Robert Altman, 1925 - 2006.
, the caustic and irreverent satirist behind M*A*S*H
and The Player
who made a career out of bucking Hollywood management and story conventions, died at a Los Angeles Hospital, his Sandcastle 5 Productions Company said Tuesday. He was 81.
for the AP.
This is one instance in which we can quite concretely measure how much a loosely connected community of cinephiles values the work of a filmmaker as singular and significant as Robert Altman. In March at the House Next Door
, Matt Zoller Seitz
introduced a Robert Altman Blog-a-Thon, and it's from that entry and the comments that follow that I would advise anyone to begin exploring Altman's impact on the art.
See also: Robert T Self
in Senses of Cinema
, Nick Pinkerton
's interview for Reverse Shot
and the Wikipedia
Updated through 11/26
- and back to 1975, too, with Pauline Kael
Updates: Rick Lyman
in the New York Times
: "A risk-taker with a tendency toward mischief, Mr Altman is perhaps best remembered for a run of masterly films - six in five years - that propelled him to the forefront of American directors and culminated in 1975 with what many regard as his greatest film, Nashville
, a complex, character-filled drama told against the backdrop of a presidential primary.... Unlike most directors whose flames burned brightest in the early 1970s - and frequently flickered out - Mr Altman did not come to Hollywood from critical journals and newfangled film schools. He had had a long career in industrial films and television. In an era that celebrated fresh voices steeped in film history - young directors like Francis Ford Coppola
, Peter Bogdanovich
and Martin Scorsese
- Mr Altman was like their bohemian uncle, matching the young rebels in their skeptical disdain for the staid conventions of mainstream filmmaking and the establishment that supported it."
: "Robert Altman taught me how to see movies, and I went into his classroom kicking and screaming.... I can't even get a meaningful grip on the emotions that are churning in me this morning as I try to grasp the fact that Robert Altman is gone. He lived an amazing life, and he had a career that might be a model for any director, were it not for the fact that the very iconoclasm and individualism that informed it, his irreverence for the bean counters and the powers that be, coupled with the artistic highs and lows that marked his brilliant journey, his particular stretch on the timeline of film history, couldn't possibly be repeated."
reminds us of Matthew Ross
's cover story in the Spring 2006 issue of Filmmaker
and adds, "[W]hile many younger directors complain about the inequities of Hollywood and their inability to get their movies made, Altman remained both philosophical and wiley, committed to testing the boundaries of both the system and society with his sly, fast-footed dramas."
at the House Next Door
: "It's hard for me to write through shock - in some ways the death of a beloved artist hits me as deeply and profoundly as the loss of a close relative. In a more tempered frame of mind, I might be able to expound on the importance of Popeye
and The Player
to my own development as a writer and movie critic. Of the glories and frustrations, as a young college student, of seeing Kansas City
in a near-empty theater where, to my retroactive delight, an elderly patron audibly told off Jennifer Jason Leigh (in one of her finest performances) every five minutes. Of the thrill of watching a restored print of Images
with Altman himself in attendance - embodying contradiction, he hobbled up to the front of the auditorium (the outward stereotype of an old man), then let loose with a giddy and energetic series of recollections (a true conquistador, looking inward to discover the fountain of youth). At the moment, I can only list these experiences and hope they convey - in microcosm, anyway - what Altman means to me."
collects quotes and links from reviews spanning nearly 20 years.
at Reverse Shot
: "Even if he wouldn't have it, we would call him something of a genius: his genius lay in his ability to let his cast riff, sparkle, shine, and flutter, and in his own refreshing inability see how exacting his camera was in allowing them to accomplish this."
: "Introduced as having worked with "every actor from Lillian Gish
to Lindsay Lohan
," by critic Peter Travers (who moderated last month's Hamptons conversation), Altman was asked what still excited him about making movies. 'The cast,' Altman responded immediately, 'It's always the cast.' He added, 'As you pull a layer off, you realize they are really courageous, really gutsy... I admire them for what they bring to me (and) to the audience.'"
