Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down...

R.I.P. Robert Altman.

I've long considered Altman one of my favorites, although as prolific and uneven as he's been there have been a number of clunkers in the mix. But even the least of his works (READY TO WEAR, QUINTET) are pure Altman, and as such hold more interest than most of the movies out there. If the goal of any real artist re-create the world in his image, Altman was truly one of the greats, since there was never mistaking any of his films for the work of anyone else. Though there has been a rash of ensemble dramas on the Hollywood and indie scene in the past decade or so, none has quite measured up to the best of Altman (P.T. Anderson, the master's assistant on his final film, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, has probably come closest).

Out of America's currently-active filmmakers, who has made as many great or near-great works as Altman? Scorsese, perhaps. I'd argue for DePalma as well, but I'd almost surely be in the minority. And unlike Scorsese, Altman never resorted to a "one-for-me-one-for-them" career path. His films, for better or worse, were always his, which was all the more amazing considering the amount of leeway he'd give his actors. More than just the quality of his work or the freshness of his style, it was this maverick sensibility that made Altman a hero of mine.

One essential facet of this sensibility was Altman's insistence on making films for adults. Let's not forget how Altman deliberately inserted a handful of "fucks" into GOSFORD PARK just to keep kids from seeing it. POPEYE notwithstanding, the films of Robert Altman tend to evince a world-weariness that is at odds with the eternal adolescence of most Hollywood releases. It's for this reason that I took some time in warming to Altman's work as a budding filmgoer- I could respect what the guy was doing when I was younger, but it wasn't until I began to identify with, say, the lyrics of Annie Ross' "Prisoner of Life" in SHORT CUTS that I could begin to appreciate Altman's work as I was supposed to.

My favorite Altman? Hate to follow the party line, but NASHVILLE is still the work of his that's closest to my heart. Maybe it's because it was the first of his films to really bowl me over, or because it's the closest the past half-century has come to producing the Great American Film, but much as I love his body of work, NASHVILLE remains on top. But why should one have to choose just one? MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is also in my top 100, and SHORT CUTS and TANNER '88 are flat-out masterpieces as well.

Other Altman titles to grace my yearly lists include: MASH, THE LONG GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, 3 WOMEN, A WEDDING, SECRET HONOR, THE PLAYER, GOSFORD PARK, and THE COMPANY. And even in his second-tier work, there's still plenty to love- the great opening credits sequence in BREWSTER MCCLOUD featuring Margaret Hamilton, the sweet courtship between Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin in A PERFECT COUPLE, the cutting contest in KANSAS CITY, and the sweet sister act of Streep and Tomlin in PRAIRIE HOME, which was proof positive than even near the end, Altman was still in full control of his art.

Today, I'm reminded of an old Hollywood anecdote about another great director's passing. At their colleague and fellow emigré's funeral, Billy Wilder solemnly intoned, "no more Lubitsch." To which William Wyler responded, "worse than that- no more Lubitsch films." I never knew Robert Altman as a man, but I knew his work, and as a result I was about to see the world through his eyes, if only for a few hours at a time.

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