Remembering Robert Altman

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Director Robert Altman at the Sarasota Film Festival, April 8, 2006 in Sarasota, Florida.

He was the cranky uncle at Christmas dinner, daring to utter indiscretions about the family members who were trying to talk over his bad manners. He was the eternal renegade, refusing to make feel-good movies or boys'-life adventures or simple melodramas — simple anything. For more than 35 years, Robert Altman, who died Monday night in Los Angeles at 81, was the truth-telling leper outside the film-industry cathedral, and the most cunning chiseler at the staid monument Hollywood has made of movie art.

Hollywood decides to love its rebels when they've either died or outlasted most of their enemies. Altman managed to stick around long enough, and return investments to enough small businesses in Tinseltown, to get his tribute at the Academy Awards ceremony this March. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin introduced him with a beautifully executed double monologue, overlapping their lines in the fashion Altman had made famous in most of his 42 feature films — most notably MASH, the 1970 war comedy that spawned the (much more domesticated and liberal) TV series M*A*S*H, and remains the film that defined the Altman style and attitude.

When the old curmudgeon spoke, he sounded as dewy as a Homecoming Queen. "I'm very fortunate in my career," he said. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition." He closed by noting that he'd received a heart transplant from a woman who was in her 30s when she died. "By that calculation, you may have given me this award too early. I think I have 40 years on it, and I intend to use it." He didn't. A Prairie Home Companion, the uneasy blend of Garrison Keillor's folksy humor and Altman's corrosive take on human foibles, was his last film.

If not great Altman, Prairie was pure Altman, for it dealt with the subject of his strongest films: America, chatting as it flailed away, ignorant of its imminent demise. It was subject he painted on a vast, teeming canvas — Brueghel reimagined by Jackson Pollock — where folks elbow and fast-talk their way toward your attention. His fugue format, pouring dozens of plots into a post-ethnic melting pot, gave everyone a brief grab at movie immortality. On the great plains of Altman's precious wide screen, America bustled, hustled and tussled. His searching telephoto lens, focusing on this micro-event or that, suggested the eye of a man who is always interested, was rarely impressed by all the milling. This was the director, of course, whispering to his characters, "Go on, make fools or heroes of yourselves. Don't let me stop you."

Who could stop these creatures, or shut them up? Not Altman: he hears America talking, endlessly, engagingly, whether or not it makes sense. Even in an two-person conversation, the Babel of off-screen voices tells you that the main story is just one of many that could be told—are being told, in shorthand, at the edges of the frame. The murmur of overlapping blarney isn't a carpet of sound; rather, it's swatches, hundreds of gorgeous samples to choose from. This blend of image and voice, meticulously designed, may seem like a glorious mess. But that is Altman's way of upending the hierarchy Hollywood lives by: star over extra, story over atmosphere, emotion over all. This is movie democracy; you the viewer vote with your eyes and ears. Keep them open, there'll be a quiz before the fade-out.


Born in 1925, Altman came out of Kansas City, breeding ground of such fertile creators and benders of American popular art as Walt Disney and Charlie Parker. (He paid tribute to his hometown's jazz heritage in the 1996 Kansas City.) It was there young Bob fell in love with pop cinema in all its apparent spontaneity. " Those movies just seemed to happen — nobody made them, you know?" he told John C. Tibbetts for a 1992 profile in the Salisbury State University Literature Film Quarterly, "And I guess that's the way I still see movies — I want them to be occurrences, to just seem to be happening." In his Oscar speech, Altman compared the movie process to "making a sand castle at the beach." Actually, his movies were more circuses than castles, and Altman was the ringmaster, using his whip not on the actors (who loved the improvisatory freedom he allowed them) but on the audience (whom he wanted to get his point about the erratic, intransigent nature of the modern American.)

Altman's grandfather had been a boss at the Calvin Film Company, which over the decades produced more than 3,000 educational and industrial films; and young Bob got his start directing some 60 shorts for companies like General Motors and DuPont. He had tried Hollywood right after his war service (during which he co-piloted B-24 bombers), but his only official work was an uncredited story gig on the 1947 Christmas Eve. "I'd go to California and try to write scripts," he told Tibbetts, "but then return, broke, to Calvin. Each time they'd drop me another notch in salary."

Hollywood was hardly more eager to recognize Altman's talents. A quarter century passed between his first trip west and his breakout film, MASH in 1970, when he turned 45. In between, he directed hundreds of TV dramas and a few promising, thoughtful feature films. His first, the science-fiction drama Countdown, got him fired off the film and banned from the Warner Bros. lot. Studio boss Jack Warner, Altman recalled, "had looked at the dailies and he said, 'That fool has everybody talking at the same time!'"

Altman certainly didn't invent overlapping dialogue; that goes back to the earliest days of talking pictures, when such directors as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Lewis Milestone picked up the technique popularized a few years earlier in the stage production of The Front Page. But he practically trademarked it in MASH. And he kept using it as a way of suggesting that life wasn't as neat as most movie stories. It was a messy thing — chaos, only vaguely organized — and it offered few straightforward resolutions or consolations. To the movie moguls, that was a call to anarchy, and they rarely clasped Altman to their bosom.

