Middle-aged hipster. Indie film poohbah. Dirty old man. Snarky sonuvabitch. Legend of ‘70s cinema and beyond. Artist with a prickly level of impatience for the money men. Sweet old Missouri man. What’s your Altman?
Fifty years ago, Robert Altman made his first commercial splash with the heralded anti-war blitz MASH. All the hallmarks and bits and bobs were firmly at attention. The lingering, almost unwashed-looking camera. The propensity to populate a film with tons of actors, giving them fair time. A looseness of structure and vibe. Political, social antipathy, and a sense of place and period. Not to mention tons of smart-alecky dialogue and a distinctly calloused worldview.
MASH was arguably Altman’s breakout moment as a film director (and about damn time after languishing in television till his ‘40s), and from there, he couldn’t be stopped. Hit after flop after weird damn thing after genuine masterpiece later, Robert Altman movies endure as landmarks of the American cinematic vernacular. He was a painter of deeply idiosyncratic and absorbingly busy art, brushed in his own casual style of cinematic watercolor. In simpler terms, he was perhaps Dickens on pot.
As a 50th follow-up on MASH, and a celebration of a lasting filmography, today, Consequence of Sound has distilled the long career of Altman into a precision-built amphitheater of one man’s absolute best work. Just kidding; we’ve gone ahead and put together a fun and groovy starter list with lots of room for side adventures. Because Robert Altman. Because it don’t worry me.
Senior Staff Writer
The Wiseass Humorist
Now See This: “I had another idea. I think we should have some plays. You know, usually in football you have some organized plays…”
A football game, with a ringer, and non-prescription use of drugs, in a war film? Now dig this: This ain’t Mister Roberts. And it isn’t In The Army Now with Pauley Shore, thank Christ. This is MASH, the freewheelin’ comedy classic and calling card for Altman in Hollywood. He basically got away with this while Fox was sinking capital into Patton, and both war flicks made out with Best Picture nominations in the same year. And while Patton won, MASH is the one that inspired the hit show.
Altman did this under the radar (no pun, intended), and it’s such a freaks-and-geeks takes on the war genre. Arguably, no other war film has matched the hippy-dippy madness of Altman’s MASH. It basically redefined alt-comedy in the ‘70s with its acerbic view on combat and gore and pain and victory. It’s almost Python, it’s so droll and crass. So very Sundance as well in its naturalism and sense of capturing a happening. Altman landed on a tone and a style that would give him ample means to share his sardonic wit for the rest of his career.
Altman on Altman: “Fox had two other war movies going on: Patton: Lust for Glory and Tora! Tora! Tora!, both big budget pictures. I knew that and decided that and decided that the way to keep out of trouble was to stay out of their sightline – and the best way to do that was not go over budget or over schedule.”
The Damdnest Thing You Ever Saw: “This isn’t a hospital! This is an insane asylum!”
Alt-ternates: Brewster McCloud, Popeye, A Perfect Couple, OC and Stiggs
An Actors’ Dream
Now See This: It’s pure Americana. The little stories, accumulating into the melting pot (or power ballad as it were), that is Nashville. An ebullient farce on heritage, identity, polemics, and country music, Nashville is a compositional masterwork made up of millions of little beats. Stories, songs, and other accoutrement. And Altman had the pleasurable patience for each and every last one of his characters and whatever tall tale they might bring. He became known as a working exemplar for how to cram a shit ton of characters into your movie without bloat or free-falling narrative. Come on down.
In Nashville, there’s Connie (Karen Black), and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), the preening country stars. There’s Winifred (Barbara Harris), who sometimes goes by Albuquerque, on the lam from her hubby. There’s John (Michael Murphy), a scummy presidential campaigner. There’s an unseen presidential candidate riding around in his car, too. Who else? There are tons of handsome young singers. Bikers. Hippies. Actors. Plus! A wig-wearing old timey singer. The list goes on. The aging uncle. The naïve waitress. The BBC radio reporter agog at all of it! And there’s like 30 more characters, and Altman manages to give them all good time on the screen.
Here the director’s propensity for likening film to that of a reparatory theater goes into full gear. Altman wanted film to be like a great novel where people and personalities could flourish, and rarely could a director handle so much intrigue with such a calm and curious hand.
Altman on Altman: “I just wanted to take the literature of country music, which is very, very simple basic stuff – ‘For the sake of the children, we must say goodbye’ – and put it into a panorama which reflected America and its politics.”
The Damdnest Thing You Ever Saw: An assassination and everyone’s flipping the fuck out and mourning and scared and you know what?
Alt-ternates: Short Cuts, Gosford Park, A Prairie Home Companion
The Feminist Friend
3 Women (1977)
Now See This: Altman had a secret penchant for being good at the interior lives of women. McCabe & Mrs. Miller show-cased a frankly dumb-headed Warren Beatty in his star prime getting upstaged by a cunningly tricky and amiable Julie Christie. And Altman’s Images took the time to understand Susannah York as a psychologically traumatized and sympathetic woman.
