Tuesday, November 21, 2006

R.I. P.: Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Throughout the decades that Robert Altman sustained his prodigious and prolific career, I often found myself swimming against the critical tide that kept him afloat between his sporadic commercial hits. Truth to tell, I found Kansas City and Cookie’s Fortune to be as mystifyingly under-rated as Gosford Park and Short Cuts were egregiously over-rated. And while I remain adamantly ambivalent about McCabe and Mrs. Miller – though I haven’t seen it in decades; perhaps another viewing is in order -- I count myself in the very small minority of Altman admirers who genuinely enjoyed The Gingerbread Man, one of the maverick moviemaker’s few attempts to work within – and at the same time transcend -- genre conventions. (Author John Grisham, writer of the original screenplay, wasn’t quite so impressed; he had his name removed from the credits when he saw what the free-wheeling Altman had wrought.)

And there’s even a warm place in my heart for That Cold Day in the Park (1969), one of Altman’s very first features, an undeservedly obscure drama that percolates with a eroticized sense of danger while a repressed wealthy woman (Sandy Dennis, arguably her last great performance) offers dubious sanctuary to a seemingly homeless young man (Michael Burns). 

But, hey, let’s cut to the chase: It would be foolish to pretend that any of the aforementioned titles hold a candle to the three movies that ensure Robert Altman’s immortality. First and foremost, of course, there is M*A*S*H (1970) – which, by sheer coincidence, I screened for my University of Houston film students last weekend. And I’m happy to report it continues to amuse and amaze as a ballsy, bracing black comedy about blood-splattered high-jinks at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital that only nominally is set during the Korean War. 

(Contemporary audiences weren’t fooled, of course: They instantly recognized the film as the anti-Vietnam War satire that Old Hollywood then was too timid to attempt.) 

Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Tom Skerritt have rarely been better than they are here, and the shamelessly non-P.C. humor that bothered some revisionist critics during the 1990s now seems positively benign in our post-Borat era. (Late bloomers, take heart: Altman already was in his mid-40s when he made this breakthrough masterwork.) Then there’s Nashville (1975), maybe Altman’s greatest film. Even more than American Graffiti, this intricately constructed and densely populated comedy-drama is repeatedly evoked by critics and showbiz journalists in discussions of any film with an ensemble cast, a tangle of interlocking subplots, and a pop-tune soundtrack that propels and underscores the action. It’s difficult for any filmmaker – indeed, it was difficult for Altman himself – to avoid unflattering comparisons to this teeming whirligig of a movie while working in a similar vein on a comparatively large scale. (Paul Thomas Anderson mischievously acknowledged the Altman influence with his wink-wink, nudge-nudge casting of Nashville co-star Henry Gibson in Magnolia.) And it’s next to impossible for anyone – though Anderson comes pretty damn close – to keep as many elements juggled as gracefully as Altman does here.

Last but certainly not least: The Player (1992), Altman’s career-reviving “comeback” after a string of b.o. under-achievers, which enabled the filmmaker to vigorously gnaw on the hands that fed him during the glory days of M*A*S*H and Nashville, then backhanded for more than 15 years afterward. It’s a thoroughly nasty masterpiece, a smart and savvy satire about making movies, destroying lives and getting away with murder. But you don't have to hate Hollywood to love this bleakly, viciously funny story (adapted by scripter Michael Tolkin from his own novel) about an amoral studio mogul (Tim Robbins) who is stalked by a disgruntled screenwriter. Even if you don't catch all the inside jokes or informed references, you can still enjoy The Player for its sheer entertainment value as a modern-day film noir thriller with an abundance of cynical wit and a galaxy of bit-playing superstars. It’s worth noting, by the way, that The Player was considered an odds-on favorite for a Best Picture of '92 nomination until the very day that Oscar nominations were announced. Perhaps the Academy members wanted to send a message: You can gnaw on the hands that feed you, but don't try to chew them off. 

No doubt about it: Robert Altman wasn’t the warmest-hearted auteur in the grand pantheon of great filmmakers. (He's wasn't the easiest to interview, either -- just ask Jeffrey Wells.) Indeed, I once wrote that he often came across “as an acerbic cynic who views his characters -- and, to a large degree, his audience -- with equal measures of condescending bemusement and sardonic skepticism.” He struck me as even more irascible, if not downright bellicose, during my occasional interviews with him over the years. (He never tired of taking potshots at Texas, evidently assuming -- wrongly -- it's my native state.) This never affected my reaction to his work – well, OK, hardly ever – but I learned the hard way that there was some truth to cautionary stories (many of them fueled by his legendary break with critic and one-time champion Pauline Kael) that warned of a Robert Altman who never forgot, and rarely forgave. 

A few years back, when Altman was filming The Gingerbread Man on location in Georgia, I was assigned by the L.A. Times to do a Sunday Calendar cover story on the shoot. Two days before I was scheduled to arrive, however, I received a phone call from an abashed publicist – the same person who had pitched the piece to the L.A. Times in the first place – who told me that Altman had just decided that he didn’t want me on the set. So I had to ask: “Why?” (What I really wanted to ask: “Altman knows who I am? Me? How?”) The publicist explained: “Mr. Altman didn’t like your review of Ready-to-Wear, and he doesn’t want to talk to you.” My first reaction: “You mean Robert Altman actually reads my reviews?” My second reaction: “Well, if he won’t talk to anyone who panned Ready-to-Wear, he won’t be talking to many people…” (Footnote: I suggested that the L.A. Times send another reporter. The L.A. Times decided to cover another movie instead.) 

I was reminded of this misadventure -- even as I felt shamelessly sentimental tears welling in my eyes – while listening to Altman’s gracious acceptance speech a few months back at the Academy Awards, when he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award (a.k.a., The Alfred Hitchcock Memorial Consolation Prize for Never Receiving the Oscar for Best Director). “I've always said that making a film is like making a sandcastle at the beach,” Altman told his rapt audience. “You invite your friends and you get them down there, and you say you build this beautiful structure, several of you. Then you sit back and watch the tide come in. Have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away. And that sandcastle remains in your mind. Now I've built about 40 of them, and I never tire of it. No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. I love filmmaking.” 

And, obviously, he loved all of his films – yes, even Ready-to-Wear, and probably O.C. and Stiggs as well – with the same passion. In fact, he accepted the Lifetime Achievement prize as “a nod to all of my films, because to me, I've just made one long film. And I know some of you have liked some of the sections, and others, you – well, anyway, it’s alright.” Point taken. But I will add this: Even if you don’t think each one was a great film, you must agree that each was made by a great filmmaker. Robert Altman will be missed, to be sure, but he also will be celebrated -- today, tomorrow, for as long as people care about cinema. A director may die, but his movies remain forever in the present tense.


Anonymous said...

an excellent tribute and commentary as always, joe.

i was saddened to hear of his death. my first thought genuinely was, "thank goodness they gave him that honorary oscar in time."

"nashville" is my favorite of his films. turner classic movies shows it from time to time, uncut and commercial-free, of course. i hope to see it again soon.

Joe Leydon said...

At the risk of sounding really, really crass -- I wonder if he'll get at least a Best Director nomination this year for Prairie Home Companion?