Screenings: Robert Altman

By Barra, Allen | American Heritage, February-March 2007 | Go to article overview

Screenings: Robert Altman


Barra, Allen, American Heritage


ROBERT ALTMAN'S ENTIRE CAREER, WHICH ranged from episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" in 1957 to the pleasant and strangely elegiac A Prairie Home Companion last year, was summed up after the 1992 Academy Awards. A television journalist asked the director of The Player, perhaps the best movie ever made about the inner workings of Hollywood, why the industry's research tanks couldn't determine what moviegoers wanted to see. "Because," he replied, "what they want to see is something they haven't seen before, and they don't know what that is."

Altman's half-century as a director was fueled by a desire to give viewers something they hadn't seen before. He was prolific, perhaps too prolific for a filmmaker who was self-consciously innovative; his credits list 35 feature films and a number of miniseries and TV films, not to mention scores of television episodes, which, in addition to "Hitchcock," include "Hawaiian Eye," "Sugarfoot," "Bonanza," "Maverick," "Combat," "Route 66," and even "The Gale Storm Show."

It probably wouldn't be possible to put together a comprehensive Altman festival; there are too many works of too many lengths, and no one could agree on what should be shown. M*A*S*H (1970), the most ferociously funny antiwar film ever made, the movie about the Korean War that exposed the country's psychic wound over Vietnam, should lead off any Altman tribute. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), his hallucinatory dream of a Western, with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, would also be included. Thieves Like Us (1974), a Bonnie-and-Clyde story as Faulkner might have told it, California Split (1974), his exhilarating reflection on his own gambling addiction, and, of course, the apocalyptic Nashville (1975), the film that gave a country-music soundtrack to our post-Vietnam paranoia, would be essential.

But that would still leave 30 years of feature and TV films to sift through, and what panel of critics could possibly reach a consensus on them? …

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