Damndest Thing You Ever Saw
Robert Altman, 1925-2006
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movie fan has a short list of favorite filmmakers, directors they
will follow through thick and thin, anticipating their every release
with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession. Robert Altman was high on
my list but unlike the other directors whose careers I follow, I sat
down to each new Altman film with a mixture of excitement and dread.
Altman was not a man of in-betweens. His movies either raised the
bar for what was possible with cinema or completely and utterly
failed to get out of the starting gate.
This hardly makes Altman unique. Every director strikes out a time
or two at bat. But usually this is a result of too many cooks
(usually studio execs) sticking their noses in and trying to dilute
what makes the director special. Not so with Robert Altman. Each and
every one of his movies is unmistakably his own. Even something like
Popeye, a glorious mess of a
would-be blockbuster, is instantly recognizable as a Robert Altman
Popeye, perhaps not
surprisingly considering my age, was the first Altman movie I ever
saw, though I obviously didn't realize it at the time. When I
finally started to take an interest in specific filmmakers, I
started my investigation into Robert Altman's work with M*A*S*H,
the movie that made his career and defined what would be a Robert
Altman film. At the time, I didn't think much of it but something
about it made me want to seek out his other work. I tried Nashville
next and was hooked for life. To this day, there has never been
another movie quite like Nashville,
a sprawling epic revolving around characters rich and poor, famous
and struggling to be discovered. It's funny, sad, exhilarating and
shocking, often simultaneously. Nashville
opened my eyes to a whole different kind of storytelling on film. It
was the first movie I ever saw that made me realize that films were
capable of the same kind of depth and ambition usually found in
novels. It remains one of my favorite films of all time.
Altman continued to win me over with movies like The
Long Goodbye, one of his most underrated films, Secret
Honor, and, of course, his 1992 "comeback"
film, The Player. Even movies
that didn't quite succeed entirely, like the flawed but fascinating
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, had
moments of absolute perfection. But at the same time, Altman tested
my patience with movies like Come Back to
the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and the
annoyingly quirky Brewster McCloud.
After The Player, his work
became even more erratic, following up the amazingly ambitious and
memorable Short Cuts with the
borderline unwatchable Prêt-à-Porter.
I say "borderline" because a few years later, Altman made
Dr. T and the Women, which
really is impossible to sit through (I made it, somehow, and have
regretted it to this day).
Fortunately, Altman went out on a very high note with this year's
A Prairie Home Companion.
Fittingly, it's a movie about death and saying goodbye. It's also
appropriate and typical of Altman that this is the most joyous,
celebratory movie about death you'll ever see. It's one of the best
films I've seen this year and I can think of no more fitting tribute
to Altman than to give it a spin now that it's on DVD.
Robert Altman was a pioneer, a visionary, an iconoclast. Yeah, these
words are thrown around too frequently but they fit no one better
than Robert Altman. For over thirty years, he followed his heart and
made the movies he wanted to make, critics, studios and sometimes
even audiences be damned. In the increasingly corporate environment
of filmmaking, he gave us hope that it was still possible to stay
true to your own voice, despite the odds. I'll miss the queasy
anticipation of sitting down to a new Altman film, not knowing if I
was going to get another Nashville
or another Beyond Therapy but,
as I have for the past couple decades, I'll continue to revisit his
films and discover new pleasures in even the least of them. This
year, Christmas will definitely smell like oranges.
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