I was first exposed to the work of Robert Altman, whose 81st birthday it is today, at around age four or five, and I, of course, had no idea I had been exposed at all. Altman, who rose from the world of Kansas City industrial filmmaking to direct episodic television in the mid 1950s and the 1960s, was responsible for some of the episodes of Gunsmoke, Bonanza andCombat! that I soaked up during those formative years. Though he fought the networks regarding the style and content of the episodes of the shows that he directed, it’s probable that in retrospect only Combat!, with its eye and ear for the verisimilitude of wartime engagement and focus on the camaraderie of the men under the direct command of Lt. Gil Hanley (Rick Jason) and Sgt. Vince Saunders (Vic Morrow), stands much of a chance of bearing anything of Robert Altman’s recognizable stamp. But by the time I was 10 years old I was already on my way toward kindling a voracious appetite for movies, and I was well aware of a movie called M*A*S*H, with its strange two-legged, helmeted peace sign ad campaign.

M*A*S*H was perhaps my first “movie crush,” that is, a movie I obsessed over through the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian and occasionally, if the local Rexall drugstore received their Sunday copies on time,The San Francisco Chronicle, with no real prospect, at such a young age, of ever seeing it during its theatrical run (other movie crushes I would eventually develop included Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Straw Dogs and The Godfather). It was through that obsession with every detail, every piece of information I could glean from newspapers and magazines regarding M*A*S*H, that I became familiar with the name Pauline Kael, whose rave review was regularly blurbed in M*A*S*H‘s print ads. It’s also how I came to know the name Robert Altman, and because of his association with this movie he automatically, in my mind, became a director worth following. My hometown movie palace, the Alger, played both the R-rated original release and the slightly edited PG re-release of the film, but I missed them both. I don’t think I ever actually saw M*A*S*H in any form until it aired on CBS sometime around 1974, when I was 14 years old– it premiered on a Friday night, and I deemed the event important enough to warrant skipping out on performing in the high school pep band at a football game in order to stay home and see it. (I would discover, come Monday morning, that my band instructor did not share myenthusiasm for the movie or my decision.) And unless my memory is failing me, I don’t believe the Alger played another Altman film afterM*A*S*H, including McCabe and Mrs. Miller, until Nashville. I still knew about them all, however, thanks to the Portland and San Francisco movie pages. Yet it would fall to my college days to catch up with pre-1975 Altman and begin to understand why he would become, and remain to this day, such an important figure in my development as a reasonably intelligent and demanding viewer of film.

This year, one of the only compelling reasons for me to keep an eye on the Academy Awards will be the awarding of an honorary Oscar to Robert Altman. It’s going to be one of those “thanks for the memories” kind of affairs, honoring a director who, by all rights, should already have at least three or four of the statuettes with his name etched on them, and who is generally perceived as heading into the darkening twilight of his career. Insurance questions abounded on the set of his latest (and some speculate perhaps his last) film, A Prairie Home Companion, and kindred spirit Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) was a constant presence on the set, just in case the 80-year-old director for some reason could not carry on. And whenever a film luminary is the recipient of this kind of honor, it’s kind of hard to miss the underlying subtext: you might be gone a month from now, so you’d better accept the Academy honor while you can. Undoubtedly, the irony of such a warm and public embrace by the same Hollywood establishment that couldn’t have been more indifferent to him as the praise for Nashville curdled into the insulated “failures” ofBuffalo Bill and the Indians and 3 Women, will not be lost on the director, who has been known to cherish a bitter irony or two over his long career. (For a quick lesson in our changing times, just try to imagine an studio executive in 2006 having box office expectations of any kind for a movie like Nashville.) But as Altman himself has said of his impending honor, in a way this kind of Oscar is more befitting a director who always claimed to love his most wayward children best (Brewster McCloud, A Wedding) and who might honestly rather have an award that encompassed both the wayward and the celebrated, the great (Nashville, California Split, The Long Goodbye), the good (The Player) and the ghastly (Quintet, A Perfect Couple). For Altman, it will undoubtedly be a night of mixed emotions– reflection on and acknowledgment of a great career, mixed with a kind of nonchalance straight out of his dalliance with Raymond Chandler (“It’s okay with me.”)

