Rudolph, Alan: Director Profile

The Romantic–Alan Rudolph

Alan Rudolph began his career as an assistant to Altman on The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville. He later carved a path of his own with Welcome to L.A. (1977), which Altman produced, and Remember my Name (1979). Like his mentor, Rudolph operates well with tight budgets and a repertory troupe of actors, some of whom– Keith Carradine, Genevieve Bujold, Geraldine Chaplin–have also worked for Altman.

Rudolph has an undeniably singular romantic vision: In his films, nothing is ever ordinary. Best known for his offbeat romantic comedies, Rudolph is an iconoclastic filmmaker who revels in subverting traditional genres. His work is marked by oddly eccentric moods, oblique entrances, elliptic passages, and archetypal characters. A director with a sophisticated visual sense, Rudolph makes movies for the intellectual arthouse crowd. His style is fanciful, whimsical–and occasionally frivolous. Pauline Kael has observed that it's often hard to distinguish in a Rudolph picture the intentional humor from the unintentional flightiness.

Rudolph's films are never box-office successes (his audiences have been small), but they don't cost much either. The only exception is the ambitious Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, a big-party movie about the legendary literary wits of New York's Algonquin Round Table, and Rudolph's most expensive ($7 million) film. Producer Altman managed to raise the funds with great difficulty, but the picture lost a bundle.

It took seven years and four movies for Rudolph to find his style in Choose Me (1983), a giddy movie which is still the crown of his achievements. Structured as a lyrical fantasy, its characters wander in and out of a bar called Eve's Lounge, obsessively looking for love. The protagonist (David Carradine), a lunatic who radiates danger, turns out to be saner than anyone else. All the characters are at least vaguely amnesiac, and, as Kael noted, are given to dialogue that's “overintellectualized in a hammy way.” But the movie's loose, choreographic flow and swoony camera fits its romantic ambience and compensate for the weaknesses.

American audiences have not embraced adult fairy tales in the way European audiences have. The chic, subtle and bizarre Choose Me is a variation on Schnitzler's classic, La Ronde, set in a downtown L.A. where, with the exception of a few prostitutes, other people have vanished. A deceptively fragile movie, it owes a lot to Altman's artful heedlessness: The fable about oddball lovers whose madnesses and illusions interlock is both subversive and upbeat. Rudolph's finest achievement as a moody romantic melodrama, Choose Me boasts sinuously lurid visuals and a jazzy score.

Rudolph later made Trouble in Mind (1985), in which the situations are similar to those in Choose Me, except that the mixed-up lovers have been replaced by mixed-up gangsters and what was comic is now fatalistic. In Made in Heaven (1987), Rudolph envisions a colorful world with the dreaminess, romanticism and tangled destinies that have marked his other films.

Choose Me was followed by a number of films set in the literary world, such as The Moderns (1988), about a 1920s artistic milieu, and its companion piece, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, a fascinating but shallow look at the acerbic, self-destructive writer and her legendary cohorts. Like most of Rudolph's films, Mrs. Parker doesn't go anywhere dramatically, but it sustains a frivolous party atmosphere in its depiction of the literati crowd as they booze, wisecrack and engage in romantic affairs and infantile conduct.

Rudolph has used old literary conceits–the twins in Equinox (both played by Matthew Modine)–but his sensibility is modern. As a study in the duality of identity, it centers on twin brother Fred and Henry. Seperated at birth, one grows up an orphan, the other adopted, one becoming bad, the other good; each exists as a half of a dark/light schematic, but is beckoned by the other, yearning to meet the doppelganger he doesn't know is alive.

An ensemble piece about criss-crossing destinies that's social-minded in its concern for the moral decay of urban society, Equinox suffers from a low-key tone and incoherent texture. Not exactly a romantic fable, it's more of a noirish fairy tale with rich imagery and subtle humor. The metaphor of life's randomness flashes through windows in the form of a neon “lottery” sign. The currents of human interaction that fascinate Rudolph are expressed in self-consciously noirish elements. Rudolph plays with the conventions of a thriller and the themes of good and evil to comment on the romantic loss and emptiness of modern life.


Over the years, Rudolph has developed a control of rhythm and mood–a musical way of storytelling–which is most evident in Afterglow (1997), a romantic comedy that dissects the delicate imbalances of two sexually barren marriages. Though lacking the more accessible appeal of Choose Me, Afterglow employs the same narrative structure, revolving around four lost souls, whose paths crisscross while wondering in and out a Montreal hotel.

An corporate executive, Jeffrey Byron (Jonny Lee Miller) is convinced that “everything's working well on many levels.” In contrast, his frustrated wife, Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle), believes that “nothing is working,” least of all her desire to become a mother, a wish denied by Jeffrey. While Marianne carefully racks her fertility cycle, Jeffrey tracks the stock market. Across town, Lucky “Fix-it” Mann (Nick Nolte), an amorous repair contractor, experiences marital problems with his long-time spouse, Phyllis (Julie Christie), a former B-Movie actress, who spends her time watching her lousy pictures. Lucky still hurts over not being the biological father of a teenage daughter who has run away.

Rudolph does a masterful job in treating the tale as a jigsaw puzzle whose patterns gradually become clear. The quartet is thrown off balance, when Lucky arrives at the Byrons' hyperstylized apartment for repairs and Marianne becomes instantly infatuated with him. Rudolph's narratives are as shapely and graceful as their art decor and Afterglow is no exception. It takes no time for Jeffrey to meet and fall for the older, sophisticated Phyllis. The film cross-cuts between the two newly-formed couples, and eventually they all meet at the Ritz Hotel.
Almost any definition of the word afterglow applies to the title, be it “a reflection of past splendor,” or “a glow remaining where a light has disappeared.”

Rudolph favors the older couple (who are his age) with a more sympathetic and multi-shaded portrayal. Fluid mise-en-scene and leisurely pacing (Rudolph's hallmarks as director) make Afterglow serious and comic, frivolous and meaningful, giddy and lyrical. Like Choose Me, the movie displays a choreographic fluency with Toyomichi Kurita's caressing camera matching Rudolph's romanticism like a silk glove.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).

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