Robert Altman taught me how to see movies, and I went into his classroom kicking and screaming. As a young kid keeping up with film culture largely from the sidelines, I became obsessed, at an age far too young to actually see the movie, with Altman’s 1970 hit M*A*S*H. I read as much as I could about it— one or two reviews and the occasional newspaper article were about all I could get my hands on, but I did smuggle Richard Hooker’s novel, on which the movie was based, into my junior high locker and read it surreptitiously, voraciously. I wouldn’t see M*A*S*H in its theatrical release—I was even denied access to the slightly recut PG-rated version that bowed a few years later in re-release. The first time I actually saw M*A*S*H was when it aired on the CBS Friday Night Movie, back in the days when bowdlerized version of theatrical hits premiering on TV were mini-events of their own. It was panned-and-scanned (again, back in the days when regular citizens really had no idea what cropping movies for TV was), broken up into bits to accommodate commercials, its profanity and nudity and blood sanitized for my protection. And yet I still laughed my ass off, because I was finally getting to see some version of the film.
Even as I became more and more film aware in my high school days, vacuuming up every movie I could get in front of my eyes in my isolated Southern Oregon hometown, and familiarizing myself with directors and films that I knew had little or no chance of ever being shown on TV or in the local movie theater, I watched from afar as Altman unleashed Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, California Split and Thieves Like Us, helping to shape and populate what many would come to consider one of the golden ages of American cinema. I knew of the movies from the usual sources, and I had ran across a couple of Pauline Kael’s reviews thumbing through The New Yorker in the county library, but not a single one of Altman’s early ‘70s pictures after M*A*S*H played in my hometown.Then came the summer of 1975. Kael’s famous (in some circles, infamous) rave for Nashville paved the way for its studio, Paramount, to expect a big hit. And although the movie was a high-profile release that garnered similarly moonstruck reviews from almost every critic, in box-office terms the movie did not, as Kael put it, zoom off into the stratosphere. Another picture, released a week later, did instead—it was called Jaws. I was 15 years old, and that was the movie I wanted to see. Nashville, a movie about which I barely had an understanding, in terms of “plot” or anything else that might conceivably hook me into it, could wait.
And wait it did. Later, during the winter of that year, Nashville came to town and so my buddies and I decided to go see what all the pomp and circumstance was all about. We were all flummoxed by the movie’s loose-limbed approach to narrative—who can keep up with all these people and their comings and goings? I thought it looked lousy (and really, for a great movie, I still think its cinematography is rarely more than pedestrian) and it had this vague air of self-satisfaction about it that kept me at arm’s length and really turned me off. And we all made the assumption that making a movie about life, and seeing a movie about life, was the same thing as experiencing life—so why pay $5 to go see some country singer clip her toenails and then get shot, or watch a bunch of redneck show business types run around, bumping into each other for nearly three hours, when you could walk outside the theater and see it for free? (In answer to a question recently posed by Matt Zoller Seitz, it had obviously not occurred to me that Nashville was, in any way, choreographed or directed.) Clearly, at age 15, I had not seen enough of this real life I was on my soapbox about to understand what was going on in Nashville. In fact, I hated the movie.
At age 17 I was off to college as a declared film studies major, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by people who loved to say words like “Altmanesque” and who seemed to think that Altman was the greatest American film director. How could the guy who made Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, a more boring, pretentious piece of crap than even Nashville, be America’s greatest director? I would see Nashville again on ABC-TV the following year, but where the iconoclasm and spirit of M*A*S*H managed to shine through network TV’s attempts to snip it away, Nashville seemed cramped and uncomfortable and even more incomprehensible on the Sunday Night Movie.Two more years would pass, years during which I began to stretch a little bit of the hometown cocoon out of my hair and off my back and learn a little bit about life’s demands and disappointments (all in the context of the relatively protected university setting, of course). I had finally seen a few things and been through a few things and learned about a lot of things that were uncomfortable, disturbing, challenging to my smug assurance that I knew so very much about films and music and the way people interacted with each other, the way the world turned. Then one night my best friend announced that he had been reading about Nashville and wanted to see it again, this time on the big screen. (His first encounter had been that muddied-up ABC version.) So off to the cinema we went.