: "Oh dear, I thought Robert Altman would keep making movies forever." Amen. "I will treasure my last memory of him, at Picturehouse's Oscar party at the Four Seasons: Meryl Streep
, John C Reilly
and Jennifer Jason Leigh
all sat at the same table, leaning in to listen to Altman. Actors always did adore him."
has a great photo snapped by Fabrizio Maltese
at the Berlinale in February.
offers an annotated list: "I'd take this tiny Tuesday-afternoon moment to single out a few of the maybe less-spoken-about Altman films that have meant a lot to me, and which I'd rate among his best works."
: "After watching the film, itself a meditation on death, I emailed a friend and commented that should this be his last film, it would be a fitting, perfect, and graceful exit. And indeed it was."
at Ain't It Cool News
: "The Sadness in losing Robert Altman isn't that the filmmaker who made great films in the 70s is dead. No, the sadness is that one of the most unique and vibrant filmmakers of TODAY has passed." Quint's comments follow.
: "I'm grateful that Academy gave him his due, albeit honorary, last year before it was too late because film lovers are unlikely to know a true original like Robert Altman ever again.... Now that Altman's entire career is before us, it's a good time for those of us who loved him and those unfamiliar with much of his work to take the opportunity with the prolific body of work he's left us."
calls the Cinemarati: "Rather than bury him, why not praise? What are your favourite Altmans and why?"
points to Gerald Peary
's 2001 interview.
: "He, and his gift for storytelling, will be missed forever."
offers a personal top ten and adds, "Altman continued to push the envelope in his third act, though for me, he never quite found the answer to the complex puzzles he tried to solve. But there is some magic in each of the films, whether as broken as Cookie's Fortune
, as close to greatness as Gosford Park
, or as simple and clean with just a touch of Altman with A Prairie Home Companion
: "He was a beautiful ornery man, occasionally touched by genius. That's how genius is - it visits, whispers, flutters down and lights you up... and then it's gone."
: "Whatever the late director felt about 'the industry' (The Player
gives us a strong hint) Altman was a giant whose missteps and failures were as interesting as his unqualified successes.... Celebrate his legacy with a commemorative screening. My pick: McCabe
, a dirty, ornery, beautiful, wonderful film. Farewell Robert Altman."
: "He's one of the few filmmakers to work in the last half-century who truly epitomized the idea of independent filmmaking and could honestly be called a maverick."
: "I never tire of teaching The Player
, especially that tour de force opening shot, in my introduction to film courses."
Cahiers du cinéma
has an online viewing tip.
: "As Henry Gibson
says at the end of Nashville
: 'Somebody sing!'"
More: Fresh Air
revives a 1990 interview.
at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger...
: "As one of a small number of artists in mainstream American filmmaking whose methods could justly be called revolutionary, he left a mark on all Cinema that is at once indelible and enigmatic to the point of critical frustration.... If we can look upon his labors, good and bad (and his films could reach extremes of both conditions), there is at least one thread running through all of it: Altman's aesthetic was, at bottom, one of constant examination. The dreamlike slow zooms and pans so omnipresent in his filmmaking were merely the immediate visual manifestations of an endless process; one that sought to discover within a given project those elements which might, in the end, prove most transcendent. He was both drawn to and repelled by mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, and in the 1970s it resulted in one of the greatest flourishings any artist in Cinema has yet managed."
: "Now that Altman is gone, I'm hard pressed to name another living filmmaker as playful or as fiercely devoted to depicting humanity in its simple yet multifaceted form. Mike Leigh
comes to mind, but his subject matter is more committed to the caustic. Wong Kar-Wai
is also close, but Wong's visuals are as potent as his subjects. Jean-Luc Godard
is still alive, but his pugnacity has overtaken his innovations. I must turn back to Altman as sui generis
: his perverse amicability, his love of jazz, and his incessant though unobtrusive experimentation. He was one of the best cinematic realists we had. And I don't see any emerging filmmaker coming close to Altman's accomplishments."
: "The cinema needed this man and I'll miss him as a movie fan."
: "The life cycle is finite. Thank God. Because otherwise how could we appreciate anything?... It's with that in mind that I think so fondly of the dearly departed Robert Altman."
