November 22, 2006

The Short Goodbye

For me, the saddest thing about Robert Altman's death--or "retirement," as he would probably prefer it be known--is that there'll be no more Robert Altman movies in the figurative sense: as influential as his sprawling ensemble pieces proved, his work is so resistant to codification as to be inimitable.

This isn't a eulogy (I don't feel entitled to write one, it seems too possessive somehow), but an invitation to share your thoughts on his body of work, his legend, his je ne sais quois. I also urge you to check out the lovely obituary Keith Uhlich wrote for THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR, which includes links to a plethora of tributes to Altman's legend.


James Allen said...

One thing I notice when looking at Altman's filmography is that he wasn't some brooding genius who took years and years to cultivate a film; nope, he liked to work (hardly surprising given he cut his teeth on series like Bonanza and Combat!). So along with his obvious classics like M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, California Split, and The Long Goodbye, we have some of my favorite hidden gems like Popeye (critically battered at the time, but a film I like quite a bit, in addition to admiring how Altman successfully reigned in Robin Williams to give one of the better performances of his career), Streamers, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and the HBO series Tanner 88. That's only scratching the surface because there's a big chunk of his filmography I've never seen!

I'm disappointed I didn't like his last film (A Prarie Home Companion) more than I did, but I wouldn't be so harsh as to call it a failure (I have to give him credit for making Lindsey Lohan not be annoying).

As far as "what it is" about Altman, you pretty much hit it, Bill, ("[H]is work is so resistant to codification as to be inimitable.") There is no "typical" Altman-film, really, but his influence is obvious. Heck of a thing to say about him, isn't it?

Keith Uhlich said...

Thank you, Bill. In "retirement" (terrific description), I can only hope Altman finds a measure of peace and contentment that I gather eluded him in life. What was so great about him was that none of those negative things seemed to affect him. Michael Atkinson wrote (derogatorily) that Altman "would rather make any movie than no movie at all", but I'd like to claim that as a positive. His work (whatever its ultimate quality) always bore a complex, personal stamp, and there was always more to come. Amidst all the filmmakers bitching about cash, financing, stars, etc, Altman just kept working because that was most important (money be damned - I think it was Cassavetes who said, to some effect, that you don't go into filmmaking to keep your shirt, but to lose it). Put simply, despite the bullshit, Altman found the means somehow... and I now wish him a well-deserved rest and respite.

Alex Jackson said...

I haven't been very much an Altman fan, but when I heard he died I felt both surprised and saddened. My love for Short Cuts and Gosford Park carried me a ways I guess.

tmhoover said...

The news of his "retirement" made me feel very strange- I had gotten used to Altman just simply being there, always with a new movie to encourage the howling of the critical mob and let people know that Robert Altman wasn't going down without a fight. Now that he's gone, some of the retroactive praise is getting to be a bit much considering how critically unpopular much of his recent (and not-so-recent) work has been. It's going to be some time before we can put his work in perspective, beyond what people have claimed for it pro AND con.

Bill C said...

Yeah, that part really saddens me: Altman was like the only constant in the universe. He's also the only filmmaker who could churn out a stream of clunkers and still create anticipation for his next one. I'm glad I was alive for his phoenix-like resurrection circa The Player, because I was at that age where it was the perfect gateway drug to his oeuvre.

My vote for Altman's most underrated film: Kansas City. Often heard but Seldom Seen.

Bill C said...

And then we have the most embarrassing tribute to Altman, courtesy of Lindsay Lohan; kids, stay in school:

I would like to send my condolences out to Catherine Altman, Robert Altmans [sic] wife, as well as all of his immediate family, close friends, co-workers, and all of his inner circle.

I feel as if I've just had the wind knocked out of me and my heart aches.

If not only my heart but the heart of Mr. Altman's wife and family and many fellow actors/artists that admire him for his work and love him for making people laugh whenever and however he could..

Robert altman [sic] made dreams possible for many independent aspiring filmmakers, as well as creating roles for countless actors.

I am lucky enough to of [sic] been able to work with Robert Altman amongst the other greats on a film that I can genuinely say created a turning point in my career.

I learned so much from Altman and he was the closest thing to my father and grandfather that I really do believe I've had in several years.

The point is, he made a difference.