To celebrate this great director’s birthday and upcoming honor, I wanted to gather some brief recollections and comments on each of Altman’s films that I’ve seen together with a couple of excellent links to other posts and articles that will hopefully round out this tribute in a more satisfying way. I point you first to Terrence Rafferty‘s overview of the director’s career from this morning’s New York Times. Rafferty paints a vivid portrait of why Altman mattered in the early ’70s, why he continued to matter in the dark days of the ’80s even when his output was scaled down and much more difficult to seek out, and why he continues to matter, to directors who cite him as an influence, and to audiences who may not even be aware of how his experiments in multiple storylines and overlapping dialogue have influenced (to the good and the bad) the direction of film and televisionstorytelling, from Hill Street Blues through ER and beyond. The folks at IFCTV Blog filed a report from the Berlin Film Festival last week rounding up the general reaction to A Prairie Home Companion. And finally, a link to the Berlin Film Festival site where you can watch streaming video of the arrival of Altman and cast members on the red carpet, as well as thePrairie Home Companion press conference.

And now, some brief thoughts of my own on each of Altman’s films (thanks to Edward Copeland for the inspiration):

M*A*S*H (1970) The sanctimonious sitcom was already two years old by the time I finally caught up with a CBS-sanitized version of Altman’s biggest hit. It was one of many Altman films that I wouldn’t see unexpurgated, or at all, until my college days, and it’s always been one with which I’ve had a love/hate (or love/dislike) relationship. I’ve always loved its shaggy improvisatory aesthetic and its caustic humor, but that causticity here often merges with a progressive’s particular brand of intolerance– here, for spiritual belief, whether sincerely or hypocritically undertaken, or for anyone else who doesn’t knuckle under to the iconoclastic impulses of its main antiheroes, Trapper John and Hawkeye. M*A*S*H is a hilarious, maddening movie that proves stubborn intolerance is not the exclusive province of the self-righteous right, that social and political liberals can be boors and bullies too.

BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970) A bizarre and effervescent freedom-through-flight fantasy that sealed some of Altman’s stylistic tropes and even prefigured some of the thematic concerns (as well as visual and aural ones) that would flower inNashville. I first saw this in a 16mm anamorphic print that was squeezed into a 1.33 aspect ratio, rendering the already fanciful movie a funhouse version of itself, and despite this visual bastardization I still loved it. To this day I cannot see Rene Auberjoinois in anything without thinking of him slowly mutating into an ostrich-like creature over the course of this movie. Where’s the DVD, MGM/Sony?

McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) My first encounter with this allegedly visually beautiful movie came on late-night TV somewhere around 1979. My second run at it came about a year later, in anamorphic 16mm (this time unsqueezed to at least an approximation of 2.35), in an echo-y university lecture hall. Now you see why I say “allegedly visually beautiful,” because I still don’t feel like I’ve ever had a satisfying look at this movie. And I can’t really say I’ve heard it either. As for why I haven’t yet rented the allegedly beautiful DVD, I have no excuse. I pledge to do so before the end of this year, because my diaphanous, amorphous impressions of this movie, already a fairly diaphanous work itself, need to be unified, pulled together, understood. It’s one of the only great movies I’ve seen that’s so ethereal and unformed in my memory it’s in danger of evaporating.

