Robert Altman, RIP


The great filmmaker Robert Altman has died at age 81. I'd like to make some really counterintuitive claim about his legacy—say, that he never matched the promise of his early industrial shorts, or that Popeye was the peak of his career—but I'm on vacation so I'll cut the crap and make this brief. I can't praise too highly a body of work that includes That Cold Day in the Park, MASH (much better than the TV series), McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images (that rare film that actually managed to scare me as I watched it), The Long Goodbye (has there ever been a counterintuitive casting decision as brilliant as having Elliot Gould play Philip Marlowe?), Thieves Like Us (extra points for ending a bank-robbing movie with a Charles Coughlin broadcast), California Split (horrible fate averted: they almost gave that one to Spielberg), Nashville (how did he manage to capture the Perot campaign in a picture made in 1975?), 3 Women, Secret Honor, The Player, Short Cuts (my favorite of the bunch), and Gosford Park—not to mention many lesser but still admirable movies (like, say, A Wedding) and, yes, the occasional piece of complete garbage (like, say, Beyond Therapy). Plus some above-average episodes of Bonanza and a season or so of Combat!

He was a Europhile—he once famously threatened to move to France if George W. Bush was reelected—but he was also, in his surreal '70s way, one of the most deeply American directors of the twentieth century, a man whose vision of this country was as rich and resonant as John Ford's or Frank Capra's. His sensibility was simultaneously cynical, merry, and grim, and his best movies deserve multiple viewings. May he rest in peace.

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  1. It is interesting how the giants of 70s cinima lost their touch in the 90s and 00s. Scorsese hasn’t made a decent movie since Goodfellas. Speilburg has completly lost it. War of the Worlds is probably the worst movie ever made by a respected director, although AI might be close. Altman made very forgetable if competant movies in last 20 years of his life. I don’t share Jessee’s love of shortcuts at all. Gosford Park was okay, but not up to the standards of his work in the 1970s. The Player was lousy and only got critical aclaim because it was such an inside baseball movie about the film industry. No one outside of the film industry watches or remembers that movie and I am not even sure they do.

  2. AMC recently showed M*A*S*H with factoids shown at the bottom of the screen; such as Altman often smoked pot during interviews and his son made more money off the song than Altman did off the movie.

  3. Spielberg never had it except maybe on his French new wave flick 1st Encounters. Scorsese has always been overrated in my book.
    Altman is one of the greats, right up there with Kurosawa and Welles and Busta K. and will hense be sorely missed. Maybe I’ll go home and watch Brewster McCloud.

    And Jesse, Popeye is one of his best (Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl = best casting ever), but a really counterintuitive choice would have been something like, I dunno, Quintet?

  4. “Scorsese has always been overrated in my book.”

    I agree that he is overrated, but Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Casino are great. You couldn’t pay enough to suffer through Taxi Driver or Mean Streets again.

    What is the deal with Popeye? You are like the fourth person I have seen today claiming that movie is a lost classic? I just don’t see it.

    If I were going to go home and watch an Altman movie, I would still watch MASH. That movie is just great. For all of the anti-war buzz it gets, I have never seen it that way. I have always looked at it as a comedy on military manners and bureaucracy. A Korean War version of Goodbye to All That.

  5. What are you smoking, John?!
    The Player was a laugh riot and Short Cuts was mind-blowingly good.

    And Scorcese hasn’t made a decent movie since Goodfellas?! Juh? Casino was decent by Scorcese standards, not great, but at least decent. Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York were great, if flawed. Cape Fear was decent. I haven’t seen his other post-Goodfellas movies, but “hasn’t made a decent movie since Goodfellas” is totally wrong, by any standard. I don’t care if it is subjective, you’re just wrong!

  6. Highnumber,

    I will give you Casino. It was a good movie. I forgot it was post Goodfellas. Cape Fear is absolutely awful. Crybabby liberal pap. Gangs of New York is completly historiclly wrong and just Scorsese grinding his axe about Italians not being the only gangsters in the world. It is unwatchable. I have not seen Bringing out the Dead. I had kind of forgotten about that one but it looked decent so I will concede on that one.

    The Player was okay at the time but it hasn’t aged well. Really, is that damned funny to have Andie McDowel, Roddy McDowel and Macolm McDowel in the same scene? Yeah, it is a bit clever, but not that funny and typical of the jokes in that movie.

  7. Jesse, thank you for avoiding the inevitable idiocy of “counterintuitive” legacy bashing (maybe Cavanaugh can make a cameo for that tired role he seemed to relish), because I have one thing to say to such folks, in advance: go fuck yourselves. (That one goes out especially to the idiotic Jonah Goldberg, who has already announced over at NRO that after a decent interval for mourning, he intends to slag Altman–when not busy telling us about Battlestar Galactica or prying K-Lo’s lips off of her Mitt Romney doll’s crouch).

