Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ten reasons why Robert Altman is *the* great modern American filmmaker

The best Xmas gift for film buffs in NYC this winter is MoMA's comprehensive festival of the work of Robert Altman, who is arguably the great modern American filmmaker. The festival includes all of his theatrical features, some of his best television work, and early rarities, from the industrial films made in Kansas City to his tongue-in-cheek Scopitones.

Viewers of the Funhouse TV show will know that I'm a diehard fan and student of Altman's work, thus my attempts to keep up with which of his titles are debuting or being “upgraded” on DVD and Blu-ray (see my reviews here, here, and here).

The last comprehensive Altman retro took place at the Museum of the Moving Image back in the early Nineties. In that case the rarities were grouped together into two or three programs; the MoMA program has distributed them throughout the retro, pairing each rarity with a feature film thus the cultist has the dilemma of whether to revisit an Altman feature in order to catch a 4- to 20-minute super-rarity (read: items that have near to zero chance of appearing on a DVD).

A few key rarities have already played in the festival but there are plenty more to come in the next month. The most notable are the shorts “Pot au Feu” and “The Kathryn Altman Story,” “Precious Blood” (half of the “2 by South” program that was Altman's first recorded piece of theater), a segment from a Dinah! episode about A Wedding, and Jazz '34.

For those who are newcomers to Altman's work, there are several films that serve as perfect introductions to his style. A short list would have to include Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, Three Women (the film that drew me in), Secret Honor, Vincent and Theo, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. I am one of those who really loves O.C. and Stiggs (1987), but realize it works best for those of us who dislike teen movies as much as Altman did.

But now onto the “listicle,” since that bite-sized manner of distilling complicated or detailed information seems to be the preferred way to reach the Net reader. I'm not overly fond of it, and I suspect Altman didn't love it either.

In any case, there are many individuals who could be called “the great American filmmaker” of post-1965 cinema. The most likely figures are trailblazers/geniuses like Kubrick, Cassavetes, Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Lynch (who was seen on the Oscars, right, telling Altman "you should've won" when Ron Howard beat both of them for Best Director), and (least fave) Spielberg. Others, like Woody Allen, Spike Lee, the Coens, Tim Burton, Clint Eastwood, and Tarantino have made certain films that remain influential. Many independent and “underground” trendsetters changed the face of cinema (Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, to cite just two), but their films were never widely distributed.

Altman’s position is thus very unique in “the Pantheon” one wonders if Andrew Sarris would have granted him entry, but we’ll never know, as Sarris never updated his hierarchy of American filmmakers after 1968. Right after Nixon became president, Altman solidified his distinct visual style, crafted his films in a highly unique way, and stayed true to his own vision of the world, which permeated everything from socially conscious political commentaries to out-and-out frame-filled farces.

With this list of elements I’m not saying that Altman was better than Kubrick, Cassavetes, Coppola, et al. Instead, I would maintain that he was a filmmaking genius on their level, but his work combined so many different elements that he qualifies as the ultimate modern American filmmaker. Argue and comment if you’d care to. On with the list!

1.) He was an incredibly versatile filmmaker. Altman made comedies, dramas, crime films, musicals, westerns, science fiction, thrillers, military dramas, and uncategorizable “dream films.” The phrase “revisionist” has often been slapped onto his well-regarded Seventies features (which have been the most revived of his films; a few years back a local rep house programmed a much smaller “Altman’s Seventies” retro); he did indeed rework and comment upon classic genres in his genre pics.

2.) There’s an incredible consistency in his work. As I noted in my recent obit for Mike Nichols, a filmmaker should always have a “signature,” a thematic and stylistic identity that runs through their work. From That Cold Day in the Park (1969) to A Prairie Home Companion (2006), Altman created a series of films, TV movies, and plays that all possessed the same “signature.”

