Death of the Expected: The Films of Robert Altman

One of the most prolific and truly independent filmmakers of all-time, Robert Altman (right)

Prolific, rambunctious, and one of the true independents of cinema, Robert Altman was the kind of director Hollywood hated. From his 1970 breakthrough M*A*S*H to his final film, the elegiac A Prairie Home Companion (2006), his movies were big, sometimes unwieldy, ensemble pieces rather than star-driven, bursting with characters and ideas and dialogue that overlapped like ripples in a stream. Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann just had a special screening at TIFF of his upcoming documentary Altman (2014), and TIFF is putting on a retrospective of some of the legendary director’s best known films. Always surprising, Altman’s instincts were the antithesis of our blockbuster era. They made for great movies, even when they weren’t hits. Much like Tim Robbins’s movie exec in The Player (1992), very often Altman got away with murder.

Tim Robbins discovers he’s capable of anything in Altman’s brilliant 1992 comeback The Player

One word comes up again and again when people talk about Robert Altman: iconoclast. The guy was so against the grain he seemed headed every which way at once, rather than be pinned down to a single direction. A determined deconstructionist, he made the anti-war comedy M*A*S*H, the anti-Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and the anti-film noir The Long Goodbye (1973). His backstage musical Nashville (1975) pulsed with countless melodies, its countrified strains riven by the miasmic politics of 70s America. He even tried the pop culture revivalism so in vogue today with the Robin Williams comedy Popeye (1980) (which, in spite of its iconic spinach-guzzling sailor proved anemic to critics and fans). He was nominated five times for the Best Director Academy Award, but never won. He finally received an Honorary Oscar for his life’s work in 2006, months before passing away from leukemia. Not bad for a WWII bomber crewman who churned out dozens of industrial films after the war, leading to a career directing in television. He lensed episodes of U.S. MarshalBonanzaThe Roaring 20sMaverick and Peter Gunn, to name just a few.

Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are bracing and hilarious in Altman’s breakout 1970 hit M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H was his breakthrough feature film, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as war-time surgeons Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre. Like the later TV series, it’s a satiric war comedy, but a lot more subversive with a lot less liberal fuzziness. With the Korean War providing the thinnest of cover for a Viet Nam allegory, the film’s anarchic humour set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital struck a deep chord. The film was the most successful of Altman’s career, grossing over $80 million on a budget of $3.5 million (good enough for 85th all-time on the adjusted box office list). Which is pretty amusing considering Sutherland and Gould found Altman’s directing style so strange that they tried to have him fired from the movie during filming.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie are rivetingly mismatched in McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Altman’s so-real-you-want-to-take-a-bath western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is a surprisingly beautiful film. Shot by the renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond in the chilly Pacific Northwest, Altman’s deconstructive take on the wild west predates Unforgiven (1992) by over twenty years. Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a gambler coasting on his doubtful reputation as a gunslinger. Determined to make something of himself, he sets about transforming the sleepy mining town of Presbyterian Church by opening a bar and a brothel. When Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town, he finds himself with a new partner, as she shows him how the business of whoring is properly done. They and the town flourish, but before long their success draws the interest of a big mining company. Agents arrive to buy McCabe out, and he has to think fast, the stakes being far higher than he realizes. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is different than the Hollywood westerns that precede it, with its unkempt miners, raucous hookers and nervously belching anti-hero who isn’t quite sure if he’s got the guts or wit to pull the whole thing off. (His steady diet of “whisky and an egg” probably doesn’t help.) The trailer paints it as a kind of romance, which it is, but moreso with a dark, grimy heart, beating fast:

And yes, Leonard Cohen provides some wonderful songs on the soundtrack.

Like many a singer, Henry Gibson is a commanding egomaniac in the masterful Nashville (1975)

In a lot of ways, Nashville (1975) is Altman’s masterpiece. It’s a brilliant musical of sorts, brimming with twenty-four ostensibly main characters. As novelistic as a film can be, the story constantly shifts, following one person and then another as they drift through each other’s lives. Henry Gibson is unforgettable as the self-important Haven Hamilton, a successful country singer with a coterie of hangers-on (you might know Gibson as the priest in Wedding Crashers (2004) or the head Nazi in The Blues Brothers (1980)). When we first see him recording a rousing song commemorating the upcoming American bicentennial, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the choral march and his redneck gusto. Then as the session unravels and Hamilton starts sniping at the other musicians in the studio, the edifice comes crashing down to earth in a hurry. The movie loosely follows political organizers John Triplette (Michael Murphy) and Del Reese (Ned Beatty) as they enlist various performers to put on a concert for Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker, who is never seen in the film. Along the way we meet so many indelible people: the popular country singer on the verge of a nervous breakdown Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley); the prim white gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin, superb in her first movie role), married to Del Reese; the bickering folk trio and lovers’ triangle Bill, Mary and Tom (Allan F. Nicholls, Christina Raines and a great caddish Keith Carradine); the aspiring singer Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) whose confidence is matched only by her extraordinary tone-deafness; and on it goes. Oh, and throw in Jeff Goldblum as the silent but omnipresent weirdo Tricycle Man, constantly appearing in scenes like a clownish marker. Each of the actors composed and performed their own songs in the movie, giving it a rough charm and veracity that’s almost totally missing from the polished and enhanced performances of today.

Nashville captures a fascinating watershed in American history, following on the disasters of the Viet Nam war, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the Nixon impeachment, as the country valiantly attempts to move forward with the patriotic fervour of its approaching bicentennial. What’s needed is a new start, like the one the invisible candidate Walker is offering. But America, like so many of the deluded characters in the film, can’t seem to escape its history. As the film meanders toward its ending, the ugliness keeps seeping through. When another aspiring singer, the runaway wife Winnifred (Barbara Harris), finally gets her chance to sing at the closing concert, she and the crowd are barely hanging onto their dreams. It’s a powerful moment, one that speaks to the bravery and blindness needed to overcome calamity.

So many of Altman’s movies capture the foibles and failures of people (however charming or fascinating they might be) and the way the system grinds them down. They often do so with humour and grace, but never flinching when dark emotions bubble to the surface. The dichotomy of his life is how successful he himself was subverting expectations and railing against the big beast of Hollywood industry. TIFF’s retrospective Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman is an embarrassment of great movies, the kind most directors would kill to have even one of on their resumé. Check one out. Hell, check ten. Like the man says, “It’s all just one film to me. Just different chapters.”

Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman kicks off with M*A*S*H on Thursday, August 7th at 6:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. McCabe and Mrs. Miller screens the following night on Friday, August 8th at 6:15pm, and is especially notable for cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond being in attendance. The rest of the program includes greats The Long Goodbye (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), NashvilleShort Cuts (1993), The Player and Gosford Park (2001), and runs through till Sunday, August 31st. For tickets and full info, see here. If you’re not in Toronto, you can find a lot of Altman’s movies on iTunes and DVD.

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