them through choices of casting, mise-en-scène, and editing—leaves this queer Altman fanatic demoralized. As for the women…well, isn’t it one of the sad truisms of Altman’s career that he gets great performances out of actresses but can have some issues with female characters themselves? There have surely been many rich, multifaceted women in Altman’s oeuvre; but then you have a movie like M.A.S.H. which, whatever its strengths, frequently mines a strain of wink-wink misogyny for laughs. Do we tend to give that film a pass because of its culturally beloved position? Its larger satirical virtues? Certainly, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould make an imminently more charming and comically versatile pair than the serviceable Jenkins and Barry, whose performances in O.C. and Stiggs weren’t exactly career launchers. Yet the similarities between the two pairs of merry pranksters only make you consider how pervasive this vein of humor might be within Altman’s work.

Indeed, it’s O.C. and Stiggs’ weirdly representative position within Altman’s career that fosters such thoughts. Whatever the film’s faults, you’d be hard-pressed to claim that O.C. and Stiggs is some monstrous failure. Some of the performances hit their marks. The “New-Day-in America” suburban satire feels broad but occasionally packs a sting. That King Sunny Adé concert is a lot of fun. There’s no obvious interference from the studio or clear errors in collaboration (which can be clearly seen in another of his 80s films, the largely tone-deaf Christopher Durang adaptation Beyond Therapy). Without these outside impediments, we find simply a thoroughly mediocre Robert Altman effort. Almost all of his signature moves are there, and they almost all feel half-hearted, flattened, and occasionally debased. A bad auteurist film such as this both justifies the notion of the director as shaping force and reminds you that the value of an auteurist perspective is not immutable, but shifts with circumstance, time, and the ineffable whims of taste.

So it is with Altman. In the last scene of A Prairie Home Companion, a group of old radio performers chatter at a greasy spoon, their jokes and laughter spilling over one another to form a homey cacophony of old-time reminiscing. The Angel of Death (Virginia Madsen) observes them from a distance. A warm half-smile crosses her face as she approaches them. She knows which one of them is about to meet their end, but that doesn’t mean she can’t appreciate this moment of easy camaraderie. I’ve always thought of her as an oddly perfect avatar for Altman as director: always a bit removed, always in possession of unspoken insights into his swarms of characters, and always willing to luxuriate in the rich, surprising rhythms of those he observes. Watching O.C. and Stiggs doesn’t negate this romantic vision for me, but it does augment it a bit. There are those movies where you can feel Altman standing in the corner, eavesdropping, unable to contain his delight in spite of everything. And then there are those movies where you can see him in that same corner, arms folded, eyes narrowed, checking his watch. If you imagine a smile crossing his face in that moment, don’t mistake it for cock-eyed affection. He’s probably just thinking how much fun it would be to tell everyone in the film to fuck off.