Yesterday I learned of Robert Altman’s death as I might have the passing of a relative: through a phone call from a friend. Sometimes this man did feel as if he were a relation, perhaps because this greatest of American directors understood our world as a vast family tree of entwined dramas—torn asunder by the politics of sex, race, and class, but never uprooted. (This is why everyone who seriously cares about film culture will mourn this maverick director’s demise.) No filmmaker understood our human value so acutely and complexly, and the power of his unique vision—seemingly casual but, in truth, meticulously detail-oriented—was such that to watch a film like McCabe & Mrs. Miller was not unlike experiencing the birth of our great nation, and his last film, the almost alien A Prairie Home Companion, suggests its death.
Many years ago, when Popeye and M*A*S*H were the only Altman films I had ever seen, The Player came to me like a revelation. I was only 16, uncertain whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life devoted to painting, psychology, or film, and The Player revealed to me a way of looking at the world and the people who live in it in a way I never thought imaginable. The Player was largely responsible for me applying to film school at NYU, though it would take me years to realize that I didn’t want to make films so much as study them—to look at them in the same way Altman looked at us: closely, madly, and deeply, always trying to cut through the bullshit. Like the incidents of fate that bind so many of the characters in Altman’s films, the director would follow me in strange and mysterious ways, from a sexual tryst, no joke, that hinged on my affections for The Player to internships at Sandcastle, Altman’s production company, and October Films that came to me almost by chance.
Working for Altman seemed like a given to me—a means of giving back to a man who had given me so much. At Sandcastle, two days a week for one semester, I did little at first other than general office work, gawking during my downtime at his countless awards (a gold record for the Ready to Wear soundtrack, his Palm d’Or) and looking through the screenplays of Angels in America he was possibly going to bring to the screen (a project Tony Kushner, per a conversation he gave at the Tisch School of the Arts, was hoping the director would be allowed to take on) and letters of gratitude from people like Jim Jarmusch (who had just released Dead Man), thanking the man for the influence his work had on their own careers.
I would never meet Altman: He came into the office only once, after finishing work on The Gingerbread Man, on my very last day, looking fragile and chatting with Harry Belafonte for an hour or so before laying down to sleep on a couch. Before I walked out the door, after having worked for several weeks organizing part of his archives (bound for his hometown of Kansas City in Missouri) and transcribing Kansas City to script format for publication, I didn’t have the heart to wake him and say goodbye. Little did I know at the time that he didn’t have the heart he once had either and probably needed all the rest he could get.
An ill-timed internship at October Films would later hinge on my having worked at Sandcastle. I didn’t do anything there that was very notable (getting coffee and answering phones for some bigwig I don’t care to remember, taking over one person’s job for a few days when they were sick, and placing postcards for the company’s films all over the city), except for buying the cookie jar the company was going to feature on the poster art for Cookie’s Fortune. That day in SoHo, I put some thought into picking out a jar that would personify the spirit of Altman’s film, which I hadn’t seen yet but could imagine what it was like. The essence of that jar may or may not have mattered as much to anyone else, but I knew it would for Altman, whose films were all about the fine details.
Many years later, when so many critics were ragging on The Company, it gave me pleasure to be quoted in ads for the film (I had named it my favorite film of 2003), because it felt as if I had done something to help bring more people to this great film. This year I passed on interviewing Altman prior to A Prairie Home Companion opening, partly because I wasn’t crazy about the film, but mostly because I felt that meeting him would somehow demystify the pull he has had on my life. This is not a decision I regret. Altman certainly didn’t need another person to tell him what he already knew: that his films have a great effect on the people who see them. Today, it feels right that I only got to know him from afar, another little planet to circle and orbit near this great sun in a vibrant universe of people and dramas that took him more than 50 years to create.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.