Altman, Now More Than Ever

Welcome to Robert Altman Blog-a-thon Weekend, in which criticism and commentary sites band together to pay homage to Altman.

Altman, Now More Than Ever

Welcome to Robert Altman Blog-a-thon Weekend, in which criticism and commentary sites all over the Internet band together to pay homage to Mr. Altman, who will be given an honorary Oscar March 5. What follows is a running list that hopefully will grow and grow as Friday becomes Saturday becomes Sunday. If you haven’t done so already, notify me when you post something related to Altman and I’ll include the address and a description here. You can email me at [email protected] or post the URL and summary in the comments section of this thread, and I’ll add the information as soon as I can.

For best results, make like the opening credits of Nashville and read the following text aloud at high speed, in a booming carnival barker’s voice, starting with:

The Altman Oscars! What better way to counter the day-late-dollar-short melancholy that surrounds the director’s award from an industry that ignored or misappreciated him for long periods of his durable career? Rather than dwell on Crash versus Brokeback and the like, Cinemarati has concocted an alternate universe list of Oscar nominees drawn entirely from Altman’s filmography. “I can’t pretend not to have somewhat mixed feelings about this,” writes contributor Brian Carr. “Here’s a guy that Hollywood turned its back on throughout the Reagan Eighties, a development which he turned to his advantage by directing a string of smaller-scale films starting with the outstanding Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. His five nominations for directing over the years are certainly a sign of some appreciation for the man, but is there anything that can overcome the mortification of being defeated by Ron Howard? The fantasy lineup is a delight, an Altman geek’s answer to fantasy football—a tribute to the filmmaker’s floating repertory company and a stealth ranking of all-time great Altman performances, songs, zooms, subtle visual gags and gratuitous nudity. (See below for more, more, MORE Altman nudity!) The Altman Best Actor and Actress categories include:

Julie Christie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Shelley Duvall, 3 Women
Cynthia Nixon, Tanner on Tanner
Sissy Spacek, 3 Women
Susannah York, Images

Elliot Gould, The Long Goodbye
Phillip Baker Hall, Secret Honor
Michael Murphy, Tanner ’88
Tim Robbins, The Player
Robin Williams, Popeye

Let the quibbling begin. What, no Warren Beatty for McCabe & Mrs. Miller? No Julianne Moore for supporting actress in Short Cuts? And where’s Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy” from Nashville for best song? Does having won a real-world Oscar disqualify it? Damn you, lists; I reject you, then I seek you out.

Self-Styled Siren says that in light of The Player, Altman’s honorary Oscar underlines”…another point about the film colony, namely its sheer cluelessness. Oh sure, they believe they’re in on the joke. But do they realize just how dark that joke is? In some of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, Daffy Duck would tear around shrieking, ‘I know when I’ve been insulted!’”

NYC Film Critic takes us through Nashville song-by-song. “Like all great movie musicals, the key to understanding Robert Altman’s 1975 masterwork Nashville is to pay closer attention to the characters’ songs than to their dialogue. That’s because the large cast of characters that make up this sprawling epic reveal more about themselves through their music than they ever would in conversation.”

Jdanspsa Wyksui, an Altman newbie, finds Nashville satisfying because it is “…unusually unromanticised…I expected Nashville to be a celebration of the American Dream, and in a way it is, but it is deeply critical of it; from the start it has characters singing about peace, love and understanding, then as soon as the song ends they settle back into their bitter, disagreeable, and troubled persona. Dreams don’t crumble in this film so much as they are denied outright. Everybody wants for more—that great reconciliation, that deserved recognition, that wider success—but it’s always out of reach. Some realise this and some don’t, and it is heartbreaking to watch those in both camps as they either deal with a crushing realisation, or continue to delude themselves.” (For a sprawling, original take on Altman’s sprawling, original Nashville, see Ray Sawhill’s 25th anniversary Salon appreciation.)

The Great Swifty Speaketh! joins the blog-a-thon, undaunted by the fact that he has seen just one Altman movie, The Company. He is respectful but not enraptured. “I think it will be rather difficult for me to actually sit through it again, but then, that is pretty much like being dragged off for dinner with people who don’t really click with you.”

