Some reflections on Robert Altman from the staff of The A.V. Club.
Nathan Rabin: Today we mark the passing of Robert Altman, a man who single-handedly expanded the vocabulary and parameters of film. Altman was a plainspoken man who hated clichés, conventions, and predictability and sought to imbue movies with the messiness, unpredictability, and kinetic energy of real life.
Over the course of his venerable, glorious career, he worked in seemingly every genre, but he left such an unmistakable imprint on each of his films that the "Robert Altman movie" became a genre unto itself. He could take the most commercial assignment in the world—say, adapting an iconic comic-strip sailor for Robert Evans—and transform it into something singular and unmistakably his own.
Altman's stylistic trademarks—long, elegant camera movements, deep focus, overlapping dialogue, elaborate sound design, and long takes—discouraged passive viewing and provided ample rewards for audiences willing to work for their enjoyment. Altman respected audiences and actors alike. He demanded a lot from both, but repaid that commitment many times over. He loved actors, and in return was beloved by actors.
Altman's films are so rich in detail and nuance that they demand repeat viewing. Even his minor efforts are rife with incidental pleasures and unexpected grace notes. Even when his career bottomed out commercially in the mid-'80s, Altman never stopped experimenting, never stopped trying to push cinema closer to beauty and truth. His films are often cynical and funny, but also unexpectedly warm and humane. Altman experienced a major comeback in the late '80s and early '90s with Vincent & Theo, The Player, and Short Cuts, spurring a late-period revival that was a joy to behold. It's fitting that Altman's last film will be Prairie Home Companion, a lovely little swan song and a joyous, funny-sad celebration of everything he stood for, particularly the glory of collaboration among a community of artists. He will be missed.
Donna Bowman: Even though I grew up in Tennessee, I didn't see Altman's most successful "Altman-esque" film, Nashville, until I was in graduate school. But I'll never forget hunching over the TV on the top floor of the University of Georgia library, the laserdisc whirring away somewhere behind the librarian's desk, letting the master teleport me from Haven Hamilton's recording session to the baton-twirler-bedecked Nashville airport, to an Opryland stage, and finally, to that oddest of all Nashville landmarks, the Parthenon. I was jolted into a South that was as intimate to me as my own blood (with all the incipient self-loathing and inferiority complexes that already coursed there) and as strange as another planet.
Somehow, Altman's crazy-quilt of characters felt just right for this character of a town. And of course it was here that his overlapping dialogue style finally met its technological match in the eight-track recording system. My friends and I treasured the unstudied dialogue, delivered by some characters as if they were declaiming from a stage (I think of Lily Tomlin's description, in a voice of peculiarly decorous pity, of an entire ward at Baptist Hospital filled with beautiful young boys all paralyzed from the neck down due to motorcycle accidents), and by others as if no one is really listening (like wisecracking third wheel and terminally Jewish Allan Nicholls).
Most of all, Nashville was my first deep recognition of the golden age of film in my lifetime, the '70s. I knew that nothing else was ever going to be like it again—certainly not playing at multiplex near me. And God help me, but I still think "Dues," one of Barbara Jean's songs, is the most beautiful, sad thing I've ever heard, and it still amazes me how it emerges without fanfare, in the middle of this cobbled-together quasi-musical, as if the city of Nashville just sprouts songs like this all the time. Altman himself imitated its magic many times, most notably in A Wedding, A Perfect Couple, and Short Cuts, but he never caught its particular lightning in a bottle ever again. No matter. When you create the Great American Movie, once is all it takes.
Scott Tobias: It surprises me that Altman never got around to collaborating with another one of my favorite artists, Neil Young, because the ups and downs of their maverick careers have such clear parallels. They both strung together an extraordinary run of masterpieces in the '70s—Altman with McCabe And Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville, Young with After The Gold Rush, Harvest, On The Beach, Tonight's The Night, Zuma, and Rust Never Sleeps. And they were both virtually written off a decade later after a series of calamitous flops—Altman with Health, Beyond Therapy, and O.C. And Stiggs, Young with Trans, Landing On Water, and This Note's For You. And yet, to go by Young's credo, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Neither of them ever quit taking chances and pushing their craft, even if those risks just set them up for a fresh round of ridicule. This resiliency led Young to end the '80s with a bracing statement of purpose in Freedom, and let Altman kick off another renaissance that continued from The Player through his moving swan song, A Prairie Home Companion.
