Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Perhaps one of the most recognizable stylists among American film directors, Robert Altman took his newly minted honorary Oscar and vacated the premises yesterday, at the age of 81.

Whether you liked Altman's films or didn't — to be honest, I wasn't a major fan — you had to give the guy credit: He made the movies he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. Altman never seemed to give a fig whether his films attracted big box office or wowed the critics. Indeed, he often made films that defied any chance of accomplishing either. (Was there ever another big-name, highly regarded director with as many commercial and critical flops on his résumé as Altman?) But you always knew an Altman film when you saw one, and to the director himself, that was what mattered.

Altman was an actor's director. In stark contrast to, say, Hitchcock, who governed his players with tyrannical control, Altman's approach was simply to let the actors create the performances they wanted to create. He valued improvisation and freedom in front of the camera, which was why so many talented actors leapt at the chance to participate in an Altman film, even though he generally worked from modest budgets and delivered only the occasional hit.

As noted, I wasn't especially partial to Altman's films. In my opinion, his work often lacked focus and narrative drive — a failing I'm willing to accept in certain directors (I love the films of Christopher Guest, even though his directing is so laid-back that his movies threaten to slide off the screen), but which didn't resonate for me in most of Altman's pictures. My favorite Altman film, without question, is Gosford Park — an atypical work that found the director using a more structured approach. M*A*S*H remains a monumental and influential picture. The Player, Altman's scathing peek inside Hollywood, is as effective a satire as M*A*S*H, and in my judgment, a more effective film. And whenever I stumble upon it while channel-surfing, I always stop to enjoy The Long Goodbye, even though Altman's snarky approach did complete violence to author Raymond Chandler's gritty noir Los Angeles milieu. Although I've yet to check it out, I'm looking forward to someday seeing Altman's final film, A Prairie Home Companion, which a number of friends have recommended to me.

When Altman was due to receive his honorary Academy Award earlier this year, Hollywood was abuzz with trepidation about what Altman would say to the industry that snubbed him for so long and with which he often appeared at odds. When the moment came, Altman showed class, grace, and more than anything, gratitude for the career he had been afforded.

I'm glad that's the final public memory of Altman that lovers of film will have.

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