Robert Altman (1925-2006) had been a writer/director toiling anonymously in the world of television and low-budget film for 20 years before he achieved his first acclaim at the age of 45, with the anti-war satire, M*A*S*H in 1970. Although he never made another film that matched its commercial success, he went on to become one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.
It’s difficult to think of many American directors of his generation whose name has become an adjective (Kubrick and Peckinpah spring to mind), but Altman’s took on that power almost simultaneously with his fame. “Altmanesque” denotes a myriad of trademark stylistic and formal characteristics: the use of overlapping dialogue, facilitated by Altman’s innovations in multi-track recording systems; a penchant for improvisation, multi-strand stories, and loosely constructed narratives that exploded traditional story conventions; an unusual and creative deployment of zooms, loose framing, and long takes that made for a rich, complex mise-en-scene; and a preference for collaborative work with a regular ensemble of actors, who often contributed their own dialogue and ideas to the script.
But “Altmanesque” denotes something larger than the sum of its parts. The director employed these strategies in service of a purpose: to make us see, and more precisely, to make us see differently. Most of his films explore the deeply American predicament of individuals searching for community but who are inevitably in thrall to diversions and entertainments—movies, commercial culture, the spectacle of politics—that render them passive, powerless, and alone. Altman’s films are a reproach to that passivity; they challenge us to rethink our relationship to the very act of watching, forcing us to engage with the images before us. The director was prolific, and his career is studded with hits and misses. But even the least of his efforts contains that powerful inducement to reject the easy, soporific pleasures of mere distraction. His work was a rebuke to mediocrity in all its forms.
The series in progress at The Charles offers the best of the miraculous streak of films that made his reputation in the 1970s, along with a selection of his later work, beginning with The Player, that marked the final, fruitful phase of his long career.
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)
Altman's second exercise in genre revision is a gem that has only lately received its due. The Long Goodbye takes on not only that master of detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, but his greatest creation, Philip Marlowe, famously incarnated in 1946 by the beloved Bogie in The Big Sleep. As played by the counterculture's favorite anti-hero, Elliot Gould, this Marlowe is anything but the tough, savvy gumshoe of noir lore. He's a shambling, clueless mess of a man, and Gould's endearingly maddening portrayal of an impotent shamus infuriated traditionalists, as did the film's ending, altered from the novel on one shocking key point. But as Gould bumbles his way through a glittering, sun-bleached contemporary LA, it becomes apparent that Altman has created a Marlowe more deeply true to the original than his film predecessors. As its relentless camera slowly zooms, tracks and arcs its way around a culture built on quicksand, the film uncovers a rich, unyielding view of Hollywood and the price we pay for being in its thrall.
At the Charles March 30, 7PM; & April 2, 9PM