I wouldn't place any of Altman's '90s and '00s work above the best of his '70s films; in fact, there are few contemporary directors whose work can measure up to those lofty standards. But these recent decades found him at his most versatile, capable of dropping into many different worlds and capturing their essence on film, from Hollywood (The Player) to fashion (Ready To Wear) to the Deep South (Cookie's Fortune) to period Britain (Gosford Park) to a professional ballet troupe (The Company). By then, Altman's signature style—the overlapping dialogue, the sprawling ensemble canvasses, the lived-in quality of every frame—was so refined that he could apply it to any environment and count on truths to emerge organically as a result. Nothing ever feels forced in Altman's films; they're relaxed, confident, and above all, intellectually curious.
All that said, my favorite film of this late period remains Short Cuts, which some have brushed off as an inappropriately sour take on Raymond Carver's humanist short stories. Granted, Altman's reputation as a cynic is enforced to a certain extent by his mosaic of crumbling relationships in Southern California. And yet, these nearly two dozen characters are bound together by an unmistakable compassion and heartbreak. And who can forget the frisky interplay between Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin, or slow-burning meltdown of the late Chris Penn, or Tim Robbins harassing Anne Archer while she's in her clown getup? (To say nothing of Huey Lewis' wang.) The associations Altman is able to make between these disparate lives—and the cataclysmic manner in which he ties them together—are something only he could pull off.
Keith Phipps: The first image that comes to mind when I think of Robert Altman isn't one of Altman at all, it's of Warren Beatty trudging through a snowy American west in an almost ridiculously furry buffalo coat, getting nowhere as a Leonard Cohen song plays in the background. It's a scene from Altman's 1971 anti-Western Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, in which Beatty plays a gambler determined to make his fortune and maybe bring a little truth and beauty to the American frontier, even though the odds are stacked against him.
He doesn't make it. A lot of people don't make it in Altman's movies, even those who don't dream nearly so big as Beatty's McCabe. Some give up on big dreams and just settle on getting through the best they can, like the absurdity-surrounded doctors in M*A*S*H. Others get exactly what they set out to achieve, like the poker players of California Split, and find it's not enough—in fact, it isn't really anything at all. It's easy to celebrate the winners of the world, but for Altman, the losers always proved much more interesting.
Besides, winners usually had to cheat to get where they're going, either killing the competition like Tim Robbins in The Player, or attempting to brutally remake the world in their own image, like Paul Newman's Buffalo Bill. The really vital people, if not necessarily the good guys, are in the margins, whether finding true love on the lam in Thieves Like Us or cursing their way through a boozy dark night of the soul like Philip Baker Hall's Nixon in Secret Honor.
Altman was born in Kansas City to a privileged family, but he came to direct features by working his way up through industrial films and the television industry. His was, in many respects, an old-fashioned America success story of hard work and its rewards. It's the kind of story that never interested Altman in the least. The traditional American definition of success involves finding a superlative to attach to yourself—the nation's bestselling author, the greatest quarterback of his generation, the most important director of the 1970s. If there's one lesson to take away from Altman—not that he would like anyone finding lessons—it's to not trust that idea.
In 1970, the same year he released M*A*S*H to tremendous commercial and critical success, Altman released another film, Brewster McCloud, about a boy (Bud Cort) who struggles to achieve his one ridiculous goal of flying inside the Houston Astrodome. It's nobody's favorite Altman film. A box-office failure and treated, as best, as a curiosity by critics it's usually talked about as a footnote to his '70s classics. When asked, Altman frequently cited it as one of his favorites.
Noel Murray: I can credit Robert Altman for awakening me to a lot of cinematic virtues that I'd never really considered before I watched my first Altman film (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for the record). He was a master at creating a sense of place and time, and revealing character by immersing viewers in the character's world. And he had a keen sense of wit, which struck some as misanthropic and even a little mean, but which always seemed to me to come from a place of empathy. It doesn't take too much research into Altman's life and career to discover that he knew what it meant to be an asshole. And to be generous.
