I was first exposed to the work of Robert Altman, whose 81st birthday it is today, at around age four or five, and I, of course, had no idea I had been exposed at all. Altman, who rose from the world of Kansas City industrial filmmaking to direct episodic television in the mid 1950s and the 1960s, was responsible for some of the episodes of Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Combat! that I soaked up during those formative years. Though he fought the networks regarding the style and content of the episodes of the shows that he directed, it's probable that in retrospect only Combat!, with its eye and ear for the verisimilitude of wartime engagement and focus on the camaraderie of the men under the direct command of Lt. Gil Hanley (Rick Jason) and Sgt. Vince Saunders (Vic Morrow), stands much of a chance of bearing anything of Robert Altman's recognizable stamp. But by the time I was 10 years old I was already on my way toward kindling a voracious appetite for movies, and I was well aware of a movie called M*A*S*H, with its strange two-legged, helmeted peace sign ad campaign.
M*A*S*H was perhaps my first "movie crush," that is, a movie I obsessed over through the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian and occasionally, if the local Rexall drugstore received their Sunday copies on time, The San Francisco Chronicle, with no real prospect, at such a young age, of ever seeing it during its theatrical run (other movie crushes I would eventually develop included Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Straw Dogs and The Godfather). It was through that obsession with every detail, every piece of information I could glean from newspapers and magazines regarding M*A*S*H, that I became familiar with the name Pauline Kael, whose rave review was regularly blurbed in M*A*S*H's print ads. It's also how I came to know the name Robert Altman, and because of his association with this movie he automatically, in my mind, became a director worth following. My hometown movie palace, the Alger, played both the R-rated original release and the slightly edited PG re-release of the film, but I missed them both. I don't think I ever actually saw M*A*S*H in any form until it aired on CBS sometime around 1974, when I was 14 years old-- it premiered on a Friday night, and I deemed the event important enough to warrant skipping out on performing in the high school pep band at a football game in order to stay home and see it. (I would discover, come Monday morning, that my band instructor did not share myenthusiasm for the movie or my decision.) And unless my memory is failing me, I don't believe the Alger played another Altman film after M*A*S*H, including McCabe and Mrs. Miller, until Nashville. I still knew about them all, however, thanks to the Portland and San Francisco movie pages. Yet it would fall to my college days to catch up with pre-1975 Altman and begin to understand why he would become, and remain to this day, such an important figure in my development as a reasonably intelligent and demanding viewer of film.
This year, one of the only compelling reasons for me to keep an eye on the Academy Awards will be the awarding of an honorary Oscar to Robert Altman. It's going to be one of those "thanks for the memories" kind of affairs, honoring a director who, by all rights, should already have at least three or four of the statuettes with his name etched on them, and who is generally perceived as heading into the darkening twilight of his career. Insurance questions abounded on the set of his latest (and some speculate perhaps his last) film, A Prairie Home Companion, and kindred spirit Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) was a constant presence on the set, just in case the 80-year-old director for some reason could not carry on. And whenever a film luminary is the recipient of this kind of honor, it's kind of hard to miss the underlying subtext: you might be gone a month from now, so you'd better accept the Academy honor while you can. Undoubtedly, the irony of such a warm and public embrace by the same Hollywood establishment that couldn't have been more indifferent to him as the praise for Nashville curdled into the insulated "failures" of Buffalo Bill and the Indians and 3 Women, will not be lost on the director, who has been known to cherish a bitter irony or two over his long career. (For a quick lesson in our changing times, just try to imagine an studio executive in 2006 having box office expectations of any kind for a movie like Nashville.) But as Altman himself has said of his impending honor, in a way this kind of Oscar is more befitting a director who always claimed to love his most wayward children best (Brewster McCloud, A Wedding) and who might honestly rather have an award that encompassed both the wayward and the celebrated, the great (Nashville, California Split, The Long Goodbye), the good (The Player) and the ghastly (Quintet, A Perfect Couple). For Altman, it will undoubtedly be a night of mixed emotions-- reflection on and acknowledgment of a great career, mixed with a kind of nonchalance straight out of his dalliance with Raymond Chandler ("It's okay with me.")