    Altman was the best American director to hit his stride in my lifetime–better than Scorsese, better than Coppola, better than you name it. His best films were audacious in their reach (which exceeded his, and anyone else’s, grasp). The Long Goodbye, California Split and Nashville have to be among the Seventiest films ever made–and there can be no higher accolade than that. He had many other great films, of course–McCabe, MASH (the most frequent target of the revisionists, I think) and others. He had noble failures (Buffalo Bill and the Indians) and lots of workmanlike films. He dared to do the oddball film (Brewster McCloud, Popeye) and just moved on if most people didn’t get it. He was everything you want in a great director, and I’ll be goddamned if I can think of anybody today worthy to carry his jockstrap. In this country only Ford and Welles can be said to have been his equals.

  8. John,

    Have you even seen “Departed,” you smug-ass prick? I’d love to see you outdo that movie.

  9. Henry,

    You are right, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville and MASH were great films. After those films, I think he was workman if not spectacular. I really can’t think of a bad movie he ever made, which is a lot more than I can say about Scorsese, Spielberg, Copola or any of his contemporaries. Although, I would take the first two Godfather movies or Raging Bull over anything Altman did, overall he had a better career than any of his peers.

    I don’t really give a rats ass about his political beleifs. He was a whacked out liberal, but I don’t see how that takes away from any of his movies.

  10. Yeah, it is a bit clever, but not that funny and typical of the jokes in that movie.

    My favorite joke from The Player is 10 minutes into the movie when a guy in an office making a film pitch mentions the opening shot is “one, long shot with no cuts” and you realize the whole opening has been, in fact, one long, complicatedly orchestrated shot that’s still going on.

    You’re right though…I tried watching it again a couple years back and it was kinda stupid.

  11. I don’t mean to hi-jack this Altman thread, but the Departed is probably as good as Goodfellas.

  12. Andy,

    I saw that movie and I want my two hours of life back. I could film flies fornicating and make a more exciting film than that. Yes, Nicolson is fun to watch, but big fucking deal. He is interesting to watch in any movie. The script still sucks and no one else is interesting at all.

  13. Madpad,

    I liked the joke about the sequal to the Graduate with Ann Brancroft as a invalid but a “funny invalid”.

  14. Contrarian counterintuitive claim: “O.C. and Stiggs” was his true masterpiece.

  15. I took a first date to see Popeye. I felt obligated afterwards to apologize for my selection of the movie. Going to the movies is always a crap shoot.

    And sometimes movie directors shoot crap.

  16. Yeah, now that the Popeye critical rehabbing is basically accomplished, the O.C. & Stiggs revisionism needs to begin.

    If you’re picking Quintet for your contrarian Altman masterpiece you have a mighty hill to climb. The kindest thing I’ve read a critic say about it was “interesting failure.”

  17. i love love love mccabe and mrs. miller, 3 women, the long goodbye, secret honor and several others.
    secret honor is a much better nixon flick then oliver stones film.

  18. dave-a: I think Popeye is better than its reputation, but my bias against Robin Williams keeps me from embracing it. Anyway, the reason I picked it is because the critics gave it such a famous drubbing, whereas only film buffs and cable junkies remember Quintet or O.C. and Stiggs.

    (Anyone remember the sketch on SCTV — or maybe it was Fridays? — where instead of making Popeye, Altman made a movie of Henry?)

  19. It was SCTV, with a brilliant Rick Moranis as Henry….

  20. Am I the only one who’s seen only one (or none!) of Altman’s movies? (It was MASH.) I know I’m no film geek, but I’m not living under a rock either: I’ve never heard of most of those movies.

  21. I’ll give you guys MASH as a good movie – but the rest of Altman’s “canon”?

    I’d fire the rest of it out a cannon and sit through a John Hughes movie first, thankyouverymuch.


  22. the aviator.

    that was an excellent scorsese movie.

  23. There’s at least two cuts of Popeye out there. The shorter one is a very watchable movie with a couple songs. The longer is a ponderous unwatchable musical.

    I had only seen the short version when I was arguing with people about it’s suckage. Then I rented it and got the long version and chose to endure the pain just to see how bad those extra scenes were.

    Good directors have great editors.

  24. I stand corrected. The aviator was a kickass if not great movie. Scorcese has made two good movies since Goodfellas; the Aviator and Casino.

    “In this country only Ford and Welles can be said to have been his equals.”

