Rightwing Film Geek

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Actors loved Robert Altman. When he died earlier today, the tributes came pouring in from his thespians. From Meryl Streep:

“Bob’s restless spirit has moved on. I have to say, when I spoke with him last week, he seemed impatient for the future. He still had the generous, optimistic appetite for the next thing, and we planned the next film laughing in anticipation of the laughs we’d have.”

From Tim Robbins:

He’s “a great friend and inspiration to me since I had the honor of meeting him in 1990. His unique vision and maverick sensibilities in filmmaking have inspired countless directors of my generation and will continue to inspire future filmmakers.”

From Elliot Gould:

Altman’s legacy would “nurture and inspire filmmakers and artists for generations to come … He was my friend and I’ll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me.”

From Tom Skerritt:

“No one can match the sense of joy in filmmaking he gave. I’m sure others who’ve shared the Altman experience have longed for an experience the equal of what Bob gave us, that only Bob could give us.”

Regardless of how good or bad Altman’s movies turned out to be, the first thing you notice about them is that he habitually assembled dream casts (sometimes they actually got away from him), because he made the kinds of “actors’ films” that everyone wanted to be in. An Altman film wasn’t something an actor did for money (Altman didn’t have those kinds of budgets). For one measure of how much actors loved him, consider that Cher agreed to wear red, which she famously never does in real-life, so she could appear in a cameo as herself in Altman’s triumphant early-90s “comeback” film THE PLAYER. Neve Campbell even returned to her girlhood love and, after a tutu-free decade, retrained and refashioned herself into a passable ballet dancer (at least for the eyes of a nonspecialist like myself; not so much someone like Missy) in order to make THE COMPANY with Altman.

Even a middling or downright poor Altman film will have its moments. That’s what being a lover of actors will do. More films are saved from outright worthlessness by an inspired performance or a “holy moment” from an actor than by any other element of the cinematic art.

I hated GOSFORD PARK, but Maggie Smith was wonderfully tart as a Feisty Old Biddy epitomizing the British aristocracy. Judi Densch plays the same role every time, but seldom with the wonderful dottiness and cheerful girlish ridiculousness that Dame Maggie had in GOSFORD PARK (both have the imperious importance and sheer force of personality). I also hated READY-TO-WEAR, but there was one genuinely great scene — of Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren reprising the famous striptease they had done 30 years earlier in DeSica’s YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW (could any woman other than Loren convincingly play a sex-bomb at 60). With a twist. THE COMPANY was pretty good overall but it had a least one great scene — the rain dance — and a memorable character turn by Malcolm McDowell as the world’s biggest ham in a profession full of them. DR. T AND THE WOMEN was wildly uneven and finally petered out, but there was one moment, a fleeting gesture that if you blink, you miss. But like the girl on the ferry for Mr. Bernstein in CITIZEN KANE, it has never left my head. Altman gives us a lengthy track through a kids party, and the family Hispanic maid is trying to cope with all of them. At the side of the frame, she suddenly grabs a glass of champagne and quickly douses her thirst and her frustration with a sigh, an eye roll and a forehead filled with relief.

DR. T (I’m deliberately picking a noncanonized film) also showed another of Altman’s strengths. He really got the texture of Dallas down quite well (although not without some really nasty sarcasm, one of Altman’s downsides): the ritzy malls and upper-class neighborhoods are spot-on; the way the city has made an industry out of JFK conspiracy-mongering; the sudden, violent downpours; the “style” of the pill-and-booze-sodden upper-class Texas society women played by Laura Dern and Farrah Fawcett, defined by rituals as precise as the 100 families in Edith Wharton’s New York. Whether it was a Chicago ballet troupe in THE COMPANY or the L.A. suburbs in SHORT CUTS, he successfully “Altmanized” every world that he chose to film.

Altman was thus one of those directors both in and out of the Hollywood mainstream. Actors loved him but studios didn’t, because he was so insistent in doing things his way and never “went along to get along” when he thought, rightly or wrongly, that a studio or producer treated him badly. He was nominated for five Oscars as best director, but, though he did get an honorary Oscar for career achievement earlier this year, he never won, tying him with Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor and Clarence Brown for the unwanted honor of “Most Often a Bridesmaid.” Apparently, he was being treated for cancer at the time and knew that PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, which was in the can for a release several weeks later, was probably going to be his last film. Indeed, if the time lines in the later-run obituaries are correct, he knew this while he was making the film. Garrison Keillor got bulldozed about the subject of this PHC, which is about a theater’s final show before its scheduled closing and is suffused with images of death, passing and obsolescence, closing with several actors looking into the camera as a Death Angel asks “Who’s Next.”

