By Aaron Hillis, Michelle Orange, Matt Singer, R. Emmet Sweeney and Alison Willmore
[Photo: “A Prairie Home Companion,” Picturehouse, 2006]
When Robert Altman passed away last week at the age of 81, it put an end to one of the most innovative and diverse careers in the history of American film. Though he made movies that became cultural touchstones 1975’s “Nashville” and his breakthrough, 1970’s “M*A*S*H” Altman wasn’t afraid to make a movie just for himself if he believed in it passionately enough. Even die-hard fans have Altman movies that leave them scratching their heads, be they his death-by-apocalyptic-board game boondoggle “Quintet” or his goofy Max Fleisher homage “Popeye” (to name a few of mine). But Altman’s unpredictability made him more lovable and made being an Altman fan exciting: you never knew what was coming next. He was just as likely to chronicle a year in the life in a ballet troupe (in “The Company”) as he was to adapt a John Grisham novel (“The Gingerbread Man”).
In my review of “A Prairie Home Companion” a few months ago, I called Altman “the cinema’s greatest tourist,” in that he would test a new genre or an unusual topic, make his mark, and move on. He redefined the Western (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller”), the private eye story (“The Long Goodbye”) and the parlor game mystery (“Gosford Park”), and tried everything from musical to sci-fi to romantic comedy to biopic. He wasn’t too much of a snob to work in television, and with his landmark political mock-doc series, “Tanner ’88” he practically reinvented it. For any other filmmaker, that could have defined a career. For Altman, that might not make his personal top five.
In Altman’s final film, 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” Virginia Madsen, who plays a radiantly beautiful angel of death, says “the death of an old man is not a tragedy.” The IFC News team begs to differ. Because Altman’s filmmography is so variegated, everyone has their own favorite. Here, we present ours. Matt Singer
“California Split” (1974)
Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliott Gould) bet on everything: poker, horses, fights, even their respective knowledge of the complete cast of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (“Sleepy, Grumpy, Doc…” says Bill. “That’s four,” says Charlie. “That’s three,” says Bill). The stars are so utterly charismatic, their free-flowing and largely improvised conversations so irresistibly charming, that we’ve fallen in love with them before we realize that they are basically degenerates who enable each other’s compulsive gambling. “California Split,” eternally overshadowed by Altman’s next picture (that’d be “Nashville”) is one of the most powerful movies ever made on the topic of luck, both good and bad, and how one can quickly slip into the other. The idea begins with the title itself, which appears in the credits along with a graphic that shows a diamond flush draw spoiled by a spade. And while our heroes’ luck waxes and wanes, Altman offers us glimpses of how their good or bad fortune impacts seemingly minor characters around them, whose brief but powerful appearances suggest whole lives that exist beyond their few scenes (one of the director’s particular specialties), like the woman Charlie talks out of betting on a horse that eventually wins its race, or the girl who innocently interrupts Bill’s once-in-a-lifetime shoot at the craps table to bet on her birthday. Altman, at his most self-consciously playful, repeatedly toys with our emotions and subverts our expectations. The movie builds to a high stakes poker game in Reno Altman barely shows it. And the climax is so beautifully and poetically tragic not because Bill and Charlie lose, but because they get everything they’ve always wanted and discover that everything they’ve always wanted simply isn’t enough. MS
“The Long Goodbye” (1973)
Wherein the title of my favorite Altman film conveys the cinephile’s healing process. Maybe “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or “Nashville” or even “3 Women” is his masterpiece, but nothing in his honest-to-god oeuvre makes me giddier than this sunny California anti-noir, starring Elliott Gould as an anachronistic reinvention of Raymond Chandler’s private dick Marlowe, one foot still in the 40s and the other in the Sexual Revolution. Exhaling line after brilliantly thrown-away line through a half-mumble and a cloud of cigarette smoke, Gould’s trademark “that’s okay with me” could almost be happy-go-lucky if he weren’t always on the chump’s end of an ass-kicking, crackin’ wise ’til his deadpan bleeds. What’s great about rewatching vintage Altman is that it’s always through his camera eye and reel-to-reel ear. Clearly, Gould was in peak form as an improviser this decade (see also: “M*A*S*H” and “California Split”), but it’s the director who provides the bounce, that easygoing momentum that allows his cast to be so loose and nimble. Then his instincts decide where to focus, revealing happy surprises that feel precise: The film starts, Marlowe’s hungry kitty jumps on his chest while he’s asleep, and I laugh every time. A vicious gangster suddenly slashes his girlfriend’s face with a Coke bottle to prove a nasty point (“That’s someone I love, and you I don’t even like”), and though I know it’s coming, I flinch every time. When an uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger turns up as a henchman, wearing only a porno moustache and yellow man-panties, well… I laugh AND flinch every time. Aaron Hillis