I remember coming out of the revival house where we’d just seen the movie feeling like I was walking on air. This movie, which had so confused and infuriated and repelled me over the last four years, suddenly seemed different—wise, rich, complex, rewarding, perplexing, but in a way which seemed to invite me to swim in the vastness of its canvas, a canvas that seemed to encompass everything that I found equally fascinating and daunting and miraculous and horrifying about the country in which I lived. I was enthralled by Nashville, from the spinning record album and hollow huckster tone of the mock- KTel ad campaign that made up its opening title sequence, all the way through the climactic and devastating assassination, and one desperate soul who seizes her chance and rallies the stunned crowd, mass witness to murder, with a song of either haunting apathy or blind optimism (depending on how you look at it), all before the camera pans up from the stage, which is draped with a giant American flag, to the sky, the song still ringing out long after the image has disappeared. Seeing Nashville with open eyes for the first time was equivalent to having the world opened up to me for the first time. It was like suddenly being able to see the concurrent patterns and streams of thought and impulse and irrational behavior and calculated behavior and emotion and desire and political machinations and corrosion and self-destruction and bliss of everyday experience all at once, and to be able to begin to understand the meaning that part of it, or all of it, could have in any given moment. If one movie could grant me this kind of clarity of vision, or at least the license to pursue the investigation of a vision and understand how deeply that vision could permeate a soul, whether the viewer’s or the director’s, then I knew I absolutely must begin to get familiar with Robert Altman’s work as a whole. I’d seen Three Women and A Wedding and Quintet in theatrical release, and in the fall of 1980, my senior year at the University of Oregon, as if by providence, my film professor ran an entire term of Altman films, starting with M*A*S*H and going all the way up through Three Women, to be capped by that year’s Christmas release of Popeye. It was, needless to say, a revelatory experience, and I’ve seen most of those films three, four, five, ten times again since then. And the day that the professor screened Nashville, I was there for the 7:00 a.m. preview screening and the midday preview screening, both held for students who could not make the regularly scheduled 7:00 p.m. evening screening. And I was there at 7:00 p.m. too. No movie I’d already seen ever looked the same to me again after seeing Nashville, and every movie I saw after these screenings, and I mean every movie, I would see through the prism of Altman’s great, pulsating, vibrating, living and breathing vision of this country.
I was lucky enough to speak to Robert Altman once, at a screening of The Long Goodbye on the UCLA campus in 1992, just a couple of months before The Player was released and sent him along on yet another career revival. I went with a friend who had given me a copy of the old magazine Films In Review which had a picture of Altman on its cover, taken on the set of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. After the film was finished, critic Michael Wilmington hosted a Q-and-A that lasted about a half hour, during which he raised the ire of the crowd more than once by being a bit too loquacious at the expense of the director, who sat in silence while Wilmington opined. After the Q-and-A, Altman stayed down front and received several visitors, many of whom had scripts in their hands, with good humor and patience. My friend poked me in the ribs and encouraged me to head down the stairs, and after a few moments I finally did, magazine in hand. When I finally got to the floor I waited behind several others in front of me, trying to compose what I was going to say in my head while simultaneously trying to eavesdrop on the conversations he was having with the others in line. Finally it was my turn. Those piercing blue eyes looked up at me as I offered the magazine to him. “Could you sign this, please?” I asked, and he rather pleasantly replied, “Sure!” And then, after all my spontaneous rehearsals, all the brilliant things I was sure I was going to say flew straight out the top of my head and all I managed to get out was: “I just wanted you to know how much Nashville moved me as a young filmgoer. It really changed the way I saw movies.” Robert Altman extended my pen and my magazine back to me and said, simply, “You know, that means a lot to me. Thank you.” I shook his hand and headed back up the stairs toward where my friend was sitting. And I’m pretty sure that, just like when I came out of that screening of Nashville in 1979, I never touched a step on my way back up to my seat.
