(BY HAL CROWTHER) Nashville, by any reckoning one of the landmark achievements in American film, has been described as Robert Altman’s “birthday card” to America on the two hundredth anniversary of our Revolution. As celebratory gifts go, Nashville was an exploding cigar. Viewing the film thirty years later, a younger audience might need to be reminded that it was made during the Watergate scandal and the fall of Saigon, when the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers were still fresh wounds. America was not feeling good about itself, Americans were not feeling good about each other, and acerbic, politically astute artists like Robert Altman were in a very bad mood, indeed.

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 Kansas City. His classic McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the Euripidean tragedy of an entry-level frontier entrepreneur, is made from the same stuff–love and anguish–that Arthur Miller put into Death of a Salesman.

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 CutsNashville reset in LA on meaner drugs—is a tapestry with a higher thread count than many film critics could negotiate.Movies that engaged and satisfied the mainstream audience of the 70s—Altman’s audience—are art films, even elitist niche films, today. “Adult films” used to mean films for adults; now it means porn, and that’s all it means.

In America the age of the auteur is over. Stanley Kubrick is dead, Woody Allen’s still working but hard to find. For A-list film directors, the choices are bitter ones: service the kiddies, shoot action techno-schlock, or sell the château in Bel-Air and go back to Sundance. The last director who makes money with films of his own choosing and device is Clint Eastwood, an iconic movie star with a surprising ability and a nice touch around the cameras. But if you designate the Truth as the bull, Eastwood is a picador and Altman was a matador, a Manolete whose sword rarely missed a clean kill. Altman was the enemy of conventional wisdom and safe assumptions. None of his truths were comforting. He knew that human behavior was often scarier than we can bear to watch or acknowledge, but his compulsion was to show us anyway.

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)

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