Overlapping Realities

Robert Altman is the ultimate systemic filmmaker

Magazine Issue
May/June 2006
Overlapping Realities

The Oscars have come and gone, bestowing immortality upon a handful of actors like Reese Witherspoon and George Clooney, who henceforth and forever will be identified, whenever they do whatever, as “Oscar Winner So and So Does Whatever.” While directors also crave such immortality, the Academy often tends to honor the great ones belatedly, as if bringing them out for a final bow. Sometimes they never honor them at all. Some of the most venerated and instantly recognizable of the great directors–Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese (after five nominations)–have never won the Best Director Oscar. This year, 84-year-old Robert Altman, one the quirkiest of all, after being nominated five times (for M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park) received an honorary award, in a gesture that was something akin to a deathbed apology from the Academy for its previous slights.

There to introduce Altman were Lili Tomlin, who received her Oscar nomination for Nashville, and the incomparable Meryl Streep, who appears in Altman’s upcoming Prairie Home Companion. In the highlight of the long evening, they demonstrated Altman’s directorial style by conducting two overlapping conversations that precisely caught the rhythm and auditory ambience that makes his work so distinctive. His films have taught us all what real life sounds like, with everyone vying to be heard–although, as his career has shown, it isn’t easy for an audience to catch on to what he’s doing if they aren’t paying close attention.

As might have been expected, Altman looked down upon his award with gracious detachment, a total lack of ingratiation, and a hint of amusement. But at the very end of the evening, he received an even greater honor and an even firmer testimony to the impact of his work: Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, a young Altman prot[Cyrillic O]g[Cyrillic O], got the Best Picture Oscar for a film that’s an Altman lookalike and soundalike. Altman’s complex vision and inimitable style had finally conquered Hollywood.

Altman was a middle-class, Roman Catholic boy from Kansas City, who spent his youth stoned, drunk, and in and out of marriages. He settled down a bit with his third wife, making a bunch of commercials and a couple of miniature films. Then in 1970, at 45, he hit it big with the phenomenally popular, antiestablishment, and antiwar comedy M*A*S*H, about a medical-surgical team, ankle deep in blood, amputating the limbs of dying soldiers in a combat zone in Korea. While Ring Lardner wrote the film, Altman imbued it with his unique style, populating the screen with more characters than the audience could keep track of, all talking at the same time, while loudspeakers trumpeted out the news and announcements of the day. The film had no real stars: all the cast, like members of a family, supported one another. Although the audience missed half the action and three quarters of the dialogue, they got an indelible sense of how people create a world together in which the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.

Altman had given a new look, sound, and feel to movies–not drawn from the stage, where a

personal crisis is isolated from the background chorus, but thoroughly rooting the characters in their highly particularized milieu. One of his biographers, Patrick McGilligan, insists that “marijuana shaped Altman’s storytelling. Its influence is there in the ‘dream’ passages, the truncated narrative forms, the quirkiness and the fragmentedness, the vacillating points of view, the bent humor, the clear insights bobbing up amid the torrent of banality.” At their best, Altman’s films capture the sheer clutter and messiness of life, making us acknowledge that things need not quite make literal sense to make profound emotional sense.

Altman is to conventional Hollywood storytelling what family therapists are to the mental health world. His skill at constantly shifting our focus of attention offers us a panoramic view of people’s systemic impact on each other; he seems unable to conceive of a person outside of his or her context. He never gets us lost within people, always drawing our attention to what’s going on between them.

Altman’s movies typically define a particular place and time, even if he needs to create it from scratch. For McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he built and populated a town in the Oregon mountains, brought in his resident stock company (the likes of Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, and Keith Carradine), and created a great and discouraging Western, offering a microcosm of the corrupting price of civilized order. He used as his point of departure a doomed love affair between an entrepreneurial, opium-addicted madam, Julie Christie, and the dumb, braggadocious gambler, Warren Beatty.

In 1975, Altman put together his masterpiece, Nashville, which pulls 24 “stars” (Ronee Blakely, Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, and Keith Carradine plus a few walk-ons) to the country-music capital for a political rally and public assassination at the time of the country’s bicentennial. The stars wrote their own music and their own monologues to tell one another the story of America in crisis and transition. It’s among the richest, most multilayered films ever made, with some memorable performances and surprising turns, told in passing and in snippets, but always in context. Audiences couldn’t make up their minds about the film, but critics have since been putting it on their best-movies-ever list.