IMAGES (1972) The first of Altman’s art puzzle movies, which would come to greatest expression with 3 Women and then explode with Quintet two years later. I remember virtually nothing substantial about this movie, having seen it only once 26 years ago, except that I found its tinkling crystal visual motif annoying (this from a film student who was usually far too easily seduced by similarly obvious visual ideas used by other directors). I remember vague dread looking out at English landscapes shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, and bearish Hugh Millais coming to some sort of grisly end. Again, there’s absolutely no excuse for my having not revisited this movie. See my pledge re McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) Being unable to speak as much for McCabe as yet, this is, in my estimation, Altman’s first masterpiece, a lyrical, cynical, sentimental, hip and in some circles blasphemous updating of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Elliot Gould, his star already on the wane, would come, through this one performance, to some kind of lasting cinematic impression through the refashioning of Hollywood icons (both Marlowe and Bogie) that would counteract his dwindling counterculture credibility and box-office stature. Finally, Altman’s free-floating sensibility finds perfect expression in this funky and live, scrupulously moral revisionist tribute to Chandler’s sun-baked mean streets. In 1993 I was privileged to hear Altman speak (when moderator Michael Wilmington would let him get a word in edgewise, that is) before a screening of this film at UCLA. Afterward, I spoke briefly to the director and was able to express my appreciation for what his films, particularly this one and Nashville, have meant to me over the years. He was gracious, even though he had probably heard similar sentiments far too many times for them to hold much real meaning for him anymore, and I sensed he was grateful I wasn’t shoving a script at him or trying to engage him in some impromptu critical debate. He signed an old copy of Films In Review and that was that– the conclusion to one of the great move-going experiences of my life.

THIEVES LIKE US (1974) Up until seeing this film, my most vivid impressions of Shelley Duvall were those multicolored knee socks and the gold wig she wore in Nashville, and the unforgettable moment when she bends over a railing, vomits, and then plants an open-mouthed smacker on Bud Cort in Brewster McCloud. It was seeing her in this evocative, observant drama that made me decide she was, for a time, my favorite actress. This is a movie even someone unconvinced of Altman’s stature as a film artist could find revealing, moving, evocative, powerful. Once again, time for another screening. I’m beginning to think this upcoming Altman Oscar is going to set me on a path of rediscovery of some of real treasures in the coming year, and this is definitely one of them. Another masterpiece.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) LikeM*A*S*H, I got my first exposure to this underrated classic (dare it say it– masterpiece number three?) via the ABC Sunday Night Movie, and that was it, for about 20 years. It was even skipped over in the Altman retrospective my film professor assembled during my senior year at Oregon, due to some lame rental snafu. I didn’t see it again until my wife and I caught up with it on a double feature with The Parallax View at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about 10 years ago, and it bowled me over with its nonchalant, shambling air of desperation and compulsion, and the huckster’s comedy that it wrung out of both. Elliot Gould and George Segal amplify the kind of glancing humor that was by now a hallmark of Altman’s signature style into a brilliantly downbeat buddy comedy. And the sonic experimentalism of Altman’s previous films came to true fruition on California Split‘s pioneering multi-track stereo soundtrack, which allowed Altman the freedom to manipulate the levels of overlapping conversation for the first time, highlighting what he wanted you hear in what might before have been just a roomful of wallah and ambient noise.

NASHVILLE (1975) Nashville was the first Robert Altman film I ever saw in a theater, and for three of four years afterward it was emblematic of the kind of cinema my friends and I actively disregarded– that is, anything that didn’t resemble the typical Hollywood product. But while subsequent exposure to other Altman films during those three or four years (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women, A Wedding, Quintet) didn’t exactly soften me to the director’s approach, they did at least provide me with some context beyond what I’d been able to glean from my limited exposure to network versions of M*A*S*H and California Split. Sometime in 1979 I felt compelled to see Nashville again, and I came away with a completely different experience, one of unabashed enthusiasm that I can explain only by saying that I simply wasn’t ready, at 15 years of age, to seeNashville, for it to be my first real experience with a Robert Altman film. And, to paraphrase an oft-quoted cafe owner, it was the start of a beautiful, sometimes frustrating, always worthwhile friendship with the director’s movies.

By the time I next encounteredNashville, as part of a university class devoted to the director’s work, I was so excited to see it again that I took in all three of the available screenings to students of the class– one at 7:00 a.m., another at 1:00 p.m., and a final one with the whole class at 7:00 p.m. By the end of that day I was as exhilarated and exhausted as I’d ever been because of an encounter with a single film, and my mind was buzzing with connections to styles and other art forms that I’d never thought to make before. My collegiate experience with Nashville, I think it can truly be said, was a crucial key to my understanding of what films could really be, what they could do, and to some extent what they couldn’t do as well. For 25 years Nashville remained, unquestioningly, my favorite film, and if it no longer holds the top rank, it only misses by one or two spots. It’s a revolutionary collage of American dreams and destruction that quite nearly created a whole new sense of how community could be looked at in a film. And it is, quintessentially, what I think of when I think of a Robert Altman film.

