I don’t like Robert Altman.
I need to rephrase that.
I’m pretty sure that if I’d ever met Altman we wouldn’t have gotten along.
I wouldn’t have liked him.
He wouldn’t have liked me.
Altman had a lot of good qualities. People who worked for him on his movies, particularly actors, thought highly of him. But he had more than his fair share of flaws and vices and weaknesses. He could be selfish, self-indulgent, petty, vindictive, more often and on a grander scale than the average venial sinner and since he had fame and power what are small vices in others did real harm to anyone who got on his bad side or just on his nerves. He liked to throw his weight around off the set where he had no business throwing it and no excuse. He just liked being a bully sometimes. And his moods weren’t improved by the drugs and the drinking and his company was most enjoyable when you were lit to the same degree and with the same chemicals and liquids as he was. Having had a bad habit of remaining stone cold sober I never learned to find drunks and the otherwise intoxicated amusing, loveable, or charming. I’m a prig and a prude and Altman wasn’t and I just don’t believe he’d have excused my vices any more than I’d have excused his.
I don’t think I’d have liked Charles Dickens either and I know I’d have disliked Edward Hopper. But my “relationships” with the two of them and with Altman are purely imaginary and based on nothing but what I’ve been told about them. The real men that they were are really complete strangers to me and I might as well pick up a phone book from some city I’ve never visited, open it to any random page, close my eyes and stab my finger at a name, and declare that I don’t like you, So and so.
All I really know about them is the art they produced and my only connection to them is through their books and paintings and films. Altman was a great director and some of his movies are as important to me as some of Dickens’ novels and I can watch certain scenes from M*A*S*H and Nashville as often as I can look at Summer Evening and Chop Suey.
This mix of imaginary dislike and very real admiration is probably why I’m getting such a kick out of reading Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff.
And naturally reading about him---reading what his friends and family and enemies and colleagues thought about him and remember about living and working and fighting with him---has made me want to go back and watch his movies.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
Then I’m going to write about them.
What I’d like is if you’d do it too.
I’m reviving Mannion Night at the Movies, which you may remember from last summer as Wednesday Night at the Movies at the late lamented arts blog newcritics.
Here’s the plan, Stan.
I’m going to host a series of online discussions of five or six of Altman’s movies starting Thursday, January 7, 2010.
I haven’t decided what the program’s going to be, except that I know I’ll be leading off with California Split and following that up with Thieves Like Us, only because the first may be his best---or at any rate his most Altmanesque movie after Nashville---and the second one of the only one of his films I’ve never seen.
I also know that I won’t be including M*A*S*H because it means too much to me and I’ve seen it a thousand times, and McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye are out because I’m saving them for other things---a series on Westerns and a series on detective movies or just on movies based on Raymond Chandler novels.
So I’m looking for suggestions for the other three or four films. Let me know either in the comments or by email what you’d like to include.
So what? I’ll show you so what! Former TIME magazine film critic Richard Schickel doesn’t like Altman the man either. Unlike me, he might have met the guy a few times, so his feelings may have some basis in reality. Unlike me, though, he doesn’t separate his opinions about the artist from his opinions about the art and sees Altman’s personal vices showing up in his movies as weaknesses in his films. At least that’s how it comes across in Schickel’s review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography for the LA Times.
Bob Westal lays out the reasons Schickel is all wet and links to defenses of Altman as human being and as filmmaker in How many Schickels is an Altman worth?