Robert Altman: An Annotated Webliography

IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are found on the They Shoot Pictures Director page for Robert Altman:

"Robert Altman is American cinema's greatest iconoclast. Prolific, experimental, visionary and ambitious, he is a director whose career spans over five decades and includes over thirty feature films. Known as a maverick director (a label he denies), Altman eschews the market-oriented climate of Hollywood, refusing to bow to studio demands and insisting on total control over his material. The result is an eclectic body of work that moves across several genres, each picture effectively dismantling the generic conventions on which it draws."- Tanya Horeck (Contemporary North American Film Directors, 2002)

"Altman's use of multi-track sound is also incredibly complex: sounds are layered upon one another, often emanating from different speakers in such a way that the audience member must also decide what to listen for. Indeed, watching and listening to an Altman film inevitably requires an active participant: events unroll with a Bazinian ambiguity. Altman's Korean War comedy M*A*S*H was the director's first public success with this kind of soundtrack." - Charles Derry (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Altman is usually happier with large casts than small: while elegantly shot and acted, the intimate theatrical adaptations he was reduced to making in the 80s (he's always been an outsider in Hollywood) lack the social, historical and philosophical import of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, the made-for-TV Tanner '88, The Player and Short Cuts - movies which confirm him, however erratic his output, as one of the greatest - and most stylistically innovative - filmmakers of the modern era." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"The director proffers an elliptical, poignant, often bitingly satirical vision of American sensibilities." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"Maybe there's a chance to get back to grown-up films. Anything that uses humor and dramatic values to deal with human emotions and gets down to what people are to people." - Robert Altman

"I want to see something that I've never seen before, so how can I tell that actor what that is? I'm not trying to construct a document or situation that is what I want, because what I want is something new to me." - Robert Altman

Poll of the top 5 Altman films compiled by the Cinematheque

Robert Altman films on They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:

#67 - Nashville #169 - McCabe & Mrs. Miller #455 - The Long Goodbye #576 - M*A*S*H #627 - Short Cuts #679 - The Player #869 - 3 Women #968 - California Split

What I've seen, from top to bottom:

McCabe & Mrs. Miller Short Cuts California Split Nashville A Prairie Home Companion Gosford Park The Long Goodbye 3 Women The Player Secret Honor M*A*S*H The Company Cookie's Fortune Kansas City Dr. T and the Women

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The immortal Robert Altman blog-a-thon, organized by The House Next Door on the weekend that Robert Altman received his honorary Oscar, features about 20 entries on the man and his films, as well as an Oscars competition for the best performances from his entire oeuvre.

Video: Robert Altman accepting his honorary Oscar, 2006

Video: Robert Altman on the Dick Cavett Show, January 21 1972

Audio interview with Robert Altman, 1976, by Tony Macklin

Audio Interview with Elliot Gould on Robert Altman, NPR, November 21, 2006

Video tribute by billysscreeningroom on YouTube

Books on Altman available for limited preview on Google Books:

Robert Altman: Interviews By Robert Altman, David Sterritt. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2000 Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff By Patrick McGilligan. Macmillan, 1989 Robert Altman's Subliminal Reality By Robert T. Self. U of Minnesota Press, 2002 Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. Random House, Inc., 2009

The American 1970s may have been dominated by a "New Wave" of younger, auteurist-inspired filmmakers including George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, all contemporaries as well as sometime colleagues. It is, however, an outsider to this group, the older Robert Altman—perhaps that decade's most consistent chronicler of human behavior—who could be characterized as the artistic rebel most committed to an unswerving personal vision. If the generation of whiz kids tends to admire the American cinema as well as its structures of production, Altman tends to regard the American cinema critically and to view the production establishment more as an adversary to be cunningly exploited on the way to an almost European ambiguity.

Aside from his generic preoccupations, Altman seems especially interested in people. His films characteristically contain perceptive observations, telling exchanges, and moments of crystal clear revelation of human folly. Altman's comments are made most persuasively in relationship to a grand social organization: that of the upper classes and nouveaux richesin A Wedding ; health faddists and, metaphorically, the American political process, in Health ; and so forth. Certainly, Altman's films offer a continuous critique of American society: people are constantly using and exploiting others, though often with the tacit permission of those being exploited. One thinks of the country-western singers' exploitation by the politician's P.R. man in Nashville , for instance, or the spinster in That Cold Day in the Park. Violence is often the climax of an Altman film—almost as if the tensions among the characters must ultimately explode. Notable examples include the fiery deaths and subsequent "surprise ending" in A Wedding , or the climactic assassination in Nashville. Another recurring interest for Altman in his preoccupation with the psychopathology of women: one thinks of the subtly encroaching madness of Sandy Dennis's sexually repressed spinster in That Cold Day in the Park , an underrated, early Altman film; the disturbing instability of Ronee Blakley in Nashville ; the relationships among the unbalanced subjects of Three Women , based on one of Altman's own dreams; and the real/surreal visions of Susannah York in the virtual horror film, Images. Because almost all of Altman's characters tend to be hypocritical, psychotic, weak, or morally flawed in some way, with very few coming to a happy end, Altman has often been attacked for a kind of trendy cynicism. The director's cynicism, however, seems a result of his genuine attempt to avoid the conventional myth-making of the American cinema. Altman imbues as many of his characters as possible with that sloppy imperfection associated with human beings as they are, with life as it is lived.

