“Two penguins are standing on an ice floe. The first penguin says, you look like you’re wearing a tuxedo. The second penguin says, what makes you think I’m not?” — Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion
“So by all means let’s plant poles all across the country, festoon the cocksucker with wires, to hurry the sorry word and blinker our judgements and motive ... Ain’t the state of things cloudy enough? Don’t we face enough fuckin’ imponderables?” — Al Swearengen, Deadwood
And so we face another imponderable with the news that director Robert Altman has passed away at age 81. The particulars of his death will no doubt surface in subsequent news reports (and I personally believe that Altman would prefer we focus on how he lived as opposed to how he died). But it’s no surprise that the few obituaries I’ve read thus far do little more than reformulate and regurgitate the received wisdom on this great film artist, praising M*A*S*H for the umpteenth time; consigning most, if not all of his 80s work to a barren, forgotten wilderness; slapping him on the back for his 90s “resurgence” with The Player and Short Cuts; and finally remarking with thinly veiled, aw-shucks irony (and decontextualized supporting pull quote) that his swan song, A Prairie Home Companion, is all about “death.”
Well yes, it is. But it’s about meeting death with a smile and a song, as exemplified by the scene where Marylouise Burke discovers the body of L.Q. Jones and quickly overcomes her horrified gut reaction with the help of Virginia Madsen’s becalmed and curious Grim Reaper. I like to think Altman did the same, looking his maker deep and direct in the eye, accepting mortality with a mischievous Cheshire Cat grin that I can only hope he flashed, in life, at the numerous financiers, industry insiders, clueless critics, and studio executives who worked overtime to quash and/or devalue his talents. I feel confident saying that Altman’s is a body of work that will stand the test of time, successes (Images, Kansas City, the supremely underrated O.C. and Stiggs) and failures (Quintet, the game of life, I’m looking at you) both.
It’s hard for me to write through shock—in some ways the death of a beloved artist hits me as deeply and profoundly as the loss of a close relative. In a more tempered frame of mind, I might be able to expound on the importance of Popeye and The Player to my own development as a writer and movie critic. Of the glories and frustrations, as a young college student, of seeing Kansas City in a near-empty theater where, to my retroactive delight, an elderly patron audibly told off Jennifer Jason Leigh (in one of her finest performances) every five minutes. Of the thrill of watching a restored print of Images with Altman himself in attendance—embodying contradiction, he hobbled up to the front of the auditorium (the outward stereotype of an old man), then let loose with a giddy and energetic series of recollections (a true conquistador, looking inward to discover the fountain of youth).
At the moment, I can only list these experiences and hope they convey—in microcosm, anyway—what Altman means to me. And besides, I’d rather not overstay my welcome on the eulogy pulpit. When it comes to death, I’ve got something of an Irish wake mentality: turn it into an outright celebration of a person who has now fully become a part of our hearts and minds. Below, I’ve listed a series of links, mimicking our “Links for the Day” format, that lead to writings on Altman and that will hopefully inspire discussion (please feel free to post additional links to pieces that I’ve, with no malicious intent, neglected to spotlight). Additionally, I’d ask that our House readers take the opportunity to comment, at their leisure and at whatever desired length, on the Altman films or experiences that mean the most to them
1. “Great Director’s profile”: Robert T. Self profiles Altman for Senses of Cinema.
[“That career has consistently been marked by high critical acclaim and hostile popular reception. His refusal to tell straightforward stories, his apparent improvisation of script, his casting unusual actors and stars against type, his restless and obliquely motivated zoom shots, his multiply layered soundtracks—such qualities have regularly been seen as significant innovations in Hollywood story and style or as quirky irritations. Reactions to Gosford Park again are representative in their exuberant admiration and characteristic antagonism. The hyperbolic superlatives of the national film critics reflect the qualities of invention now generally ascribed to America’s reigning auteur director: the film is everywhere described as “remarkable”, “brilliant” and “magisterial”. Like his other films which famously feature a large ensemble of actors—MASH, Nashville, A Wedding, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, The Player, Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, Kansas City, Dr. T and the Women (2000)—Gosford Park’s numerous story lines are perceived as “engrossing”, “entrancing” and “amazing”. The film reflects the director’s “astounding ability to orchestrate dozens of featured players into a coherent whole while allowing each actor individual shining moments.” Andrew Sarris praises Altman’s “patented polyphonic virtuosity”. The director who has routinely described himself as a painter rather than a storyteller is compared to Rembrandt, the “greatest flow master in movie history.” Roger Ebert writes: “Here he is like Prospero, serenely the master of his art.”“]
2. “California Split”: Peter Tonguette writes on Altman’s 1974 “gambling movie.”
[“Too often, it seems to me, Robert Altman is valued for his riffs on genre—whether it be the war comedy (M*A*S*H ), the Western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller ), the detective story (The Long Goodbye ), or the Agatha Christie-style murder mystery (Gosford Park )—and undervalued for his more direct and personal films, the ones which are least self-aware of other movies and most interactive with real life. I don’t want to fall into the same trap as those who under-rate that side of Altman by underrating myself the titles I’ve just rattled off—each and every one of which I love—but simply make the point that to prioritise this strain of Altman above others is to cut oneself off from what may be the purest expressions of this great director’s particular vision of life.”]
3. “Blogathon No. 3: Robert Altman—An Appreciation”: Michael Guillen reports on an on-stage Altman interview at a retrospective screening of Nashville.
[“Also liked when someone asked how he was able to convince Julianne Moore to be naked from the waist down for five minutes. He praised the actress, said the role was originally for Madeline Stowe who chickened out by saying she would be happy to be naked for him in some other movie, but not that one. He’d seen Moore on Broadway in “Uncle Vanya” and was impressed. Phoned her to say he was going to offer her a film role but that first she needed to know right off that she would have to appear naked from the waist down for at least five minutes. Moore paused and then said, “I can do that.” Altman was delighted, said he’d send over the script right away, and then Moore added, “Oh Robert, there’s an extra treat.” “Yes?” Altman inquired. “I’m a real redhead,” Moore cooed. Moore’s agent has asked Altman not to repeat that story so he asked all 2,000 of us in the audience to keep it to ourselves.”]
4. “81 Candles for Robert Altman”: Dennis Cozzalio takes an in-depth look at the Altman filmography.
[“NOTE: This is part three of my personal retrospective on the films of Robert Altman, in honor of the director’s 81st birthday and his upcoming honorary Oscar, to be presented during the telecast of the Academy Awards on March 5. You can access part 1 of this article by scrolling down this page or by clicking here. Part two of this article can also be found by scrolling down the page or by clicking here.”]
5. “Altman and Me”: Weepingsam of The Listening Ear on how Altman made him a…
[“Robert Altman made me a movie geek. That’s basically true. In 1992, the Brattle Theater ran a series of his films, probably inspired by the release of The Player, and I went to most of them. It was the first film series I ever attended, at least the first time I’d seen more than one or two films in a series. It changed me. The simplest change, I suppose, was that it got me in the habit of going to films - going to series’ of films, new films, old films and so on. It’s a habit that took a while to develop, but it started there. When the Altman series ended, I didn’t just start going to the next series at the Brattle - but I kept thinking about it. I read their schedules - I kicked myself for missing stuff. And eventually went to another one, and more after that, and so on. It took a couple years, but eventually it was a real habit.”]