In Praise of Robert Altman

by Thad Weitz on November 20, 2012


November 20th  marks the anniversary of the death of  Robert Altman. Thad Weitz discusses the director’s legendary work. (7 video clips)

Perhaps Scorcese, Coppola, Peckinpah, and Woody Allen were his only contemporaries who rivaled his artistic achievements. Even so, his name doesn’t have quite the same widespread recognition as these peers—he is more of a director revered by that select group of people “in the know,” than by the general public.  This under-appreciation is due, in part, to an uneven career. Altman made some genuine classics: “MASH,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Nashville,” “Short Cuts” and “The Player” to name the most prominent.

But, he also made his share of flops: “Brewster McCloud,” “Popeye,” “Ready to Wear” are some of the films that neither drew lines at the theaters nor excited the pens of critics. Even in these “failures,” however, Altman always failed while daring greatly. He was something like a cinematic Bob Dylan: never complacent with retreading old ground, he always pushed forward into new territory, reinventing himself and his interests. This reinvention allowed him to make a film like “Gosford Park,” which is as different from “MASH” as “Blood on the Tracks” is as different from “Highway 61 Revisited.”   His continual artistic exploration led both to the masterpieces and, inevitably, to the disasters.

If the precipitous peaks and valleys of his career helped to prevent his being the public’s darling, so too did his style. Altman never holds your hand through a movie; you have to meet him halfway.  He simply presents his material and leaves the thinking to you. He is interested in character more than plot and, as a result, the movies are often non-linear and seemingly chaotic. Not an introspective director, he is instead the ultimate extravert: his films often feel as if a camera were left on at a cocktail party, with a microphone catching not only the “main” dialogue, but all conversations and noise in the room.  This catch-all gives his work the texture of real life, but it also demands work—there is no simple back-and-forth between a leading man and lady, there is instead an unruly stream of overlapping dialogue, which gives rise to the somewhat disconcerting notion—i.e., you’re missing something—that every little scrap of background dialogue is relevant.  And every little scrap of dialogue is relevant, for in each film, Altman is concerned not just with one or two main characters, he is concerned with a whole host of characters.  This wide focus stems from his belief in community. While the characters might at times seem ostensibly isolated, all are intricately interconnected.  This interconnection always becomes manifest at least once, though usually often, in an Altman film.  In “Nashville,” the disparate crowd comes together during a traffic tie-up and after an assassination; in “McCabe,” the whole town works to put out a fire in the church; in “MASH,” all hands scramble when the wounded are choppered in, and in “Short Cuts,” all characters (probably a little too deus ex machina, here) get shaken by the same earthquake;

Along with his philosophy that individuals are never alone but always tied into a larger group, Altman has the requisite ability to withhold judgment on his multi-colored personalities.  Without comment, he lets us see his people as they are and decide for ourselves what we think.  His eye is unflinching: his people are liars, thieves, prostitutes, philanderers, murderers.  At the same time, they are kind, generous, faithful, selfless, beneficent.  As in the real world, Altman’s humans are never just one thing, good or bad, black or white.  They all inhabit that wide swathe of gray and are capable, at any given moment, of wandering into a darker or lighter area.  You can never quite pin down an Altman character.  Take McCabe (Warren Beatty), for example. When we first see McCabe, like the town folk he meets, we believe he is a steely gunfighter and card sharp.  By turns, in dealing with Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), we come to suspect that he is little more than a rube, complacent to be the town’s two-bit huckster.  When he deals with two representatives from a railroad company interested in purchasing his interests, we become impressed with his business savvy, and then shocked by his ignorance of the situation.  He next appears to be a coward, groveling to save himself from his misplayed deal.  Finally, we see McCabe the hero, acting more bravely and adroitly than we suspected possible.  The point is that McCabe isn’t merely dumb or smart, adept or inept, brave or craven, for he is all of these things at once—with different qualities rising to the surface as dictated by circumstance. Altman’s characters are truly Shakespearean in their roundness.  Actually, maybe this comparison is inexact: Shakespeare had his foils, his Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, the flat characters meant only to highlight the protagonists.  Altman has no foils: if a character is on the screen, he is interesting and complex in-and-of himself.

In light of Altman’s acceptance of mankind in all of its muddy behavior, the best description for him is “secular humanist.”  “Secular,” here, is a crucial word. For all of his tolerance of humanity’s many foibles, Altman will not abide one thing—the inhuman.  For him, the inhuman is anything that distracts from the actualities of real life, most notably religion, but also military, political, and psychoanalytical doctrine. In his films, Altman will give anyone with any variety of human failings a fair shake, but if someone stands aloof, quoting scripture, he’s gonna get the skewer. The minister in “McCabe” sinisterly avoids the others in town; he ignores a man being beaten to death; he mumbles a eulogy for the same man, quoting irrelevant and draconian passages from the Bible; and, when McCabe tries to find refuge inside the church from killers, the minister forces him out at gun point.  Altman hates the ethereal when it comes at the expense of human decency.  Tellingly, the minister gets shot, and it is the citizens of the town who later band together to put out a fire in the church.  (On seeing the church ablaze, a startled citizen exclaims, “Jesus Christ, the church is on fire!”  The line is perfectly in step with Altman—don’t worry about the nebulous blasphemy, worry about the tangible—the flames.)

