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 mini-series 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? I love The Long Goodbye (1973), in which Altman sets Raymond Chandler on his ear by plunking a late-1940s Philip Marlowe in the L.A. of 1973, but I can see why it infuriates Chandler aficionados. The pleasures of Popeye (1980) are right up my alley, but I wouldn’t argue with parents who are afraid to show it to their kids.
How many people have even seen what might be Altman’s best film, the heart-rendingly nonsentimental biography of Van Gogh, Vincent & Theo (1990) with Tim Roth? Or the searing, Beckett-like Secret Honor (1984), with Philip Baker Hall leading us on a trek through the mind of Richard Nixon?
So many films, so little time. Art is long, but it must be admitted that Altman was sometimes longer. No American director in the second half of the twentieth century split his critical support so radically. A friend takes me to see his deconstruction on the origins of American show business, Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), and I find myself looking at my watch; I take him to see Altman’s satire of Southern gothic, Cookie’s Fortune (1999), and he threatens to walk out. We split down the middle on Short Cuts (1993), his film version of several Raymond Carver stories (liked that one, hated that one, loved that one).
And so on. No great filmmaker had as many duds as Altman. As Pauline Kael wrote in her review of his stillborn comedy A Wedding (1978), “When Altman is on his game, he’s like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat; when he’s not, it’s as if there was no rabbit in the hat.” All in all, there were enough rabbits in his hats to fill several careers of lesser directors. More than anyone else over the last four decades, Robert Altman made us feel we were watching something we had never seen before.— Allen Barra