Even at their best, the movies Robert Altman made in the 1970s weren’t conventionally disciplined works of art. Altman was no formalist. He didn’t compose scenes, either on the set or through the lens, so much as capture moments of serendipitous composition. He set his actor loose in a crowd of their co-stars and waited for one or two or more of them to find ways to stand out if only for a second or two and that would be his shot. He composed by disarranging. Somewhere in Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Altman’s described as being like an action painter, which I take to mean that he lets what looks accidental imply the thought and the movement that created it.
If that does describe his method, then it applies to both how he used the camera and how he directed his actors.
The distending drips and wild splatters of images, dialog, emotion that appear on the screen seem spontaneous are the result of careful and controlled choices made before the camera started to roll and corrected and revised in midflow as Altman saw where the paint was pooling and where the canvas was being left imposingly and appropriately blank.
This is Nathaniel Rich reviewing The Oral Biography in the New York Review of Books:
The deepest contradiction with Altman lies in this disparity between the spontaneous, anarchic feel of his films and the rigorous planning that produced them. It's certainly true that he encouraged improvisation on set, and had a genius for seizing on fortuitous accidents…
…he gave his actors little by way of specific advice ("I don't direct my actors") and encouraged them to diverge freely from the script. (Altman's screenwriters, incidentally, are about as fond of him as his producers.) He made his actors feel like equal collaborators in the filmmaking process; in interviews he called them his "artists." Yet many speakers in the biography suggest that this was a pose. "Bob's great facility as a director is he would get the actors to do the things he wanted them to do, but they thought they came up with the idea themselves," says the producer of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. "He made actors believe that they were doing something for him that they couldn't do anywhere else," says the writer Buck Henry. "I'm not sure that was true—but the belief was true. An Altman set was different because everyone felt they were collaborating—of course they weren't."…
Altman's use of sound was even more dexterous. He refused to redo dialogue in the studio, preferring live sound, even when actors muffed their lines; he made obsessive use of ambient noise; he had every actor wear a personal microphone so that he could, in editing, modulate the levels of each individual voice; he even invented the first eight-track sound mixer: "I wanted to force the audience into a situation where...they wouldn't necessarily hear everything that was said." The experience of watching his films is not unlike being in a crowded bar, when your ear catches the most salient phrases while ignoring the rest. But if you pay attention you can always tell when Altman is turning his knobs, selecting which voice should dominate and which should fade out. Though the effect seems naturalistic, it is the result of artful contrivance.
An approach like that can look lazy, if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
It can get lazy.
You can look at the movies made after Nashville and find evidence that Altman had suddenly stopped trying. The techniques are the same, but the control isn’t there or it lapses. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding, and Popeye contain moments and whole scenes as brilliant and exciting as any in his earlier masterpieces but they come across as more accidental.
And O.C. and Stiggs , A Perfect Couple, and HealtH come across as accidents---as in car wrecks.
Something else was going on behind the camera too.
By all accounts, working on an Altman film was a whole lot of fun. If you take the backstage scenes in Buffalo Bill in the Indians as self-portraiture, with Altman having divided himself into the grand mountebank of Paul Newman’s Bill Cody and the savvy, practical, manipulative producer-genius of Joel Grey’s Nate Salisbury, then life on an Altman set must have been a happy mix of partying and work, with the work often indistinguishable from the play except in its being even more fun.
But it may have been that the party became the point. Again, you can watch these movies and find reasons to suspect that the movies had become an excuse to throw a party. The actors are obviously having fun, but with each other and for each other, and they’re not bothering to let the audience in on the joke. Some scenes appear to have been put on the screen because something had to be filmed that day to justify continuing the party.
Given Altman’s energy and his work habits it’s unlikely that if you were on the set you ever saw him do this, but there are moments where you can sense him mentally sitting back in his chair with his arms folded, just relaxing and enjoying the sight of his friends having a good time.
Here’s Robin Williams talking about Altman and the drugs and drinking and the fights and love affairs on the set of Popeye:
Bob was the ringmaster. I think he was of watching it, setting it up, kind of taking delight in watching. I think it was the idea of putting together a three-ring circus as a movie.
What this means, if true, is that Altman had lost interest in the artistic effect of what he was putting on film, or at least wasn’t concentrating on it, and he wasn’t worrying about the audience and what they would see and how they would like it. In a way, actually, he had an audience of one, himself, and he was a little too easily amused.