To say that “Nashville” is the movie that made me love Altman is ridiculously flimsy, like saying “Let It Bleed” is one of the Rolling Stones’ better albums, or that Arthur Miller is one of the top 50 most important American playwrights. But there’s a reason that “Nashville” is canonical it is the essential Altman sprawl, one that’s almost aggressively unwelcoming at the beginning in its unwillingness to settle into a narrative. There are dozens of characters, each drawn in with strange, sharp strokes Lily Tomlin’s gospel-singing, adulterous housewife; Ronee Blakley’s brittle country star; Shelley Duvall’s vacant-eyed visiting groupie; Keith Carradine’s sadistic ladies’ man and not one of them afforded more sympathy or focus than the next. And yet, halfway through, what seems a somewhat removed portrait of a time and place becomes something greater and remarkably warmer. Maybe it comes with the realization that we, as the audience, are as enfolded in the film as any of its characters, all but one of which seem ready to willfully bustle on long after the credits have rolled. Maybe it’s that the wide-angle take turns from observant to completely caught up, as if it were all the camera could do to keep up with the teeming minutiae of moment-to-moment living. Or maybe it’s that the chaos converges marvelously into one of the greatest endings ever given to a film. When Barbara Harris launches into “It Don’t Worry Me” (an anthem more appropriate now than ever), it’s hard to imagine a scene that more perfectly, reprovingly, lovingly and joyously encapsulates America. Just writing about it gives me goosebumps. Alison Willmore
“A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)
“A Prairie Home Companion” is the sweetest of elegies, mourning the death of an art form and it’s creator with wit and pratfall. It’s the final performance of Garrison Keillor’s romanticized Midwestern radio variety show, and Altman orchestrates his patented multi-character tableau with generous expertise, his elegant backstage tracking shots and sprinkles of magical realism (in the person of a haloed Virgina Madsen) uniting the actors’ manic maneuverings. The warm gold tones of Edward Lachman’s cinematography envelops the performers in a frame of ready-made nostalgia, their performances an instant memorial to a time already past. Each song becomes a folksy, bouncy dirge. It’s a set-up that could turn sickly sweet, as Keillor’s stock in trade is broad caricatures of small town types, but the cast is uniformly superb, enriching each stock figure with sharp humor and deep wells of pathos. Maya Rudolph creates a complete character through the chewing of gum, Kevin Kline acts the fool with suave buffoonery, and Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin trade loving gibes between cracked harmonies. Altman’s final work may be his most optimistic, shedding much of his previous cynicism and embracing a pragmatic and deeply hopeful view of the resiliency of popular art. R. Emmet Sweeney
“Short Cuts” (1993)
With “Short Cuts,” Robert Altman revisited the interwoven narrative structure that brought him so much success with “Nashville,” and yet it’s the former film’s moment, story, and setting combined to create a perfect storm of style serving subject that sets directors imitating to this very day. From “Happiness” to, perhaps most notably, “Magnolia,” on to Iñáarritu’ s “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel,” to “Traffic” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” this month’s “Fast Food Nation” and television’s “Six Degrees,” the stylistic shorthand of overlapping narratives as a reflection of the irony and bittersweetness of pre- and post-millennial alienation has only gained momentum since Altman made what is certainly one of the best examples of the form.
L.A. plays itself in “Short Cuts,” though the Raymond Carver stories that inspired it were set in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a very specific choice, and the 22 principal characters (the film won a special ensemble Golden Globe), whose stories smoothly intersect or reluctantly collide, suggest both the urban sprawl of Los Angeles as a symptom of the country’s larger loss of community, and the private fiefdoms Americans were getting better and better at creating. Indeed, only a year or two after the film was released, our computers were where an ever-increasing number of us truly lived. That’s the most remarkable thing about “Short Cuts”: how prescient it feels now. Altman pinpointed a collective malaise and disaffection, after the L.A. riots and on the cusp of an economic boom, that evolved into entitlement (to “happiness” and fame, if not money), loneliness and rage a new holy trinity of the American psyche. Michelle Orange