Altman, Robert: Recipient of 2000 Career Achievement from Scottsdale Center for the Arts

It gives us a great pleasure to present Robert Altman with the second Scottsdale Film Achievement Award.

The epitome of nonconformist filmmaking, Robert Altman has refused to play by the rules. Altman's work is based on attempts to reconcile basic contradictions in Hollywood: genre versus art film, popular versus serious entertainment. Drawing on the energy of classic genres, Altman brought an astutely ironic, irreverent gaze to bear on traditional American values.

From the beginning, Altman's approach was freewheeling and non-linear. Unlike other directors, Altman has never been a traditional storyteller; he is more interested in mood and ambience than in plot. His multi-layered, innovative films continue to show fondness for loose, incongruous style. In other words, Altman has rejected routine Hollywood moviemaking in the name of new ways of seeing.

After his debut, The Delinquents, a movie about juvenile crime, a decade elapsed before he returned to features with Countdown. Since then, he has directed inventive films which revisited and revised popular genres: the war movie (M.A.S.H.), detective thriller (The Long Goodbye), Western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), love on the run (Thieves Like Us).

Altman was influenced by verite documentarians, Jean-Luc Godard's street style, John Cassavetes' low-budget resourcefulness. The zoom was a key to his style, a melding of fiction and documentary, lending his films freshness and realism. He would stage a master shot packed with people, and then reach through the crowd with the zoom for close-ups. Warren Beatty, who starred in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, once observed that “Altman had the talent to make the background come into the foreground and the foreground go into the background.”

Altman asserted himself as a front-rank director with M.A.S.H., an iconoclastic black comedy, which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes and the Best Screenplay Oscar. It is still his biggest commercial hit. Displaying what became his distinctive style of overlapping sounds and images, M.A.S.H. was not about combat but about the American way of practicing war. After the film's huge success, Altman was flooded by studio offers for big-budget productions, but he typically chose Brewster McCloud, a whimsical allegory, opening up a career-long chasm between the stubbornly individualistic director and the Hollywood establishment. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, and Thieves Like Us garnered him a well-deserved critical praise.

For the second–but not last–time in his career, Altman came back from the cold with Nashville, the fullest realization of his talent, an inventive mosaic of the American experience composed of 24 characters. The film, and Altman, were nominated for Oscars, after being named best picture and director by the New York Film Critics. Nashville featured a multi-layered narrative, a large ensemble of gifted actors, breezy speed, witty music, and overlapping dialogue. The feel of time and space, stretching to contain the actions of two-dozen figures, sharing equal time and moving in random turmoil and coincidence, was highly original.

Altman followed with other varied and experimental films: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Three Women, A Wedding, Quintet, and Popeye, a comic strip starring Robin Williams. In the 1980s, Altman turned to theatrical material, making Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers, and Fool for Love, films that set the tone for the new independent film movement by targeting more discerning viewers. In the 1980s, moving to Paris, he worked on Secret Honor, a monologue about Richard Nixon; the cable miniseries Tanner '88, a political satire; and Vincent & Theo, a meditation on about Van Gogh.

In 1992, Altman surprised Hollywood yet again with The Player, a black comedy about the industry, his first commercial and critical success since Nashville. The film was enriched by cameo appearances from celebrities like Cher, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts. Heralded as a comeback, The Player made Hollywood the butt of the joke. His droll, explorative camera style was evident in a showy 8 minute-opening that conveyed vividly the ambience on a studio lot. Thematically, it was a return to Altman's America as a place of frauds and dreamers. With a typically Altmanesque irony, The Player earned major Oscar nominations and brought him back from the cold.

Altman has always made movies his own way, but the disenchantment with the studios and their obsessive concern with marketing led to a break. Following what he called his “third comeback,” Altman still refuses to conform to the conventions of traditional cinema.

Short Cuts, based on Raymond Carver's stories, was a lengthy, complex film that interweaves two dozen characters in a portrait of contemporary Los Angeles. The film caught the hazy, slippery looseness of L.A., specifically its casual violence and childishness.

Altman has devoted his entire career to the exploration of various movie genres, diversity of point-of-views, and wide range of settings. In his efforts to democratize American movies, he has resisted Hollywood's formulas, instead paying attention to the
voices of women and blacks in such movies as Three Women, Kansas City, Cookie's Fortune, and most recently, Dr. T. and the Women, two eccentric comedy dominated by women.

For Altman, the medium is the message, which translates into disorienting the spectators by defying expectations. Altman's signature is specifically American, both in themes and styles. His best work (M.A.S.H., McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville) deals with the tension between individualism and community, or more specifically, with how Americans handle racism, sexism, and violence–in other words, the corruption of the American Dream–and yet remain decent human beings.

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives us a great pleasure to present Robert Altman with the second Scottsdale Film Achievement Award.