Is there as American director as distinguished in pedigree yet as unclassifiable as Robert Altman was? Probably not. Outside of being a master of the ensemble based drama, there aren’t any two Altman films that are remotely the same (well, maybe EXACTLY two, but we’ll get to those later). This was a man who tried every genre there was to try from the highest of art to the lowest of camp and everything in between. There has never been another director like Robert Altman anywhere in the world, and since his death in 2006 there likely never will be again.
Company Man: The Films of Robert Altman (running tonight through August 31st) is a retrospective of the man’s work kicking off this evening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It’s not a full career retrospective and if we’re being honest (we meaning myself, , the guy writing this intro, and Phil Brown, a fellow Altman lover who helped with this piece) it would have been nice to see some of his lesser known “failures” in here alongside his successes. You won’t see the outlandish, big budget studio musical version of Popeye with Robin Williams. You won’t see his almost atypically misanthropic fashion week throwdown Prêt-à-Porter. There’s no look at his somewhat unjustly maligned (and not even really his) legal crime drama The Gingerbread Man (with a script from John Grisham!) or his most fervently cult adored OC & Stiggs. I wouldn’t mind seeing a screening of his sweet and generally slept on Cookie’s Fortune. Really, I think the only film Phil and I can agree as being justly left out is Dr. T and the Women, which is probably the only irredeemably terrible film the man ever produced in a career full of contradictions, stylistic left turns, and even making his misfires resonate with curious audiences and critics.
I talked about this with Phil, and generally we tend to like different Altman films, so instead of doing our standard top five for a series like this, we instead split up the work to look at which Altman films we thing are the best. Although, when it comes to Altman there are plenty of different answers that can be given. (Except Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Those two should always be give as right answers.) Here now is part one of two at our look at our favourite Altman films (done in order of screening date).
Thursday, August 7th, 6:30pm
Robert Altman was 45 years old when he directed M*A*S*H* after every major Hollywood director had turned it down. He’d already directed a few movies and a decade of television. And yet, somehow M*A*S*H* is really his first film. Altman’s style was so defined by breaking, bending, and subverting the conventions of classical filmmaking that all those years were necessary. You have to know the rules to break them and from an opening shot of overlapping dialogue played for laughs, his signature filmmaking style emerged fully formed. The poster for M*A*S*H* might be hands making the piece sign, but it should be an extended middle finger. The movie is a fuck you to convention, military righteousness, good taste, polite behavior, apolitical filmmaking, institutional trust, and conservative thinking.
From the moment M*A*S*H* first screened, Altman became one of the breakout filmmakers of the youth movement despite being middle-aged. He reinvented big screen comedy, created a new aesthetic, made unconventional stars out of Donald Southerland and Elliot Gould, subtly attacked the Viet-Nam war, won the Palm D’Or, and helped drag Hollywood filmmaking kicking and screaming into the 70s. Watching it today, it’s hard to imagine the kick to the nuts the film delivered in theaters (especially after the watered down TV series). It’s certainly episodic, uneven and lacks a satisfying climax. Thankfully the lunatic highs far outweigh the lulls. If nothing else, M*A*S*H* remains Altman’s most purely enjoyable and funniest film. To this day, it’s the place to start sampling the director’s work. He’s made far better movies than M*A*S*H*, but nothing else quite so accessible. (Phil Brown)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Friday, August 8th, 6:30pm, introduced by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond
A triumph for everyone involved, not just Altman who directs one of the greatest modernist takes on the western genre ever constructed, but for leads Warren Beatty and Julie Christie who deliver some of the best work they’ve ever done. Beatty’s two bit hustler oozes an unsympathetic, oily charm while still credibly coming across as a romantic western kind of icon in this tale of a brothel owner who gets some lessons in class from Christie’s high class madam. It’s the kind of plotline that back in 1971 when the film was released would have been deemed as fodder for a musical comedy or a lesser episode of the dead TV western genre. But in the hands of Altman, it’s the kind of film with a delicate tone that wouldn’t be seen until decades later when Deadwood would come to television, and even then they couldn’t nail the contradictions of the old west like Altman did. Hand in hand with cinematography from multiple award winner Vilmos Zsigmond (who will introduce the Lightbox screening) and a score from Leonard Cohen, this might be Altman’s most tightly constructed film. It’s the kind of western that Michael Cimino could only dream of making years later with his oddly indebted Heaven’s Gate. Some people might claim Nashville, M*A*S*H*, or California Split as their favourite Altman masterpieces. Personally, I would never tire of watching this film, and on a technical level, I doubt he has ever made a better film.
