Close Up

5 - 27 January 2017: Close-Up on Robert Altman


"Although he is usually remembered as part of the New Hollywood wave of the 1970s, Robert Altman was chronologically part of the generation of Sidney Lumet, Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes, all of whom were born in the 1920s. But while those men had all achieved some measure of success by the end of the 1950s, Altman was forty-four and had made five feature films before M*A*S*H brought him his first real acclaim. He would go on to become arguably a more innovative filmmaker than any of his contemporaries (including younger directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich or May) with his drifting camera and decentered shot composition, his experiments with cinematography and sound recording, his use of overlapping dialogue and ensemble casts, and his disregard for conventional narrative structure.

Altman’s legacy is still being determined, in part because of the size and variety of his oeuvre. Although collaboration was crucial to his work, he remained an individual and idiosyncratic director. He loved classical Hollywood filmmaking even as he delighted in satirizing the industry and its history, turning increasingly to European cinema (Fellini, Renoir, Bergman) for inspiration. His disregard for storytelling kept him at the margins of the film industry, even as his love for actors, and their love for him, meant that he was able to work with almost every major star of the past fifty years. If he disdained narrative, he loved situations, using plot more as a way of throwing his characters together in various combinations rather than as a unifying thread. With his combined love of and derision for tradition, his assertions of individuality together with his need for community, his mixture of high and low, and his alternations between delicacy and crassness, Altman seems a uniquely American figure. If Griffith and Vidor are the quintessential American filmmakers of the first third of the 20th century, with John Ford taking over for the middle decades of the century, Altman is their equivalent for its turbulent final third." – David Pendleton
The Delinquents
Robert Altman
1957 | 72 min | B/W | 35mm
Shot on the cheap in his hometown of Kansas City, Altman's feature debut – on which he served as writer, director and producer – has all the surface components of a go-for-broke American independent film. The end product, however, suggests less the reckless primal scream of a young visionary than an uncommonly proficient industry calling card. Notwithstanding a bookending Public Service Announcement tacked on to placate censors, The Delinquents offers a narratively graceful and emotionally rich take on the mostly disreputable Eisenhower-era subgenre of the teenage exploitation film. In an exciting promise of things to come, Altman corrals a spirited cast of amateurs for a snapshot of the fractious cross-sections of suburban Middle America: the pampered pretty boys, the bad seeds from across the tracks, and the adults who are all-too-oblivious to their children’s changing social habits. read more

That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman
1969 | 112 min | Colour | Digital
Initially leaving critics and audiences slightly chilled, That Cold Day in the Park marks a critical turning point for Altman as his earliest feature film to expressively and naturalistically convey the sociopsychological themes that would recur throughout his career. Sandy Dennis' lonely, wealthy, repressed Frances is the first of many Altman women who are imprisoned within cryptically prismatic emotional confines. In this case, the peculiar, nervous Frances responds by trapping a differently estranged creature in an impromptu web of dependence. Aided by atmospheric New Hollywood cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, Altman artfully deploys mirrors, translucence, and a sensual, disorienting darkness while disclosing information in seductive, veiled increments. read more

Robert Altman
1970 | 116 min | Colour | DCP
M*A*S*H remains a landmark of Hollywood's attempt to reach out to the counterculture, a gesture that helped make the film so financially successful that Altman was able to get funding from one studio or another for the rest of the 1970s. The tale of US Army medics near the front lines during the Korean War eschewed the action of the battlefield for the black-and-blue humour of the medical corps assigned to try to patch up those casualties still alive. With its large cast and loose, episodic structure, the screenplay was rejected by most of the important directors of the time before it was offered to Altman. Of course, both of these aspects were precisely what drew Altman to the script, which gave him a forum to express his own anti-establishment and anti-war views in a manner both indirect and savage. read more
Robert Altman
1972 | 101 min | Colour | 35mm
Made for a small budget after the success of M*A*S*H, Images was a personal project for Altman, one of his only films for which he is the sole credited screenwriter. Alternately dreamy and nightmarish, this psychological thriller, about a woman convinced that those around her are not who they say they are, is a relative of Polanski’s Repulsion, except that here the protagonist's possible instability is related not solely to her sexuality but also to her creativity. Describing Altman's fascination with female characters who are "difficult, suffering, searching women," lead actor Susannah York wrote, “his experience of women is that they are more complex, more emotional, more demanding, and at the same time more understanding creatures, in general, than men.” read more

The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman
1973 | 112 min | Colour | 35mm
Echoing as much of Raymond Chandler's novel as it does the author's life, The Long Goodbye is perhaps Altman’s funniest valentine to Hollywood. While securing screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote The Big Sleep, which solidified Humphrey Bogart as Chandler's hard-boiled 1940s detective, Altman made his Philip Marlowe a vulnerable, droll and mumbling Elliott Gould. From the blithely ingenious soundtrack to the casting of characters partially playing themselves, Altman wryly and improvisationally toys with the mythos of Hollywood as it intersects with the reality of Seventies Los Angeles. The film self-deprecatingly encapsulates the contradictions of the time by mixing the carefree and irreverent with uncomfortable confrontation and sudden violence. read more

Robert Altman
1975 | 157 min | Colour | DCP
Following dozens of characters around the title city in the days before a political rally featuring country music performers, Nashville brought its already-celebrated director to the pinnacle of acclaim. It is quintessential Altman in its loose narrative structure and large ensemble cast – Altman is said to have ordered screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury to up the number of characters in her script from sixteen to twenty-four. At the same time, it finds this most idiosyncratic of filmmakers engaged with the national mood to an unusual extent. The large cast of characters allows the film to move from one register to another as it orchestrates its ideas about politics, big business, entertainment, and a society undergoing rapid change. read more
3 Women
Robert Altman
1977 | 116 min | Colour | Digital
One of Altman's most hallucinatory creations was actually conceived from a dream he had of Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in the desert, starring in a film about "personality-theft." Every frame tinged by an ineffable eeriness and a subtly stylized aesthetic, the film opens onto a disturbing space of reflected and imperfect doubling, of disempowered projection onto unstable surfaces. The naïve blank slate of Spacek's Pinky Rose parasitically attaches to Duvall’s Millie Lammoreaux who in turn has crafted an entire persona from the empty promises of consumer culture. Hypnotically saturating Millie in equal parts pathos and comedy, Duvall improvises dizzy monologues as if her life were a Redbook or Woman’s Day magazine. read more

Short Cuts

Robert Altman
1993 | 189 min | Colour | 35mm
Prefiguring a string of turn-of-the-21st-century multi-narratives through which a large cast of characters crisscross, Short Cuts remains the most richly woven of the era – not due to a cleverly circular precision or overarching moral message, but rather because of its open, improvisational structure allowing for even more overlapping layers of connective tissue. Revising his ensemble method for a new age, Altman's disconcerting symphony of several Raymond Carver stories and one original strand ingeniously creates links between the different tales' disaffected, alienated denizens of Los Angeles. If anything, they are united by a faulty central nervous system of emotional and sexual repression expressed indirectly, inappropriately or violently. read more