Think back on the first movie you saw in the theatre. (For me it was THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE, in a Nairobi Kenya Drive-In.) Now think to that first movie that made a lasting impact, smacked you upside the head with the wonder and awe that a movie experience could be. (Had to be STAR WARS, which my dad took my brother Achmed and me to when we returned from Kenya. I'll never forget that experience.)
This next one's a little trickier. Try to remember the first time you ever saw a movie with, at least approaching adult eyes. For years I would have said it was DEAD POETS SOCIETY, but looking back on my feelings of the movie at that time, they were clearly rooted in teen pathos. And while I snuck into my fair share of R Rated movies, (PRETTY WOMAN, TOTAL RECALL, and the first R Rated movie I ever saw, COCKTAIL), I think in all fairness I was a kid excited to be glimpsing the adult world, not an adult myself. I had a chance with THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, but unfortunately Jennifer Banks sat next to me and I distinctly recall spending most of the film trying to trick her into holding hands.
Maybe in '88-'90 I was just too young to appreciate movies on an adult level. I realize now my first taste of sophisticated analysis, beginning to comprehend films on more than one level came in 1992. Jason Snook and I were in Portland, and went to an “Art” theatre to see THE PLAYER.
Not having the Hyperion Chronicles to guide my paths (like you lucky stiffs), I had no idea who the director was. I probably couldn't have named five living directors then. But what I had just witnessed in that scuzzy theatre (where it seemed like every other guy was there to make out with his gay lover, which trust me, was a big deal in 1992), was my first Robert Altman movie.
Now? Robert Altman is a god to me. There's really no other way to put it.
Robert Altman makes truly “Adult” movies. Not “Adult” in the Roger Corman late night Skinamax sense, or even along the line of Tarantino, where clearly kids are not welcome. There are sometimes sex and violence in a Robert Altman film, but they are hardly the point. There is sometimes language too. Actually, Altman loves to throw in a few F words just to ensure an R rating. That's because he is only interested in Adults. Robert Altman makes (sorry, made; that's going to be hard to get used to) Adult movies, the kind of movie you need an education to experience, not an education from school, but one that only life can bring.
I think back now on THE PLAYER, and how heady the whole experience was. There was this opening tracking shot over the credits, an 8 minute shot where the camera never cuts once. (I later learned Altman was paying homage to Welles's A TOUCH OF EVIL.) I was mesmerized, and when I wrote my first screenplay, made sure the opening took place in a tracking shot. THE PLAYER was an inside Hollywood movie, featuring a movie within a movie within a movie. I think as a 16 year old I wasn't capable of “getting” most of it, but I knew just enough to know there was a whole world there.
Actually, no one “gets” an Altman movie in the first pass. This is because of one of Altman's signature styles. He has so much going on in every movie that it is impossible to hit every mark, glean every grace note the first time through. Altman is famous for filming multiple dialogue streams at the same time, in the foreground, in the background, all over. You catch as much as you can, but there's always more when you return.
I think for me one of the most inspiring things is that Altman never makes (sorry, made) the same movie twice. He was forever saying his favorite film was the one he was making right then. Altman would try anything.
And it didn't always work, but Altman was so fascinating that sometimes it was more fun to watch his failures than other people's successful movies.
One such example was Prêt à Porter, or READY TO WEAR. The film, sort of a half-biopic/half-satire of the Fashion Industry features the trademark gargantuan Altman cast, and dozens of plot threads. In this case, he can't really pull all the threads together to make a shiny bow, but to mix metaphors, it's sure interesting to see him try to juggle all those shiny balls at once.
I read that Altman owned Hollywood in the '70s, making hugely successful films before getting burnt out and going his own path. I'm sure that's true, although by now the '70s movies are relics themselves, and so for a modern fan Altman always seems an outsider. He wasn't interested in making “commercial” films, dumbing down to the lowest common denominator, test marketing, and making sure every star was photogenic and got enough screen time and a happy ending.
He just made the movies he wanted to make.
Recommending Robert Altman to someone is a precarious thing. Like other maverick film directors he can be an acquired taste, and movie goers used to the next explosion of tits or guns might be a bit flummoxed as to what's going on. One great example was GOSFORD PARK, a movie where a murder occurs in a rich manor house one weekend, but the murder mystery is totally irrelevant. (Altman liked to say it wasn't a “Who-dun-it,” but a “Who-Cares-Who-Dun-it.”)
Nonetheless, serious movie fans ought to give Altman a shot. He's the kind of filmmaker whose movies stick with you, and improve with age. I won't say I enjoy every single one of them, but those he got right are among my favorites, and my first time watching them among my favorite memories.
Five Essential Robert Altman Movies to start you on your path
Long before there was a TV show, there was the iconic movie, one of the greatest dark comedies of all time. Somehow seamlessly blending slapstick and psychological horror at the same time, M*A*S*H the movie paved way for the most successful TV crossover ever, and one of the top 4 sitcoms ever made.
A movie so good that I don't think the first time through you even realize what a masterpiece you've watched. Some have called NASHVILLE the definitive American Movie, and there's an argument for that. The film takes place in and around the country music scene in Nashville during a time of political upheaval, but like all Altman films it is so much more than this. (I promise to write a column one day comparing NASHVILLE to the other great music movie of that time period, ALMOST FAMOUS.)
Everything you need to know about Hollywood can be explained in the following anecdote: in the film someone pitches an idea for a ridiculous movie called Habeas Corpus, about a falsely accused woman about to get the gas chamber. After THE PLAYER came out, some Hollywood studio tried to get Habeas Corpus made into a movie.
Altman takes 9 Raymond Carver short stories and interweaves them together in an utter masterpiece of storytelling. A movie so perfectly made it's hard to fathom, and never comes close to feeling like three hours. I once watched SHORT CUTS three times in a row and saw different movies each time.
If only to see every Brit of worth still alive in the world circa 2001. This comedy of manners is perfectly cast and acted, right down to the servants never wearing any make up.