The Nontraditional Traditionalist

Robert AltmanI saw the great American film director Robert Altman live and in person just once, in 2004, when he answered questions after a screening of his recently restored movie, “Secret Honor,” at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater in Manhattan. That film, a fictional account of Richard Nixon in full bunker mode, might best be described as more endurance test than entertainment for all but the most die-hard Altman fans. It was a brave piece of work, but it demanded a certain patience from its audience.

To be blunt, I didn’t enjoy “Secret Honor” very much, but it didn’t matter, because I got to see and hear Altman in person. He looked old and frail, yet he remained razor sharp and unmistakably willful in his demeanour. Which, to me, mapped exactly to how I’ve understood his entire body of work: if ever there was a director who managed, through the sheer force of will, to bring fully realized worlds to life — complex, nuanced, incredibly engrossing worlds that eschewed special effects and Hollywood hyperbole — and then to subvert them with a masterful playfulness, it was Robert Altman. He was truly a giant among the many artists who have committed their visions to film.

Top Two

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.

  1. You’re dead-on with this analysis.

    I think best American film directors are geniuses because they meet the medium halfway — their self-indulgence is tempered by the demands of the medium, especially if they’re working in a genre. Thus: Hitchcock, for one obvious example, and Scorsese for another.

    And that’s why I rank McCabe and Mrs Miller my favorite movie of all time. It’s the perfect meeting of the demands of the genre (not just the western, but the thriller) and the eccentric genius of the director.

    Sometimes Altman took things too far, as in Nashville, which most people consider his masterpiece. Other times, not far enough — Gosford Park. I think Altman overpowered the medium in Nashville and the medium overpowered Alman in Gosford Park. He subverted too much in Nashville and not enough in Gosford Park. (Which reveals how much I, like you, am a formalist at heart).

    But, oh, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There isn’t a false note in the entire film. I must rent it yet again.

  2. Joe: I think you’re right about both “Nashville” and “Gosford Park.” I never quite understood why the former has been so widely considered his masterpiece, and I always thought the latter was a bit overrated. Then again, I liked both quite a bit, especially “Gosford Park,” which, in its 2001 context, towered over its much tamer competition at multiplexes. It’s not perfect or even particularly ambitious, but I had a great time watching it.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.