O.C. and Stiggs
d. Robert Altman /1985 / USA / 109 mins
O.C. and Stiggs is a film that was ready for release in 1985, but after test screenings, was shelved indefinitely. The film, based on characters from the National Lampoon magazine enjoyed none of the financial successes that National Lampoon’s Animal House had brought, nor its series of Chevy Chase “Vacation” movies. On viewing, it’s no surprise that this film confused its test audience or that its studio would so quickly abandon it. What is surprising is how characteristic it is of its director’s hallmarks, one of the most respected film-makers to skirt an uneasy relationship with Hollywood, Robert Altman.
Why Altman chose to helm an attempt to cash in on the teen/stoner comedies that populated so much of the 80s we may never know, but the film shows as blatant a disregard for its teen audience as the suburbanites its heroes revile. This is not to say the film works as a satire of the genre but it is at least a success in that its irreverence for pace, narrative cohesion or character development is in keeping with its anarchic sensibilities and indeed, Altman’s.
It’s been said that Altman rushed the film to avoid studio involvement and it shows. The film stars O.C and Stiggs and their obsessive desire to raise hell against a local insurance salesman and his family, the Schwabs. What follows are a series of ill-connected misadventures that include skinny dipping in their pool, stealing lobsters, overrunning the Schwab residence with their homeless friends and bringing a machine gun to a wedding. The Schwabs represent the same republican, oblivious, consumerist foes that Hawkeye and Trapper railed against in Altman’s far more acclaimed film, M*A*S*H. But whilst the television series that capitalised on M*A*S*H’s success added an increasingly large amount of pathos into Hawkeye’s character, Altman’s style of film making is far less sentimental. Confusingly, Altman spends as much time lampooning the middle classes as he does his two rambunctious protagonists. The undertones of racism and sexism are evident in not only the Schwabs and their ilk, but also O.C and Stiggs and their continued preference for calling their occasional female cohorts, “sluts”. Whilst it’s true that they have a love for all things African, especially the music of King Sunny Adé (Randall Schwab at one point mentions that the people he can’t abide are “people who drink and the continent of africa”), they spend little time in awe of his musical ability, and more using him as an instrument with which to further infuriate the Schwabs.
The film suffers from Louis Lombardo’s (the film’s editor) departure from the project and what is left is a mess of scenes that feel rushed, held together by conceits that one wanders whether Altman himself was enamoured with. But somehow, this film has garnered a small cult fan-base, undeterred by the fact that it was a film whose studio (MGM) didn’t want them to see. In some respects all of O.C and Stiggs’s weaknesses can be defended as strengths. When O.C. (Oliver Cromwell’s namesake) is asked what his name stands for, he replies “out of control” and one can’t escape the feeling that to constrain the absurdity and irreverent attitude of the film would somehow diffuse its point. The characters’ fascination and empowerment through the use of names continues in Stiggs’ refusal to be called Mark, “I want you to call me Stiggs, it sounds more ridiculous”, through the comically elongated way they pronounce “Schwab” and finally, Wino Bob’s statement that “I like to be called something I like. That’s my right, right?”.
At its heart, O.C and Stiggs is a mixed bag. Altman’s distinctive use of sound is as evident as ever, most of the scenes are accompanied by radios, televisions and news blurb, obscuring any exposition (of what little there is) that the characters are revealing. The visual cues from his previous movies are still evident, slow zooms and the like, but none are used as effectively as in his previous movies. Sharp, clever dialogue allows the film to keep its head above water. Stiggs’ demand that their car should have a “vulgarly inefficient engine” and be “real loud” allows one of the films highlights (their converted Studebaker) to be introduced by the claim that “if we can combine a really frightening noise with the ugliness of poverty, we’d have the ideal car”.
The film is by no means a success, it was an economical flop, very few have seen it and it has come to represent what may have been one of the lowest points in Altman’s career (even the critically reviled Popeye made money). It is still difficult not to feel some affection for its truly free-wheeling nature, its digs at not only the Hollywood ideal, but also its intended audience. At the very least it can be seen as a continuation of Altman’s rebellious nature and refusal to bow to the corporate demands of his studios.