And more: Jeffrey Overstreet
gathers a "few words about Robert Altman from his friends and colleagues..."
Jim Emerson's compiled Roger Ebert
's "Altman Home Companion."
: "His fugue format, pouring dozens of plots into a post-ethnic melting pot, gave everyone a brief grab at movie immortality. On the great plains of Altman's precious wide screen, America bustled, hustled and tussled. His searching telephoto lens, focusing on this micro-event or that, suggested the eye of a man who is always interested, was rarely impressed by all the milling. This was the director, of course, whispering to his characters, 'Go on, make fools or heroes of yourselves. Don't let me stop you.'"
Updates, 11/22: AO Scott
in the New York Times
: "Altman thrived on the shapelessness and confusion of experience, and he came closer than any other American filmmaker to replicating it without allowing his films to succumb to chaos. His movies buzz with the dangerous thrill of collaboration - the circling cameras, the improvising actors, the jumping, swirling sound design - even as they seem to arise from a great loneliness, a natural state that reasserts itself once the picture is over. A makeshift tribe gathers to produce a film, or to watch one, and then disperses when the shared experience has run its course. Everyone is gone, and the only antidote to this letdown is another film.... At the moment, signs of his influence are everywhere: in the overlapping dialogue and interlocking scenes of a television show like The Wire
, for example, or in the multiple narratives drawn together around a theme or a location, in films like Babel
and Fast Food Nation
. And in the last year of his life, the Hollywood establishment, which had often treated Mr. Altman like a crazy old uncle, hailed him as a patriarch, presenting an honorary Academy Award as compensation for the half-dozen he should already have had." Also, an audio slide show
and more slides
without the audio.
in the New York Observer
: "The death of my old friend Robert Altman, at 81, marked the passing of the most inclusive American artist that any medium - film, theater, music, literature, art - has known.... Working at the margins of a system whose reliance on formula he loathed, he was Hollywood's Whitman - hearing America not only singing, but loving, screwing, celebrating, cheating, praying, hustling and, above all, dreaming. In this world, he was the biggest dreamer of all."
In the Guardian
"It is tempting to think that the definitive Altman films might have been the many never made - EL Doctorow's Ragtime, from which he was fired by producer Dino de Laurentiis, outraged by Buffalo Bill; a long-cherished adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions; a biopic of Rossini; revisits to Nashville and Short Cuts; and a plan to make two films from Tony Kushner's Aids drama Angels in America," suggests Jonathan Romney. "Altman's wavering fortunes have conferred on his career a sort of quixotic nobility."
"Robert Altman is the only truly independent American movie director who had a sustained career - 40 years, nearly. Griffith and ,a href="http://www.greencine.com/character?pid=15753">Preston Sturges managed it for about 10 years. Orson Welles for less, and intermittently," writes David Thomson. "He made his films and reckoned that if he was on, there were a few million Americans ready for them. If you're a novelist, a few million readers is glory."
Dan Glaister gather tributes from actors and writers; so does the BBC.
"Over the course of his venerable, glorious career, he worked in seemingly every genre, but he left such an unmistakable imprint on each of his films that the 'Robert Altman movie' became a genre unto itself." Nathan Rabin introduces a series of tributes at the AV Club, where Noel Murray interviewed Altman in 2004 and Keith Phipps spoke with him in 2000.
"It was my good fortune to meet Robert Altman more than a few times; Nashville is one of the key reasons I got interested in movies." Ray Pride offers a "few outtakes from a bromide-rich 2000 interview for Filmmaker's IFP/Gotham special issue."
In the Hollywood Reporter:
Gregg Kilday "Nominated for five Oscars including best picture, [Nashville] won just one for [Keith] Carradine's deceptively simple song 'I'm Easy.' That tune, along with Nashville's ironic sing-along 'It Don't Bother Me,' might as well have served as Altman's own theme songs, because when he was in his element on a film set, he did make it look easy."