(Next: Altman in the shadow of Nashville, the dark forest of the ’80s, and his return to prominence in the ’90s.)

Before we get revved up again, I’d like to pass along a couple of other items recommended for further research that are appropriate for this stage of the game.First, there’s a detailed and engrossing article over at 24 Lies at Second by Robert Cumbow entitled “Altman and Coppola in the ’70s: Power to the People” which looks at perhaps the two most emblematic figures in what has become widely thought of as the last great creative period of American filmmaking.Anyone interested in Altman’s biography, his working methods and detailed history of the production of his films have a couple of good sources available– Patrick McGilligan’s warts-and-all portrait Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff and Jan Stuart’s detailed look at the making of the director’s most acclaimed film, The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece. A worthwhile critical appraisal of the director’s work can be found in Robert Self’s book Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality. And David Sterritt offers Robert Altman: Interviews as part of his “Conversations with Filmmakers” series. And the BBC Four offers some brief audio clips of interviews that are worth a quick listen. For that matter, Altman is one of the few modern directors of stature (Scorsese is probably the only other one) who has produced consistently worthwhile audio commentaries on many of the DVDs of his films, and they are perhaps the best source of information film-to-film to be obtained directly from the filmmaker. Some of the best include track on the DVD releases of Nashville, Dr. T and the Women, Short Cuts, Secret Honor, California Split and, if you can find them, the laserdisc editions of The Player and Thieves Like Us.
And perhaps most impressive is Ray Sawhill‘s perceptive reconsideration of Nashville, published in Salon in 2000, on the occasion of the movie’s 25th anniversary and its first release on DVD.
Finally, Matt Zoller Seitz has thrown down the gauntlet and proposed an Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon to coincide with the director’s career honor at the Academy Awards the weekend after next. Bloggers who are interested in participating will write about any film or other fascinating aspect of the director’s career and post on Friday, March 3 or since, as Matt says, “the Altman spirit demands keeping things loose,” anytime over the weekend before the Academy Awards ceremony will do. This should be a lot of fun, both to write and to collect up and read in the afterglow of the Oscars. Reading all the individual, idiosyncratic takes on this great director’s career should do wonders toward offsetting any bad taste left in the mouth by upsetting upsets, embarrassing exhibitions on the part of out-of-control winners, or, perhaps, a not-so-shining performance of your own in the office Oscar pool. Remember, next weekend isn’t Oscar Weekend, it’s Altman Weekend — get ready for it.(And in the all-inclusive, democratic community spirit of the director’s films, anyone who is without a blog of their own but would like to contribute a piece to the Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon is more than welcome to submit their pieces to me via e-mail for publication alongside my own article next Friday, March 3. I encourage your submissions and look forward to reading them, along with everyone else’s, next weekend.)
Robert Altman hit a career high in terms of the critical reception ofNashville. Of course neither his admirers, his collaborators nor he himself would have any idea this was the case as it was happening, nor would any of them have any way of knowing that the director was about to embark on the phase of his career that most would term as his most creatively trying and challenging. Indeed, Altman proceeded along his career path taking each obstacle as it came, not seeming to care much about his vexed box-office record or betraying much worry about creative methods and inspiration. The way most of Altman’s films feel, particularly those of the period from 1976 through the mid ’90s, seem to be pretty much the way they were conceived and executed– still in a very loose, intuitive, collaborative manner, yet with an increasing sense of being hermetically sealed off from the industry wihin which they circulated, and with decreasing concern for connecting with a mass audience. By the first few months of 1980, he had, for all intents and purposes, given up that pursuit altogether.
BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, or SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON (1976) In the wake of my disastrous initiation into the world of Robert Altman at that screening of Nashville in 1975, let’s just say I wasn’t the ideal audience for the director’s follow-up feature. Yet, because my hometown theater, the Alger, booked it, probably figuring it might hold some appeal to local viewers who still held westerns in high regard (and boy, would those unsuspecting folks have had a surprise coming to them if they took the bait), and because there would be no other movie in town for a whole week, there I was, on opening night of the movie’s five-day engagement, bored to frustration. Yet even then I recognized a kernel of what Altman was up to right from the get-go–Buffalo Bill featured the most elaborate example yet of one of Altman’s signature moments, the self-consciously attention-grabbing opening credit sequence that announced the movie as a movie and at the same time hinted at the film’s ultimate inquiry into the tissue of lies that compose the entertainer’s (and the filmmaker’s) bag of tricks, and by extension (through Buffalo Bill’s interactions with Sitting Bull) those of a certain manifest destiny-inclined world power celebrating its bicentennial in the year the film came out. It took me another 10 years to revisit the movie and realize I hadn’t given it anywhere near a fair shake. And in the years since it’s initial release its reputation hasn’t grown much, even within the community of Altman devotees, beyond its status as a signifier of expectations raised by the triumph of Nashville that ultimately went unfulfilled. But the movie has expanded in my mind much further beyond that narrow perception, and as I think about it now I realize that it is the movie I’m gravitating toward as the Altman Weekend Blog-a-Thon draws ever nearer. Stay tuned. (By the way, the Buffalo Bill one sheet pictured is my favorite from all Altman’s films, and one of the few one-sheets that I actually own– I procured it from that Alger Theater run in 1976.)
3 WOMEN (1977) If Thieves Like Usplanted the suspicion that Shelley Duvall might just be my favorite actress, Altman’s insinuatingly sinister, gossamer dreamscape confirmed it. Altman tended to feature Duvall in roles that required her to expose herself to an uncomfortable degree through harsh or sometimes inexplicable behavior, and her Millie Lamoreaux here is initially likable but increasingly, insistently pathetic, a performance of real daring in terms of flirting with creating a character cut so close to the bone as to be painful, one who tears the audience between wanting to see Duvall at work and wanting to turn away from the agonizing level to which the actress lays herself bare. And that she creates such a realistic, nuanced performance within Altman’s diaphanously realized and haunted canvas of splintered personality dream logic is perhaps the ultimate testament to her achievement here.
3 Women (the other two are Sissy Spacek, as Millie’s roommate Pinky, and Janice Rule as a mysterious, pregnant woman who paints eerie murals on the bottom of a swimming pool) finds Altman dabbling again in the psychological gamesmanship of Images, but this time he’s unmoored himself from the reliance on literal symbolism– the images invoked and inspired by the titular females’ shifting, interchanging personalities are slippery, intangible, frighteningly suggestive yet elusive. However, you never get the sense that Altman is playing the “whatever-you-think-it-means-is-what-it-means” shell game. In fact, you can sense the director himself trying to grapple with the implications of the imagery he’s processed here (some of which, according to legend, originated in one of Altman’s own dreams).
A WEDDING (1978) Or, 48 Outlines of Characters In Search of a Movie. A Wedding finds Altman self-consciously revisiting the narrative strategy of Nashville (which itself was an expansion upon the groundwork initially laid in Brewster McCloud, a film that could just as easily have been called Houston) and upping the ante, doubling the amount of balls he attempts to juggle. The scenario (the reception following the Chicago society wedding between corrupt old money and the grotesquely nouveau riche) would seem to justify the experiment, and the movie’s on-the-fly construction is admirable. But it’s a movie seriously leached of the element of high spirits that helped keep Nashville soaring. Instead, A Weddingskirts a joyless diagrammatic approach that finds time for the humiliating of almost every one of its 48 “characters” (they seem to me more like nicely dressed chess pieces on a board seriously near being upended) in the name of bitterly funny social observation. Where Nashville was breezy yet down-to-earth, intricate yet liberating and free-associative, A Wedding just seem overstuffed and overly determinate. Even so, there are wonderful performances, which seemed even better when I revisited the movie late last year– I treasure the unmoored cadences