There’s a moment in the 2002 Academy Award telecast where the camera pans across the crowd during a standing ovation for the freshly minted Best Director winner Ron Howard and finds, standing in the aisle together with conspiratorial grins on their faces, none other than David Lynch and Robert Altman, a pair of high-profile losers who the comparatively green Howard had just bested. Altman never won that competitive Oscar before his death in 2006 (though he did get an honorary award in 2001), but even more so than Lynch he’s become a bellwether of quality American filmmaking—a roguish sort who brought an idiosyncratic authorial signature to studio films in the 1970s. Tied to the upcoming release of Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann’s profile of the late filmmaker, TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective “Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman” is a fine introduction, screening 18 of the iconoclastic filmmaker’s most important works.
Compared to some of his brethren in the American New Wave, Altman had a relatively late start, cutting his teeth as a journeyman television director who frequently got fired for his unorthodox style. It wasn’t until MASH in 1970 that his career took off. The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, MASH is the kind of many-limbed, shambling beast of an ensemble comedy that Altman would make his staple. A rumpled absurdist satire of military illogic with a rakish lead performance by Donald Sutherland, the film plays as a curious time capsule now, despite its bite. The film’s Korean War setting is used to good effect as a stand-in for the then-contemporary American war effort in Vietnam, but it’s hard to warm to the film’s blatant contempt for its only female character of any significance, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’s chief nurse, who becomes the embodiment not just of her fellow soldiers’ disdain for authority but also of the film’s.
MASH’s deliberate transformation of the war movie into a freewheeling, talky, character-driven affair is typical of Altman’s later experimentations with genre, among which his finest is arguably 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In place of a traditional large-canvas period piece that neatly packages American life on the frontier, Altman delivers a radical anti-western, focused on the grit and hardscrabble labour of zinc miners, sex workers, and saloon managers. Warren Beatty is wonderful as the cocksure but vulnerable McCabe, a self-enchanted maverick who rides into the small northwestern town of Presbyterian Church on a wave of hot air and a phoney reputation as a gunslinger. His bluster helps him get into business as the owner of the local brothel, managed by the sensible but opium-addicted Brit Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), but puts him in danger once a mining company sends a trio of bounty hunters to wipe him out when he refuses to sell his land. Scored to songs by Leonard Cohen and edited in an impressionistic, lyrical way, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a singular American western—a smart, funny, and beautifully sculpted dismantlement of frontier machismo, culminating in an astonishing snow-dusted set piece that finds McCabe scrambling through the town to get the high ground on his would-be assassins.
Among Altman’s other genre riffs, we’re partial to curios like 1972’s Images, a paranoid psychological thriller in the vein of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and 1977’s surrealist 3 Women, a puzzle of a movie featuring career-best work from both Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. But the most definitively Altmanesque might be 1973’s The Long Goodbye, a top-to-bottom ironic rethinking of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 private-detective novel. Altman re-envisions Elliott Gould’s P.I. Philip Marlowe as a hapless fool drifting through a violent, morally bankrupt contemporary Los Angeles like an alien refugee from a dime-store novel—which, of course, he is. In addition to serving as an insightful parody of the genre that doubles as a stab at the hippie cesspool of 1970s California, The Long Goodbye is also a cinephile’s playground: it indulges its characters in their love of the movies and workshops Marlowe’s signature theme (composed by John Williams) onscreen—even inviting the character to play along with it on the harmonica.
Perhaps even more than for his genre tinkering, Altman is widely remembered now as the pioneer of overlapping dialogue and the best practitioner of mosaic films with crisscrossing narratives, being responsible both for model children, including the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, and for unseemly bastards such as Paul Haggis’s Crash. For our money, his best film in this sprawling mode is 1975’s Nashville, a brilliant portrait of the country music and gospel scene in Tennessee that tracks 24 characters in that milieu before they converge in a climactic outdoor concert. Others will go to bat for 1993’s loose Raymond Carver adaptation Short Cuts, though we’re not as sold. Despite great character work from an enormous cast of actors like Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin, and Tom Waits, its shrill, show-stopping monologues and programmatic structure go against most of Altman’s shaggy-dog strengths.
Our minority opinion on Short Cuts aside, Altman was still in form in his last two decades, despite his reputation for having reached his salad days in the 1970s. Later ensemble pictures like 2001’s Gosford Park—the one he nearly won that Oscar for, and a forerunner to screenwriter Julian Fellowes’s followup, Downton Abbey—and his final film, 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion (whose production was shadowed by Anderson, in his capacity as a student, fan, and insurance bond for the then sickly Altman), are still richly textured. They’re also increasingly humane, warming the misanthropic streak visible right from MASH into something a bit gentler and less abrasive.