When you really think about it, Robert Altman was American cinema’s Joe Strummer; a visionary who was able to work both within and on the fringes of popular culture while never properly settling on either side. For a film director who really only became prominent after he turned 40, he leaves behind a legacy and and a catalogue of works that represent the possibilities and beauty of the cinema as a medium.
Altman was the type of director who only did the type of projects that he wanted to do, and never let a studio run or ruin his films. Not quite a spit-in-the-face fuck-you’ type of attitude that might be seen today as rebellious, the very fact that Altman’s career lasted as long as it did was a testament to his insistence on making his films his own. And in Hollywood, that’s way more hardcore than anything the Sex Pistols ever did.
Of course, Altman had a few duds and a fair number of films that slipped through the cracks. But his good films far outshine them, and display his own love for the cinema; the films Altman makes seem to be the same types of films he would want to see. Moreover, he was able to work in just about every genre while maintaining an unflinching feel of Americana that permeated his work in ways that sometimes really irked the commerciality of Hollywood cinema. However, this was where he felt most comfortable; his films were not made with moneymaking in mind, and in fact, in the thirty-five years worth of films following 1970’s M*A*S*H, none of his films ever grossed more than that breakthrough hit. He worked with various different studios willing to take risks that often paid off more with credibility than bankability, and that was what was so punk rock about him, he made films for the love of it, not for the fame and fortune. He was the anti-American dream, rejecting possibilities to direct blockbusters in favour of obscure and marginal pieces that suited his vision.
Some of Altman’s films may well be hard to digest, as he is very much a filmmaker for fans of cinema, rather than popular movies. Others have remarked that that his films shift in style and topic so frequently that it would be far-fetched to call him an auteur. However, it was his attention to details, be they forays into neo-realism or surreal fantasy, they echoed the entire history of cinema, and of American popular culture as a whole. Altman played around with background sound and mise-en-scene in ways that explored the entire world his film would create; as well, he would use techniques like the decentralization of characters and constantly moving cameras to create filmic space and diegesis unlike any other American filmmakers before him. Altman’s films were occasionally categorized as foreign films because of their utter dissimilarity of the popular films of any era he worked in.
Essentially, Altman was the punk rock filmmaker. The new era of independent directors of the late 1980s and 1990s followed in his footsteps using him as a guideline for making cinematic art without conforming to capitalist parameters and guidelines. And he did it all with a calm demeanour and a positive attitude, always appearing intelligent and poignant in interviews. But his films essentially speak for themselves.
If there are only 5 Altman films you need to see, I’ll list them in order of personal preference and importance to his oeuvre and to film in general.
1. Nashville (1975) Altman’s grand opus about the American Bicentennial, country music, and the intersecting lives of 24 people during a 5 day span, is a social satire that can be seen as a cross section of the U.S. and the people within it. At a running time of almost 3 hours, and with a varied cast with no lead actor, this was Altman’s attempt to bring his cinematic vision to a country that had more or less ignored him since M*A*S*H. A critical triumph and a box-office failure, this stands as my all-time favourite movie simply for the way it is so brilliantly crafted, as a mosaic of music, comedy, relationships, and alcohol blanketed over one of America’s most interesting cities. Most people will tell you that this film is filled with way too much country music, but the songs, written by the actors who performed them, are essential to the framework in which Altman paints such a delicate and detailed portrait of not just his two dozen characters, but the nature of anyone and everyone.
2. Three Women (1977) With one of the most amazingly chilling soundtracks I’ve heard, this is Altman’s aesthetically compelling tribute to the dream-like films of Ingmar Bergman and his followers. It’s one of those films that is so bizarre that you can’t stop watching, that is so funny but you don’t know why, that is so unrealistic that it has to be true. Where Nashville was expansive and vast, this is a relatively simple movie, but one that is anything but straightforward.
3. Short Cuts (1993) In many ways, his most obvious follow-up to Nashville’s ensemble approach, the film is another decentralized look at a group of everyday Los Angeles residents whose lives somehow intersect with one another. It could almost be a TV mini-series with its over 3 hour runtime, but its design is thoroughly cinematic. With one of the most interesting casts I’ve seen, this is one that should not be neglected.
4. M*A*S*H (1970) One of cinema’s all-time classics, and one of the most significant anti-war films. The film is both funny and poignant, and entirely unconventional. When it was released in 1970, executives were worried about its decided non-American approach; its style and approach have most of their roots in foreign cinemas. Considered by many as one of the funniest films ever, anyone who hasn’t actually seen M*A*S*H, whether in its cinematic form or in the eleven season television series, has clearly been living in a cave for too long.
5. Gosford Park (2001) If you need further proof that Altman didn’t slow down or lose any of his talent as he aged, look at his beautifully crafted murder mystery that once again uses his tendency towards a lack of a central character, various ongoing plotlines, and a wonderfully talented cast. If you look closely, during this film, the camera is never set motionless; it keeps moving even if some of the dinner party guests don’t.
The Long Goodbye (1973) A rather unusual approach to the Philip Marlowe character that Humphrey Bogart made gamous
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) One of the most beautifully captured westerns ever.
Secret Honor (1984) Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in a compelling one-man film performance.
The Player (1992) A clever and poignant take on Hollywood, chock full of brilliant cameos and cinematic references.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006) What is ultimately Altman’s swan song is another strong showing that captures elements of all of his previous films, and a great note to end on.
Robert Altman, my idol, my hero, may you rest in peace, and may your films never be forgotten.