Just like his fellow maverick John Huston, Robert Altman got to make his own valedictory shortly before his death. A Prairie Home Companion, just now hitting the DVD shelves, may be Altman’s collaboration with radio auteur Garrison Keillor, but it is also a death-haunted movie about valuing the good things in life, even when you know they are coming to an end:
“What if you die some day?”
“I will die.”
“Don’t you want people to remember you?”
“I don’t want them to be told to remember me.”
It’s a sign of Altman’s sheer cussed independence that the film that made his career, M*A*S*H, was all but forced on him. He fought with the studio, Twentieth-Century Fox, and with the screenwriter, Ring Lardner Jr., and even managed to alienate his two leads, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, who complained to the studio behind his back. (Gould later confessed to Altman, which is why he went on to make several more pictures with Altman while Sutherland did not.) And when it became apparent that he would never replicate the film’s commercial success, he took to disparaging it whenever possible, even though its daring structure and style — big ensemble cast, absence of big names in the cast, naturalistic acting, overlapping dialogue and heavy reliance on improvisation — serve as a template for his subsequent work.
Altman’s innovations, like those of Jean-Luc Godard, have been so thoroughly absorbed by succeeding generations of filmmakers that people who have only recently seen an Altman film might wonder what the fuss is all about. And, as with Godard, much of the time they’d be right. Altman peaked early with that initial run of 1970s films, culminating in Nashville, which masterfully orchestrated something like two dozen characters and plotlines against the setting of the country music industry and a political primary. Even after the belly-flop of Popeye, Altman stayed busy in large part because actors loved him — a feeling he reciprocated. His signature method was to set a large cast in motion along a very loose storyline and then work to capture moments of inspired spontaneity. When it worked, as in Nashville, it paid off handsomely; when it didn’t, as in Ready to Wear, the viewer was left feeling that the director was more interested in playing with his actors than engaging an audience.
It’s possible to acknowledge Altman’s stature and influence without particularly liking many of his films. His work had a caustic viewpoint that often tipped over into sour misanthropy. I despised Short Cuts not just for the way it made a hash out of Raymond Carver’s short stories, but for the wormy cynicism of the situations, which denied any possibility of humans interacting on any but the most coarse and abusive levels. Other films were simply wasted oportunities: Kansas City neglected its intriguing music background to focus on a dim crime story. And an idea man Altman was not — fashion models stepping in dog poop was his big satiric brainstorm for Ready to Wear.
It’s pretty ironic that his late-period career resuscitation was spurred by The Player, a black comedy about Hollywood’s need for and hatred of screenwriters. Altman may have been beloved by actors, but writers had every reason to dislike him: he was a notorious credit hog, and in films like Beyond Therapy his juvenile approach wrecked a Christopher Durang play that, up until then, I had considered foolproof comedy material.
And yet without Altman it is impossible to imagine a Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Magnolia plays like a humane version of Short Cuts, or the improvisational character comedies directed by Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration), or independent filmmaking itself. Altman is as important for the people he influenced as for the work he finished. That’s no small thing.