In 1970 MASH had the shock of the new. With its boisterous camaraderie, hearty and heartless, the film virtually created the modern concept of hipness. It kept surfacing in the overdog comedy of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live and David Letterman and Spy magazine, in the stoned bravado of Bill and Ted and Beavis and Butt-head. (The Bill Murray persona, of blithe sarcasm and weary soldiering-on, could have been invented by Altman; it's a shame the two men never made a film together.) Amid the triage of Korea — read: Vietnam — Altman's super-cool medics found fraternity in cool, cruel wit.

For some viewers, MASH was an exercise less in Olympian misanthropy than in leering misognyny, especially in its twitting of the prim Hot Lips Houlihan as a secret sexpot worthy of being exposed before the entire company as she took a shower. The curtain falls, Hot Lips is revealed naked, the medics applaud at their practical joke and feminism takes a nasty hit. (I could name one young bride who, after storming out of a screening room at the end of that shower scene, literally went home to her mother, telling her husband, "I don't want to live with someone who thinks that is funny.") Altman continued to be pursued by this reputation as a prankster on all humanity, depantsing people of their pretenses and setting up an impregnable barrier between the hip and the square. And, as it happened, he earned it.


It also happened that MASH was the biggest commercial success of Atlman's long career. He cared about box office only insofar as it could attract financing for other films. After a hit like MASH or, to a lesser extent, Nashville, he would quickly line up five more films that didn't cost much and didn't have to make much. The flurry of films that followed MASH were no blockbusters, but they helped shaped a generation's idea of its own potential, and of the cinema's. Altman subverted genres like the western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and the private-eye thriller (The Long Goodbye) with equal parts energy and anomie.

Impossible to pin down or pigeonhole, as full of contradictions as his movies, Altman became a specialist in both two movie forms: epic and the intimate. Nashville, a Doomsday kaleidoscope set to country music, splashed the whole South with his wily cynicism; Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson said that American history was a lie dressed up in showbiz frills; and A Wedding, his black spray-paint on a four-tier nuptial cake, contained 48 characters, for no better reason than that Nashville had had 24. But there was a quieter, artsier side to Altman, evident in his eerie, miniature studies of women on the verge of madness That Cold Day in the Park, Images, 3 Women).

All told, he directed 14 films in the 70s; no American worked at that pace, or at his level. The decade ended with Altman's second largest box-office grosser, Popeye, after which Hollywood and its most persistent renegade tired of each other's company for a time. Other directors might go into retirement or hiding. Altman moved to the side streets, to the movie equivalent of off-Broadway, to fashion his next career: as the formidable director of stage plays on film and videotape (10 of them, from 1982 to 1988). In 1992 he stormed back from exile with The Player, writer Michael Tolkin's vivid, genial satire of the movie industry's knack for corrupting American optimism and ingenuity — by which time a system of indie distributors was in place to bankroll Altman's more ambitious projects and return him to the mainstream of American movies' minor stream.

The tone of an Altman film — the desperate milling, the sense of isolation within a community, the urgency to no clear end — is a reflection of life on any movie set. Or in any political campaign (Tanner '88, the TV series he concocted with Garry Trudeau, plays now like a prophetic parody of media manipulation by such masters as James Carville and Karl Rove). Or any reception (A Wedding), convention (H.E.A.L.T.H.), concert (Nashville), casino spree (California Split), couture opening (Ready to Wear), country weekend (Gosford Park) or old-time radio show (A Prairie Home Companion). Any social gathering, in fact, where people advance the friendly fraud of being themselves, where politics and showbiz overlap, where the action spills fro> m the stage into the audience.

Typically, Altman's contribution to the omnibus film Aria focused not on the singers but on the operagoers. Everyone gets to be a prima donna, or a spear carrier, in Altman's daring democracy. Not many directors would think to open a film with an elegant eight-minute tracking shot that brings dozens of characters together and introduces a whodunit teaser. Altman did it, and so much more, with The Player. He continued his innovations with film form in Short Cuts and Ready to Wear and the 2001 Gosford Park. By then, as happens to most pioneering artists, experiment had calcified into the format of "the Altman movie." But what the hell. He created it; he was entitled to develop it.

Hardly anyone makes experimental movies today. Directors are afraid that, for even a moment, they will lose, addle or exasperate the audience. The wisdom from behind the megaphone is: Go bigger, go simpler. As a result, most American films are sitcoms, predictable from first reel to last. More precisely (in this era of Short Attention Span Cinema), they are commercials, peddling primitive stories with comfortable emotions. Today's typical filmmaker is a moneychanger in a fine old temple. And Altman, ostensibly the iconoclast, is actually the idealist, the conservative, keeping the faith, fighting to preserve what's best in movies: the sense that the screen can contain...anything. As Streep and Tomlin, finally in unison, said at the end of their Oscar introduction, "You leave his movies knowing that life is many things at once."

When an earthquake shakes up everyone's nerves at the end of Short Cuts, Tom Waits shouts at Tomlin, "This is it, baby! We're goin' out together!" That could have been the tag line for love for the 90s: exuberant togetherness on the fault line of the millennium. And that was immortality, Robert Altman-style. With his death today, he took some of the spirit of cinematic adventure with him.