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Altman, Now More Than Ever



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 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 vs. 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 and 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, 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.



Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.



Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.



Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.



Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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