Kirk Honeycutt: "Altman's best works have a marvelous chaotic flow that seems to arrive at a startling, revelatory conclusion almost by accident. Because of this and his notorious popularity with actors, the myth about Altman's working method is that much of his films are improvisational. 'Totally wrong,' Altman told me. 'Nashville, for instance, was the most amazing movie because there were no surprises in it. It grew into exactly what our initial view of it was.'"
Martin A Grove: "Altman's well received last film, A Prairie Home Companion, which opened last June via Picturehouse, could put him back in the Oscar race for one last time this year and give Academy members a last opportunity to honor him."
Tom Hall: "I was thrilled to have been able to meet him, to be able to host him, and to talk with him a little and share my appreciation for his work. There are not many opportunities in life to tell a great artist how you feel about what they have given to you, but I am luckier than most to have been given the chance to tell Robert Altman how much his films mean to me."
In the Los Angeles Times:
Patrick Goldstein: "However prickly, Altman had something many of his peers lacked: an original cinematic mind. In America, so many directors have become commercially minded that you have to look abroad for comparisons. As with Fellini, Godard or Almodóvar, you only needed to see five minutes of an Altman film to know who was behind the camera."
Dennis McLellan: "As testament to Altman's reputation as an actor's director, more than 60 celebrities, including Jack Lemmon, Bruce Willis, Cher, Lily Tomlin, Burt Reynolds, and Anjelica Huston agreed to work for scale playing themselves in cameos in The Player."
An annotated list of personal favorites from Peter Rainer; more recommendations from Susan King.
Andrew Gumbel for the Independent: "One critic, Scott Foundas of the Los Angeles Weekly, remarked a few years ago that he still directed with the enthusiasm and inventiveness of a young man. Altman himself liked to tell interviewers that nobody had had a better time of it in the movie industry than he had - never making a movie over which he had anything less than total control, from the script to the final cut."
Jack Lechner in the Voice: "Robert Altman was the great cynical humanist of movies. He was less sentimental than Capra, but just as entertaining; less intellectual than Godard, but just as incisive; less show-offy than Spielberg, but just as virtuosic; less forgiving than Renoir, but just as full of life. Full of life, that was Robert Altman - and that's why it hurts to have to refer to him in the past tense."
And the Telegraph.
Online viewing tip. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin presenting the honorary Oscar.
Via Guy Dammann, blogging at the Guardian:
Sean is back at Bitter Cinema and recalling Altman's days as a dog tattooist.
Jeffrey Middents R: "Perhaps more than any other contemporary director... Altman's work has connected with me on a personal level for quite a long time.... [T]he first visceral joy of going to the movies? That belongs to 1980's Popeye."
Stylus Magazine's recommendations plus remembrances from Dave Micevic and Alfred Soto.
Jim Emerson: "Like hundreds, thousands (millions?) of cinephiles and cinephiliacs, I found life (and, paradoxically, shelter) in Robert Altman's movies. Nashville is my church, to which I return again and again for joy, insight, inspiration and sustenance. (I haven't written about it for years, but I also know that I'm almost never not writing about Nashville.)"
"Altman's critique of genre, linked to scathingly satiric social criticism would not matter as much as it does, were it not for the fact that, primarily in his studio triumphs, he was a relentless innovator in cinematic form," writes Larry Gross at Movie City News. "When the history of post world war II American cinema (till now) is written I suspect that the two artistically decisive figures - the last men standing if you will - will be Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman."
Salon's Stephanie Zacharek: "Altman didn't hit the mark every time, but then, his movies were never about hitting marks: At their best and greatest, they were semi-improvisatorial flights of free-flowing precision - in other words, they were moving contradictions, and you had to be flexible enough to move with them, to grab onto their weird poetry, which seemed to be forever ambling just out of our grasp. His most wondrous picture, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a dream unfolding in a snow globe, is the most perfect example of Altman's poetic gifts."
Stop Smiling is running James Hughes's complete 2005 interview.
More online viewing. Alternet's Evan Derkacz has the trailer for Nashville and a clip of Altman recalling the troubles on the set of M*A*S*H - which he only heard about later.