He left us with a legend that all of us have the ability to do. [sic--or just plain ol' what the fuck?]

So every day when you wake up. [yes?]

Look in the mirror and thank god [sic] for every second you have and cherish all moments.

The fighting, the anger, the drama is tedious.

Please just take each moment day by day and consider yourself lucky to breathe and feel at all and smile. Be thankful.

Life comes once [huh?], doesn't 'keep coming back' [what the...?] and we all take such advantage of what we have. [indeed you do]

When we shouldn't..... ' [sic]

Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourselves' (12st book) [the fuck?] -everytime [sic] there's a triumph in the world a million souls hafta be trampled on.-altman Its true. But treasure each triumph as they come. [monkey baby happy time cowboy]

If I can do anything for those who are in a very hard time right now, as I'm one of them with hearing this news, please take advantage of the fact that I'm just a phone call away.

God Bless, peace and love always.

Thank You,


Lindsay Lohan

Anonymous said...

Tsk BC.Lohan bashing? This will be an unpopular opinion--but, can we cut Ms. Lohan a break? Unless you're going to 'sic' all the grammatical travesties offered daily on this very blog--we're most definitely in glass house territory. Why not pick on someone original, like Chloe Sevigny? ; )

Ahem...sorry, Anyhew...Altman. My first experience was "Popeye" which I saw before I knew Altman from Adam. It may have been one of the first films which inspired a complex critical reaction in my young self. Accustomed as I was to light sabres and jawas--I found it much too slow and prone to icky musical numbers. However, the bizarre art direction has always stayed with me, that was one seriously great little village that Altman built. My folks introduced me to "Nashville" and "McCabe" later on, and they remain two of my most beloved. I still remember my undergraduate rage when "Nashville" was screened for my Intro to Film class, and the majority walked out! I guess sometimes either you hear the music or you don't. Still haven't seen: Brewster McCloud or Quintet. Pret a Porter demonstrated just how godawful the great ones can be. "Come Back to the 5 and Dime..." and "Kansas City" are his most underrated--and by jove, "The Gingerbread Man" isn't nearly as bad as it's reputation suggests.
"A Prairie Home Companion" was certainly not among his best--but it was a great one to go out on. Watching it again a few weeks ago, it just feels right--like sharing a couple more drinks and another song with an old friend.

Bill C said...

Ah, but Dave, Lohan's letter wasn't a blog comment, was it? It was a press release, intended for distribution and publication. Don't you think a little proofreading was in order? And what about that ugly little dada haiku ("The fighting, the anger, the drama is tedious") that has fuck-all to do with Altman and everything to do with her Laguna Beach persecution complex? It's the most squirm-inducing eulogy since Mary Richards bid goodbye to Chuckles the Clown.

Bill C said...

This, on the other hand: all I can say is, viva Ed.

jer fairall said...

The Player was one of my big gateway drugs, too, and though I did soon get around to revisiting the classics (though not all of them; Three Women, California Split, Brewster McCloud and the seemingly-unavailable-forever-until-DVD The Long Goodbye are all currently sitting in my rental queue), it remains *the* Altman film, for me. The fourteen-year-old me sat amazed, puzzled and delighted in front of it. Most of you knew his work better than I did, and are more qualified to offer detailed eulogies, but as with Adrienne Shelly and Trust, losing Altman is losing a crucial, formative part of my experience as a film fan.

The idea of no more new Robert Altman films just seems...strange and wrong.

The Captain said...

Why can't Lindsay Lohan die instead?

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Peeved to see The Fountain. It really was going to be either zero or four.

One lil' pointer: Shanti is a word of Sanskrit origin, the mother of all indo-european i.e. Aryan languages. Hindi is just a corrupt version of Sanskrit and Shanti is one of the words it inherits as-is. Don't mean to be a prick about it, just wanted to let you know. It being a Sanskrit word has implications since both Spanish and English belong to this language family.

Stephen Reese said...

Hey Bill (and friends).

Thanks for the Short Goodbye. Me, I felt possessive and entitled. My attempt at a eulogy is here:

Walter_Chaw said...

H-Man -

Thanks for the correction - that's interesting about the Sanskrit, for sure.

My first Altman? Popeye in the theater. Didn't understand a word of it.

