Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman, RIP

Years ago I instituted a three-strikes policy for directors. Make three movies I don’t like and I never have to see another one. Life, I decided, was too short.

But I made one exception to the rule from the outset. That was for Robert Altman.

Altman made a number of movies that didn’t float my boat for one reason: he made a lot of movies. As Jaime Weinman points out, “he was an auteur who actually liked to work.” And across a wide range at that; Altman was the living embodiment of Whitman’s sentiment, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” If I didn’t care for one of his films, I knew there would be another soon enough that would be more to my liking. Alas, that is no longer the case.

When an Altman movie did work, the result was unlike any other. McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains one of the great movie-going experiences of my life. I hiked through the rain to see a revival print, the weather outside extending onto the screen. The Long Goodbye, an endlessly fascinating and occasionally maddening update of Raymond Chandler. California Split, a personal favorite and one of the best explorations of addiction that you’ll ever see. Secret Honor, which pulls off the singular trick of making me feel bad for Richard Nixon. The Player, Gosford Park, so many more.

His shadow looms large. Many contemporary filmmakers have embraced his technique of overlapping dialogue and plots. But with Altman that interconnectedness was never the point. It was simply the way he saw the world. We are all of us the focus of our own stories, and occasionally those stories converge.

He also has less obvious heirs who have adopted his work ethic if not his style. The Coens, Steven Soderbergh, and others who make movies year in and year out, always experimenting, having no fear of genre. That’s also quite a legacy.

A Prairie Home Companion is one of my favorite films of 2006. It’s about reaching the end of things and recognizing when it’s time to leave the stage. Strange that it’s also Altman’s last movie. That’s exactly the kind of ending that he always strove to avoid, and that I always find suspect. Once again, though, I’ll make an exception.