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Mr. Robert Altman

Tuesday, November 21, 2006
by

Maverick extraordinaire

One needn’t have seen many of Robert Altman’s films to understand what a gifted director he was. His career spanned more than fifty years working in theatre, television and film, directing television shows, miniseries, feature films and documentaries. Though he doesn’t get any credit for it, he was right there alongside the movie brats like Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese and Spielberg, crafting terrific and original films during the re-birth of American cinema in the 1970s. Mr. Altman died today at the age of 81, and the cinema has lost an artist and a maverick.

Though I have only seen a handful of Altman’s movies, I can confidently tell you that he is one of my favourite directors. MASH, The Long Goodbye, Short Cuts, The Player and Gosford Park are excellent, excellent films. Even a minor work like Dr. T and the Women, which was unfairly slammed by critics, was entertaining and better then most multi-plex crap. This is not to say that Altman didn’t have his share of failures, i.e. Popeye (which is dreadful), or Pret-a-Porter. But if you look at his life’s work, he appears indomitable; he kept working and creating art. For every failure, there were many triumphs.

Altman is well-known for his ‘over-lapping’ dialogue and his long takes and the fact that his films have a very unpolished feel to them. Though this speaks to style, he wasn’t a stylist the way a director like Scorsese is, where style often dictates content. Altman preferred to let his story guide him through the material. The Player, aside from the magnificent opening shot that lasts a whooping 8 minutes, feels very formally staged, whereas MASH comes across as slapdash, much like Hawkeye and Trapper John themselves. His camera in Gosford Park seems to glide down corridors and hallways, capturing the smooth elegance of the period but hinting at the danger and hatred bubbling away under the surface.

He also enjoyed taking the genre picture and turning it upside-down, as in The Long Goodbye, with Elliot Gould as a bummed-out Phillip Marlowe trying to get by in the weird Los Angeles of the 1970s.

While he worked for many years in television before being hired to direct MASH, Altman eschewed regular Hollywood movies and often worked outside of it; thus, he was an early example of the now common independent filmmaker. And though he was a generation removed from the majority of anti-war protestors of the 60s and 70s, (he was a WWII veteran, having been in the US Air Force) he maintained a clear voice of dissent (often with humour) throughout his life.

His innovative approach to storytelling has influenced a whole crop of new and exciting filmmakers, and without a doubt his work will continue to do so. We should all raise a glass – or perhaps better yet, let’s all start talking at the same time and go shoot some golf balls off the helipad into the South Korean countryside (okay, so only one of us can do that last thing).

Farewell Mr. Altman, and thanks.
Altman and his hilarious hatsllewopemearg

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, November 21, 2006 3:37 pm

    Gosford Park would definitely be in my top 50 movies of all time.

    If such a list existed.

    And I’m annoyed I didn’t get out to see Prairie Home Companion when it was at the Bloor.

    Nerts.

    R.I.P.

  2. Monday, December 4, 2006 9:04 am

    Just saw A Prairie Home Companion – a perfect coda for Altman’s film career. The film is about winding down, and loss, and old age, but it’s light-hearted and bittersweet.

    But I’m not sad yet, as I still have a bunch more good Altman films to seek out and watch.

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