Altman's distinctive style transforms whatever subject he approaches. He often takes advantage of widescreen compositions in which the frame is filled with a number of subjects and details that compete for the spectator's attention. Working with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, he has achieved films that are visually distinguished and tend toward the atmospheric. Especially notable are the use of the zoom lens in the smoky cinematography of McCabe and Mrs. Miller ; the reds, whites, and blues of Nashville ; the constantly mobile camera, specially mounted, of The Long Goodbye, which so effortlessly reflects the hazy moral center of the world the film presents; and the pastel prettiness of A Wedding , particularly the first appearance of that icon of the American cinema, Lillian Gish, whose subsequent filmic death propels the narrative.

- Charles DerryFilm Reference.com

Robert Altman calls the art cinema's blend of subjective and objective realism “subliminal reality” (8). It recognises the unspoken and unspeakable dimensions in human interactions. It employs lyrical and metaphoric style to suggest connections in inexplicable human associations. It arises from anxiety and doubt about ultimate meanings and value. It posits behaviour as a gamble with random consequences and defines relationship in curious patterns of repetition. It glimpses the efforts of marginal men and women caught in irresistible systems that shape desire and action. It engages active audience awareness as necessary and complicit in the construction of consequence. It recognises the authority of craft, like T.S. Eliot's “objective correlative”, indirectly to convey aesthetic insight, like Emily Dickinson's poetic dictum to “Tell all the truth/ but tell it slant/the truth in circuit lies.” Subliminal reality paints numerous, divergent surfaces of the human enterprise to suggest subterranean roots of narrative potential.

The films of Robert Altman everywhere reflect these modernist qualities. Their fractured and fragmentary narratives are not logically and causally inflected conflicts and resolutions but formal, lyrical designs that conceive social identity as multiple and unstable and frequently shaped by the debasement of contemporary values in popular entertainment. Altman's films may be best understood in terms of three particular aspects of art-cinema narration: its interrogation of classical Hollywood storytelling and popular genres, its representation of debilitated and ineffectual social individuality, and its reflexive analysis of the entertainment industry as complicit in cultural alienation.

Robert T. SelfSenses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Perhaps no American director has been with us, and maintained such an august station in the media forebrain, for as long as Robert Altman. Last year'sGosford Park was merely his sixth or seventh comeback in more than 50 years of making movies. It's been a remarkably scattershot career: For all of its ballyhooed trademarks and textural innovations, Altman's sensibility seems equally prone to silk-smooth sublimity and howling miscarriage. His grotesque lapses in judgment seem to flow from the same water table as his wisdom. Compare the surgeon's grace inherent in Gosford Park to the soused baboonery of 1994's Prêt-à-Porter, and you glimpse a restless intelligence plunging into cultural combat without the benefit of superego.

Altman's belle epoque of semi-consistency was the 1970s, when Hollywood's new-wavy thaw on formula, cliché, and pap was precisely what the maturing journeyman had been waiting for. (He was a full generation older already than contemporaries Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdanovich, De Palma, et al.) Film Forum's thorough survey of Altman's halcyon decade comes complete with warts (chiefly, the 1979 explosion of wrongheadedness represented byH.E.A.L.T.H., Quintet, and A Perfect Couple) and overrated behemoths like M*A*S*H (1970), an unfocused and infantile anti-war farce better remembered than freshly seen, and Nashville (1975), a fabulously detailed dose of Americana-mania constructed from simplistic vignettes. In the last two, the famous Altmanic textures—spontaneous narrative collage, Babel-like aural chaos, superbly evoked offscreen space, focus-challenged compositions, foreground foofaraw—are indelible, but the jokes and caricatures are shockingly cheap.

Instead, hone in on Altman's less hallowed, and less questionable, masterpieces, all of them Lasik cuts into American mythology, starting with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a seminal, foggy frontier odyssey that looks like it was shot in a muddy 1830 mining town and which has come to occupy its own exclusive subgenre: the neorealist anti-northwestern. One of cinema's wittiest and savviest deconstructions, The Long Goodbye (1973), transposes Chandler to the 'Nam era and ends up an anti-noir anthem, with Elliott Gould as a beleaguered, slovenly Marlowe slumming around glitzy '70s L.A. like an old dog who's lost his sense of smell. Perhaps the least revered of Altman's peak movies, Thieves Like Us (1974), California Split (1974), and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) are all ripe for reappreciation.