That Cold Day in the Park
Saturday, August 9th, 1:30pm
You know, hard as it might be for cinephiles to believe, but there was a time before M*A*S*H* and McCabe and Mrs. Miller where the name Robert Altman didn’t mean anything. Altman toiled away in the then obscure world of television direction for the better part of a decade before making his first feature, the decidedly genre based sci-fi thriller Countdown with James Caan and Robert Duvall in 1967. That was an okay, if mostly forgettable exercise that probably led to this next film, the almost deceptively simple and at times quiet austere psychological thriller That Cold Day in the Park.
Shot in Vancouver on a shoestring budget, the film slowly follows the exploits of Frances (Sandy Dennis), a rich, single, older woman who takes an apparently homeless and mute young man (Michael Burns) under her wing. And by under her wing, I mean she essentially imprisons him so she can cater to his every need. The film isn’t so much a beat for beat thriller as it is a dance between two characters who are hiding a lot more than they let on.
I’m not sure what audiences back in 1969 were really expecting from this one, but they obviously didn’t get it, making this a sort of “lost” film in the Altman canon that would go on to get as fervently reclaimed as OC and Stiggs. That reclamation might be from people who now, in hindsight, recognize this tonally as being very Altman-esque. The focus is placed solely on the characters and their interactions instead of manufacture plot points. The characters, in typical Altman fashion, are deeply flawed people looking to be understood and in denial of their own shortcomings. It’s not the only thriller Altman would make, and it’s not necessarily the best, but it’s astounding to watch this film in hindsight and think about how everyone missed the boat on such a great filmmaking talent at the time.
Sunday, August 10th, 1:30pm
The massive success of M*A*S*H* earned Robert Altman complete artistic freedom and he used it to make one of the strangest films that he or anyone else has ever made. Describing the movie is nearly impossible. It stars Bud Cort as a young man building a flying harness in the newly constructed Huston Astrodome. There’s also a serial killer loose in the city who leaves bird shit on the corpses and Michael Murphy appears as a faintly satirical action hero cop always up for a car chase. Shelly Duvall makes her screen debut and at one point dresses like Raggedy Ann. In other words, the movie is absolutely nuts. It’s a film defined by pure comedic anarchy. Altman parodies every movie that was on his mind at the moment and also tries to turn it all into a fairy tale or fable by the time the credits roll. What it’s all supposed to mean is almost beside the point. It’s a kitchen sink movie where good ideas and jokes trump such concerns as cohesion and meaning. Some might call the movie a mess, others might call it a masterpiece. In a way, both opinions are correct. Brewster McCloud is a mess, yet one so singularly insane that it works. Between Brewster McCloud and M*A*S*H*, Altman established himself as a bizarre comedic voice who could have turned into the Zucker Brothers before the Zucker Bothers existed. Thankfully, the director had much different and more ambitious ideas in mind about where his career would take him. (Phil Brown)
The Long Goodbye
Sunday, August 17th, 6:45pm
Robert Altman and film noir don’t exactly sound like an obvious combination. Yet, he made one and it’s pretty much unlike any movie ever made (well, until Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice anyways). Altman took a Philip Marlowe story and set it in 1973 Los Angeles. His version of the hardboiled sleuth is Elliot Gould who seems like a man lost in time and appears to be completely aloof until he reveals that he knows exactly what’s going on. His neighbors are nudists who constantly bake weed brownies. His clients are eccentric Hollywood types with dirty secrets and filthy laundry. As with most Raymond Chandler tales, the plot is a labyrinth of ins and outs that only kind of add up. It’s ultimately a bit of a pisstake on the genre, just one that plays the moments of violence straight. Stylistically Altman moves camera in absolutely every shot, creating the woozy atmosphere of a dream or soft drugs. The twisted, hilarious, and unique movie inspired the Coen Brothers’ to make The Big Lebowski, introduced the world to Henry Gibson’s evil side, and even provided Arnold Schwarzenegger (along with his horrible 70s mustache) with his first screentime in a Hollywood production. In other words, The Long Goodbye is a movie that you should see cherish immediately. Only Altman could have done it and even he never made anything quite like it again. (Phil Brown)
Thieves Like Us
Tuesday, August 19th, 6:30pm
