Monday, December 12, 2011

An Ode to Robert Altman

As I sat down to watch McCabe and Mrs. Miller tonight, I remembered this piece from my old blog about Robert Altman. He may be the greatest cinematic genius this country ever produced, and even though I've seen many of his films several times, they always reveal new riches.

I was going to write a long piece that's been gestating in my mind for a couple of years about having grown up during a time of cultural reaction and how I can't fathom the current wave of 80s nostalgia considering the utter shittiness of that particular decade. My plans got changed, however, after I sat down this evening to watch California Split, a 1974 Robert Altman film that I'd never seen before. Altman has become one of my favorite directors, mostly on the basis of his more canonical films, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park, Short Cuts, M*A*S*H*, and the incomparable Nashville.

I like him enough that I've decided to delve into his lesser known stuff (including The Long Good-Bye, a fantastic piece of film making), and California Split certainly qualifies. To be honest, it doesn't reach the heights of the classics I've already mentioned, but it contains all the elements that make Altman's films so good. Unlike 98% of all the movies that get made, the characters live in the kind of cheap, cluttered interiors that most Americans occupy. I'm amazed at the houses depicted in typical Hollywood films, they are light years cleaner and bigger than the average domicile. This may seem like a small thing, but when I see an Altman picture I BELIEVE it because it looks real. His characters also drink in bars with bad lighting, fake leather chairs, and overly talkative, annoying barflies.

Which brings me to one of his great innovations: his way of recording dialogue. Conversations in the movies are usually much too clean; one person talks, and then another one does. In California Split, as in other Altman flicks, people talk over each other, they don't listen, and snatches of conversation in the background distract the listener. In Split he probably takes this a little too far, it was impossible for me at times to understand the gist of some of the conversation. Still, even at its most extreme his methodology betrays an artistry and attention to detail that most directors can't even dream of approaching.

The best thing, though, is that his real subject is life, its compromises, failures, and hopes. When I was a 21 year old I didn't know shit about life, and so I gravitated towards the theoretical flights of fancy in Kubrick and the violent frescoes of Scorcese and Tarantino. Granted, I still enjoy their work, but for the most part they are overgrown adolescents who have little to say about the small sorrows, setbacks and defeats that adults must endure. California Split itself is about two gamblers, and unlike the new entry in the Ocean's Eleven franchise, casinos are not glamorous places. No, the casinos are like the casinos that I've experienced: sordid dens choked with cigarrette smoke and the smell of desperation and wild hope. The gamblers aren't romantic heroes, they're chain smoking, polyester-clad addicts burning with an itch for the next hot streak like a junkie craving for a fix. Even when they win, they know that they're losing a wholly different battle.

Now that Robert Altman is dead, I don't know if anyone else can make flims that speak to these dilemmas. At least he made a lot of them, and I know they'll be my companions until my own passage from this earth.

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