Michael AtkinsonThe Village Voice, December 3 2002

With rare exception, Altman's Los Angeles is not the one suffused with movie stars and industry trappings. Instead, it's the one populated by people like me.

Altman's strengths as a filmmaker are, by this point, well-documented to the point of cliché: the overlapping dialogue, the natural rhythms of the actors' improvised performances, the multi-character portraits that form the soul of places as dissimilar as Nashville or an Old West pioneer town. But Altman's documentation of Los Angeles — specifically in four films: The Long GoodbyeCalifornia SplitThe Player, and Short Cuts — reveals a steady focus that goes beyond his reliable stylistic trademarks. Watching this quartet again, I am reminded that his prevailing attitude towards America's second-largest city feels more authentic than typical movies about Los Angeles ever do. Normally, a film set here simplifies the city into a blissed-out la-la land of beautiful, stupid people. L.A. has those sorts, of course, but Altman (like all of us outsiders coming to the city with illusions of endless glamour dancing in our heads) knows a much different city — one where humdrum existences and deferred dreams are commonplace, and the daily burst of "Hollywood" is nothing more thrilling than running into a B-list celebrity at Whole Foods.

Altman alone accepts Los Angeles on its own terms — he doesn't have any interest in trying to change the city's basic nature like some of his do-gooding contemporaries. This attitude seems appropriate — all of us who move here from somewhere else come to understand that we're just a small component of a sprawling city, that we're only temporary visitors going about our business amidst the backdrop of one of the most mythologized locations in the western hemisphere.

Maybe that's why I've always rejected the notion that Robert Altman dislikes his characters. If anything, he gets off on the chaotic nature of their messy lives — he sees these people as joyful works in progress. (Ultimately, isn't that how we'd like to think of ourselves too?) At a time when so many L.A.-based programs — whether it's the hip insider appeal of Entourage or the insular luxury of Curb Your Enthusiasm sell the city as a closed-off fantasyland only enjoyed by the lucky few, Altman has waged a three-decade-long counterargument to that conventional wisdom. The rest of us live here, too, and we actually like it quite a lot. I may be a permanent resident of Altman's Other Los Angeles, but to quote Elliott Gould's common refrain from The Long Goodbye, it's okay with me.

- Tim GriersonThe Simon

What rubs you the wrong way about a stationery camera? Maybe it’s my own lack of confidence in where to put the camera.

You like to continually move the camera but you also like using multiple cameras. I started shooting with two cameras a long time ago. McCabe and Mrs. Miller was shot with two cameras. It was efficient. We were getting away from the idea that once you lit a scene you couldn’t move the camera. If you moved the camera, you had to move the light. If you moved the camera just this much you’d fuck it up. I said, ‘I can’t deal with that.’ Suppose you come into a scene and you see a guy sitting at a desk. The audience knows the camera is on him alone. That’s the only thing you’re seeing. But suppose the camera is coming through the office and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody at their desk do something and you get sucked into that? That appeals to me more than the setup. Unless the setup is very specific and I’m using it as part of the storytelling.

Do you miss showing dailies? It’s just an element of the process that’s disappeared. I used to be such an advocate of dailies that I would take a picture out on location just to get people out of their hometown so they’d have nothing to do at night except come to my dailies. And it worked. You had constant camaraderie. I wanted everyone to have the same enthusiasm. I remember being at a film conference in Montreal with Stephen Frears and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t look at dailies.’ I was shocked. Through the years I’ve come to believe he’s not doing anything wrong.

So many movies these days tell you exactly how to feel. I don’t think we give the audience enough credit. If you have to spell everything out for them, you’ve taken away their sense of discovery. My tendency is not to lead the audience. You see so many films where the camera or the editing takes you right to the person that is relevant in a scene. The audience doesn’t get to make that choice. And of course, the industry now has gotten down to the 14-year-old male level.

What do you like about shooting in hi-def? I think it’s terrific unless you’re going to shoot some big outdoor epic with lots of sky. Prairie Home Companion was shot inside the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. You could walk in and not know you were on a movie set because you didn’t see any lights. I don’t have to worry about how much film I shoot. I can take three cameras and turn ‘em all on in the morning and turn ‘em off at night. You don’t have to wait for dailies to see how it looks. Dailies used to be such a big thing for me. We would shoot and the next day we’d sit down with the same group of people and run the movie. You don’t do that anymore, not when you shoot in hi-def. You have too much footage to show and you’ve already seen it, because when you shoot it, that’s what you get.