3.) He was frequently bashed by the American critical establishment. Both Cassavetes and Altman received wildly negative reviews for some of their best work. Their soldiering on in spite of these bad reviews was one of the reasons they are so significant today, when critics run to throw garlands at the feet of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and others from their first film onward. I believe the bad reviews they faced made Altman and Cassavetes stronger and more determined filmmakers as a result.

4.) He worked within the major studios, while fighting against them. In interviews Altman never hesitated to criticize the studio chieftans, and yet he was talented (and lucky) enough to work for the majors for a significant part of his career.
The fact that he made The Player (1992) with industry money was a spectacular “fuck you” to Hollywood. When the studios did refuse to work with him, he obtained funding wherever he could, from French and British production companies to game show mogul Mark Goodson (Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean).

5.) He had a distinct visual style. One of the most important aspects of Altman’s work is his visual style. In his films, the camera probes, explores, and pirouettes around the characters. To him a zoom shot serves not only to underline a character’s behavior, but also to isolate him/her from the crowd bustling around them. Altman was a “ringmaster” in a sense (see the end of Brewster McCloud) and his crowd sequences are bravura moments where identities are conveyed in the flash of an instant.

His work with audio was also revolutionary. One of the key elements in his mythology is that he was fired from TV assignments and the movie Countdown (1968) for having characters talk over each other. He often noted that he didn't create this technique – it had been used in the screwball comedies of the Thirties (Hawks loved doing it), and Welles employed it a number of times. When Altman used it, it both simulated and mocked reality — the viewer hears what he/she needs to hear and loses the rest of the noise. His films are indeed “immersive” experiences.

6.) He allowed his actors to improvise. While modern masters Cassavetes and Mike Leigh used the rehearsal period for improvisation to build their characters from scratch, Altman allowed his actors to improvise on-camera, especially in crowd scenes.

Some of the most memorable lines and physical bits of business were created by Altman’s cast members while the camera was rolling. When I interviewed Karen Black (see below), she proudly noted that her best remembered line in Nashville (about Julie Christie, “she can’t even comb her hair”) was something she came up with on the spot.

7.) He didn’t shy away from political messages. Many of Altman’s film tackled American politics, some openly (Nashville, Secret Honor), other more covertly (Thieves Like Us, Streamers, Short Cuts).

Altman’s finest comments on American politics were the Tanner '88 (1988) and Tanner on Tanner (2004) series. Scripted by Garry Trudeau, the Tanner shows spotlighted the negotiations and the compromises that drive American politics. The final plot point of Tanner on Tanner goes straight to the heart of the Democratic party’s standard operating principal: compromise must triumph over integrity.

8.) He “belonged” to different generations. Although Altman was 45 when he had his breakthrough with M*A*S*H* in 1970, his renegade sensibility meshed perfectly with the youth culture of the time, though, as evidenced by that film and his next, the wonderfully odd Brewster McCloud.

Throughout his career, Altman showed an affinity for things from his own era — the jazz in Short Cuts and Kansas City, and the radio shows in Thieves Like Us and A Prairie Home Companion. He also embraced new innovations (super 16mm, digital video), while telling stories that perfectly reflected the disillusionment felt in the youth culture of the Seventies.

9.) He never pandered to adolescent and kiddie viewers. At this moment Hollywood is a machine that cranks out copious amounts of multiplex crap aimed at teens and kids. Altman proudly noted in interviews and in his DVD audio commentaries that he added curses to his films to make certain that teens weren’t allowed to see them. He was not a Spielbergian sentimentalist who believed in crafting family-friendly fiction that plays on the heartstrings.

The only film he made that could be called a kiddie movie was Popeye (1980), which is actually a strange fantasy that entertains adults more than children. His sole “teen movie” is O.C. and Stiggs, a film that mocks teenage behavior and, again, eschews the sentimentality of John Hughes to create an Altmanesque universe inhabited by a variety of weird characters.

