22 November 2006

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

I was shocked by the news of Robert Altman's death. Despite the fact that he lived a wonderfully long and productive life, he was one of those icons I always thought would be around, because how could we live in a world without Robert Altman?

I could praise his genius, his willingness to experiment, his determination, his ... well, you name it. But as I've been absorbing the news of his death, what I've been thinking about is that he is the one director who has produced movies I have loved for all of my life.

When I was a little kid, Popeye was my favorite movie. I thought it was the funniest, most delightful, most emotionally satisfying film that could ever be created. (Yes, you could probably say that only an 8-year-old would feel that way about Popeye, but still...)

In high school, Vincent & Theo was my favorite suffering artist movie. I had a grainy VHS tape of it, a tape I must have watched 20 or 30 times before finally getting the DVD when it finally came out recently. It remains a favorite, and continues to be neglected in discussions of Altman, which generally focus on some of his slicker, more superficial films like The Player and Gosford Park.

I saw a matinee of Short Cuts at the cinema in Plymouth, New Hampshire when it came out in 1993. I was the only person in the theatre. It was an overwhelming experience, and I'm sure some of the power of watching that film alone in a theatre has contributed to it being my favorite Altman movie (and thus just about my favorite movie by any American), but nonetheless, I have watched it repeatedly, and every time I discover something new to capture my attention within it.

Right around the time I saw Short Cuts, I met the writer Calder Willingham, who got screen credit for writing Altman's Thieves Like Us. I had already read about Altman's freewheeling approach to filmmaking, and so assumed that writers probably weren't particularly thrilled with what he did to their words, so I was gentle when I brought up Altman's name to Willingham. A look of disgust -- perhaps even horror -- came over his face, and he immediately changed the subject.

My first disappointment with Altman came when I saw his film of Christopher Durang's play Beyond Therapy. For a while, Durang was among my favorite playwrights -- his anarchic comedy at its best fits my sensibilities well. Beyond Therapy was on TV very late one night, and I stayed up to watch it, only to discover the film was leaden and completely destroyed all the humor of the original.

Of course, anyone who loves Altman also has to admit that he was capable of making atrociously bad movies like Beyond Therapy. That's part of what is so fascinating about his work -- the same commitment to experiment that led him to moments of genius also produced truly failed experiments. While this could be disappointing -- we want our geniuses to be gods of perfection, after all -- it is in the end, I think, his greatest quality, because he fully committed himself to the process of filmmaking, and he let his interests range farther than any other director I can think of. It's likely we wouldn't have had the masterpieces without the failures in between them, and if it required a few Beyond Therapies to get Altman to the point where he could create such films as MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Vincent & Theo, and Short Cuts ... well, I'm not going to complain.

My only complaint is he didn't live even longer. But it's a hollow complaint, because he died in the midst of work, at a time when he was receiving accolades for the achievements of his life, and there aren't too many better ways to go.