November 21, 2006

Robert Altman.

R.I.P.
He often took on Hollywood genres with a revisionist's eye, de-romanticizing the Western hero in 1971's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and 1976's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," the film-noir gumshoe in 1973's "The Long Goodbye" and outlaw gangsters in "Thieves Like Us."

"M-A-S-H" was Altman's first big success after years of directing television, commercials, industrial films and generally unremarkable feature films. The film starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould was set during the Korean War but was Altman's thinly veiled attack on U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"That was my intention entirely. If you look at that film, there's no mention of what war it is," Altman said in an Associated Press interview in 2001, adding that the studio made him put a disclaimer at the beginning to identify the setting as Korea.

"Our mandate was bad taste. If anybody had a joke in the worst taste, it had a better chance of getting into the film, because nothing was in worse taste than that war itself," Altman said.

How we loved Robert Altman back in the early 1970s. I don't have time to write more now, but I want to say that he meant a lot to people in my generation. He had a long and brilliant career, but those early films have deep and great significance.

46 comments:

Zeb Quinn said...

He made interesting movies. Usually very entertaining ones too. It was with "Nashville" that I realized that this guy was actually good, not just serendipitously successful, or solely as a result of superior source material. Good in his own right.

Ann Althouse said...

It was "Nashville" where I stopped caring about him. He got a big commercial success and I never even went to see that film. Much later, I bought the DVD and once I started to watch it. Never finished it. I have a mental block right exactly there. But how I loved "MASH" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "The Long Goodbye" and "Thieves Like Us."

Gahrie said...

If you enjoyed the movie M*A*S*H (much , much better than the series) than I suggest getting your hands on the books. There is a series of books that the original movie was based on. Most of them take place after the Korean War. The first is M*A*S*H of course, than they have titles like M*A*S*H goes to Morrocco. (warning..very un P.C.)

Anonymous said...

That's too bad about his passing.

His only movie I really enjoyed was Gosford Park and that's mainly because I like English/costume/period movies. Otherwise, I'm indifferent to his movies, though I recognize I'm in the minority about this.

Zeb Quinn said...

But how I loved "MASH" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "The Long Goodbye" and "Thieves Like Us."

I saw and liked those films too, but my impression is that M*A*S*H was his first and great commercial splash in the pond. M*A*S*H was also pointedly targeted to cash in on the ubiquitous anti-war sentiment, which by 1970 was de rigeur. Nashville was done on a marginally smaller budget and contained a much more obtuse message. It required you to actually think about what was being presented.

And a lot of hippies didn't like the superficial and titular Nashville-Country/Western theme, and rejected it out of the shooter on that basis. Their loss.

Sloanasaurus said...

I remember watching M*A*S*H the TV show and feeling sad about the enemy soldiers who were wounded and being treated and wondering why we ever fought in such a horrible war.

It was only later that I found out we were fighting a repressive regime who were trying to enslave not only their own people but the people in South Korea and that our soldiers were heroes and not the morally neutral anti heroes portrayed by M*A*S*H.

Robert Altman should be celebrated for what he was - an entertainer - and MASH was a very funny movie. However, thank God that a majority of people, when deciding what is right and wrong, do not look to people like Robert Altman for help in making such choices.

JohnK said...

It is interesting how so many of the great filmmakers in the 1970s can't do anything good in the 1990s and 00s. Scorsese hasn't made a decent film since Goodfellas. Spielberg hasn't done anything of note since Saving Private Ryan (War of the Worlds may be the worst movie ever made by a respected filmmaker). The two best things Altman could do in the last 20 years of his life were Gosford Park and The Player, two decent but imminently forgetable movies. I thought Shortcuts was damn near unwatchable.

Dave said...

Imminently forgettable? Or eminently forgettable?

In any event, Gosford Park was interesting. Nashville was ok. Haven't seen any of the others.

Hamsun56 said...

I recently saw "The Long Goodbye" again and it has held up very well. Much better than "MASH". IMHO, one of the best films of the 70's and Altman's best.

