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Kansas City (#110 of 3)

Robert Altman (1925 - 2006)

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Robert Altman (1925 - 2006)
Robert Altman (1925 - 2006)

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.

Robert Altman R.I.P.

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Robert Altman R.I.P.
Robert Altman R.I.P.

“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.”