Where to begin with Robert Altman

A beginner’s path through the freewheeling New Hollywood classics of Robert Altman

18 November 2016

By Geoff Andrew

Nashville (1975)

Why this might not seem so easy

Despite being one of the most important American directors of the modern era, the late, great Robert Altman (1925-2006) is surprisingly often omitted from discussions that happily namecheck such figures as Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood, Lynch, Mann, the Coens, Soderbergh, Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. (The last, by the way, has frequently testified to Altman’s influence on his work.)

Robert Altman filming MASH (1970)

That oversight may be due partly to the fact that Altman is no longer with us to make new films (he was already 45 when he had his first big hit with MASH in 1970). But it may also be due to the fact that he was rather harder to pigeonhole than most of the aforementioned directors. His output was notoriously uneven, yet it included a remarkably high number of great movies. He never specialised in any particular genre or dramaturgical mode, being equally adept in comedy and serious social commentary (which he frequently combined). He made several films with dozens of substantial speaking parts but also made one with a single actor.

Though he was never full-on arty or experimental à la Lynch, he also – at least after Countdown (1968), his impressive second feature, which was made after years spent working in industrial documentary and television series like Whirlybirds and Bonanza – never directed a film that felt remotely conventional. As soon as he followed MASH with Brewster McCloud (1970), an eccentric updating of the Icarus myth to Houston, Texas, it became clear that he was that rare thing in the American film world: a natural-born outsider, a true one-off.

What made Altman so distinctive – and so different from most other American filmmakers of the period – was his approach to narrative style. On those comparatively rare occasions when his work could be categorised by genre, he either ignored or worked against conventions: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), for example, has at least as much in common with his woefully underrated live-action musical version of the Popeye cartoon series as it does with the hallowed traditions of the classic western.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Indeed, not only are his movies devoid of the usual Hollywood clichés, but they also steer clear of “heroic” characters (much of his work focuses on loners and losers) and familiar elements of cinematic storytelling. On first viewing, an Altman film may feel virtually plotless, so keen was he to give a vivid impression of the ongoing untidiness of reality. Often, he simply charted the seemingly chaotic dynamics of a gathering of people over a period of time, with few if any “big” dramatic events.

With his pioneering use of multitrack recording of overlapping dialogue, and by shooting in ’Scope, often deploying long takes and a zoom lens, he created densely informative audiovisual tapestries that invite the viewer to pick out phrases, actions, gestures and glances that might provide a clue to what exactly is significant in the loose, subtly nuanced “narrative” offered up for interpretation.

First encounters with Altman’s deceptively disorderly style can be a little bewildering; once the initial shock subsides, however, the experience can be exhilarating, since his impressionistic approach to creating meaning results both in a brilliantly expressive use of cinematic form and in an unusually evocative reflection of life itself.

The best place to start – The Long Goodbye

Perhaps the most consistently fruitful and audience-friendly period of Altman’s career was the early 70s, when he made a string of films – mostly but not exclusively critiques, in part, of traditional Hollywood genres – that expressed Altman’s sceptical view of the American dream. McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) reflected ruefully on the macho myths of the west, while Thieves like Us (1974) depicted depression-era rural gangsters in a far less romantic (but no less sympathetic) light than Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Perhaps best of all is Altman’s version of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973), in which private eye Marlowe (Elliott Gould) comes across as a shambling, somewhat bemused anachronism, his sense of justice and honour as out of sync as his suit and tie with the ruthless ambition and self-serving deceit that underlie the hippy trappings of early 70s, upper-crust LA.

With its witty, allusive script, its supremely fluent ’Scope camerawork by Vilmos Zsigmond, a dazzlingly inventive musical soundtrack courtesy of Altman, John Williams and Johnny Mercer, and an audaciously assembled cast that places non-movie-stars like Nina Van Pallandt, Henry Gibson and Mark Rydell alongside Gould and an extraordinary Sterling Hayden, it is a masterpiece, as memorably imaginative, original and resonant a response to the classic detective movie as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown proved to be the following year.

What to watch next

With one of these gems under your belt, you’re probably ready for Nashville (1975), Altman’s stunning chronicle of a country music festival, featuring a couple of dozen main characters whose paths keep crossing over three days. A magnificent naturalistic fresco of American culture in its bicentennial year, it may feel freewheeling and documentary-like, but its meticulous, enormously complex structure ensures we always know what is going on and why.

Short Cuts (1993)

The same is true of the even “bigger”, three-hour Short Cuts (a seamless mash-up from nine different Raymond Carver stories that Altman made in 1993 during a triumphant comeback period) and of 2001’s Gosford Park (the precursor to TV’s Downton Abbey).

Gosford Park (2001)

Then you might try one of his more intimate works: 3 Women (1977) boasts an unforgettable performance by Shelley Duvall as an absolutely plausible, fundamentally well-meaning but air-headed woman, the likes of whom you’ve probably never seen on screen. Or there’s The Player (1992), which tells us all we need to know about Altman’s feelings about the Hollywood system; typically, as with Nashville he was more interested in the milieu and its inhabitants than in the element of crime that intrudes into the storyline at one point.

Where not to start

Please don’t introduce yourself to Altman with O.C. and Stiggs (1987), The Gingerbread Man (1998), Prêt-à-Porter (1994) or Health (1980), all of which are frankly disappointing. Nor make your initial encounter through one of the theatre-to-film adaptations he made during the 80s; though all are entertaining and demonstrate his inventive expertise with sightlines – and Secret Honor (1984), a one-man movie with Philip Baker Hall astonishing as Richard Nixon, is some kind of minimalist masterpiece – they just don’t fully display Altman’s innate brilliance as a filmmaker.

It’s probably best not to begin, either, with California Split (1974) or The Company (2003), because both, in their very successful attempts to explore and understand the very different worlds of gamblers and ballet dancers, virtually dispense with “plot” altogether. Better probably to work up to these and other gems, and then you’ll be ready for the marvellous riches of the aforementioned Popeye (1980), Tanner ’88 (an innovative, semi-improvised 1988 TV series about political campaigning) and the utterly delightful A Prairie Home Companion (2006): perhaps the greatest, and certainly the funniest, cinematic swansong of all time.