Tuesday, November 21, 2006


(I’m putting off the review of Kubrick’s Napoleon until later.)

In reading a few articles about the recent passing of Robert Altman, I just have to say that this man was not simply a “maverick.” Altman was arguably one of the most pivotal, influential directors of American cinema in the 1970’s, which was arguably one of the most pivotal, influential decades in the history of American cinema.

I wish I had the time this week to dissect and analyze all the themes of his movies. For that, I would refer you to Robert Cumbow’s sensational article,
Altman and Coppola in the Seventies. My favorite quote:

“There is a peculiarly Joycean sensibility in much of Altman’s work. Nashville’s satirical optimism, from ‘We must be doin’ somethin’ right’ and ‘Yes, I do’ to ‘It Don’t Worry Me,’ is an ironic but joyous refrain like Molly Bloom’s ‘yes i will yes.’ Nashville is, in fact, remarkably reminiscent of Ulysses: Witness the long, episodic design; the mixture of the satirical with the nightmarishly painful; the layering of mythic archetypes over the comings and goings of small characters through a real city over a well-defined period of time; the revelry in the possibilities of cinematic style (like Joyce’s festival of literary parody and typographical experimentation); and the celebration of human frailty over the strictures of society. If Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus evokes Daedalus the designer of the labyrinth, Brewster McCloud evokes Daedalus the builder of wings. But Brewster fails as Daedalus, and is destroyed like Icarus because he reached too high. A quieter variation on the same idea is the visual metamorphosis of Sueleen Gaye into a caryatid on the stage of Nashville’s Parthenon.”

At some point soon, we will be getting one of
Miriam’s breakdowns on Nashville.

However, I’d like to make a couple of comments about Altman’s techniques, because as a director, Altman would make many of us screenwriters uneasy. His was a career built upon defying and lampooning all genre and storytelling conventions. I recall Ebert saying of
The Long Goodbye:

[This movie] tries to be all genre and no story, and it almost works.”

“[Altman] knows we don't care any more about the plot than he does; he agrees with Hitchcock that it doesn't even matter what the plot is about (as long as it's something). The important thing is the way the characters spar with each other.”

Oooo… Are you feeling uneasy yet?

You should watch Gosford Park while listening to Julian Fellowes’ commentary, which is one of my all-time favorite movie commentaries. Let’s just say, Altman was familiar with the script, but he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about sticking with it once he started shooting. Can you imagine the roar of protest on TriggerStreet about the many subplots that went unresolved or the idea of this buffoon of an investigator showing up, asking a bunch of inane questions, leaving, and never once figuring out who committed the murder? What was the point of that? Hey, that was the point.

I also recall Ebert saying of
McCabe & Mrs. Miller that it was Altman’s “perfect” film, and yet, this is a movie in which dialogue as we all understand it and write it is neither important nor relevant to the story. In fact, this is a very common technique of Altman, which began with M*A*S*H and could be seen in so many of his other films.

“It begins with one fundamental assumption: All of the characters already know each other, and the camera will not stare at first one and then another, like an earnest dog, but is at home in their company. Nor do the people line up and talk one after another, like characters in a play. They talk when and as they will, and we understand it's not important to hear every word; sometimes all that matters is the tone of a room.”

Of the relationship between McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Ebert also says,

“We get to know them in half-seen, half-heard moments. There is a time when he gets into bed with her and we realize with a start that the movie has not established that they are sleeping with one another. Later it doubles back to reveal that she charges him, just like all the others. She gets $5, top price. McCabe spends a lot of time talking to himself, muttering criticisms and vows. He says to himself what he would like to say to her: ‘If just one time you could be sweet without money to it.’ And, ‘I got poetry in me!’ His soliloquies are meandering, rueful, oblique. His most sustained burst of conversational energy is a joke he tells about a frog.”

How are you feeling? Are you still holding up okay?

And finally, there is in a few of his films, Altman’s utter rejection of a single protagonist. You can (if it helps you sleep better at night) try to pin the label of “Single Protag” on one character in Short Cuts or Gosford Park or A Wedding or Nashville, but in truth, there is no single protag in any of those films. Of
Nashville, Ebert wrote:

“The movie doesn't have a star. It does not, indeed, even have a lead role. Instead, Altman creates a world, a community in which some people know each other and others don't, in which people are likely to meet before they understand the ways in which their lives are related. And he does it all so easily, or seems to, that watching Nashville is as easy as breathing and as hard to stop. Altman is the best natural filmmaker since Fellini.

