Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Greats: Robert Altman

I’ve been thinking about Robert Altman lately. It probably has something to do with the fact that I watched, his final film, A Prairie Home Companion, again about a week ago. I first saw it on opening night back in 2006 in a theater full of people about 30 years older than I was, and, after it was over, I knew that I loved the movie, even though I had no idea what it was really about. This shouldn’t be too big a deal, since my parents asked me the same question when we finished it on Saturday night.

Thus far, I’ve seen a handful of Altman’s films. I’m working on it, and plan to see many more, hopefully soon. (side note: I was going to rent McCabe and Mrs. Miller last night, but Blockbuster didn’t have it. I ended up with Scorsese's Raging Bull instead. No harm done . . .) Altman is often described as a “naturalistic” filmmaker, in that his films take a “natural” approach to the events portrayed on screen. In particular, one of his trademarks is the use of overlapping dialogue. He uses this a lot in his films. For example, in Gosford Park, the sequence in which the characters arrive at the manor involves an array of people, places, objects, and dialogue that’s almost dizzying. In addition to this, the majority of the people who are talking have British accents, which can make it kind of tricky to understand them. In a way, it’s almost like being pushed out onto the field and told to play a game that you’ve never learned.

Here’s the best part: Altman doesn’t apologize or candy-coat any of it. This is one thing that I really appreciate about his work. I’ve always felt that he respected my intelligence as a viewer. It’s weird, but I’ve always believed that, with his work, he was saying something like, “OK, I’m going to take you for a ride. It’s going to be bumpy, and you won’t always understand what’s going on or where you’re going. But, if you trust me, I’ll get you to the end.” Now, that might sound totally corny, but that’s what goes through my head. To once again use Gosford Park as an example, after I was done watching it, I still didn’t know who’d committed the crime. (that’s not a spoiler, by the way. You’d read that there was a crime in just about any summary of the film you could possibly find.) Then, I went back and watched it again with my sister. I’ve now watched it about 7-8 times, and, just about every time, I see more and more detail, and, fortunately, now do a heck of a lot better with those tricky British accents.

This approach is something that far too few filmmakers use. In the vast majority of mainstream American film, the director clearly outlines everything for the audience. As a result, there’s hardly ever any sense of true discovery or revelation. The furthest that a lot of contemporary filmmakers will go is the implementation of a twist somewhere in the film. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an excellent twist, (The Sixth Sense, anyone?) but there’s so much more to fashioning a good story than the use of a surprise somewhere within the body of the narrative. Take Hancock as a more recent example. There’s a twist that pops in around the midpoint that is very, very obvious, considering, of course, that the audience is paying attention, watching the screen, and has seen other films with twists. While the movie is fairly entertaining, the full impact of the revelation is lost, due to it being ineffectively set up. Now, compare and contrast that with Gosford Park. (don’t you love how that seems to be my go-to example? I can hear you now . . . “oh, no, not again . . .”) There’s a big twist that takes place toward the end of the film, and it’s extremely effective, to the point that it only becomes more effective upon repeated viewings of the film. One of the reasons for how well it works is due to the fact that Altman takes the time to set everything up in a very subtle way. Instead of just asking the audience to accept certain revelations on good faith, if one watches the film closely, each and every revelation has been pre-empted by an earlier scene, pairing of characters, or line of dialogue. Here’s the real kicker: someone watching the film for the first time would probably never get the fact that they’re being royally set-up, since most of their concentration would be focused on just keeping up with the story and who’s who.

At the end of the day, I think I’ve now figured out what A Prairie Home Companion is about. I think it’s about life, death, love, time, and change. Maybe that’s really what all of his films are about, because, if you think about it, those are the things that make us human, after all. It’s this fabulous sense of humanity that’s one of the main reasons why I love his work. Some said that A Prairie Home Companion was a minor Altman film, but I don’t think so. He may not have known that the film he was making would turn out to be his elegy, but, when my time comes to check out, I hope to leave something half as wonderful to remind people that I was here. I sincerely hope that current and future filmmakers will take the time to devote themselves to fashioning films that are truly memorable with the wonderful sense of discovery that was the trademark of Robert Altman’s work. His films weren’t all blockbusters, and he never did win an Academy Award. But, I think in 50 years, people will still be watching this man’s films. There’s no higher compliment that he could be paid, and I don’t think that he would have wanted anything more than that.

Recommended viewing: Gosford Park

1 comment:

Senor Granto said...

Another of the great auteurs of late 20th century filmaking, he was also a pretty fascinating man when not on set as well.

My favorite of his will always be M*A*S*H though.