The Maverick of Movieland; Robert Altman, 1925-2006

Article excerpt

Byline: David Ansen

Robert Altman never courted an audience's affections. A cool, iconoclastic customer, he scorned sentimentality, upended the rules of genre, spurned happy endings. Why, then, did his best movies produce in me a happiness unlike anyone else's? Watching that magical string of films he made in the early 1970s--"McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "The Long Goodbye," "California Split," "Nashville"--was pure exhilaration. I'd walk out of the theater with a contact high, twice as alive as when I walked in. There was a paradox here that gets at the mysterious alchemy of art: though these movies end with wintry desolation, existential futility, happy-go-lucky fatalism, they give back esthetic bliss.

The Altman style was unmistakable: the long, wandering takes; the overlapping dialogue that invites us to eavesdrop on the actors; the teeming, spontaneous panoramas that offer multiple choices to the eye. His method was the opposite of Hitchcock, who storyboarded every sequence in advance. Altman's movies spilled out beyond the edges of the frame, alive to the messiness of life. Notoriously laid-back, in love with improvisation and multiple cameras, Altman was the director as party host, throwing a bash and letting the camera capture the results. He was once asked why he gave so few explicit instructions to his actors. "I'm looking for something I've never seen, so how can I tell them what to do?" Altman was both ringmaster and spectator at once, and it was the joy he took in simultaneously creating and discovering those moments of cinematic truth that was so contagious. Actors leapt at the chance to work for him, and gave him their best. Though he'd never use such a fancy term to describe himself, he was an instinctive existentialist. You can't separate the making of his movies from their meaning.

It may be hard for someone who wasn't around in 1970 to understand how revolutionary the impudent, off-the-cuff "M*A*S*H" looked at the time, with its dark, disenchanted antiwar gallows humor. Altman hit his stride with that hugely successful comedy, after serving a long apprenticeship in industrial films and television. …