JohnK said...

eminently

I am Ameirca's worst speller. And yes Gosford Park was interesting, but if Altman had only made it and other movies of equal caliber instead of Mash and Nashville and the like, we wouldn't be talking about his death.

Jeff said...

"Popeye" is Altman's forgotten masterpiece.

No, I'm not kidding!

Edmund said...

I enjoyed "The Player", in part because I have family in the film business and so much of it rang true - almost a documentary. "Gosford Park" is a fun take on the English Country Manor Murder Mystery, but not a great achievement. I'm in the camp that enjoyed "Popeye" - it caught the flavor of the early comic strips and the first cartoons.

As for "MASH", my dad said it was very representative of how things were on the USN Navy hospital ship he served on in WWII.

JohnK said...

I am in the military and a war vetern and I don't consider MASH that anti-war. I look at it as a comedy of military manners that rings pretty true.

MadisonMan said...

I really liked Gosford Park, but I loved Upstairs Downstairs, Agatha Christie and Maggie Smith. So how could I not like Gosford Park? The only thing I remember about Nashville (I didn't see it) is that my Mom walked out of it because of the language. MASH I saw only after watching the TV show ad nauseum to the point that I could recite whole shows - it never struck me as anti-war, but rather anti-insanity of war and anti-bureaucracy.

bearbee said...

Maggie Smith......the best

I liked the 'The Long Goodbye' but not much else.

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed today by a friend, the singer Annie Ross.

Annie Ross of jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross ......

Pogo said...

When I was 12 or 13, my best friend's dad took us to a drive-in theater to see MASH. His physician father was and is a very sober and somewhat puritanical man, and by his reaction I gathered he hadn't known what was in the movie.

The shower scene was gutwrenching to watch, inasmuch as I had to have absoutely no reaction to it at all. We drove home in silence.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am a huge fan of his work, so take this with a shaker of salt. Films that I recommend include Brewster McCloud, Nashville, MASH, A Wedding, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Wonderful, funny, touching stuff. His work had a touch of magic and the sublime. I am so sad we will not enjoy any new movies from him.

Trey

George said...

His dance pic with Neve Campbell "The Company" was very pleasant.

He also directed a bunch of episodes of "Combat!"

From ballet to bayonets, Altman certainly did it all...

Michael Farris said...

Movie making doesn't get any better than Altman at his best. Lots of stinkers but I'm glad to put up with those to get the best:

McCabe and Mrs Miller
Nashville
Three Women
Gosford Park

I've never had the chance to see some that I've really wanted to:

Cold day in the park,
Long Goodbye,
Thieves like us

But then I liked Come back to the five and ten Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and preferred Short Cuts to the Player (too self conscious for me though Whoopi Goldberg was funny).

Ann Althouse said...

Zeb: "And a lot of hippies didn't like the superficial and titular Nashville-Country/Western theme, and rejected it out of the shooter on that basis. Their loss."

We rejected it because it was "commercial." It was actually an art-snob thing.

Michael Farris said...

I thought that Nashville wasn't the big commercial success it had been tipped to be which really damaged his career (though it wasn't the box office disaster that Buffalo Bill and some of his other high profile flops were).
IIRC citics of the time were mostly positive (but they don't buy many tickets). But...

the hippy crowd thought it was too commercial,
mainstream audiences thought it was too arty,
city audiences were alienated by the country thing,
rural audiences were alienated by the cynical tone.

He pissed off almost all possible audiences, he must have been doing something right.

That said, I'd say if you see one Altman movie, that's it.
Still, it's not always easy going and like his best 'crowd movies' it takes two or three viewings to really sink in, but boy is it worth it.

OddD said...

Jeff--

Yes! Popeye! The peak of so many careers!

Rick Lee said...

Jeff... I guess somebody had to like Popeye. Oh how I WANTED to like Popeye. I had super expectations for that... but boy was I happy when it was finally over! I was falling asleep.

MD said...

I never really liked MASH. I never thought it was funny. As a gen x'er, it just reminds me of boring tv reruns in the days before cable and tivo and youtube. Is that all that's on?

