In the introduction to new his book, Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, Mitchell Zuckoff describes his friendship with the director, whom he met near the end of his life, and how Altman initially resisted the idea of doing a book with him. But the conversations Zuckoff had with the director convinced him that there was a book that could be wrangled from all those wide-ranging talks. Altman didn’t like the idea of self-analyzing in public, but he eventually caved in to Zuckoff’s suggestion on the condition that the book be largely about filmmaking and Altman’s work—anyone who has ever heard one of his gregarious DVD audio commentaries knows he has little difficulty talking about that subject—and less about his personal life. “The deal was… that we’d talk film, not life,” writes Zuckoff. “He didn’t want stories of his past deeds or misdeeds to fog the lens, and he didn’t want anything to hurt his family, especially his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman. His one concession was a chapter that would sketch the broad contours of his past.” Zuckoff goes on to say that “The films he eventually made weren’t overtly autobiographical… He didn’t need to make movies about himself because the entire process of filmmaking was his adult life, a stage for his passions, his rages, his triumphs, his humor, his visions, his failures, his gifts.”
But when Altman’s death put an abrupt end to their collaboration, through the mourning and sadness a new theme emerged. “Our talks, Robert Altman’s final sustained interviews, would form the backbone of a book about his work and his life, rough edges and all,” writes Zuckoff. “Kathryn agreed, recognizing that to understand the films Bob made and the man he was, the man she loved, mean examining the whole, remarkable, complicated, combustible package.” Altman fans and scholars (myself included) hoped the book would be a valuable addition to Patrick McGilligan’s equally warts-and-all biography Jumping off the Cliff, which was published in 1989 just before Altman’s career renaissance with The Player in 1992.
When Robert Altman: An Oral Biography was published three weeks ago the reviews were largely positive. Mark Harris, in his fine, comprehensive piece for the New York Times reveals that by the time “this scrupulously intelligent and entertaining biography” has taken 150-or-so pages to get up to M*A*S*H, the director’s career breakthrough at age 45, “we’ve come to learn a great deal about how the director’s life shaped the art that followed” and that the book “is, appropriately, more likely to restart arguments about Altman than to resolve them, and to send both the director’s admirers and his detractors racing to their DVD shelves to make their cases.” (Which is how it should be.) Finally, Harris concludes that Zuckoff’s oral history format works “not just because the form he has chosen mimics so elegantly the boisterous cacophony of a really good Altman movie, but because he lets the contradictions, reconsiderations and regrets play across his pages with no agenda other than to clarify and illuminate the up-and-down-and-up career of a brilliant, erratic film artist.”
Of course among the boisterous cacophony of praise not only for Zuckoff’s book but for Altman’s films and his standing as a great film director one must necessarily make room for opposing views. In that light then, to Zuckoff, and probably to Harris, Richard Schickel would like to offer, “Says you!” Or something like that. Schickel’s nasty and derisive review of the book published in the Los Angeles Times on October 22 surprised Altman fans and just about anyone else interested in good criticism, not because he dared to dislike a book which everyone else seemed to hold in high regard, but because he used the book, which, incredibly, is mentioned with only glancing interest in the review, as a soapbox from which Schickel proceeds, from the very first sentence to deliver an angry diatribe not only on the uselessness of Altman’s films (and, presumably, the deluded state of those of us who continue to cherish them), but also Altman’s notorious resistance to sobriety. “It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (until illness slowed him),” Schickel intones, “Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life.” A few lines later he observes with disapproval that “Mitchell Zuckoff, who interviewed 145 people for the long, insanely admiring Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, never comes to grips with the effect this had on his films.”
Schickel spends the rest of the review denigrating Altman’s reputation as an indiscriminate wrangler of “spur-of-the-moment” behavior,” a purveyor of deliberately muddy overlapping dialogue which was intended “to make sure the audience never quite understood what was going on." He concludes that the director was a misogynist and a misanthropist, two tired ideas that don’t seem to gel either with the director’s famous love of actors or his desire to spend time in their company and that of the many other humans (male and female) with whom he worked. (And even if the charges of misanthropy were true, isn't it possible that one could enjoy spending time with people while being severely critical and disdainful of their tendencies as a whole?) Yet for Schickel, this alleged distaste for humanity “essentially substitutes for ideas in his movies and his characters are, in effect, characterless.” We also learn from Schickel aboard his pedestal that Altman was “a man with no interest in the fundamentals of film,” a permissive, passive-aggressive man “addled by his addictions” who was unable to direct our attention to anything that was on his mind. Finally, Schickel concludes with the finality of a puckered and constipated professor that “(Altman’s) films do not transcend their times; even the best of them remain trapped within those times.”
