Robert Altman Book Review

Until I read Richard Schickel’s “Altman lovers read no further” (Book review of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman – The Oral Biography, October 22, Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times), I felt like I was the only person noticing that Emperor Altman had no clothes.

Yes, actors loved working with him — unless the actor took a break from their self-absorption long enough to notice how he treated the rest of his colleagues on the film (ask his writers; ask music arranger Van Dyke Parks; ask production designer Wolf Kreuger. Sadly, it’s too late to ask Harry Nilsson about his devastating experience with Altman on Popeye — but you can read about it).

In the early days of his career Altman made a few decent, quirky films: That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But shortly after he started being celebrated by the film press, he began to produce a long string of self-indulgent crap. His filmography includes what is perhaps the worst and most painfully pretentious film ever created by a celebrated director: Quintet.

My wife, sons and I all agreed to bail from Gosford Park after suffering through an incredibly long first hour in which the slightest semblance of a story had yet to kick in.

Films are supposed to be condensed, heightened versions of reality. I work in the film industry and love films about our work world. Amazingly, The Player was a heavily diluted version of what it’s like to work in our business.

That Altman was boozing and smoking weed throughout the making of his films explains a lot.

Thank you, Mr. Schickel.

8 Responses to “Robert Altman Book Review”

  1. filmfan says:

    Interesting. I managed to make it about 20 minutes into Gosford Park when I realized that I absolutely did not care about it at all. Fortunately I had only paid 50 cents for the tape, so no great loss.

  2. Joel says:

    Pret a Porter killed it for me. I was never the same after that!

  3. James Latta says:

    Bill, Did you have a bad run-in with Altman?

    I actually enjoyed and respect Gosford Park, The Player and his final film The Company.

    What happened between you and Altman?

    Best,
    JL

  4. Rick Tucker says:

    Having no personal experience with Hollywood’s golden ilk I have no opinion other than I’ve always felt most of them are vastly over-rated.
    Gosford Park worked for me but I’m not sure I would have sat in a theater to watch it. I enjoyed The Player too.
    The older I get the less impressed I am with most movie fare.

    Rick

  5. Scott Conner says:

    Completely un-film related, but I thought you’d be interested in this if you haven’t already seen it:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8322629.stm

    That pilosaur jawbone is huge!

  6. Dave says:

    “Films are supposed to be condensed, heightened versions of reality.” Really? Where is the rule that says so, if there is one, I’m glad Von Stroheim, Cocteau, Mizoguchi, along with the avant garde broke that rule. Altman’s films were not so much about stories, he was interested in characters, situations and feelings. When one claims that they can’t hear everything a actor is saying in one of his films, that’s not the important thing, the feeling of the scene tells you more than what someone is saying. As for his drug and alcohol intake, I don’t see how this would shape your opinion of his work.

  7. Bill says:

    To Filmfan: I wish that I had bailed on Gosford Park as early as you had.

    To Joel: I couldn’t watch Pret-a-Porter; by that time I had been burned way too many times by Altman.

    To James and Rick: No, I never worked with Altman. But I worked with the great production designer Wolf Kroeger who worked with Altman on Popeye, HealtH and Quintet. He quit in disgust during the making of Altman’s Buffalo Bill.

    Wolf and I worked together on First Blood. I asked him what had happened to Altman and he gave me an earful, basically saying that Altman had begun believing all the press he was getting that called him a genius. Altman began to believe that any idea he came up with was golden and sheer genius (no matter how stupid it was) because he had thought of it. I’ve worked with a few of that type of director myself.

    I realize that I am in the minority when it comes to the appreciation (or lack thereof) for a lot of Altman’s films, particularly Nashville and Gosford Park. Hey, everybody is free to like or dislike any film. The English Patient, for example (not an Altman film) won the Oscar for Best Picture. I happened to agree, however, with nearly the entire audience of people with whom I saw it one evening that it was one of the worst studio films ever made (pretty looking, though). I also know (because I’ve had these arguments with friends) there are a lot of films I love that they can’t stand.

    I certainly don’t hold you liking those movies I didn’t against you as my friends.

    As far as what happened between me and Altman…well, I feel like the jilted lover. I was nuts about his early films. He was one of my favorite filmmakers back in the day. But then he made Images. I forgave him for that; it was boring but an experiment, I thought. Hey, Altman can make one boring movie; he’s made so many good ones. I liked his next one, The Long Goodbye. Thieves Like Us was nowhere near as good as the film it was based upon (They Live By Night). California Split? Eh. Nashville? Eh/OK. Buffalo Bill? Eh. Three Women? Eh and pretentious, but I thought Hey! he’s experimenting. And there always seemed to be something interesting or redeeming in each of what I considered his failures. A Wedding? Eh. Then came that piece of pretentious excrement entitled Quintet. Throughout this awful film I kept thinking “As horrible as this is, it’s Altman. Be patient. He’ll redeem himself by the end.” But he didn’t. My belief in him made me sit through that entire piece of ungodly crap. It felt to me like it was four hours long and at that point I saw that the Emperor Altman wore no clothes. The garbage he subsequently directed proved me right. I would sometimes fall for a good review, see the film and have my loathing for his cinematic offal confirmed.

