Though he had many ups and downs during his a career, Robert Altman was always dedicated to shaking things up. A former air force man, sensitive soul, and without a doubt workaholic (just look at his filmography), who often ignored his family in favour of shooting a new film, few people shook up film language during the 70s as much as Altman did. Following years of television work, Altman set out on his own as a feature film director in the late 1950s. He didn’t find his first major success until 1970, with the anti-war comedy ‘M*A*S*H’, an unexpected commercial and critical success, which somehow made war funny, but had something poignant to say also. Hoping for another hit just like it, studios hired him in the years that followed, most often receiving difficult, and subversive revisionist genre films in return.
With each feature film he created, he seemingly soaked up genre conventions and blew them apart. Just look at noir ‘The Long Goodbye’ or the revisionist western ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ – both unlike anything else within their genres. Often working with large numbers of actors, with multiple microphones on set capturing several conversations at once, overlaying each conversation to make the film more realistic, allowing actors to improvise within a scene, and tackling occasionally tough topics in unexpected ways.
After the success of 1975 American satire ‘Nashville’, Altman once again delved into projects that were more challenging, especially the astonishing, complex, Bergman-influenced 3 Women. Thereafter, Altman was out of Hollywood’s good graces, though in the eighties (his career slump), he came through with the Nixon monologue ‘Secret Honor’, and the TV mini-series ‘Tanner ’88’. The double punch of ‘The Player’ and the hugely influential ensemble piece ‘Short Cuts’ brought him back into the spotlight, and he continued to be prolific in his output into 2006, when his last film, ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, was released months before his death at the age of eighty-one.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a contemporary filmmaker who’s not been influenced by Robert Altman (consciously or not). From Paul Thomas Anderson (see: ‘Magnolia’) to Andrew Dominik (see: ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’). For more on Altman, I highly recommend checking out Ron Mann’s 2014 documentary ‘Altman’.
Short Cuts // McCabe and Mrs Miller // Nashville // The Player // M*A*S*H // Godsford Park // The Long Goodbye