Robert Altman Retrospective: The Independent Filmmaker Par Excellence

Nélida Nassar  8.8.2015

The Harvard Film Archives is currently presenting a retrospective of the work of film director, screenwriter, and producer Robert Altman encompassing over forty-five films spanning fifty years of creativity, from 1957 to 2006. Considered the enfant terrible of Hollywood and the father of independent cinema in the United States, Robert Altman
was a legendary figure, larger than life both physically and intellectually. Charming and animated by a vital energy, he was an exuberant perfectionist who never did things halfway. With M.A.S.H (1970), the 44-year old Altman, born to a conservative and well-to-do Catholic family from Kansas City, gave the movie-going public his first cult film.
It belongs to the era of “The New Hollywood,” the new Golden Age of Hollywood cinema in the late 1960s, heralded by films such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.

M.A.S.H, filmed in 1969 and kept under wraps by Fox due to its irreverence, it was discovered by three French film aficionados: director, screenwriter, actor and producer Bertrand Tavernier, author Marc Bernard, and Fox Europe advertising and publicity director Denise Breton. Thanks to their efforts, it became an immense success. It was entered in the Cannes Film Festival in 1970, where it won the Golden Palm. The comedy’s audacity and humor were revolutionary. It is therefore understandable that when Altman was entrusted with a script the results would be explosive, but it was impossible to predict the target, since none of his movies is like the previous one.

His sources of inspiration were varied and never trendy, his subjects covered most well worn genres but with a subversive twist, and he knew better than anyone else how to blend diverse visual universes. However, the impression he creates as he goes from film to film, each with its rich panoply of American clichés, remains at times problematic. It is difficult to determine his stance, given his wavering between closeness and distance, first degree recycling and appropriation, on the one hand, and the acerbic criticism of America that dominates his oeuvre, on the other. Neither classical nor mannerist, Altman shows us a world where the temptation to exist through models is so strong that reality changes into a wholesale, mocking parody of itself. He seeks to find within the organized messiness of real life areas of inexplicable connivance, and even, perhaps, of diabolical compromise, which are needed to maintain the illusion of a bright and democratic future.

If there is a constant in the director’s work one might call it a fertile chaos. Altman cultivated bedlam in the choice of his themes as well as in their treatment disregarding storytelling. His cinema is that of excess: the dialogues from multiple actors overlap
(a technique he perfected through this early work on industrial films and TV series) – often making it difficult to understand anything; the characters are numerous with a predilection for ensemble casts and the camera and zoom lenses constantly moving; and steady intrigues break into a thousand little scenarios intersecting to create a mosaic. This apparent pandemonium, however, is very prolific, as has been noted by author and film critic Robert Benayoun of the French film magazine Positif, the counterpoint of Les cahiers du cinema.

A kind of order always emerges from all this boisterousness, starting with the thoroughness of the staging, with its obvious concern for details. While one figure gesticulates in a corner of the screen, our eye is attracted to the zooming in on a detail, a gag, or a micro-drama. All of Altman’s films are bursting with vitality: they show men fidgeting as if they were trapped in a cellophane bubble. Yet, despite this turmoil, everyone does the best he can and tries to survive instinctively, somewhere in the zone between debauchery and despair. “No need to dramatize,” Altman seems to say. He demolishes the dominant codes, genres, and mythologies with his weapon of choice: satire. In almost all his films, though, there is a deceased character – a reminder that while we’re still alive, the choice is between humor and death.

Altman had to make do with a small budget for his first feature film, The Delinquents (1957). In 1967 Hollywood gave him his first big chance when Warner Brothers commissioned Countdown (1968), a movie about astronauts. With M.A.S.H. (1970), depicting the adventures of a surgical team during the Korean War, the director obtained critical recognition and the film triumphed at the box office. As a result Altman founded his own production company, Lion’s Gate, in order to preserve his independence. He diversified his work by exploring various genres: the western with McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971); the supernatural with Images (1972), filmed in Ireland, in which a woman in a dark depression confronts the apparitions of her former lovers; and film noir with The Long Goodbye (1973). His 1975 film Nashville was a resounding critical and commercial success. Iconoclastic and nonconformist, Altman destroys myths and American heroes in Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). He became the specialist of broken narrative featuring multiple parallel stories. Equally at home in lyrical satire and realism, he continued his diatribe against his contemporaries. In the early 1980s, he adapted the play Streamers (1983) based on a David Rabe’s text. In it Altman caricatures the army, seen here as a metaphor for society as a whole.

Following a stay in Europe, where he directed, among other films, Beyond Therapy (1987), he returned to the United States with the triumphant The Player (1992), a lampoon of Hollywood in which sixty stars make cameo appearances or are on parade.
In Short Cuts (1993) he again offered an acerbic vision of society. In this adaptation of several Raymond Carver stories, Altman used his trademark process of the “ensemble film” with its crisscrossing destinies and parallel editing. More than a film about the fashion milieu, Prêt-à-Porter (1994) reflects on vanity in a general way. Kansas City (1996) pays tribute to the director’s hometown and his favorite music, jazz. Jazz’ 34 (1996) is a documentary reconstructing the period’s “jam sessions,” while Cookie’s Fortune (1999) depicts the world of the Old South bluesmen. Gosford Park (2001), plotted like an Agatha Christie tale, is a caustic portrayal of 1930s British high society. His last film, A Prairie Home Companion released also as The Last Show (2006), about the end of a long-running radio program, offers a nostalgic depiction of a bygone era in the world of entertainment, and a tribute to a vanishing America.

To many, the director of M.A.S.H, Nashville, and Short Cuts is a genius and a maverick who reinvented the language of cinema. Director Alan Rudolph to describe his style
has even created the adjective ‘Altmanesque’. In his documentary about Altman,
Ron Mann explores the various definitions of the term and then gives his own: “For me, Altmanesque means that Robert is indestructible. His films are eternal.” This is a retrospective and a tribute not to be missed.

For schedule and movie time
Harvard Film Archives
Carpeter Centr for Visual Arts
24 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/

All Images Courtesy Flickr

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