Robert Altman a Sharpshooter with New Series

Article excerpt

If someone had taken a poll in 1975 to name the great American

movie director of the next two decades, the names at the top of

the list would have been Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman.

Coppola had just made the two Godfather movies.

Altman, meanwhile, was on a roll that began with 1970's box

office sensation M*A*S*H, continued through such critical

favorites as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Thieves

Like Us, and climaxed with Nashville.

Nashville was the movie Pauline Kael, then the most

influential critic in America, called "the funniest epic vision

of America ever to reach the screen."

But neither Coppola nor Altman could sustain success.

Coppola never recovered from making Apocalypse Now, considered

at the time the most expensive failure in movie history, then

following with One From the Heart, a box office disaster.

Altman's decline was less spectacular but more pronounced. Bad

movies like Buffalo Bill and the Indians led to unwatchable

movies like Quintet, which led to unreleasable movies like Health.

By the 1980s, he was adapting stage plays, an odd development

for a director who was a pioneer in the use of sound and of

improvisation.

Altman made a comeback in 1992 with The Player, the delicious,

meticulously plotted satire of Hollywood, but couldn't sustain

it. Ready to Wear, Short Cuts and Kansas City were all

disappointments.

Film historian David Thomson argues, I think accurately, that

Altman's weaknesses are his misanthropy and his disinterest in

structure. Atmosphere and attitude predominate, plots meander,

and the characters, while quirky, are rarely likable. …