My first experience with the films of Robert Altman brought me to tears. It wasn't because I was saddened or felt that I was even witnessing brilliance. It was during the scene in Popeye where he lost Swee'pea. Seeing Robin Williams run around looking for his missing child moved me in a way that I find hard to describe even now.
The fact that I was 8 probably has something to do with it.
It was years later when I was sitting in a "Film As Literature" class in community college that I got reacquainted with Mr. Altman. It was there that I watched The Player and it was one of those experiences where the movie could have been 5 hours and I wouldn't have minded. The way Altman skewered Hollywood would be so deft, that the people he was skewering wouldn't even know that that was what was happening. I was witnessing a master at work who had more film language skills in his pinky than most directors will ever know.
From there I watched Short Cuts, and to this day I can't say I 100% understand it, but I don't know that that was ever the point of a Robert Altman film. I enjoyed it. I loved all the situations the myriad of characters found themselves in and from then on I would always think about him with a certain reverence.
At this point I attended film school, was making my own films on the side, and working part-time to fund these micro-budget projects. I then found M*A*S*H, Nashville, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Again, I could watch these films 100 times but I would never say I fully got my head around them. There was just something about the stories. The way the characters were intertwined, that really made me understand that these movies were important.
There was also the use of overlapping sound. The way Altman seemed to squeeze many things into one track. You had to watch his movies more than once because you always found out new things during each viewing. It seemed effortless but I knew that it wasn't. This just made the director's prolific output that much more impressive.
This isn't to say everything he made was gold (Kansas City, anyone?), but maybe I just didn't get it?
Out of school and working full time, I still made my films and read a book of interviews with Altman. This lead me to Quintet, and I watched a documentary on the filmmaker titled Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country. This was a look at the director as he made Short Cuts, and the title referred to how he was able to pull off his movies. He gives many insights into his films but most importantly, as an artist, he gave me the courage to understand that human beings don't know everything and that it's okay to make films about that. He was constantly searching in his films, exploring the things he didn't know, because if he knew them there would have been no point in making the film.
I have read a bunch of books and depending on who you talk to, Robert Altman was either the greatest director who ever lived or he was a monster. I could list out the pros and cons but he has passed away, and I think it's best to let him be judged however it is he is going to be judged, and maybe for the first time ever, his films will be given that rare chance to speak for themselves.
It seems like in his final years, after Universal tried to embarrass him by claiming that the cut he turned in of The Gingerbread Man wasn't exciting enough, Altman seemed to finally start getting the respect a director of his stature deserved. He still had to work with small budgets but big name actors would cut their salaries for the chance to be in his films. I even had the chance to learn more about the director's oeuvre when I was given The Robert Altman Collection to review. The last movies of his that I saw in the theater were Cookie's Fortune and A Prairie Home Companion. The latter being, I feel, a great swan song that captures everything this director ever brought to the medium of filmmaking.
Robert Altman, I've seen some of your best, I've seen some of your worst, and I can honestly say I feel I am still getting to know you. I am just as excited about going through the movies of yours that I haven't seen as I was when I first met you. Thank you for all the memories you gave and continue to give film lovers everywhere.