Geoffrey McNab: For all his occasional cynicism, he was a true cinema humanist

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The Independent Online

Jazz and James Michener were the wellsprings for Robert Altman's uniquely freewheeling approach to film-making.

In interviews, he would talk about how, when he was eight or nine years old growing up in Kansas, his parents' housekeeper sat him down next to the radio and made him listen to Duke Ellington's "Solitude" ("the best music I'd ever hear"). Michener's Tales Of The South Pacific provided a template for all those films with huge casts of overlapping characters. "The way that book was structured fascinated me - all those individual stories which somehow seemed to have connections. That type of storytelling has always been part of my nature."

There was an admirably cussed quality about him: a refusal to make the films that the Hollywood paymasters wanted.

He also showed considerable guile and resilience in the way he managed to get even the most outlandish projects financed. As he said once when asked whether it was appropriate that he - an American - should receive quite so much money from the UK Film Council for his murder-mystery Gosford Park: "I think that every dollar or pound that comes down the pike is tainted. I don't have the slightest problem whether it's drug money from Nicaragua, British lottery money, or from skim-off in Las Vegas."

In his love of actors, his wonderfully laid- back approach to storytelling and his ability to combine humour with sly social and political comment, the filmmaker he most resembled was arguably Jean Renoir. Altman, for all his occasional cynicism, was one of cinema's true humanists.

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