To celebrate this great director's birthday and upcoming honor, I wanted to gather some brief recollections and comments on each of Altman's films that I've seen together with a couple of excellent links to other posts and articles that will hopefully round out this tribute in a more satisfying way. I point you first to Terrence Rafferty's overview of the director's career from this morning's New York Times. Rafferty paints a vivid portrait of why Altman mattered in the early '70s, why he continued to matter in the dark days of the '80s even when his output was scaled down and much more difficult to seek out, and why he continues to matter, to directors who cite him as an influence, and to audiences who may not even be aware of how his experiments in multiple storylines and overlapping dialogue have influenced (to the good and the bad) the direction of film and television storytelling, from Hill Street Blues through ER and beyond. The folks at IFCTV Blog filed a report from the Berlin Film Festival last week rounding up the general reaction to A Prairie Home Companion. And finally, a link to the Berlin Film Festival site where you can watch streaming video of the arrival of Altman and cast members on the red carpet, as well as the Prairie Home Companion press conference.
And now, some brief thoughts of my own on each of Altman's films (thanks to Edward Copeland for the inspiration):
M*A*S*H (1970) The sanctimonious sitcom was already two years old by the time I finally caught up with a CBS-sanitized version of Altman's biggest hit. It was one of many Altman films that I wouldn't see unexpurgated, or at all, until my college days, and it's always been one with which I've had a love/hate (or love/dislike) relationship. I've always loved its shaggy improvisatory aesthetic and its caustic humor, but that causticity here often merges with a progressive's particular brand of intolerance-- here, for spiritual belief, whether sincerely or hypocritically undertaken, or for anyone else who doesn't knuckle under to the iconoclastic impulses of its main antiheroes, Trapper John and Hawkeye. M*A*S*H is a hilarious, maddening movie that proves stubborn intolerance is not the exclusive province of the self-righteous right, that social and political liberals can be boors and bullies too.
BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970) A bizarre and effervescent freedom-through-flight fantasy that sealed some of Altman's stylistic tropes and even prefigured some of the thematic concerns (as well as visual and aural ones) that would flower in Nashville. I first saw this in a 16mm anamorphic print that was squeezed into a 1.33 aspect ratio, rendering the already fanciful movie a funhouse version of itself, and despite this visual bastardization I still loved it. To this day I cannot see Rene Auberjoinois in anything without thinking of him slowly mutating into an ostrich-like creature over the course of this movie. Where's the DVD, MGM/Sony?
McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) My first encounter with this allegedly visually beautiful movie came on late-night TV somewhere around 1979. My second run at it came about a year later, in anamorphic 16mm (this time unsqueezed to at least an approximation of 2.35), in an echo-y university lecture hall. Now you see why I say "allegedly visually beautiful," because I still don't feel like I've ever had a satisfying look at this movie. And I can't really say I've heard it either. As for why I haven't yet rented the allegedly beautiful DVD, I have no excuse. I pledge to do so before the end of this year, because my diaphanous, amorphous impressions of this movie, already a fairly diaphanous work itself, need to be unified, pulled together, understood. It's one of the only great movies I've seen that's so ethereal and unformed in my memory it's in danger of evaporating.
IMAGES (1972) The first of Altman's art puzzle movies, which would come to greatest expression with 3 Women and then explode with Quintet two years later. I remember virtually nothing substantial about this movie, having seen it only once 26 years ago, except that I found its tinkling crystal visual motif annoying (this from a film student who was usually far too easily seduced by similarly obvious visual ideas used by other directors). I remember vague dread looking out at English landscapes shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, and bearish Hugh Millais coming to some sort of grisly end. Again, there's absolutely no excuse for my having not revisited this movie. See my pledge re McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) Being unable to speak as much for McCabe as yet, this is, in my estimation, Altman's first masterpiece, a lyrical, cynical, sentimental, hip and in some circles blasphemous updating of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Elliot Gould, his star already on the wane, would come, through this one performance, to some kind of lasting cinematic impression through the refashioning of Hollywood icons (both Marlowe and Bogie) that would counteract his dwindling counterculture credibility and box-office stature. Finally, Altman's free-floating sensibility finds perfect expression in this funky and live, scrupulously moral revisionist tribute to Chandler's sun-baked mean streets. In 1993 I was privileged to hear Altman speak (when moderator Michael Wilmington would let him get a word in edgewise, that is) before a screening of this film at UCLA. Afterward, I spoke briefly to the director and was able to express my appreciation for what his films, particularly this one and Nashville, have meant to me over the years. He was gracious, even though he had probably heard similar sentiments far too many times for them to hold much real meaning for him anymore, and I sensed he was grateful I wasn't shoving a script at him or trying to engage him in some impromptu critical debate. He signed an old copy of Films In Review and that was that-- the conclusion to one of the great move-going experiences of my life.
