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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Remembering Robert Altman

Robert Altman’s free-flowing, improvisatory style remains unique. Although he has been widely eulogized during this last week as one of the great filmmakers, and had inspired a near-reverential devotion in many directors as well as filmgoers, few have tried to imitate him (and fewer have succeeded). The closest offspring may have come on television: the improvised content (and wickedly knowing satire of Southern California) of Curb Your Enthusiasm; the off-center, pseudo-documentary style of The Office; the multilayered characters and storylines and camera movements of the best early episodes of ER and The West Wing. Even this is not an exact comparison, but those shows are closer to Altman than, say, Crash, the multi-character, multi-plot Oscar winner that could be compared (unfavorably) to Nashville and Short Cuts.

Altman’s career was remarkably long, and he successfully reinvented himself more than once, but his greatest achievements nearly all came in the seven year period that started with M*A*S*H (1970) and ended with Three Women (1977). He made seven brilliant movies in that time, and only he could have made them: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, and Nashville, bookended by and M*A*S*H and Three Women (the first half of which is quite wonderful). He even made a few other movies during the period that are generally less highly regarded: Brewster McCloud, Images, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. A Wedding, which directly followed Three Women, was skillful but rather pedestrian and ordinary, and a long dry period followed.

I was in film school at USC during the 1976-78 period, and several of the professors at that industry-oriented school were openly contemptuous of Altman: “He lets actors improvise…He’s being irresponsible with other people’s money.” That he could make a wide-ranging masterpiece like Nashville for slightly over $2-million meant nothing to them. Since M*A*S*H was the only big money-maker he ever directed, the studios never really respected him. And that may be a clue to the lack of imitators.

Where did that unique ‘70s Altman style come from? Nothing before M*A*S*H had prepared anyone for it. Howard Hawks had successfully used overlapping dialogue in several great films of the thirties and forties, and there is some of that spirit in Altman, combined with a hippie/antiwar/anti-establishment attitude. (He pioneered the use of Dolby Stereo and multilayered dialogue tracks, enhancing the "everyone talking at once" atmosphere with cutting-edge technology.) There’s also a lyricism that balances the hard satire. This is especially apparent in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Then there is the unique visual beauty of the films, the wide, wide Panavision images with their slow glides and zooms. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography in both The Long Goodbye and McCabe provides some of the most innovative visual highlights of that decade.

The use of music is also enormously creative. Nothing could complement McCabe & Mrs. Miller better than Leonard Cohen’s songs. John Williams creates brilliant and amusing variations on the title song of The Long Goodbye to accompany different scenes and moods. The actors created their own songs in Nashville, and while any country music fan will tell you those songs weren’t genuinely country, several of them serve beautifully to expand on the characters and situations in the film.

Last but far from least are the actors. Actors loved Altman and lined up to work with him. The results of the improvisations could be variable, but when they worked, amazing performances could happen: Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and California Split; Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller; Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakley, Henry Gibson, Geraldine Chaplin, and several others in Nashville; Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in Three Women.

Of the movies that came later, everyone has a few favorites, but not many would argue that the work comes close to that first flowering (made mostly when Altman was in his mid to late forties). I like best among them Vincent and Theo, a marvelous biography of Van Gogh that too few have seen, and the smashing entertainment Gosford Park. Perhaps I need to see The Player again, since I notice it turns up on nearly everyone’s list of favorites. My impression at the time was that it was pretty good but was being overrated because of critics’ affection for the director.

I grew up 50 miles from Nashville, and I attended the local premiere of the great Altman film there in 1975. (I had naively written to the director the year before offering my services as an assistant for little or no pay; I was only 17, so this was unlikely to happen, and at any rate I never got a reply.) My friends and I absolutely loved the movie, and I envisioned it doing great boxoffice and winning Oscars. But although it lasted three months at that first-run theater, many people in Nashville were less than thrilled with what they saw. “I guess we didn’t realize we were all so stupid,” said my parents, meaning the way locals are portrayed in the film. And Minnie Pearl was interviewed on the local news. “That’s not the Nashville that I’ve known and loved my whole life.”

And Minnie was right. Brilliant as the film is, it is not a realistic depiction of Nashville. It is a beautifully wrought, satirical fantasy, and it takes place in another city entirely…call it Altmanville – the place, in fact, where nearly all his films are set. I go back there to visit periodically, to see some of the finest, most unusual movies ever made. They form Mr. Altman’s legacy, and it’s a powerful one. He will be missed.

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