Madison Man - that was funny. I liked Gosford Park, too, and I have to admit that I still watch Masterpiece Theater pretty regularly, whether it's Prime Suspect or some totally pedestrian Thomas Hardy adaptation. There's a comforting samey-ness to it all. It's like bread pudding or something. Well, maybe not Prime Suspect.

Hmmm, is that the uniting feature to many of the commenters here? The love of Gosford Park? Interesting

MD said...

Oops, we're talking about the movie version of MASH, huh? But I saw that originally as a boring tv 'rerun'/special movie of the week, too......

Anthony said...

I'm technically a 'boomer' (1962) but don't consider myself attached to that generation, though not a Gen-X'er either. I knew it was a movie, but I saw the TV show before I watched any of the film version. Once I saw the movie, I thought it was pretty dumb and not particularly funny, which is probably explained in large part by my generational observation above.

So, eh, his passing means nothing to me beyond simple human sympathy at another's passing.

knoxgirl said...

Dang. "Gosford Park" is one of my favorite movies.

Ernie Fazio said...

Ann, either your memory doesn't serve you well, or you really didn't get the Nashville thing. Pauline Kael, the great movie critic, loved Nashville and gave it a twelve star review before it ever came out. All non singing cast members had to write and perform their own songs. It introduced Lily Tomlin to serious film work. Pauline Kael overgushed in her inimitable style. The rest of the criticocracy demurred. The pack, I guess you included, stayed away in droves. It was a huge financial failure, and he went into eclipse for a while only to return with Jimmy Dean, wherein he found Cher and let Karen Black play the M to F TG, Hickey of the play.

He was one of the truly great iconoclastic directors who refused to play by Hollywood standards. Nashville was great and remains great. MASH was okay, but McCabe and Mrs. Miller rewrote the western. It was a reality based High Noon. The Elliot Gould films of The Long Goodbye and California Split hold up well with M*A*S*H. A Wedding, Company, ShortCuts, the Player are all great in their way. The opening montage/homage of the Player reprises Welles' Touch of Evil--five minutes without a cut. For film buffs Altman, Woody Allen and Scorsese were up until today the living American auteurs.

Although Altman did not write his films, he crafted them in a unique style that has not been approached. The multivoice sound mixes, the surreal images, the ensembles all are special Altman touches that will stand the test of time.

MrBuddwing said...

I'm a bit surprised that nobody's mentioned "Secret Honor" (1984), which Altman filmed at the University of Michigan with students as part of the crew. A very low-budget movie, it features Philip Baker Hall in a one-man tour de force as former President Nixon, ranting and reminiscing about his life and political career.

When it came to evoking Nixon, I think Altman accomplished much more in 90 minutes with this shoestring production than Oliver Stone did in over three hours with a gazillion dollars and an all-star cast that included Anthony Hopkins.

MD said...

Okay, I think knoxgirl's comment is the best. And, like, I wish I had thought to say something in sympathy about his passing first, before launching into critiques...oh, the internets and comments. Can I blame my internet addiction for bad manners? (Kidding, of course).

Ann Althouse said...

Ernie: I certainly do remember that Pauline Kael thing. That's something we were reacting to. It turned us off.

Re "Secret Honor" -- I have an old post about it.

"The Player" -- that's my favorite Altman movie since those early ones that mean so much to me.

ignacio said...

I liked "McCabe and Mrs Miller" a good deal, in its melancholy undercutting of conventional expectations... all the way to the end out in the falling snow.

I came to dislike the TV show "MASH" so much that it's hard for me to recall the original film.

"The Long Goodbye" was pretty good, marred for me by the inexplicable casting of baseball-player Jim Boutin as Terry Lennox.

twwren said...

John K:

Sorry but War of the Worlds was just bad. The worst movie made by Spielberg was undoubedly A.I. It contains not one cell of originalty. The first third is derivative of 2001; the second, Blade Runner and the last, his own previous effort, Close Encounters. What trash.

