Monday, November 20, 2006

Robert Altman - Our tribute.

In loving tribute to Robert Altman
Born February 20, 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri
Died November 20, 2006 in Los Angeles, California

When Robert Altman passed away on Monday, November 20th he left behind five decades worth of directorial projects ranging from his earliest work as a gun for hire director from the salad days of television to his later film masterpieces. Yes, we said masterpieces.

A while back a good friend of ours (Hi, Ollie!) asked us what we thought was the last great breakthrough in film. We ruminated for a moment, and said: “M*A*S*H”. For like many breakthrough films throughout cinema history, “M*A*S*H” coalesced various techniques – the camera as character, overlapping dialogue, multi story plotlines – all of which filtered through Altman’s lens quickly became not only his calling card, technique, what have you but an altogether new shortcut for the feel and texture of a movie. Altmanesque was born.

No other director working in the 1970s can claim to have been more of a symbol for that era, or responsible for better films. Not Scorsese, Coppola, Forman, Fosse, Bogdanovich nor Spielberg. Beginning with “M*A*S*H” in 1970 and ending with the underrated “A Perfect Couple” in 1979 nobody else came close to capturing the changing times. For you see kids, the grand and glorious studio years were over and the rise of the young maverick director was upon us. Sadly, that would lead to the death of good mainstream storytelling ability and the birth of film school graduates armed with handheld cameras, a healthy dose of nausea inducing herky jerky movements that only served to distract the viewers and a complete lack of the very essence of great moviemaking – visual storytelling.

When asked about his famed style, Altman showed himself to be a class act:
"People talk about my signature. But I ask them if they ever saw Howard Hawks' films. They're filled with overlapping dialog. Everything I've learned has come from watching other directors: Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Huston and Renoir."
But the true earmark of a great director is not necessarily their ability to reinvent the medium, it has more to do with recognizing the universal film language brought forth by earlier giants and melding the right ingredients into a brave new vision.

Robert Altman was a man who was never afraid of tackling any genre, from Westerns to Comedies to Musicals, almost always employing his signature techniques and a rotating cast of character actors that became his film family. Many famous stars appeared before his camera: Paul Newman, Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall, Marcello Mastroainni, Anouk Aimée, Glenda Jackson, Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Harry Belafonte, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Kim Basinger, Whoopi Goldberg, Cher. But it is for his exemplary use of such talented character actors as Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, Lily Tomlin, Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, George Segal, Karen Black, Geraldine Chaplin, Joel Grey, Barbara Harris, Scott Glenn, Ned Beatty, Kenneth Branagh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Lili Taylor, Keith Carradine . . . the list is endless and equally impressive, that he will always be fondly remembered.

Here was a director who relished fine acting and brought out the best in his talented casts. Always living up to the idea of “the more the merrier”. While it is certainly true that the great Howard Hawks and Jean Renoir were masters at manipulating large casts themselves, Altman brought this style to a heady peak with such groundbreaking films as “M*A*S*H”, “Nashville”, “The Player”, “Short Cuts”, “Gosford Park” and this years brilliant “A Prairie Home Companion”. The first five films on that list earned Altman his five unsuccessful Best Director Oscar nominations, an oversight that the Academy sought to assuage with his Honorary Oscar presented at this year’s ceremony. The presentation itself was the highlight of the evenings festivities, staged with comic brillo by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep. A testament to the love his actors held for the great lion of modern moviemaking.

Even with the Academy’s version of a consolation prize, the master was grateful and humble. "I can't think of a better award - to me it's better for all of my work than for just a couple of things."

With his passing, many have begun to comment on his being the last true giant of film directing. He was certainly this countries best living director, one that lesser men and women looked up to with reverence. We will not argue the point. We merely suggest that you run to your nearest video outlet and purchase or rent some of his great films to bathe in their brilliance. Besides the aforementioned flicks, we would like to point out our own favorites – some recognized as masterpieces in their own right, some overlooked but equally worthy.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), Altman’s finest hour in our opinion, a revisionist Western famed for its gritty production values consisting of a fictional town and a film set that was being built simultaneously. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie have never been better as a con man and whorehouse madame out to stake their own claims. Miss Christie earned her second of three Oscar nominations for this perfect performance.

Images” (1972), the once great and now almost forgotten Susannah York in her Cannes Film Festival award winning role as woman on the verge. Of what we leave to you to find out. A great companion piece to his later gem “3 Women”.

The Long Goodbye” (1973), Altman’s updating of Film Noir for the “Me Decade” featuring a great leading turn by Elliott Gould as Raymond Chandler’s legendary private dick, Philip Marlowe and a sterling supporting cast headlined by the very great Sterling Hayden.

California Split” (1974), Elliott Gould and George Segal deliver terrific performances as two low rent hucksters scavenging their way through penny ante hijinks. Altman’s most underrated flick, a real gem.

3 Women” (1977), recognized by the critics as a masterpiece, ignored by the public, this film has thankfully survived the ages as a modern film classic examining the lives of . . . well, three women. A wonderful look into the minds and more importantly the souls of three disparate characters.

Vincent & Theo” (1990), Altman’s biopic of the famed Van Gogh brothers symbiotic relationship that nurtured a genius. A mad, tortured genius, but one for the ages. With solid work by Tim Roth and Paul Rhys.

Cookie’s Fortune” (1999), Altman light and at his laid back comedic best. A wonderful and varied cast of pros, led by the legendary Patricia Neal in a heartbreaking performance as the matriarch of a wild and wily family consisting of Glenn Close, Julianne Moore and Liv Tyler!

In closing, we only wish to note that even Altman’s weaker films such as the infamous flops “Popeye” or “Prêt-à-Porter” benefit from his brilliant casting and satiric viewpoint. While they may not be worth your time, his list of hits more than compensate. And no living director can match the quality of his film successes. Watch and learn. And don’t forget to raise a glass to the great Robert Altman for all the terrific films he has left behind.

We leave you with this wonderful quote from the maestro himself:

Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.” In that case, Bob, your life has yet begun. Bless you all!



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