    I feel similarly (but not nearly as intensely) about a lot of Woody Allen’s films. In Allen’s case it’s how can a guy who has proven he can be so good make such uneven movies? How can a guy who showed the great promise that Altman showed in his early career make such crap and think it’s good? If a filmmaker is lacking in talent, his making bad movies doesn’t bother me. But I hate seeing talent and potential squandered. It infuriates and saddens me when a guy (like Robert Altman) who has shown he can make outstanding films turns around and produces a string of crap. It’s a huge creative waste and he should be called on it.

    And Finally, To Dave: There is a great big book that doesn’t exist as a book called The Unwritten Rules of Hollywood. You can only learn most of these rules through the experience of actually making movies.

    One of those unwritten rules involves how movie viewing affects one’s sense of time. When I talked about films being condensed, heightened versions of reality, I thought the meaning of that would be obvious but, apparently, it wasn’t. Please allow me to explain.

    Movie-goers (especially now) are very visually sophisticated (that’s not the same as being sophisticated or having sophisticated taste). What I mean is that we as an audience have seen so many movies that we have collectively developed the ability to visually process huge amounts of information in a very short amount of time. Notice that today’s movies are cut much quicker than those of the past. That’s not a judgment call, by the way, just an observation (although I often find myself put off by what I call ADD film editing).

    Today’s films in many ways are slower than films of the 30s and 40s, at least aurally. A script today is generally 100 pages. Today we filmmakers know that breaks down to roughly a minute per page, making a 100 page script about a 1 hour 40 minute film. But actors in the past in some ways were much more skilled at delivering rapid fire dialogue than most of today’s stars. Watch Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday.” The film clocks in at about an hour and a half (92 minutes, including credits) — but the script is about 200 pages long!

    When I started doing voice-over interviews and commentary for DVDs I quickly learned that if I talked at a normal conversational speed I sounded like I was on downers (listen to me on the “Invaders From Mars” remake extras. Yikes!). If I talked fast, it sounded like I was talking normally.

    The same applies to visuals. If you shoot something in real time, it seems excruciatingly slow and unbearable to most audiences. If, as a designer, I design and decorate the sets “normally”, the sets look sparse. I have to pack in much more stuff than normal for it to appear normal to the movie audience. Audiences today can take in everything filmmakers give them in a glance — then they’re hungry for more, unless you’ve got an absolutely compelling story. If the filmmaker doesn’t quickly deliver — and keep delivering — the audience gets bored.

    So, that’s what I meant about a heightened and condensed reality. In the case of Altman’s The Player, I felt the experience of the Hollywood world he portrayed was heavily diluted because my own experience of making films and being in this business is many times more intense. It is such a rich subject to explore, I wondered why Altman didn’t take advantage of revealing more in the screen time he allowed himself. The film would have been deeper and his audience would have had no trouble digesting more info if it had been given to them. Because Altman didn’t intensify what the Movie Biz was like, to me the film felt like a much diluted version of the reality he was attempting to portray. It seemed wishy-washy when it could have been deft, complex and searing.

    The three filmmakers you mentioned (Von Stroheim, Mizoguchi and especially Cocteau) didn’t break that rule, they embraced it. Cocteau’s Beauty & The Beast and his Orphee are both fine examples of heightened and condensed versions of two very different realities.

    You state that Altman’s films weren’t so much about stories, that he was interested in characters, situations and feelings. There was a time when Altman gave you both. And for my ten bucks, I want it all. I want each film I see to excel in every area.

    I agree with you that the feeling of a scene can often tell you more about the scene than what the actors are saying. It should always be that way, actually. If the dialogue is relating the story, that’s called writing “on the nose.” It should be avoided at all costs. It’s much better if the dialogue is expressing the exact opposite of what’s going on, as in the scene in “Julie & Julia” in which the barren Julia gets a letter from her sister telling Julia that she’s pregnant. Julia is devastated. She collapses into tears and into the arms of her understanding husband. What’s her dialogue? “I’m so happy!” She’s obviously anything but. It would have been such bad on-the-nose writing if she had collapsed into tears and said “I’m so terribly sad! I’ll never have children!”

    I don’t have a problem with overlapping dialogue or even hearing only bits of passing dialogue (like in one of my favorite Altman films, McCabe & Mrs. Miller). It can add to the ambiance of a scene, heighten its reality and make the audience work a little bit (making the audience a participant in your film is almost always good; Polanski was amazing at doing just that). I watched McCabe recently, however, and was put off by how poorly the sound was recorded and designed. It seemed to have been dubbed in later; it didn’t match the travel of the camera.

    As for Altman’s constant drug and alcohol intake, it doesn’t shape my opinion of his work. It does explain to me, though, perhaps why his movies became so slow, rambling and, at times, incoherent. Many people I know in the biz work just fine while loaded. But I think Altman’s drug and booze intake may have ultimately added to what I perceive as his cinematic laziness and loss of focus.

  8. James Latta says:

    Bill, I like reading any and all of your thoughts. They are always very honest and poignant. And often moving. It is your sharing so deeply that makes your entries so personal and unique among many on-line journals. So please continue to – call them as you see them. Always fascinating & insightful to hear your P.O.V. No matter the subject you keep us all thinking. And you keep us company with your regular entries. And that’s why we keep stopping by to read them.

    Have a wonderful and warm Thanksgiving Holiday.

    : )

    Best,
    James-Gang

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