Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Here is some terrible news I'd hoped not to hear for years to come: Robert Altman is dead.

The challenge now is to not get swept up in the rush of feeling and overemphasize his importance to American cinema. Oh, hell with that: he was the most important American film director of the last forty years. Certainly, it's hard to think of one more influential. Every young filmmaker wants to be the next Robert Altman, maybe not at first but eventually they do, as the lesser lights fade away.

With M*A*S*H and so many films that followed, Altman basically originated the mega-story film, the film where the group was the story, and the camera freely roamed among each. Originate is probably the wrong word, as there was Renoir before him with Rules of the Game, but Altman made it his signature style, and he made it look easy and he always thought big. He worked on a huge canvas with up to a dozen subplots set in play, the camera roving freely in and out of each. With a lesser director, that would be called spreading yourself too thin -- the thinking would go that you should focus on one story, or no more than a very few, that you shouldn't have too many characters and too much going on. Altman was a masterful juggler: in his best films, a lot goes on without ever once seeming to be too much, and the characters are never given slight. He had such a feeling for people that comes across on the screen, very often allowing actors, by way of improvisation, to reveal something shadings of character that weren't on the page. For him no less than his viewers, movies were an act of discovery. That's why, years after you've seen them, his movies always feel so alive, so fresh, so in tune with now.

I'm afraid I take this death rather personally. One of the first films I ever reviewed was Nashville -- a review for a high school newspaper which, unfortunately, never saw the light of day and has been lost to the years. It was the summer of 1975 and I was so hyped about seeing the movie, mainly because I was finally old enough. Time and Newsweek had always raved about his movies up until then, and the praise was now through-the-roof; here was the master's masterpiece. I probably agreed with this assessment before I saw the first frame. Never did a movie have a more willing audience than I: I not only sat through it twice (which always makes me laugh when I hear people say they doze off before the end), but I became obsessed with it. It was my Number One topic of conversation. I could not read enough reviews of it, or interviews with the author, or Joan Tewkesbury's screenplay, which came out in a Bantam paperback. I all but memorized it -- ditto the songs on the soundtrack record, which I played every single day for months (only occasionally alternating it with Bob Dylan's Desire.) Seeing it was such a key event in my life that I pasted Altman's Newsweek cover in my high school yearbook; as far as I was concerned, nothing more important happened that year. I must have bored people blind the way I talked about Nashville. I thought it was the great movie ever made, and people dare not disagree with me for a lecture as to why.

But you know what? I don't think I understood the first thing about it. Oh, I'd say I did, and in that review -- which I sweated over forever -- I'd try to pretend I did, bulking it up as well with adjectives borrowed from other reviewers, and overblown comparisons that made no sense whatever. (I remember one sentence starting out: "Altman, like Hitchcock..." God only knows what the rest of it said.) That whole idea behind it of Nashville as this city of dreams and hometown values, this place where popular culture and patriotism can be exploited for political purposes -- quite a prescient idea, as no few campaigns have reminded us since -- hell, all that was over my head. What mattered to me was that it was so big and so vast -- as big as the shot of the gigantic rippling flag that covers the screen near the end -- and I just loved all the people in it, all 24 of them. Maybe the whole point eluded me, but I loved Altman's vision and his sense of humanity. It was the kind of movie that made everything else I'd seen up until then look small.

I think it was Pauline Kael, one of Altman's key champions, who once described Altman as having a "one-on, one-off career." Sometimes it seemed like four-on, five-off; streaks where he made one classic after another, and then these periods where he seemed to stumble from one failure to the next. No one had a better run of successes in the 1970s. First, there was M*A*S*H, made when he was a nobody; a film handed to him after everyone else in the world had passed on it. Legend has it (and we all know what John Ford said about legends) that he largely junked the script and suggested the actors improvise, resulting in a film whose loose, casual, dark wit was like nothing else out there. He was just getting warmed up: first there was the underrated Brewster McLeod, and then the brilliant McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I never saw Images, which followed, and is hard to find, but after that came the superb The Long Goodbye -- Altman's re-invention of Raymond Chandler's novel, which takes Philip Marlowe and puts him squarely in 1970s Los Angeles, the last man of integrity in a town where anything goes. Then it was Thieves Like Us, a story about a pair of down and out bank-robbers that perfectly captures the feel of Depression America. Never saw the well-received California Split, but after that came Nashville, and then the terrific Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Three Women. After that, things got wobbly, although as always that depends on the viewer. Everyone hated Health, a kind of oddball political spoof centered around the hospital industry, but I caught it on late-night and thought it was rather weirdly brilliant. Then it was Popeye, where Altman was badly cast as director; it wasn't his kind of thing at all.
After riding high in the 1970s, Altman fell hard over the next decade. He made one of the worst movies ever, the unwatchable O.C. and Stiggs, and the rest is competent to mediocre, with only Secret Honor and Fool for Love being a cut above. In the 1990s, he made a dazzling comeback: Vincent and Theo, The Player, Short Cuts -- which is almost as good as Nashville -- Kansas City, Dr. T. and the Women. Yes, I know, he also made Pret-A-Porter, as bad a film as he ever did, and I wasn't crazy about Cookie's Fortune. But for the past decade or so, his mojo has been working pretty well, first with Gosford Park and, just a few months ago, the splendid A Prairie Home Companion. I thought as I watched that splendid picture of something John Huston said not long before he died, that he thought he was getting better and better at making movies.
Altman always took great chances, which is why there's such variance in quality across the span of his career, and why a number of his films will be with us forever.


Reel Fanatic said...

When I heard this news today I was so sad I had to just stop working for about an hour ... It's been a while now, and I don't feel any better .. He will be sorely, sorely missed by me and everyone else who loves movies

Anonymous said...

In your opinion, who is the next Robert Altman? Isn't there someone young and fearless enough to step up? I'm actually searching for someone for a project. Pipe dreaming, who?

RW said...

Paul Thomas Anderson, if you can get him