Perhaps no American director has been with us, and maintained such an august station in the media forebrain, for as long as Robert Altman. Last year’s Gosford Park was merely his sixth or seventh comeback in more than 50 years of making movies. It’s been a remarkably scattershot career: For all of its ballyhooed trademarks and textural innovations, Altman’s sensibility seems equally prone to silk-smooth sublimity and howling miscarriage. His grotesque lapses in judgment seem to flow from the same water table as his wisdom. Compare the surgeon’s grace inherent in Gosford Park to the soused baboonery of 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter, and you glimpse a restless intelligence plunging into cultural combat without the benefit of superego.
Altman’s belle epoque of semi-consistency was the 1970s, when Hollywood’s new-wavy thaw on formula, cliché, and pap was precisely what the maturing journeyman had been waiting for. (He was a full generation older already than contemporaries Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdanovich, De Palma, et al.) Film Forum’s thorough survey of Altman’s halcyon decade comes complete with warts (chiefly, the 1979 explosion of wrongheadedness represented by H.E.A.L.T.H., Quintet, and A Perfect Couple) and overrated behemoths like M*A*S*H (1970), an unfocused and infantile anti-war farce better remembered than freshly seen, and Nashville (1975), a fabulously detailed dose of Americana-mania constructed from simplistic vignettes. In the last two, the famous Altmanic textures—spontaneous narrative collage, Babel-like aural chaos, superbly evoked offscreen space, focus-challenged compositions, foreground foofaraw—are indelible, but the jokes and caricatures are shockingly cheap.
Instead, hone in on Altman’s less hallowed, and less questionable, masterpieces, all of them Lasik cuts into American mythology, starting with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a seminal, foggy frontier odyssey that looks like it was shot in a muddy 1830 mining town and which has come to occupy its own exclusive subgenre: the neorealist anti-northwestern. One of cinema’s wittiest and savviest deconstructions, The Long Goodbye (1973), transposes Chandler to the ‘Nam era and ends up an anti-noir anthem, with Elliott Gould as a beleaguered, slovenly Marlowe slumming around glitzy ’70s L.A. like an old dog who’s lost his sense of smell. Perhaps the least revered of Altman’s peak movies, Thieves Like Us (1974), California Split (1974), and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) are all ripe for reappreciation.
Thieves, a wide-eyed adaptation of Edward Anderson’s slackjawed-outlaw-lovers novel, captures the Depression-era landscape with dusty fidelity and remains an underseen American New Wave incarnation of nostalgia reflux. The modern-day California Split is even more bitter, tracking Gould and George Segal into a maelstrom of obsessive gambling that climaxes, for better or worse, with a bone-chillingBig Score. Sold as a comedy, the film scans more like American-century Dostoyevsky, with comp cocktails. In many ways, Buffalo Bill caps off Altman’s ’70s project, cynically boiling down his accomplished naturalism into a death march of commodified suffering. This grim parade of mutated history—which focuses almost entirely on the eponymous Wild West show and its heroic depiction of Native American subjugation—barely acknowledges the requirements of dramatic narrative in its disgusted litany of showbiz prevarications. Easily the least entertaining of Altman’s key movies, it’s also his most outraged.