"The death Monday of Robert Altman has put into jeopardy Picturehouse's feature based on the 1997 docu Hands on a Hard Body, which Altman was to direct and produce," reports Steven Zeitchik. ""It's going to be very tough," [Bob] Berney told Daily Variety. "This was conceived as a Robert Altman film, and I'm not sure there can be any other way to do it.'"
Slate's Dana Stevens: "As Garrison Keillor said earlier this year in A Prairie Home Companion, a fictional imagining of that radio show's farewell broadcast that turned out to be Altman's own farewell: 'I don't do eulogies.' I just want to be sad for a moment, in print, that the man is gone. He was a singular figure in film history, a bohemian craftsman who was also a satirist of American manners on the order of Mark Twain."
Online listening tip. Elliott Gould remembers Altman on NPR. (About four minutes.)
Joe Leydon tells a few stories recalling Altman's rockier side and then adds, "Even if you don't think each one was a great film, you must agree that each was made by a great filmmaker. Robert Altman will be missed, to be sure, but he also will be celebrated - today, tomorrow, for as long as people care about cinema. A director may die, but his movies remain forever in the present tense."
Chris Barsanti: "He shot too quick and too rough, moved too fast, and artistically never stood still; his greatest virtue as it was his vice."
Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door: "In keeping with the spirit of the moment, today's links are dedicated entirely to Robert Altman-related essays." Five very good choices.
"We don't often commemorate amid our regular editorial coverage the deaths of national artists, entertainers, and other personalities who figure prominently in the public eye." But Shawn Badgley explains why, in this case, the Austin Chronicle most certainly will.
"Before M*A*S*H and The Player, Altman had forced his fierce honesty onto unsuspecting television characters. It marked the beginning of a forgotten march through America's cherished archetypes, challenging one beloved hero after another." A roundup of the unheralded early work, Altman's "7 Secret Wars," from Destiny at 10 Zen Monkeys.
New York's David Edelstein: "Altman certainly didn't direct the way others did. He assembled ecosystems (platoons of gifted actors with vast histrionic reserves), set them in motion, and then pointed a camera (often two cameras) and a microphone (always many microphones) at them. He would sift through his hours of vocal tracks for the words he wanted you to register — Bob Balaban, his collaborator on Gosford Park, marveled that Altman made choices in seconds that would have taken someone else months. He was a Zen director. His camera stood coolly back from the exhibitionists — sometimes contemptuously (if the characters were right-wingers or snobs), more often with wonder.... Don't leave us, you marvelous bastard."
Looker: "I miss him already."
Vince Keenan: "Years ago I instituted a three-strikes policy for directors. Make three movies I don't like and I never have to see another one.... But I made one exception to the rule from the outset. That was for Robert Altman."
Ed Gonzalez, blogging at Slant: "No filmmaker understood our human value so acutely and complexly, and the power of his unique vision - seemingly casual but, in truth, meticulously detail oriented - was such that to watch a film like McCabe and Mrs Miller was not unlike experiencing the birth of our great nation, and his last film, the almost alien A Prairie Home Companion, suggests its death."
AJ Schnack: "But for me it was, and will always be, about Nashville."
Updates, 11/23: Via Scott Macaulay at Filmmaker, Ira Deutchman, who helped distribute some of Altman's films, recounts several stories at Emerging Pictures' new blog. A recurring theme: "Once you were in Bob's orbit, it was hard to break away."
"I vividly recall being a UNC freshman and seeing his 1970 breakthrough, M*A*S*H, at the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street," writes Godfrey Cheshire in the Independent Weekly. "With the Vietnam War raging, Altman's acerbic comedy had the force of revelation not just for its dazzlingly innovative style and determined antiwar stance, but for something that embraced both: the presumption that its audience was smart enough to see through the US government's murderous lies about Vietnam, smart enough to understand new variations on film language as carrying political as well as aesthetic meaning."
"He would tell Ciment and Tavernier in the early 1970s, 'So we have this abject war that we are conducting in Vietnam. Our government only fights for purely economic, capitalist principles. It's a commercial war,'" recalls David Walsh at the World Socialist Web Site. "Something about his history and personality made Altman the appropriate chronicler, up to a point, of the growing economic and political uncertainties that beset the US in that period."
Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian: "The very idea of Altman as indie ancestor is possibly an illusion, created by his image as a grey-haired but robust survivor: craggy, rugged, with piercing eyes, and much more gaunt and haunted-looking in his final years than the rounder, more approachable Altman of the 70s. The dinner-jacketed Altman photographed with his lifetime achievement Oscar is a severe icon; the younger man is amiable, chubbier, academic-looking, but the late-period Altman is the sort of American who should be written about by James Fenimore Cooper or pictured with a rifle, like the statues of the Minutemen at Concord and Lexington."
Also: tributes from Julian Fellowes, Elliott Gould, Julie Christie and Mike Leigh. And Matt Malloy recalls "running away with the Altman circus."
Matt Langdon: "Like a true master he showed the actors the door and they found out how to walk through it."
Tributes in the German press.
Updates, 11/24: "Stanley Cavell, John Cassavetes, and Robert Altman have had some of the same things on their minds with regard to the medium of film, the question of human identity, the possibilities for human interaction, the state of America and its hopes. Specifically, the film genre Cavell has described and named as the melodrama of the unknown woman, seems to have preoccupied Cassavetes and Altman in their work as filmmakers." Film International runs an essay from Issue 22 by Charles Warren.
"Mr Altman's accomplishment does not rest solely on his great films. At his worst, he is still fascinating, surprising, up to something no other filmmaker would have thought to try." AO Scott revisits the oeuvre to indulge in a little ranking: "Masterpieces," "The 70s," "The Plays," "The Third Act" and "Catastrophes, Conversation Pieces and Curiosities."
At Hollywood Bitchslap, Peter Sobczynski "takes time out from the usual nonsense to offer up yet another tribute commemorating the passing of one of American's finest directors."
Via Joe Leydon, Peter Gilstrap's story in the Tennessean on how Nashville was originally received in Nashville.
Updates, 11/25: Online listening tip. A tribute podcast from the 92Y Blog.
The Telegraph's John Hiscock recalls his last conversation with Altman.
The Criterion guys ask Karen Stetler, "the producer who had worked with him most over the years, how she remembered him, and she sent us this..."
"Here's nine reasons why Altman mattered." From the Toronto Star's Geoff Pevere, via Jeffrey Wells.
Updates, 11/26: Philip French in the Observer: "Altman was a stoic with a tragic sense of life, a humane cynic, a showman, a shaman, and at times a charlatan. And above all an honourable survivor." Further down that page, Kristin Scott Thomas recalls working for Altman on Gosford Park.
Besides the fictional version of Hands on a Hard Body, two other projects Altman left unfinished, according to Rick Lyman in the NYT, are an autobiography and a film set in the art world.
Garrison Keillor in the Los Angeles Times: "He died in full flight, doing what he loved, like his comrades in the Army Air Force who got shot out of the sky and vanished into blue air - and all of us who worked with him are left with the clear memory of seeing an old man doing what he was passionate about and doing it at the top of his game."
Newsweek's David Ansen: "A cool, iconoclastic customer, he scorned sentimentality, upended the rules of genre, spurned happy endings. Why, then, did his best movies produce in me a happiness unlike any others?"
Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times: "No director did more to bring American cinema into the modern age."
At Cinematical, Jeffrey M Anderson chooses "seven representative works."
Ben Nuckols for asap on California Split: "No high-concept Owen Wilson vehicle could hope to match the energy of the interplay between [Elliott] Gould and [George] Segal as they try to remember the names of the seven dwarves."
The New Yorker's running Pauline Kael's 1975 review of Nashville: "Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie-lovers - but an orgy without excess? At Robert Altman's new, almost-three-hour film, Nashville, you don't get drunk on images you're not overpowered - you get elated. I've never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way: I sat there smiling at the screen, in complete happiness. It's a pure emotional high, and you don't come down when the picture is over; you take it with you."
Further updates will be happening here.
Posted by dwhudson at November 21, 2006 9:04 AM