On Nov. 20, the American film world did not just lose a director of more than 40 feature films and countless television programs.,Suicide is painless, according to the 1970 film MASH, but any cinephile will tell you that the passing of director Robert Altman is not.
On Nov. 20, the American film world did not just lose a director of more than 40 feature films and countless television programs. It also lost its most interesting auteur, a man who was utterly unwilling to compromise his vision. Only Woody Allen can boast the same relentless independence and aversion to the studio system.
Often this attitude cost Altman at the box office and with critics-many of his movies in the 1980s and mid-’90s were notoriously bad-but more importantly, it created a body of work that, for better or worse, was distinctly, unapologetically his.
What follows is a list of five Robert Altman classics that any self-respecting film fan should own.
Though he worked in the industry for 20 years before MASH was released, this was the film that first showcased Altman’s unique style: overlapping dialogue, a large cast of characters, and a drab look to match the theme. It’s also the first antiwar film from the Vietnam era (although the setting is Korea), with our heroes Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould) using humor to detach themselves from the brutality and absurdity of armed conflict. It also inspired one America’s best-loved television shows.
MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971)
The 1970s was a time of cinematic reinvention as brash directors toyed with genre conventions and expanded the boundaries of filmmaking. Altman did this with the crime film (Thieves Like Us), the historical epic (Buffalo Bill and the Indians), and with McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the Western.
Coming just two years after the feel-good Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this film is a dark-literally and thematically-take on love, ambition and change in the old west. Folk singer Leonard Cohen provides the sparse soundtrack.
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)
After turning the western on its head, Altman took on Raymond Chandler, whose detective novels inspired classics like The Big Sleep and Murder My Sweet. In this adaptation, Elliott Gould plays detective Philip Marlowe as an aloof private investigator who appears baffled by his bizarre 1970s surroundings. Though not as epic or impressive as later Altman works like The Player and Short Cuts, the movie deserves credit for managing to be totally engrossing despite its purposefully boring lead performance.
Generally thought of as the quintessential Altman film, Nashville is a perfect snapshot of the cynical era that produced it. It follows the lives of 24 characters as they prepare for a political convention and country music concert. Against the backdrop of faux Americana and banal political populism in the city of Nashville, Altman brilliantly weaves stories of betrayal, heartache and opportunism. As well as being the director’s greatest achievement, it’s one of the best films of the decade.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006)
Robert Altman’s minor but enjoyable final film, a fictionalization of the final broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio program, is, appropriately, one in which death weighs heavily. It’s a bittersweet rumination on loss and remembrance, and both the temptation and dangers of nostalgia.
“Don’t you want people to remember you?” a character asks Keillor, who plays himself. “I don’t want them to be told to remember me,” he responds.
Neither would Altman. But thanks to the films he left behind, no one has to be reminded.