Programming a short Altman series in March featuring 3 Women, Long Goodbye, and Popeye.

Rough couple of weeks.


Jefferson said...

The "searching and fearless moral inventory" comes from the 12-step programs for addiction, hence Ms. Lohan's strange abbreviation. Hey, at least she's read that far.

As a Raymond Carver fan, my best memory of Altman is how well he brought all that writer's strangled romanticism and bleeding-from-the-page human agony to the screen in Short Cuts. He may have been the only director who could've done it, and he bookended it with two uniquely Californian emblems of Armageddon: malathion and earthquakes. As if to say, No wonder these people are so fucked up.

Jack_Sommersby said...

As terrible and just plain asinine as it is, I still have a semi-affectation for Altman's little-seen post-apocalptic sci-fi puzzler Quintet. Sitting through the thing all the way is a chore, but I find myself re-watching it every year or so because it's the kind of fascinating mess only a talented director can make. Unfortunately, it's only available right now on DVD as part of a 4-disc package, otherwise it'd be a part of my collection. So I'm stuck with the VHS until it goes on sale individually. For those who haven't seen it, give it a look-see for the hell of it -- you could do worse.

Bill C said...

Jefferson: That sure makes more sense than "twelvest."

Jack: Agreed; Quintet is boring, inscrutable, and unforgettable.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I really dug Quintet even though I couldn't figure out why Altman would've wanted to make it. And yes my feelings are same as yout two.

The only Altman that I really don't like is Vincent & Theo. Before it, I couldn't imagine an Altman film with absolutely no humor at all. (Haven't seen the Dr.T one)

The under-rated one would have to be Buffalo Bill. It wasn't as thematically solid as his others, quite like The Player, but he just had the Midas touch in the 70s.

Anonymous said...

Having just been seduced by Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I have a question for all: best romance movies?

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I don't like the Linklater films. Too talky. I hate it when actors have perfect conversations, maybe it is my lack of wits, but I never seem to have those.

I dunno about my favorite of all time, but in last few years, the name that pop-up are All the real girls, Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind, Punch-drunk love.

Alex Jackson said...

Yeah, Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind, Punch-drunk love.

Leaving Las Vegas. Benny and Joon is a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Seattle Jeff said...

Just enjoyed "Reds" last night (Will we be gettting a "Reds" DVD review?) Beatty, Nicholson, and Diane Keaton are super.

Insteresting sidenote, Beatty doesn't like special features or commentaries for DVD. He only begrudgingly did an interview for the "Reds" disc. His position seems to be that the work should just stand for itself.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Benny and June got lame at the end, but classic Depp.

theoldboy said...

The more I think about it, the more I like The Fountain. The elements that are initially silly and bewildering are actually among the most interesting. The space bubble, thought to be the silliest element, alone makes me ask at least twenty different and interesting questions about space travel and immortality.

Bill C said...

Anybody catch Roeper's review of The Fountain last night? He made Steve Rhodes look like Einstein.

I may return with a quick contest later today.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen "The Fountain" yet--nonetheless, I'm inclined not to value such "Worst of the Year" pronouncements from someone who included "Spanglish" on his annual "Best Of" List. Roeper's book: "Signs A Movie Character is Doomed" must be one of the worst "film" books ever published. His 'review' was jaw-dropping mostly for his oft-repeated admission that he didn't understand the film, which (of course) by definition, means that it is a "bad" film. Bleeech.

Alex Jackson said...

While on the subject, anybody catch Harold Ramis last week?

Meaning to say, most celebs who guest on "Ebert and Roeper" are nice guys who struggle to say anything bad about anything. Ramis in contrast was actually, uh, critical. He showed that he had standards and when he saw a film that fell short of them like A Good Year he tore it to pieces. Plus, he seemed to really know his shit about movies; one of his video recommendations wasn't even out on DVD. I mean, wow. They should have given him Roeper's job. You can guarantee we aren't ever going to see him again.

Bill C said...