10.) He drew inspiration from other art forms and other cultures. Altman was a filmmaker first and foremost, but he also directed stage plays and operas. His filmed plays were experiments in blending theatrical and cinematic techniques, while some of his best “later” works are centered around fine art (Vincent and Theo), literature (Short Cuts), opera (his short piece for Aria and the PBS special “The Real McTeague”), and modern dance (The Company).

Although most of his films coalesce to form an incredible “tapestry” of American life, he set later features in the U.K. and Europe when it became clear that overseas funding was easier to obtain than money from Hollywood. Thus his fashion industry satire Ready to Wear (1994) was set in Paris and his pitch-perfect British class-conscious drama and murder mystery, Gosford Park (2001), was set in an English country house.

And because any tribute to an iconoclast like Altman should have an oddly numbered list, I close out with an eleventh reason why he remains the great modern American filmmaker. Namely the fact that he produced a large body of work.

I revere Cassavetes’ eight personal films and Kubrick’s baker’s dozen of dark, grim masterworks, but Altman left behind an extraordinarily rich heritage (37 theatrical features from ’69 to 2006, plus many TV and stage projects) that can be explored from an infinite number of angles. If you haven’t seen them before, the majority of his films are blissfully unpredictable. If you are already initiated, the bulk of his films are eminently rewatchable.

Like a prolific novelist (or considering his love of Carver, short story writer), Altman left behind a significant body of work that will be “discovered” over and over again for a long time to come. 

The festival at MoMA will continue through Jan. 17.
NOTE: Some of the photos used in this entry came from the Tumblr blog “Fuck Yeah Robert Altman.” The blog has a deep trove of both images and links to recent articles about Altman. 

Some rare clips about and by Altman. First his Jan. 1972 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. This episode is found on the Shout! Factory “Hollywood Greats” Cavett box, and it’s fascinating to note that Cavett’s producers booked as examples of “young Hollywood” Altman (46 years old), Mel Brooks (45 years old), and Peter Bogdanovich (32 years old). The guest of honor, Frank Capra, has a more positive view of the major studios than Altman, who refers to them as morons.

I posted this slice of an interview from the arts-cable show Signature from 1981. Altman is brutally honest about why he is out of fashion in Hollywood. (“I’m tired of car crashes…”)

My interview with Karen Black, who spoke about working with Altman on the stage version of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean:

Some rarities from Altman’s many decades of work have surfaced on YouTube. The first film credited to Altman as director, an educational item called “Modern Football” (1951). You can see a news item about filmmaker Gary Huggins’ discovery of a print of this film here.

You can find a very shabby-lookin’copy of the silly but fun Corn’s-a-Poppin’(1956) on YT. Altman cowrote this low-budget country-music saga.

Something I’ve been waiting to see for a while, an episode from the 1961-’62 series Bus Stop. Altman directed the dark episode “The Lion Walks Among Us” starring Fabian.

Altman directed several Scopitones (music-videos made for film jukeboxes) for dough. This one features Bobby Troup singing “Girl Talk”:

For a long time this was was *the* Holy Grail for Altman collectors, a Scopitone he directed for an instrumental by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass called “Bittersweet Samba.” The film is called “The Party” (no connection to the Blake Edwards feature) in Altman filmographies:

When Altman suddenly became “hot” again in Hollywood circles, he was asked to direct films for ABC. True to form, he chose the most esoteric material possible, two short plays by Harold Pinter. The first one aired after Moonlighting; the second, “The Room,” to my memory aired on a Saturday night, tucked away at 10:00 p.m. ABC didn’t kill it, however. Film never dies.

Another item from Altman’s later TV career, an episode from the 1997 anthology series Gun personally directed by Altman (he was a producer of the series, which used as its conceit the fact that a particular gun was traveling from person to person):

A TV ad that Altman made for Parisienne cigarettes:

And, in closing, I’ll pick one scene from a wildly underrated Altman film. Here is a brilliant moment about creation, the artist, and madness from Vincent and Theo (1990):

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