Friday, June 1, 2007

Robert Altman tribute (from the old Funhouse blog), with clip

Here is the Deceased Artiste tribute that ran on the old Funhouse blog.

Exit One Giant: Deceased Artiste Robert Altman

I can’t really remember the exact moment that I became a hardcore cultist for Robert Altman’s work. The nearest I can place it was a screening at either the Carnegie Hall Cinema or the aptly named Mini Cinema (I went to see these pictures over and over again — pre-video days, you understand) of Three Women, a film that was as revelatory to me as Breathless when I was a budding cinephile. Over the years that followed, I checked out his “back catalogue” and found that I liked even the films the critics drubbed and the public stayed away from in droves (except for Beyond Therapy, which I still find a pretty bitter pill to swallow). There are the peaks (and they aren’t just in the 1970s — Short Cuts is one of his strongest-ever works and it was made in 1994) and there are indeed valleys (exemplified for me not by the films that everyone disliked, like Quintet or Popeye, but the films where he would do a “follow-up” ensemble piece after a hit — witness A Wedding and H.E.A.L.T.H., or Ready to Wear, which works almost on a scene-by-scene basis). Overall, though, the world Altman created will be plumbed through for a long, long time to come.

He will of course be best remembered as being a senior-ranking member of the “maverick” school of the 1970s, the post-Easy Rider/pre-Star Wars group of filmmakers who made singularly brilliant, challenging films under the Hollywood studio system. The thing I valued about his career as it proceeded was that, unlike the other members of that group, he never chose to make mainstream Hollywood pictures (read: thought Leonardo DiCaprio could act), or gave up the ghost and stopped making films (Coppola), or simply disappeared into the woodwork (Rafelson). Altman kept making movies, kept coming up with projects, kept producing superior culture and entertainment (extended to theater and opera), even when he had most certainly lost his cachet in Hollywood. His reinvention as the director of theatrical films in the early 1980s was nothing short of extraordinary, and his one-off projects, titles like Vincent and Theo, were the kinds of things some minor arthouse directors could’ve constructed an entire career around. He was, and will remain, a major American artist, whose reputation I believe will grow and grow. More than likely the boring and shortsighted “the Seventies films are best” viewpoint will continue for a while to come, but as happened with John Cassavetes, I can’t help but think that the force of his vision — particularly the imaginative, consistent nature of it, especially in odder projects such as the “dream films” (Images, Quintet and the unbelievably perfect Three Women) — will secure his reputation as quite possibly the seminal American director of the latter part of the 20th century. When stacked up against his peers — even the ones who did produce undisputed masterpieces — Altman still seems to me to be one of the most consistently brilliant and uncompromising film artists this country has ever produced, despite his own frequent self-deprecating claims in interviews that he simply let the actors construct the films.

I encountered the gentleman all of three times, the first two times in “signing” circumstances where I got his autograph, extended compliments, and asked a very arcane trivia question (namely, would we ever see an official release of his early short films and his fucking amazingly-Sixties Scopitone?). The third time around was this past Halloween, at the Museum of Television and Radio, where he spoke about A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. I approached and did the “pitch,” inquiring about whether or not he’d be available to do an interview. I had done the publicity mill for the theatrical release of Prairie and had been turned down flat, even for the usual 6-8 minutes in the room trying to get the person to not spit out the same canned answers. I was glad I did the pitch, even though his demeanor didn’t indicate that he wanted to ever be interviewed again. He had done what was perhaps his most in-depth talk with a British journalist, which resulted in the book, Altman on Altman, but had seemed somewhat evasive or merely charming and sometimes maddeningly imprecise in the answers he supplied in the American TV and DVD interviews I’d seen him give in the years since his “comeback” with The Player (the reasons the above-mentioned book works so well: he gave excellent print interviews, and the interviewer in this case was British; an untoward amount of artists seem to give better interviews to journalists from countries that are not their own). The evening at MTR was a special one (quite possibly Altman’s last public appearance) that I provided an account of for the Video Business blog run by my friend/editor Laurence Lerman; the link for that piece is here.

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The clip above comes from a very rare TV talk show, a 1981 edition of the show Signature produced for CBS arts cable (and yes, the show does look like SCTV’s “Extreme Close Up” talk show parody). The interview was done at the point he has broken with Hollywood and is entering his “theatrical” phase, and is quite interesting as result, since this as a period he was definitely not going to be appearing on commercial television (that said, outside of Cavett, Costas, and Charlie Rose, when the hell was he ever invited onto TV interview shows?). I will continue to argue about “Why Altman Matters” — to steal a page from Pete Hamill and many other journalists who’ve answered that question about other artists — on the Funhouse in the weeks and definitely the months to come.

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