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.


  1. Matt: Altman was one of those creators who made it seem possible that anyone could make movies, tell stories, etc. It wasn't that he lacked craft, but more that he made it evident that life was so much closer to art than one would normally think. Some of my favorites were Nashville, Quintet, The Wedding, The Player.

    Jeff Ford

  2. My vote for most fascinating Altman movie goes to Three Women with Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duval. There's nothing else like it. (Which can be said of a lot of Altman's movies.)

  3. _M*A*S*H*_ was one of the very first "adult" movies I ever saw. Ever since, I've been in awe of what Altman accomplished. Even with a so-so movie such as _Ready to Wear_, I always knew that I was in good hands.

    His best films are unmatched, and the rest are (for me, anyway) always interesting. I share your admiration of _Short Cuts_, and I think that _Nashville_ is a viable candidate for, at the very least, the best American film of the 1970s that didn't include the word _Godfather_ in its title.

    (This last observation may be influenced by my wife, who reveres Altman above all other directors, for whom _Nashville_ was a genuine life-altering experience, and who to this day believes that _Popeye_ was a pretty good movie.)

    And one could do far worse than have _A Prairie Home Companion_ be one's final film.

    Brett Cox

  4. He indeed made many more great movies than he did disappointments .. I was so upset by this news Monday that I was a complete basket-case for the rest of the day, and I still haven't really gotten over it .. he will be sorely missed

  5. I feel terrible that the only Altman films I've seen are Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion, although I loved them both.

    Rest in peace. And make some awesome films at the great location shoot in the sky.

  6. The varying opinions of his films, even among those who are unabashed fans, is perhaps the best indicator of Altman's idiosyncratic brilliance. I think Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller are two of the best films ever made, but that Quintet is a miserable flop. I like Popeye, too.