By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Altman on the set of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Picturehouse]
The great gray recalcitrant lion king of the American New Wave has finally shuffled off the mortal coil years after many of us were surprised to realize he’d hung in there this long. The Academy may have waited too long to pelt him with an Oscar, but at least they did it, genuflected at his massive body of work less than a year before he died (rather than, say, yet again piss away a Lifetime Achievement slot on the likes of Michael Kidd or Blake Edwards). For the postwar generations, only Stanley Kubrick maintained as lofty a station in the public forebrain for as long as Robert Altman. It’s been a uniquely scattershot career, as rife with textural innovations and astonishing rigor as it was with pariah loathing and crash-landings 2001’s “Gosford Park” was merely his sixth or seventh comeback in almost 50 years of professional movie-making. Who knew, ever, if an Altman film would turn out rippling with silk-smooth sublimity or howling miscarriage? His lapses in judgment seem to flow from the same source as his wisdom. Compare the surgeon’s grace inherent in “Gosford Park” to the soused baboonery of “Prêt-à-Porter” (1994), and you glimpse a restless and conflicted intelligence plunging into the combat of cultural intercourse without the benefit of superego.
He began in the 50s, making promotional and educational shorts for a small Kansas City outfit, before branching out in 1957 into indie teen exploitation (“The Delinquents”) and feature docs (“The James Dean Story”), the two of which steered him toward steady network-TV paychecks doing grunt work for two dozen series, including “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Peter Gun,” “Sugarfoot” and “Combat.” He reentered the feature world in the late 60s, coming quickly upon the assignment that continues to be his branding product: “M*A*S*H” (1970).
The 70s turned out to be also Altman’s one summer of semi-consistency, a time when Hollywood’s new-wavey thaw on formula, cliché and pap was precisely what the maturing journeyman had been waiting for (at 45 when “M*A*S*H” was released, he was a full generation older than contemporaries Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Rafelson, Hellman, et al.). Altman’s halcyon decade has had plenty of laurels laid upon it, but today some of them wilt badly “M*A*S*H” is an unfocused anti-war farce better remembered than freshly seen, and “Nashville” (1975), a fabulously detailed dose of Americana-mania, is at closer look constructed from simplistic vignettes. The famous Altmanic textures spontaneous narrative collage, Babel-like aural chaos, superbly evoked off-screen space, focus-challenged compositions, foreground foofaraw are indelible, but the jokes and caricatures can be shockingly cheap.
Good thing the masterpieces yowl louder than ever. The ’70s were a wise era kind to satire, and Altman’s best films are Lasik cuts into American mythology, starting with “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), a seminal, foggy frontier odyssey that looks like it was shot in a muddy 1830 mining town and that has come to occupy its own exclusive sub-genre: the neo-realist anti-northwestern. One of cinema’s wittiest and savviest deconstructions, “The Long Goodbye” (1973) transposes Chandler to the ‘Nam era and ends up an anti-noir anthem, with Elliott Gould as a beleaguered, slovenly Marlowe slumming around glitzy 70s L.A. like an old dog who’s lost his sense of smell. “Thieves Like Us” (1974) is a still-underrated, wide-eyed adaptation of Edward Anderson’s slackjawed-outlaw-lovers novel, capturing the Depression-era landscape with dusty fidelity and remaining an underseen American New Wave incarnation of nostalgia reflux. “California Split” (1974) is even more bitter, tracking a contemporary Gould and George Segal into a maelstrom of obsessive gambling. In many ways, “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” (1976) caps off Altman’s 70s project, cynically boiling down his accomplished naturalism into a death march of commodified suffering. This grim parade of mutated history which focuses almost entirely on the eponymous Wild West show and its heroic depiction of Native American subjugation barely acknowledges the requirements of dramatic narrative in its disgusted litany of showbiz prevarications.
His subsequent disasters were truly disastrous few filmmakers could emerge from the landfill of “H.E.A.L.T.H.” (1979), “Quintet” (1979), “Popeye” (1980), “O.C. and Stiggs” (1987), “Prêt-à-Porter,” “Dr. T and the Women” (2000), and “The Company” (2003) with their honor intact. He spent the best part of the 80s making lean theatrical filmizations which were only and exactly as interesting as the play they adapted, which were in any case always lackluster. His last few decades were a coin toss no director has veered so alarmingly from cretinism (that includes, for me, the smirky-comic rape of Raymond Carver in 1993’s “Short Cuts”) to bedazzlement (including 1992’s “The Player,” of course, and “Gosford Park”) in such short spans. “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) is no kind of career testament, but by this time we’d learned that the ever-tetchy Altman would always follow his own temperamental star.