Altman, Robert: Maverick Filmmaker

The epitome of nonconformist filmmaking, Altman is an angry problem director who has refused to play by the rules. As Leo Braudy has observed, Altman built his work on attempts to reconcile basic contradictions in Hollywood: genre versus art film, popular versus serious director.

Drawing on the energy of classic genres, Altman has brought an astutely ironic, irreverent gaze to bear on traditional American values. From the beginning, his approach was freewheeling, non-linear, and genre-deconstructive. Unlike other directors, Altman has never been a storyteller, more interested in mood and ambience than in plot. An auteur whose multi-layered, innovative films show fondness for oose, incongruous style, Altman has rejected the well-made Hollywood movie in favor of commitment to new ways of seeing.

After his debut, The Delinquents (1957), an exploitation movie about juvenile crime, a full decade elapsed before he returned to features with Countdown (1968). Since then, he has directed inventive films which revisit 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, Godard’s street style, Cassavetes’ low-budget resourcefulness. The zoom was a key to his innovative style, an unusual melding of fiction and documentary, lending his films an unprecedented freshness and sense of life. He would stage a master shot packed with people, and then reach through the crowd with the zoom for close-ups. Warren Beatty has 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. (1970), an iconoclastic black comedy, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and a Screenplay Oscar, and 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, as about the American way of practicing war. Altman looked away from carnage in favor of a nastily detailed depiction of camp life during war.

After the film’s huge success, Altman was flooded by studio offers for big-budget productions, but he typically chose Brewster McCloud (1970), a modest, whimsical allegory, opening up a career-long chasm between the stubbornly individualistic director and the Hollywood establishment. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), and Thieves Like Us (1974) garnered critical praise but were of limited marketability and all failed at the box office.

For the second–but not last–time in his career, Altman came back from the cold with Nashville (1975), 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.

Having regained Hollywood’s trust, Altman quickly squandered it on Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), Three Women (1977), and A Wedding (1978), varied, experimental works that again failed to win audiences.

Quintet (1979) about a future ice age, and Popeye (1980), a big-budget comic strip, pleased neither critics nor audiences.

In the 1980s, Altman ran into hard times with his reliance on theatrical material that seemed pedestrian after his 1970s work. Still, small-scale films, such as Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers, and Fool for Love, set the tone for an indie movement that targeted more discerning viewers.

By the 1980s, the Hollywood establishment had written off Altman as unpredictable and uncommercial. Moving to Paris, he worked on Secret Honor (1984), a monologue about Richard Nixon. The cable miniseries Tanner ’88 (1988), a political satire gained favorable response, as did Vincent & Theo (1990), a meditation about Van Gogh that was the least Altmanesque in style but represented a return to form, even if it didn’t find its audience.

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 numerous celebrities, including Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. Heralded as a comeback, The Player made Hollywood the butt of the joke. His droll, sinuously 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, but the satire was not offensive enough, the target too easy. Even so, with a typical Altmanesque, The Player earned major Oscar nominations and brought him back from the cold.

Altman has always struggled to get his movies made his own way, but the disenchantment with the studios and their obsessive concern with marketing led to several breaks–and then comebacks.

After what he called his “third comeback,” Altman still refused to conform to the conventions of traditional cinema: “Hollywood doesn’t want to make the same pictures that I do, and I’m too old to change.”

Short Cuts (1993), based on Raymond Carver’s stories, was a lengthy, complex film that interweaves two dozen characters in a a portrait of contemporary Los Angeles. The unfaithfulness to the source material was a subject of contention, but it caught the hazy, slippery looseness of L.A., specifically its casual violence and childishness. As in Nashville, the cuts, the pans, and the looking sideways were interesting, though Altman’s innate cynicism about people curdled the film. Altman’s career has been devoted to the exploration of a variety of genres, diversity of point-of-views, wide range of settings.

In his efforts to democratize American movies, he has resisted Hollywood’s formulas and has been attentive to the distinctive voices of women and blacks in such movies as Three Women, Kansas City, and, most recently, Cookie’s Fortune (1999), an eccentric comedy dominated by women (played by Patricia Neal, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler) that introduced the issue of race in the most casual and natural manner.

For Altman, the medium is the message, which translates into disorienting the spectators by defying ordinary film syntax. Altman’s signature is specifically American, both in the turfs and in the styles used to explore. His best work (M.A.S.H., McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville) deals with the tension between individualism and community, specifically with how Americans handle racism and violence–in other words, the corruption of the American Dream–and yet remain decent Americans. His films negotiate the viewers’ attachment to–and detachment from–American culture, inviting them to engage in a debate about the link between the past and present of America as the promised land.

Along with directing, Altman has functioned as producer, most notably for his protege, Alan Rudolph, in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), Afterglow (1997), and other films.

The spirit of Altman’s work is expressed in Rudolph’s films as well as in Tim Robbins’ first directorial effort, Bob Roberts (1992).

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).