Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.
In 2006, Robert Altman received a lifetime-achievement award from the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, and when he took the stage at the Oscar ceremony, the audience members braced themselves, waiting for the often outspoken and curmudgeonly director to take a few shots at the Hollywood system or at George W. Bush. Instead, he said a gracious, heartfelt thanks, and revealed to the world that he’d been the recipient of a heart transplant a decade earlier, and therefore expected to keep directing for another 40 years. (Altman was way too optimistic; he died eight months later.) A lot of what Altman said on Oscar night—about how all his work was really one long film, and how making a film is like making a sandcastle—he’d said a thousand times before, in interviews and film-festival Q&As. But as always with Altman, the script didn’t matter as much as the performance.
Altman basked in the love and appreciation of Hollywood at the end of his life, but his career was marked by tumult and animosity, particularly between the director and his financial backers, whom he frequently disappointed both with his work and with his screw-you attitude. Altman was a notorious troublemaker all the way back to his youth in Kansas City, Missouri, and he was also known to draw creative people into his circle, become their best friend and mentor, then push them away due to some imagined slight, or because he’d gotten all he needed from them. In his personal and business life, Altman could be an exceedingly sweet man, and he could be a stone bastard. And as an artist, he sometimes lost interest in projects before they were fully complete, turning out films that felt muddled and uninspired.
But when Altman was on his game, few filmmakers were as skilled at creating a sense of place and time, or at revealing characters by immersing viewers in their worlds. He had a keen sense of wit, which struck some as misanthropic and even a little mean, but which came from a place of empathy. Altman knew what it meant to be an asshole, and he knew what it meant to be generous. He was delighted by humankind’s ability to perform amazing feats, but he also understood why people behaved abominably. Above all, Altman nurtured the idea—still under-utilized—that a filmmaker’s most important role is to get the ensemble together, then guide them gently toward whatever goal emerges. He moved his camera restlessly through his sets, not as a feat of cinematic choreography, but because he couldn’t wait to see what his casts would do next.
Robert Altman 101
It’s inaccurate to say that Robert Altman came out of nowhere with the hit 1970 war comedy MASH. Altman was 45 years old when he made MASH, and had been kicking around Hollywood since the late ’50s, when he turned a few heads with an independent B-movie he made in Kansas City. He then moved into television, and developed a reputation as one of the most inventive directors for the small screen—and one of the hardest to work with, because he was openly disrespectful to his bosses. According to Altman, when 20th Century Fox hired him to direct an adaptation of Richard Hooker’s picaresque Korean War novel MASH, he caught a break because the studio’s executives were preoccupied with Patton, their future Best Picture winner. Left alone with major studio resources—including bright young stars Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, playing rebellious Army doctors—Altman made his first real “Robert Altman movie,” using overlapping dialogue and a drifting camera to create the impression of real life caught in passing. MASH’s irreverence was inherent in Hooker’s novel and Ring Lardner Jr.’s screenplay, but the Altman haze made the film feel hip in an unforced way, as if someone in Hollywood had left the cameras running after “cut” had been called, and had finally shown what’s really going on.
MASH showed what Altman could do when left unfettered, and it showed there was an audience for his loose, borderline-anarchic approach to cinema. The momentum from MASH carried Altman through the next five years, during which he pumped out good-to-great movies at a fevered pace, roaring through genre revisionism, dream narratives, personal films, and grand sociopolitical statements. And yet Altman found it difficult to replicate MASH’s box-office success, in part because his subsequent work was more esoteric, and in part because he was plagued with bad luck. His melancholic Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for example, was marred by bad sound, as Altman went overboard with his mic-everybody-and-then-figure-it-out-in-the-mix method, leaving himself with a soundtrack in which key dialogue is frequently barely audible. Nevertheless, McCabe is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s the story of two entrepreneurs (Warren Beatty and Julie Christie) building a town on the back of gambling and the sex trade, while sharing different ideas about “class” and human decency, and it’s about the decline of Old West values, the difference between talk and action, and the bitter, awkward pain of unrequited love.