- Altman interviewed by Peter Rainer, DGA Quarterly, Fall 2005

"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from Mayor Richard Berkeley. "They used to throw away the key. Now, they' re giving me one!"

We reminisce for a moment about the fate of the Calvin Film Company, a Kansas City landmark. Established by Altman's grandfather at 15th and Troost, the company had been "home" for every film student and filmmaker in the area for more than 40 years. The building had been razed in 1990. "Actually, I came back to Calvin several times after the war," Altman muses, rubbing his bearded chin. "I'd go to California and try to write scripts, but then return, broke, to Calvin. Each time they'd drop me another notch in salary. Like some kind of punishment. The third time they said it was like the Davis Cup--they were going to keep me!"

In the early 1950s Altman participated in every aspect of filmmaking. "I don't remember actually learning anything," he says; "it was more by a kind of osmosis." For $250 a week he made promotional films for Gulf oil and safety films for Caterpillar Tractor and International Harvester. "They were training films for me--stuff like "How to Run a Filling Station." They weren't a goal for me, just a process to learn how to do entertainment and dramatic films. It was a school, that's what it was." During these years he met several other young filmmakers who were to form the core of his filmmaking team--writer Fred Barheit and editor Louis Lombardo.

After returning to Hollywood and clicking in the late 1950s and early 1960s on television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gallant Men, Bonanza and Combat! (for which he directed fully one-half of the episodes), he was ready to tackle feature films.

"There's always been a sort of division between the feature film business and the television business," he continues. "It's hard to step from one to the other. And that still is the case. But it was a great training ground. I was lucky; it kept me in California. I developed a nice reputation there and learned to stay in budget. But when I did my first movie, Countdown (a science fiction thriller) in 1967 for Warner Bros. everything went wrong. Jack Warner fired me. I got a call Sunday night from the studio warning me not to come in because the guard would stop me. I'd been locked out. Warner had looked at the dailies and he said, `That fool has everybody talking at the same time!' So I went to the studio gate and got my stuff in a box from the guard. Somebody else edited it. `Since that and another picture, That Cold Day in the Park, you've never seen a film of mine that I didn't keep total control over. And that's why I don't work a lot." He laughs outright.

The criticism about Altman's unique use of densely textured sound and dialogue has always aroused controversy. "But, you know, last Saturday night the Audio-Engineers Society--they are the Hollywood sound people--awarded me their own Lifetime Achievement Award." Altman smiles. It's a chesire cat smile. If he were to vanish, that knowing grin would still hover there in the air. "This was the first time it's ever gone to a filmmaker instead of some inventor or process, like Dolby. And that very day I had read a review of Vincent and Theo complaining of the same thing--that the soundtrack was so muddled you couldn't understand anything. Like all the characters were played by `Mumbles' in Dick Tracy. Look, what I'm trying to do is--" he pauses, groping for the right words. "I don't want you to understand everything- -not the sound, not the images. What I'm trying to do--and this is what the engineers understood (which pleased me)--I'm trying to present something to an audience where they have to work a little bit. They have to invest something. You don't hear everything somebody says in real life, do you? Maybe you're not really listening or distracted or something. That's the illusion I want. It's a way to get the audience involved and participating in the thing." He spreads his hands philosophically. "But some people don't like it." Another pause. "Anyway, I really worked this out the first time in California Split. I used 8-track sound. I said, `They do this in music recording, put a microphone on every different instrument and try to isolate them as much as possible then mix it afterwards. Why don't we do that with the voices on the soundtrack?' So, we developed 8-track tape machines and individual microphones. Which means recording everything and then mixing it later. I can take a person's sound down or push it up. That way, I don't have to go back for post-synching, looping of lines--you know, bringing the actors back in to match their lip movements. When you do that, the acting is gone."

"He's mellowing out a little bit," Stephen [Altman, his son] admits, stirring his coffee. "He used to be a hard drinker. He never drank on the set, but he' d drink a lot and rip into people. Usually they deserved it. But I think it's better now. He's looser. He's not trying so hard. He's had a lot of experience. Hey, he's done more films consecutively now than anybody else working today. I think he's the best director I' ve ever worked with. He's very tough and very difficult and at the same time can be the easiest and nicest. Anybody can disagree with him on the set, but he'll tell you, `Anybody can make a suggestion, but only give it once.' He won't easily admit it if he's wrong. He has some funny quirks. People might sit around and talk and it won' t seem like he's listening; and then the next day he'll come up and say, `I had this great idea. We'll do this and that.' And everybody will sit around and say, `Good idea, Bob!"'

