I suppose it’s possible that I might have seen one of the episodes of Bonanza or Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he directed, but I first became aware of him with the film M*A*S*H. The audaciousness of both its style and its content drove a spike into the timeline of cinematic history. Though not his best film by any means, it may the one film of his that could be labeled “important.” I expect it will be watched and discussed long after the last print of an ignored classic like Kansas City has crumbled into dust.
Okay, full disclosure time – my friend Ed and I walked out of a screening of Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson after about 20 minutes. I found it to be incomprehensible garbage. We went to the screening because we’d heard such glowing reviews from respected critics upon its release several years earlier. Looking back, I have to take a couple of factors into consideration: 1) I was all of 19 years old at the time and had a lot to learn (Christ, I still have a lot to learn; you should have seen me then!); and 2) Altman never marched to a mainstream beat in his films, so if I walked in the door expecting anything close to the mainstream, neither the movie nor myself ever had a chance. Considering my affection for so many of his films, I suppose I will one day have to give Buffalo Bill another chance.
A few other snapshots . . .
I LOVED the reviled Popeye! I don’t know whether anyone else did. I sometimes feel as if I’m one of about 20 people who saw it in the theater. Altman did something here that sounds so simple, but which requires a true vision and commitment to pull off: He embraced the vision of the source material and followed through on it. Popeye isn’t set in America, or England, or anywhere else in the known world. It’s set in an imaginary, far-off land, and Altman tried to give us that. His composer, the late great Harry Nilsson, bought into that same vision and gave us a score unlike any other. Then there’s the cast, with Shelley Duvall playing perhaps the one role she was born to play as Olive Oyl; Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy; and Robin Williams topping it all off as Popeye. What I loved the most about his characterization was the decision to play him as the under-the-breath aside-muttering Popeye of the early black & white cartoons, as opposed to the more linear character of the later ones. Considering Altman’s famed penchant for overlapping dialogue, I suppose this was the only way the character could have been played!
Gosford Park – Just in case you thought Altman had no tricks left up his sleeve, here was a movie with a plot and dialogue as precise as clockwork. If there was any improvisation by the actors, it had become invisible by the time it left the editing room. An elegant and engrossing little mystery combined with sly commentary on class distinctions.
If you’d like to read my review of Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, click here. Altman said in interviews that the subject of the movie was death. Maybe he saw something coming.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the one time I was in the same room as Mr. Altman. Well, it was a pretty big room – the Civic Opera House here in Chicago. It was Halloween night of 1992. I had been living here for about six weeks and was given tickets to the opening night of a new opera called McTeague. Altman directed it (brilliantly, I should add) and came up on stage to speak after the show. It was a remarkably glitzy affair. I mean, people tend to get pretty dressed up for the opera anyway, but this was also a big opening, attended by opera critics from around the world (it was a kick reading reviews the following week in Time and Newsweek of the same performance I had attended!), and on top of that, it was Halloween night, so many came in elaborate costumes (quite a few Phantoms of the Opera, as I recall). I don’t recall anything specific that Altman said, but I remember noting that he had a personality that could fill an opera hall.
In general, what I appreciated most about Altman’s films was that they were made by someone who assumed that I was intelligent. By that, I do not mean “high-brow.” Lord no! I don’t think Altman had any sort of elitism about his work; his ideas are accessible to absolutely anyone who is willing to open their eyes and ears. One can only hope that new voices will arise as worthy successors in Altman’s absence.