I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I was so disappointed to see Ramis review For Your Consideration, which he admitted to loving unconditionally because he's friends with everybody in the movie--it seems to be the only thing Monday morning quarterbacks (like The Onion A.V. Club) remember about his appearance. Ramis casually demolished Roeper in a way that was refreshing: by demonstrating a frame of reference that went beyond "I Love the '80s". My favourite part was when Roeper said there's never been a good Beethoven movie, and Ramis said, "Well, there was one by Abel Gance," then went on to explain to Roeper who Abel Gance was, knowing full well this assclown would embarrass himself trying to bluff.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Speaking of Ramis, Groundhog Day is on my top 10 of the 90s and one of my topd 10 comedies ever. I believe Roeper would classify it as an "existential" comedy. I saw the show last night, and before it I couldn't imagine that anyone could make A.O. Scott look smart and relatable. I was definetly proven wrong. Me and my buddy had stake a bet during the commercial, I said it was going to be two thumbs down and he thought Scott was going to give it a thumbs up. He lost because he wasn't aware of the work of these two giant turd sandwiches.

tmhoover said...

Never did get what was supposed to be so great about Groundhog Day. I thought it quite unfunny and ugly to look at, with the worst of it being that it proposed the redemption of Bill Murray. Everybody knows that the whole point of Bill Murray is that he's beyond redemption- and I resented the assertion that he needed his Jimmy Stewart moment.

Patrick Pricken said...

One lil' pointer: Shanti is a word of Sanskrit origin, the mother of all indo-european i.e. Aryan languages. Hindi is just a corrupt version of Sanskrit and Shanti is one of the words it inherits as-is. Don't mean to be a prick about it, just wanted to let you know. It being a Sanskrit word has implications since both Spanish and English belong to this language family.

As far as I recall, Sanskrit is a kitchen-sink language (meaning, an artificial mixture of spoken dialects) derived from Vedic, an old oral language, somewhen around 500 BC. Greek would have been around, then. Furthermore, while Hindi has a lot of loan words from Sanskrit (as a way of differentiating itself from the more arabic Urdu), it is not in itself derived from Sanskrit, but rather from a regional dialect influenced by islamic rulers.

But then, I may be remembering wrong.

Alex Jackson said...

Travis' great review of the Fountainhead, got me looking through Youtube for Ayn Rand's notorious 1980 interview on Phil Donahue.

It's there, in five parts!

Early highlights include Rand identifying Charlie's Angels as the only television show that embodies her ideal of art, and her ranting against using government funding to support retards. The physically handicapped she might be able to excuse, but she draws the line at retards.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

As far as I recall, Sanskrit is a kitchen-sink language (meaning, an artificial mixture of spoken dialects) derived from Vedic, an old oral language, somewhen around 500 BC. Greek would have been around, then. Furthermore, while Hindi has a lot of loan words from Sanskrit (as a way of differentiating itself from the more arabic Urdu), it is not in itself derived from Sanskrit, but rather from a regional dialect influenced by islamic rulers.

But then, I may be remembering wrong.

Yes Mr. Pricken, You are. In fact your opinion comes from a very limited knowledge the europeans have had of Saskrit, whose origins date back to almost several thousand years in BC which is how far back the eraliest verses of vedas have been dated. It, like the dynamic Hindu spirit, had morphed and adapted with changing times (spanning several thousands of year!), which is natural for any cultural artifact and doesn't necessarily make it kitchen-sink. It is believed to have been the langage of the Aryans who had originated from Mesopotamia and split to Europe and India. Several post-modernist scholars have quite categorically proven that European lineage with the Greeks was a post-Renaissance cultural construction of peripheral European nations like England who used it to create an unfounded opposition between everything south of Mediterrenean and themselves. Europe pre-Renaissance was in fact on the eastern basin of Mediterrenean and had been the world capitalist center for centuries in which Europeans and Arabs had freely traded. Not that Greeks didn't steal most of theirs from others anyways, much like what the Romans did to them afterwards.

Hindi, a mixture of Prakrit and Apabrahmsha, was the kitchen-sink language, if any, because it was the corrupt version of Sanskrit spoken by the masses for nearly a millenium before Islamic rule was established in India. Also Urdu and Hindi in their popular form are practically the same language, undistinguishable in present context but individually in their scholarly form are as different as chalk and cheese. Hindi had been adopted by the Mughals for the purposes of communication and again owing to its dynamism, it was mixed with Arabic and Farsi influences to form Urdu.