This was undoubtedly news to those of us who continue, in our delusion, to find ways to relate to and understand and interpret Altman’s films as something more than time capsule artifacts. Is there anyone beside Schickel who cannot see how Hal Phillip Walker’s Replacement Party platform not only presaged the ascendance of Ross Perot but also the entire idea of a government headed by Bubbas who were just like us, a government secretly operated by shadow puppeteers who were only just beginning to emerge into the public spotlight in 1975 when Nashville was released? Exactly how do the three decades that have passed since the complicated identity crisis of Millie and Pinky was dramatized in Three Women prevent us from understanding it? Admittedly, there are elements of M*A*S*H that I find discomfiting, and I’ve never shrunk from saying so. But to trash it so completely as being witless is to be willfully ignorant not only of its representative qualities as social satire-- satire that, though it is anchored in observations about the Korean War and, of course, Vietnam, is not sealed off from relevance to our current situation—but of its importance in establishing Altman’s variations on the fundamental elements of film language that he, of course, had to know and master before he could so effectively break and reshape them.
But Schickel isn’t satisfied with trashing the films. That act of destruction is part and parcel with destroying the reputation of the man as well. Zuckoff’s assertion that the book had to be about Altman’s work and his life serves as a permission slip in Schickel’s eyes to focus on his own projections about the man’s drinking and drug abuse, and by extension his finger-wagging disapproval of the whole counterculture environment in which Altman thrived and made his films. Of course, for Schickel, a moralistic biography hag in a film critic’s tweed jacket, this kind of hatchet job is nothing new. In 1990 he used almost the identical tactics to dismiss Scott Eyman’s well-regarded volume Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford and to inform all of us who have been, for some six or seven decades now, operating under the misguided notion that John Ford is some sort of cinematic master, one of the founding fathers of narrative film, that we were all wet. Oh, and yeah, John Ford’s besotted lifestyle and disregard for many of those around him is at the rotten, squirming heart of such failures as The Quiet Man and The Searchers too. As Brian Oard commented during Jim Emerson’s discussion of this matter over at Scanners, “I'm reminded of what Abraham Lincoln reportedly said of Ulysses S. Grant's drinking: ‘Find out what he drinks and give it to the rest of my generals.’"
"Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em!"
I’ve been reeling over this absurd campaign for the last couple of weeks, still incredulous that a critic of Schickel’s apparent stature would indulge in such an irresponsible, dunderheaded attack. I also wondered aloud to some friends recently if there had ever been such asinine non-thinking display from someone who I assumed would know better. And I don’t mean “someone who disagrees with me,” but someone who ought to be able to see through such flimsy tactics—someone who would see through them if they were evident in anyone else’s work. One friend responded that I have seen this kind of nonsense at work before, but, as he put it, it usually comes from someone on The 700 Club or from someone whose IQ is smaller than their belt size, not from an alleged critic. It is that “alleged” attachment that I find more appropriate than ever for Schickel, in light of this carpet-bombing of Altman’s life and career, and in light of Schickel’s own “long, insanely admiring” overview of Clint Eastwood’s work-- a director who I also admire greatly but whose conservative working methods clearly appeal more to this Time magazine schoolmarm with a haircut than do Altman’s more flexible ones.
I only wish it hadn’t taken me this long to marshal the time and resources to write about Schickel’s comments myself, but it has, so call me irrelevant and behind the curve if you will. (For a great overview see Jim Emerson’s ”Reviewing Altman,” where a portion of this piece originally appeared as a part of the ongoing discussion.) It was suggested by one of Jim’s readers that to broach a defense or a response to Schickel’s comments at all is tantamount to protesting too much. If Altman’s achievements are so solid, then they will surely be able to withstand the carping and mewling of a speck like Schickel. Surely Schickel’s observations will dry up and float away on the breeze generated by the applause of a new generation of filmgoers as they discover Altman for themselves. I don’t doubt these things are true. But, to paraphrase Jim’s point, I felt a strange kind of obligation, as someone who has been thrilled and inspired and moved to tears repeatedly by movies as disparate as Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Three Women, Popeye, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, Tanner ’88, The Caine Mutiny Court-martial, Gosford Park, The Company and A Prairie Home Companion, to reiterate, in the face of willfully ignorant or agenda-riddled criticism, that the movies did and do have value, and as living, breathing creations, not museum pieces, and that they were willed to life not as a by-product of debilitating chemicals but despite them, through the rigors and inspiration of a true artistic vision. Unless you believe (as Schickel apparently does) that Altman was shit-faced 24/7 on one substance or another, alcohol and drugs simply cannot credibly account for the consistency of style, and the mutability within that style which allowed for so many different approaches to so many different styles and themes that Altman wove into a career as one of the great filmmakers.
For Schickel there is apparently no need to separate the artist from the art on this fundamental level, even though most all of us learned a long time ago that there can often be a gulf between what a man produces and the way he regards another person (or a substance) in social interaction. But to even consider this apparent truism so far as to have to mention it at all is to lend credence to Schickel’s fatally flawed point. The critic never approved of Altman’s lifestyle or the kind of hazy, dissolute quality he saw in his films, which he then couldn’t help but connect in his head. One might as well say that Jeff Spicoli would have turned out movies that looked and felt like Altman’s because, like Altman, he was a raging pothead. Yet that notion is only slightly more absurd than the one that Schickel peddles, which is that Altman’s substance abuse crippled his instincts as a filmmaker, and if we look back on them now, in sobriety, we’ll inevitably see Altman’s films as time capsules with nothing to say to our modern generation of filmgoers. They’re no good! Why? Because I said so!
