Wednesday, November 22, 2006

RIP Robert Altman

The first time I heard of Robert Altman, even if I didn't hear of him by name, was probably when my parents told me of the only movie they had ever walked out of -- MASH. Needless to say, I was surprised to find that one of my mother's favorite TV shows had a.) once been a movie and b.) been bad enough in some way for my parents to leave it. "The movie was very different from the TV show," she said (she wasn't a Philistine or anything -- some of the jabs at the Catholic faith weren't received well by their young, dating selves). And that was that.

But I never really liked the TV show. I still sort of don't (granted, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the last four seasons -- the pretty sketchy ones -- seem to always be the ones playing in syndication). I didn't make plans to see the movie (I was nine or so), but I filed this piece of information away.

The next time I heard of Robert Altman, I heard of him by name. It was Oscar time, and he had just been nominated for The Player. Altman's was a name I hadn't heard of, even though I was familiar with the other big living American directors -- Scorsese and Spielberg and Coppola and so on. I was a movie- and TV-loving kid stuck in the middle of nowhere, no access to movies like The Player, which never even played in my state's biggest city. I had to content myself with reading descriptions of Altman, with learning about MASH, his biggest hit, and then, Nashville, perhaps his biggest critical success. When he was nominated again for Short Cuts, I knew full well who he was, even if I had never seen one of his movies.

I finally came to know Robert Altman though a late night showing of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I wasn't a big Western fan, and I was a rather film illiterate 17 (I knew all of the names behind the movies but hadn't seen most of them). But even broken up by commercials, McCabe and Mrs. Miller seemed devastatingly sad to me -- I realize the film runs the gamut of emotions now, but at the time, I channeled my teenage angst into it, couldn't, really, see the forest for the trees. I couldn't express how I felt about the film, so I just left it be.

I finally came to know Altman personally (as it feels we know all great artists) in college, when I began to unravel his other great works -- MASH (a touch overrated, I still feel), Nashville (still one of my very favorite American films), Short Cuts (one of the first Altmans I saw, so, therefore, somehow still special). By the time Gosford Park rolled around and gained so much acclaim, I was ready, ready to explain to my girlfriend all about how Altman used improvisation on set, created environments for actors to play in, worked with overlapping dialogue.

What I like best about Altman is the sense that all of his movies are found art. I realize it's not exactly an original thing to say, but it really feels almost as if Altman has managed to find the exact right camera placements to capture an engrossing story as it unfolds in front of us. Even his lesser works manage to convey this sense of life enveloping and washing over the viewer, sweeping us away in a dense swirl of moment.

Altman, I think, is the most American of directors. With his huge casts and his overlapping stories, there's really a sense that at any moment, anyone's story could be the most important. Altman, of course, worked within milieus he was completely familiar with, but he was unafraid to throw people of different classes (still the biggest differentiator in the U.S.) together, to say that all of these stories were equal, that all of these stories mattered.

Earlier this year, the House Next Door had an Altman blog-a-thon. I thought for a time I might contribute a piece on Altman's TV direction, so poised was my TiVo to capture various episodes of Bonanza he directed in his long decades in the wilderness before MASH. When I watched them, though, it was hard to see flashes of the Altman we would come to know later. Sure, the episodes were well-paced and competently shot, but because of the iron fist of the producer in TV, it was hard to find even a taste of experimentation.

But I think TV and Altman influenced each other in very interesting ways. TV gave Altman the sense that what was most important was to work -- how many other directors of this caliber kept turning out film after film after film, even if some of them weren't that great? Even when he couldn't scare up big funding in the '80s, he made a long series of, essentially, filmed plays, all of which have a performance or two or a set of directing choices that make them worthy of recommendation (caveat: those that I've seen, though I have it on good authority the others are just fine too). Altman compared making a film to making a sand castle at the Oscars this year (when he won his honorary award), and there's a real sense of that in both his films and his working methods, many of which were probably learned in the breakneck pace of TV -- all of this is transitory. Wait a week, and you'll be on to the next thing.

But the spirit of Altman lives on most, I think, in television. While there aren't any shows that can reliably be called "Altman-esque" now that Deadwood and Sons & Daughters are both gone, the sense that everyone's story is worth telling, no matter how high or low their station, permeates both top-flight series like The Wire and series of a lower class like Six Degrees (even if that show careened too much into talking about the rich). Altman's rhythms are still probably too idiosyncratic for TV, but, then, his rhythms are probably too idiosyncratic for film (and don't give me Paul Thomas Anderson -- as good an eye as the guy has, he has none of Altman's generosity of spirit or natural feel for how a story should progress). Altman's influence wasn't as seismic as, say, Spielberg's, but, then, his films were never that seismic. His influence gently laps at the industry's toes, growing and growing, until we all find ourselves underwater.

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