Splice of Life

Robert Altman last year on the set of his final film,
Robert Altman last year on the set of his final film, "A Prairie Home Companion," with photography director Ed Lachman. (By Jim Mone -- Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Where others saw images, Robert Altman saw layers. Where others saw dramatic simplicity, Robert Altman saw human complexity. Where others saw theatrical artifice, Robert Altman saw the teeming, throbbing Petri dish called life.

He got that sensibility into most of his 33 movies, and at least five of them were great, at least 10 more really, really good, and only a few pretty awful. It was as interesting a career as any American postwar director had, with its triumphs and follies, its good years and bad decades, its feuds and resentments, its successes and failures. The director died Monday at the age of 81, leaving an enviable legacy and an iconic, immediately recognizable style.

Blindfolded, you could tell in the first few minutes that you were in a Robert Altman film, not because you couldn't hear anything but because you could hear everything. It was called, glibly, "overlapping dialogue," based on Altman's insight that only in the movies -- and not in real life -- do people wait politely while others speak, then respond in wittily shaped perfect sentences. He wasn't interested in "movies" in that sense; that artifice, along with many others, he shattered in his breakout astonishment of 1970, the great film "M*A*S*H," where the dialogue splashed like a tide against rocks, bubbling this way and that, sometimes reaching incomprehensibility, but nevertheless achieving a level of verisimilitude that audiences, sick of the banalities of the big studio film, responded to with incredible enthusiasm.

But the phrase "overlapping dialogue" encompassed a lot more than a simple recording trick: It stood for a larger sense that life was too messy to be contained in the conventions of the old stage and movie proscenium, was too febrile and multifaceted and all McFused to be gathered up, understood and swallowed in one gulp. It also stood for the freedom he gave his actors to free their subconscious to contribute to the picture as well. His was the equivalent, in a culture turning ever more insane for fast food and instant payback, of a gourmet's insistence on subtlety, density, subtext; you had to concentrate, you had to participate, you couldn't just sit there like a potato and let it pour over you.

When it worked, it worked to spectacular effect. When it didn't . . . well, then Altman went away, or drifted back into TV (HBO became his home away from home during a dry spell in the late '80s), and then reinvented himself, usually with a thunderous success and began the whole mad cycle ("Genius!" "Self-imitator!" "Stale!" "Hack!") all over again. He seemed to thrive on it, and interviewers were always stunned at how such a radical or maverick or system-bucking buckaroo could remain quiet, dignified, witty and about as controversial as pablum. When he announced angrily that if George W. Bush won in 2004 he was moving to Paris, I was stunned: I had met, instead, a serene Spanish don granting an interview to a friendly peasant.

Born in Kansas City to prosperous parents just in time to experience the tail end of World War II (he flew in the South Pacific with the Army Air Forces), he had literary ambitions that led him to New York, then in the early 1950s to Los Angeles, where he promptly failed. He returned to his home town to discover it was also home town to the Calvin Co., one of the biggest makers of industrial films in the world, and finagled a job writing that became a job directing. For five years he toiled on products whose titles included "How to Run a Filling Station" and "Modern Football." But . . . he learned the profession, and that knowledge, plus the luck that Alfred Hitchcock had seen an exploitation feature he'd done called "The Delinquents," made him a natural for a move not into live television drama (the "golden age" that produced directors Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer was just ending) but into filmed drama. For a decade he made his living grinding out TV series on a freelance basis, directing episodes of "Bonanza," "Route 66" and "Combat," among others.

As an aside, I should say that I first learned his name in 1964, when he directed a fabulous two-hour, two-part "Kraft Mystery Theater" called "Nightmare in Chicago," one of the first of the serial-killer dramas, with some Cold War paranoia thrown in. To this day it sustains a cult reputation and an as-yet-unfulfilled clamor for DVD release. In the '90s, when he was august and secure, I asked him about it. "Oh yeah," he said with a warm smile, so pleased that someone still remembered, "that one was pretty good, wasn't it?"

Altman's first real feature arrived in 1968, the astronaut thriller "Countdown," starring James Caan. Then came "M*A*S*H."

Maybe you had to be there to understand how this movie detonated in the young moviegoing public. It came out at the height of the war in Vietnam, when despair and anger were palpable, and hatred of the military and that rough beast called the Establishment were omnipresent. It offered a vision of war's madness, set actually in the Korean War, but also its absurdity, the sanctimony and rigidity of its military professionals, which it contrasted vividly with drafted amateurs who saw through the whole bloody charade. It was full of anachronisms, which made the point that it was really about now, not then. And Lord God, was it funny.

Altman, who'd obviously been paying attention during his own service years, unleashed the purest bile of scorn at the professional military and the mind-set of old men who knew exactly why young men had to die for them, just the most powerful, cleansing screech of aggression ever; and it was tonic for the millions.

He probably could have made "M*A*S*H" clones forever, but no, ever the independent thinker, he spooled off one of the great runs in American movies, the birdman fantasy "Brewster McCloud," also in 1970, the great revisionist western "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" in 1971, a somewhat misbegotten thriller called "Images" and then four brilliant films in a row, one-two-three-four, really unprecedented: "The Long Goodbye," "Thieves Like Us," "California Split" and finally "Nashville," in 1975.

Who wouldn't have collapsed after that, especially when influential New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael raved about "Nashville" months before it was released, putting on it the onus of high expectations that could never be lived up to.

A dreary period ensued as the films got more and more obscure, longer and talkier and evaded popular acclaim as successfully as they did critical admiration. Even an attempt at a sellout "Popeye," with Robin Williams, got terrible reviews, though it eventually turned a profit. The old guy probably bottomed out in 1987 with "O.C. and Stiggs," from the mean-spirited National Lampoon series.

The first of his two comebacks occurred in 1992. "The Player," his acidic take on Hollywood, seemed to come from nowhere and reestablish him overnight as, in his own most loathed term, a player. It was another film of anger, possibly his purest and most driving emotion: He looked at the avarice, the wangling, the treachery that to him was endemic in that town, with Tim Robbins as an amoral young production executive hellbent on success. The movie was a young man's disenchantment, but he was in fact 67 when "The Player" hit and followed it up with another great film, a nearly three-hour examination of life and death in Los Angeles adapted from the stories of Raymond Carver: "Short Cuts."

Again, a creative exhaustion followed and though he kept working, none of the films seemed to click with audiences or critics. "Kansas City," an account of petit-bourgeois life in his home town, should have been a great movie, but somehow it wasn't. Then, in 2001 -- he was 76! -- another late astonishment, the delightful and exuberant "Gosford Park," a social tapestry murder mystery set in the '20s at an elegant British estate. It seemed to combine the best of Agatha Christie and John Galsworthy and yet was accessible enough for the masses that it became a great hit.

His final film, "A Prairie Home Companion," came out this year; too bad it wasn't a great hit. When death finally stilled him in his ninth decade, the old pro was in pre-production yet again. He went out, then, the way he would have wanted to: a filmmaker, on the very last day of his life, still in the saddle.

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