Altman passed away two days ago, taken by complications from cancer at the age of eighty-one. Given the frailty I saw two years ago, I can’t say it came as much of a surprise, but it’s upsetting nevertheless. As a kind of very small tribute, I thought I’d briefly discuss here two of my favorite Altman films: “The Long Goodbye,” Altman’s satiric reinvention of the hard-boiled detective mystery starring Elliott Gould, and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” his despondently lyrical revisionist western starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
Perversions of Genre
Both these movies are staggeringly inventive pillars of the 1970s, a decade in which the language of mainstream film took a huge step forward, with Altman often in the lead. And, especially attractive to me, they’re both genre films, too.
One of Altman’s most effective creative modes was to assume the artifices of familiar genres and to subvert them for his own ends. He’d use the signposts of familiar dramatic forms — often shoving aside the central relevance of plotlines altogether — to produce beautifully wrought perversions of films noir, war movies, drawing room mysteries, and romantic comedies, among other staples of cinematic language.
But his reinterpretations were always recognizable in the end, always engrossing as examples of those genres themselves. If you watch “The Long Goodbye,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,“ and, for a little variety, Michelangelo Antonioni’s similarly interpretive “The Passenger” over the course of a weekend, you’ll be seeing among the very best detective, western and espionage movies ever made.
As much admiration as I have for the new forms that Altman pioneered in films like “3 Women,” I’m a formalist at the end of the day, and it was these freewheeling excursions into the traditional that excited me the most. There’s a parallel that can be drawn between this sort of subversive playfulness and the kind of design to which I gravitate — innovative, surprising constructions that adhere to aesthetic norms and common ideas of usability. That’s a long stretch, I admit, so I won’t belabor the entire argument here. Suffice it to say, an artist of Altman’s genius and sheer will can serve as an inspiration to more than those who aspire to careers in film. His passing is a great loss.