The Case for Robert Altman Patrick McGilligan: Robert Altman. Jumping Off the Cliff. New York: St. Martins Press, 1989. $24.95
For the better part of the 1970s Robert Altman's films were among the most inventive and demanding works produced by the American cinema. His exploration and deconstruction of popular genres, including the war film, musical, western, film noir, and romantic comedy, raised provocative questions about the dynamics of film narrative, while the open, egalitarian nature of his mise-en-scène, packing the frame and soundtrack with a wealth of visual and verbal detail, required the viewer's active participation. And then there is his idiosyncratic casting. For whom else have Henry Gibson, John Schuck, Ronee Blakley, Nina Van Pallandt, or Shelly Duvall performed so memorably? More than anything, Altman's work is replete with privileged moments: instances of memorable behavior which, once seen, indelibly register themselves on one's memory. Mine include the haunting snowfall as Warren Beatty's McCabe of McCabe and Mrs. Miller heroically picks off his three killers only to become a "child of snow," his fate unknown to the residents of Presbyterian Church who have rallied to save their inessential house of worship, Sterling Hayden, the booze-ravaged novelist Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye drowning in the ocean as Elliot Gould's quixotic Philip Marlowe obviously converses with his wife, and Shelly Duvall's rhapsodic praising of consumerism in Three Women.
Notwithstanding the excellence of these and other films, Robert Altman undoubtedly has fallen from critical and commercial grace since the pinnacle of acclaim he reached with Nashville in 1975. By 1981, he had fled Hollywood, sold off the Lions Gate studio facility, seen several of his films barely released by the studio system, survived being deemed responsible for the Popeye fiasco [despite the film's $60 million international boxoffice], and been abandoned by once slavish film critics. Still, Altman has always been a survivor and, as the subtitle of Patrick McGilligan's lavish biography attests, jumped off more than one cliff. In the words of a character in Nashville, Robert Altman "keeps-a-going," compiling credits in film, theatre, opera, and video, adding to a body of work equal to that of few others in American, if not international film. Till now, the biographical dimension of his films and the circumstances in which they were produced have been prey to rumors of Altman the abuser of studio executives, scourge of screenwriters, excessive consumer of illegal substances, wild-eyed ringmaster of bacchanalian film sets. McGilligan's exhaustive research clarifies these often illfounded observations as well as reveals an individual as perplexing and idiosyncratic as the films he has produced.
McGilligan, who first interviewed Altman in 1974, believes him to be, in addition to Woody Allen, the great American director of our time. Certain facts about him, however, McGilligan found to be less than clear, particularly Altman's work in the midwestern industrial film industry and network television. To correct this grey area, better than half of McGilligan's work covers the years prior to Altman's meteoric success with M*A*S*H. During this time, he worked for the Calvin Company, a Kansas City industrial film firm, producing 60 films for clients ranging from the VFW to National Safety Council and the Wheaties Corporation. He then went on to work on network episodic television for some seven years, directing episodes for a number of series including Alfred Hitchcock, The Millionaire. Maverick. Bonanza, Kraft Mystery Theatre, and, most to his credit, the World War Il series Combat, whose anti-war sentiments prefigured M*A*S*H.
Clearly, long before the making of that film, Altman amassed credits which exceed the work of most major film directors. In fact, as Andrew Sarris has observed, Altman has averaged more than one credit for every year of his adult life, which, in an age of deal-making and packaging, validates his antipathy to the Hollywood system. …