"The Long Way Home"

Bidding Farwell to Hollywood Rebel Director Robert Altman

News | Izvor Moralic | December 2006 / January 2007

Robert Altman on the set of The Gingerbread Man. Drama or satire, anything he touched turned to celluloid magic (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Whether it was the war satire M*A*S*H* or the mystery masterpiece Gosford Park, anything director Robert Altman touched turned into a celluloid magic. Altman, who died Nov. 20, was a maverick of modern film making, less interested in making money than in getting an audience to think. His films engage the viewer to read between the lines, to interpret what was happening on the screen in their own way.

"Altman was irreverent," said screenwriter Joshua Sinclair, adjunct professor of film at Webster University Vienna. Sinclair had discussed Altman’s death with director, actor and friend Tim Robbins. "We agreed that Altman represented what we all liked best about filmmaking, that it is an art form and not a business; and just because we need money to make movies does not make us whores. The art form is pure."

As a result, Altman’s movies were not always understood. General comments of the movie-goers often reflected ignorance,  his conclusions often going unnoticed, or portrayed as pointless. This didn’t bother Altman much.

His career had lasted almost sixty years, dedicated to telling stories that at times would border on the absurd, but that to the attentive viewer would reveal that Altman-esque twist that would illuminate an idea. It was a special kind of genius that enabled him to speak volumes with a single scene, even a single action, summarizing the buildup of a film with just one motion.

Who could forget George Segal at the end of California Split, who simply shrugs and walks away after realizing that the big score is nothing more than another intersection down the path of the meaninglessness of life?

Altman’s own break into the industry came as abruptly as his celluloid-bound finales. His first noticed appearance was in M*A*S*H* in 1970, yet Altman had been dedicating his life to film for 23 years before this, trying out writing, directing and acting in the years following his discharge from the US Air Force in 1947. After unsuccessful episodes in Hollywood and New York, Altman returned to Kansas to film The Delinquents, a film about teenage crime that he wrote in one week and filmed in two with a $63,000 budget. Although not a masterpiece, the movie caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock who hired Altman to film several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that opened the door to the industry that would eventually lead him to productions of Combat!, Bonanza and other television series. Altman’s edge in defying the common plot formats became apparent in an episode of Bus Stop, where a killer gets away unpunished. The choice was so controversial at the time that Congressional hearings were held that ultimately resulted in canceling the show.

Following arguments with Jack Warner, Altman slogged through several productions of limited success, shaping his "Anti-Hollywood" attitudes that never left him. Only after being offered the script for M*A*S*H did Altman’s genius reach the full exposure that would eventually frame the Altman style.

He was an "actor’s director," whose interest in improvisational dialogue and relationships over plot endeared him to the cast and enabled him to work with immense crews of well-known actors in his later years. Altman made extensive use of overlapping dialogue, having several characters talk at once, yet having the most valuable pieces of dialogue somehow float to the top without emphasis. He would sit for hours in the studio with a headset trying to merge the vocal chaos into a forceful whole.

His movies required of the audience patience and acuteness of the senses and mind, which in today’s passive TV culture is increasingly difficult to find.

If there was one thing Altman didn’t lack it was integrity. The millions of dollars involved in movie productions were never a decisive factor.  "[He] hated the Hollywood system and Hollywood," Sinclair confided.

And nothing could keep him away from making films. Following his Academy Award for Life Achievement earlier this year, Altman revealed he had received a heart transplant in 1996. "I didn’t make a big secret out of it, but I thought no one would hire me again." Altman admitted. He had been suffering from leukemia for the past 18 months.

However his plans did not leave much space for self-pity. He was set to start shooting his newest film Hands on a Hardbody, and was making casting calls to potential actors throughout the final week of his life.

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