“No one likes to dwell on past failures, but it’s good to see Jack Tanner back again. As a Democratic presidential candidate in the 1988 race, Tanner seemed hopelessly outmatched, a dark horse trailing the pack. But as an ex-candidate returning to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Tanner is blissfully outside the fray, and while we’re following him, we are as well.
Of course the pain of Tanner’s distant defeat is eased further by the fact that he was never a real contender. The star of Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s satirical mock documentary miniseries Tanner ’88, just collected as a 2-disc Criterion set, Michael Murphy’s Tanner was a bland, vaguely liberal cipher who found his spine too late and in the wrong place. (Does any of this sound familiar?) But if Tanner didn’t make much of a showing in the polls, he’s as good an ex-candidate as Jimmy Carter is an ex-president.
The new ‘interviews’ with the characters that prefaced Sundance Channel’s reairing of Tanner ’88 earlier this year sometimes outstripped the episodes that followed, and the four-episode sequel Tanner on Tanner is no letdown. In a sense, the title is misleading, since the first Tanner is not Jack but his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon), who’s grown from a Barnard firebrand into a self-styled radical, a documentary filmmaker fighting the system one credit-card film at a time. Her latest idea, no doubt motivated by exigency as much as inspiration, is to make a film about her father’s run for office, a gimmick that will get her into the Boston convention, assuming her new Discover card arrives in time. Though devious cameraman Deke, now editing porno flicks to pay his bills, is still around, he’s been functionally replaced by an eager young film student who’s filming the making of Alex’s film, and not above using some of Deke’s old tricks to get what he needs. (To say more would spoil it, but suffice it to say that if watching Tanner ’88 beforehand is not essential, it’s bound to significantly increase your enjoyment.)
Tanner ’88 satire hasn’t aged so well, and Trudeau’s writing often builds towards canned punchlines which subvert the documentary atmosphere, but Tanner on Tanner is a looser creation with a bigger target. In a sense, it’s not about politics at all, but celebrity (though the intimation that the two are often indistinguishable is no doubt intentional). In the first episode, the formerly shy Tanner staffer Andrea Spinelli (Ilana Levine), now a brass-balled producer, breaks away from a crucial meeting in a swank restaurant to chat up Martin Scorsese at a neighboring table. (She mispronounces his name, but seems to win him back by suggesting remedies for his asthma.) Though the two episodes available for preview stop just short of the full-on convention push, the promised run-in between Alex Tanner and Alexandra Kerry—making a documentary about her dad’s run for president—twists your mind in knots just thinking about it.
The clunky cameras of 1988 have been replaced by sleeker models, but Tanner on Tanner has a similar feel to its predecessor, right down to the cornball synthesizer score, which now sounds as nostalgic as it does desperate. It’s a wise move, since the deliberately crude aesthetics fit the broad-strokes characterizations, though the portrayal of Alex Tanner as a shrill, semicompetent trust-fund baby might come off as sexist or dismissive were it not for Nixon’s uniformly winning performance. ‘Most documentaries have no content,’ Altman told The New York Times, and his low opinion of nonfiction film is evident in every one of Tanner on Tanner’s shaky frames. It’s an odd stance to take in what, regardless of the election’s outcome, will likely be remembered as the year documentaries became a permanent part of the political process. Who knows—in 16 years, it might be Alex running for office. “