of Nina Van Pallandt’s drug-addicted mother of the groom, especially after she gets high and the actress’s normally muted, unactressy line readings really take off to Slurrrrsssvillle; and Vittorio Gassman, as the father of the groom, who has lived a life of indentured servitude to the racist family matriarch ever since his own wedding and who, upon discovery of the matriarch’s death, suddenly finds himself free– his reunion with a long-lost brother, whose presence he fears will violate the terms of his servitude (before he has realized he’s no longer bound) is a hilarious comic explosion of anger and flustered reconciliation; and, of course, Lillian Gish as the matriarch, who opens the film, speaks briefly, then promptly dies, but whose poisonous spirit hangs over the entire proceeding (for good and bad, I think)– Altman honors Gish in the way he frames her character in a window at the onset, the then still-living patron saint of the history of cinema, but he never finds a way to honor her through the processional of his own film.
QUINTET (1979) If you would have asked me two years ago what film of Robert Altman’s I held in least regard, I would have said Quintet, which remains the nadir of Altman’s puzzle-picture trilogy (Images and 3 Womenbeing the other, more successful pieces). It’s a suffocatingly lugubrious chunk of heavy-handed sci-fi allegory set in a frozen future wasteland and built on the characters’ all-consuming obsession with a backgammon-like game, played to the death and overseen by the phonetically maddening Fernando Rey, the rules of which remain as mysterious to us at the end of the film as they were when it started. But the defiantly esoteric, visually irritating Quintet (the entire film, already rather fuzzily rendered by cinematographer Jean Boffety, is decorated with a Vaseline smudge around the edges of the frame) has been supplanted at the bottom of the barrel– the actual bearer of Least Regarded Altman Film in my estimation may come as a surprise to some, as it is generally thought of as a brilliant piece of work, and I will leave it to be revealed at the appropriate time. The movie’s humorless pretense is in no way redeemed, but it is leavened somewhat by an unintentionally hilarious scene between Rey, Bibi Andersson and Vittorio Gassman (who here burns through the good will he generated in A Wedding) in which they debate the fatal implications of the game. Gassman and Andersson are seated on either side of the freshly killed corpse of Nina Van Pallandt, who stares lifelessly ahead with a spike sticking through her head while these European stars gnaw hopelessly on the clunky English dialogue supplied by Frank Barhydt and their director. Meanwhile, star Paul Newman presides over the film with appropriate dourness, a blue-eyed deer caught in the headlights. SLIFR reader That Little Round-Headed Boy asked me recently if there was an Altman film that I found too unbearable to sit all the way through. My answer was no, I’ve never walked out on an Altman film. But I can remember the cold and rainy Sunday afternoon when Blaaagh and I sat in a cavernous (and empty) movie palace in downtown Eugene and endured Quintet for the first time. I know both of us wanted to bolt, but we stayed to the bitter (and I do mean bitter) end.
A PERFECT COUPLE (1979) I remember very little of this light, somewhat odd romantic comedy starring Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, apart from it being structured around the performances of a rock band with a rather overwrought name (something in the neighborhood of Takin’ It to the Streets) whose front man was none other than Ted “Jesus Christ” Neeley. But the opportunity to revisit it again is on the immediate horizon– it’s being released in DVD box package with QuintetM*A*S*H,A Wedding (all of which, by the way, bear the stamp of the subtitles and closed-captions created by myself and SLIFRreaders Thom McGregor and the Mysterious Adrian Betamax). And if you’re feeling adventurous, you could venture to win that box set by visiting Aaron at Cinephiliac and keeping your “Eyes on the Prize”. (Be warned, though: you’ll be in direct competition with me, and as of week #1 anyway I’m doing pretty well.) An interesting bit of A Perfect Couple trivia courtesy of IMDb: the role of Sheila Shea was originally written for Sandy Dennis. But Dooley was seriously allergic to cats, and cat-lover Dennis would come to the script readings with up to five cats in tow, causing Dooley at one point to be hospitalized. As a result, screenwriter Allan Nichols refashioned the role from an earth mother type to the young singer/groupie played eventually played by Heflin.
