Much of the goodwill built up by the experimental and truly risky Tanner '88 is dissipated in this well-intentioned return to the form. The original minseries blurred the line between reality and fiction by positing its own candidate, Michael Murphy's Jack Tanner, as a Democratic longshot. Filmed during the primary season, director Robert Altman's crew followed "Tanner" around from one state to the next, often mingling with real candidates and personalities and raising some fascinating questions about American politics - the "fake" candidate was as credible as some of the real ones. Tanner's daughter Alex took a break from college to accompany her father, giving us another perspective on the chaotic campaign trail.
Shot during last year's Presidential campaign, Tanner on Tanner is a dispiriting story that seems to predict the defeat of the Democrats by presenting Tanner as a borderline sell-out. The movie is really about docu filmmaking using the election only as a background, and has only negative things to say about the process.
The media keeps telling us that docus are big right now, and we're inundated by non-fiction videos from all directions. Activist docus are reviled by conservatives, ignored if they're unsensationally dedicated to dry facts and condemned if they present an opinionated point of view. Alex Tanner's video is made for all the wrong reasons, as a personal statement of her relationship to her dad and as a personal affirmation of her place in the political landscape, a way of justifying her existence as a 34 year-old woman without a real career.
Ex-candidate Tanner now seems to be more of a party advisor than a political force. In each episode he delivers a tirade of anti-George Bush rhetoric that seems disingenuous whether you're on that side or not; Tanner on Tanner militantly expects its audience to agree with its point of view, and that's just as primitive as pushy conservative opinionizing. The only conservative is a foolish campaign worker who happens to be gay; nobody can remember what he did in the earlier campaign and he becomes a cruel joke. The reasonable Jack Tanner is no longer a maverick free-thinker, even though the show pretends that he contributes key ideas to John Kerry's nomination acceptance speech anonymously for the good of the party. At the end, with T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed, Tanner's campaign manager in '88 and now supposedly a Kerry strategist) promising a policy job in the presumed Democratic White House, Tanner decides to back away from the fiery anti-war positions we've heard him spout on his daughter's videotapes. It's almost as if Altman and writer Garry Trudeau are tearing the Democrats down; Tanner indeed waffles in his statements just like what the right accused Kerry of doing. Maybe that's why Tanner is hiding his face on the DVD cover art.
Alex's character is given some depth, especially in a subplot about her Central American husband, missing and perhaps kidnapped by a death squad. But he also could have skipped, leaving Alex in doubt as to whether she's a wife or a widow, married to a martyr or a flake. She doesn't know who she is, and that's not good for someone trying to run a docu film unit. Trudeau and Altman overlap their dialogue and go for the same kind of chaotic atmosphere from the first film, but it's all too pat. Alex is financing her show on credit and her editor has to make ends meet by cutting porn at night; her Indian sound man ("Speed, God willing") is continually being picked up and harassed by the police, and her producing is all enthusiasm and little else. Alex's entourage is completed by Stuart (Luke McFarlane), one of her students making a video about her making a docu.
And Alex's docu is a wreck. At an early work-in-progress screening, none other than Robert Redford (reminding us that this is partially a Sundance film) stands up to tell her she needs to go back to the drawing board and find a subject for her docu to be about. Alex is already in tears before Redford speaks; she expects acclaim and affirmation comes to fall out of the sky like magic. Redford says more or less that "there's no crying in independent film." He's right, of course; filmmakers of any stripe have to be ruthlessly sure of what they're doing at all times, or at least committed to their own indefinable muse. Alex thinks if she works hard and cares, all will turn out peachy. The poor girl, what a maroon! 1
Tanner on Tanner also invites us to laugh at Alex as a ditzy, ineffective fool mostly concerned about herself and her imagined filmic career. She and her producer Andrea Spinelli (Ilana Levine, returning as well) are so ga-ga about celebrities that even when her dad buttonholes Richard Gebhardt for an interview, they can't get there on time. They pester people who (rightly) don't see the why helping her is a good thing. The best, if most painful scene in the film is where Alex and Alexandra Kerry (herself a producer of docus) attempt to share an interview with Ron Reagan. Reagan attempts to answer but they interrupt each other with an impatience that shows they know nothing about how to conduct a real interview.
The painful reckoning comes when Alex has to endure her student's video about her experience. It shows her to be a scattered, indecisive hysteric without a coherent message. Alex's fallback non-theme was to stress her father bashing Bush policies; Stuart's docu Diary of a Mad Filmmaker reveals her inadequacies in an entertaining form. We're supposed to see it as superior, when it's its own bit of hip character assassination. The real subject of these docus is the filmmaker as star talent.
Also showing up in the caught-on-the-fly cameos and staged scenes are Tom Brokaw, Mario Cuomo, Steve Buscemi, Howard Dean (a heckler keeps Alex from getting a good interview with him), Michael Dukakis, Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and Martin Scorsese. At the Democratic convention the filmmakers take clever advantage of Cynthia Nixon's fame from Sex and the City; delegates wave and take pictures of her, and Michael Murphy pretends that the excitement is all about him!
Showtime and Sundance's DVD of Tanner on Tanner looks fine; the miniseries is two hours long and doesn't strain the bit rate. The sound is good but as difficult to hear as the disc of the original show from Criterion; there aren't any subtitles this time around to make things easier.
The docu extra has Altman, Nixon, Trudeau and Murphy talking honestly about the show, even though none of them discusses the Republican win of 2004. Maybe they can all come back in fifteen years to do another show about the losing side, with a Deocrat running against one of Bush's daughters. Scenes showing Altman directing make his style look a lot more random than it can possibly be ... the finished scenes are much more tightly structured than the 'do whatever you want' direction he gives.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tanner on Tanner rates:
1. We call this the Tinkerbelle method of filmmaking:
close your eyes and wish real hard and it will become real. I have several student films of my own to
illustrate this truth ... and they all are 'very interesting' and 'accomplished.' No, really.