Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Robert Altman: a contrary view (and my reply)

From Forum with No Name:

Ted Fontenot: I’ve always like what I heard about how Altman went about making movies. Everyone involved always seemed to love working with him. (I’m sure there must be some exceptions—I don’t think Donald Sutherland did, and he doesn’t seem to have gushed forth at Altman’s death, but maybe I just missed it.) How he engaged everyone involved--the technicians, the writers, the actors, especially the actors--into giving of themselves on a project—it’s all legendary and quite exemplary. Jack Lemmon once compared Altman very favorably to John Ford (in the Ford documentary everyone comments on how his sets were not happy places at all). Altman wanted you to make suggestions, Lemmon noted. Altman encouraged the actor’s collaboration, which he contrasts to Ford by telling the story of when on the set of Mister Roberts, he very excitedly told Ford: “John, I have an idea!” Ford immediately raised his hand to stop him: “No. No, you don’t.” And that was that.

Yet, as far as I’m concerned Altman is not only not in the tradition of John Ford (I can’t think of two more dissimilar directors), he wouldn’t make the proverbial pimple on Ford’s ....

I’ve often wonder why I don't have a stronger positive affinity for Altman's movies. At one time I did. In my callow youth, I loved MASH, McCabe, The Long Goodbye, and others when they came out. I think it’s his attitude. As generous a person as he seems to have been, nevertheless artistically and esthetically his movies are permeated by a small, callous, mean-spiritedness, and it's usually directed in some obvious fashion against some easy, even PC, target. His movies simply have not traveled well over time with me. And it may of course all have to do with me, but the fact is that I don't much like most of the people he means for you to like, or the facile ways he cleft-sticks the types he dislikes. Nashville may be the apex, or nadir, on this score—it is just one long tedious predicable cheap shot from beginning to end, but most of his stuff is just full of that sort of stuff. He always has a someone or thing he stacks the deck against, a type of person or people, a view, that he just trashes. In retrospect, it often seems too facile and shallow. He has none of Ford’s humanity or compassion. Ford had his side, but he got there regrettably, feeling for those who had to fall before juggernaut. Ford has the grace to be sad at the conflict between views, cultures, the two sides. Altman’s stance may be more excusable, more tolerable, when he’s doing comedy/satire, but he’s never gone beyond the sensibilities of the New Left knee-jerk ideologue of the late '60's—politically, socially, and esthetically. One of the most loathsome, gratuitous bits of violence (just thinking about it makes me recoil with revulsion) is the smashing of the Playboy bunny’s face with the Coca Cola bottle in The Long Goodbye, as is the smartass humiliation of Hotlips in MASH. He had talent, even genius if you like, and it’s not like I think he was a boob, an utter failure, but he also had grievous substantive shortcomings that seriously mar and undermine his accomplishments.

I think Ted's got a point with regards to Altman's flaws; about his happy sets--well, ask Sally Kellerman how he's behaved towards her, not just in MASH, but Ready To Wear. I don't think generosity of spirit or compassion in real life is a true measure of an artist--Ted's mentioned what Ford's sets are like.

That said, there's space in my pantheon for both Ford and Altman because they're such dissimilar filmmakers. I love Ford's classic style--hell, he practically has the patent on it (handed over from on high by Griffith, and I'm guessing cribbing a bit from late Eisenstein) at the same time I love Altman's, which owes much to Renoir, which in turn is imbued with an American sense of adult profanity and humor.

Altman's got flaws--and Ted's pointed some of the most telling of them out. I'm actually more bothered by the treatment of Hot Lips in MASH than I am by the Coca-Cola incident in The Long Goodbye--I'm not too bothered probably because I eat scenes like that for breakfast and because I think the senseless violence underlines Augustine's character and what's at stake exactly. Hot Lips is less defensible I think; it comes from the source novel by Richard Hooker, sure, but beyond that, I can't see why Altman should include it, except he does hold some kind of sadistic view towards Kellerman (who he shafted again in Ready to Wear, onscreen and off) and towards women in general, when he's not being sensitive to them (I notice the same tendency in Bergman, except with Bergman the divide seems different--he seems to treat his women better on film than in real life).

I do think there is compassion in Altman, in the sense that he seems to give many of his supporting characters their time in the sun; Renoir does this too, but the older antecedent would be Dickens, who can animate even the smallest walk-on roles in his novels with a single line (I'm thinking of a coin caught, underhanded). Hard not to think of McCabe (or even Mrs. Miller), or the two lovers in Thieves Like Us, or Olive Oyl singing "He Needs Me" in a wobbly voice, on a pair of wobbly legs, without thinking you've gotten to know them pretty well as human beings.

It's not consistent; in something like Ready To Wear, that empathy is in short, short supply (which makes me like that film, strangely enough; it's the picture the industry deserved, I felt). And HEALTH is a mess (despite which it has the funniest closing image I've ever seen in an Altman picture).

Does he compare to Ford? Or Hitchock, Renoir, De Sica, Keaton, the giants? I hesitate to say; maybe in three or four films, he approaches their level (I did a recent ten best list, and it didn't have any Altmans in it). I'd say he looms over the present landscape, definitely; besides Bergman, Antonioni and Godard, I can't think of many other filmmakers of his stature, and even less who did as good recent work. I'd pit Hou Hsiao Hsien against him in terms of gravitas and ambition and consistency of tone and style, and I'd submit Mario O'Hara has an edge on him on wild imagination (though Altman was never about wild imagination, was he?), but--well, that's how I'd assess him, this many days after his passing. Could change, could rise or fall in my estimation in time, but I could say that of any filmmaker.

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