George said...

John--

A.I. may not contain a cel of originality, but I thought it was heartbreakingly sad...a real tear-jerker, in the best sense of the term.

I can't think of another movie that so extravantly depicts the utter awesome undying eternal immensity of the love a child has for his mother.

snif.

MadisonMan said...

I'd forgotten about The Player. Gosford Park meets Hollywood. They're both great movies, and very similar.

Zach said...

Odd that he thought he had stripped the temporal context from MASH. The old piston-engined Bell helicopters fixed the time period so strongly for me that I never even realized the other context was missing. You might as well have the characters wear an Adlai Stevenson button.

Johnny Nucleo said...

M*A*S*H and McCabe. Great filmmaker in an era of greats. Is there anyone on this planet who disagrees that the seventies were the Golden Age of American cinema? Yes, even better than the forties.

johnstodderinexile said...

Altman's movies tended to have a disproportionate impact upon their release, but other than M*A*S*H, I have found his movies don't hold up a few years after they come out. This is especially true of "Nashville." Pauline Kael loved that movie, and, perhaps reacting like a Pavlov dog, I did too. But try watching it now. It's pretentious as hell, the story is barely a story, the characters are predictable and stereotypical -- it's occasionally amusing, but that's about it. Of his later movies, the only one that bears rewatching, in my opinion, is "Short Cuts." But even that movie does a perverse thing -- taking Raymond Carver's stories of blue collar residents of the Pacific Northwest and transferring them to...Los Angeles? The Los Angeles of "The Player." Carver's work is so strong, it survived this pointless translation.

Altman's movies made me think he was pretty much a misanthrope, and quite a shallow one.

Anonymous said...

Professor Althouse:

Thanks! You've finally focused why I felt so guilty about being unmoved by Altman's death - it's a generational thing, and I can't see how anyone whose first dose of Altman was the sour, tediously heavy-handed misanthropy of The Player or Pret a Porter would care less. (Gosford Park & Short Cuts only work to the extent you respond to their embarrasingly fine casts.) After seeing the awesomely bad The Departed over the weekend, I'm even starting to wonder if Scorsese's made a decent movie over the last fifteen years.

Ernie Fazio said...

It is a generational thing. Those ten years meant that Pauline Kael, herself an iconoclast who punctured many hollywood egos and skewered many other critics, set herself up for a fall and you youngsters piled on. Unfortunately, sometimes the young can over cynicize. Were you a little older, you would have run to that tour de force. However, still at university you and your friends, recently graduated from the Breakfast Club or following Ferris Beuhler, thought that Nashville was too Hollywood. Not to us American Grafitti afficionados. I know I am too old for this blog, but I recommend California Split, another viewing of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and a first viewing of Take Me Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmie Dean, Jimmie Dean. After that a dessert of Giant.

Revenant said...

Those ten years meant that Pauline Kael, herself an iconoclast who punctured many hollywood egos and skewered many other critics, set herself up for a fall and you youngsters piled on

I've never been able to take Kael seriously ever since reading her criticisms of David Lean -- now *there's* a man whose movies stand up across the generations. "Lawrence of Arabia" is arguably the best movie ever made.

Altman's movies never much appealed to me. MASH was clever, but clever on carries you so far. At the end of the day I didn't care much for the characters and didn't think the movie had much of a point to make. I had the same problem with Nashville -- movies, in my opinion, should either have fascinating characters or a point.

Gosford Park was good, but a film of that cast reading their laundry lists would probably have been pretty good too. :)

Ann Althouse said...

