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Robert Altman Dies

November 21, 2006

Robert Altman died today.

He was one of those great directors who made so many movies, especially so many small, intimate movies, that he was hard to keep track of. I’ve only seen a handful of his flicks–Thieves Like Us, Nashville, The Player, one or two others–but his movies are always remarkable for how much he allows the actors to create their own characters. Unless he’s directing a movie version of a cartoon (Popeye) or a satire (The Player), no character is ever allowed to be simply a type or a caricature; they are all idiosyncratic, real, flawed people. At the same time, though, I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone that’s named a Robert Altman movie among their most cherished favorites. His approach is so subtle, so humanistic that he is paradoxically a hard filmmaker to fall in love with.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2006 8:02 pm

    Well, now you’ve met one. THE LONG GOODBYE is one of my 10 or 15 favorite movies, and NASHVILLE and McCABE & MRS. MILLER are pretty high up there too. Never saw THIEVES LIKE US, though. Now that he’s passed, maybe it will get a DVD release.

  2. November 21, 2006 8:46 pm

    Somehow I forgot about McCabe and Mrs. Miller (that’s what happens when you write a post in two minutes and don’t even look at IMDB). That is an amazing movie. I do need to review Nashville because when I saw it I remember being more perplexed than impressed.

  3. November 22, 2006 4:59 pm

    Generally speaking, people love those movies that have memorable lines, memorable setpieces, memorable shots or memorable performances. So we quote Swingers, talk about Braveheart’s battle scenes, ogle A Touch of Evil’s opening shot and praise Denzel Washington in Training Day.

    Because Altman’s style favored improvisation and overlapping dialogue over crispness and zingers, his movies have tended not to produce a lot of memorable lines. Because he has not worked with big budgets and always kept his focus on human interaction, he has very few memorable setpieces. Because his shooting style was not remotely flashy, he has few memorable shots. And because he almost always worked with large ensembles, rarely was one actor given the chance to shine in a lead role. These are by no means flaws, but they make it hard for Altman movies to stick in the brain.

  4. November 22, 2006 7:45 pm

    As far as Nashville, it might be the most difficult-to-explain great movie ever made. Whenever Altman himself tried to explain it in the ’70s, he came off looking foolish. And so I’m not about to attempt it either. It has been said of Altman that when he was really ON, he seemed to pull his effects out of thin air, like a magician, and nowhere is this more true than in Nashville.

    Memorable moments in Altman films: The long opening shot in The Player, an homage to Touch of Evil; the sequence in The Long Goodbye in which Mark Rydell smashes a Coke bottle in his girlfriend’s face (once you see it, you never forget it); the sequence in Nashville in which Keith Carradine sings “I’m Easy.” There are others, though overall you’re right about Altman’s style.

  5. November 29, 2006 9:19 pm

    By the way, I think it’s Altman’s rejection of convention — more so than his humanism — that makes him so hard to fall in love with. Take his use of music: Watch McCABE, NASHVILLE, THE LONG GOODBYE or any of his other ’70s classics, and not once do you hear music used for dramatic effect. Yes, you hear lots of songs in NASHVILLE, yet Altman never tries to heighten the drama with music (other than via the songs themselves, as in the classic “I’m Easy” sequence). The same with the climactic showdown in McCABE — all you hear is the howling wind (and, in the rest of the film, Leonard Cohen’s melancholy songs). And pretty much the only music in THE LONG GOODBYE is the title song, played in a variety of styles for satirical purposes. (I’m talking mainly about Altman’s ’70s films — in THE PLAYER he definitely uses music to heighten suspense.)

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