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November 22, 2006

Robert Altman

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


I was very sorry to learn that the film director Robert Altman has died of complications from cancer at the age of 81. Only last month he'd been able to attend a tribute in the Hamptons.

Of all the people in the arts whose lives have overlapped mine, I've felt closer to Robert Altman (and to Pauline Kael) than to anyone else. Although I met him a couple of times, I never really got to know him. Far from it; I was just a lucky fan. But I was quite a fan. In fact, I'm one of those X-treme Altman nutcases you sometimes run into. The Altman doofus in this hilarious Onion piece, the one who's reminded by everything of an Altman film? That might have been me.

Altman's early movies "M*A*S*H" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" turned me into a film buff; loving movies led me to explore the arts more generally. Whatever shape my life has taken on has been because of my love of the arts. The Wife -- flighty, goofily overpassionate, very L.A., and physically a blend of Sally Kellerman and Daryl Hannah -- is herself like something out of an Altman movie. You should have seen him light up when he set eyes on her! I even married an Altman woman.

Where the arts and the bohemian life go, Altman and Kael were my guides, even my surrogate parents. Nothing special about this: I suspect that they played this role in many thousands of people's lives. Still, I've sometimes wondered what kind of life I'd have led had I not early on encountered those two Altman movies, and had I not read what Kael wrote about them. It certainly would have been a very different affair.

I've loved many Altman films with a special fervor. For all their facetiousness, their bleariness, and their fleeting casualness, they seemed to me to have a resonant poetic texture -- to connect with, or evoke, or represent a level of existence where dream, fantasy, and daily life all intermingle. I suppose that what I'm describing was nothing more than an illusion that I experienced. But, hey, this is the arts. The feelings and the sensations that Altman's movies elicited in me were very real, and in the arts it's the experience that finally stays with you when everything else washes away. Altman's movies delivered many of the experiences that I've valued most in my culture-going life.

Robert Altman's career was as long and as productive as any American movie director's (possible exception: John Huston). And, IMHO of course, he created as many art-entertainment triumphs as any other filmmaker too. While the Boomer movie directors nearly all burned out young, Altman had several slumps and numerous comebacks. He must have been a freak of nature in terms of resilience, energy, and stamina. While many film directors quit, exhausted, by 60, he continued creating rich experiences into his 80s -- and he did so despite a heart transplant, and despite a legendary history as a drinker and a pothead.

He was made of very strong stuff. Although he learned of his cancer 18 months ago, he forged on, completing "A Prairie Home Companion," turning in a vigorous appearance at the Oscars, and making preparations for a movie he hoped to shoot in 2007.

He most certainly had a superabundance of charisma, as well as a bizarre and intuitive way of sensing where you really live and connecting with you there. Actors and technicians lent their full creativity to his projects because he charmed them, and because he enabled them to give of their best. He reminded them that they're artists, and he gave them the chance to do the work they felt put here on earth to do.

I had lunch with him once and was able to feel the Altman force field. It was no doubt at low hum; still, it was unmistakeably present, and quite something. At one point I asked him what he felt he really knew; I was hoping to learn what it was that he felt was his to convey. He gave a small self-satirical smile (see the photo at the top of this posting for an example of it), thought a bit, and then answered in his it-doesn't-matter-finally way: "What I think I know is that everyone is at the center of his own universe." Fuck yeah! By the end of our lunch, I was ready to follow him anywhere.

In later years, I talked to him on the phone a few times. I expected him to struggle to remember who I was. Why wouldn't he? A celebrated film director encounters thousands of people, after all. But each time we talked he chatted with me as though he really knew who I was, even as though we were long-lost close friends. I don't submit this story to suggest that I was anything special, btw, but to illustrate Altman's gift for zeroing in on people, and on the moment.

Altman's films themselves contributed to a feeling that he would go on forever -- that he'd be the one who'd defy what we must all finally submit to. Even his worst movies seemed to spin off the same reel as his most inspired ones. They seemed less like standalone artworks than like episodes in an ongoing comic / dramatic soap-opera that would never end.