Audiences who put in the effort to understand the dialogue and the who’s-who of the opening scenes tend to develop a deep concern for what’s going to happen to these characters, drawn in also by the snow-globe sense of delicacy of Leonard Cohen’s music and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography. And Altman is clearly simpatico with the two heroes, who let the citizens of Presbyterian Church believe what they want to believe about them, so long as that earns fearful respect. Then, as often happens in Westerns, the fantasy is sidetracked by reality, as outsiders arrive to challenge the fiction.
Having bid farewell to the frontier gunman, Altman took on the private eye in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel that Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett turned into a dark, funny meditation on the state of masculinity in California in the early ’70s. Elliot Gould plays Chandler’s iconic detective Philip Marlowe as a mumbling, laid-back dude in a rumpled suit, simultaneously investigating the disappearance of an alcoholic writer and the murder of a friend’s wife. Gould’s Marlowe bumps up against mobsters, self-help gurus, naked hippies, and stressed-out socialites, and has to summon up the will to effect some kind of justice in a society where the hero’s recurring line, “It’s okay with me,” has become a mantra. Altman ribs the conventions of detective films throughout—including on the soundtrack, which repeats John Williams’ brassy theme in increasingly cheesier styles—but the core of Chandler is still here, making The Long Goodbye one of the most accessible, plot-driven movies in the Altman catalog.
Altman wasn’t one for grand statements with his movies, preferring to orchestrate small moments of human interaction, then stitch them together until he ran out of material. But with 1975’s Nashville, Altman stumbled into an epic. Screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury researched Music City on an assignment from Altman, and came back with anecdotes about Southern culture, backroom politics, and the country-music star system, which Altman then busied himself trying to recreate on film. In the process, he solicited significant input from his cast, who also wrote a lot of their own songs. The bicentennial spirit of the era and the advent of post-Watergate political candidates also found their way into Nashville, such that, almost without meaning to, Altman wound up making a nearly three-hour State Of The Union address, commenting on celebrity, community, and the constantly shifting ideals to which we pledge allegiance.
Country-music fans—and some pop-music critics—found the film insulting, but many of them were examining Nashville from the wrong angle. Though Altman and Tewkesbury included characters clearly based on Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Charley Pride, and others, their intent wasn’t to spoof the genre or pay homage to it. The songs—sometimes funny, sometimes sweet—are an expression of the characters’ feelings, and not necessarily indicative of the filmmakers’ opinions of the music. Nashville isn’t a documentary; it’s an exaggeration of America circa 1975, and one that illuminates by highlighting our common naïveté and shrewdness, our decency and shittiness.
Altman found Nashville hard to top, and due to some bad business decisions—and bad behavior—spent much of the next 15 years on the outs in Hollywood, often making movies with small casts and minuscule budgets. Then, out of the blue, he made a Robert Altman film again. Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player is a sly murder mystery that doubles as an indictment of Hollywood executives who believe themselves to be more brilliant than any of the writers, directors, or stars they employ. Altman’s version of the story—from Tolkin’s screenplay—downplays the crime-and-punishment angle and just romps through Los Angeles in the early ’90s, with dozens of big-name stars playing “themselves” as they interact with a slick, morally bankrupt exec played by Tim Robbins. The Player is full of inside-Hollywood jokes that, much like MASH, are funny because they feel more bracingly honest than the usual backstage comedy. Altman’s vision of Hollywood doesn’t have bustling studio back lots and fast-talking big-shots; it has businessmen bullshitting each other in glorified suburban office-parks. And yet Altman also shows how fun movies can be, whether he’s engineering a lengthy tracking shot, playing with color and shadow, or demonstrating how a genuine star can light up the screen.
Ironically, the Hollywood-skewering The Player made Altman viable in the movie business again, and he took advantage of the renewed interest from backers and actors to realize a long-gestating dream project: an adaptation of multiple Raymond Carver short stories that Altman dubbed Short Cuts. Altman made a couple of Nashville-esque multi-character films in the late ’70s—A Wedding and Health—but those took place in more constrained locations. Short Cuts really was like Nashville West, right down to the three-hour length, the sprawling Los Angeles setting, and the climactic “event” that binds a group of otherwise disconnected storylines. Unlike Nashville, though, Short Cuts feels way too predetermined, since it’s following Carver’s outlines rather than letting the individual characters develop organically. Plus, Nashville was more comic and thus more flexible, while the melodramatic stories of Short Cuts—involving marital discord, substance abuse, and tragic death—are occasionally undone by inadequate performances. Still, the filmmaking is frequently beautiful and moving, and it’s heartening even now to see a director of normally modest ambitions grab at something big. (Since then, the “everything’s connected” film has become an indie staple, from Magnolia to Crash to Babel and beyond, so Short Cuts is significant in that way, too.)