This is precisely the kind of huffy, baseless dismissal that some print critics, including Schickel, have slammed bloggers and other Internet-based film writers for—shoddy journalistic tactics and the inability or unwillingness to back up their grandstanding, attention-grabbing claims. It’s incredible to me not only that Schickel would construct a dismissal of a major filmmaker’s career on such flimsy grounds, but that the editor responsible for printing it in the Los Angeles Times would not call him out on it and simply reject the piece on grounds of insufficient journalistic standards. (To his everlasting credit, Times blogger Patrick Goldstein objected to Schickel's rant in print, and he also provided a forum for Alan Rudolph, longtime Altman associate and filmmaker in his own right, to respond to Schickel’s charges by printing Rudolph’s long and eloquent testament to Altman’s on-set methods and the man he personally knew.) Schickel’s review does nothing to prove his own cranky premise, but it sure does drive another solid-gold nail in the coffin containing what’s left of his credibility as a critic.
In his piece, Jim Emerson makes a crucial point:
“…Altman carefully assembled his movies (and most of all their fine-tuned Hawksian soundtracks) so that you weren't left with the spectacle of actors flailing away for something to do or say while the camera rolled, as is pointedly the case, for example, in Jaglom's insufferable movies. If an actor wasn't in character, or wasn't doing something worth keeping, Altman would lose interest, his camera would wander away, the dialog would disappear into the sound mix, or he would cut around the moment. If you watch (and listen to) Altman's movies closely, you can see the intelligent choices he's making, even while the experience itself feels open, free-wheeling, sprawling, chaotic, bustling or any of those other Altmanesque adjectives critics are inclined to use to describe his work.”
Matt Zoller Seitz, in a blog-a-thon a number of us participated in several years ago to mark Altman’s 81st birthday, memorably described going to a family party. As he surveyed the roomful of people gathered together, he found himself emulating Altman’s roving camera eye, sorting through the assemblage, choosing what to focus on with his eyes, his ears, noting the effect it had to choose a visual focus and yet emphasize the overheard conversation coming from nearby, unconnected to what it is he was seeing. It’s incredible to me that Schickel would even come close to implying that what Altman did was akin to letting the camera roll and dull-wittedly waiting for something to happen, to reveal itself. This was a notion that I gave credence to when I was 15 years old, when I had comparatively little life experience, when I wasn’t capable yet of processing, of understanding the complexity of vision that Altman had composed and was offering on his audio-visual canvases. I’m not suggesting that Schickel must appreciate everything that Altman does (even we Altman acolytes aren’t so blind), or that there is only one way to understand Altman’s films. But what is Schickel’s excuse, as a critic who presumably knows something about the way films are created, that allows him the luxury of such a thoughtless dismissal? What is his excuse for not having a greater cognizance of Altman’s methodology than a 15-year-old?
I once had the privilege of asking Altman himself, at a screening of The Long Goodbye at UCLA in the days just before The Player came out, whether or not he thought his films were manipulative. I asked the question because I’d been having heated discussions with someone who was intent on dismissing his visual style because of the way he used the zoom lens and other techniques to direct our attention toward certain aspects of behavior and performance. To this person, Altman’s directorial manner was too emphatic, too on-the-nose, as if Altman were saying, “Whoops, you won’t catch this unless I italicize it for you with my zoom lens.” My response to this argument was similar to the scenario Matt so memorably described, though no doubt not as cogently presented or argued. And I also countered that to suggest that Altman was manipulative above and beyond the methods of any other director in cinema simply because of this noticeable stylistic technique was to be willfully ignorant of the myriad ways in which directors as disparate as Hitchcock, Hawks, Godard and Herzog—in other words, just about any director you can name who can cut and juxtapose film or make a choice as to where to place the camera—use film to express their vision of the world. It was a joy to hear Altman respond to my question by saying, “Of course it’s manipulative! I want you to see things how I see them!”
And he’s right—Altman’s movies are distinctive not exclusively because of their hazy, laid-back rhythms but because of how Altman employs that seductive pose to frame his investigative, searching, sometimes chaotic, nearly always visually thrilling approach. That approach is not, by the way, directly transferable from film to film, even though anyone paying attention could see that the same man who directed M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians also directed the relatively sparsely populated and meticulously observed Images, Three Women and A Perfect Couple with their relatively more tightly focused visual range. Without that manipulation, you’re left with Henry Jaglom, who disdains film technique, or at least the appearance of smoothness that technique would serve to create, who literally does seem to think that his duty is that of camera operator and that “the truth” will be revealed not by him but through the rambling improvisations of his actors. Could Schickel honestly look at a movie like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Secret Honor or Buffalo Bill and The Indians or The Long Goodbye and truthfully suggest that these films came together not because of an artistic vision but in spite of a mediocre director’s pot-addled sensibility? Apparently. After all, he put his name on the review. It’s a shame that this punk excuse for criticism had to be the last thing of Schickel’s that I will ever read. Altman’s reputation remains unsullied in my eye, while Schickel’s—well, Schickel’s is in the tank.
Oh, and by the way, I’m well into Zuckoff’s book right now, and guess what—it’s terrific.