Wednesday, April 25, 2018

'Lost' films found 4: Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau's 'Killer App'

As a diehard Robert Altman fan, I’ve been pleased to see that his “missing” theatrical features have all shown up in recent years on DVD/Blu-ray – all of them except Health. (Fox utterly refuses to release that 1980 film, but it is up on YT here). His TV work is another matter — Tanner ‘88 and its sequel Tanner on Tanner (2004) are must-sees; the theatrical films shot for TV are definitely worth watching, although all but one has “disappeared” since the VHS era (and arguably the best, 2 by South, never was on tape).

Altman’s career was, of course, tied up with TV throughout the Sixties, but those episodes were works for hire. Thus my fascination at finding (hiding in plain sight) one of his later (1998) TV projects that I wasn’t aware had even been shot — it rates no mention in Mitchell Zuckoff’s big oral biography of Altman. 
Trudeau, Michael Murphy, Altman.
Altman and his Tanner co-creator Garry Trudeau (yes, the cartoonist) collaborated on a TV pilot for a drama called Killer App, about the industry that had grown up around Web innovation and new devices and apps designed to catch the fickle tastes of American consumers. 

Trudeau spoke about it in a 2014 interview with Indiewire: "We were offered an opportunity to do that for Turner, and they were going to give us a whole season without a pilot…and genius Trudeau decided, 'No, I’d rather take my chances with a network, because I’ll just reach a bigger audience.' And Bob Altman just was not a good fit for network television." 

A Variety article names Fox as the network that was ready to air the show. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel from May 1999, Altman reflected on the series (as he promoted his "kindler, gentler" comedy Cookie's Fortune): "But Altman has serious doubts about Killer App's future. 'I think it's been aborted,' he says. 'I don't have any hopes for it.' According to Altman, Fox wanted 'a lot of things changed [that) I didn't agree with.' Case closed, or at least stalled for now."

The pilot is a fascinating time capsule — it is not, unfortunately, as absorbing on an artistic level. It starts out as a satire but then quickly devolves into nighttime soap territory, with two of the lead characters having had a failed romance years before. The perfect Web-related satire was yet to come, with the debut of Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s Nathan Barley in 2005. (Brooker, of course, continues to offer up haunting stories related to “cutting-edge” technology on Black Mirror.)

The plot is simple: A married couple run a start-up in Seattle. Their staff have hit upon the “next big thing,” an app that will can turn any website into a “potential overnight broadcast network” (without a need for a computer, just a modem — substitute the phrase “Wi-Fi” here). The show thus predicts live streaming and YouTube, and also the recent creation of Alexa, with a female computer voice that answers questions and reminds its owner of things (voiced here by Sally Kellerman, because the creator professes his love for her in M*A*S*H!).

Their grim and greedy rival (Stephen Lang) is determined to get the couple’s app from them, by hell or high water. By way of explanation, he’s the kind of guy who declares he will publicly burn an authentic Gutenberg Bible he owns, just to show that money is no object to him (it’s no matter — he says he says he has a second one at home).

The single best scene in the show is a moment where Lang announces to his assembled workforce in a hockey arena (brought together for a company celebration) that his company is worth $12 billion in cash. He begins to chant, “12 billion cash!” and the workers join in. It’s another great piece of Americana from Altman — a horrific, greed-driven variation of “The whole world is watching!” chant that was taken up during the “police riots” at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago (and enshrined in cinephiles’ memories in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool).

Unfortunately, that terrific scene is unique here. The slide from satire to nighttime soap is rather steep and sudden. For example, the big “reveal” in the pilot is that the woman running the start-up with her husband had an affair with Lang’s money-loving billionaire.

The show is still worth watching for its historical value and, as always with Altman, for the beauty of the camerawork. The copy of the show that was posted on YouTube has no credits so we don’t know who the d.p. was, but the camerawork is pure Altman, whomever was running the camera.

So forget all you know about the Internet and today’s mobile devices and apps, and journey back to 1998 for the never-shown-on-TV pilot Killer App.