Normally when a younger celebrity dies we mourn the loss partially due to the now-lost potential. We sometimes console ourselves when an older celebrity with a long and storied career dies, saying they had done so much and really they hadn't worked since 1997 anyway so the lost potential is not as poignant or heartbreaking. It's really not so much callous as it is a desperate attempt to keep from breaking down too much, or perhaps that's too much justification.
Sydney Pollack was 73. He had stomach cancer.
But he was still working. He was still in the thick of it. He still had stuff to do. And he was damn good at what he did.
My most favorite thing of his recently was, of all things, a filmed reminder to turn your cellphones off in the movie theater. In his segment, Sydney busts in to a guy's house while the fellow is attempting to break up with his girlfriend over the phone. He begins to critique the guy's performance (calling for more tears, if memory serves) and then says "Oh, I'm sorry, am I directing while you're trying to make a phone call?"
I just read the news of Pollack in one window while coming to this window to write that I watched Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud for the first time in like forever this evening. It's difficult to find a copy -- it's not out on DVD (and you think Criterion would've considered it when they realized Robert Altman was on death's door) and VHS copies are few and far between. I can't remember if the Brattle showed it as part of their most recent Altman retrospective, but if they were able to find a print, I regret not going. (And I think it'd be one of the films I'd list if they ever had another Request Raffle and I won.)
I am glad to see it in whatever form I can find it, frankly, because it's such a terrifically weird movie. It's one of my favorite weird films simply because it should not exist. There is simply no other time period in recorded history, other than the early 1970s, when Brewster McCloud could have been conceived, greenlit, produced, shot and released. That it didn't do incredible box office doesn't enter into it. The film exists in its own little universe with its own rules and Robert Altman does the same thing he did in M*A*S*H and just completely does away with many film conventions he never liked in the first place (he also apparently threw away more pages of the script than you'd care to believe.)
The story is a mish-mosh, characters come out of nowhere and just as quickly go back there, and you have to take it all at face value. By that I mean you learn quickly not to question what's going on because you ain't gonna get answers, bub. Shit is gonna happen (figuratively and literally) and only some of it will be explained. If not getting all the answers is the kind of thing that frustrates you to no end then you probably won't care too much for the film. But if you can take it for what it is, a surreal modern fairy tale with a brilliant bird-birdcage motif and moments that change from beautiful to ghastly when you least expect it, you'll find something quite nifty.
A whole group of Altman favorites is in this film: Bud Cort, Shelley Duvall (in her first role and in pigtails, even), Sally Kellerman, John Schuck (the "Painless Pole" in M*A*S*H) and Rene Auberjonois, who manages to channel both the manic calm of Gene Wilder and (before the fact) the freakshow that was John Lithgow in Buckaroo Banzai, as he serves as Narrator Figure and Chief Underscorer. Stacy Keach has a role in heavy makeup that is just so preposterous and strange that it repulses and attracts you at the same time.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned much about the plot or the story or what Brewster McCloud does. You should just go in with no advance warning. Suffice to say he lives in the Houston Astrodome and wants to fly. That's all you really need for now. Good night.