SCREENING ROOM BY FRANK PITTMAN
Overlapping Realities Robert Altman is the ultimate systemic filmmaker
The Oscars have come and gone, bestowing immortality upon a handful of actors like Reese Witherspoon and George Clooney, who henceforth and forever will be identified, whenever they do whatever, as "Oscar Winner So and So Does Whatever." While directors also crave such immortality, the Academy often tends to honor the great ones belatedly, as if bringing them out for a final bow. Sometimes they never honor them at all. Some of the most venerated and instantly recognizable of the great directors--Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese (after five nominations)--have never won the Best Director Oscar. This year, 84-year-old Robert Altman, one the quirkiest of all, after being nominated five times (for M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park ) received an honorary award, in a gesture that was something akin to a deathbed apology from the Academy for its previous slights.
There to introduce Altman were Lili Tomlin, who received her Oscar nomination for Nashville, and the incomparable Meryl Streep, who appears in Altman's upcoming Prairie Home Companion. In the highlight of the long evening, they demonstrated Altman's directorial style by conducting two overlapping conversations that precisely caught the rhythm and auditory ambience that makes his work so distinctive. His films have taught us all what real life sounds like, with everyone vying to be heard--although, as his career has shown, it isn't easy for an audience to catch on to what he's doing if they aren't paying close attention.
As might have been expected, Altman looked down upon his award with gracious detachment, a total lack of ingratiation, and a hint of amusement. But at the very end of the evening, he received an even greater honor and an even firmer testimony to the impact of his work: Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, a young Altman prot[Cyrillic O]g[Cyrillic O], got the Best Picture Oscar for a film that's an Altman lookalike and soundalike. Altman's complex vision and inimitable style had finally conquered Hollywood.
Altman was a middle-class, Roman Catholic boy from Kansas City, who spent his youth stoned, drunk, and in and out of marriages. He settled down a bit with his third wife, making a bunch of commercials and a couple of miniature films. Then in 1970, at 45, he hit it big with the phenomenally popular, antiestablishment, and antiwar comedy M*A*S*H, about a medical-surgical team, ankle deep in blood, amputating the limbs of dying soldiers in a combat zone in Korea. While Ring Lardner wrote the film, Altman imbued it with his unique style, populating the screen with more characters than the audience could keep track of, all talking at the same time, while loudspeakers trumpeted out the news and announcements of the day. The film had no real stars: all the cast, like members of a family, supported one another. Although the audience missed half the action and three quarters of the dialogue, they got an indelible sense of how people create a world together in which the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.
Altman had given a new look, sound, and feel to movies--not drawn from the stage, where a
personal crisis is isolated from the background chorus, but thoroughly rooting the characters in their highly particularized milieu. One of his biographers, Patrick McGilligan, insists that "marijuana shaped Altman's storytelling. Its influence is there in the 'dream' passages, the truncated narrative forms, the quirkiness and the fragmentedness, the vacillating points of view, the bent humor, the clear insights bobbing up amid the torrent of banality." At their best, Altman's films capture the sheer clutter and messiness of life, making us acknowledge that things need not quite make literal sense to make profound emotional sense.
Altman is to conventional Hollywood storytelling what family therapists are to the mental health world. …