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A Tribute to Robert Altman

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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We have lost a giant today. One of the greatest of all American filmmakers, Robert Altman, passed away November 20, 2006 at the age of 81.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's much quoted "there are no second acts in American lives" does not apply to Altman. Indeed, he lived through many acts. Born in Kansas City, he attended the Wentworth Military Academy and served in the Air Force. Altman spent years trying to break into the movie business before making his directorial debut in 1957 with quickie "juvenile delinquent" films. He didn't find his way to the cinematic forefront until 15 years later with his massive 1970 hit M*A*S*H when he was already in his 40s. He invented a unique style by embracing chaos and naturalism; he forced his cast into excellence by setting the entire scene in motion and recording all the sound, pulling his camera back and almost randomly zooming in on whatever action he chose.

Throughout the 1970s Altman enjoyed great artistic freedom. Although a follow-up box office smash was elusive, this period yielded such great films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975) and 3 Women (1977).

It's rather ironic that 20th Century Fox released both 3 Women and Star Wars the same year. As the blockbuster system clicked into place, Altman found himself more and more alienated from Hollywood. When his Popeye (1980) failed, he withdrew and concentrated on theater and a series of low-budget movies adapted from plays.

He came back strong in 1992 with The Player and stayed on track ever since, making some of his very best films over the past 12 years on the independent circuit. Some of them, like Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001) caught on, earning acclaim and Oscar nominations. Others, like the superb The Company (2003), sadly did not; it contains one of the most breathtaking sequences in all his work.

I've never interviewed Altman, but I had the pleasure of meeting him once at a special screening of Gosford Park, to which members of the press were invited. He shook my hand and I told him how much I had enjoyed his film, and that was it. He was a pleasant, approachable man, not at all the tyrant that most directors are made out to be. He was vibrant and at the top of his game, while working at the pace of a younger man. It will remain a mystery the treasures we could have enjoyed had he lived a few more years, but what is absolutely certain is that he is irreplaceable.

November 21, 2006


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