H*E*A*L*T*H (1980) Altman again revisits the cacophonous, multi-character canvas of Nashville (and, rather too strenuously and self-consciously, the acronymic nomenclature ofM*A*S*H) for this bizarre comedy centered around a political battle staged during a convention of health food entrepreneurs. The effectiveness (or lack thereof) of its attempt to engage in irreverent political allegory on the eve of the Reagan era was pretty much lost, either through the movie’s torturously delayed premiere (it was basically dumped by 20th Century Fox as unreleaseable, which added somewhat to its briefly enjoyed reputation as a buried treasure) or its own overly tangled narrative web. The movie mixes high and low comedy in a distinctly Altmanesque style that is very reminiscent of the similarly messy (and, I think, underrated) Pret-a-Porter, and as a result it is the very essence of “hit-and-miss,” but it’s also one I’ve longed to return to for quite a while. Fox Movie Channel trots it out occasionally; unfortunately, the print shown there (at least when it showed up last month) was irritatingly cropped and derived from a less-than-satisfactory transfer, so I opted out in the hopes that the current mining of Altman’s late ’70s Fox period would result in a DVD somewhere in the near future. Whatever the circumstances under which I next see H*E*A*L*T*H, I can be sure they will not resemble those of my first encounter with this orphaned Altman oddity. In 1981, fresh out of college, where I spent a third of my senior year immersed in the Altman canon, I drove seven hours from my hometown in Southern Oregon to meet Blaaagh in Portland, whereH*E*A*L*T*H was playing an exclusive limited engagement at the Cinema 21 theater. Ah, the unfettered enthusiasm of youth!
POPEYE (1980) The experience of making this movie, under the aegis of producer/bully/bullshit artist extraordinaire Robert Evans, and its ultimate lukewarm reception (with the attendant unearned reputation as a artistic and financial bomb) would finally drive Altman, the iconoclast’s iconoclast, from the prescribed madness of Hollywood conservatism and into the wilderness of independent filmmaking as it existed in the days when John Sayles was still fresh off of Return of the Seacaucus Seven and the world had not yet heard of Jim Jarmusch or Spike Lee. Few had the desire, whenPopeye was released during Christmas 1980, to look at it apart from the stories generated from its troubled production with anything resembling objectivity (or better yet, intelligent subjectivity). And it has yet to be revisited and reassessed in any satisfying way (which makes me look forward even more to That Little Round-Headed Boy’s Altman WeekendBlog-a-Thon entry on it next week).
For me, Popeye was and is a marvel of set design and pioneering use of cinematography–I always drift back in my mind to that seaside Maltese village where the characters of the movie live, flattened so expressively by the long lenses of Giuseppe Rotunno‘s camera into the first real attempts to emulate a cartoon universe in three dimensions. And again, my unabashed awe for the unpretentious talent of Shelley Duvall continued here– if anyone was ever born to align with a particular cartoon character, it was Duvall and her embodiment of Olive Oyl in a performance that I genuinely felt deserved the Oscar that year (she even outdid her own supremely empathetic work in The Shining from that past summer). But Altman’s sensibility was also well suited to the material, despite the insistence of everyone from Evans to the emerging magpie reporting of fledging infotainment shows like Entertainment Tonight that he and Popeye were a strange mismatch (they certainly fit better than Ang Lee and the Incredible Hulk). Altman’s propensity for the function of community, in the way he builds the inside of his Panavision frame, and in the generous way he approaches the relentless presence of the multitude of characters (including Williams as the titular sailor and the endearing manner in which he mutters his way through the movie) expands Popeyebeyond the limited perspective of the typical blockbuster, and that’s probably one of the things that got it in trouble with critics and with audiences. For the next 12 years (in what could only in retrospect be anything more than a coincidence, approximately the length of the Reagan-Bush era) Altman would find himself frozen out of the Hollywood that he so openly eschewed, the formula-driven, blockbuster-addicted system that now openly acknowledged that it had no idea what to do with this one-of-a-kind artist. It would be a journey that would return Altman to the fundamentals of filmmaking (filtered, of course, through his own unique sensibility) and ultimately set the stage for this iconoclast’s second run at the Hollywood establishment.Next: Altman in the dark forest of the ’80s, and his (brief) return to Hollywood glory in the ’90s.

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