Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Its okay with me..."

Robert Altman died yesterday. He was 81. He made a lot of films. I've got him in my profile as one of the directors I'm a fan of, but he had such a long and full career and worked to such a relatively late age that its hard to feel sad about his death, hard to feel anything other than grateful for all the great work he left behind, in fact.

He could legitimately have been called one of the Greatest living American Directors, and his career had both its High period in the 1970s and a late renaissance in the 1990s which he stretched into this century.
This list of films - his best, I think - can be compared to the ouevre of any director from any country or period in Cinema History in terms of quality :

MASH (1970)
McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Thieves Like Us (1974)
California Split (1974)
Nashville (1975)
3 Women (1977)
Short Cuts (1993)

His style was so singular and unique that it can be difficult to trace his influence in any of todays filmmakers. Only Paul Thomas Anderson is obviously an Altman disciple. But any film where multiple characters interact and connect in intertwining storylines - from Crash to Grand Canyon to Code Unknown to Love Actually - tells its story in Altman's long shadow. Nobody has ever done that kind of film as well as he did it in Nashville, perhaps his masterpiece, and Short Cuts.

He also appreciated and used actors uncommonly well. Elliott Gould's strange, off-kilter charm was never quite as well used, with such canny understanding of the quick wit and sharp mind it masked, as in The Long Goodbye or California Split. Warren Beatty gives probably his most open, vulnerable performance in McCabe & Mrs Miller. His marshalling of massive ensembles is unsurpassed, and still evident in one of his last films, Gosford Park.

Indeed, the strength of his body of work is obvious when another list, of the notable omissions from the first, is assembled. Consider these :

Brewster McCloud (1970)
Buffalo Bill & The Indians (1976)
A Wedding (1978)
Vincent & Theo (1990)
The Player (1992)
Gosford Park (2001)

Altman made many more films, some of them terrible (Quintet, Pret-A-Porter), some of them compromised by studio interference (The Gingerbread Man), some of them fine films by any other standards (Streamers, Dr T & the Women). But Altman had incredibly high standards, and not much could live up to the work he had done in the 70s. Even at its worst, however, his work was always interesting, always ambitious and generally extremely finely crafted. Has any other contemporary Director been so persistent in his questioning of the nature of America and American culture as Altman? Whether it was through his revisionist approach to classic American genres - the western in McCabe & Mrs Miller, the noir in The Long Goodbye, the musical in Popeye - or his head-on assault on politics and its impact on US society in Nashville and Tanner 88, Altman was alway motivated to ask questions of both his audiences and his own proccupations.

The first Altman film I saw was Popeye. I saw it in a cinema when I was 6, I think. And, loving the cartoon and loving musicals, I loved it too. When I discovered years later that it was the work of the same man who had made MASH, I was astounded. It was a terrible flop, probably the greatest of Altman's career, and it threw that career off-course for most of the 1980s. Its critical reputation remains decidely poor. But its an interesting film, very close in spirit to old Popeye newspaper cartoons rather than the modern animated versions. Shelley Duvall was born to play the part of Olive Oyl, Robin Williams is ridiculous but somehow right as an actual flesh and blood Popeye, and the songs were written by none other than Harry Nilsson. One of the more overlooked elements of Altman's work is the level of technical proficiency evinced by all his films. The expertise required to make some of his more explicit trademarks - reams of overlapping dialogue, sometimes from several different conversations, and extremely lengthy but unforced long takes - work is somewhat hidden by the authentic, verite tone created by these same techniques. His camera seems almost to wander into some scenes at random, then wander out again. But Altman's films were always beautifully shot. This is most apparent in his period films. McCabe & Mrs Miller is unforgettably atmospheric, Vilmos Zsigmond's photography capturing the haunting setting of the Frontier town in Winter, the gas-light glow of the interiors and the crunching harshness of the snow-covered forest outside (Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" is one long tribute to McCabe & Mrs Miller - specifically its visual tone - by way of Thomas Hardy). Popeye, without benefitting from many of Altman's other trademarks, is his most aggressively art-directed and visually ostentatious film. For an Altman fan, its a strange little treat, unique in his filmography.

In 2002, Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledged the film and paid a small tribute to Altman by including one of those Nilsson songs in Punch-Drunk Love, which resembles 1970s Altman in its independence of spirit and experimental tone.

That song, He Needs Me, as sung by Shelley Duvall :

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