John C. TibbetsLiterature Film Quarterly, 1989

altman10.jpg

REVIEWS AND REACTIONS TO MITCHELL ZUCKOFF'S ROBERT ALTMAN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY

Excerpts and select quotes from the book on SF Gate.com

In the recent history of rather stale or perfunctory books about movie directors, Zuckoff has done something quite special. Although the author is not known as a writer on film, he shows an unusual sense of the collaborations and the conflicts in a group process. Also, he grasps the way in which Altman was always inclined to make a battleground of his own projects--the earnest but passionate misunderstandings between Altman and Warren Beatty on McCabe & Mrs. Miller are so beautifully rendered that we begin to see how the actor’s notion of John McCabe and the director’s had to be at odds for that film to be so funny and so poignant. This is a smart, amusing, lively book, full of anecdotes and a generous step toward perceiving the glorious and perverse ways of Altman himself. I hope the book prospers, because that will assist the enjoyment of some complex films, and because Zuckoff’s achievement is preparation for a full appreciation of what Patrick McGilligan delivered in his book Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, which appeared twenty years ago.

There was more going on. Often using wide screens, Altman was developing a drifting camera style that roamed around its own imagery. He seemed sometimes to ooze in and out of his own film world. The cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was vital to this effort, but just as important was the way Altman began to mix multi-track sound recordings so that the sound focus seemed to move, with the result that no one could be quite sure what was said or heard. The creative climax of this style must be McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where Warren Beatty, the precise, controlling actor, grew increasingly angry and flummoxed that audiences could not hear every word he was agonizing over. Altman was nonchalant about the blur or the fuzz--it was a strength, he said, it was just like life. His films were becoming like a shifting surface, a labyrinth of ambiguity in which very little was fixed or certain. He was also rejecting the idea--the old Hollywood scheme--that films and life are about just a few people. Life, Altman insisted, is always a ragged circle in which anything that happens is contingent on how it registers on others. Misunderstanding may be a surer path of existence than the old tidy understanding.

He was not always an easy or safe man to like, or take for granted. The two books show very different experiences. Zuckoff was hired, he says, near the end of Altman’s life, to help write a memoir that would make a nice payday. (Altman was always short of money.) It was to be a book about the work, not the life. They had long sessions of talk and smoking. They became friends, and Zuckoff succumbed to comradeship with an old man who was frail but persevering. Altman’s great kindness to Zuckoff was in dying, for that took away any chance of chagrin and dismay in an abused author. But Zuckoff was persuaded by Altman’s loyal and long-suffering third wife, Kathryn, and by opportunity, to do a book about the life, too--and to do it as an oral biography, adapting to the director’s habit of a circular form and letting everyone have his or her say, even if it comes down to Faye Dunaway’s official kiss-off--"I don’t have anything to say about Mr Altman. I never worked with him. I don’t have any time to give you on the subject"--instead of deep dish on the temperature of their implausible affair.

Zuckoff is a good interviewer and a better editor of the results. But his circle of contacts is smaller than McGilligan’s, and it does not carry the bitterness of McGilligan’s discovery: that the self-serving haze of forgetfulness in Altman’s life often demanded a painstaking readiness to track down the small people who could give the lie to the great man’s lofty and sentimental version of things. The McGilligan book is finally more revealing, because its author was never taken in by Altman or smothered in his embrace.

- David Thomson, The New Republic, October 13 2009

In the recent history of rather stale or perfunctory books about movie directors, Zuckoff has done something quite special. Although the author is not known as a writer on film, he shows an unusual sense of the collaborations and the conflicts in a group process. Also, he grasps the way in which Altman was always inclined to make a battleground of his own projects--the earnest but passionate misunderstandings between Altman and Warren Beatty on McCabe & Mrs. Miller are so beautifully rendered that we begin to see how the actor’s notion of John McCabe and the director’s had to be at odds for that film to be so funny and so poignant. This is a smart, amusing, lively book, full of anecdotes and a generous step toward perceiving the glorious and perverse ways of Altman himself. I hope the book prospers, because that will assist the enjoyment of some complex films, and because Zuckoff’s achievement is preparation for a full appreciation of what Patrick McGilligan delivered in his book Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, which appeared twenty years ago.
There was more going on. Often using wide screens, Altman was developing a drifting camera style that roamed around its own imagery. He seemed sometimes to ooze in and out of his own film world. The cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was vital to this effort, but just as important was the way Altman began to mix multi-track sound recordings so that the sound focus seemed to move, with the result that no one could be quite sure what was said or heard. The creative climax of this style must be McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where Warren Beatty, the precise, controlling actor, grew increasingly angry and flummoxed that audiences could not hear every word he was agonizing over. Altman was nonchalant about the blur or the fuzz--it was a strength, he said, it was just like life. His films were becoming like a shifting surface, a labyrinth of ambiguity in which very little was fixed or certain. He was also rejecting the idea--the old Hollywood scheme--that films and life are about just a few people. Life, Altman insisted, is always a ragged circle in which anything that happens is contingent on how it registers on others. Misunderstanding may be a surer path of existence than the old tidy understanding.
He was not always an easy or safe man to like, or take for granted. The two books show very different experiences. Zuckoff was hired, he says, near the end of Altman’s life, to help write a memoir that would make a nice payday. (Altman was always short of money.) It was to be a book about the work, not the life. They had long sessions of talk and smoking. They became friends, and Zuckoff succumbed to comradeship with an old man who was frail but persevering. Altman’s great kindness to Zuckoff was in dying, for that took away any chance of chagrin and dismay in an abused author. But Zuckoff was persuaded by Altman’s loyal and long-suffering third wife, Kathryn, and by opportunity, to do a book about the life, too--and to do it as an oral biography, adapting to the director’s habit of a circular form and letting everyone have his or her say, even if it comes down to Faye Dunaway’s official kiss-off--"I don’t have anything to say about Mr Altman. I never worked with him. I don’t have any time to give you on the subject"--instead of deep dish on the temperature of their implausible affair.
Zuckoff is a good interviewer and a better editor of the results. But his circle of contacts is smaller than McGilligan’s, and it does not carry the bitterness of McGilligan’s discovery: that the self-serving haze of forgetfulness in Altman’s life often demanded a painstaking readiness to track down the small people who could give the lie to the great man’s lofty and sentimental version of things. The McGilligan book is finally more revealing, because its author was never taken in by Altman or smothered in his embrace.