After the powerful one-two of The Player and Short Cuts, Altman seemed on pace to play out the rest of the ’90s the way he had the ’70s, helming three consecutive films that underperformed at the box office and with the critics. But then he had a surprise arthouse hit with 1999’s Cookie’s Fortune, a muted Southern small-town dramedy in which the death of a rich old woman uncovers some unexpected truths among the people she left behind. Altman treated Anne Rapp’s screenplay more respectfully than he’d treated writers in the past, making a movie that adheres to convention more than usual. Cookie’s Fortune still has its Altman-y quirks—an unhurried pace chief among them—but the well-rounded characters and straightforward plot resonated with audiences, who weren’t being kept at arm’s length by Altman for a change.
Two years later, Altman had an even bigger hit with Gosford Park, a British drawing-room mystery. Again, Altman mainly just filmed Julian Fellowes’ script rather than deconstructing it, though he allowed his all-star cast of UK and American stars some leeway to express the story’s aristocrats-vs.-servants dynamic through subtle gestures, and he did hold to his aesthetic of drifting cameras and naturalistic chatter. Gosford Park is sophisticated in the best traditions of Altman and English drama, and a fine example of Altman in his final years, as he imposed himself on the material less and instead sat back and watched with infectious amusement.
Because Altman was so prolific for so long, he produced well-loved American classics seemingly every few years, but surrounded those films with frustrating complete misses, fascinating near-misses, and excellent films that fell through the cracks. The 1970 comedy Brewster McCloud is one of the fascinating near-misses. Critics and audiences were poised to see what the man who made MASH would do next, and he and screenwriter Doran William Cannon confounded them with an overstuffed, hyper-whimsical riff on The Wizard Of Oz, starring Bud Cort as a troubled young man who lives in the Houston Astrodome and busies himself making homemade wings. The movie is as big of a mess as the bird-shit that keeps splattering the characters, but it keeps firing gags and ideas at an impressive clip, throwing in Michael Murphy as a parody of the badass detective one minute and Sally Kellerman as a fairy godmother the next. All of this was too much even for the open-minded cinephiles of 1970, and it didn’t help that the world première was held at the Astrodome, where the bad acoustics reportedly made Altman’s overlapping dialogue incomprehensible. Brewster McCloud was dubbed a disaster before it even got a release.
Brewster’s failure set the tone for Altman’s career in the ’70s, as bad luck, bad timing, and miscalculations led to some of his best films—and some of the best films of the decade—coming and going with not enough notice paid. In 1974 in particular, Altman helmed two masterful films that sank with little trace, and were even unavailable on home video until fairly recently. Thieves Like Us came out in 1974, toward the end of the Bonnie And Clyde-inspired Depression-era-crooks-on-the-run wave, and though Altman’s take on the genre was one of the smartest—and most authentic, given that it was derived from the same Edward Anderson novel that inspired Nicholas Ray’s classic noir They Live By Night—a general feeling of fatigue with bank-robbers in fedoras limited the movie’s box-office prospects. Too bad, since it’s an easy film to like, with appealing lead performances by Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as a couple too young and stupid to be tied up with their band of criminals, and with a clever stylistic conceit that sees Altman using vintage radio broadcasts on the soundtrack in place of original music, letting old-timey serial adventures comment on the action.
Later in 1974, Altman was back with California Split, a collaboration with writer Joseph Walsh, starring George Segal and Elliott Gould as gambling addicts on an epic bender, goosing each other to make stupider and stupider decisions. It’s a funny, smart, and true ode to male friendship at its most poisonous, and a fabulous document of gambling life in Los Angeles and Reno in the early ’70s. And as with Thieves Like Us, California Split features some of Altman’s most accessible storytelling and poetic images. (All this with the following year’s Nashville waiting in the wings; add in 1973’s The Long Goodbye and that’s one amazing four-film run.)