Bill Roundtree revisits Altman’s snowy frontier. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, I flatter myself to think, a uniquely impossible experience to relate to anyone else, even anyone who loves it. That’s partly the gift of Altman in general, who’s the filmmaking equivalent of Spinoza’s God: the creator as noninterventionist. Improvisatory, organic constructions leave too much room for variance to ever pin entirely. But it’s specifically true of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a movie that seeks (calculatedly, to an extent, which makes its success all the more unlikely) to settle in the shadows of a world at the moment of its disappearance.” The Listening Ear considers McCabe at length, in the context of Jean-Luc Godard’s movies and his analysis of movies. Altman’s western illustrates “…what Godard called the ‘complex’—the ways people try to live together. He tends to do this through discourse—through the ways people talk to one another. Or, usually, fail to talk effectively. Altman’s films are famous for their murky dialogue, the ambient noise that makes it hard to hear, the overlapping conversations interfering with each other, the low recording levels—that is a factor here. But even when they can hear each other, they can’t understand each other.” At The House Next Door, David Milch, creator of HBO’s Deadwood, discusses McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a formative influence on his own vision of frontier life.

Wandering the backroads of Altman’s filmography, More Than Meets the Mogwai ambles off into the woods, picks through the brambles and digs up a treasure: a short film Altman produced for a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live guest-hosted by Sissy Spacek, who was then starring in Altman’s as-yet-unfinished 3 Women, and in Welcome to L.A., which was directed by Altman’s friend and artistic heir Alan Rudolph, featuring Spacek with Altman regulars Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine (who make postmodern sort-of-cameos in the SNL short). Upping the ante, this essay analyzes Altman’s filmmaking, with particular emphasis on editing, to suggest how Altman might have been working through, or perhaps riffing on, conundrums posed by that movie, Rudolph’s movie, his own career and cinema in general. “Altman’s exercise in montage subtly connects both films in a myriad of ways, with the least common factor being the use of same actors and actresses. There’s a similar sensibility in the devotion given to actress Spacek in both Rudolph and Altman’s films that makes the interconnectedness seem organic.”

Another Altman spelunker is Girish Shambu, who revisits Altman’s pre-M*A*S*H feature, 1969’s That Cold Day in the Park, which stars Sandy Dennis as a woman who spies a young man in a park on a rainy day, chats him up and brings him home. “One thing leads to another, and soon we’re in gothic-land.” But the movie’s true star, Girish writes, is “…the signature audiovisual strategy that Altman puts into place here, fully-formed, for the first time. He uses a potent combination of: (1) fluid, prowling pans, (2) zooms, both in and out, and (3) constant play with in-focus and out-of-focus.” (For more on Altman’s visual and aural strategies, read Robert T Self’s “Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality.”

Liverputty examines Altman’s nudes. “There are always layers in Altman to undercut any titillation. Altman made an anti-western. He also makes anti-nude scenes.” For a more detailed look at one such scene, check out Five Branch Tree’s take on Julianne Moore’s bottomless showstopper in Short Cuts. “On one hand, the scene is filled with intense drama…But on the other hand, this is thick with black comedy because, to be blunt, Mrs. Wyman was caught with her pants down.”

Like Anna Karina’s Sweater raises a toast to Altman’s Health. “Like Nashville, Health is strewn with various interconnected plot threads, though it’s far more anarchic here. It’s hard to say whether or not this is by design, but it actually works in the film’s favor. The political maneuverings and underhanded tactics are mostly presented without any context, but this senselessness makes the film that much more interesting.”

Drifting scrutinizes two lesser-known Altmans but cannot quite embrace them. In O.C. and Stiggs, the director’s signature is vivid enough, “but so too is the fact that Altman is working against the grain as far as content goes, looking with that zoom lens of his for something, anything, with which to qualify this comedy about the misadventures of two high school charlatans.” Images is Altman’s Persona, but ’s while it’s “…very well made, of course; it’s also very deliberate, very reserved, very careful.” Whine-Colored Sea contributes an elliptical Altman-related list, including a shout-out to Images and 3 Women, which were Lynchian long before Lynch was Lynch. “People get so fixated on Altman’s multi-character epics that they forget about these two psychosexual delusions and what-the-hell-just-happened? identity-swapping dramas.”

Curious about A Prairie Home Companion? You know, for film ran an early review as its inaugural post back in January.

