Remembering Robert Altman

Robert Altman died in November 2006 aged 81. His last film, A Prairie Home Companion reached the UK early in 2007 and I presented a ‘1 hour Introduction to Altman’s films’ at Cornerhouse in Manchester. I’m wondering how Altman is remembered now and what younger audiences might make of his films (if they ever get the chance to see them). Here are the notes I produced for the intro, slightly updated in places and with a couple of final paragraphs added.

Robert Altman helped shape the progress of cinema in the second half of the 20th century in several ways. Here are four reasons why Altman should be remembered:

• for the longevity and diversity of his career;

• for bringing a ‘European’ sensibility to very American stories;

• for technical innovations in sound and camerawork;

• for his working relationships with actors.

There are other reasons as well, not least that he has left us a large body of work that includes some of the most interesting and enjoyable films of the period.

A long and varied career

Altman’s career spans film and television. It began in 1948 with a co-writing credit on Bodyguard, a B film noir directed by Richard Fleischer. But with no follow-up, in 1949 Altman moved into what might be termed ‘industrial film’ – documentaries and instructional films made for the Calvin Company of Kansas City, Altman’s home town, covering everything from basketball to How to Run a Filling Station (1953). In 1957 he made a teen exploitation picture, The Delinquents, for a local Kansas City cinema company and this received national distribution via United Artists. Altman followed this with The James Dean Story, a documentary based on still photographs and film extracts and made for Warner Brothers. But this didn’t prove to be Altman’s entry to Hollywood feature filmmaking. Instead he moved into television and for ten years worked on a wide variety of top shows including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Whirlybirds, and Bonanza.

When he did begin a Hollywood feature career in the late 1960s, Altman was already an accomplished filmmaker with an understanding of a range of production contexts and popular genres and plenty of experience of working with actors. However, his first two attempts to make it in Hollywood flopped with Countdown (1968) on which he fell out with Warner Bros. and That Cold Day in the Park (1969), an independent production that I haven’t seen but which sounds interesting.

Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in M*A*S*H

Hitting the bigtime with M*A*S*H in 1970, Altman became one of the group of ‘new’ Hollywood directors who were not bound by a background in the studio system and who brought new ideas from television or theatre. It was this group (which included Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Alan J. Pakula among others) rather than the more celebrated ‘movie brats’ such as Coppola and Spielberg who really challenged the Hollywood old guard. They were older and more experienced (Altman was 44 with all that TV experience behind him when he made M*A*S*H). He’d also had wartime experience in bombers during the Pacific War in 1943-5 and schooling by the Jesuits – Hollywood producers wouldn’t scare him. During the 1970s, Altman made a sequence of films that explored traditional genres in new ways. Films like McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973) puzzled audiences and studio executives alike, whilst attracting the attention of cinephiles and other filmmakers. After M*A*S*H, few of Altman’s studio films made much money at the box office and the expensive failure of Popeye in 1980 prompted a move into independent cinema. (Whatever might be said about some of the Altman films in the 1970s, the sheer industry of the man is amazing – 15 feature films from M*A*S*H in 1970 to Popeye in 1980.)

In the 1980s, a difficult period for any vaguely radical/liberal filmmaker, Altman turned to small independent films, adaptations of intimate stage plays and television work, including acclaimed ‘political’ work such as the Nixon play Secret Honor (1984). He returned to relative commercial success with The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) and in his 70s continued to produce films throughout the decade, scoring one of his biggest commercial hits with one of his few ventures abroad in Gosford Park (UK 2001).

Altman and the critics

M*A*S*H made a lot of money and effectively bankrolled Altman through the early 1970s. It wasn’t, however, quite such a critical success. This would come from films such as McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye. Altman emerged with ‘new Hollywood’ and the spread of interest in the relatively new (in North America) concept of the auteur. Altman was credited with being the American director most like the auteurs of European cinema. Here is Robin Wood (from Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, ed Richard Roud, Martin Secker & Warburg 1980):

. . . His films are curious, uneven, intermittently remarkable hybrids; the work of an American director who would like to be ‘European’, expressing himself not through the elaborate intermediaries of convention and genre but directly, through personal style and idiosyncratic choice of material . . . In general, one can recognise an Altman film as one can an Antonioni or Fellini, from its stylistic self-assertion; and The Long Goodbye, ultimately, has more in common with Antonioni’s Blow-Up than with The Big Sleep.

After 1980, Altman tended to fall off the critical radar. Ironically, the moment in 1975 when Nashville received such a tumultuous reception from Pauline Kael, then doyenne of American critics, was also the time of the success of Jaws. By the 1980s, the only American ‘auteurs’ who generated much interest were those who stuck more closely to the Hollywood ‘rules’ decreeing a strong storyline and a clear resolution of the narrative, something Altman never seems to have been particularly keen to pursue. ‘Rambling’ and ‘ramshackle’ are some of the kinder terms used to describe his narratives and the Altman ‘hero’ was often a marginal figure, a romantic ‘loser’ like McCabe or Marlowe.

