Oscars: Happy birthday, Robert Altman

Everyone who gets into the entertainment-industry business, no matter how tangentially, has that one film or TV experience in his or her youth that served as an irrevocable hook. (Except, of course, for some of those who came of age after the mid-to-late 80s, when the allure of easy fame and money rather than artistic expression became just as compelling, as fawning Entertainment Tonight? profiles began boasting about as much aesthetic merit as most Hollywood movies.) For me, it was Robert Altmans 1975 masterpiece Nashville.?

Altman, who turned 81 today, will receive a (some believe) long overdue Oscar next month, one of those nebulous lifetime achievement? deals, a traditional Academy mea culpa acknowledging its penchant for rewarding work thats more of-the-moment than enduring (can an honorary Oscar for Martin Scorsese be far behind?). In Altman’s career, he’s been 0-for-7 at the Oscars (including two nominations for producing Best Picture nominees). But then, as a self-styled maverick who preferred butting heads with studio executives over adhering to traditional narrative storytelling, that seems as it should be you can scarcely be an outsider when the august body overseeing your craft rewards you for your craftiness, for your repeated refusal to play by their rules. Hed likely agree he has always enjoyed trashing the Hollywood system to appreciative interviewers.

Terrence Rafferty offered an excellent appreciation of Altman over the weekend in The New York Times (linked below), and Im not going to try to compete with his insights and eloquence (besides, he was earning big-NYT-bucks, while Im just slipping in a blog entry around my other duties). In it, he celebrated all the things for which Altman has been praised in the past his subtly sinewy camerawork, which sort of drank in his spectacles rather than forcing viewers to focus on specific actions; his use of overlapping dialogue (which probably alienated as many viewers as it enchanted); his loose, improvisational way of letting scenes and stories play out; his multi-plot approach to filmmaking in which, frequently, his movies didnt so much offer a through-line as a tapestry of life proceeding apace. (Altmans multi-character, multi-plot approach to movies inspired much of the best TV of the past quarter-century, from Hill Street Blues? on.)

But Rafferty also underscored Altmans essentially misanthropic view of life. Occasionally, the director was assailed as sexist many complained about the treatment in Nashville? of Gwen Welles delusional aspiring-singer character, when shes forced to strip at a political fundraiser. But that incident cuts both ways its the cynicism and boorishness of the men running and attending said fundraiser that forces her humiliation; the scene is far more critical of the male mindset than of women. And when Julianne Moore delivered a lengthy monologue in Short Cuts? naked below the waist, many complained that it was gratuitously provocative; Altmans private response, Im sure, was a simple, Oh, grow up.? Were all adults here; people stand around naked in real life quite a bit. Not every movie has to be aimed at teenagers.

But there was an essential pessimism in Altmans finest work, and that seems to be one of the things that ensures it endures. Nashville? was so far ahead of its time that it still seems fresh (except, of course, for the garish now-period ’70s costumes). It insightfully captured 30 years ago the overwhelming emptiness of political campaigns and TV coverage thereof, dependent upon glib soundbites rather than substance. Its assessment of ordinary people seeking fame, however ill-advisedly, resonates even more in a world saturated by reality TV. It understood the nexus of the worlds of politics and entertainment in ways the rest of us only began to clue into in the past decade or so, and it foresaw just how rampant voter apathy was to become after the climactic tragedy at a political rally at films end, the benumbed, overwhelmed masses can find no other way to respond but by joining in a singalong, to a ditty entitled It Dont Worry Me.?

I remember as a teen watching Nashville,? and even then absorbing its characters anomie. I remember, in particular, the scene where the addled country superstar played by Ronee Blakley arrives at the city airport surrounded by media hoopla TV reporters, a crush of fans, even a marching band (an actual local high-school outfit) and thinking that Altman was using those baton twirlers as a criticism of their own triviality. And I wondered, were I in that scene, would I have been angry to have been tricked like that or just happy to have been in a Robert Altman film?

Nashville? concluded a stunning run of films, which began in 1970 with M*A*S*H? and included McCabe and Mrs. Miller,? The Long Goodbye,? California Split,? Brewster McCloud? (whose willful eccentricities dated itself so quickly that it may have come out on the other side and feel kind of kicky now or maybe its still a mess) and Thieves Like Us.? Each of those films offered uncomfortable thoughts on an America that eats its own, on little guys repeatedly punished for their aspirations.

After that, for a while, his work seemed a bit too fueled by the chemicals that were available in ample supplies at the time (which is not to say that the aforementioned films didnt suggest such an influence, just that there was still a focus beyond that). Naturally, he fell out of favor, particularly when he put his own topspin on what was supposed to become a tent-pole franchise, 1980s Popeye.?

He drifted through the 80s, retreating to Europe and generally creating more modest efforts (Secret Honor,? Fool For Love,? Vincent and Theo,? HBOs Tanner 88,? which sort of kicked off the continuing trend of having real-life individuals play themselves and tweak their personae), even some TV stuff. He may have reached a nadir with O.C. and Stiggs,? which seemed to want to layer M*A*S*Hs? deadpan nihilism over a stupid teen sex farce, with predictable results. You wonder: What studio executive in his right mind wouldve let Robert Altman direct a teen comedy?

The Player,? Short Cuts,? Gosford Park? and, to a lesser extent, Cookies Fortune? re-established him in the 90s and beyond, though none of those movies really carry the sheer eye-opening wallop of his best work. He has another movie on the way, A Prairie Home Companion,? featuring writer Garrison Keillor alongside the sort of jaw-dropping cast that is a hallmark of Altman movies: Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams (all Oscar winners), Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly (all Oscar nominees) and huh? Lindsay Lohan.

Was Altman robbed any of the years he was up for an Oscar? In 1971, when Altman was up for the anti-war M*A*S*H,? Franklin Schaffner won for Patton,? which you could argue was a case of establishment politics seeming to guide the decision, although Patton? is the sort of bracing, sober-minded film that will always triumph over an anarchic comedy. Milos Forman won for One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest? when Altman was up for Nashville,? Clint Eastwood won for Unforgiven? when Altman was nominated for The Player,? Steven Spielberg, up to 1993 another perennial snub, received an Oscar for Schindlers List? when Altmans offering was Short Cuts? and Ron Howard rode the Beautiful Mind? juggernaut to victory when Altman was competing with Gosford Park.? The decision as to whether he was more deserving in any of those years is yours.

Nonetheless, the honorary Oscar should make for a nice belated birthday gift.

Terrence Raffertys appreciation of Altman

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