Robert Altman was the great cynical humanist of movies. He was less sentimental than Capra, but just as entertaining; less intellectual than Godard, but just as incisive; less show-offy than Spielberg, but just as virtuosic; less forgiving than Renoir, but just as full of life. Full of life, that was Robert Altman—and that’s why it hurts to have to refer to him in the past tense.
How do we know within minutes that we’re watching an Altman film? For a start, there’s his stylistic signature, as recognizable as Hitchcock’s or Ozu’s: the multi-character master shots, the overlapping dialogue tracks, and the ubiquitous zoom lenses. Most zoom-heavy films are damn near unwatchable now—seen The Lion In Winter lately?—but Altman cracked the code by always zooming from one composed set of details to another composed set of details. His close-ups are as packed with information as his long shots. (For a truly beautiful example, check out the long, slow zoom into Lily Tomlin’s face as she watches Keith Carradine on stage in Nashville.)
Beyond the sound and image, there’s Altman’s unique facility with actors. Because of his willingness to let the cast explore their characters fully, an Altman movie always gives you the sense that there’s a full, rich world outside the frame—that each of the characters is at the center of his or her own narrative. Altman brought out colors in actors that other directors never found; think of Eliott Gould’s go-for-broke glee in California Split, or Chris Penn’s wounded-bear sadness in Short Cuts. (Hell, in Dr. T & The Women, Altman made Tara Reid seem like a sparky comedienne with a promising future.) Altman was alive to actors at all times, and they came alive for him.
But you get all of that in even the weakest Altman movie. It’s not what makes him great—or even, on many occasions, good. (Altman’s duds are speckled with bravura performances and memorable moments, but don’t ask me to sit through Health again to find them.) Ironically, for a director who prized improvisation and spontaneity, Altman needed writers. His strongest films—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, The Player, Gosford Park—all started with sturdy screenplays, sometimes based on novels. I was lucky enough to watch Altman shoot his Sundance Channel series Tanner On Tanner, and I asked his longtime associate Wren Arthur how Altman managed to be so loose and flexible on the set. “Because he’s so well prepared,” was her answer. While Altman may not always have admitted it to himself, there’s no preparation like a good script.
What made Robert Altman great is the same quality that sometimes made him exasperating: He never just told the story. For Altman, a story was something that happened to a group of interesting people living in a specific society, and the one was always connected to the other. That’s as true of a mess like Prêt-à-Porter—or a one-of-a-kind folly like Popeye—as it is of Nashville, Altman’s true masterpiece. In Nashville, 24 flawed human beings struggle to find their place not only in the country music industry, but also in a post-Kennedy, post-Watergate America that hungers for heroes it can worship and destroy. Throughout the film, Altman introduces random factors that threaten to spiral the film completely out of control; most notoriously, the actors wrote several key dialogue scenes and dozens of songs. Nashville should be a train wreck, but Altman takes all those random threads, weaves them through writer Joan Tewkesbury’s intricate structure, and uses his gimlet eye and tuning-fork ear to organize them into a startlingly vibrant tapestry. The result feels more like The Great American Novel than most of the literary contenders for that title. Only Citizen Kane, The Searchers, and The Godfather can challenge Nashville‘s title as The Great American Movie—not the best film ever made in America, but the best film ever made about America.
The only thing that doesn’t sadden me about Robert Altman’s death is the thought that it might inspire people to go back and watch his movies again. The man may be in the past tense now, but the movies are here in the present. They’ll be around for the future, too.
Jack Lechner was an executive producer on The Fog Of War and the HBO documentary Left Of The Dial. As a former VP at Miramax and Film Four, he was involved in the production and development of such films as The Crying Game, Good Will Hunting, and The Full Monty. He is the author of Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You and the upcoming Mary Had A Little Lamp.