"Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes."
- Robert Altman (1925-2006)
- Robert Altman (1925-2006)
Writing about A Prairie Home Companion earlier this year, I predicted that Robert Altman would live for two hundred years. Sadly, that has not proven to be the case; Altman died Monday night at the age of 81 (probable cause: honorary Oscar). As with the death of any beloved figure who reaches an advanced age after a life well lived, we cry not so much for the director as for ourselves. Altman frequently complained about biographies written during his lifetime, as he felt he still had his best work ahead of him. But it's a bitter feeling to realize that now we can refer to the complete works of Robert Altman.
Altman struggled with the meaning of life within a finite timespan throughout his career. He explained more than once that he viewed his films as one ongoing narrative, and when viewed in this context, it's remarkable to see how each film reflects Altman's constantly shifting and evolving relationship to the world around him. Altman was capable of cynicism and whimsy, acidic satire and genuine sentimentality, often in the same film. It's remarkable how much he let us in - while most directors aim for statements, Altman chose to share his uncertainties. This openness extended to his generosity in collaboration with actors; few directors are such gifted observers, and fewer still have the confidence to listen. It's a difficult tightrope act, and when Altman failed, he failed huge. But when he succeeded, he was unparalleled.
But Altman's finest qualities as a filmmaker were his warmheartedness and humanism. You can feel his love for characters like Barbara Jean, John McCabe and Millie Lamoreaux (even Popeye) as they try to find a harmony with the world they've been unceremoniously introduced into. Even Altman's most sprawling, multicharacter narratives are driven by understated expressions of the individual experience - think of Keenan Wynn in Nashville quietly falling apart at the news of his wife's death while the crowd around him celebrates, oblivious to his loss. But the camera is there, and we in the audience are there by extension; Altman was expert at closing the distance between us.
A Prairie Home Companion dealt with the question of mortality directly, though in the end little is resolved. But remember the lesson taught by Rene Auberjonois at the beginning of Brewster McCloud, one of Altman's earliest features: it is better to have no resolution, for that would mean the end of dreams, of which there are far too few. So it has indeed come full circle; Altman has left us to keep asking questions, to keep dreaming. The story in his films is the ongoing story of human existence. And while this may not ease the pain of his death, there is plenty of cause to celebrate Robert Altman's life and art.
One personal sidenote: my wife and I shared our first dance as a married couple to "He Needs Me," from Popeye. Thinking about Altman's death (and, by extension, my own life) today, I had to conclude that we couldn't have picked a better song.
Links to many more tributes to Robert Altman can be found at Green Cine Daily; Dennis Cozzalio's memories at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule are particularly moving.