Robert Altman

Among the great filmmakers, Robert Altman was one of the most distinctive and infuriating. He placed enormous trust in actors and filmed with a complete disregard for script and pacing, creating many films that are unfocused and tedious. When his approach worked (which was often enough), the films transcended cinema to capture a time, a place and a feeling that was impossible to shake.

After hearing of his passing, I rented his final picture, A PRARIE HOME COMPANION. It’s a perfect example of one of his unfocused pieces carried along by some nice gliding camerawork and an eager cast. In the commentary, Altman confesses that, while he had a hand in shaping the story, he never cared to read the script.
Altman’s career lasted over 35 years and he was cherished by critics, actors, and fellow directors. Many casual filmgoers don’t understand why Altman is so beloved, and find his style, with its overlapping dialogue and relaxed camera placement, to be annoying. M*A*S*H is his only work beloved by all, and many debate the successes from the misfires.

Rather than list my Top 10 Favorite Altman, I decided to list 5 that I feel best sum up the director, and what made him so great.

Released shortly after M*A*S*H, BREWSTER tells of a young boy who wishes to fly around the Huston Astrodome. The movie is a big metaphor about free expression encased within hundreds of jokes about birds and flight (and Steve McQueen’s impossibly blue eyes). I find the tone to be similar to an episode of “The Simpsons.” It’s a bizarre story, told in a very funny style. There’s no right way to describe a film where the narrator slowly turns into an ostrich and bird poop is a running joke.

Elliott Gould plays Phillip Marlowe, involved in a typical film noir mystery. What you remember are the Altman touches. For example, instead of the usual private eye voice-over, Altman has Gould mumble to himself throughout the picture. The music theme appears in a dozen different forms (including once as a person’s doorbell). And the picture kicks off with Marlowe on a lengthy quest to find cat food. Special mention to the scene where Marlowe is threatened by a gangster, who hits his own girlfriend with a bottle and then says, "That's someone I love. Think what could happen to you."

This is Altman’s crown jewel, and in many ways the definitive 70’s picture. Altman speaks volumes about big issues: fame, politics, sex, art, and the stories are both uplifting and depressing. Many have unhappy endings, but find a silver lining America’s undefeatable spirit. The final section is as good as movies get, but I’m especially partial to the scene where Keith Carradine sings the Oscar winning, “I’m Easy” while his many loves sit in the audience. Unaware of each other, they each think the song is being sung only to them.

POPEYE (1980)
Hugely devise upon release, this was not the POPEYE audiences were hoping for. The songs (with titles like “He’s Large” “I’m Mean” and “He Needs me”) are laughably thin. But, the film came along as HBO was starting up, and POPEYE played a lot, allowing people to better appreciate the way that Altman stuffs the frame with many rich characters, as if the camera could look in any direction and capture a worthy story. I’m not a fan of the film’s octopus finale, but I love the ramshackle design of the fishing town, and the portrayal of Bluto. Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl defines “role an actor was born to play”.

After filming plays for many years (including the great one man show SECRET HONOR) Altman made a major comeback with THE PLAYER. But he really stepped it up with this follow-up. With masterly skill, Altman intercuts a handful of stories dealing with people whose own petty, immoral, and baser instincts get the better of them. On the surface, it’s a dark and cynical piece of film, but the genial tone brings out a lot of comedy. And in the end, Altman reminds us that there are bigger events then our own lives that will ultimately have the final say.

Some of you may feel by limiting it to 5, I’m leaving out films like McCABE & MRS. MILLER or GOSFORD PARK. But I picked the 5 I felt were most worth your time. Feel free to write me about some of your favorite Altman’s.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see you've finally come around to admit that Nashville is the GREATEST MOST STUPENDOUS SENSATIONAL CELEBRATIONAL INSPIRATIONAL MUPPETATIONAL film of the 70s. I've paraphrasing you, of course, but that's what you said. Finally. -C

5:46 AM  

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