But his masterpiece is IMHO unquestionably NASHVILLE. What sets it apart is that it’s both dense AND sprawling — in its sound mix, in its performances and in the way the individual moments and characters add up. It’s also *filled* with those kind of holy moments that Altman specialized in creating. I’ll never forget the scene of David Carradine seducing Lily Tomlin with his voice, singing “I’m Easy” while she looks numbed into the camera, moved beyond moving. Then comes the morning after. Gwen Welles’ attempts to be a singer were lump-in-the-throat inducing, between the mixture of her pathetic voice and sincere, loving personage. It made her final gesture of contempt to her audience curiously moving and not the snarkfest that it might have been if mishandled (cf. the dog-shit or the final scene in READY-TO-WEAR).

NASHVILLE is, most distinctively of all, a triumph of architecture — it has the most unexpectedly perfect epic film structure I’ve ever seen. The film seems so jumbled for so long, just seeming to follow 24 characters that share nothing but a setting and a few glancing commonalities, like ships passing in the night. And then the last scene happens and we see what structure the film had been following all along. We had seen a real community in its very creation before it even knew it existed. Wow.

In fact, NASHVILLE may be among the most influential American movies of its era. It was the first big American studio movie to have the apparently-unconnected-but-really-connected narrative structure (that I can think of anyway — Altman’s previous films had mostly been exercises in would-be genre deflation). You can see NASHVILLE’s influence most clearly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (more influenced by SHORT CUTS, obviously — Altman has used the NASHVILLE-structure several times since 1975) and Krzysztof Kieslowksi’s THREE COLORS trilogy, plus such recent award-garlanded or garlanded-to-be films as CRASH, TRAFFIC, BOBBY and BABEL.

In it dense sound mix, lack of a central protagonist, frequent musical numbers, and nonlinear and (apparently) unconnected narrative, NASHVILLE also anticipated the aesthetics of channel-surfing (it even starts out like a 70s TV show ad) and of multimedia net-surfing, long before any of those terms meant anything.

The Altman style from NASHVILLE also profoundly affected American television drama. In the years since NASHVILLE, there have been a score of large-cast ensemble dramas united by location or occupation more than by a single central character — think of LA LAW, HILL STREET BLUES, E.R. Large-cast “town” or “occupation” shows had existed before of course. But they had tended to consistently focus on one character or the same small group of characters rather than have a bunch of approximately equal characters with shifting focus from week-to-week. Also, they tended to have more tightly-focused plots, resolved in an episode, rather than the Altman-influenced technique of having “this week’s” plot off to the side, with the real point being how the characters interact and change over serialized time rather than episode time.

What Altman was probably best known for, style-wise, was what became known as “Altman dialogue.” It was present at the very beginning — in MASH — and at the very end — in PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. It involved people speaking in incomplete sentences or fully-understood fragments, finishing one another’s sentences, talking over one another, having simultaneous conversations — all in one sound mix. This had been done before somewhat (early Orson Welles comes to mind), but never with the extensiveness and conviction that Altman had. When Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin presented Altman with his Lifetime Oscar, they gave a clinic in how to do it. It’s the most eloquent tribute imaginable to a film artist and it was the high point of last year’s show.


I can’t pretend that I’m the world’s biggest Altman fan myself. I am not, for reasons not really worth rehearsing on this day. But even at 80 in works like A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (where Streep and Tomlin play with that style to just as great effect), Altman was still capable of lighting a fire under young cinephiles who could see, even in his IMHO relatively mediocre works, that Altman was a director worth caring about. Who made his films his way and created through a recognizable world, all his own. That came to me earlier today, when, on a film buff’s discussion board, 26-year-old Brett Buckalew of FilmStew.com said (quoted with permission):

Whenever I re-watch any of his films–and I was fortunate enough to catch PRAIRIE HOME four times before it left theatres–I always at some point have the excited thought in the back of my mind that sometime soon, I’ll get to take yet another trip into his immaculately designed, complexly human universe. No longer, and though I’m a fan of the younger filmmakers who’ve used his influence to form their own particular voices, there sure as hell will never be a replacement.

That ultimately may be the most important thing. Even apart from the specifics of his films, Altman himself was an inspiring figure — the man who made the movies he wanted. The lead quote in the early versions of the Associated Press obits was from the last Oscars, where Altman accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award:

No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop.

This isn’t to say his career didn’t suffer for it, or that he didn’t endure several significant spans in the commercial and critical wilderness. But he stuck to his guns, made the movies he wanted, in the way he wanted to. And that’s inspiring no matter what age you are.

November 21, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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