I'll miss that generosity the most, though I won't have to miss it for long. Some artists—J.D. Salinger, say, or Terrence Malick, or Nick Drake—have such a limited output that becoming a fan means picking over the bones of the same three or four old hunks of meat. Altman's more like a Kurt Vonnegut or an Elvis Costello: When you first discover you love his work, you've got years of happy exploration ahead.
This was driven home to me when I finally saw California Split six years ago, on a bootleg DVD. Here's one of Altman's best films—a funny, smart, and true ode to male friendship at its most poisonous, and a great document of gambling in Los Angeles and Reno in the early '70s—and yet, even though I'd spent most of my years in college and immediately afterward watching every Altman movie I could find, over and over, here was one I'd completely missed. Now it, plus 3 Women, A Perfect Couple, and a slew of Altman's brilliant TV work, from Combat! to Tanner '88, are all out on DVD, waiting to be discovered. (And don't discount that TV work, which in many ways represents Altman at his purest, finding a way to impart three-dimensionality to some of the most conventional scripts he'd ever film.) And there's more in the storehouse. One of the Altman films that I'd rank in my personal Top Five, Thieves Like Us, got a VHS release at the end of the '90s, but still isn't out on DVD in America. Nor is H.E.A.L.T.H. (which I haven't seen, but I hear is underrated), nor Brewster McCloud (which I have seen, and is pretty dopey, but still worth a look).
I interviewed Altman once, and he wasn't the easiest nut to crack. He was always willing to talk to reporters, but never willing to say much, and even during our interview, I could pick out well-worn phrases I'd heard or read from him in the past. The older he got, the more he fell back on shtick in his promotional guise. But not in his movies. The final Altman films—Gosford Park, The Company, and especially A Prairie Home Companion—are as alive as any in his filmography, and blessed with a kind of genteel patience, as Altman ignores the rules of storytelling and just marvels at the great gifts of actors, singers, dancers, and comics, while trying to match their simple virtuosity with his own.
Altman's final final hurrah, at least on any kind of grand stage, came at this year's Oscar ceremony, where people expected him to stand up and rail against the Hollywood system or the war in Iraq. Instead, he said a gracious, heartfelt thanks. A lot of what he said that night, he'd said a thousand times before. But as always with Altman, the script didn't matter. It was all about the performance.
Tasha Robinson: I first started learning about film from Robert Altman in college, when a professor showed Nashville to one of my introductory classes to illustrate how profoundly the '70s had changed cinema. I feel like I've been trying to catch up with him ever since. It's a daunting task—not just because he was so prolific, and responsible for many of the classics of my lifetime, but because his films have such depth and resonance. Watching them once is never enough.
One of the great things about Altman's films is the way he trusts his viewers to be smart, to keep up, to get involved and absorbed into the big, messy, real worlds he inhabits. He was capable of working with lean, efficient stories—look at The Player, which sends Tim Robbins on a taut trip through Hollywood, looking for the person blackmailing him. But his best films are so dense that they take unpacking, and they're generally a different experience each time they're watched. Take Gosford Park, an Upstairs, Downstairs-style story that takes place over a few days at a British country house in the '30s. It's a murder mystery, a bedroom farce, a character study, a class exposé, a comedy, and a drama all at the same time, with an all-star cast working at the top of its game, and so much complicated, naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that with the subtitles on and all the words laid out in detail, it's almost a different film. It's so rich with character that it's necessary to watch it a second time just to follow from the beginning all the connections and interactions that only become clear as the story unfolds, but Altman's precision—and his complicated, multi-POV setups, with the cameras in constant motion—ensures that it's just as rewarding on a second viewing. Seldom do calculated craft and actorly spontaneity come together so smoothly and seamlessly.
Earlier films like Nashville, M*A*S*H, and the brilliant Short Cuts, and later films like The Company and Prairie Home Companion, often pack in fewer layers and less dialogue but they create the same sort of comfortably lived-in environments, shots and scenes are masterfully realized, but part of an organic, smooth flow. The Company in particular is a hushed, non-talky film by Altman standards, largely because he focuses on the visuals—a dance troupe performing in the rain on an outdoor stage, performers waiting and suffering in the wings—and lets them speak for themselves. Whatever worlds he chose to explore, he inhabited them fully, and let viewers do the same. Like all good filmmakers, he took us all to places we never would have seen otherwise, and made us feel like we were part of different worlds. He will be deeply missed.