Nashville briefly put Altman back in the good graces of critics and audiences, becoming his biggest hit and strongest Oscar contender since MASH, but then he immediately squandered much of that goodwill with Buffalo Bill And The Indians, Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, an unfocused historical comedy starring Paul Newman as a Wild West Show impresario who has trouble when his American Indian cast members begin conspiring to correct the historical record. Based on an Arthur Kopit play, Buffalo Bill has a terrific premise and some funny performances on the margins, but it feels rushed and under-realized. It’s enjoyable, but nettlesome for the way Altman squanders so much potential.
This would be a recurring theme for Altman in the second half of the ’70s. According to Patrick McGilligan’s critical biography Robert Altman: Jumping Off The Cliff, the director started believing in the sheer force of his creative ability to bring shape to the shapeless, embarking on half-realized projects while still distracted by his troubles with the previous ones. Consider the origins of the 1978 ensemble comedy A Wedding: According to Altman (not always a reliable historian on these matters), the movie was born spontaneously, when a reporter asked him what he was working on next and off the top of his head he said he was going to make a movie with twice as many characters as Nashville, set at a wedding. He then rose to his own challenge, assembling an all-star cast for a sprawling slice of life that’s generally pleasant, though lacking Nashville’s depth and insight. The movie’s biggest problem is that with so many characters in play, Altman doesn’t have time to give any of them their due beyond brief glimpses of their respective secrets. Still, Altman’s instincts were true when he realized that a wedding would be a great way to study a society in miniature, and a lot of his original inspiration survives in the finished film.
Altman was much more on-point with 1979’s A Perfect Couple, which may be the most unjustly ignored entry in his whole catalog. Co-written with Allan F. Nicholls (who also worked on A Wedding), A Perfect Couple is a keenly focused, breezy Los Angeles romantic comedy, with Paul Dooley as a flustered antique heir and Marta Heflin as a dissatisfied backup singer in a communal rock band. The style is surprisingly plain for Altman—there aren’t many roaming cameras, or much overlapping dialogue—but the honest, hopeful sketch of how people juggle life and art is light and lovely, enhanced by laid-back West Coast rock (also co-written by Nicholls). Its closest match tonally in the Altman filmography would be 2003’s The Company, which is also as interested in the values of collaboration and performance as it is in telling a story.
Even Altman’s superb post-Nashville films had trouble finding an audience, and whatever momentum he’d had at the start of the ’70s fully stalled by the end of the decade. His run as a big-time, big-studio filmmaker effectively ended in 1980 with the comic-strip adaptation Popeye, a holiday family film that was actually a substantial box-office hit at home and worldwide, but acquired a reputation as a bomb because it wasn’t what anyone expected in the age of the blockbuster. Altman shackled frenetic stand-up sensation Robin Williams in a role that required him to freeze his face and mutter, while Jules Feiffer’s screenplay hewed closer to the eccentric seaside adventures of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre strip than the boisterousness of the well-loved Fleischer Studios cartoons, and Harry Nilsson’s song-score was more lilting and dreamy than snappy. In other words: Popeye wasn’t the obvious crowd-pleaser that Superman had been two years earlier. No matter; it’s still a charmer, with as rich a sense of place as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and a sidemouth wit to rival MASH.
Popeye is the only straight-up song-and-dance musical in the Altman library, though music plays such a major role in so many of his movies that a lot of them could be called “backdoor musicals.” Case in point: Kansas City, a 1996 historical drama about the intersection of jazz bands, criminals, politicians, and rich folk in mid-’30s K.C. There’s very little plot to the film—it mostly has to do with gun-moll Jennifer Jason Leigh kidnapping socialite Miranda Richardson in hopes of getting her husband back from mob boss Harry Belafonte—but Altman seems more interested in shooting the musicians who appear onstage at the local nightclub, as well as revisiting the city he grew up in.