“One of the funny things about Nashville is that most of the characters never have entrances. They're just sort of there. At times, we're watching an important character and don't even know, yet, why he's important, but Altman's storytelling is so clear in his own mind, his mastery of this complex wealth of material is so complete, that we're never for a moment confused or even curious. We feel secure in his hands, and apart from anything else, Nashville is a virtuoso display of narrative mastery.”

On this matter, let me also quote Cumbow:

“The central conceit of Nashville, and of all Altman’s work in the 1970s, is to blur, even obliterate, the distinction between performers and their audiences; between entertainers and their statements about the community; between individuals and society; and, of course, between movie-images and movie-goers. In Nashville, Altman picks his characters out of crowds, and puts them back there; follows one, then another; watches them or leaves them alone (a conceit that he would later exaggerate in the self-satirical and Welles-lampooning opening shot of The Player). They attract our attention from within the frame more often than they conspicuously enter it. In A Wedding there are twice as many characters to keep track of in the same way, too many of whom, in mid-shot, look like too many of the others – which is of course part of the point of both A Wedding (as it is, much later, of Gosford Park).”

Goodbye, Robert Altman. You left us screenwriters scratching our heads over some of your great films, and for that, I am deeply grateful.



Mim said...

This is wonderful. I don't think any of us could praise Robert Altman too much. This world will be a little duller without him.

Thank you for all the great links, MM.

Optimistic_Reader said...

That's a lovely tribute MM.

Mim said...

There are people who love to break the rules. They break all the rules of screenwriting, and then point to somebody like Tarantino or Altman as an example of somebody who broke the rules and got away with it.

But we don't all have the genius of Robert Altman. His unique style worked because of his unique abilities. We can't copy his style and hope to produce something as sublime and wonderful as Nashville, Gosford Park, Pret a Porter, or M*A*S*H, because he was one in a million.

I've always been partial to Three Women. It was a purely symbolic examination of the Wiccan principle of the three stages of womanhood. The characters are cypers and their interaction is representative.

Thanks for letting me ramble about a wonderful man.

GameArs said...

Great post about a great film person, MM.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, guys.

For screenwriters, he's a controversial figure. Everything we fight each other about, Altman would never consider. And let's be honest about another truth, critics don't necessarily judge movies the way we judge stories. But take note when you read Altman articles over the next few months, that he spent many years mastering the three act before delving into anti-plot territory, and I think we should, too.


Emily Blake said...

Good words, man, good words. But don't tell that to William Goldman. Last year at the Expo he went off on how annoyed he is that Hollywood critics think Altman can do no wrong. Goldman is a grumpy old man. Get off my lawn.

nena eskridge said...

Try watching Nashville without the picture. Just listen. Altman was a sound master - the master. Track upon track upon track of genius.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Emily. Ya know, it's not really true what Goldman said. Altman's made a lot of bad movies, too, and he's taken his share of beatings from critics. After the lashing he got from "Popeye," Altman took a break. Oddly enough, "Popeye" was the first Altman movie I saw, and at a young age, I loved it. I still kinda like it, I'm embarrassed to admit, but that might have to do with memories of how happy that movie made me as a child.

Nena - That sounds like such a superb idea.

Mim, Optimistic Reader, Carl - Thank you guys so much for your kind words. I really appreciate it.

mernitman said...

Bravo, MM for this beautifully writ post-- you've gotten right to the essences of the man and his work while deftly dispelling the fog of glib glosses desseminated in the usual media haze.

The Merry Mernit family watched "Prairie Home Companion" as our Thanksgiving night movie, in tribute to Mr. Altman, and it was simply wonderful: laidback, quietly hilarious, poignant stuff delivered in his quintessential easygoing style, and given that the movie is so much about death and aging (and the joy of living, and making music) it felt like the best kind of wake for a dearly departed. It goes without saying (but gets said anyway): his legacy endures...

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, Billy.


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