I can’t even get a meaningful grip on the emotions that are churning in me this morning as I try to grasp the fact that Robert Altman is gone. He lived an amazing life, and he had a career that might be a model for any director, were it not for the fact that the very iconoclasm and individualism that informed it, his irreverence for the bean counters and the powers that be, coupled with the artistic highs and lows that marked his brilliant journey, his particular stretch on the timeline of film history, couldn’t possibly be repeated. And I can’t imagine a better swansong for Altman than A Prairie Home Companion, a lilting movie of overwhelming sweetness and sadness, a microcosm version of Nashville with the shadow of death woven into the very tapestry of comedy and song and fear for the future on which the movie thrives. Altman was, by most accounts, a joy to work with, and those who would say that would probably also say that he could be a difficult bastard at times too. And he famously stood up for the least of his films too, in the face of critical assault and audience indifference. Edward Copeland recounts a moment during an interview during the promotion of Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear)-- a film I like a whole lot more than just about anybody I know—when Altman spoke of the critical drubbing his movie was in the process of receiving, putting it in the context of other such “failures” as Brewster McCloud or Three Women:
"’I think it's a lot better film than anyone will discover until about a month after it's opened and played,’ Altman said at the time. ‘I find that all of these films are like your children and you tend to love your least successful children the most, but they're finished and the cord's cut and it's out there and it ... doesn't belong to me anymore.’"
As Edward has observed, Altman himself now belongs to the ages, and he has left a body of work that will, I think, go unmatched in terms of its breadth, its valleys and its peaks, its persistence of vision, its mixture, as seen in the quote above, of sentiment tinged with bitter realism, its recognition of life as an untamable force which occasionally might be viewed with any semblance of unifying, edifying perspective, in two-hour bursts of brilliant color, sound, scope and thought. It’s good to know that his work will live on, and in the age of DVD it will live on supplemented by his words and observations and memories, as Altman was one of the most prolific of directors in supplying commentary tracks for his films—the DVD editions of M*A*S*H, Nashville, Three Women, California Split, The Player, Short Cuts, Tanner ’88, The Company and A Prairie Home Companion all have them.
But on a day like this, DVD commentaries are pretty cold comfort. When I arrived at the office this morning there was an e-mail awaiting me from That Little Round-Headed Boy, followed quickly by three or four other friends who all expressed condolences to me as they relayed the sad news. I’m so glad that the office was empty at that hour of the morning, because I’m not sure everyone who could have been nearby would have been as understanding of my reaction. In a way, I’ve already written my obituary for Altman in the form of a four-part career retrospective in honor of his 81st birthday and the honorary Oscar he received at last year’s Academy Awards. (You can read part one, part two, part three and part four here, and access a ton of other submissions to Matt Zoller Seitz’s Robert Altman Blog-a-Thon, of which my tribute was but a small part, here.) So for now I’m just going to go back to my work and try to think of all the great moments and movies that came courtesy of Robert Altman, and try not to think about the fact that there will be no more of them. I feel the same sort of loss today as I did in 1993 when Frank Zappa died, or in 2001 when we lost Pauline Kael. I feel, in a very real, substantial way, the way I always have when I’ve heard of a favorite teacher’s passing. And that’s how I’ve come to see Robert Altman, as perhaps the best teacher of film it’s ever been my privilege, through his films, of knowing. Thank you, sir, and God bless.
Further reading on Robert Altman on this very sad day:
Keith Uhlich has a fine tribute and a collection of links to more on the director at The House Next Door and invites your own tributes as well.
Jim Emerson has compiled an Altman Home Comapnion for Roger Ebert’s Web site, and offers some Moments of his own, including a great story about interviewing the director in the days just before the release of The Player.
Richard T. Jameson writes about Altman’s influence in a fine appreciation at MSN.
Edward Copeland remembers interviewing Altman in 1994.
And David Hudson is compiling and long and increasingly invaluable lists of links to a wide variety of Altman tributes and reportage at Green Cine Daily.
UPDATE November 22: Here's Jim Emerson again, recounting some of his own observations, as well as fragments of Altman's universe that that passed through his thoughts while mourning the director's passing, in a lovely piece entitled Altman: Life Beyond the Frame.