As he moved toward the end of his career, Altman increasingly showed less and less interest in narrative convention—and he was never much of a story man to begin with. When he agreed to direct John Grisham’s original script The Gingerbread Man—with Kenneth Branagh as an abrasive Savannah attorney who helps a woman find her insane father and her missing children—he rewrote extensively, making the hero gruffer and dispensing with most of the courtroom business, treating the resolution of the movie’s mysteries as an afterthought. But for those more interested in hanging out in Altman-ville than in Grisham-land, The Gingerbread Man is another of his invaluable late-period films with a masterful command of place and behavior.
It’s also fitting that Altman ended his career with a movie that’s nearly all “hanging out,” with very little “getting somewhere.” A Prairie Home Companion turns Garrison Keillor’s popular public-radio variety show into a paean to show business as a lifestyle, and a farewell to it as well. But Altman and Keillor do their best to strip the goodbye of sentiment: “The death of an old man is not a tragedy” is both a line in the film and its overarching meaning. Altman wasn’t the easiest nut to crack, as a person. He was always willing to talk to reporters, but rarely willing to say much, and he tended to fall back on well-worn phrases and shtick in his promotional guise. His movies are far richer than his stock ways of describing them. The final Altman films—Gosford Park, The Company, and A Prairie Home Companion—are as alive as any in his filmography, and blessed with patience, as Altman shrugs off the rush of most movie storytelling and just marvels at the great gifts of actors, singers, dancers, and comics while trying to match their simple virtuosity with his own.
Just as Altman followed MASH with the even crazier Brewster McCloud, so he moved from the impressionistic McCabe & Mrs. Miller to the downright surreal Images, a spare 1972 thriller starring Susannah York as a children’s-book author who begins to doubt certain aspects of her reality, like her husband’s fidelity, or whether she even is whom she believes herself to be. Perched halfway between Roman Polanski and Ingmar Bergman, Images isn’t a wholly successful exercise, largely because Altman doesn’t have any clear destination in mind beyond the premise. But Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is gorgeous, and John Williams’ score—supplemented by the work of Stomu Yamashta—is suitably haunting, making Images an unsettling experience.
Like Images, 1977’s 3 Women breaks from Altman’s shaggy genre revisions and American tableaux to indulge a little “you know what would be heavy?” experimentation. The storyline actually came to Altman in a dream, and he fills the film with askew imagery, often filtered through water or reflected in mirrors and cloaked in gaudy shades of yellow and purple. Sissy Spacek stars as a mousy young woman who takes a job at a California desert health spa, where she latches onto self-absorbed fashion victim Shelley Duvall and soon becomes a more confident, popular version of her hapless idol. The movie is a superb actors’ showcase, with Spacek’s Texas meekness and Duvall’s chatterbox gawkiness playing off each other in a way that’s both theatrical and real. And before it gets metaphysical, 3 Women is loaded with funny, well-observed moments, such as Duvall’s recipe for “Penthouse Chicken,” which requires a “a can of tomato soup… it takes a whole hour to cook, but it’s worth it.” Though self-consciously arty, 3 Women is a more fluid Bergman riff than what Woody Allen was coming up with around the time, mainly because Altman’s emphasis on abandoned tourist traps and singles’ apartment complexes rivals his equally neglected California Split as a vivisection of ’70s West Coast banality.
Before staging a comeback in the ’90s with movies like The Player and Short Cuts, Altman spent a decade in the margins, making filmed plays and TV specials. He started strong, with the 1982 adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which he also directed onstage. Defying the usual call to “open up” a play by setting the action in a bunch of different locations, Altman keeps Come Back To The Five And Dime stagebound, moving the camera inventively through a confined space as the characters share stories about their lives (and their love of James Dean). Altman followed the same model with his 1983 version of David Rabe’s Streamers, about soldiers preparing to ship out to Vietnam. And Altman’s 1985 adaptation of Sam Shepard’s play Fool For Love is magnificently imagined from a visual standpoint, as the director restlessly picks over a neon-lit motel set, staging flashbacks in the same frame as the present action while exploring the sexual frustration of two lovers who shouldn’t be together. All three films miss the tension of live performance, but they have a dreamy quality that marks them as cinematic, albeit in a stunted way.
