Robert Bernard Altman
1925 - 2006
I guess I never really forgave Mr. Robert Altman for what he did with Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. I don't understand it. I don't understand why Altman, one great chronicler of the American voice would sap the pleasure and beauty from another's story. The dreary film mangles a classic plot, sneeringly reconfigures a great character of 20th century literature, and seems a mean-spirited rejection of the vitality and richness of Chandler's writing. Why? Didn't Robert Altman like detective stories?
For me, there is not a more poetic and mystery-filled Altman film than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, perhaps his only film that could be called visually beautiful. There is not a more deeply-felt, acid, contemporary Altman comedy than MASH. And for me, there is not a moment in Altman more perfect than Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin as Earl and Doreen Piggot, who have spent all of Short/Cuts screaming at each other, getting deliriously shit-faced together. It's a scene of four unique American storytellers - Altman, Carver, Waits and Tomlin - united in four-part harmony to sing one song, a chorus that takes advantage of their respective talents for bitter satire, minimalist, working-class poetry, sloppy, boozy bathos, and fuzzy-pathetic character delineation. It's a triumph, and Altman is holding the baton.
My girlfriend told me that when she met Altman, she took the chance to tell him how much she liked his crazy, all-kinds-of-funny Prêt-à-Porter. Altman looked pleased, and told her "Thank you. I like it too."
When discussing the vicious critical rejection of the film, he more than once said that "all your films are like your children..." And you think you know how that line will end, but Altman has something more-true, more-funny, more-cruel to say: "...all of these films are like your children and you tend to love your least successful children the most."
You do not need me to summarize Altman's career, list high points, or call him the greatest-whatever. Your best source will probably be the Times blog obit. GreenCine Daily is assembling the best 'net tributes. Premiere's got a working man's quickie guide to key Altman titles up already. I'm sure Harry Knowles was crying as he wrote his tribute, and God bless him for it, though it includes an anecdote about gorging himself on spinach.
Robert Altman was an iconoclast who did not compromise, spoke his mind, got in fights with studios, and sometimes shot himself in the foot by being a garrulous old bastard. There's integrity in that, and there is folly. The same thing might be said of most of his films.
Hey look: is this the only Altman farewell not to use to word "caustic"?
I cannot unpack exactly why I like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for I love Westerns, and it is an uncanny, perhaps nasty un-Western. And there is MASH, that most loveless of peacenik war comedies. Popeye simply by rendering E.C. Segar's world accurately, becomes a children's film so grotesque children will want to look away. And we may find that Nashville is a musical that hates music, though it finds rhythm and song in dialogue and life-cycle. Altman did not explore these genres because he loved them, was obsessed by them, or had a technician's interest in deconstructing them. He tore genre filmmaking a new one because he did not trust the lulling powers of escapist entertainment. I don't cotton to that, but I can't deny that in the process of ripping apart these genres, he often built new beasts, strangely muscled and natural in movement, if furred in drab colors.
For the amount of crankiness in the man's work, there is an equally long list of things he loved, and which his films celebrate. His movies like the working class in dreamland, the man of power in meltdown; the light witnessed by early morning drunks; jokes of all kinds, stupid and smart; the tragedy of everyday doldrums; the ugly, ugly countryside, and uglier metropolis.
And the sublime, those Great Themes uniting all the work, which the academic rag-picker will someday scrounge from the lowliest "Combat!" episode, and bring down from the mountains of Nashville, Short/Cuts, Brewster McCloud: The mysterious gulfs and understandings between men and women; the sound of human speech blanketing a planet; the chaos and surprising connective tissue we move through in our daily lives. Almost to a one, his films simultaneously capture the sprawl of a nation, and the claustrophobia of our private, perceived realities. That is my experience of Altman films, from the Nashville-wide, to Secret Honor-small; be they Brewster McCloud-nuts, or 3 Women-gossamer, Altman's movies achieve the auteurist's dream: they are one.
I still don't forgive The Long Goodbye.
But as Poopdeck Pappy says in Popeye, "You was disobedient when you was two and you're still disobedient now." Mr. Altman is survived by more than 40 disobedient children, and they will continue to exasperate and delight us.