Last week, when word of Robert Altman’s death had just begun to circulate, a co-worker sent the wire clipping along with a single comment: “His death took three hours, and his last words couldn’t be heard because of the 40 characters speaking over them.” It was a more appropriate tribute, in a way, than the outpourings of affection and admiration that followed. Love his films or hate them—and even the best ones provoked grudges of almost Balkan tenacity—Altman didn’t make movies that people can consume and shrug off. They won’t brook any condescension.
The features Altman made in a 50-year career, not counting a huge amount of varied and fascinating work for television, are a lot like the voices that crowd the soundtracks of his movies. Some are quizzical, like the muted 1979 science-fiction allegory Quintet, and others seem chilly and off-putting; still others—say, the overbearing fashion satire Prêt-à-Porter—have the kind of forced frivolity you’d cringe from in a crowded room. And yet something about even the least of them commands your attention. Each represents not just a story but a pathway of possibility—a dead end, sometimes, but worth exploring nonetheless.
Put them together, the grand and the misshapen, all overlapping and crisscrossing, and out of that entropic maelstrom comes something the movies rarely evoke: a sense of life’s richness. That’s not just true of the carnivalesque ensemble pieces that are synonymous with the director’s name—buzzing biospheres such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville and Short Cuts that teem with intersecting destinies. It holds true also for chamber dramas such as his spellbinding 1977 dream play 3 Women, whose mysteries spiral endlessly outward. In his best movies, and even in ones with few admirers, Altman rewired moviegoers’ receptors: he encouraged viewers to look, listen and seek without knowing exactly what they were going to find.
A viewer enters Altman’s movies as the stranger who comes to town. The world has been functioning without us for some time, whether it’s a Music Row recording session, a frontier village or the card-shark milieu of his 1974 gambling tragicomedy California Split: it is up to us to listen sharp and see what we can find out. Gone is the usual gum-wad of exposition that lays out everything we need to know. In McCabe, his 1971 opium dream of a Western, it takes some time before we realize that scruffy, mumbling braggart in the furry coat is the hero, even though he’s played by Warren Beatty. Some two-dozen characters pass the narrative focus of Nashville back and forth like a relay baton within the movie’s breathless first half-hour. The camera movement that links these disparate movies is a kind of purposeful drift, as if the lens were a gently floating transmitter always seeking to lock in on a signal.
Altman made viewers listen the same way. Except for Orson Welles, and arguably David Lynch, he did more than any other major American director to explore the possibilities of sound in moviemaking, and in storytelling. In his commentary on the Nashville DVD, the director says he miked even extras within a scene who might not appear again in the film. It was a logistical nightmare for the sound recordist, but as with Altman’s commercial breakthrough, M.A.S.H., the density of dialogue makes the movie seem funnier, faster-paced, caught on the fly. It also creates a texture of roving spontaneity. We never know which of these characters might spirit the movie away.
The slam against Altman—besides that racket on the soundtrack—is that he was a cynic inviting us to chortle at a gallery of rubes and straw men. The movie that always comes up as Exhibit A is Nashville, his kaleidoscopic 1975 portrait of America as Music City on the cusp of the Bicentennial. Even today, it makes people want to settle Altman’s hash: some supermarket rag just tagged it on a list of overrated movies (there’s a novel idea), and even obits last week for the director brought out usual suspects to vent their spleen all over again.
Watching Nashville now, though, it’s hard to see why the movie bitterly polarized people here 31 years ago—a reaction that had as much to do with Altman’s not hiring the city’s hit mill to provide the soundtrack as with any perceived slight. The director allows his alleged “rubes” to surprise us again and again with new facets of feeling and depth, as when Barbara Baxley’s hitherto comic character delivers a tearful, sincere reminiscence of the fallen Kennedys. Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton may be a pompous elder statesman of country, but he’s also quick to shout down a heckler’s racist taunts (in a plausibly complex way) and to stand up bravely when an assassin’s bullets riddle the Parthenon at the climax.
Altman may have loved to come on like the maverick outsider who knew more about the inside than the insiders—a tone that gives his 1992 Hollywood expose The Player its edge of breezily nasty score-settling. But his best movies convey the bitter indignity of being on the fringe, and none does so more painfully than Nashville. The humiliation of Gwen Welles’ talentless wannabe Sueleen at a smoker is the movie’s emotional crux: she’s the stand-in for all the country’s broken hopefuls, chasing a dream that lets others use her. Her exit—bare naked, insignificant, watched forlornly to the very back of the frame—carries the director’s outrage and sympathy, not his scorn. Images of windows recur throughout his movies; the director’s heart is with all those people whose faces are pressed against the glass—Sueleen, the pining McCabe, Elliott Gould and George Segal’s desperate low-rollers in California Split.
Even 30 years after his astonishing string of early-1970s masterworks, the way Altman made movies—as if they were events that took on lives of their own—continues to pose challenges to contemporary filmmakers, and to point a way out of commercial cinema’s seeming blind alleys. From Babel to Bobby, from Paul Thomas Anderson’s band-of-outsiders epics to Richard Linklater’s dazed-and-confused roundelays, Altman’s influence is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. It’s just the man himself who is gone—something his last film, this summer’s A Prairie Home Companion, foretold as gently, sweetly and insistently as possible. In one particularly poignant exchange, someone asks the Altman surrogate, ringmaster Garrison Keillor, if he wants people to remember him after he dies. His reply is forthright: “I don’t want them to be told to remember.”
Maybe that line is a bit obvious to cite in a remembrance. But when a man gets a chance to write his own epitaph, we can at least take down his dictation.