There was a special frequency his work could tune you into. The daily particulars -- what was actually onscreen: the behaviors, the details, and the moments -- weren't the entire point of his art, but they weren't entirely irrelevant either. Instead they came across like eloquent evidence of the activities and workings of many larger dimensions. Here-on-earth may be the place we're visiting for now, but we're always in touch with many other worlds too. We'll merge back with the larger universe soon enough.

Altman always seemed aware that we're traveling through this particular life on temporary visas; satirical celebration seemed to strike him as the most appropriate response to this fact. Weirdly, his cheery melancholy about impermanence made his presence in the culture seem very secure. As The Wife said to me last night: "It seemed as though there would always be another Altman film to look forward to." You really register how transient life is when even Robert Altman's unstoppable run has come to an end.

I blogged about Robert Altman's "The Company" here and "A Prairie Home Companion" here. This guy's long tribute to "Nashville" is something I can get behind too. Rick Lyman's obituary of Altman for the NYTimes is a good and informative one.



UPDATE: Thanks to Alec, who turned up this lovely Jonathan Romney appreciation for the Guardian. I loved what Ron wrote in the comments on this posting too: "When Altman was on you could feel as though he was directing things inside your head, and redefining the limits of your perceptions in the process, as though your skull was expanding under his influence. And it was a great feeling." A Roger Ebert interview with Altman can be read here. Suzy Mackenzie's visit with Altman seems to me to catch a lot of what he was like. Anne Thompson links to a lot of obits and tributes here and here. Gregg Kilday's is a warm-hearted standout. Toby Lewis kicks off his new blog with an Altman tribute. You can listen to an interview with Altman here. Some touching informal reminiscences and eulogies can be read here.

UPDATE 2: Altman on YouTube. Smiling, he tells the interviewer, "I'm going to be part of the past." He also talks about "M*A*S*H."

posted by Michael at November 22, 2006


Michael – I agree with you on Altman, a wildly inconsistent filmmaker, but one whose best works (and even some of his not so good ones) are messy, sprawling, generous and, as you note, resonant. The UK Guardian has a very warm and appreciative obituary:,,1953652,00.html

Posted by: Alec on November 22, 2006 6:07 AM

Thanks for the beautiful tribute, Michael.

Nashville and The Rules of the Game were the works that really opened my eyes to what movies could be, and turned me into a full-blown addict in the process.

When Altman he was on you could feel as though he was directing things inside your head, and redefining the limits of your perceptions in the process, as though your skull was expanding under his influence. And it was a great feeling. Despite all the talk of his uneveness (which I suppose is justified), he directed more than his share of terrific movies. Jimmy Dean deserves to be resurrected (especially since, stylistically, it leads right into A Prairie Home Companion), Vincent and Theo is tremendous, and even fairly minor things like The Gingerbread Man, Cookie's Fortune and The Company deserve more attention than they usually get.

I don't typically get sad over the deaths of people I've never even met, and I'm not sure I'm "sad" over Altman's passing. But I'm certainly reflective. And since hearing the news my head has been swimming in Altman images and feelings. I'll refrain from listing them, but somewhat surprisingly it's the Altman women that come most readily to mind. Flighty, sexy, open, maddening, unpredictable, elongated, unstable, and often mind-blowing...if Altman's work needs some avatars, I suppose those women will do.

We'll see other great movie makers, but we'll see no more Altmans, that's for sure.

Posted by: Ron on November 22, 2006 8:41 AM

It was obvious that he didn't have long to live when he got that lifetime achievement Oscar. Getting one of those awards is a sure sign that you should stop buying unripe bananas, if you catch my drift :)

Posted by: Peter on November 22, 2006 9:24 AM

Not much to say except thanks for this lovely tribute. I went on an Altman binge a few months ago. Surprisingly, the only movie I hadn't seen in a really long time, "M*A*S*H*", didn't seem to hold up well, but all the others did. With all due respect to "Nashville", has anyone ever made a lovlier, sadder movie than "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"? Or a weirder one than "3 Women"? These two remain my favorites, but there are so many others. Think I'll head for Netflix and start another binge.

