Robert Altman in the 1970s

by Paul Monticone

“See, death is the only ending I know. A movie doesn’t end; it has a stopping place. That story, those people don’t die then: they live on and have terrible lives if it’s a happy ending, or if it’s a sad ending, they may survive it and recover and have happy lives. So death is the only ending and I deal with death as an ending. The people I have die are usually the wrong people, the ones you don’t expect to die. That’s the way it seems when people die.” (Robert Altman, 1992)

Altman’s quote, initially describing his resistance to narrative closure before digressing into the sort of modest wisdom that marked all of his interviews, sprung to mind on November 2oth. To anyone who takes American film seriously, the passing of Robert Altman was the sort of news that makes the world seem a little smaller and dimmer. Whether one thinks Altman the greatest American filmmaker since John Ford or a self-indulgent provocateur, the vitality and exuberance of each of his films is beyond dispute, to such an extent that the death of a frail, old man, who had just made the perfect swan song, Prairie Home Companion, came as something of a shock. The prodigious output of the indestructible Hollywood rebel had inexorably stopped, and a world without future Altman films is still hard – if not downright depressing – to imagine. To quantify what it is that we’ve lost, we can look to the works he left us, and his films of the 1970s – a decade of filmmaking that many identify with Altman – is the most obvious point of departure.

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After twenty years making industrial films in his hometown, Kansas City, and directing television series (Bonanza, Combat), Altman was hired to direct M*A*S*H, which, as Fox’s third and smallest budgeted war film of 1970 (after Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!), was made with little studio oversight. The film was a huge commercial success, likely due to its irreverent yet passionate expression of disgust for the Vietnam War, and convinced studio chiefs that this 45-year-old TV director could deliver the coveted youth audience. Altman seized the opportunity to turn out some of the most adventurous films ever made in Hollywood. In an industry already entering the age of development deals and half-decade long pipelines, Altman worked at a pace rarely seen outside of Hollywood’s 30s and 40s heyday, and, before the studios knew what had hit them, Altman turned out a half-dozen eccentric art films and genre deconstructions, none of which approached the success of M*A*S*H, and, before they could stop him, a half-dozen more. When Nashville didn’t “take off into the stratosphere,” as Pauline Kael and other critics predicted, studios became concerned. By the time Three Women was released, unease about his diminishing economic returns, reckless lifestyle, and eccentric production methods had become panic, and, in any case, Star Wars would soon show Hollywood what gambles were worth taking. Five years later, Vincent Canby called Altman “an essential part of the American film scene,” but, by then, he’d already left the West Coast for Europe.

If Altman captured something in the public imagination with his breakthrough debut, he didn’t pursue it for very long and quickly demonstrated that the public’s antiestablishment sentiments are not always accompanied by aesthetic adventurousness (today, we can call it the Sundance Syndrome). Of course, to some, his style appeared merely sloppy mock-documentary naturalism-cum-chaos, a view often encouraged by Altman himself. When interviewed, Altman described his job as getting out of the way of the actors and often explained his style as a way to give the actors as much freedom as possible (he often told the story of firing the great cinematographer Robby Muller for being too compositionally precise). That Altman indulged actors is evident throughout his work, freeing them not only to develop their own characters and dialogue but also their actions and blocking. As a result, Altman lights his sets flatly, so that the actors can go where they please, uses multiple cameras, shoots at a distance from the action, and records audio with radio microphones to permit this. These are certainly constraints that eliminate many of the options explored by cinema’s celebrated formalists. In Altman, one won’t find the perfectly staged long shots of Mizoguchi, the calculated montage effects of Eisenstein, the intricate camera movements of Ophuls, or the precise rhythms Kubrick could find in combinations of these elements. But within the limits Altman imposed on himself, he forged a style as aesthetically arresting and thematically suggestive as that of virtually any filmmaker.

Altman’s restless and obliquely motivated zooms, for example, move in toward a secondary character or unrelated detail of décor or performance as often as they accent the central dramatic business of a scene. As a result, the viewer is always directed toward a world beyond the story. The inversion of the device – the zoom out from a detail or isolated bit of action – serves to situate the story within this broader world. Altman’s multilayered soundtrack, which picks up dialogue only in scraps and often submerges the conversation most important to the story, perform much the same function, again pointing to a full, rich world beyond the frame. Noting these features of his style in isolation gives one the impression of a filmmaker devoted to certain type of realism, but, in combination on screen as the film unspools, the arrangement of elements within a fluid frame, the orchestration of movement within these fluid frames, and the rhyming of composition and movement between adjacent shots create an identifiable use of image and sound, a formal and lyrical flow we get taken up by, that shows us the world anew.