The peak of Altman’s filmed-play period isn’t a play at all; it’s 1984’s Secret Honor, a one-man-show starring Philip Baker Hall as a post-presidency Richard Nixon, delivering a long, conspiratorial rant into his tape recorder. Part history and part alternate-history, Secret Honor’s script—by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone—is as savvy and insider-y about executive-branch politics as Altman’s earlier films are about the military and the music business. Stylistically, Altman treats the material in much the same way as he did Come Back To The Five And Dime and Streamers, making maximum use of a minimal setting by showing how even in a world suddenly shrunken by circumstance, there’s plenty to examine.
Two years before Altman’s “comeback” movie The Player, he made a preliminary comeback with Vincent & Theo, a biopic starring Tim Roth as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Rhys as his brother/art-dealer. Originally a four-hour BBC production, Vincent & Theo was cut nearly in half for theatrical distribution, and became Altman’s first movie to get significant play since Popeye. It’s a fairly sober film by Altman standards, but screenwriter Julian Mitchell emphasized how it feels for an artist to toil in obscurity, which clearly resonated with the director. And Altman paid special attention to the sequences of Roth’s Van Gogh at work, contrasting the arduous process of creation with the flippancy of critics and art-dealers.
Altman was met with that kind of flippancy throughout his career, and sometimes with good reason. But sometimes his harshest critics missed the boat, as was the case with the 2000 comedy Dr. T & The Women, which received confused or hostile reviews from those who expected Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp to repeat the relaxed, accessible mode of their Cookie’s Fortune. Though Dr. T is another Southern-set movie about an interconnected community—all revolving around a Dallas gynecologist played by Richard Gere—it ranges into Altman’s version of dreamland, thanks to the literal and metaphorical storm that threatens the wedding of Dr. T’s daughter. The movie is also wacky, as the hero’s assortment of female patients, assistants, and relations talk over and around each other, driving the doctor to distraction. Dr. T & The Women is hardly a neglected masterpiece, but it’s full of life and imagination, and funny to boot.
The Company, on the other hand, is a neglected masterpiece. Producer/star Neve Campbell dramatized life in Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet; Altman purged the film of almost all story, and made something as much documentary as drama, with more time devoted to onstage performance than to backstage machinations. The Company isn’t immediately recognizable as an Altman film. Yes, it’s loose, and yes, it has some of his signature overlapping dialogue and vivid improvisation, as well as his tendency to overuse a piece of score (the song “My Funny Valentine” in this case). But it’s practically devoid of his acid wit or cynicism. Only Malcolm McDowell’s performance as company director Alberto Antonelli has any substantial bite: He blows into scenes like a strong wind, barks a few orders seemingly off the top of his head, then leaves the movie to continue on in its low key. Otherwise, Altman is surprisingly respectful to this community of artists, maintaining such a nonjudgmental spirit that he even allows the more ridiculous dance pieces to pass without comment. Altman shoots the ballet from a variety of angles, keeping the camera moving without obscuring the dancers’ motion. Performers step in, performers step out, minor details are fretted over, all while McDowell’s “Mr. A.” prompts, meddles, and checks out the results. Altman’s almost wide-eyed approach to The Company may be attributable to his excitement at finding a perfect, unforced metaphor for his own philosophy of artistic endeavor—a “funny valentine” to the work he loves.
When Robert Altman accepted his lifetime achievement Academy Award, he described his filmography as “one long film,” adding, “Some of you have liked some of the sections, and others… anyway, it’s all right.” Describing Altman’s filmography as “checkered” is an understatement. Besides unprofitability, the major downside to Altman’s “let’s just see what happens” working method was that sometimes nothing happened. He’d gather a cast, shoot for a month, then get into the editing room and have to work very hard to salvage something out of very little. (And according to many of Altman’s colleagues, he didn’t like to work that hard.) It’s hard to call any Altman feature a straight-up “demerit” to his career, because he often hit some bum notes on his way to something sublime. Plus, polling any random assortment of Altman-philes will reveal that someone will always stand up for the unloved, contending that the 1968 astronaut drama Countdown contains some nicely naturalistic men-at-work scenes between the rote suspense sequences. Or that 1969’s That Cold Day In The Park sports a dreamy mood and some striking Vancouver location footage; or that the 1985 teen comedy O.C. & Stiggs subverts the genre cleverly. Or that the 1987 adaptation of Christopher Durang’s play Beyond Therapy is amiably kooky. (Heck, read the sections above, and you may even find some loon willing to defend The Gingerbread Man and Dr. T And The Women.) If all art is just an expression of who the artist is at any given time, then the sublimely screwed-up lesser Altmans are as much works of art as any of his masterpieces.