Posted by: Michael P on November 22, 2006 12:39 PM

Peter: Hey, Sidney Lumet's still going strong, and has a new movie coming out. Don't jinx it, man!

Not to rain on anyone's parade but I never got Altman. My two least favorite emotions are self-congratulation and self-pity, and the Altman films that I've seen manage to combine both - or at least they seem to. (MASH especially.)

Am I getting it wrong? And what should I do to get it right?

Posted by: Brian on November 22, 2006 2:14 PM

My quite different and no doubt, unpopular opinion of Altman.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 22, 2006 2:23 PM

Alec -- "Sprawling" is certainly the word, isn't it?

Ron -- That's a gorgeous little appreciation in its own right, tks.

Peter -- Did he seem that frail to you? I felt hopeful about the future seeing him at least up on his feet, but I was probably blinded by wishful thinking.

MichaelP -- An Altman binge sounds pretty good. How'd they look on video? I've only watched a few of his movies on the TV screen. I'm always scared they'll be much diminished, but then wind up thinking they don't lose all that much. But I remain apprehensive anyway.

Brian -- Lumet's still making movies? Lordy, another force of nature. As for Altman -- eh, maybe he's just not for you. It's a good blog-posting question: Have you ever been able to make or help someone "get" a movie or a book that they didn't "get" on their own? I guess it happens sometimes, but it's gotta be rare, no?

Peter -- If his movies don't click for you, I bet they look pretty darned bad.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2006 3:49 PM

I learn of his death here.

One of my best friends and I first bonded over the film Quintet. I have always been a sucker for films that fling you out into a world where it's very unclear who is good or bad or even what's really going on. They speak to my primal fears, I guess. I referenced it in an early conversation with my friend; it turned out she'd been obsessed with it in film school.

Altman's films were uneven, but cut closer than most other directors' for me. Quintet and Short Cuts especially seemed to define certain ages for me - Quintet as a mirror held up to my undergrad fears (coming of age meets nuclear Armageddon), Short Cuts as a bittersweet ode to keeping on keeping on and finding transcendent moments amidst kitsch and chaos when I was a recently divorced thirty-something.

Thanks for the remembrance, Michael.

Posted by: robert on November 22, 2006 4:55 PM

I'm sorry to hear this. I rather liked his movies. Well, some more than others now that I'm looking over the long imdb list, but the ones I liked, I really liked. As for the others, they're still memorable. I still have more to see.

Posted by: claire on November 22, 2006 6:47 PM

I didn't see the Oscars so I don't know if Altman looked frail or not. But there's an old joke that getting a lifetime achievement award is a de facto death warrant, sort of the way athletes who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated usually go into a big slump shortly thereafter.

Posted by: Peter on November 22, 2006 9:47 PM

That scene in Nashville when Ronee Blakley sings at the Opry Belle is so indelibly transfixing. She literally looks torn, but at the same time at peace, with giving in/staying away from the mass populations idea of performing well. The camerawork seems torn, as if Altman didn't know how to perform the scene. Maybe these are the emotions that great performers go through? I'll miss moments like that.

Posted by: David Brown on November 22, 2006 11:28 PM

Now that he's dead, can we stop dismissing one of his more interesting films, Popeye?
Yes, it's crazy and overbudget, but full of great songs ("He's large," etc) and hilarious lines. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall were also perfect for Popeye; it's impossible to think of any other actors more perfect for this role.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on November 23, 2006 8:01 AM

Robert Nagle: "Now that he's dead, can we stop dismissing one of his more interesting films, Popeye?"

I didn't want to discredit myself ealier, but I may as well say it now: Popeye is the only Altman film I enjoyed from beginning to end! Granted I was five years old at the time....

Posted by: Brian on November 23, 2006 1:36 PM

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