After Nashville, Altman spent a decade and a half of self-indulgence, making very personal (Three Women) and/or very silly (Popeye) films. He was practically forgotten by 1990, when he gave us an extraordinarily beautiful and unmistakably personal film about the Van Gogh brothers, Vincent and Theo. He contrasted Vincent’s love of light and stubborn belief in whatever it was he saw with the brotherly self-sacrifices Theo was making for his crazy-genius brother. We’re called upon to see Vincent’s stubborn defiance of his potential audience (he never sold a painting) as moral courage. (Certainly, in his peevish pride at being unpopular, Vincent bears more than a passing resemblance to Altman himself.)

Altman was back, though, and he next brought us The Player, with the longest and most thickly populated opening scene in film history. Before and during the credits, the camera follows the traffic on the studio’s lot as the movers and shakers, and those who aspire to be in their shoes, talk about films through their windows or as they pass one another. As the conversation flows, writers talk about ideas while producers brood about money, and how to suppress and dumb down the writers, whom they’re used to walking on. It’s an expose[Serbian DJE] of Hollywood that hilariously reveals the inner workings of the studios and the scheming of a ruthlessly ambitious studio executive (Tim Robbins), who resorts to murder to brush off a pesky writer. There’s never been a more unflinching attack on Hollywood’s self-congratulatory ignorance and contempt for its audience.

In 2001, after egregious failures like Pre[Cyrillic tse]t-a-Porter and Health and fascinating minor triumphs like Short Cuts and Cookie’s Fortune, Altman set up shop in England for the delightfully Agatha Christiean murder mystery Gosford Park. The cast is impeccable, with the likes of Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, and Alan Bates, and the wicked trifle of a plot (by Julian Fellowes) is just an excuse to bring upstairs and downstairs together to concern themselves with matters of class. Upstairs, the upper classes, even the investigating detective, treat the servants around them as if they’re invisible, while downstairs the faceless servants come to life and talk of little except their masters and the rich emotional and physical commerce between the floors. The shocker comes when maid Emily Watson breaks ranks and blurts out an emotion that acknowledges her affair with the murdered master. Magically, Altman creates a fully populated world for us, often keeping everyone on screen at the same time while dozens of subplots unfold.

Except for The Player, Altman’s post-M*A*S*H films have rarely made big money, though everyone seems to want to be in them: Paul Newman, Julia Roberts, Whoopi Goldberg, Lyle Lovett, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Harry Belafonte, Lauren Bacall, Robin Williams, and Jack Lemmon. His films are too crowded and confusing for an audience that expects movies to make the world simple for them. But they’ve changed the way movies look, sound, and feel, even educated our awareness of those fellow human beings who are in the same frame with us.

In Altman’s unblinking, morally neutral universe, all crimes go unpunished, and innocent victims go unrescued. Neither love nor money nor hopes for salvation will protect us from life’s pain or our own folly. Life may not be fair, but it’s funny, and we’re all in it together.

Upscale television (Hill Street Blues, ER, The Sopranos, and the like) looks and feels like Altman, with its multiple players and overlapping plots, its moral relativism, and its irregular pace–in short, its complexity and resemblance to life itself. And Altman has had an impact on generations of big-screen filmmakers, too. His early assistant, Alan (Choose Me) Rudolph, adopted his mentor’s stubborn dreaminess. Quentin (Pulp Fiction) Tarantino captures his quirkiness and moral neutrality. Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and Magnolia) and Paul Haggis (Crash) have stretched out their canvasses to incorporate universes of people impacting one another, and revealing the spaces between.

It seems wickedly apropos that the man who made the most biting satire ever on Hollywood, with The Player, should have the Academy stand and cheer him more enthusiastically than anyone at this year’s Oscars. For a half-century, he’s challenged all the conventions of traditional moviemaking to produce films that are more honest and more literate than anything that Hollywood, with all its vast technical resources, has conjured up. He must have been amused that he’d finally been honored by his most relentless nemeses: those who dumb down the movies and take the audiences down with them. As always, with his deft juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, his reaction encompassed the full range of human emotions and his own wry commentary on it all. If it’s part of life, it’s sure to be there in Altman.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.