I would know all this because, um, I have spoken and studied these languages all my life. How this has anything to do with the word Shanti which is a Sanskrit word older than most words in linguistics and has been as-is adapted into Hindi, is beyond my comprehension. The only reason I mentioned it earlier was because I found the interest of Europeans in this word quite interesting reflecting on the collective cultural unconcious passed-down over milleniums.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Never did get what was supposed to be so great about Groundhog Day. I thought it quite unfunny and ugly to look at, with the worst of it being that it proposed the redemption of Bill Murray. Everybody knows that the whole point of Bill Murray is that he's beyond redemption- and I resented the assertion that he needed his Jimmy Stewart moment.

Whether it was unfunny, is not a territory I would venture, since "funny" is subjective. But regarding his redemption, I don't think it's a matter of "deserved" really. To me, Bill Murray is stuck in this Eliot-ian zero summer, where there is no budding nor fading, but a constant repetition of the same Ourobors-ian eternal cycle. And he acheives his transcendence only when he reconciles with his destiny and realizes the basic illusion of all other material sources of pleasure. Sisyphus finally gets to push his stone over the edge only when he accepts his fate of being rolled over by it eternally. In a nutshell, he discovers love, the primal source of all creation. By the end, all his acts of good are not for fame or money or lust, they are for the sake of themselves. This film is very eastern in it's philosophy, really. But to really dig this movie, one has to have a Neitzchean "Love of Fate", without it the film would appear ugly. This and "Run Lola Run" are two purely deterministic films that are almost always foolishly classified as existential. People who do so forget that Bill Murray doesn't have the option to die in the film. Above all, the film addresses the only structure that all mythologies and religions are based on, that of birth-death-rebirth.

Patrick Pricken said...

Hollow Man, Stuffed Man: No offense. It's actually what I remember from an East-Asian language seminar I attended at (German) university, and I distinctly remember my professor telling us Sanskrit being a language created to write down orally transmitted Vedes, and refinement of actually spoken dialects (Sanskrit itself being a word from the field of cooking). However, as it's an exotic field at a German university, i.e. this professor's opinions stood fast without reproach, I already allowed for mistakes. So since I either remembered wrong, or the professor was wrong or at least not up to current states in his field of studies, thanks for setting it straight. As far as Hindu/Urdu, though, I knew that :-) But thanks, anyway.

Still, the seminar I speak of was extremely helpful in broadening my horizon, because I hadn't heard of the Vedes before, and now know the four basic ones by name (Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda) :-)

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

You might find it interesting that my last name is Chaturvedi ("Knower of the four vedas"), although I don't know any of them but my ancestors did apparently. I do want to know more about them though since they are such interesting scriptures because when they were finished, at about 1000 BC, it was claimed to have been vedanta ("veda": knowledge + "anta": conclusion), i.e. conclusion of all knowledge. A fascinating statement since the entire thing was discovered supra-intellectualy and and not through reason. And the things that were claimed in them are still more than relevant when it comes to the big questions. For example, on the question of the size of universe, Vedas say that it is greater than infinity and smaller than infinitessimal, it is as it is. Jesus's mustard seed anyone? Or Schroddinger and Einstein? And this was written almost 5000-6000 years ago! Makes you think of the relevance of pursuit of knowledge through reason since it is bound to be confounded to plane of materialistic conciousness. I was reading the Time magazine at my doctor's office with the front page article being God vs. Science and it seemed ironic to me that all the scientists that have really provided major break-throughs in conciousness of science were theists. Newton, Einstein, Riemann, Ramanujan just a few names to begin with. It is really unfortunate to see the faith vs. reason battle degarding to religion vs. science in the current enviornment. Each side closing-up and arrogantly dismissing the other. Maybe it affects me more though because I'm both an engineer and a theist.

Jefferson said...

Holy shit, this is one intellectual motherfuckin movie blog. To think I just logged in looking for a review of Turistas.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...


Ed Wood review is opening up Karate Kids. Just to let you know.

reel2reel said...

Bill, thanks for mentioning Kansas City. I have immense love for many Robert Altman films, but Kansas City holds a special place in my heart.

Why did nobody like this?

My guess is...sometimes, people just don't get it.

I LOVE it. And Altman's death makes me feel all the more alone in this world.

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