That said, there are a small handful of Altman films that should be at the bottom of any newcomer’s to-watch list, starting with The James Dean Story, a documentary Altman made with George W. George soon after arriving in California in 1957. Consisting of public-domain footage, interviews with distant relations and acquaintances, and what the opening crawl boldly proclaims as “dynamic exploration of the still photograph,” The James Dean Story is a callow cash-in noteworthy mainly for extending Altman’s early interest in rebellious young folks.
It’s also probably a good idea to wait a bit on Quintet, a hazy 1979 Paul Newman science-fiction vehicle about a deadly dice game played by the inhabitants of an icy post-apocalyptic wasteland. The film attempts to work straight from the subconscious in the manner of Altman dream-dramas like Images and 3 Women, and also tries to squeeze in Altman’s lifelong obsession with games. But even with the eye-catching end-of-the-world production design, Quintet is too sleepy and attenuated to overcome its confusing plot. Poor Newman counted himself as one of Altman’s biggest boosters, but when they worked together, the actor was left at sea.
That experience was relatively common for Altman’s casts. Actors loved him for the freedom and creative input he allowed them, but a few times when he tried to throw what critic Pauline Kael once termed “an Altman party” onscreen, he ended up with a troupe of distinguished thespians filling up cartoon balloons and throwing them at each other. Both 1980’s Health and 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter, for example, have fleeting moments where a few members of their all-star casts click and make it seem like Altman really has something to say about the politics of trade conventions and fashion shows. But the movies are frustrating on the whole, because it’s clear that Altman is hoping the old Nashville magic will reappear without him having to assert himself too much.
Altman had a cup of coffee in Hollywood (working as a screenwriter and bit-player) after he got out of the Army at the end of World War II, but his first real show-business experience came back home in Kansas City, where he worked for The Calvin Company writing and directing industrial and educational films. Colleagues who worked with Altman at the time have said that he was one of the best in the business, always thinking of a clever twist on the material whether he was making a film about sports or tractors. Altman brought his crew and some of his most reliable actors with him when he made The Delinquents for an independent producer in the summer of 1956. Story-wise, Altman doesn’t add much new to the youth-gone-wild genre, but the movie’s party scenes have the ring of truth, and Altman’s dynamic camera moves show some of the artistry that impressed his Calvin cohorts.
Emboldened by his peers’ praise, Altman returned to California in 1957 to shop The Delinquents around, and though the studios didn’t snap him up right away, he did draw a steady paycheck directing television. (“I did miles of television,” Altman told The A.V. Club back in 2006.) Between his first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957 and his last episode of Kraft Suspense Theater in 1964—after which he burned his last bridge in the business by calling Kraft’s shows “as bland as its cheese” in a TV Guide interview—Altman helmed around 100 hours of TV, from big-name shows like Bonanza to obscurities like Whirlybirds. It would be a mistake to 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. Even the critics of the time took special note of Altman’s work on shows like Bus Stop, an episodic adaptation of William Inge’s stage play, about the people who pass through a Colorado diner. Altman was even singled out by the U.S. Congress when his episode “A Lion Walks Among Us” pushed the boundaries of violence on television.
