Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Robert Altman

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 22, 2006

I don’t really do the obituary thing here, and I’m certainly not going to start now. But man, when one of the true greats dies, you gotta say something, right? There are many things I can let pass without comment, but this isn’t one of them.

This is going to be more of a stream-of-consciousness series of observations (you know, like everything else I write) than an in-depth career overview. There are plenty of obits all over the Net, and many of them are written by people with much more insight into the man’s films than I have. So anyone who’s not familiar with Altman’s filmography should probably look elsewhere for something more informative.

I have to admit, I was a little shocked when I saw the news of his death on the Internet Tuesday afternoon. Certainly not because of his age – he was 81, after all. No, it was more because I’d spent most of the day without hearing anything about it anywhere. Even on the web page I initially saw the story on, the news of his death was like fourth out of five stories filed under “Entertainment News”. Whenever someone this accomplished dies, I always feel like people should be screaming it from the rooftops. It’s just like when Stanley Kubrick died – an absolute giant in the world of cinema, and it was almost ignored completely by the mainstream media. I happened to see a very brief piece about Altman on Entertainment Tonight – about 12 minutes into the show. What could possibly be more important? Details of two movie stars’ wedding? A washed-up comedian’s racist rantings? The American Music Awards, for cryin’ out loud? Altman didn’t even rate a freakin’ Leonard Maltin tribute! What’s up with that? Not that I expect the likes of Mary Hart to have any perspective on what’s truly important… but come on! Robert Fucking Altman died! Show some fucking respect!

Of course, Altman himself would probably chuckle and shake his head at this sad state of affairs. Such was his understanding of the human condition in all its insane glory that he’d probably say something like, “what do you expect? I’m not a celebrity, I’m just a guy who makes movies. That’s the way it goes.”

Anyway, for my generation, most of our first exposure to Altman’s work came through Popeye, his 1980 film which was a notorious flop at the time but has since become a beloved classic to many people who were kids then. Strangely enough, I never really saw Popeye as a kid, and still haven’t. I was 11 when it came out, and I think I thought of myself as being a little too old for “cartoon movies”. But it remains the first reference point for a lot of people my age. Of course, he’d done a decade’s worth of classic films prior to that, but you can’t expect little kids to know that.

No, my first Altman film was actually Beyond Therapy, his 1987 comic misfire which was barely and indifferently released by post-Corman New World Pictures. This is kind of like having your first Polanski film be Pirates (again, guilty as charged). It’s not a particularly good or interesting movie, and it perplexed me greatly when I saw it on video. By that time, I was vaguely aware of Altman’s reputation as a legendary filmmaker, and I couldn’t imagine how the man who made that disappointment could possibly have garnered such a reputation. Little did I know. His HBO series Tanner ’88 was an interesting curiosity for me, but I still didn’t quite “get” Altman. Perhaps I was too young and immature, and didn’t have access to a good video store that carried his older films.

It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that Altman really registered for me. I was in film school (god help me) when his resurgence came with the one-two punch of The Player and Short Cuts, two excellent films that solidified his position as one of the all-time greats with a whole new generation of film fans. I’m not entirely sure how much those movies really penetrated the mainstream, but among the film-obsessed crowd that I was part of, Altman was suddenly the King. This was about the same time that the Cult of Tarantino was in full force, and the impact of all that was definitely there. But while everybody wanted that kind of instant success and geek cred, I think Altman was really the guy everyone looked up to then. He’d made a career out of bucking the Hollywood system – what could possibly be more appealing to film-school students? He’d beaten the odds by coming back from the dead (essentially) to create a couple of genuine masterpieces, and he did it all his own way. Wbo wouldn’t want to be that guy?

But it was really going back and discovering his body of work that really inspired most of us to love Altman. More than his legendary anti-Hollywood stance and maverick reputation, it was the films – M*A*S*H*, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Thieves Like Us – that made us worship the man. I fondly remember a screening of Nashville in a film class that just absolutely blew me away, and it’s still my favorite Altman film. Such a phenomenal piece of work, one that demands being seen on the big screen if you ever get the chance. And it was the idea that the man who made those films was back, as strong as ever, that was truly exciting.

Since then, the bloom has been off the rose somewhat. He followed up Short Cuts with the godawful Pret a Porter (Ready to Wear), a film so bad that even I couldn’t find anything nice to say about it. But it didn’t matter, because by that point Altman had become one of “those” directors for me, one of those guys whose films you always want to see, just because it’s “the new Altman”. Even if I didn’t particularly care about the subject matter (fashion, jazz, ballet), “the new Altman” was always worth seeing, or at the very least, catching up with on video or cable. Even if they weren’t great, they would at least be more interesting than the usual fare. And that was certainly the case with minor gems like Kansas City, Cookie’s Fortune, Dr. T and the Women and The Company. And he proved with Gosford Park (sadly, the last film of his that I actually saw in a theater) that he could still hit a home run.

I imagine that a lot of fans will be paying tribute by watching some old Altman favorites, or filling in the gaps in his filmography with the more obscure titles, in the weeks ahead. I certainly plan to do both. I’ve shamefully neglected to see The Long Goodbye and California Split (Jeffrey Wells would beat me with a wet noodle), and I missed A Prairie Home Companion in theaters unfortunately. I’ll be rectifying that situation soon, because I put all three at the top of my Netflix queue. A Wedding is showing on HBO Comedy this Thursday, and I’m recording it to watch that night. And I definitely want to watch Nashville and Short Cuts again soon – it’s been too long for both.

It’s funny how we only really appreciate our great artists after they’re gone. I know that’s a cliché, but like most clichés, there’s an element of truth in it. I didn’t always like Robert Altman’s films, and I didn’t always agree with things he said in public (like action films being responsible for 9/11 – get real). In the end, it’s the overall body of work that matters, and his is one of the greatest. He wasn’t just “a guy who made movies” – he was an important artist, not just because he always did things his way, but also because it paid off (artistically, at least) more often than not. Whether you love his films or hate them, you have to respect the man because he insisted on calling the shots. That’s something so few of us, in any walk of life, ever get to do. And because he kept plugging away, no matter what happened in his career, regardless of Hollywood trends or financial considerations or even age. At the time of his death at the age of 81, Robert Altman was in preproduction on what would have been his next feature film. That says it all.

That’s all for now. I’ve been meaning to write more, but I just re-signed with Netflix after some time away, and now I’m the proverbial kid in a candy store with over 100 movies on my queue (I know, I can’t believe there’s that many films I haven’t seen either). So I’ve been spending even more time watching movies than usual! Feeding the addiction… but I’ll get back to it soon, I promise. Talk to you later.

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