It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (when illness slowed him), Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life. When he was not drinking heavily, he was smoking dope -- often doing both simultaneously. When he screened dailies on location, he insisted the cast and crew gather to view them in a party atmosphere, with the merriment rolling on into the night.

His ability to ingest industrial-strength quantities of stuff that was bad for him fills one with shock, awe and questions. Yet Mitchell Zuckoff, who interviewed 145 people for the long, insanely admiring "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography," never comes to grips with the effect this had on his films.

Even a casually objective observer has to see that something else was going on here. Altman loathed the studios and executives that financed his work. He represented them to his casts and crews as party poopers, mindlessly insisting that he shoot something at least vaguely resembling the script he had sold them.

This was another sore point with Altman, who didn't like writers, either. He was always telling his actors to say whatever came into their heads. Anyone attempting to hold him to account, whether for budget or story, was his enemy.

He said he was uninterested in the essentials of moviemaking: narrative or character development. What he cared for was behavior, especially of the spur of the moment variety. Since most actors -- especially the bad ones -- prefer to be left to their own devices, this made him wildly popular with them.

To make sure the audience never quite understood what was going on, he overlapped dialogue -- no wait, that's not quite right -- he layered multiple conversations into his dialogue tracks and then turned the volume down, so that much of the time you couldn't hear what anyone was saying.

Misanthropy -- with a strong admixture of misogyny -- essentially substitutes for ideas in his movies and his characters are, in effect, characterless. They wander about fecklessly, striking solipsistic, but rarely authentically rebellious, poses and almost never getting into dramatically gripping conflicts.

The portrait of Altman that emerges in this book is of a permissive man -- especially with himself. Addled by his addictions, a habitual gambler, disastrously careless with money and with intimate relations, he left us feeling we were trapped in someone else's not-very-interesting drug haze.

- Richard Schickel, The Los Angeles Times, October 22 2009

Responding to a fierce putdown of the late Robert Altman by Time's Richard Schickel in a review ofMitchell Zuckoff's Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, director Alan Rudolph has written anequally stern rebuke.

Earlier today L.A. Times columnist Patrick Goldstein posted the Rudolph letter andlaid into Schickel also.

"The power of a major artist is that he or she is a force, standard, guide," Rudolph wrote. "What [Schickel] doesn't grasp is that great artists always lead the way. The torch gets passed, the message out, the influence permanent. You don't have to be aware of originators to be modified by them.

"Altman never changed. To have 'comebacks' shows he never went away. Some of his films might have been less than others, but each had the stuff of brilliance, and was part of a larger collection. Bob knew that continuously working in the rough was the best way to find the jewel. His biting humor never spared reality nor himself. The painful absurdity of it all. There was nobody like him during his professional peak, and there isn't now."

For what it's worth, Hollywood Elsewhere stands with Rudolph and Goldstein.

Schickel wrote that "none [of Altman's films] whatsoever will survive as anything more than historical curiosities. [They] do not transcend their times; even the best of them remain trapped within those times." And that, for me, is glorious enough. Because those times -- the '70s, mainly, when Altman had his great creative run -- delivered a rich and flavorful kind of filmmaking (and film-watching) that has inspired and nourished tens of thousands of film lovers, and will continue to do so. I didn't say "millions" because the Altman movies never reached...okay, were never intended to reach the popcorn multitudes, even when they were firing on all eight cyclinders. But what a delicious feast they are, and always will be.

