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Robert Altman: An Appreciation

At some point in my mid-teens, I started viewing movies differently than I had as a child.  Before that, I enjoyed them strictly for their storytelling value.  As I got older, I started picking what I would watch for other reasons.  One of those criteria that I still utilize to this day was who was cast in a film.  I also started to notice the directors that made the films that I liked and began to follow their careers.

Director/producer/writer Robert Altman was one of those that caught my eye at an early age and at first it was because of the actors he'd use.  Once I had a couple of his films under my cap, I realized that it wasn't just the stories or the cast that drew me into his movies.  It was his ability to see inside the human psyche — the face that we show to the world and the cracks and crevices that make us real. He made those characters real as well.

The first movie of his to catch my attention was Nashville.  Actually, in this case, it wasn't just the actors like Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, and Shelley Duvall that drew me to the film.  A friend of mine at the time was ga-ga over the soundtrack and would play it incessantly.  I'm not much of a country music fan, but something about "Tapedeck In His Tractor" by Ronee Blakely called to me loudly enough that I had to see the movie that it came from.

Nashville was a peek into the music industry, a place that I'd begun to think about as a career destination. That made the movie all the more appealing to me.  But as the plot lines and characters developed and intertwined, it was Altman's slant on the American Dream that ultimately touched me, the ability to be who we want to portray to others and the freedom to be who we actually are.  Maybe it's best explained by Kris Kristofferson in the lyrics for a song that wasn't in the movie but should have been: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." 

Three years and five films later, by itself no mean feat, A Wedding was the next of Robert Altman's work to really snag my attention.  His take on the classic theme of the institution of marriage and the trappings of the ceremonial aspects skewed that American Dream in ways that were humorous and insightful with a few taboos added in for flavoring.  The fissures in the facade of what we show to the public and who we are down deep inside were a bit more subtle in the beginning of this movie.  But once the cracks started showing, all hell broke loose.  Regardless of the role played, no one was who or what you thought that they were by the closing credits.

Skipping to 1982, Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean would become not only my favorite Altman movie, but the one most difficult to watch. Again, it was the cast that had me going to the cinema to see this movie in the first place. Cher was the big draw for me. I'd seen her in both Good Times and Chasity and I remembered being appalled that an esteemed director such as Robert Altman would use her in a serious film. I'm sure that I was not the only one that day to leave the theater stunned by her presence on the silver screen as much as by the tale that he wove.  Despite the familiarity of what I consider his long-running theme of what we show and what we hide behind, Altman continued to bring different nuances his vision.  In the case of Come Back…, his view of exquisitely fragile and shattered pathos in an extremely small town was shocking to me in its first screening.  The performances in the movie were so raw and oozing with pain, that I felt like I was bleeding inside for the characters at the end.

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  • Ray Ellis

    Very moving tribute to a director who was often underappreciated, tink. Kudos to you for writing it.

  • tink

    Ray…glad you liked it. I’m blushing at your high praise…THANKS!!!

  • Pat Evans

    Thank you for posting this appreciation which I was aching to see. Altman was to my mind amongst the greatest directors of recent times and his influences on modern movie-making are indelible. While there were a number of critical duds within his output, I never found any of his films less than interesting, and “Nashville” remains permanently among my own ever-changing top ten, as I see something new with each viewing. I will miss not having the latest Altman film to look forward to.

  • tink

    Thanks for bringing up a very valid point, Pat. One of the most predictable things about an Altman film is that you could find something new at each re-viewing.

  • Lisa McKay

    Congratulations — this article has been chosen as an editor’s pick this week!

  • T. Michael Testi

    Incredible review! Extraordinary man! He is one of those individuals, like Clint Eastwood, who as done so much in so many formats and did it all so well.


  • tink

    Lisa, thanks for bestowing the honor…it’s much appreciated!

  • tink

    T. Michael–you are so right, he is!!

    Thanks for reading and lovely complement!!!