(BY HAL CROWTHER)
It was Altman who taught us how to turn “tough love” for your country into art. His final film, A Prairie Home Compagnion, which returns Nashville‘s Lily Tomlin to center stage, is a dark-edged but nostalgic, even sentimental American portrait that shows us where Altman’s heart is—in a place not so distant from the heart of Prairie progenitor Garrison Keillor. In 2006, George Bush and geopolitics have made anti-Americanism almost mandatory for foreigners. But it’s not so easy for us natives. Robert Altman was from
McCabe is as somber as Nashville is exuberant, the flip side of a tortured patriot whose love for his homeland was unrequited. And don’t forget that the most appalling character in Nashville, among all those screwballs and frauds and predators, is a Brit. The BBC correspondent played by Geraldin Chaplin is such a savage caricature that it’s hard to believe Altman wasn’t working from a live model.
Archaic as it may seem today, Altman’s sympathy for the underdog, for the trapped and the marginal and the unaware, was seductive to what Hollywood considered the “youth” marked in the 70s. The success of M*A*S*H established Atlman, already forty-five, as a hip filmmaker who could deliver the psychedelic audience along with disillusioned veterans and opponents of the war in Vietnam. Between 1970 and 1975, with McCabe, California Split, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and ultimately Nashville, Altman redefined the “Hollywood” movie and became a reluctant guru for an alienated generation that was not his own. What he offered us was more corrosive than satire, more cathartic. Vintage Altman was a harsh laugh with a cringe attached.
“I’m trying to present something to an audience where they have to work a little bit,” he said, defending his overlapping dialogue and chaotic soundtracks. “They have to invest something. You don’t hear everything somebody says in real life, do you? That’s the illusion I want. It’s a way to get the audience involved and participating in the thing.” He can be a challenge.
In a flawed picture like Quintet, the narrative may elude the most dedicated cinephile. Short Cuts—
A handful of filmmakers are revered as wise men, as sages of the art: Renoir, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, all of whom Altman claimed as his teachers. Many think of Robert Altman as a wise guy, too rude and caustic—too American—to place in such exalted company. But I suspect that time will be very kind to Altman and his fierce, indelicate wisdom.
(Reprinted with permission from author. This article was previously published in Oxford American 56, Summer 2007)