Long before he chronicled the human comedy in rough-edged classics like M*A*S*H, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Short Cuts, iconoclastic director Robert Altman spent decades perfecting the rules of moviemaking that he would one day so thrillingly flaunt.
Altman's long apprenticeship included directing Bonanzas, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the 1957 documentary The James Dean Story, and -- way back at the dawn of the 1950s -- a clutch of "industrials," educational shorts and docs.
It's one of these that filmmaker Gary Huggins recently scored at a drive-in flea market in Kansas City, Altman's hometown. "I bought a stack of old instructional films for $10 and never got around to screening them," Huggins says. "Modern Football sounded really dull. But when I recently did, I glimpsed Altman, who cameos as a sports reporter, and knew I had something incredible."
Modern Football, a 1951 26-minute short, might be Altman's first film -- and just because it's a by-the-book apprentice work sponsored by Wheaties and Wilson sporting goods, don't dismiss it as dull just yet.
(Huggins has uploaded his well-preserved 16 millimeter print to his YouTube account and embedded below.)Look for Altman himself at 2:37. A jaunty educational film for high school football players, Modern Football is distinguished by outstanding technique-- that gorgeous push-in shot on the High School Athletic Association patch some forty seconds in! -- and Altman's great gift for clear storytelling in frames alive with numerous bodies in independent motion. In fact, all these rowdy scrimmages suggest not just the pigskin horseplay of M*A*S*H but also, when paired with scenes of the chalkboard planning of Coach Edgar C. Ford, something of Altman's own eventual artistic breakthrough: Have a clean, well-worked out plan, but when the action starts, capture the true, chaotic moment arrived at by all those independent bodies. There's much more in Modern Football worth admiring and giggling at, especially its stiff plugs for Wheaties, which here are to football players what midichlorians are to lame '90s Jedi. Overall, I enjoyed this more than Ready to Wear! Huggins has long collected, archived, and shared curious and forgotten pieces of film history. A filmmaker himself, he has directed two remarkable shorts which have done well at Sundance and SXSW. Currently, he's in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his first full-length feature, Kick Me. I don't know anything about Kick Me except this: Star Santiago Vasquez seems really truly to be an actual star. @studiesincrap, SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.