And there’s a damning quote from Altman himself in Zukoff’s book:
It’s hard to talk about the audience because I don’t really think of the audience that much. I really don’t. I think they have a responsibility to pay attention and appreciate what I do. It’s like all the Campbell soup cans---that’s the multitude. They’re all the same they’re stamped and turned out. On inspection, one is defined by the one next to it.
Plenty of artists have felt this way, but painters and composers and writers and musicians don’t need someone to give them million of dollars in order to begin their next piece of work.
Movie directors do and they get it from people who get their money from audiences who hand it over with the expectation that it will buy them a good time at the movies provided by a director who’d made it his job to provide it.
If what went wrong for Altman in the late 70s was a loss of control, of technique, of his actors, and of self along with a creeping disdain for his audience, then you could argue that the many plays he directed in the 80s for the stage and for film, would have been the perfect cure. You can’t forget your audience in a theater. You can’t let your actors wander about a stage willy nilly because the audience won’t know where to look and there’s no camera to do the looking for them. You have to adhere to the script because that’s all the audience have to tell them what’s happening and what characters thirty or more feet away are thinking.
And now when you look at the movies Altman made in the 90s and the early 2000s, like Vincent and Theo, The Player, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park, you can see that Altman was exercising greater control than ever before and not only that but enjoying the freedom that comes from having limited oneself, and from that argue that he had learned lessons from directing those plays and operas or at any rate re-taught himself lessons he’d learned back when earning his reputation as one of television’s best directors for his work on Combat and Bonanza.
I haven’t come across anything in The Oral Biography that suggests that Altman thought of the 80s a learning or re-learning experience. I can’t find anything that suggests he thought he needed to learn or re-learn anything. He took on the jobs in order to keep working and he needed to work. It wasn’t like Wordsworth consciously deciding to write nothing but sonnets for a while in order to get back to basics. People had stopped giving him millions of dollars to make movies.
Still, it is the case that when directing a play Altman was more constrained by the script than he had ever allowed himself to be in the 70s, and when he was given the chance to direct big-budget, big cast movies again he didn’t shake off that restraint. His style became more conventional or at least more conventionally bound, but Nathaniel Rich thinks that these late-career movies had new virtues the old masterpieces lacked.
Altman in his last decade was no longer the same filmmaker who gave a boy mechanical bird wings or staged the political assassination of a country-and-western singer or cast a shirking, mumbling Elliott Gould in the role of Philip Marlowe. But some of his late films demonstrate a depth of emotion that surpasses his earlier films, which often ended with his characters numbed by trauma or blissfully immune to it. There is nothing in those films like the scene in Short Cuts where a wife learns that her husband, unwilling to leave a fishing trip prematurely, waited three days before reporting his discovery of a woman's corpse in a river; or the final twenty minutes of Gosford Park, in which the lives of aristocrats and their servants, cooped up together for four days in 1932 at an English manor, converge in a powerful emotional crescendo. Altman the gambler may have lowered his bets, but he never left the table.
So that’s where we’ll start tonight, with the development of those new virtues in two of the plays Altman turned into movies, Streamers and Secret Honor.
A fascinating distillation of Altman's style can be seen in Secret Honor, his 1984 adaptation of a one-man play about Richard Nixon. Altman, in severe financial difficulty at the time, had accepted a film professorship at the University of Michigan. Down to a cast of one, and forced to finance the film out of his own pocket, he transformed a college dormitory into Nixon's study and shot the film in seven days, with graduate students serving as his crew, and a score performed by the student orchestra. Philip Baker Hall's Nixon is an astonishing portrait of paranoia and bravado, qualities enhanced by Hall's unusual recitation of the script. He digresses, trails off in the middle of sentences, interrupts himself, talks about two different subjects almost simultaneously; he manages, in other words, to recreate the effects of Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue—as a monologue.
Stop the tape here, Roberto, and rewind it to where I talk about Popeye. We’ll pick it up there next week: Thanks to Phil and Chris and GregM for carrying on the discussion. Comment threads on these posts remain open. Please add your thoughts.
Don’t forget! Next week we’re wrapping things up with a live-blogging of Popeye. Mark your calendar. We’ll be starting earlier, at 9:15 PM Eastern, Thursday, March 18, then update your Netflix queue, visit your local library, or buy the DVD now.
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