Altman’s later films also suffer from the reception for an ‘old man’s films’ in a youth-orientated Hollywood world. More intriguing perhaps is the reception of Altman’s films in gender terms. Was he a ‘proto-feminist’ (3 Women) or a misogynist (Dr T and His Women – written by Anne Rapp)? And perhaps allied to this, were his films too ‘cold and calculating’, looking down on hapless figures – or warm and comfortable. Probably they were all of these things at different times.

Four lesser-known films

I’ll explore some of these ideas with references to some of Altman’s lesser-known films, chosen to represent different periods in his career and different kinds of film.

Shelley Duvall in Thieves Like Us

Thieves Like Us (US 1974)

Based on the same novel as the 1949 Nicholas Ray picture, They Drive By Night, is one of Altman’s genre explorations. Three escaped convicts go on a bank-robbing spree in the 1930s, supported by various relatives in Mississippi. The youngest of the trio, Bowie (Keith Carradine) falls in love with Keechie (Shelley Duvall). The story is similar to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the cycles of depression era rural ‘outlaw’ films set in the 1930s which were produced in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, Altman introduced several changes in style. Beautifully shot on location, there is a strong sense of surface realism, contrasted with a soundtrack commentary of contemporary radio programmes. Important events often happen off screen (relatively few of the bank robberies are shown and then sometimes in long shot) and the editing is elliptical. The film thus becomes more romantic melodrama than crime action. This was one of the films that Robin Wood selected as demonstrating Altman’s skill with zooms and long lenses.

Shelley Duvall (left) and Sissy Spacek in 3 WOMEN

3 Women (US 1977)

One of Altman’s puzzling art films, 3 Women is glorious to look at, but offers a rather abrupt conclusion to an intriguing narrative. Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is a naïve young woman who lands up in a job at a spa for the elderly in the Californian desert. She is taken under the wing of Millie (Shelley Duvall) a self-deluding character self-taught via magazines. The ‘third woman’ is Willie, a pregnant artist who with her drunken husband runs the Dodge City Saloon and the Purple Sage Apartments where Millie lives.

The idea for 3 Women supposedly came to Altman in a dream. Modernist in narrative terms (and reminiscent of films like Losey’s The Servant (UK 1963)), 3 Women is most notable for its colour scheme, cinematography and use of locations and set. These link the film closely to the widescreen compositions and choreography of The Long Goodbye (Altman 1973). Overall the film divided audiences. Some fans thought it one of Altman’s best, others loathed it – this split has often arisen within audiences for Altman’s films. Shelley Duvall became an Altman regular in the 1970s and her unusual but attractive features seem to work as a visual statement about Altman’s world.

Who wouldn’t want to wander into a bar and find Harry Dean Stanton? Here he is in FOOL FOR LOVE

Fool For Love (US 1985)

During the early 1980s Altman turned to ‘filmed plays’, still intensely cinematic despite the restricted settings. Fool For Love was written by Sam Shepard who also appears as Eddie, the cowboy who turns up at the motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert run by May (Kim Basinger). The two obviously know each other, but the audience is made to wait to discover what it is that forces them together and pulls them apart. In the background is May’s father (Harry Dean Stanton) and his presence and the setting and story elements led some critics to link Fool For Love to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Although in structural terms the film works like a stage play, it clearly references both the Western film genre (classical and contemporary) and the melodrama about marginal communities, both of which were familiar Altman subjects. The film is also notable for its use of a country music soundtrack – a collection of songs by Sandy Rogers and two from Waylon Jennings.

Glenn Close and Julianne Moore in COOKIE’S FORTUNE

Cookie’s Fortune (US 1999)

Based on a script by Anne Rapp, Cookie’s Fortune is perhaps Altman’s warmest and most enjoyable film (depending on taste). Set in the kind of small Southern town that Altman might have remembered from his childhood, this could be argued to represent one of the ‘ensemble films’ for which Altman is now perhaps best known. Certainly it has a starry cast led by Glenn Close and it deals with a host of relationships and sub-plots. But where the more famous ensemble films such as Nashville (1975), A Wedding (1978), The Player (1992) etc. are often quite rambling and sometimes ‘cold’ views of relationships in a particular institutional setting, Cookie’s Fortune is slow and ‘mellow’, a comedy melodrama.

‘Cookie’ is a widow sitting in a large house and wanting to be with her dead husband. She commits suicide in a manner which is construed as suspicious and several family members become police suspects for murder. Altman plays with a range of ‘Southern types’. It has been suggested that the languid pace of the film derives from the lazy blues that feature at various times. Music – jazz, country, blues – is essential in Altman’s films and it is probably the single most important consistent element across the body of work. Ironically, the film which perhaps most represents Altman’s personal memories of music, Kansas City (1996), is the one which generated the least critical or commercial interest.