3 Women is powerful, even provocative feminist poetry, from a male gaze, as Altman looks on in empathy and curiosity at the lives of Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule. Their emotional motivations, why they’re stuck in a desert California town, what it’s like to be a woman in the 1970s. Altman came up with this film in a dream while worrying about the health of his wife, and the sympathetic patience emanates grandly.
Hallucinogenic, and deeply inward, but always mindful of the thoughts, feelings, and sublime lives of women, of others, that Altman loves and respects, and perhaps fears.
Altman on Altman: “All the characters are like a rare species, lonesome, looking for a place in the world. The image I have in my head is of three female seals who have just kicked the last male seal off a rock. What the film’s really about is what happens when the last male dies, with the three women becoming the family in generations.”
The Damdnest Thing You Ever Saw: Shout out to Shelley Duvall, before kids shows and Kubrick abuse. She was an ingenue of spark and sincere
Alt-ternates: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, Thieves Like Us
The Bureaucratic Bullshit-Caller
Secret Honor (1984)
Now See This: Flop sweat, paranoia, and an impeachable man. Sound familiar? Secret Honor is part biopic, part political thriller, and part one-man play. All three are thrown into a pasta maker, and out comes this twisty, nutty, booze-infused stings on the legacy of one Dick Nixon. 37’s had a wealth of filmic takes, from the farcical (Dick) to the tragic (Stone’s Nixon), to the just plain annoying (any time a film is set in the ‘70s and an actor gets a rubber nose glued on). But Altman, per usual, made something familiar unique and all his own with strange new elements and takes.
Filmed as a course at the University of Michigan when Altman was a teacher of all things, Secret Honor imagines a Richard Nixon in limbo, recanting on his sins and stupidity. Modesty before pride, and pride always comes before the fall. And alcohol doesn’t help in suppressing our guiltier demons. This is Nixon exploded, devolving before our very eyes. Just add scotch. And Philip Baker Hall, in an act of virtuosity, sells the shit out of this disintegrating portrait. It is desperate and cerebral all the same. Witness this whiskey-breathed fantasy of a man once in high power, completely shambolic and insecure in his private den. Oh the irony, we can’t not watch as Hall devolves into fleshy goo.
Altman’s politics and reticence to conform to bureaucratic nonsense were always a gift of his. His willingness to challenge the status quo, or suggest that the bureaucracy is a big byzantine nonsense machine, populated by hoodwinks and gross dudes. Secret Honor is his masters’ thesis.
Altman on Altman: “Most villains never think of themselves as bad guys, and I’m sure Nixon didn’t, and we establish early on that his attitude was as is if he was a benevolent person. He was ashamed of his family. He had a great connection with his mother, though I don’t think he liked her very much, he was jealous of his brother, and his father was a failure. He thought you couldn’t become president with his background, and yet he did. Then as he gets drunker, he become proud of himself and more caught up in his fantasy and further away from reality.”
The Damdnest Thing You Ever Saw: Policy, legacy? Yeah, it’s always about MOTHERRRRRRRR!!
Alt-ternates: Tanner 88, Tanner on Tanner, HealtH
The Refined Cynic
The Player (1992)
Now See This: When he wasn’t mucking about in long shots, Altman always had this super-cool and sly way of deconstructing institutions with his deceptively elegant hand. The Long Goodbye takes the Marlowe potboiler and lets things bubble over into a morass on morality, eschewing any kind of standard noir conventions. Altman’s re-alignment of the Grisham thriller Gingerbread Man starts as a whodunnit, and ends almost like a “who knows what the hell is going on in the legal system anymore?”. And in The Player, the murder mystery becomes this snarky rebuke of Hollywood baseball as Altman’s allowed to riff and wander on the lot. What’s a little death when your next big hit is on the line.
Altman’s hand was so assure, and so stained by Hollywood by 1992, that The Player became this perfect reactionary statement. Griffin Mill, the executive with a good reputation for writers, is every bit as callow and self-saving as you might imagine, and Altman doesn’t let anyone off the hook. And what’s funnier is the parade of stars on board for Altman’s classy joke on the studios. Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Buck Henry, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Pollack, Burt Reynolds, and the list goes on. Who better to poke fun than the guy with over 20 years in the trenches? Here’s showcase for Altman’s ability to take ideas and instinctively run with them in clever ways.
Altman on Altman: “A script to me is a tool, just a reminder of what kind of picture you’ve decided with your collaborators to make. So you kind of pay attention to it, but I’m desperately trying not to shoot the script, whether it’s by me or someone else.”
The Damdnest Thing You Ever Saw: “You know what? I like Goldie! I like Goldie.” A playbook on Hollywood hype and horseshit, perfectly assembled in one great shot.
Alt-ternates: The Long Goodbye, The Gingerbread Man