THIEVES LIKE US (1974) Up until seeing this film, my most vivid impressions of Shelley Duvall were those multicolored knee socks and the gold wig she wore in Nashville, and the unforgettable moment when she bends over a railing, vomits, and then plants an open-mouthed smacker on Bud Cort in Brewster McCloud. It was seeing her in this evocative, observant drama that made me decide she was, for a time, my favorite actress. This is a movie even someone unconvinced of Altman's stature as a film artist could find revealing, moving, evocative, powerful. Once again, time for another screening. I'm beginning to think this upcoming Altman Oscar is going to set me on a path of rediscovery of some of real treasures in the coming year, and this is definitely one of them. Another masterpiece.
CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) Like M*A*S*H, I got my first exposure to this underrated classic (dare it say it-- masterpiece number three?) via the ABC Sunday Night Movie, and that was it, for about 20 years. It was even skipped over in the Altman retrospective my film professor assembled during my senior year at Oregon, due to some lame rental snafu. I didn't see it again until my wife and I caught up with it on a double feature with The Parallax View at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about 10 years ago, and it bowled me over with its nonchalant, shambling air of desperation and compulsion, and the huckster's comedy that it wrung out of both. Elliot Gould and George Segal amplify the kind of glancing humor that was by now a hallmark of Altman's signature style into a brilliantly downbeat buddy comedy. And the sonic experimentalism of Altman's previous films came to true fruition on California Split's pioneering multi-track stereo soundtrack, which allowed Altman the freedom to manipulate the levels of overlapping conversation for the first time, highlighting what he wanted you hear in what might before have been just a roomful of wallah and ambient noise.
NASHVILLE (1975) Nashville was the first Robert Altman film I ever saw in a theater, and for three of four years afterward it was emblematic of the kind of cinema my friends and I actively disregarded-- that is, anything that didn't resemble the typical Hollywood product. But while subsequent exposure to other Altman films during those three or four years (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women, A Wedding, Quintet) didn't exactly soften me to the director's approach, they did at least provide me with some context beyond what I'd been able to glean from my limited exposure to network versions of M*A*S*H and California Split. Sometime in 1979 I felt compelled to see Nashville again, and I came away with a completely different experience, one of unabashed enthusiasm that I can explain only by saying that I simply wasn't ready, at 15 years of age, to see Nashville, for it to be my first real experience with a Robert Altman film. And, to paraphrase an oft-quoted cafe owner, it was the start of a beautiful, sometimes frustrating, always worthwhile friendship with the director's movies. By the time I next encountered Nashville, as part of a university class devoted to the director's work, I was so excited to see it again that I took in all three of the available screenings to students of the class-- one at 7:00 a.m., another at 1:00 p.m., and a final one with the whole class at 7:00 p.m. By the end of that day I was as exhilarated and exhausted as I'd ever been because of an encounter with a single film, and my mind was buzzing with connections to styles and other art forms that I'd never thought to make before. My collegiate experience with Nashville, I think it can truly be said, was a crucial key to my understanding of what films could really be, what they could do, and to some extent what they couldn't do as well. For 25 years Nashville remained, unquestioningly, my favorite film, and if it no longer holds the top rank, it only misses by one or two spots. It's a revolutionary collage of American dreams and destruction that quite nearly created a whole new sense of how community could be looked at in a film. And it is, quintessentially, what I think of when I think of a Robert Altman film.
(Next: Altman in the shadow of Nashville, the dark forest of the '80s, and his return to prominence in the '90s.)