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Cover Story: The Year in Film and Music: The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman leaves behind a singular body of work

By Jason Gargano · December 20th, 2006 · Cover Story
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  Robert Altman, whose career as a director spanned more than 50 years, died on Nov. 20.
Picturehouse Films

Robert Altman, whose career as a director spanned more than 50 years, died on Nov. 20.



From United 93 to Borat, the illusion of authenticity has been at the forefront of this year's best movies. In an era of reality TV, behind-the-scenes documentaries and pervasive Internet access to every subject imaginable, that essential film element -- the suspension of disbelief -- has never been under such severe attack.

I go to the movies to be transported into a parallel universe, one in which a film's ability to effectively suspend my disbelief only deepens the immersive possibilities of the experience. This "suspension" comes in many forms, and few directors have played with cinema's inherent illusions as compellingly as Robert Altman.

His wildly diverse movies revel in the small moments many filmmakers would discard or never possibly conjure -- they're full of unpredictable, seemingly spontaneous snatches of life rare in any art form, let alone one as "staged" as film. Most directors call attention to the fact that cinema is an illusion. Not Altman. He wants to capture something as close as possible to how real life is experienced, an interest powered by his impressionistic, almost existential approach to filmmaking.

The script is just a framework, a jumping off point for his actors to explore what's between the lines. While always a great lover of actors, Altman is often accused of having contempt for the characters that populate his sprawling ensemble films, but I find that notion off base: He's interested in the hardships of everyday life, the struggle to make something of one's existence in a ruthless, messy world.

By now most of you know that Altman succumbed to cancer on Nov. 20, an inevitable event that was bittersweet nonetheless. (Or maybe you don't know: My twentysomething intern had no clue who he was, a fact both sobering and oddly delightful.)

He was 81, and what an eight decades it was. Altman honed his singular, endlessly playful visions over the course of 35 or so feature films and too many television assignments to count.

His career as we came to know it blossomed with 1970's M*A*S*H -- at age 45 -- a film that introduced many of his signature, rules-busting techniques: fuzzy, overlapping dialogue delivered in so lifelike a fashion that one has trouble spotting the seams and an intuitive visual style rife with zooms and pans and languid shots that drift along drunk on the possibility that anything can happen at any time.

Atmosphere and character ruled, often to the detriment of conventional narrative and audience expectation.

His influence is everywhere these days, from the narrative gymnastics of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel to the immersive moodiness of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette to the playful subversions of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat.

My own experience with the director has been deep and lasting. Still a teenager, I vividly recall seeing The Player at the multiplex in 1992: It so thoroughly altered my view of movies that I could scarcely see the medium the same way again. By the time Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins as The Player's slick studio executive and titular character) utters the film's commentary on the state of Hollywood's business-driven approach -- "I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process; if we can just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we got something here" -- I was in complete ecstasy, a slave to Altman's subversive glee.

The Player's corrosive view of Hollywood was the perfect tonic for my blockbuster-weaned childhood, a moviemaking period that treasured spectacle and box-office numbers over all else. As I later came to learn, Altman's work was the antithesis of '80s cinema -- it was anti-spectacle, ceaselessly concerned with capturing truth in an era obsessed with big-budget escapism. It's no wonder the decade is considered Altman's "wilderness" period.

The Player was the first LaserDisc (remember them?) I purchased, another landmark in my movie-mad life. Its lush Criterion Collection presentation included a commentary track from Altman -- a contemporary revelation that's allowed intimate access not previously known -- which only added to my fascination with this insightful, wryly funny and wonderfully iconoclastic man. (Looking back, commentary tracks are a double-edged sword, one of the aforementioned attacks on the suspension of disbelief.)

I, of course, went on to devour his robust back catalogue, the results of which were often thrilling, sometimes baffling, always an experience.

M*A*S*H, his only real box-office hit, kick-started a magical run of 1970s films that cemented Altman's status as a unique, unpredictable talent. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville and 3 Women clearly benefited from the director's offbeat techniques.

Other efforts were not as successful -- the cost of such a chance-taking approach -- and all were a product of a decade in which the position of director ruled, one of the few times in American movie history in which significant budgets and bona fide "stars" were tied to personal, frequently challenging films. Altman flourished in this atmosphere, often coaxing career-best work from a diverse group of dedicated actors. (Proof? Check out Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, a blissfully subversive reworking of Raymond Chandler that features one of my all-time favorite opening sequences.)

The disastrous Popeye led to Altman's retreat from the spotlight in the 1980s, a rough patch in which many a director was set adrift amid the new, less artistically adventurous climate. (Funnily enough, it was the first Altman film I saw on the big screen, the result of a Saturday afternoon matinee with my dad and brother.)

Ever the survivor, Altman made the best of the decade, which included a few minor triumphs (Secret Honor, Vincent & Theo) and the now-prescient HBO series Tanner '88, a mockumentary about a presidential candidate (well played by Michael Murphy) that was the precursor to the current reality TV craze. Altman sometimes called it the best thing he ever did. Not quite, but it remains an intriguing document that signaled the decline of our political system into a series of staged sound bites.

The Player ushered in the director's second coming, a period in which actors flocked to his every new project, some of which ranked with his best work (Short Cuts, Gosford Park), all of which were gloriously out of step with the films surrounding them at the multiplex.

Back in June, I interviewed Altman for what would be his swan song, A Prairie Home Companion, a sweet, elegiac picture that in so many ways signed the end of an era. Sage and self-effacing, the familiar voice emanating through my phone sounded at peace with a career that will go down as one the more beguiling endeavors of the last half-century.

"My job is to create an environment where something real can happen," Altman said that day.

An example of "something real" is McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which remains my favorite Altman creation, a movie so unfathomably singular it's a wonder it even exists. Warren Beatty has never been better as the ambitious but endearingly inept small-time gambler McCabe. Tender and remarkably unguarded, his performance is a testament to Altman's nurturing creative atmosphere.

Likewise, Julie Christie (Beatty's then-lover on screen and off) is surprisingly at home amid the scuzzy, 19th-century frontier of the Pacific Northwest so effectively rendered by Altman and his inventive cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The use of Leonard Cohen's spare, melancholy songs only add to the film's affecting impact.

Deeply evocative of its milieu, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a pungent portrayal of ungraspable aspirations, the perfect encapsulation of Altman's long career. The film is as McCabe says: "I got poetry in me."

The same can be said of Robert Altman. ©

 
 
 
 

 

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