Neve Campbell (right) in THE COMPANY

The Company (2003)

As part of my research into ballet films for work on Black Swan, I looked at this Robert Altman film. I remember its release – which I thought had not seen box-office success. I’d mentally bracketed it with Prêt-à-Porter from 1994, Altman’s earlier foray into the institutional world of high fashion. Stuffed with star names, that production failed very badly at the box office but The Company actually seems to have done quite well in some markets (though it must have struggled to recoup costs given a budget of $15 million). The Lumière database reveals that Altman had a strong following in Italy, France and Spain for several of his films, including this one. The other surprise was that I enjoyed the film and found its central premise as a feature film quite intriguing.

The ‘company’ in question is the Joffrey Ballet company of Chicago, though I think it is always referred to as ‘the company’. The director of the company is based on one of the two real-life founders of the Joffrey, Gerald Arpino, played in inimical style by Malcolm McDowell. The production appears to have come about because of the efforts of the Canadian actor Neve Campbell, best known perhaps for her starring roles in the Scream franchise of horror films from the 1990s. Campbell, like Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in Black Swan, had been at ballet school (National Ballet School of Canada) as a child, but as far as I can see had continued with dance much longer up until age 16. At 28, roughly the same age as Portman in Black Swan, she was still in training to a certain extent and spent two years working with the Joffrey dancers to become recognisable as a company dancer. In The Company, Campbell plays a dancer who gets her big chance and takes it. She also has a relationship with a young chef played by James Franco. So far, so conventional, but that’s where it stops, Altman plays down Campbell’s central role and creates a feature that is less a recognisable Hollywood narrative and more a drama-documentary about the work of the company. Most of the other characters in the film are either dancers (i.e. Joffrey dancers) or relatively unknown actors. Campbell worked with scriptwriter Barbara Turner and producer Christine Vachon of Killer Films for two years in preparation for the shoot.

The narrative as such follows what happens to the company over a season, the high point of which is the performance of a modern ballet called ‘The Blue Snake’ which has been brought to the company by a top choreographer (and which Campbell had seen several years before in Canada). That’s it really. Instead of a ‘story arc’ in which we worry whether or not Ry (the Campbell character) will succeed in her part, Altman concentrates on the daily life of the company. The drama comes from the company’s collective response to budgetary constraints, injuries, new rehearsal techniques etc. The Campbell-Franco relationship is mixed well down and the only concession to conventional Hollywood drama is McDowell playing up his role. One of the disadvantages of this approach is that it is actually quite difficult to follow individual stories at all, especially watching on a small TV screen – how I wished I’d seen it on a big cinema screen! But this is the point, really. Altman wants us to see the company as a company – and it works.

The USP of the film is arguably the cinematography directed by Andrew Dunn who worked with Altman on Gosford Park. Working on HDCam, Altman and Dunn were able to use multiple cameras to shoot the dance sequences.

This Guardian piece invites several leading figures from the UK ballet world to comment on the film – they are all negative about it. That’s quite understandable really, but they do say some interesting things. A couple of the commentators admit that there were moments when the film presented the kind of behaviour they recognised in themselves and were embarrassed by. None of them like the choreography.

Garrison Keillor (behind the mike) and from left, Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan

A Prairie Home Companion (US 2006)

It’s hard to imagine a film which more perfectly says farewell to its creator. ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ was the title of Garrison Keillor’s radio show for Minnesota Public Radio which was widely syndicated up to 2016. Keillor himself wrote the screenplay for Altman’s film. The closing scenes almost seem to invite the director’s demise (he knew he was terminally ill when he made the film). Yet, what fun everyone appears to have in the process! Meryl Streep appears to be enjoying herself immensely and the rest of the star-laden cast are similarly on top form. All the ingredients which audiences think are in some way ‘Altmanesque’ are in place.

There is only the faintest glimmer of a plot. It is the last radio performance of the radio show and the ‘axeman’ (Tommy Lee Jones), who represents the company which wants to close down the theatre where the show is based, is due to arrive. There is every indication of ‘the end’ and we know that a sudden reprieve for the show is unlikely. That’s it really. Altman gleefully follows all the performers and backstage crew from the wings onto the stage and back. All have stories – and songs. Altman’s love of radio and sound is indulged to the hilt with live sound ‘effects’ becoming a comic performance in themselves and old-time country and gospel music convincingly and lovingly played.

A quick glance at the comments on websites like the IMDB suggests that like every Altman film before it (40, not counting TV work), audiences love and loathe the film with equal passion. Film is a collaborative business and it is difficult to be ‘personal’ as a filmmaker, but Altman stuck to what he wanted to do, right to the end.

Legacy

There are Altman films I haven’t seen (mainly from the 1980s) and films I have every intention of returning to. I think I’ll remember and be intrigued by McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye most of all, for a host of reasons I hope to explore at some point. Robert Altman was for me the last link to the Hollywood that attracted me as a young person. Perhaps one day I’ll look at Popeye (1980), his attempt to explore an American myth. It flopped, much like Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), which I did see and would like to re-visit. Altman wasn’t afraid to undermine myths and challenge conventions. It would be great to think his kind of film was still being made amidst all the superheroes and comic-book stories.

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