Robert Altman (1925-2006)

Last night the world lost one of the greatest and most creative filmmakers in history. Robert Altman, 81, died in a hospital in Los Angeles of undisclosed causes. Altman, a 5 time Oscar nominee for Best Director and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, was known for ensemble pictures with overlapping subplots and dialogue. Catapulted to fame in the early seventies following the success of the film MASH, which he followed with such hits as Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, all of which earned him Oscar nominations (MASH, Nashville and Gosford Park were also nominated for Best Picture). He was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for “a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike”.

Most people know a lot about the TV show “M*A*S*H” but have never seen and know little about the movie MASH. The film, released in 1970, only has Gary Burghoff (Radar O’Reilly) as the only actor who would reprise his role on the show. The film was a huge success, and surprised many. Most in the industry thought the book on which it was based to be unfilmable, and many directors had turned it down. Altman rose to the challenge, and it became a huge hit, beating rival film Catch-22 and spawning one of the greatest shows in TV history. (As a side note, this film contained the first use of the f-word in mainstream cinema.) Altman always showed his courage in the films he chose, choosing what others would have never risked. One of my personal favorites, Popeye, was torched by critics, and audiences just didn’t get it, but I love it (it also is one of Robin Williams’ best performances). He creates a totally zany, wacky and bizarre town of colorful characters, and somehow makes it believable and realistic, and manages to tell a story amidst the craziness.

Altman’s final challenge was A Prairie Home Companion, released earlier this year, which has been the best film of the year by far. Only Altman (who directed most of the film from a wheelchair, with an alternate director by his side should disaster strike, as required by the insurance company) could create such a wonderful film from the beloved radio show. I would describe its many wonderful moments, but they fall flat without the context of the film. Perhaps that is the most important aspect of Altman’s style, making each moment in the film connected to every other. Altman, however, never really listened to the praise heaped on him, and would probably echo this bit of dialogue from A Prairie Home Companion, which takes place after one elderly character’s peaceful death:

“What if you die someday?”
“I will die.”
“Don’t you want people to remember you?”
“I don’t want them to be told to remember me.”