After Bonne and Clyde hit, Hollywood and exploitation studios cranked out lovers-on-the-run movies in a frenzy. Martin Scorsese made Boxcar Bertha, Terence Malickmade Badlands, Jonathan Demme made Crazy Mama, Steven Spielberg made The Sugarland Express, and dozens of other directors you’ve never heard of chipped in their version as well. Eventually Robert Altman had to make his entry while he was chipping away at reinventing seemingly every other Hollywood genre. What he delivered was Thieves Like Us, a heartbreaking and leisurely exploration of depression-era crime that robs the genre of any and all sense of romanticism. Altman’s vision of this world is sad and pathetic. His robbers aren’t heroes, their plans always go wrong, and even the story between Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvallseems doomed before it begins. The genre was built on thrilling audiences, while Altman’s edition unfolds in slow rhythms and was designed to leave audiences devastated. Thieves Like Us feels like watching life unfold before your eyes and while it’s never pretty, it sure is beautiful. (Phil Brown)
Tuesday, August 19th, 9:15pm
I’ll bet you never knew that Robert Altman made a horror film. Well he did, although obviously just like any of the director’s other genre diversions, it barely resembles one in any conventional sense. The film stars Susannah York as a schizophrenic novelist going just a little (ok, very) crazy alone in a country mansion on the English moors. She starts being plagued by images of her dead lover and her mind is soon filled with fantasies about her husband’s somewhat skeezy friend. She decides to fight off the visions by killing the men troubling her in a way that may or may not be real. Completely dismissed during its initial release, Images doesn’t quite feel like any other movie. The atmosphere is laid on thick and what initially appears to be a vaguely surreal arthouse exploration in duality, slowly transforms into a nightmarish psychological horror film told from the perspective of a fractured mind (think Don’t Look Know, but Altman-ized). John Williams’ deeply unsettling and surprisingly experimental score slithers under the skin while York’s astounding central performance delivers on every insane challenge that Robert Altman tosses her way. It’s a kind of amazing and undeniably creepy effort from the director that works so well, it’s a shame that Altman never dabbled in horror again. (Phil Brown)
Thursday, August 21st, 6:15pm
All Robert Altman movies are personal, but only one feels autobiographical. That movie is California Split and it just might be his most underrated effort. The plot involves a pair of wayward gambling addicts doing what they love (Altman’s obsession with America’s unofficial national pastime was legendary and almost ruined him on several occasions). George Segal plays a magazine editor with a knack for ruining his life with poker. Elliot Gould plays a fast-talking Elliot-Gould-type who lives with a pair of casual prostitutes and a collection of breakfast cereal. Gould is a guy who lives only to gamble and gambles on everything. Together they’re a horrible team, but great friends. They bumble around, fuck up, and have a collection of hilarious conversations so real that they hurt. It’s a small and simple film that slowly builds up deceptive power. It’s also transitional movie for Altman that points to his humanist future while also doubling as the last in his initial run of revisionist genre pictures. This time he takes on the buddy comedy and presents a tale of male bonding that is deeply unhealthy and mutually self-destructive, yet still somehow warm and charming. In its own ragged and rambling way, California Split is a perfect movie and one of the greatest American comedies of the 70s. (Phil Brown)
Friday, August 22nd, 6:30pm
If only one Robert Altman movie could be saved for posterity, then it would have to be Nashville. While there were at least points of comparison for every film he made before Nashville, this one was without precedent. From an observational distance achieved through long lenses, Altman follows 24 separate characters weaving around and bumping into each other over five days in Nashville. From Southern politicians to British journalists, housewives to strippers, country stars to wannabe burnouts, the film seems to capture the entire strata of life in Nashville circa 1975. Through that very specific lens, it also transforms a portrait of America, where showbiz and politics are indistinguishable. The film was all-encompassing and of the moment, yet somehow oddly prophetic (the director was blamed for creating the concept of the celebrity assassination). It’s a masterpiece, a meal of a movie that explores so many avenues of life and ranges of emotion that it seems to yield new meanings with each viewing. It’s such an ambitious project and so clearly improvised that it’s an absolute miracle that anything resembling a movie emerged, let alone one of the greatest ever made. A film to be cherished and one that can never be watched enough. (Phil Brown)
Come back for part two of our look at Altman at TIFF on August 22nd for our look at the second half of the Altman retrospective and the second half of the filmmaker’s big screen career! For more information, screenings, and showtimes, please check out the TIFF website.