Jeffrey WellsHollywood Elsewhere, October 29, 2009

Mitchel Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: An Oral Biography" hit shelves last Tuesday, a book built out of Altman's final interviews and the voices of his collaborators that doesn't skirt the fact that, however acclaimed he was as a filmmaker, Altman could be a real dick. Janet Maslin notes actor Michael Murphy's anecdote about how "Bob would make the best bloody mary I've ever tasted. Then he would stand up and make a speech, pretty much the same speech every night... 'No one in this room knows what this movie is about except me.'"

Reviews have been generally respectful, with exception of a blind haymaker from veteran film writer Richard Schickel at the LA Times, who spends, oh, about a paragraph of his 939-word review actually talking about the book before rambling off about how terrible Altman's movies are, and what a jerk he was to so little end. Schickel likes "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Nashville," "California Split" and that's it. The rest of Altman's movies are "solipsistic," like being "trapped in someone else's not-very-interesting drug haze."

The article's prompted some LA Times infighting, with filmmaker Alan Rudolph ("Afterglow," "The Secret Lives of Dentists") writing in to defend his mentor from the wrath of Schickel. "He negates Altman because of his life style. Would he dismiss Huston's drinking or Hitchcock's sexual repression as influences on their film gifts?" Furthermore: "Directors, writers and actors don't have to replicate Altman for him to have impacted their sensibilities. [...] Bob's insistence on doing things his own way was essential. It's the major struggle. And Altman won."

For all his influence, no one's ever successfully imitated Altman stylistically, or even tried. In a way, Rudolph's admirably intentioned defense does Altman a disservice: it suggests that his major legacy isn't in the work, but in paving the way for other mavericks who wanted to flip the bird to studios while taking their money. The lesson to take: when a guy like Schickel takes a book assignment for the clear purpose of being a cranky reactionary, it's really better to just let it be.

- Vadim Rizov, IFC Independent Eye, November 2 2009

FROM THE EULOGIES PUBLISHED UPON ALTMAN'S DEATH

An exhaustive list of memorials from November 21 2006 and thereafter were compiled by David Hudson at GreenCine. Here are but a few choice excerpts:

Unpredictable, outspoken, sometimes gruff and critical of industry practices, Altman personified the maverick '70s filmmaker, going his own way and enduring career vicissitudes while always making films that bore his stylistic stamp.

Despite his contrarian stance, Altman said while accepting his career Oscar, "No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition."

Almost consciously modeling himself after Orson Welles and writer Ernest Hemingway -- mostly in his bearing and bravado -- Altman was a constant thorn in Hollywood's side, pointing out the town's innate hypocrisy, feasting on the very hands that fed him. His irreverent attitude left Hollywood with mixed feelings about him. He was constantly reminded he was uncommercial, but even his detractors had to concede he was a real film artist.

Personally, he was plagued by addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling. Sometimes those demons seemed to seep into his work, leading to films that were erratic and undisciplined, though almost always interesting.

Shelley Duvall, who appeared in seven Altman films, once said, "Working with Bob is a family affair." She also said, "People love him, and you won't hear that kind of endearment about other directors."

Todd McCarthyVariety, November 21 2006

The tone of an Altman film — the desperate milling, the sense of isolation within a community, the urgency to no clear end — is a reflection of life on any movie set. Or in any political campaign (Tanner '88, the TV series he concocted with Garry Trudeau, plays now like a prophetic parody of media manipulation by such masters as James Carville and Karl Rove). Or any reception (A Wedding), convention (H.E.A.L.T.H.), concert (Nashville), casino spree (California Split), couture opening (Ready to Wear), country weekend (Gosford Park) or old-time radio show (A Prairie Home Companion). Any social gathering, in fact, where people advance the friendly fraud of being themselves, where politics and showbiz overlap, where the action spills from the stage into the audience.

Richard CorlissTime, November 21 2006

Nathan Rabin: Altman's stylistic trademarks—long, elegant camera movements, deep focus, overlapping dialogue, elaborate sound design, and long takes—discouraged passive viewing and provided ample rewards for audiences willing to work for their enjoyment. Altman respected audiences and actors alike. He demanded a lot from both, but repaid that commitment many times over. He loved actors, and in return was beloved by actors.

Donna Bowman:Even though I grew up in Tennessee, I didn't see Altman's most successful "Altman-esque" film, Nashville, until I was in graduate school. But I'll never forget hunching over the TV on the top floor of the University of Georgia library, the laserdisc whirring away somewhere behind the librarian's desk, letting the master teleport me from Haven Hamilton's recording session to the baton-twirler-bedecked Nashville airport, to an Opryland stage, and finally, to that oddest of all Nashville landmarks, the Parthenon. I was jolted into a South that was as intimate to me as my own blood (with all the incipient self-loathing and inferiority complexes that already coursed there) and as strange as another planet.

