If one were to consider the case, it is almost interesting to consider where Robert Altman fits in the pantheon on the American cinema canon, especially in relation to modern times and looking at where his films are in those regards.
A true iconoclast of the craft and profession, Altman has had a career has unwieldy and as turbulent as the films that he brought to bare – starting in television when it was still young in the late 1950s and moving on to smaller film and stage projects throughout the 1960’s thereafter, Altman hit paydirt in 1970 with M*A*S*H*, written by Ring Lardner, Jr. which was based off the novel by Richard Hooker.
Due to his work in helming the film here, Altman was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for the first time, and certainly not the last as he received the tip from the Academy’s directorial branch four more times for Nashville in 1975, The Player in 1992, Short Cuts in 1993 and lastly, Gosford Park in 2001. He eventually picked up one of the coveted golden statues for the 2005 ceremony when he was the recipient of the Honorary Award, which was just before he passed away in November of 2006.
Before jumping ahead to that ultimate ending point though, looking back at that pivotal point in 1970 with M*A*S*H* details quite a bit; he famously did not actually use Lardner, Jr.’s screenplay (which happened to win the Best Adapted Screenplay award that year) and just went about establishing the chaotic nature of the Vietnam War through pranks, riffs and near tailored absurdity.
That year along with Brewster McCloud (“If you think Robert Altman made a mess of the army in M*A*S*H*, wait til you see what he does to the cops here….” – from that film’s trailer), McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971, The Long Goodbye in 1973, California Split in 1974, 3 Women in 1977 and even Popeye in 1980, Altman proved proficient at utilizing the absurd to fit his whims to whatever he needed, whether it be for comedy or drama, for the Western, the neo-noir, the war picture and so on.
His deconstructivist style provided so much to his pictures that it could not help but make them memorable, such as laughs throughout the proceedings that he was presidening over, but it also allowed the space for the actors to go as balls to the wall as he was always willing to go. To occupy a space that isn’t just on the page, but beyond that, an air that can leave an viewer so dizzy they can’t help but laugh, or be shocked, or startled, or amazed. And that’s when Altman has them in the palm of his hand.
Other directors of the period started experimenting with this style as well, it was the ‘70s after all, in detailing exactness in the throes of improvisation – Terrence Malick, Michelangelo Antonioni, Martin Scorsese to a degree comes immediately to mind – but Altman was able to make it a staple to his films all on his own. Especially with the rapid-fire dialogue, the overlapping cadence of various and numerous characters talking over each other (Nashville is basically a feature length version of this), it did more to just provide chuckles and dizzy the narrative up but it created a real sensation of what could happen next with anyone on screen. The more ridiculous events and people got in an Altman picture, the human it became.
Even now, there seems to be a madcap nature to Altman’s work – insane or dreadful – that stands out on its own accord, current films in the American network don’t approach the skill of Altman’s ability in looking like they are not using any skill at all, a very hard endeavor in art for sure. Altman seems to have inherited Howard Hawks’ crown in these regards, but what came after him? Interestingly enough, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have enveloped a lot of his former mentor and idol’s style and merged it with his own but other than that, nothing so prevalent out there now.
Just as there are shorthand euphemisms for borrowing or catering to a specific style in regards to a specific director, such as ‘Malickian,’ or ‘Lynchian,’ the case could be made for ‘Altmanian’ as well. One brief but exacting example that comes to mind in notion here is in Steven Spielberg’s The Post just last year (Spielberg, another master who not only has developed his own style, but can utilize those from others for his own means) where Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee (played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, respectively) are seen together for the first time at a banquet and discussing the topics at hand, speaking over one another.
Stop and go, overlapping, breathless and the conversation ending with the two of them laughing at each other on how there were communicating. It’s brief, but there is a sense that Altman would have appreciated the take in levity.
A levity that occupied and dealt with all the time, from martinis to cats to brothels to servants and everything else in between, Robert Altman has a space in the American canon that he has all to himself. He may not be as well known within the larger firmament or to the masses immediately, but his work is and for someone who wanted to live many lifetimes and speak through cinema, and was indeed able to do so, that more than says it all. Especially when it is all said at once like he is liable to do of course.