Robert Altman died after making The Prairie Home Companion. It was his last movie and was about death even if he planned to make yet another movie fighting both his pancreatic cancer and the heart transplant he kept confidential for 10 years.
His swan song was really the masterpiece Gosford Park. In my memories of movie-making it is the epitome of the Altman touch. Every cliche of the who-done-it mystery from the days of Agatha Christie and big, weekend hunting parties in England is brought out in loving detail and wonderful camera work. The servants dress in tails and eat downstairs much as the upstairs family. Alan Bates presides as the perfect butler. The chaos of the downstairs resolves into yet another complex family of another time. The valets and ladies' maids are called by their masters' names and their masters stay in the many rooms called by their color ("Your master is in the green room", says the housekeeper whose life is far more important than her position belies).
The mystery is not a huge mystery. The violence is not so much violence that Altman can't pan over it and leave it behind. The crime becomes the perfect crime but still a crime of human feelings and inter-connected relationships in a complex world. Each cliche is lovingly skewered, distorted, broken or turned into a joke. Only the death of the lord of the manor is left as reality, but he is not mourned; his history exposed and forgotten, the principals are not those a Hercule Poirot would have wanted and the party moves on to the world that had begun with Maggie Smith arriving in a yellow Rolls-Royce exuding British aristocratic haughtiness.
Garrison Keillor thought Prairie Home Companion was about his radio show and Altman said it was about death. Altman envisioned an angel — in a white trench-coat that "even the rain wouldn't dare fall on" — who enters stage center into a circle of white light under a streetlight. Altman's angel of death is white, blond and all mid-Western sweetness. It had been a bad penguin joke on the radio from The Prairie Home Companion that killed her. This angel is mysterious and dead. To Garrison Keeler she only says, "it's not your time, yet."
Robert Altman even fathered some failures, but good director that he was he could say, "All these films, it's like your own children," the Hollywood Reporter reported in its obituary notice. "I love them all, we tend to love our least successful children the most, because they seem to need the most protection, but when they're finished they're finished, they're disconnected for me, that cord is cut, and all I can do is observe them and pray for them and hope that they succeed in happiness."
Instead, I remember the films I have seen and still must see where he gives us all of the story of America and being American and being human and having hope amid chaos. These are the legacies left behind in his films. These were always his answer to the looming Angel of Death that Bergman clothes in black and a scythe and that Altman dressed in a white trench-coat, always a pale woman of beauty.
This man directed his life like his films. They are strong and independent and take the path less traveled. The movies start, as M.A.S.H. did, with dialog here and there under-lying and over-laid. It was a new thing, this dialog that was not always linear but rounded like life where conversations are simultaneous, off on tangents, in opposition and, with Radar, even prophetic and un-noticed, anticipating Henry's thoughts or even making them up for him.
The Altman plots are strong but the characters are so much stronger still, the feelings felt and the thoughts thought. Plot and action are fine and are not forgotten but stories are weaved not by them but around them just as our lives seek lines and fine curves that strangely collide now and again. Altman peoples his films with many characters and their stories often meet now or later, once or more as the world he created rebounds with the trajectories of lives lived quietly and conservatively, or frenetically balanced on the edge. In Short Cuts the life of Los Angeles circles and rumbles with the coming of an earthquake and, even more shattering, the tap of a car on a boy, the beautiful adolescent angst of a teen-aged musician straddling her cello and the many paths of life and death.
A master has died, and although he was nominated time and again for the golden prize he never got it for a film – only receiveving an "honorary Oscar." He did not do what the conservative, toe-the-line directors did to keep peace in the studios. He made his films in the 1970s with 6 hits in 5 years – six "masterly" films starting with 1970's M.A.S.H. with its helicopter sounds almost drowning the sound of war and the little love affairs that we could laugh lustily about while the death swirled around. The surgical chaos is almost controlled by our hero, Hawkeye, and we knew it was a Viet-Nam anti-war contribution from Altman's days in the World War all wrapped up in Korean confusion. (Perhaps it was also "Suicide is Painless" — the M.A.S.H. theme written by son Michael who was then 14 – that helped set the scene in a VietNamic Korea.)
