It’s been quite the year for American auteur Robert Altman. The fascinating filmmaker, best know for his complex, interweaving narratives released his latest opus, A Prairie Home Companion, to mostly favorable reviews, picked up a lifetime achievement Oscar at the 2006 Academy Awards, and stunned the entertainment industry by announcing he was the recipient of a complete heart transplant back in 1996. Suddenly, the once eternal artist had an air of morality to him. In light of his confession comes David Thompson’s career spanning tome Altman on Altman. Following a format employed for previous installments of the series (Scorsese on Scorsese, Lynch on Lynch) this interviewer/editor gets the elusive director to comment on and scrutinize his entire oeuvre. Sounds fairly exciting, right?
Well, it is, sort of. It has to be said that with a catalog of classics that include MASH, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 3 Women, Popeye, and The Player, a great deal has already been written about Altman as a filmmaker. His aesthetic has been explored in scholarship and in special edition DVDs. In fact, the director himself has stepped up to add clarifying commentary tracks on efforts like Short Cuts and Secret Honor. So a tome that pretends to expand our knowledge of this brilliant man’s art and attitude has to be fairly far reaching. It must not only deliver detailed stories about the behind the scenes production problems on these timeless cinematic gemstones, but the discussions must also transcend their geniality to deal realistically with themes, context, symbolism, and substance.
Unfortunately, Altman on Altman only provides a small portion of this mandatory information as part of an otherwise engaging book. Seems the old pro is just not up to dissecting his canon with the clarity and compassion that us unyielding cinephiles demand. Sure, there is a wealth of perfunctory data distributed by the director, reasons why he made a murder mystery so late in life, why the finale of Nashville moved away from a political to a cult of personality angle, and how 3 Women came to him in a disturbing dream state. In fact, a great deal of the standard Altman war stories are present—how he cut his creative teeth in TV with shows like Combat and Bonanza, how MASH was misunderstood by everyone who came in contact with it, and the early ‘80s slump that found him filming stage plays on the cheap. Indeed, Altman has quite an anecdotal history among his faithful. Any book that claims to dig deeper really has to deliver.
None of this is Thompson’s fault, really. He asks all the right questions and tries to move the maverick off his typical trips down movie making memory lane. Yet Altman is a stubborn old bird. You can occasionally sense the dismissive attitude he has towards discussions about his flights of fancy (Brewster McCloud), experimental efforts (Images), and outright flops (Quintet, Beyond Therapy). In fact, instead of going into each film completely, Thompson creates a kind of running narrative, moving from the director’s career in corporate films to the whole health scare situation. This means that, on occasion, a masterpiece like Short Cuts will get the same amount of coverage as a nominal effort like A Wedding. There are several surprises along the way—Altman actually helmed his version of a teen romp with 1987’s little seen O.C. and Stiggs—and some astute, if well known, observations—he purposely perverted Michael Tolkin’s The Player to fit his own anti-Hollywood agenda. Altman also discusses his theory on improvisation, his views on studio interference, and the reasons he still makes movies.
And yet, we know there is more to the story than what is being pitched here. Take, for example, the chapter on Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. We learn how Sterling Hayden got his role as Roger Wade, how Robert Mitchum was considered for casting before Elliot Gould was brought on as the lead, and how a single musical signature was repeated over and over again in numerous novel methods (a doorbell, a funeral dirge). As he walks through the production, Altman seems eager to give away secrets and explain away eccentricities. In fact, it seems clear that once we move away from the movies that Altman thinks are important, the level of personal excitement dwindles. By the time we get to the filmed plays like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Streamers, and The Laundromat, he’s apparently run out of steam. While he does pick up again when the subject of Tanner ‘88 comes along, his take on the cutting political mockumentary gets a tad self-congratulatory.
This goes to the heart of something like the Director on Director series. As a compiler and editor, one is dependant on the person being profiled. Someone like David Lynch is so reticent to discuss his movies and their meaning that it takes an incredibly skilled interrogator to garner anything useful. Similarly, subjects like Martin Scorsese, or Terry Gilliam are so overflowing with a desire to discuss film that you sense a real need to keep them focused and on track. This hit or miss approach makes something like Altman on Altman hard to interpret. Part of the time, the filmmaker seems pleased to describe his methods, going on about his fascination with the fashion business (resulting in the farce Prêt-à-Porter) and his wide open approach to subject matter (he often makes movies because the topic is something he’s never attempted before). But try to get him to explain the ending of 3 Women, or why Popeye is viewed as a failure, and he tends to turn the conversation.
It’s safe to say, then, that a knowledgeable Altman aficionado will find only minor pleasures in this otherwise extensive volume. True, this filmmaker has over 50 years behind the camera, and to cover it all would be a task both Herculean and halting. Someone somewhere would take umbrage with the lack of details and determine the effort a failure. In fact, the opposite is true in connection to Altman on Altman. Completists may balk at the lack of depth, but others new to the American master will be intrigued to hear him speak on his own formidable film library. There are also lots of missed opportunities along the way, films he failed to get financed, or ideas that never came to fruition, and he never refrains from criticizing himself.
As a matter of fact, Altman would be the first one to point out that his version of the Director on Director series is less than perfect. This is a filmmaker with an inherent need to create, and a gut reaction to his manner of motion picture artistry. He doesn’t need a script to give his actors’ words, and he doesn’t need a studio to suggest focus group fixes for his films. Like a great painter, Altman works in the medium of his choice (TV/cinema—film/video) and delivers the visual brushstrokes he felt at the time. So what if the canvas is a little cracked, or the figures not fully formed. It’s a reflection of the man at the moment. Altman on Altman is a lot like his films. It’s the thoughts he had the day he was asked about his efforts. He’s not about to change them to someone else’s liking. That’s just how he is, and at this point in this professional life, he’s entitled.