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Published: Thursday, 10/21/2004

Fast forward: Toledo native's Nixon fights to defend his 'Secret Honor'

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Toledo native, Philip Baker Hall.
Toledo native, Philip Baker Hall.
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This isn't, you may have noticed, Southern California. It's not every day, or every decade, a movie is shot in this area. The last great one, in fact, filmed within a quick jog of downtown Toledo (if you strain to ignore Detroit, with its occasional Out of Sights and 8 Miles), happened 20 years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich. That would be Robert Altman's Secret Honor ($39.95), finally available on DVD in a loving edition from Criterion, and starring only one man - the character actor and Toledo native, Philip Baker Hall.

Shot on a single set, adapted from a 1970s stage play, it gives us Richard Nixon (Hall) as a kind of King Lear figure, railing against the failing light and paranoid to the last. It's set after Nixon's resignation and disgrace, and his San Clemente mansion has become a personal bunker. Hall stalks the study like a man speaking in tongues, breaking down and drinking heavily, surrounded by monitors, hell-bent on defending his "secret honor." The title comes from his insistence he set himself up, martyred himself, used Watergate as a way of hiding more Byzantine offenses, committed by others, which threatened our welfare.

Secret Honor, to which Altman contributes a thoughtful commentary, sits alongside 3 Women, The Company, and a slew of others in that overstuffed subgenre of Robert Altman Movies That Go Unappreciated and Underseen. As a portrait of Nixon, it's one of the most sympathetic (thanks to the University of Toledo-trained Hall, who shows no man is a villain in his own eyes). But as a production, it's one of a kind.

Altman was slated as a visiting professor for the 1984 winter-spring semester at the University of Michigan. He figured a clever way to get a movie shot even as he taught: He offered Secret Honor as a course. Hall, who had worked with the Toledo Repertoire Theatre and spent two decades on New York stages, was already in his 50s. He flew to Ann Arbor and shot the film for only a little more than a week. And so before Hall arrived, Altman worked the details with his classes and his cadre of graduate students; first, they staged it as a play for five nights and smoothed out the kinks. And then when the time came to build the set, they moved into the sitting room of the Martha Cook Building, a women's dormitory.

Altman used his regular cinematographer, Pierre Mignot, and his art director (and son) Stephen Altman. But the rest of the crew members were graduate students. Footage of the cramped shoot is cut into a 20-minute interview with Hall included on the DVD. A TV camera was installed on the ceiling of the dorm, Altman recalls. "For eight, 10 hours a day, students would drop by and sit [outside the room] and watch what was going on through the monitors."

Everyone was invited to dailies - the daily assemblage of what was just shot. Although it's hard to imagine anyone who actually worked on the shoot sticking around. "Because the filming was so intense and the length of the takes were so long and exhausting," Hall says, "they set up a room outside the set where Altman and I would go between takes and lay down." Director and actor lay down on single cots, placed side by side. (There's footage of it on the disc.)

To reaffirm themselves during the grueling pace, at times Altman reached across beds and the two clasped hands, out of friendship and support.

"It was unusual," Hall says.

Speaking of Robert Altman and Michigan - yes, there's another connection - arguably the best work he's done since his 1970s classics like Nashville was when he ran a fictional Michigan congressman, Jack Turner (Michael Murphy), for president and videotaped the result for a prescient, pseudo-reality HBO series, Tanner '88 ($29.95) - also getting the gold-star Criterion treatment this week. Written by Gary Trudeau, and played in tiny bursts like a comic strip, it captures the last gasp for an American political system not yet entirely ruled by image and television.

The great joke of the series is how Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader mingle in and out of the camera, playing themselves, and there's not a spark of friction between the fictional Tanner and these actual candidates, who are good sports. But you're never completely sure they grasp what Altman is getting at, how complicit they appear.

In a new conversation, Altman and Trudeau reflect on their prank. "We're not cynics," Trudeau says. But Altman amends: "I'm a hopeful cynic."

"Is there such a thing?"

"It's like a person who lives in the desert and hopes for rain."

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ON THE STUMP: If that's a little too much cynicism this close to Election Day, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (Non Fiction Films, $19.98), which opened here less than a month ago, is being rushed to video now, presumably to put Kerry over the top. Predictably, it looks like a redo of Bill Clinton's famous convention bio, The Man From Hope, but, unpredictably, it also plays like an absorbing portrait of young men and war.

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TOMORROWNEVER KNOWS: It's not every day a blockbuster comes along that makes you wish there were something as nutso as it every week. The Day After Tomorrow (Fox, $29.98), which tells the story of how Dennis Quaid walked from Washington to Manhattan when the world froze over and all the wolves wanted to eat Jake Gyllenhaal, feels like a blockbuster from another, just-as-creaky era. That would be the late 1960s and early 1970s, when studios were making dim-bulb disaster flicks until a new generation of filmmakers came along and washed clean the slate. When that flood comes again, I want The Day After Tomorrow on my ark. Just for old time's sake.

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TOURS DE FORCE: What do we mean when we say so-and-so gave "a tour de force performance"? I think we mean not that the actor gave the best performance, but that when he or she arrived, the light itself seemed to change and all eyes stayed on the actor.

That's how you watch Mandy Moore in Saved! (MGM, $26.98), a spot-on satire of Christian-centric pop culture that turns jarringly sweet. As Hilary Faye, the more-holier-than-thou of her high school, Moore never backs off from a cutting (and broad) parody, even when you sense director Brian Dannelly extending an olive branch.

Actually, an actor need not even be physically present in a movie to give a tour de force performance. Aladdin (Disney, $29.99), newly available as a two-disc, uber-stuffed Platinum Edition, would merely be another crisply animated adventure with nice songs (a dime a dozen for Disney), if Robin Williams' running-with-scissors enthusiasm wasn't so infectious.

Twelve years later, it remains the closest the cell animators at the Mouse have ever come to the lunacy of a Looney Tunes short, and the extras are an animation junkie's dream: deleted scenes, deleted songs from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that illustrate a more conventional approach to the story of a boy and his genie (eventually scrapped). As for the soundtrack, the new 5.1 Surround mix is so evocative the squawk of Aladdin's monkey had me certain that a bird had flown into the room.

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VEHICLE IMPOUNDED: Kate Hudson can't buy a break. The unnecessary romantic comedy Raising Helen (Buena Vista, $29.99) was not the star vehicle to establish her as the second coming of Meg Ryan. And neither were her last three movies. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, coasts through the cute, forgettable Breakin' All the Rules (Columbia, $26.98), playing a relationship expert, the way you'd expect him to: like a guy headed places.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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