Scott Tobias: I wouldn't place any of Altman's '90s and '00s work above the best of his '70s films; in fact, there are few contemporary directors whose work can measure up to those lofty standards. But these recent decades found him at his most versatile, capable of dropping into many different worlds and capturing their essence on film, from Hollywood (The Player) to fashion (Ready To Wear) to the Deep South (Cookie's Fortune) to period Britain (Gosford Park) to a professional ballet troupe (The Company). By then, Altman's signature style—the overlapping dialogue, the sprawling ensemble canvasses, the lived-in quality of every frame—was so refined that he could apply it to any environment and count on truths to emerge organically as a result. Nothing ever feels forced in Altman's films; they're relaxed, confident, and above all, intellectually curious.

Keith Phipps: Altman was born in Kansas City to a privileged family, but he came to direct features by working his way up through industrial films and the television industry. His was, in many respects, an old-fashioned America success story of hard work and its rewards. It's the kind of story that never interested Altman in the least. The traditional American definition of success involves finding a superlative to attach to yourself—the nation's bestselling author, the greatest quarterback of his generation, the most important director of the 1970s. If there's one lesson to take away from Altman—not that he would like anyone finding lessons—it's to not trust that idea.

Noel Murray: I can credit Robert Altman for awakening me to a lot of cinematic virtues that I'd never really considered before I watched my first Altman film (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for the record). He was a master at creating a sense of place and time, and revealing character by immersing viewers in the character's world. And he had a keen sense of wit, which struck some as misanthropic and even a little mean, but which always seemed to me to come from a place of empathy. It doesn't take too much research into Altman's life and career to discover that he knew what it meant to be an asshole. And to be generous.

Tasha Robinson: One of the great things about Altman's films is the way he trusts his viewers to be smart, to keep up, to get involved and absorbed into the big, messy, real worlds he inhabits. He was capable of working with lean, efficient stories—look at The Player, which sends Tim Robbins on a taut trip through Hollywood, looking for the person blackmailing him. But his best films are so dense that they take unpacking, and they're generally a different experience each time they're watched. Take Gosford Park, an Upstairs, Downstairs-style story that takes place over a few days at a British country house in the '30s. It's a murder mystery, a bedroom farce, a character study, a class exposé, a comedy, and a drama all at the same time, with an all-star cast working at the top of its game, and so much complicated, naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that with the subtitles on and all the words laid out in detail, it's almost a different film. It's so rich with character that it's necessary to watch it a second time just to follow from the beginning all the connections and interactions that only become clear as the story unfolds, but Altman's precision—and his complicated, multi-POV setups, with the cameras in constant motion—ensures that it's just as rewarding on a second viewing. Seldom do calculated craft and actorly spontaneity come together so smoothly and seamlessly.

The Onion AV Club, November 21, 2006

Certainly, Altman's wavering fortunes have conferred on his career a sort of quixotic nobility. He certainly contributed to his own problems, not only by his individualism and candour, but also by the gambling streak he shared with his father, and which was not exclusively extra-curricular. He was also a seasoned drinker - "I don't drink while I'm working," he claimed, "but I work a lot while I'm drinking" - and womaniser, although his marriage to his third wife Kathryn Reed, his partner since 1958, is one of the film world's more enduring matches.

Despite admitting to the Guardian that "everything I've learned has come from watching other directors", Altman was reluctant to identify his influences - and, equally, it is hard to see which filmmakers he has left his stylistic mark on. It would be hard for anyone to "do" Altman, since his style seems to be as much about attitude as about what is visible on screen. The seemingly ragged approach he developed in the 70s, the moves towards democracy among actors and crew - but certainly not writers, whose efforts he tended to downplay - made for a circus-like, medicine-show feel, which justifies the comparisons with Fellini. His finest films, while they clearly address the world outside them, nevertheless created their own entirely distinctive atmosphere. Acclaimed for his critique of American culture, Altman always denied having any particular agenda: "I research these subjects," he said, "and discover so much bullshit that it just comes out that way."

It has been said of Altman that he was "ennobled by failure and oppressed by success", which would explain his unpredictable moves and idiosyncratic reading of his own career - for he continued to defend Pret-á-Porter while dismissing The Player as "a fake film." Pauline Kael has said: "Altman's art, like Fred Astaire's, is the great American art of making the impossible look easy." More than that, he made the alarming vagaries of his own career look like a rollercoaster joyride.

Jonathan RomneyThe Guardian, November 21 2006