Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman

Sadly, Robert Altman died today. Over the past year, I've seen a whole bunch of his films and come to appreciate what a distinctive voice he was in cinema. He's one of the few directors unique enough to earn his own adjective, Altmanesque. I'd always thought of Altmanesque as realistic, big cast films featuring meandering art cinema style narratives. Nashville and Short Cuts are the archetypal examples of this, though McCabe and Mrs. Miller and a bunch of his other films that I haven't seen, like A Wedding or Pret a Porter, fit that description. However, watching his stuff I saw many different sides of Altman, a guy who can go from the observational realism of Nashville to the intense subjectivity of Images or 3 Women and also into genre work, be it the crime film in The Long Goodbye or the musical/childrens' film in Popeye. Not all his films work, but that's the consequence of being a guy who makes a lot of movies. Altman is in the mode of someone like Fassbinder, who seemed driven to make as many films as possible, maybe never finding the perfect polish of someone like Kubrick, but in the time it took Kubrick to make one film, Altman had already made five great ones.

One of the things I admire most about Altman is how he was able to keep his universe evolving as he got older. So many directors of his time burnt out and were reduced to directing crap. However, he made it through the dark time of the 80s without compromising his artistic vision, and came out the other side with the chance to make the films he wanted to make again. I think his 70s work is the best he's done, but it's very rare that you see someone remain artistically vital for so long. I love that he was still making films right up until he died and I hope that I can keep the passion and commitment that Altman had when I get as old as he was. It's great that Altman received an honorary Oscar earlier this year, and A Prarie Home Companion was a nice note to end his career on. The film is not a hugely significant entry in his canon, but it was sweet, and knowing it was his last film makes the countdown to the end of the show all the more poignant.

There's a general feeling that artists have at max ten years relevance, after that they descend into repitition or irrelevance. In film, I feel like a lot of directors lose touch with real life. When all you do is work on set filming movies, you're bound to lose the sense of what life is like for people outside the industry. This means that it becomes more difficult to find personal fire to fuel your films. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola both started with very personal, passionate projects and gradually became work for hire directors, making well made movies, but no one thinks that The Aviator has the same fire as Mean Streets. With Altman, you never got the sense that he had been absorbed into the industry. He kept a distance and that allowed him to remain personally vital, to keep bringing passion to the variety of projects that he took on in his later years. And his style never stagnated, A Prarie Home Companion is a dynamic and exciting a film, using camera movement and scene construction in unique, groundbreaking ways.

If you've only seen the big Altman films, like Nashville, I'd highly reccomend checking out 3 Women and Images. These two films are unlike most of the stuff in his oeuvre in that they're intensely subjective. Both are concerned with the restrictions placed on women by society, and use dreamlogic storytelling to explore the issue. Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire both have a lot in common with these films. 3 Women in particular is a lot of fun to analyze, full of psychological loose ends and mysteries that make it great for repeat viewing. I'd consider Nashville his best film, but it's a crime that 3 Women hasn't received more support from the critical community. But, there is a great Criterion DVD out, definitely worth a look.

I've written a bunch about Altman's work over this past year, here's the links.

3 Women
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Short Cuts

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