Middle-aged hipster. Indie film poohbah. Dirty old man. Snarky sonuvabitch. Legend of ‘70s cinema and beyond. Artist with a prickly level of impatience for the money men. Sweet old Missouri man. What’s your Altman?
Fifty years ago, Robert Altman made his first commercial splash with the heralded anti-war blitz MASH. All the hallmarks and bits and bobs were firmly at attention. The lingering, almost unwashed-looking camera. The propensity to populate a film with tons of actors, giving them fair time. A looseness of structure and vibe. Political, social antipathy, and a sense of place and period. Not to mention tons of smart-alecky dialogue and a distinctly calloused worldview.
MASH was arguably Altman’s breakout moment as a film director (and about damn time after languishing in television till his ‘40s), and from there, he couldn’t be stopped. Hit after flop after weird damn thing after genuine masterpiece later, Robert Altman movies endure as landmarks of the American cinematic vernacular. He was a painter of deeply idiosyncratic and absorbingly busy art, brushed in his own casual style of cinematic watercolor. In simpler terms, he was perhaps Dickens on pot.
As a 50th follow-up on MASH, and a celebration of a lasting filmography, today, Consequence of Sound has distilled the long career of Altman into a precision-built amphitheater of one man’s absolute best work. Just kidding; we’ve gone ahead and put together a fun and groovy starter list with lots of room for side adventures. Because Robert Altman. Because it don’t worry me.
Senior Staff Writer
The Wiseass Humorist
Now See This: “I had another idea. I think we should have some plays. You know, usually in football you have some organized plays…”
A football game, with a ringer, and non-prescription use of drugs, in a war film? Now dig this: This ain’t Mister Roberts. And it isn’t In The Army Now with Pauley Shore, thank Christ. This is MASH, the freewheelin’ comedy classic and calling card for Altman in Hollywood. He basically got away with this while Fox was sinking capital into Patton, and both war flicks made out with Best Picture nominations in the same year. And while Patton won, MASH is the one that inspired the hit show.
Altman did this under the radar (no pun, intended), and it’s such a freaks-and-geeks takes on the war genre. Arguably, no other war film has matched the hippy-dippy madness of Altman’s MASH. It basically redefined alt-comedy in the ‘70s with its acerbic view on combat and gore and pain and victory. It’s almost Python, it’s so droll and crass. So very Sundance as well in its naturalism and sense of capturing a happening. Altman landed on a tone and a style that would give him ample means to share his sardonic wit for the rest of his career.
Altman on Altman: “Fox had two other war movies going on: Patton: Lust for Glory and Tora! Tora! Tora!, both big budget pictures. I knew that and decided that and decided that the way to keep out of trouble was to stay out of their sightline – and the best way to do that was not go over budget or over schedule.”
The Damdnest Thing You Ever Saw: “This isn’t a hospital! This is an insane asylum!”
Alt-ternates: Brewster McCloud, Popeye, A Perfect Couple, OC and Stiggs
An Actors’ Dream
Now See This: It’s pure Americana. The little stories, accumulating into the melting pot (or power ballad as it were), that is Nashville. An ebullient farce on heritage, identity, polemics, and country music, Nashville is a compositional masterwork made up of millions of little beats. Stories, songs, and other accoutrement. And Altman had the pleasurable patience for each and every last one of his characters and whatever tall tale they might bring. He became known as a working exemplar for how to cram a shit ton of characters into your movie without bloat or free-falling narrative. Come on down.
In Nashville, there’s Connie (Karen Black), and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), the preening country stars. There’s Winifred (Barbara Harris), who sometimes goes by Albuquerque, on the lam from her hubby. There’s John (Michael Murphy), a scummy presidential campaigner. There’s an unseen presidential candidate riding around in his car, too. Who else? There are tons of handsome young singers. Bikers. Hippies. Actors. Plus! A wig-wearing old timey singer. The list goes on. The aging uncle. The naïve waitress. The BBC radio reporter agog at all of it! And there’s like 30 more characters, and Altman manages to give them all good time on the screen.
Here the director’s propensity for likening film to that of a reparatory theater goes into full gear. Altman wanted film to be like a great novel where people and personalities could flourish, and rarely could a director handle so much intrigue with such a calm and curious hand.
Altman on Altman: “I just wanted to take the literature of country music, which is very, very simple basic stuff – ‘For the sake of the children, we must say goodbye’ – and put it into a panorama which reflected America and its politics.”
The Damdnest Thing You Ever Saw: An assassination and everyone’s flipping the fuck out and mourning and scared and you know what?
Alt-ternates: Short Cuts, Gosford Park, A Prairie Home Companion