    Only in Bizzaro World where Willam Wyler, John Houston and Billy Wilder never made any films.

  25. I must have seen the longer version of Popeye, because I remember it as an unwatchable musical.

    John, for some reason I picture you pecking away at these comments while sitting on your porch and intermittently yelling at the neighborhood kids to get the hell off your lawn.

    I’m pretty into movies but for some reason haven’t seen much Altman. Haven’t seen MASH in a long time but thought it was good but overrated when I saw it. Will have to backtrack that one. John, I love The Player and get something new out of it every time I see it.

    On the other hand, Pret a Porter was truly, genuinely awful.

    And I love, love, love The Long Goodbye.

  26. i thought kundun was pretty good too.

  27. “No one outside of the film industry watches or remembers [The Player] and I am not even sure they do.”

    Really? It may not have aged well, I haven’t seen it lately, but I sure remember it fondly, and I am well outside of the film industry. That movie even came up in casual conversation a few weeks ago. John, I may have to accuse you of making counterintuitive claims about Altman’s legacy.

  28. The Long Goodbye is my favorite too. (Useless trivia: It was one of the first movies to be released letterboxed in a home video format, RCA’s CED dinosaur to be precise.)

  29. short cuts is another of those films that gives me something new every time i see it. second only to mash in the altman canon.

    bringing out the dead? some nice scenes, interesting characters, but ultimately, there’s no movie there.

  30. Only in Bizzaro World where Willam Wyler, John Houston and Billy Wilder never made any films.

    Billy Wilder was a genius, and can someone please tell me why Double Indemnity hasn’t been released on DVD yet?

    Back to Altman, I’ve only seen MASH, Short Cuts, and Pret a Porter. The last was crap, but the first two were great movies.

  31. Crap, as I posted that I find out Double Indemnity is on DVD, but Netflix just didn’t have it in their catalog back when I was a member. Sorry to keep threadjacking.

  32. I liked some Altman movies, and didn’t like others, but what possesses these egomaniacs to inform the public about where they intend to live, depending on the outcome of an election?

    Traditional Chinese society may heve been on to a good thing in one aspect; viewing a career in the dramatic arts as a low calling.

  33. I was never a huge Altman fan, though I liked M*A*S*H and The Player. I hated Short Cuts. Yuck.

    In any case, there’s no denying that he was an important filmmaker and seemed to stick to his guns his whole career. Unlike some other directors, I note darkly.

  34. Billy Wilder was not born in this country–neither was Hitchcock.

    And, no, Wyler (especially!) and Huston do not belong with Altman.

  35. McCabe and Mrs Miller is in my personal top 10(maybe 3) movies of all time,for years it was my favorite.A total subversion of The Western and a great piece of (quite realistic) fictional Americana.The best individual acting performances of all the cast. Stunning cinematography. Anyone who hasn’t seen this really should-on as big a screen as possible.
    Of his later and “lesser” pictures, I love Kansas City.

  36. 3 women is a MASTERPIECE.

  37. Traditional Chinese society may heve been on to a good thing in one aspect; viewing a career in the dramatic arts as a low calling.

    In most societies, acting – until the past 100 years or so, and except for the greeks – has been a low calling…comparable to modern day carnival workers.

  38. Just to clarify, I don’t think Quintet is his best, just a more counterintuitive pick than Popeye (which I believe Pauline Kael gave a not entirely negative review to).

    I’ll stand by Popeye though, and I’m a hater of Williams in general (but it’s hilarious casting to have Popeye and Pappy played by two generations of tv aliens). Harry Nilsson’s songs (particularly the self-destructive Bluto number) are generally excellent, though they don’t have any of the ultra-catchy, easy-to-remember tunes that the great musical meme usually entails. Also, I’ll watch anything with Duvall. Her and Altman were certianly one of the great director-actor pairs (I take em even over Kurosawa-Mifune or Herzog-Kinski) and here she was at her peak (just before her unfortunate pairing with Kubrick).

    I would put Popeye near the top of my favorite Altman list, just below McCabe, The Long Goodbye, and Thieves Like Us.

  39. I hated “Popeye”, but sweetpea was the cutest movie baby I’ve ever seen in my ife.

  40. Popeye was not strong to the finish.

    And why the hell did M*A*S*H self-destruct with that pointless football game?

  41. The football game was a high point in the not-so-great novel the movie was based on. In the movie it’s a descent into very sub-Altman comedy, but I suppose the screenwriters felt obligated to include it.

  42. Bah. Just as The Naked Gun is the best baseball movie ever made, MASH is the best football movie ever made.

    “We got a red flag! We got a red flag!

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