1975's Nashville had numerous stories revolve around country music and the Grand Ole Opry, and meet in a political campaign. Nashville is another of his brilliantly-casted multi-stories with Shelley Duvall in her hippie, skinny, gangly sensuality and more of his often-used crew of consummate professionals — Keith Carradine starting out and Geraldine Chaplin who was born into the movie world. In between were McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a new kind of non-Western look at characters and business in the West and, one of my favorites, Brewster McCloud, a Texas-sized fantasy with another angel and a boy who builds his own wings to fly in the commercial space of the Houston Astrodome.
In 1978's The Wedding he attacked,explained,circled,filmed, described, criticized, chortled at, and perhaps admired the great, American institution of bourgeois marriage. Geraldine Chaplin presides as the wedding consultant who wields the real power over proceedings that must impress the guests and bring honor to the affluent parents. Still, the institution is being dissected, fly-wing by fly-wing, by the master of dissection. Each principal is examined while stories swirl as always in circles and eddies of touching one life to another. Mia Farrow has the greatest joke of the movie and was directed into perfect timing when she recounts (counting) the military school boys she hosted to daddy-dear. Altman uses Lillian Gish, once the most beautiful of young actresses (for D.W. Griffiths), when words were still a long way in the future, presiding over the affair from her bed and dominating it by her untimely death, yet another pale angel.
I don't forget, since it made an impression on me back in '78, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson with Paul Newman of the flowing hair and Geraldine Chaplin as Calamity Jane and the world of the West, our Frontier, the Wild West reduced to a vaudevillian spectacular of financial hassles and bickering actors. Not only is the world a stage but even our myths of America could be turned into theater and Altman did just that.
Altman's sense of place, after the great characterizations, is one of the things I most love about his movies. Never do we not see where we are and feel what it is like to be there. It is not forced down our throat. There is always a sense that there is a there there, unlike Gertrude Stein's view (in reference to Oakland, California) that "there is no there there."
Roger Ebert eulogizes Altman best back in '75 in his Nashville review. I, too, would use it now to categorize the filmography of someone without a place in a category, unless the category is "Altman-esque":
- Women: God, but Altman cares for them while seeing their predicament so clearly. The women in "Nashville" inhabit a world largely unaffected by the feminist revolution, as most women do. They are prized for their talent, for their beauty, for their services in bed, but not once in this movie for themselves. And yet Altman suggests their complexities in ways that movies rarely have done before. The Lily Tomlin character, in particular, forces us to consider her real human needs and impulses as she goes to meet the worthless rock singer (and we remember a luminous scene during which she and her deaf son discussed his swimming class). Part of the movie's method is to establish characters in one context and then place them in another, so that we can see how personality — indeed, basic identity itself — is constant but must sometimes be concealed for the sake of survival or even simple happiness.
By the time of Prairie Home Companion Altman's women — epitomized by Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep and movie daughter — become symbols of 20th century women of strength entering the 21st century.
Peter Travers in Rolling Stone tells us, after a long journalistic relationship with the master, that:
- The last laugh I shared with Altman onstage came when he was discussing A Prairie Home Companion. He said he had upset Garrison Keeler, who thought of the film based on his radio show as a light romp. Altman shook his head and said, 'No it's not, it's a film about death. Virginia Madsen plays an angel who keeps picking people off. By the end of the picture she's practically taken the whole cast with her.' In retrospect, Prairie feels even more like an elegy for a time past that won't come back. But Altman wouldn't go in for eulogies. 'It's just death,' he said, 'nothing to be afraid of.'
Some articles, such as this one, are written after sometimes strong discussions and suggestions by my wife, Patricia Beringer. Our photographs have always carried a dual copyright. Therefore some articles carry the same Beringer-Dratch credit.