Altman himself called his work on the war drama Combat! as good as his feature films. Producer Robert Blees hired Altman to direct every other episode of the 1962-63 season, but the deal fell through when Blees and Altman were fired partway through the 32-episode run. But though he only directed 10 episodes, Altman did a lot to establish Combat!’s focus on vital moral dilemmas and finely shaded performances. Each episode carved World War II into small crises, usually with one or two U.S. troops and a handful of Germans locked in a moment of stalemate. Then Altman carved those moments into micro-moments, noting how the men slip purification tablets into their canteens, or how a floating corpse hampers a swim to safety. The production values (and Robert Hauser’s cinematography) are movie-quality, making Combat! a strong link between one of its chief cinematic inspirations, Paths Of Glory, and one of its obvious cinematic followers, Saving Private Ryan. Altman’s episodes look fantastic, marked by tight framing, fluid camera moves, and layers of smoke. Like most of the Combat! brain trust, Altman used WWII as a backdrop for stories of soldiers lost in an ethical soup, as seen in his signature episodes “Forgotten Front,” in which a squad has to decide how to dispatch a friendly German prisoner, and “Survival,” in which star Vic Morrow gets shell-shocked and caught behind enemy lines.
After his late-’70s flameout in Hollywood, Altman found work back on the small screen, making arty little playlets like Rattlesnake In A Cooler, The Laundromat, and The Dumb Waiter, often for public TV or pay cable. Like the majority of Altman’s ’80s films, his ’80s TV work is creditable, but often missing an element or two that would elevate it to the level of a Nashville or a Combat! The major exception: Tanner ’88, a semi-improvised HBO series Altman collaborated on with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, about a Democratic presidential candidate (played by Altman regular Michael Murphy) stumping through the primaries. Mixing actual documentary footage with a incisive backstage look at the campaigning process, Tanner ’88 works as satire as well as slice-of life—as does its 2004 sequel, Tanner On Tanner, which is about the compromises of making films about politicians. (Altman completists should also take a look at The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, a fairly straightforward 1988 take on the Herman Wouk classic, and Gun, a short-lived 1997 ABC anthology series that Altman produced.)
Throughout his career, Altman repeatedly returned to movies about music, a subject that suited his from-the-gut, improvisational style. Unlike other directors of his era, Altman never really leapt into making music videos, though he did shoot a few clips for the Scopitone company ColorSonics in the mid-’60s, and he did contribute a segment to the 1987 opera/cinema hybrid Aria. Altman also directed the opera McTeague and the jazz revue Black And Blue, both onstage and for PBS, and he made one of his rare forays into straight documentary with Jazz ’34, a look at the music featured in Kansas City, a movie drawn from his own memories of the era.
This is the movie everyone points to—or should—when trying to define the term “Altman-esque.” The overlapping dialogue, the crowded cast of characters, the reflection of real life through the filter of comic exaggeration… it’s all here, in a film that’s also shocking, moving, sad, funny, and catchy. It’s a reflection of how influential Altman was in the ’70s that even mainstream Hollywood films like Jaws aped Altman’s tone and style between the action sequences. Nashville is a prime example of how Altman set a high bar that other filmmakers felt obliged to reach.
2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Altman tried his hand at nearly every possible cinematic genre during his long career, and along the way delivered the best film of the revisionist-Western wave of the late ’60s and early ’70s: a deep story about the price of progress, playing against a bittersweet love story.
3. The Player
Later in life, Altman seemed to resent his greatest successes like MASH, Nashville, and The Player, because he felt like what the critics saw in those films, they should’ve been seeing in his bombs as well. He had a point there, and yet The Player is so much more vibrant and entertaining than the movies Altman had been making in the decade prior. It was a good introduction to Altman for young film buffs in the early ’90s, and it’s a good intro now.
4. Tanner ’88
Even when he was cranking out hourlong TV episodes by the week in the ’50s and ’60s, Altman liked to find ways to move the camera, because he always argued that a moving camera gives a space three-dimensionality, and turns theater into cinema. His work in that era has been undervalued from an auteurist perspective, but in terms of overall quality, the best way to approach Altman as a television director is to start with this HBO miniseries, which applies his TV style to material that bears his personality.
5. The Company
So many ’70s Altman films qualify as essential that it may seem perverse to bypass them in favor of one of his late-period trifles, but there’s just something profound about The Company, in which Altman lets a troupe of artists explain who he is with minimum interference from the man himself. There isn’t much to The Company, but if you love the director and what he stands for—or you just like watching professionals at work—the movie is a little gift.