How Robert Altman Drove the Cinema Bus into Seventies Glory and Beyond

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“Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes. It’s all one film to me, just different chapters.” – Robert Altman

 When anybody asks me who is my favorite American film director or whom do I think impacted movie making the most in the late Twentieth Century, there’s absolutely no hesitation with a response. Robert Altman, hands-down. Mic-drop.

Let’s go back to 1969. Soon-to-be cinema lions – Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, and Lukas – would all become A-listers before the approaching decade had passed, but in 1969, Scorsese had just been hired as one of the film editors on the documentary, Woodstock. Spielberg was directing a Night Gallery episode for television starring the fading Joan Crawford. Coppola and Lukas had worked together on the execrable Finian’s Rainbow (a minor entry in Hollywood’s anemic attempt to lure audiences back with big, forgettable musicals) and had co-founded American Zoetrope. In other words, these guys were all sharpening their tools, laying the groundwork for the biggest revolution in American cinema since the introduction of sound.

The first off the mark was Coppola, landing a major gig as co-writer of Patton, the film that deftly played both sides of the war game that was raging at the time and swept the Oscars, but it was Robert Altman who, unapologetically kicked a field goal the week before Pattonwas released in New York. M*A*S*H was unleashed, with all of its irreverence, mocking of authority (esp. the military), and it’s humanity. Oh, yes, and the first occurrence in American film of that now common expletive, fuck.

“M*A*S*H didn’t get released by Fox, it escaped” – Altman

Not to sound too much like a headline from Variety, but M*A*S*H was a smash. The counterculture loved its in-your-face-attitude, the dialog was fresh and honest – it said it like it was, and it said everything that we were thinking about war, sexism, racism and the general fatigue that was causing the stifling status quo to implode.

Altman didn’t rest on his newly acquired laurels; upon completing his fantasy, Brewster McCloud, he took his ideas about visuals, narrative, and dialog and plopped himself in the middle of (at the time) nowhere – Squamish, British Columbia. He began constructing a town as part of his new project, Zinc, which later became Prebytarian Church and, ultimately, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, his revisionist Western. So began a mission, deliberate or subliminal, where Altman would deconstruct, then subversively reinvent a number of film genres. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Altman zapped new life into their corpses and make them live again.

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The musical became Nashville, the private dick, The Long Goodbye, and the psychodrama, Images. Thieves Like Us was the deglamorized gangster flick, California Split the chaotically atmospheric gambling pic. Although none of his films reached the top of he box office, other directors were taking hints from his style. The language of American film had begun to evolve again after a very long nap.

Altman was, above all else, his own man. He locked horns with studio heads, clashed with screenwriters and pushed actors out of their comfort zones, often into the realm of improvisation. He and his cinematographers abruptly altered visual style and his tinkering with sound, especially overlapping dialog, drove some critics wild. All Altman was trying to do was to create an all-encompassing feel for realism. Casinos and bars are noisy, and darkened, smoky rooms and foggy and rainy exteriors are as much a part of our normal atmosphere as sunny days and starry nights.

“I look at film as closer to a painting or a piece of music; it’s an impression…an impression of character and total atmosphere.” – Altman

The bottom fell out in his career following a string of disappointments (Quintet and Popeye among them). Altman claimed he was finished – “Nobody would call” – so he did a series of filmed plays, among them Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers, and Fool for Love, before rising from the ashes like Phoenix with The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park. His final film, A Prairie Home Companion was released in June 2006, and Robert Altman passed away five months later.

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Most actors loved working for him he let them fly, create the characters they had been hired to play. The same was true with other creatives because they were allowed to explore the myriad possibilities of light, angle and sound. He inspired younger directors who worked with him, such as Alan Rudolph and Paul Thomas Anderson, the latter adding a special dedication to Altman in the credits for There Will Be Blood. Cinematographer Roger Deakins was awestruck by Altman’s visual style and inspired by Vilmos Zsigmond’s camerawork. Altman’s use of music was revolutionary as it was not relegated to the background as a mood queue, rather it was front and center. Who can forget the goosebumps-inducing serenading of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or the incessant theme from The Long Goodbye that is repeated throughout the film in doorbells, grocery stores and Muzak.  Kansas City IS jazz in style, extending beyond the usual soundtrack embellishment.

“I never knew what I wanted, except that it was something I hadn’t seen before.” – Altman

Altman introduced the world to some unique, naturalistic acting talents that we might never have seen onscreen without his support – Shelley Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Lily Tomlin, Cher, Michael Murphy, Henry Gibson, Ronee Blakely and Keith Carradine delivered career-making performances under Altman’s direction, and by the time he was making The Player, suddenly everybody and their dog wanted in, just to be in a Robert Altman film – even for a few brief seconds.

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Robert Altman, the veteran who was a peace-monger, the atheist who created life in every corner of his frames, always made sure he had final cut on his projects. He often said that there would never be a “director’s cut” for any home video releases because everything he wanted in a film was already there. And he did not compromise his vision, style or subject matter to suit changing box office tastes in the late Eighties/early Nineties. “I’ve never had a big hit movie…I don’t make those kinds of films, and I never have…I have never made a movie that’s attracted a 14-tear-old boy,” he often repeated in interviews.

Flashback again to the Seventies: Because their film styles and storytelling became cash cows, Spielberg and Lukas changed the complexion of major studio releases, seemingly forever, it would seem. Coppola’s operatic style is credited for some of the best films in post-war cinema, and each Scorsese project is greeted with wild anticipation. But we have to stop and remember one thing – when the bus carrying the Hollywood New Wave directors, actors and cinematographers headed for the front lines, it was Robert Altman in the driver’s seat.

“I equate films with sand castles. You get a bunch of mates and you go down and you say, I’m going to build this great sand castle and you build it. Then, the tide comes in and twenty minutes its just smooth sand. And that structure you made is in everybody’s memory, and that’s it.”

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