Robert Altman

Well, I couldn’t let the day go by without mentioning the passing of Robert Altman.

He had a gigantic filmography with all kinds of stuff in it. 87 directing credits, including anonymous TV piecework, a decade’s worth of adaptations of American plays, some bizarre (and failed) experiments, some charming frippery, a few expensive studio misfires and probably twenty or so visionary masterpieces of American cinema.

If you’ve never see MASH, or only know the material from the insipid TV series, do yourself a favor and see the original. It will blow you away. It’s profane, hilarious, bloody, shocking, electrifying and defiantly frank in its depiction of the human condition.

Altman could be distressingly erratic but his successes were so definitive and inspiring that they always made up for his failures. You could sit through a dud as hapless as Beyond Therapy knowing that, sooner or later, he would come back with a superior entertainment like The Player or the flat-out masterpiece Gosford Park.  Eclectic, prodigious and up for anything, his unpredictability made him relentlessly uncommercial but also gave him the most daringly alive career of any American director.

I am dismayed to find that I have only seen 17 of his movies: Countdown, MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, California Split, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Popeye, Streamers, Fool for Love, Beyond Therapy, Aria, The Player, Short Cuts, The Gingerbread Man, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and The Company. As I peer over this list, I find six staggering masterpieces, one expensive, fascinating failed experiment, five worthwhile but lesser works, one atrocity and two mainstream studio pictures that could have been directed by anyone (both of which were, by the way, commercial failures). That would have been an entire career for most people but for Altman it’s barely a fifth of his output.

I also note that Altman’s breakthrough work, MASH, was released when he was 45 years old.  45 and he was just beginning!  So there’s hope for me yet.
hit counter html code


10 Responses to “Robert Altman”
  1. yetra says:

    Thank you, this is one of the best postings I’ve read today about Altman.

    Get thee to a viewing of The Long Goodbye asap. I saw that with 3 Women at the Castro a few years back, and was blown away by it.

  2. craigjclark says:

    By my count, Altman made 35 feature films. Of those, I have seen Countdown, That Cold Day in the Park, M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville*, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women, A Wedding, HEALTH, A Perfect Couple, Popeye, Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, Fool for Love, The Player*, Short Cuts*, Kansas City, Gosford Park*, The Company* and A Prairie Home Companion*. That’s 24, which isn’t bad, but I still have a good number left to go. (I went on a renting kick at one point, which is when I caught up with many of his more obscure titles. Even so, I flat out refused to check out his version of The Dumb Waiter, which Harold Pinter reportedly hates.)

    It’s a shame you never got to see A Prairie Home Companion while it was out. It’s about as close to a career-capper as he could probably get. And I second the call for you to see The Long Goodbye with all due speed.

    * indicates one I saw in a theater

    • Todd says:

      What, the prospect of seeing John Travolta and Tom Conti do Pinter isn’t enough to entice you?

      I had forgotten that I’ve seen that production. So it turns out I’ve seen 18 of his movies.

      The greatest thing about The Dumb Waiter is the box art for the video release, which may be viewed here.

      • urbaniak says:

        Heh, heh. That’s one dumb waiter!

      • craigjclark says:

        I just realized that I forgot to put Thieves Like Us on my list. (Now there’s a film that needs come out on DVD.) That means I’ve seen 25, which makes me a feel a little better. Even if it means sitting through Quintet and O.C. and Stiggs, I swear I shall make it through the other ten in my lifetime.

  3. rjwhite says:

    The latest issue of The High Hat (an online pop culture analysis zine with work from a bunch of livejournal folks) just happened to have a whole section on Altman, including a great essay on “Popeye,” which looks into the thing with more detail than I had ever thought it needed. Good stuff.

  4. dougo says:

    Of the ones you haven’t seen, I’ve seen Kansas City and Pret-a-Porter. I’d say they both fall somewhere in between “worthwhile but lesser” and “atrocity”. Kansas City was just kinda boring, while Pret-a-Porter was all over the place and kinda nonsensical.

  5. greyaenigma says:

    Insipid? Ouch. Even after they dropped the laugh track?

    I saw Kansas City; it didn’t do a lot for me.

  6. mr_noy says:

    Popeye, Aria, The Player, Short Cuts, M*A*S*H*, The Long Goodbye, (parts of) Nashville, Gosford Park, Secret Honor. This list is too, too short.

    Certain directors, like Kubrick, waited so long between films that each time they released a movie it felt like an event. On the other hand, a director like Altman (or Woody Allen for that matter) had been so prolific, for so long, that I guess I just took him for granted; as if he would always be around. I’ve got some serious catching up to do.

    One of my earliest memories of going to the movies involved an Altman film; the critically reviled Popeye. I remember my parents took me to see it in a packed theater on opening night and everyone was laughing and having a great time; I know I certainly was. Apart from it’s initial run on cable I haven’t seen it since, and frankly I’m reluctant to watch it again. It’s a pleasant memory and I would hate to ruin it.

    I highly recommend Secret Honor. It’s a fairly straightforward recreation of a one-man show Altman saw and admired. Altman modestly admitted that he did little more than film the play, but Phillip Baker Hall’s performance as Nixon is one for the ages.