The Altman rollercoaster ride

John Lyttle previews Channel 4's Altman season
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The Independent Culture
Robert Altman. He's a tricky one. The word invariably employed is "maverick", and that's true; his angle of entry on often outre or problematic subject matter - let's say last night's Channel 4 screening of Three Women or Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean - almost automatically excludes him from the Hollywood mainstream that once, in heady, radical days, embraced him for bringing the masses M*A*S*H. But Altman would also bring - to smaller and smaller audiences - Images, Quintet, California Split, A Wedding, Health - pompous, bloated disasters the word for which is not, oh no, maverick, but - let us be restrained - "erratic".

No other acclaimed director has risen so high, dived so low - with the possible exception of Orson Welles. True, opinions of some Altman failures have been (wisely) revised: The Long Goodbye and Buffalo Bill are today acknowledged as superb, absurdist twists on an American genre - the hardboiled noir - and on American history (the Wild West). Altman didn't get it wrong - we did. But Images, Health, A Wedding are simply absurd, not absurdist, frankly meandering, frankly pretentious. Bad as bad can be.

You could put this down to everything after Nashville automatically seeming like a disappointment, or to Pauline Kael's kinder explanation: that a talent this protean can't be confined to one theme, to a single style, to familiar, repeatable, audience-pleasing joys; that working this close to the unconscious is a special kind of gamble. True. But ego also plays its part, and we now have enough distance on Nashville not to judge too harshly. So what explains the all too predictable tumble from The Player - already fearsomely overrated by the Premiere generation for its "exposure" (I think not) of the movie machine - to Pret-a-Porter, which tells us breathless punters that the fashion industry is bitchy, designers are camp and models anorexic. Which is Altman exactly attempting to duplicate a theme; namely, insider gossip, the theme of his return to form, whisper it if you dare.

But that's the caution that comes with age (not that Short Cuts could be said to lack ambition - technically, at least). Age also allows a body of work - and because Altman works fast and loose and consistently, his canon bulges like few others, though it is in haste that one often falls flat on one's face. Still, though an uvre may not always silence criticism or fully answer troubling questions, it can beggar those questions and sometimes make value judgements beside the point. For mistakes are interesting too, and Robert Altman's mistakes often the most interesting of all.

M*A*S*H (1970)

"It may be distasteful to some," Variety piously reported, but Altman's Korean War black comedy was embraced by rebellious youth for what it was - a fecklessly sardonic take on Vietnam, with cynicism worthy of Ben Jonson (see the golf sequence). Fox looked at the rushes and declared it "a mess", which only goes to prove that The Player has a point when it shows that studio executives know nothing. As the Sixties died, M*A*S*H made belated stars of Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Altman, the director in particular praised for his handling of loose performing rhythms and his apparently casual, but obviously complex, way with a huge, inter-locking cast, motifs that would henceforth characterise his best and worse work. Note: not to be confused with the bleeding heart liberal spin-off series that ran for years on BBC2.

FOOL FOR LOVE (1985)

From the tail end of Altman's stage-to-film period, which one can either view as a retreat from the demands of the celluloid medium - Altman may have had no original ideas to feed it - or as a method of recharging battered creative batteries. Ed Graczyk's Come Back to the 5 and Dime and David Rabe's Streamers precede this (slight) opening out of the Sam Shepard play about brother-sister incest, and it's startling to observe how close Shepard's preoccupations are to Altman's: myth-shattering the American way of life, Mom, apple pie, flag, the lot. That said, it's too careful and still too theatre-bound to be especially interesting, though the performance he gets from Kim Basinger is stunning; sexual heat tempered with an oddly maternal cum Monroe-ish manner. It explains why so many top-flight stars - Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon et al - trod out for even the briefest cameo appearance under his command.

POPEYE (1980)

Altman gets into bed with not one studio, but two: Paramount and Disney. The subsequent misfire made money - just - but succeeds neither as a musical (the Harry Nilsson songs are terrible) or as, as you might suspect, a rethinking of a cartoon icon. A pity Paramount and Disney were so insistent on a fixed script, given they had the two kings of improv at hand; Altman and Robin Williams in the title role. Some magic moments, though, thanks to an impressively nutty set and Altman repertory regular Shelley Duvall, who's both batty and touching as Olive Oyl.

THIEVES LIKE US (1974)

The raw material that also gave us Nick Ray's They Live By Night (1948) transformed into a redneck romance and a profound pastoral tragedy, set during the Depression with escaped criminal Keith Carradine falling in love with small town girl Shelley Duvall. It sounds simple, but the emotions it summons forth aren't; you can see where the story is headed (death and disillusionment, as traditionally befits misunderstood lovers trapped by social circumstance) and you want to scream "Stop". The picture's an anomaly; Altman has, I think, with the possible exception of Images never worked smaller in terms of cast and narrowness of content, and yet this is, perhaps, his best film - not so much directed as direct.

NASHVILLE (1975)

Pauline Kael's New Yorker review of the rough cut whetted appetites months in advance, and Altman later delivered a feast; 24 floating characters, one for each hour of the day, living their lives like country and western songs in America's most metaphoric city (it has the innocence of the Dream and the naked crassness of out of control commerce). It's not simply that the movie seems flawless, it also seems, as it's Oscar winning song proclaims, easy - as if Altman had flung it together, without effort or sweat. It has the tattered fabric of the ordinary, yet every one of those 24 characters is extraordinary, and observed with a due understanding of cheap music's potency.

A WEDDING (1978)

If any man present objects, let him speak now... More a wedding rehearsal than a wedding, this attempt at social satire among old and new money has nothing to say and takes an inordinate amount of time saying it. Pointless.

BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS (1976)

Released in time for the American Bicentennial, a viciously funny Valentine to America's heritage - here just another decaying branch of showbusiness as incarnated by Paul Newman's Buffalo Bill, living on past lies and press cuttings. And into the White Man's version comes Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), totally silent and uncomfortably authentic among the circus rewrites. Bitter and twisted and a visual marvel.

BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970)

The director at his freshest, flaunting the benefits of "working at the edge of the unconscious". This dazzling, dippy, provocative fairy tale seems to be inventing itself as you watch. Bud Cort believes he's a bird, but it's the joke that flies here: that guardian angel Sally Kellerman may be butchering those who stumble into this dreamer's path. Altman hasn't managed anything this featherlight in years. It's a swallow caught on the wing, and it hasn't returned for the winter for his career. But let's be grateful for spring and the unexpected, if perishable, pleasures it brings.

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