As the BFI launches a season dedicated to the works of the American auteur, Ben Flanagan offers a route into his highly diverse canon...
Although the filmmakers of the “New Hollywood” are often amorphously painted as big kids who used their toys to rally against the establishment, none were quite like Robert Altman. A little older than the likes of George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, Altman was a Kansas City native who cut his teeth in the era of live television production on programmes such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
An anti-Vietnam war campaigner and avid stoner, it was his nonconformist sentiment that would eventually lead him to be grouped with the “Movie Brats” after his Palme d'Or-winning M*A*S*H dropped like a thunderbolt in 1970. A satirical hangout film set in a Korean army hospital, it formed the template for what would become the defining Altman style, characterised by improvisational, overlapping dialogue, and vast casts of zany characters.
Over the next four decades, Altman would develop vivid sound collages and widescreen fresco, leaving no genre unturned in his effort to subvert and reshape the American myth. His 1970s output is one of the American cinema’s most consistent and exciting, the peak of which is perhaps marked by the 1975 country music film Nashville, which Pauline Kael called “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.”
In the 1980s, Altman got stranger, delivering a handful of stage adaptations, and even a proto-Borat mockumentary about a presidential run with his TV series Tanner ‘88. The 1990s were a return to recognisable ensemble films, although his experimental flair continued. The Player is one of the great Hollywood satires. In the early 2000s, Altman continued to deliver sophisticated takes on the institutions that make up modern society. A Prairie Home Companion, which returned him to the country music scene, proved to be his swan song. Altman died, in 2006, of complications from leukemia.
In celebration of the BFI’s ongoing Robert Altman season, this starter pack is a means of getting to grips with this diverse and audacious filmmaker in just six films…
The Gateway: The Long Goodbye (1973)
Though there are plenty of Altman films accessible enough to be used as entry points, The Long Goodbye is like catching the perfect wave. This adaptation of Raymond Chander’s detective classic reshapes film noir with a distinctly beatnik image. Instead of the Bogart scowl, Phillip Marlowe is rebranded with a daffy Elliott Gould persona, a bumbling wise guy more concerned with feeding his cat than following the clues to his friend’s disappearance and possible involvement with a murder. As he mopes through hippie-infested L.A., Marlowe’s labyrinthian encounters with a host of characters literalise the qualities of the genre and take on the mood of a dream. With an incomparable Gould performance at its centre, and plotting from a master of the form, this shaggy-dog approach to storytelling, paired with digressive, overlapping dialogue, is certain to inspire any Altman newbie to dig deeper.
For more dirtbag Gould/Altman, try… California Split (1974)
The Beloved: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
The burgeoning mining town of Presbyterian Church is perhaps Altman’s most fully realised world. The snowbound community at the heart of McCabe & Mrs Miller, a religious, gullible lot surrounded by candlelight and opium pipes, are begging to be transformed by the American Dream. Into this world strides Warren Beatty – at the peak of his powers – as McCabe, who opens up a mom and pop store brothel with Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie). Their ambition at the dawn of America has the grandeur of myth, and shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, the feel of a Brueghel painting. One of the key revisionist westerns, its imprint has had a sizeable effect on the genre ever since, while its high tragedy and lofty vision of America has made it one of Altman’s most enduring and broadly representative films – and extremely beloved among critics.
For another Altman western, try… Fool for Love (1985)
The Essential: Short Cuts (1993)
The epic and overwhelming Short Cuts takes as its premise an assortment of Raymond Carver short stories – a greatest hits, if you will – and spins them into an interlocking yarn of Los Angeles stories that set the template for films both good (Magnolia) and reviled (Crash). Carver’s economy with language and gift for a punchline leaves the space for Altman’s huge cast to fill in the blanks with rip roaring – and occasionally profound – dialogue. This cast includes barmaid Lily Tomlin and her insecure husband Tom Waits, estranged father Jack Lemmon, an early Julianne Moore performance, and so many other character actors stealing the show without disrupting the film’s perfect tonal balance. Short Cuts brings Carver’s poetic fables to life, a wolf howl from the working and lower-middle class that crystallises Altman’s overall project in chronicling American malice, pain, and glory.
For another Altman epic, try… Nashville (1975)
The Weird: 3 Women (1977)
It is said that 3 Women appeared to Robert Altman in a dream. Watching this late-70s minor classic is like walking into the recesses of the filmmaker’s brain and setting up a deck chair. In a riff on Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, two physical therapists, one confident (Shelley Duvall) and one shy (Sissy Spacek), begin to switch personas when they move into a singles apartment building together. With a great deal of the Bergman about it, the sexual jealousy mounts, only to later express itself in mysterious ways. This oneiric, beguiling masterpiece captures, perhaps more than any of his other films, Altman’s maverick ability to float by on vibes alone. Watch closely, and it might well be the key to unlocking his entire filmography.
For another bizzaro Altman trip, try… Dr. T & the Women (2000)
The Underrated: Popeye (1980)
In the Heaven’s Gate era of overblown, overbudgeted indulgences, Altman’s flop stands as one of his most pleasurable pictures. In adapting E. C. Segar’s enduring Popeye cartoon, the filmmaker built an entire town in Malta to stand in for coastal Sweethaven, and populated it with an ensemble as vivid as anything in McCabe & Mrs Miller. Between the production issues that saw the budget blown and a growing press antagonism, Popeye found itself branded with a long-standing reputation as a film maudit. But bolstered by sweet, original songs by Harry Nilsson, Robin Williams in a committed, uncanny lead performance, not to mention his genuine chemistry with that walking cartoon figure, Shelley Duvall, Popeye endures as the real deal: a no-holds-barred, zany Altman classic that brings its cartoon inspiration to life like few other films have managed, all while retaining an appeal to younger audiences.
For another ramshackle Altman adaptation, try… O.C. and Stiggs (1985)
The Late-Career Masterpiece: Gosford Park (2001)
If you are put off by the country house setting, the legendary cast of British toffs, or the fact that Downton Abbey was conceived as a follow up to this murder mystery film, don’t rush to judgement. This funny, meta-detective story begins as a retread of Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) and gets stranger and stranger as it develops, with enough postmodern touches to make Charlie Kaufman blush. Characters switch accents, Ivor Novello winkingly accompanies the investigation on piano, and Bob Balaban’s movie producer dictates elements of the plot to a screenwriter down the phone. Between the fun and games, the upstairs-downstairs relationships capture harrowing truisms about British class relations, which Altman’s disarmingly precise staging emphasises to powerful effect. Possibly the greatest film about Britain ever made by an American, its Oscar night loss of Best Director to Ron Howard was tragic, but at least it brought us this iconic GIF.
For another sprawling Altman period piece, try… Kansas City (1996)
The Robert Altman season is now underway at the BFI Southbank and continues all throughout May 2021. You can find out more about what's playing and get tickets here.