Obit: Robert Altman

Posted on December 3, 2006


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Remembering Robert Altman, eccentric extraordinaire.

DEC 3, 2006 – AGE APPEARED TO HAVE MELLOWED ROBERT ALTMAN. At least, that’s the feeling we were left with after his last few films. Even as late as Short Cuts in 1993, he was colouring his cinema with that uniquely jaundiced eye. Then, out of nowhere, he made the playful Dr. T and the Women – that’s the one where he signalled the rebirth of the jaded Richard Gere character with a graphic sequence of a live childbirth (ha, ha, and all that) – and he followed this up with the similarly surprising Gosford Park, a what-to-make-of-it mixture of social mores and whodunit hints that played out as one of his most accessible entertainments. You could almost sense Altman smiling behind the camera – in a way he never quite seemed to while directing his anti-Western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), his anti-noir (The Long Goodbye), his anti-kidpic (Popeye), or even his anti-Altman film, the startlingly linear Vincent & Theo, which detailed the story of the brothers van Gogh without any of the bravura, multi-level showmanship so associated with the director. (Just google up “overlapping dialogue”, and you’ll be deluged with worshipful references to Altman that would seem to suggest he single-handedly invented the technique, never mind that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell were overlapping their dialogues way back in 1940 in His Girl Friday.)

But a closer inspection reveals why Gosford Park is very much a legitimate part of the Altman oeuvre. It’s an anti-whodunit. Altman only seemed to be channelling Agatha Christie, tossing around possibilities of a crime – the gleaming knives, the bottles of poison labelled, uh, “Poison” – and keeping you waiting for the attendant genre elements to kick in. But they never do. The murder itself occurs well into the movie, almost as an afterthought, and its resolution too is just tossed off, without the high drama that usually accompanies the grilling of suspects and such. And what finally emerges is a commentary on the era, on the society – something we usually associate with period-philes like Merchant and Ivory. But where they may have been respectfully attentive in their attempts to detail this sort of thing, Altman was more interested in scribbling malicious notes on the margins. Merchant-Ivory made a grand set piece out of the fox hunt in Jefferson in Paris, while the bird shooting in Gosford Park is entertaining less for the actual bird shooting than for the sideshows involving, for instance, the imperious Lady Constance (Maggie Smith). “I hate shooting,” she grumbles. “Why do I have to do these things?” And all the while she’s agonising about which blouse she will wear for the event. No, age hadn’t mellowed Altman one whit.

Robert Altman’s passing brings to mind what the cinematographer Oliver Stapleton remarked on Stanley Kubrick’s passing, that we have lost one of the great eccentric geniuses of the movies. You may debate the “great” part or the “genius” part of the statement, but it was really the ornery eccentricity that made Altman one of a kind. My favourite Altman anecdote comes from Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – a loving, moving evocation of The New Hollywood, the maverick phenomenon that was seventies’ auteurist filmmaking. This was on the sets of what would launch Altman into the A-list – M*A*S*H – and his agent walks up to him and says, “Another week, you’ll be finished here.” And Altman replies that it won’t take him that long, that he’ll be done in two days, and when the agent asks how come, Altman – bitterly resentful of the interference from 20th Century Fox, never mind that if it weren’t for them, he’d still have been slaving away on TV and in micro-budget features – says, “I can’t wait to get the f*** out of this f***ing studio.” And the fact that M*A*S*H pulled in Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, while also becoming the third biggest box-office hit of 1970 (after Love Story and Airport), meant that Altman didn’t ever have to change his opinion about the f***ing studios.

Not that they cared. Over a long and famously spotted career, none of Altman’s subsequent work topped the returns of M*A*S*H, and many were outright bombs – critically, commercially. But the ones that did not work (say, the late-career Pret-à-Porter) were as intriguing as the ones that did (Three Women), because these were films that could have been made by no one else. The awesomeness was all Altman; the awfulness was all Altman too. The director’s death has reportedly brought to a halt the project he was last working on, Hands on a Hard Body – about a truck contest in small-town Texas; wouldn’t you have loved to see that one? – because they feel no one else can match Altman’s vision. But “vision” may be too lofty a term to apply to a loose cannon like Altman – not because his films weren’t crafted around a core conceit, but because they weren’t constrained by it. They were great, messy riffs on that teeming thing we know as life. Mourning his Dr. T director, Gere said, “He was an ecstatic… a magician… a conjurer… a mischievous boy… He was the deepest ocean and the lightest feather at the same time.” If you dig past that pile of… eloquence, you’d get the exact thing that made waiting for a new Altman picture so exciting: his off-kilter unpredictability. Which other certified Great Director would have dropped into the aristocratic mix of Gosford Park characters a bumbling inspector, leaving you scratching your head as to why the elegant satire you’ve been watching all along has suddenly morphed into A Shot in the Dark?

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Posted in: Cinema: English