(1925 - 2006)
Three Key Films: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993)
Underrated: The Long Goodbye (1973) The classic Phillip Marlow character of film noir lore was resurrected in this early 70s gem, but not everyone was happy about it. In Altman’s hands, the wisecracking gumshoe of classics like Murder, My Sweet became a mumbling, paranoid, chain-smoking Elliot Gould in need of a shave, while the complex plotting took backseat to a series of increasingly surreal and unlikely scenarios. A woozy, very post-counterculture experiment in reimagining a familiar genre, The Long Goodbye is not for purists, but it remains endlessly entertaining in its subversive approach to the expected grammar of noir, like a proto Big Lebowski or, perhaps Altman’s own The Player. Featuring a standout performance from old noir stalwart Sterling Hayden as a drunken Hemmingway-esque blowhard, and a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger as a blonde guy with lots of muscles.
Unforgettable: The opening shot of The Player (1995) Lasting seven minutes and 47 seconds without a single edit or any other post-production trickery, making respectful reference to both Hitchcock’s Rope and Welles’ Touch of Evil (both of which had employed absurdly long shots), introducing the whole studio-artist-capitalist complex of Hollywood into which we are about to be tossed, and featuring an astoundingly complex degree of choreography, comic timing, lighting magic, and general technical wizardry, it’s hard not to be impressed by this most overtly bravura moment in Altman’s oeuvre.
The Legend: Robert Altman’s strict Catholic upbringing and military service (he flew bombing missions in Asia during World War II) would have powerful and lasting influences over his life, and his art. Following the war, Altman dabbled in film, working on industrial documentaries and other such projects before stumbling into a feature film teensploitation picture in the mid-1950s. Eventually catching the attention of no less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock, Altman did some work on the old master’s television program in the early 1960s before heading back to Hollywood for a string of mostly forgettable pictures. It wasn’t until the tail end of the 1960s that Altman discovered his gift for subversion, and his unmistakable knack for capturing effortless, naturalistic dialogue.
In fact, the story goes, part of the reason he was able to harness these gifts was that few were really paying much attention to what he was doing with a little-loved script (it had been passed over by a dozen other directors) for a film called M*A*S*H (1970). So, Altman decided to throw everything he had at the story of a few zany, disaffected, and profoundly frustrated Army medical officers in a long-ago Korean War that looked unmistakably like the then-raging American War in Vietnam. From this moment, Robert Altman can be said to have finally arrived. Indeed, he largely reinvented the genre picture in his first run of films in the early 1970s. From M*A*S*H (war) to McCabe and Mrs. Miller (western) to The Long Goodbye (noir) to Nashville (musical), Altman was the greatest iconoclast in a generation of iconoclasts. His re-imaginings of these revered genres were almost never reverent in any obvious way. They didn’t look back for inspiration, but rather for idols to tear down, to reconstruct. His genius was frustrating and sporadic, however, and he spent a solid decade in the wilderness through the 1980s, releasing few worthy pictures. It wasn’t until a string of near masterworks (and one unimpeachable work of perfection, Short Cuts) in the 1990s that Altman regained his form.
Often referred to as a filmmaker’s filmmaker (one of those phrases that appears to mean something, but no one can be sure what), Altman has frequently puzzled audiences and annoyed critics. But, his singular style and persistent attention to the paranoid American conscience marks him as among the most important voices of both his best periods in the 1970s and the 1990s. Stuart Henderson
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)