Pauline Kael shimmied past saying anything nasty about Robert Altman’s Images by declaring him a one-hit-one-miss director. That may be one of the ultimate truths about his career, in that very few filmmakers of his caliber led such a charmed life, but who also, somehow, could never catch a break. To put things in perspective, inflation shows us that MASH, the first and last meal ticket he would ever again need, would outgross contemporary boffo hits like The Hunger Games, and rank at the top of the 2010 and 2011 box office charts. In terms of money, he never approached that kind of hit, ever again. His subsequent career was rife with artistic indulgence, but while one too many expensive straws on the camel’s back were, finally, one too many, he seemed to be onto something, as critics like Kael would remain by his side – most of the time, anyway. The bloom of the ’70s crop included Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, and California Split. He came to personify the sustainable rebel, the very dream life of American cinema in the time of Nixon and Watergate.
After Popeye (which made money, but was shunned by critics – and would look like a wart on anyone’s career), the ’80s were a bleak time, but the award-winning Tanner ’88 lit the fuse for a comeback that Altman would enjoy for the remainder of his life, beginning with The Player and Short Cuts, which netted him back-to-back Academy Award nominations. The final films of his life were defined by irascible, unbreakable dignity: Gosford Park, The Company, and A Prairie Home Companion.
His trademarks: overlapping dialogue (which required the sound technology to pick up the actors’ words, rather than the actors to speak in amplified tones to make sure the technology got every last note); slow, leisurely zooms out from busy milieus to establish context and to diminish the centrality of the activity we saw first; a corresponding attitude toward even the most powerful actors in Hollywood – practically anyone who was someone appeared in an Altman film at some point, but everyone had to be happy without being babied with close-ups and inflated screen time.
He was an acknowledged influence on Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, and Alan Rudolph. Several films by Hou Hsiao-hsien also seem to bear his stamp, as well.
What to see?