However much Altman’s early success may’ve had something to do with a counterculture zeitgeist – and his subsequent critical successes understood through this narrative – Altman was always devoted to a particular artistic project. Nowhere in the industrial system of popular American film can we find a filmmaker so thoroughly devoted to forging an alternative to popular American film. At every turn, he sought to overturn the fundamental principles of popular narrative storytelling inherited from 19th century literature and theatre, which posit human beings as unified social subjects guided by goals that are intelligible through meaningful action and the world as a vessel for such action, intelligible through and constructed for the pursuits of such individuals. Altman undermined such an understanding of narrative art – and its implicit understanding of the world, society, and individuals – most obviously through his style, as we’ve seen above, and instead showed human beings as “neither autonomous individuals nor meaningful unities, but a process of divergent and contradictory forces, both internal and external” (Robert Self).

Altman’s critique took three distinct forms in his work of the 1970s. His antiestablishment tendencies are most evident in M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye. These films are fine examples of the decade’s brand of genre revisionism, though somewhat more thorough deconstructions of their sources than most other 70s takes on Hollywood’s genres. McCabe & Mrs. Miller completely undermines the civilizing of the wilderness dynamic of the classical western, instead showing individual agency and ingenuity snuffed out by heartless, corporate America, which replaces the traditional Western’s idealized democratic society. Similarly, The Long Goodbye goes right for the heart of the private story by transforming Bogart’s cool, dominating Marlowe into an inept smart-aleck, floating through a baffling labyrinth of deceptions and double-crosses he cannot possibly understand. Images and Three Women will come as a surprise to those who associate Altman with epic tapestries of American life. These films, which owe a great deal to European art cinema, completely immerse the viewer in the subjective states of their heroines and are exhibits A and B in any riposte to those who, unable to fathom M*A*S*H‘s Hot Lips, would accuse Altman of being a misogynist. Nashville signaled Altman’s shift to the ambitious, multi-protagonist murals for which he would be most closely associated. A far cry from recent network narratives, such as Crash and Babel, Nashville doesn’t implicate all of his characters as causal agents, to some extent or another, in a plot that neatly demonstrates how we’re all connected. Rather, the characters are united primarily by the fact that they inhabit the same space, and the film is most concerned with showing their positions within the social structure of the place. Characters may occasionally interact, but they do so in an unpredictable fashion, rather than in ways designed to demonstrate a Truth we’re instructed to see is immutable and eternal.

Of course, Altman resists easy categorization, and there is a great deal of overlap between the categories suggested above. McCabe is as much about a community as it about the Western, and it ends with one the most deeply subjective moments in Altman’s oeuvre. California Split is as much a closely observed drama of gamblers’ habits and immersion into their states of mind as it is an essay on the buddy film. Three Women progresses from smaller-scaled observation of a particular place, similar to Nashville, before being overwhelmed by the subjective reality of its two protagonists. Ultimately, Altman’s art – often bitingly cynical and satiric but also warm and humane – is as contradictory, multifaceted, and maddening as life itself.

More on Altman:

Robert T. Self has written a great profile at the Australian internet film journal, Senses of Cinema.

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s The House Next Door hosted the Robert Altman Blog-a-thon on the occasion of his honorary Oscar in 2006. Keith Uhlich wrote a fine remembrance for the same blog.

Issue #7 of High Hat is dedicated to Altman.

Robert C. Cumbow has written an essay comparing Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s.

Among the books available about Altman, three are well worth your hard earned dollars. Robert T. Self, author of the above-linked profile for Senses of Cinema, has written the best book-length study of Altman’s art, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality. Two books of interviews by the master himself are indispensable, Robert Altman: Interviews, edited by David Sterritt, and Altman on Altman. Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a compulsively readable expose of 1970s Hollywood, full of juicy gossip and, of course, to be taken with a grain of salt.

And, sadly missing from this series, Popeye, universally reviled but magnificent all the same.

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