Looking for an offbeat Altman angle, When Canses were Classeled settles on one of the director’s most offbeat leading ladies, Shelley Duvall. “As I scanned through DVDs looking for an appropriate screencap or two, I was reminded of just how often, among many other recurring actors, Shelley Duvall appears in Altman’s ’70s films. And how odd it is that she never again appeared in an Altman film following Popeye. Rumor has it that Altman reacted to Duvall’s stint getting systematically dismantled by Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining by grunting, I suppose with resignation, ‘she’s a different actress.’ But, for a period, she seemed like Altman’s secret favorite.”

Culture Snob excavates a long essay on Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges and extracts a nugget on The Player that asks how Altman could make us care so much about the film’s revolting protagonist, Robbins’ dirtbag studio hotshot Griffin Mill. “He embodies all the terrible traits we’ve come to hate in execs of any sort: He’s a liar; he’s self-centered; he looks down on nearly everybody; he cheats on his girlfriend with an exotic beauty named Good Dog’s Water (or some such), and he even kills a lowly writer. And worst of all, he gets away with every bit of it. Yet the movie works, not just as Altman’s gentle fuck-you to Hollywood, but as both a thriller and a human drama…How did that happen?” The answer is quite simple.

Coffee, coffee…and more coffee… contributes a still life of Vincent and Theo, which organizes itself around “the irony between van Gogh’s failure to sell his artwork while he was alive, and the immense monetary value his artwork has today. By making the film about the artist, Vincent van Gogh, and his art dealer brother, Theo, Altman has tried to say something about the conflict between art as personal expression and its commercial value.”

That Little Round-Headed Boy shows some love for Popeye, and explains why, despite being a cartoon adaptation, it’s overpoweringly Altmanesque. “There are so many things about Popeye to savor, but I especially appreciate its visual, intellectual whimsy. Watch how Altman introduces a close-up scene of Popeye in bed, then pulls back to show he’s rigged a sea salt’s hammock above the mattress. Or the framed ‘picture’ of Popeye’s pap, which is nothing but a piece of cardboard with two words: ‘Me Pap.’ These sight gags have smarts.”

If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… republishes a 2005 Bright Lights Film Journal article on Secret Honor. “Subtitled ‘A Political Fable,’ Secret Honor recasts Richard Nixon’s political career as the center of a New Left parable; a storybook tale for the barricades about a man helplessly stranded in a moonscape of poisoned idealism, trying to put sense to his own role in its creation, and dwelling within the lightless passages of its unseen realm.” For visual accompaniment, Jamie Stuart, a.k.a. MutinyCo, links to a photo gallery commemorating Altman’s 2003 appearance at Two Boots Pioneer Theater.

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule offers a fragmented three-part career survey. (Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.) Strewn throughout the text of the article are Altman-related links to books, movies, appreciations and the like. Among these: an appraisal of O.C. and Stiggs at Coffee, coffee and more coffee.

And that’s not all: The Wit of the Staircase on McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Quiet Bubble on Dr. T and the Women; The Evening Class recalling a 2003 Robert Altman tribute at the Castro Theater; Edward Copeland on Film’s take on Nashville, plus an anecdote about interviewing Altman.

But wait, there’s more: Coincidentally and wonderfully, the Museum of the Moving Image has announced “American Maverick: A Robert Altman Retrospective,” a 22 film series that will run April 29-June 8, 2006. Altman will appear at the museum with Kansas City and at a preview screening of A Prairie Home Companion. Screenings will include M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Thieves Like Us, Tanner ’88, Tanner on Tanner, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park and, on a double bill with Kansas City, Altman’s jazz documentary Jazz ’34. No schedule is posted yet, but the museum promises to finalize one soon.

And finally, speaking for more people than Mr. Altman could know, The Listening Ear has a confession to make: “Robert Altman made me a movie geek.”

UPDATE: At Fanzine.com, Benjamin Strong writes about Robert Altman’s Oscar acceptance speech: “Last night at the 78th Academy Awards ceremony the Establishment fed a lion and he didn’t bite. Robert Altman graciously accepted his Honorary Oscar, the award slated for aged filmmakers whose industry colleagues have never otherwise recognized their work.” And Kevin Killian writes about the Oscar Nosedive.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder and original editor of The House Next Door, now a part of Slant Magazine. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, he is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com and TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com.

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