In “MASH,” Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) is an avid Bible reader, an incompetent doctor, and a general son of a bitch (he reduces a young doctor to tears for the death of a patient that Burns himself has caused).  Altman serves his justice, and when we last see Burns, he is leaving the base in a straightjacket.  “MASH” also has the dentist “Painless Pole” (John Schuck) who, after rampant womanizing, stumbles upon a psychiatric dictionary that convinces him he suffers from “Don Juanism,” in which the afflicted engages in numerous sexual encounters to mask a latent homosexuality.  Because of this discovery, “Painless” decides to kill himself.  Always eschewing the theoretical in favor of the concrete, Altman “heals” him through a surprise rendezvous with a voluptuous nurse on his heretofore deathbed—an encounter that apparently reaffirms Painless’s old inclinations.

In “Nashville,” we meet over twenty-four significant characters, but, pointedly, not a politician who is running for President.  Instead, we repeatedly see his campaign van driving about town with a bullhorn on top, announcing political proclamations that run from the vague and platitudinous to the ominous and bizarre. In a speech, we learn, the candidate has asked the question: “Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”  Altman clearly hates empty rhetoric (in the last line, taking it to an absurd apotheosis), and it doesn’t matter whether this rhetoric comes from The Bible, a general, a psychiatric textbook, or a politician.  His concerns are of the earth, not of the sky.  For Altman, there aren’t many unpardonable sins, but blinding oneself to the world as it is in favor of the quixotic—which leads to such concomitant vices as hypocrisy, sanctimony, and icy indifference—is one such sin.

Altman’s adherence to reality over abstraction is more than an intellectual preoccupation; it actually dictated the way he made films.  “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” shows the filthy mud in the streets, the whores, drunks, and discardable Chinese, without the romantic varnish of the typical Western.  It is decidedly not “High Noon.” “MASH” doesn’t depict a group of heroic marines storming a beach; instead, it shows a hospital unit doing whatever they can—whether it be drink, sex, or practical jokes—to escape the horrors not only of war itself, but of their own army’s ludicrous bureaucracy.  “The Long Goodbye” has a Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) who isn’t talking in clipped speech to some dames in a smoky nightclub, but rather a Marlowe who’s shopping for the best brand of cat food and muttering his wisecracks.

In the present day, such flaunting of cinematic conventions is nothing especially new or unique, but back when Altman first made these films, it was groundbreaking.  Though he was already in his forties in the sixties, Altman was a child of the sixties.  Unlike many of his countercultural counterparts, however, he was able to move beyond a shadowy rebellion against authority and transfer these ideas into a coherent and artistic body of work.  Even more startling, he actually provided a solution to sixties dissatisfaction—forget the abstract rules and regulations, and treat those around you with magnanimity and acceptance.

It’s a shame that the creator of such magnificent films is no longer with us. I can’t cross my fingers, like I did in the past, when I heard a new Altman movie was coming out, and hope that, just maybe, it would be another gem like “Nashville,” or “California Split.”  Altman was like a Bob Dylan, or a Jackson Pollock, or a Robert Frost—he was a true American artist.  As such, he doesn’t have the full recognition that he deserves. I feel fortunate that I was taught to appreciate Altman by someone “in the know.”  My senior year in college, I took “American Film,” with Steve Vineberg, a film critic for The Boston Phoenix.  One of Altman’s most prominent champions, he introduced our class to the madcap whimsy of “MASH” and the narcotic poetry of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” From there I branched out on my own, and tackled the rest of his oeuvre. Though the source has now run dry, we are fortunate that Altman lends himself, more so than most other directors, to reviewing.  I’ve seen “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “MASH” each about ten times, and with every viewing I seem to walk away with something different. Maybe it’s a piece of previously unheard dialogue, or maybe it’s an action in the corner of a frame, but it’s always something.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matt Fisher November 20, 2012 at 5:53 am

I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Altman at the Toronto Film Festival after the premiere of Vincent and Theo. I was a great admirer of his work (in particular The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, and McCabe) and found myself kind of tongue-tied sitting across from him at the after party.

He was very gracious and talked at great length about the difficulty he was having adapting The Player. He had apparently shot much of the celebrity-intensive stuff but not a lot else. I hadn’t read the book and it was a couple of years before the film was finally released.

It was, I knew even then, a once in a lifetime conversation.

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