Robert Altman is dead at 81 as of yesterday evening. On one hand, how can his death be thought of as a shock? He looked frail in the behind-the-scenes footage of A Prairie Home Companion, his last film, and yet….
And yet he just never stopped working. He never even slowed down. He directed four films in the last six years, plus a mini-series for television and various stage productions. He certainly showed no signs of stopping. And, a rarity among aging directors, he just never lost his edge. His more recent films — Gosford Park, Cookie’s Fortune, and the aforementioned A Prairie Home Companion — do not suffer in the company of his early output from the 1970s, including M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Three Women, and Nashville. No, age did not slow him. What did slow him was the 1980s, a period of film history ruled by the studios at the expense of artistic vision. But when independent film was reborn in the 1990s, Altman was ready for it, and two of his absolute best films were The Player and Short Cuts, made back-to-back in 1992 and 1993. The latter is one of my favorite movies of all time.
Robert Altman was a maverick director, and that’s unfortunately perhaps why he now officially keeps company with Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa for never having won an Academy Award for directing, despite five nominations. He did receive an honorary Oscar at just this past year’s ceremony, wherein he joked that, as the beneficiary of a heart transplant operation, he had another few decades left in him.
In our very first episode of All Movie Talk, we mentioned A Prairie Home Companion as one of our DVD recommendations. This podcast is so young, still, that it seems unfathomable that an era could have ended since the show began. It is saddening to think that next year, we will not get another Altman movie. Stephen reflected recently, in his post about The Departed, that Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman are perhaps the only two of the great generation of directors to emerge in the 1970s that are still doing great work. I would also include Woody Allen in the list, but in any case the group is one smaller.
The thing about Robert Altman was, yes, he had a recognizable style (for the most part), but he practically never repeated himself. A few years ago, Neve Campbell approached him with her screenplay about the ballet world and asked him to direct it. Altman’s inclination was to turn it down, perplexed as to why she’d ask him — after all, he didn’t know anything about the ballet world — and then he reflected, well hey, if I’m only going to do things I already know about, what’s the point? So he took on the job and the challenge, and the result was The Company, released in 2003 to quiet but significant acclaim.
But what really makes Robert Altman a truly great director, and in fact one of the most important directors in cinema history, is, paradoxically, also what made his track record so unreliable. (Because he’s certainly made some duds: Dr. T and the Women, Pret-A-Porter, and very infamously, Popeye.) His method of directing was the polar opposite of the stereotypical artistic tyrant, ruling his movie with an iron hand. On the contrary, he would sit back and foster an environment in which the creative talents of others could emerge. He would work with actors and writers, encouraging them to explore their strengths. He wanted his actors to assume the personalities of their characters and encouraged them simply to interact on the set. And from this kind of open environment, again and again, great work was born.
He knew what he wanted, just not necessarily in advance. He was fond of saying in interviews that if you took any of his movies and picked out the five best things about it, none of those five things would be things he planned. They would be things that happened in front of the cameras that he would recognize as they happened as being just what he was looking for. And sometimes he’d run a scene through several times and not see that magical little unpredictable something, and so perhaps he’d work to throw more creative ideas into the mix, get others to contribute their own thoughts, get the actors to approach it from a different perspective, then try it all again. But once the magic happened, he knew what he had.
The only other director I know of to work like this is Mike Leigh, and that’s still a little different. Certainly people like Stanley Kubrick and Joel and Ethan Coen work in the exact opposite way: say this line like this, look over here, move this arm up like this, and so on. Altman would never do that, and maybe an argument could be made that he was never a great director after all, just a guy who surrounded himself with talent and kept his hands off. But his filmography is a profoundly eloquent rebuttal to such an assessment: clearly his films all have his own stamp on them, and the calibre of his filmography affirms his keen artistic sense.
He made genre films on occasion, usually starting with familiar frameworks and turning them on their ears. The Long Goodbye adapted a Raymond Chandler novel, and Gosford Park was the Agatha Christie story she never wrote. The Gingerbread Man took on John Grisham, McCabe and Mrs. Miller revised the western, and M*A*S*H was a war movie without any war in it. But whether he started with a genre framework or not, what he was interested in was character — or, as he would be more apt to put it, behavior. He left plot up to the script supervisor. He joked that often he would do a take, see something great, declare his enthusiasm for it, and then turn around and ask if they got the plot point the scene was for. I suspect his own telling is exaggerated, because his movies do have plots, sometimes very involved plots. But the movies seldom feel like they’re about the plots, if you get what I mean. The spotlight is on human behavior: observing it, and engaging in it, and seeing how personalities combine in ways that are inspiring or tragic or funny or maybe just inherently interesting.
A trademark of his was overlapping dialogue. In most movies, actors take turns saying their lines. In Altman’s movies, as in real life, the dialogue overlaps: one person starts talking just a bit before the other is finished. It gives these movies a more natural feel to them, something more flowing and less structured. In Gosford Park, the camera tracks around a dinner table as many guests are each engaged in their own private conversations. The actors were asked to converse with each other in character, improvising if desired, but they never knew exactly when they’d be on camera. The result feels like a dinner conversation that might actually happen in real life — in stark contrast to many large dinner scenes where the only thing anybody has to say is specifically related to the plot.
On the other hand, A Prairie Home Companion uses overlapping dialogue not so much for a natural feel but for a stylized feel. Watching Garrison Keillor and Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin telling stories in their dressing rooms is just a sheer riot, thanks almost entirely to the juxtaposition of the exaggeratedly naturalistic dialogue and the outrageousness of what the dialogue is actually saying.
My favorite Robert Altman movie, Short Cuts, does all of the above. It is an entry in a genre Altman invented, the interlocking narrative, where one or two dozen characters all have their own stories that intersect in interesting ways. Recently, we’ve had Crash and Babel and Bobby, and a bit before that we had Magnolia. But Altman invented the genre with what many say is his best film, Nashville (1975). But Short Cuts (1993) is my favorite, incredibly thought-provoking and running the full range of emotions from inspiring to heartbreaking, alternately serious and wickedly funny. We’ll be featuring Short Cuts in a Film Spotlight segment in the months ahead.
Amongst the many retrospectives being published about Robert Altman now, many make some sort of pun about The Long Goodbye. But I think I’ve got a more fitting play on words that I think he’d have taken as a great compliment.
You were not a Player.