What Is the Robert Altman Vision?

From Ron Mann's documentary, Altman (2014)

If you want to get a complete understanding of Altman, his filmmaking style, and why his movies are so important to the history of cinema, Frank Caso’s book is a must read.

Robert Altman: In the American Grain

Publisher: Reaktion
Author: Frank Caso
Publication date: 2016-01

Robert Altman, more than any other filmmaker, epitomized the New Hollywood movement of the '70s. Marked by a rebelliousness in both content and form, the films that came out of this era broke the paint-by-numbers mold established during the Golden Age of Hollywood and revealed the nearly limitless possibilities of the medium.

Some of the young, renegade filmmakers that came out of this era -- such as Francis Ford Coppola ((The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974_, Apocalypse Now (1979)), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)), and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980)) -- reached levels of perfection with their films that Altman never attained. But it was Altman, with films including MASH (1969), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1973), and Nashville (1975), who had the most innovative and distinct vision of the bunch.

This ‘Altmanesque’ vision is what Frank Caso explores and attempts to define with his new book, Robert Altman: In the American Grain. Caso structures his approach to Altman's vision in the most straightforward of ways; he summarizes its main points in the introduction and then breaks the remainder of the book into four parts titled Apprentice and Journeyman, The Artist in Bloom, Exile, and finally The Prodigal’s Return. Each of these parts is further divided into chapters that aim to organize Altman’s work into phases based on content and style.

Chapter 11, for example, is titled “Crime, Punishment and Vaginas”, and it analyses some of Altman’s later films that, as its title suggests, touch on crime, punishment, and, well, vaginas. There’s the depression-era gangster film Kansas City (1996), the John Grisham written law thriller The Gingerbread Man (1998), and the mostly female cast of Dr T and the Women (2000). In spite of the illustrative titles and the attempt at grouping Altman’s films together in terms of style and content, Caso covers all 37 of his feature films, along with some of his television work and even his early industrial films, in a strictly chronological order.

While Caso thoroughly examines every major work in Altman’s filmography, and most of the minor ones as well, the word-count is not divided equally. Caso, like every viewer, has his favorites. He doesn’t, however, emotionally hype his favorites in terms of their quality. Instead, he provides more pages and is extra thoughtful when discussing them.

Nashville, for example, gets over a dozen pages dedicated to it. He uses some of these pages to highlight how it marked “Altman’s first use of the apologue technique -- the mural-like allegorical narrative structure”, and he muses that Altman’s eventual habitual use of this technique “may have been an understanding that his ‘film murals’ allowed for the best use of his two favorite techniques -- overlapping dialogue and a camera that was constantly in motion.”

Even the films that he writes about for only a few pages are respected with a thought-provoking, if brief, analysis. For Countdown (1968), for example, Caso writes of how James Caan’s character, Lee Stegler, evokes some Christian symbolism since, as a civilian astronaut volunteering to go on a one-way trip to the moon, he sacrifices himself for he masses. Caso also makes the case that Countdown unveils a young Altman as a confident director who already knew that he wanted to “set up the audience as voyeurs” in order to reveal character and story. Every film in Altman’s productive career receives such treatment. And most of Caso’s analysis of Altman is, like the snippets above, related to his filmmaking style.

In fact, he asks in the introduction “what exactly are the recognizable elements of an Altman film?” and then attempts to summarize these recognizable elements that make an Altman film an Altman film. Before making such an attempt, however, he states that “it is a mistake to pigeonhole the filmmaker” because while he undoubtedly works in the realist tradition, he also displays expressionistic sensibilities.

He also references film scholars that are better known to readers than himself. Famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, for example, described Altman’s style as “intuitive, quixotic, essentially impractical” while Vincent Canby, her rival at the New York Times, wrote that Altman was an “explorer of American culture and what it means to be an American.”

Caso himself writes that Altman was a “satirist of the first rank and an ironist before irony descended into overuse”, that much of his work reveals his love-hate relationship with Hollywood and celebrity, that from the beginning of his career he liked to film groups of people at parties, that his endings rarely conform to dramatic expectations, that he “discarded straight beginning-middle-end plot in favor of characters who were the driving forces of the stories”, and that he loved, loved, loved overlapping dialogue. Case pulls examples that support these statements concerning Altman’s style from each of his films and scatters them throughout Robert Altman.

Such examples, however, as well as the analysis they are meant to support, only make-up a portion of the book. I wish I could say that the remainder of it is filled with quotes from Altman himself, tidbits about his biography, or parallels between his vision and the political or social issues of the time, but that's not the case. While there's some of that in there, most of the book consists of detailed summaries of each of his films. Even some of the most insignificant films in Altman’s filmography receive pages and pages of summary, and Caso writes these summaries in what at times come off as a bland and overly academic tone. I found myself speeding reading through some of them.

That said, such summaries will be highly useful to professors and scholars who are seeking a complete understanding of what the ‘Altmanesque’ vision consists of -- for in addition to breaking the plot down scene by scene Caso also points out some of Altman’s more noteworthy use of angles, cuts, and lighting -- but they will probably turn the typical reader off.

If you’re looking for nothing more than some information about the man behind some of your favorite movies and the stylistic approaches he employs to make his films so enjoyable, this might not be the book for you. The 2011 installment to the critically acclaimed Directors on Directors series from Faber & Faber, Altman on Altman (2011), which consists of one-on-one interviews conducted and edited by David Thompson, might be of more value to you. If, however, you want to get a complete understanding of Altman, his filmmaking style, and why his movies are so important to the history of cinema, Caso’s book is a must read.


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