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November 21, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Guides | November 21, 2006 |

It hit me like a punch to the sternum. Robert Altman is dead. I contemplated it a few months ago, when I wrote, “A Prairie Home Companion may turn out to be his last film and, while I hope he’s got time for another dozen or so, it wouldn’t be a bad note to go out on,” but it still seems incomprehensible that American film has lost one of its few true artists. There’ll be lots of tributes over the next several days, and Hollywood being what it is, you can be sure there’ll be increased Oscar buzz over Companion. Others will write smarter and more authoritative pieces on the incredible significance and influence of his work; this won’t be that kind of piece. This is about my Altman.

His first film I ever saw was Popeye, sadly enough. I was five years old and it was a movie about a cartoon character — I had to like it, right? Not so much. Altman’s vision was antithetical to the sunny, primary-colored world of such a character, and the film was dark, muddled, and, at just short of two hours, far too long for my attention span at the time. Even as an adult I found it nearly unwatchable, when Altman disciple Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant use of Shelley Duvall’s song “He Needs Me” in Punch-Drunk Love inspired me to rent it some 20-odd years later. That was the thing about Altman, though. He made duds and masterpieces in almost equal numbers, because he took chances. He embraced projects that took him to new places and tested his abilities, and he was willing to fall on his face, reputation and bankability be damned.

The first time that Altman got to me, when I realized his melancholy genius, was with MASH. Like any kid born in the ’70s, I had grown up with the TV show, but, when I was about 13 and finally saw the film, I was totally unprepared. From the opening moments — when I found that the familiar theme song (written by Altman’s 14-year-old son Mike) had lyrics, and that its title was “Suicide is Painless” — I knew that I was entering a far different world from that brought to me every week of my childhood by Alan Alda and Loretta Swit. I don’t know that I had really seen a true black comedy before, and the mixture of pathos and humor, the emphasis on the actual grim fact of death and dismemberment, of the pointlessness and awfulness of war, undid me. I was disconsolate for days. I think I’ve seen it in its entirety once since then, and as much as I admire its achievement as a film, I’m in no real hurry to do so again. I know that when I do, I’ll feel that same sadness I felt at 13 all over again, and I don’t choose to go to that dark place very often.

I feel similarly about Short Cuts, which I first saw on VHS with my friend Zac when I was in high school. I bought the Criterion DVD almost two years ago, but I haven’t been able to sit all the way through it once since. It’s just too raw, the grief and loneliness of its characters too real for me to toss it into the DVD player to pass a Sunday afternoon. The horrible sadness when Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell’s son dies, the even more horrible ignorance of Lily Tomlin, who has accidentally hit the child with her car (after he ran out into the street without looking) but let him walk home alone because he’s not supposed to talk to strangers … it’s all too much.

Altman had bigger balls than I do. Maybe bigger balls than anyone. He wasn’t afraid to look at that stuff. He wasn’t afraid to let it live on the screen, to take out pain and loss and loneliness and death and turn them over and look at them, really study them. And his fearlessness allowed him to see farther and deeper than almost anyone. It allowed him to create Nashville, perhaps the great panorama of the American experience, going into what we’d now call red-state America and producing a document of that particular time and place that feels as true as, and probably more insightful than, just about any documentary, finding bravery and cowardice and stupidity and cunning there, all in equal measure.

The film is satire, but it’s too smart to condescend to its audience or its characters. Altman characters were always flawed and often foolish, but he never lost his sympathy for them. Instead he did something that became his unique trademark, giving each of his characters — even ones that would simply be played by extras in most other directors’ films — an independent existence, a goal or a flaw or an obsession that turned them into human beings rather than pieces of the set. Watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller and see the way his camera moves around the saloon, lighting briefly here or there, catching snatches of conversation on the fly, making it a room full of people rather than a room with Warren Beatty and a bunch of mannequins. Or the way that, even in a lesser film (and most films are lesser than McCabe) like Dr T and the Women, the women in the gynecologist’s office each have their own tiny subplots that develop throughout the course of the film. Even characters that have two lines spaced an hour apart in the film have been somewhere or done something in that time, and their situations are not the same as they were when we first saw them.

Needless to say, this isn’t all Altman. Much of it is the actors, and the unusual process of collaboration that Altman employed, making each of them responsible for developing and improvising their characters. In Nashville, each of the actors wrote and performed original songs for their characters; in The Player, all the dialogue in his magnificent eight-minute opening crane shot (an homage to Welles’ Touch of Evil) was unscripted and improvised on the spot, as was all the dialogue spoken by the celebrities making cameos as themselves. Altman gave his actors an unusual amount of trust, and, perhaps surprisingly, they usually proved worthy of it.

Altman never stopped taking chances — at 73, he agreed to direct the John Grisham thriller The Gingerbread Man because he’d never worked in the genre before. When his cut of the film did badly in test screenings, the studio took it back and recut it. Their version fared worse, so they returned to Altman’s cut for its theatrical release, which received positive reviews and now stands with Runaway Jury as one of the two genuinely good movies made from Grisham’s work. Studios didn’t scare Altman; he went his own way and always managed to work. Sometimes, though, his stubborn integrity and refusal to play to the mass audience cost him, and the moviegoing public. After several flops, Altman spent much of the ’80s working in theater and TV, and throughout his career he repeatedly went through periods without a commercial success. But he always persevered, and in the end he always came back.

As happy as I was earlier this year to have the privilege of reviewing A Prairie Home Companion, I was and remain disappointed with what I wrote. He was simply too big, his body of work more than my puny words could ever capture. Though, when flattered about his innovations, Altman was always generous in citing his influences, he was, in every way that matters, a true original. We’ll not see another like him, but goddamn we’re lucky to have had him while we did.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


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