Ernie: "It is a generational thing. Those ten years meant that Pauline Kael, herself an iconoclast who punctured many hollywood egos and skewered many other critics, set herself up for a fall and you youngsters piled on. Unfortunately, sometimes the young can over cynicize. Were you a little older, you would have run to that tour de force. However, still at university you and your friends, recently graduated from the Breakfast Club or following Ferris Beuhler, thought that Nashville was too Hollywood. Not to us American Grafitti afficionados. I know I am too old for this blog, but I recommend California Split, another viewing of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and a first viewing of Take Me Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmie Dean, Jimmie Dean. After that a dessert of Giant. "

Ernie, how old do you think I am? And how old are you actually supposed to be? "Nashville" came out long before "Breakfast Club," so you're not too coherent there! Even if you got my age right, you're not making sense. You're talking about where whole crowds of people "ran," while I'm talking about an arthouse snobbery that I had. In any case, the Pauline Kael review was a huge deal. It came out weeks before the movie opened and attempted to control everyone's attitude. I was one of the people who reacted negatively to that. There were "crowds" who responded positively, but that was part of what was off-putting.

And let me add, that "American Grafitti" was something I saw and enjoyed when it came out. I even saw "THX-138" when it came out. I lost interest in George Lucas when he got his big success with "Star Wars," which I, true to type, avoided (untl, late in the first run, friends dragged us to it). I also saw and liked "Sugarland Express," but refused to see "Jaws." I just snubbed all the "popular" movies of that time, and "Nashville" moved into that area for me, even though Altman had been a big favorite for me right up until that point.

Anonymous said...

Professor Althouse:

I think Ernie's comment was directed at me - and for the record, I'm 35, and I very much doubt that my aesthetic development has been materially hampered by my ignorance of the works of the fine auteur John Hughes. :) But, sorry, I'll stand by what I wrote: The first Altman films I saw were The Player and Pret-a-Porter, and I was just repulsed by the nihilistic misanthropy behind the technical brio every bit as I was by the same qualities in 90's film god Quentin Tarantino. I've not seen anything in the dozen or so other Altman films I've seen to change my mind. It's might have been daring - even radical - forty years ago, from the perspective of the early 90's it's an exhausted, and exhausting, worldview.

And, for the record, I'm not a 'Paulette' - while I enjoy Kael as a prose stylist, and someone with an undeniable passion for film, I often violently disagree with her conclusions. I don't regard her criticism as holy writ any more than other favourite cultural critics of mine such as Robert Hughes, Christopher Hitchens, Lionel Trilling, Terry Teachout, Stanley Crouch, James Wood, etc. To the contrary, some of the best criticism I've ever read has affected me not because I agreed with it, but because the prose and the passion of the argument has forced me to look again at the work under consideration, and think for myself. (And am I the only person who has certain critics whose pans are more of a recommendation than a handred raves. To be honest, the NYT's Michiko Katukani has that effect on me.)

Rick said...

I interviewed Altman in 2002 while he was promoting the Gosford DVD, and we had a nice chat before our camera started rolling, in which I told him how much I liked his movies. I took the opportunity to ask him, "what's the deal with the ending of Dr. T and the Women? What was that whole tornado/baby ending about?"
He smiled and said, "Well, what do YOU think it was about?"
I mumbled something about the Richard Gere character having an epiphany; maybe feeling redemption, and felt embarrassed because I was sure it was a superficial answer. I looked up at him (he was a pretty tall guy) and said, "So, am I on the right track? Was that what the ending meant?"
"I have absolutely no idea," he said, and smiled broadly. He was absolutely serious, though. With that ending, as with so many other moments in his movies (remember the tracking shot at the beginning of The Player?) he was just having fun--having a little laugh at our expense, perhaps, because he could! Or maybe it is enough for artists sometimes to just ask questions and not deliver answers. Maybe the truly gifted artists are self-confident enough to know this; to know that their job as artists is to pose questions, and not to pretend to know all the answers.

SF Mom of One said...

I loved Robert Altman. True to his art. Not afraid to fail. Excited by a new project at age 81. And, based on Rick's report, unwilling to intepret his art into "messages."

I hated, with a passion, that last movie about Prairie Home Companion. And I loved so many more.

zzzzzzzzzzzz said...

I saw a comment stating MASH was not anti war but it was in a settle way. Altman uses the theater of the absurd to make the anti war statement as opposed to platitudes that the series used to be obviously anti war. The absurdity of war is shown right from the beginning with the theme song suicide is painless.