This Sunday would have been the 85th birthday of Robert Altman.
Did any filmmaker embody the concept of the Hollywood auteur in the post-studio system era as well as Robert Altman? By the time he finally hit his stride as a maverick, independently minded director of irreverent comedies in the early 1970s, Altman was old enough to be the father of most of the members of the “film school generation” (Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al.) with whom he enjoyed a friendly competition; but if any American director could be said to own the ’70s, I think it was the older, non-film school educated, Colonel Sanders look-alike whose movies, more so than those of his younger contemporaries, were the product of an idiosyncratic but fully formed artistic personality.
Altman cut his teeth working on genre television shows in the 1960s – he directed episodes of the western Bonanza and the war show Combat! among others, which is important to keep in mind when considering the perversely revisionist genre films Altman ultimately became best known for. (In the 1970s in particular it almost seemed as if he was checking genres off a list: “You think you know what a western is? Well, here’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller!”) Working in television had also been a good way for Altman to try out different techniques involving the employment of sound and image; for instance, it’s where he first began to experiment with the dense, multilayered soundtracks that would become one of his most important hallmarks as a movie director.
In the late 1960s Altman made the leap from television to motion pictures. After a couple of films that were not particularly noteworthy, he made a movie in 1970 that became a phenomenon and changed his life forever. M*A*S*H was a dark, ostensibly period comedy about the Korean war that functioned as a thinly veiled commentary on the then-raging war in Vietnam. It was an unexpected critical and commercial success, winning the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival before becoming enormously popular with American audiences, especially young people and members of the counterculture. And like a lot of works of art that seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the zeitgeist, the success of M*A*S*H bought Altman an unusual degree of creative freedom for the next several years. It was also the first film to feature all of the signature themes and stylistic traits for which he would become famous. These included:
– an irreverent, anti-authoritarian point of view
– a perverse, humorously revisionist take on genre
– a dense soundtrack with multilayered, overlapping dialogue
– a close collaboration with actors in which he encouraged them to deviate from the script and improvise their dialogue.
During his first wave of popularity in the early 1970s, Altman made the two films that I consider his very best: McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 and The Long Goodbye in 1973. Both attempt to explicitly and self-consciously revise the rules of their given genres. McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye are so extreme in terms of how Altman subverts the conventions of the western and the private eye film respectively (and puts his own unique spin on them in the process), that the movies, in spite of earning cult followings, remain divisive whenever they are screened to this day; in classes where I’ve shown both movies, I’ve observed it’s not uncommon for students to love one film but not be able to stand the other. (Another respect in which Altman is unique: even among his diehard fans there is little consensus over which films constitute his best and worst work.)
To understand how Altman subverts genre convention, look first to the cinematography. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an amazingly photographed color film, courtesy of the great Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. McCabe intentionally frustrates expectations of what the visual style of a western movie should be. In contrast to the high-key lighting and bright primary colors of the horse operas from Hollywood’s golden age, everything in McCabe looks drab, muddy and brown. This color scheme, combined with the film’s snowy locations and excellent Leonard Cohen soundtrack, gives it the feel of a melancholy tone poem. And the sound design can likewise be described as “muddy”; one of the film’s most contentious aspects is a notorious sound mix that, to the chagrin of many viewers, features an abundance of scenes where people mumble indistinctly to each other in taverns and whorehouses. But as any of the film’s supporters will tell you, the sheer audacity of this muddiness is part of its perverse charm.
McCabe can also be classified as a genre-subverting “anti-western” in that it presents two big movie stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, in as unglamorous a light as possible. Beatty in particular was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time and Altman intentionally obscured his handsome features behind a bushy beard, gold tooth and omnipresent derby. The unromanticized look of frontier life extends to the supporting cast as well; Beatty’s title character is an entrepreneur who, at the film’s beginning, arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church and tries to make his fortune by opening a low-rent brothel. Altman clearly takes great delight in presenting McCabe’s small town whores as earthy and plain, the polar opposite of the glamorous western prostitute typified by Claire Trevor in John Ford’s Stagecoach. While Altman’s portrayal is probably closer to the reality of prostitutes in 19th century America, it is also important to recognize that he never condescends to these characters. On the contrary, he seems to have great affection for all of them and takes pains to present them as real people, as evidenced by scenes where we witness them during downtime – singing, goofing off in a communal bath, baking a birthday cake, etc.
The aspect in which Altman most obviously turns western conventions on their head is in his presentation of the western hero. It is obvious to the viewer early on that John McCabe is a coward and a bullshit artist who hides behind a lot of big talk. There is a delicious irony in that the other characters in the film, the townspeople of Presbyterian Church, mistake him for a famous gunfighter who happens to have the same last name. Throughout the movie Altman milks this irony for all it is worth and uses it to set up an action climax that delivers a spectacular payoff – a snowbound shootout that sees McCabe attempting to become the man he has so far only pretended to be. The end result is something rich, complex and that rewards repeat viewings.
If charges of sacrilege have been leveled at The Long Goodbye more often than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s probably less because of the way Altman undermines movie conventions in the later film than because of the way he dared to tweak aspects of its beloved source novel. Raymond Chandler published The Long Goodbye, his sixth novel featuring legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe as protagonist, in 1953 when the film noir movement was still in full swing. Marlowe had been portrayed on screen no less than three times in the previous decade by high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery and, Chandler’s favorite, Dick Powell. It is somewhat surprising then that The Long Goodbye wasn’t brought to the screen until Altman’s unconventional adaptation twenty years later, long after the original noir cycle had ended. But that’s precisely Altman’s point: taking the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hardboiled private eye of the late forties/early fifties and transporting him to the health conscious Los Angeles of the early ’70s. Finding humor in this outrageous juxtaposition is essential to appreciating Altman’s film.
Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. While it features a more conventional color palette than McCabe (fitting given the film’s contemporary southern California locations), it is no less visually striking. A technique first used in McCabe that Altman and Zsigmond perfect in The Long Goodbye is “post-flashing” – exposing the camera negative to a small amount of light before processing it. This gives the finished film a hazy, dreamy, slightly overexposed quality, which Altman likened to the look of faded postcards. It is as far from the stark, black and white cinematography of film noir as Elliot Gould’s nebbishy portrayal of Marlowe is from that of his tough guy predecessors.
And yet both of these aspects are of a piece with Altman’s overall vision. The Los Angeles he portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything – except for the one brand of cat food that Philip Marlowe desperately needs. The tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food. This absurd but crucial scene establishes the theme of betrayal vs. loyalty that will predominate for the rest of the film. It is only when Marlowe informs his friend Terry Lennox “I even lost my cat” during the film’s unexpectedly shocking climax (and thus brings the story full circle) that we are likely to realize how deadly serious Altman has taken his morality tale all along.
After The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman would go on to make many other movies. There would be triumphs as well as fallow periods but, like the song says, he always did it his way. When he fell out of favor in Hollywood, which happened more than once, he would simply scale back his ambitions. The most dramatic example of this would be the entire decade of the 1980s, which were devoted to small projects like filmed plays and T.V. movies following the box office disappointment of the underrated Popeye. But Altman was a dreamer and a schemer, always waiting for the opportunity to realize his next mad folly. Thankfully, his story ends on a note of redemption as the success of The Player in 1992, much like that of M*A*S*H in 1970, allowed him to realize many more personal projects until his death in 2006 – including such late career highlights as Short Cuts, Kansas City, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion. The American cinema won’t see his like again.