Robert Altman’s five decade, 45+ film career is a beast to wade through. With a revolving company of players and recurring aural and visual jokes, Altman’s ostensibly backseat approach seems to result in films that drip by, sustained by glimpses of character and enough good vibes. But despite his somewhat distant eye, the stamp of the Kansas-born, California-settled Altman is all over each of his films. Because there are enough behind-the-scenes stories to fill a book without touching on the of form single film, and because the Altman technique is so supposedly apparent to any viewer (as much as his fellow ‘New Hollywood’ friends like De Palma and Spielberg), the true precision, deftness of touch, and emotional undercurrent of his films is often overlooked.
Which may be why, distribution rights issues aside, the deeper cuts of his filmography are rarely discussed or revisited. With so many classics of the Empire/Sight & Sound/They Shoot Pictures list variety, it might be exhausting to make it beyond the first few layers of Altman’s work. God knows, in my recent ‘Starter Pack’ write up for We Love Cinema London, I felt like a scam artist. In choosing just 6 films with which to introduce the reader to Altman, the choices ended up saying more about my failings than offering a real pathway into this storied career.
The occasion of the BFI’s Altman season was a welcome excuse to patch up those blind spots. It’s not an utterly complete season: His earliest films The Delinquents (1957) and Countdown (1968) would have added key context, even if That Cold Day in the Park (1969) makes a fitting entry point as the first distinctively Altmanian work. His TV work is noticeably absent. Did the programmers not trust that an all day screening of satirical mockumentary Tanner ‘88 would fill NFT3? Selfishly, I would have liked to see a print of Gosford Park, which premiered at the London Film Festival 20 years ago and should be getting a more major celebration this year.
Instead, the season’s banner title was a 4k restoration of Nashville (1975). And why not? For such a canonised work, it’s an often shrugged-away film. Anecdotally, when the film was on Netflix, I heard stories from several people who turned it off after half an hour or outright skipped the musical numbers. The re-release must have made some new converts. The sound mix is tightened up, and the size of a cinema screen is so helpful to pick out the minor staging choices that mirror each other throughout the film (his choice of shot-reverse shot between performer and viewer always has its double, with increasingly histrionic symbolism).
The year before, his masterpiece Thieves Like Us slid in and out of public view amongst the gaggle of ‘New Hollywood’ films that year, including Godfather II, Chinatown, and his own California Split. Altman’s adaptation of Edward Anderson’s Outlaw Couple novel (already made as They Live By Night (1948) by a little director named Nicolas Ray) is perhaps too small-scale in its gangland riff, too gentle in its nostalgic evocation of American heartlands, too vague in its central love story. David Carradine and Shelley Duvall, two of the weirdest looking but incredibly hot movie stars that ever there were, both transport their hippy affectation to The Great Depression. He’s a reluctant bank robber, she’s the daughter of the gas station clerk who gives Carradine and his buddies a place to stay. One scene, where the gang practice robbing banks at home, with a bunch of kids play-acting as bystanders (yep, the shoe polish is out), is an all–timer. Altman lays out his scenes with pictorial simplicity – minimal sets and relatively simple camera movement that feels like the director is actively attempting a more formal approach to pulpy material. And when, during love scenes, Carradine hides his face behind Duvall’s, and they become one like Persona, I began to appreciate, maybe for the first time, Altman’s Bergmania.
Just like Bergman, Altman uses symbols of Christianity as a shorthand to connect his characters to their homeland, through rituals and community. Being far less austere, and a far looser filmmaker, Altman’s religious symbols can shift depending on the film’s location. 3 Women (1977), which interpolates the persona-swap plot of Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) into a California desert vehicle for Duvall and Sissy Spacek, is often connected by critics to Persona (1966), not only because of the dreamlike tone, but also the grandiosity of its minimalism and cruelty of its characters.
Altman even casts Bibi Andersson in Quintet (1979), undoubtedly the filmmaker’s biggest creative failure. It’s a dystopian science-fiction set in an icy future. Paul Newman shows up at a city housing refugees from the freezing environment outside, only to discover that a deadly game is afoot! Trouble is, neither the characters nor the viewer has the ability or inclination to work out what the rules are. It’s filled with over-ripe elliptical dialogue delivered by the likes of Fernando Ray, speaking a future dialect where, for example, a drink becomes ‘Booza!’ The jagged sets are like leftovers from Doctor Who, and the film’s plodding pace isn’t helped by obvious political messaging. It’s also the only Altman film to be mentioned in Deleuze’s Cinema books. Make of that what you will.
Fortunately, Altman followed his worst film up with a banger. A Perfect Couple sitting between his most reviled (Quintet) and most divisive (A Wedding), the slight musical comedy of A Perfect Couple (1979) is broadly overlooked. On the film diary/social media platform Letterboxd – which is a sort of notebook for oversharers where only the most benign and reductive thoughts are celebrated – just one of my ‘mutuals’ has watched this film, and only another has it on their ‘watchlist’. Only 598 users have logged it. By contrast, 44k users logged The Long Goodbye (1973), and 5.2k users have logged Dr T. & The Women (2000). A Perfect Couple is, however, worthy of seeking out.
A quasi-remake of Marty (1955), it stars the unexpectedly dreamy pairing of Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, two good-looking actors who also appear so normal and natural on screen, as though they aren’t on screen, that the rom-com pastiche they work through is heightened. Dooley is an antiques dealer, part of a strict Greek Orthodox family who stifle him in family scenes as blackly comic and grim as anything in Eraserhead (1977). Via the ‘Great Expectations’ video dating service, he has fallen for Heflin, a mild-mannered singer, whose Big Brother & The Holding Company-like band is overseen by a rockstar just as patriarchal as the father Dooley deals with. In extended rehearsal scenes, Altman luxuriates in jam band magic, letting the interpersonal tensions boil. But instead of moving towards melodrama, A Perfect Couple focuses on the sweet pair that tie these two worlds together.
As Altman licked his wounds from the flop of Popeye (1980) by working more on the stage, his connection to the Swedish master became even stronger. The Bergmania continues in Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), a single-location drama that uses sustained close ups to draw melodrama from its actors’ faces. It is Altman’s Cries and Whispers (1972). In it, five ex-waitresses of a Kansas 5 & Dime store return for a 15-year reunion, and are shocked to discover that their colleague Joe is now a trans woman played by Karen Black. It’s obviously a little troubling to approach a 1982 movie with a cis-woman playing trans, and it’s only through the sheer strength of Black’s sardonic, sympathetic, buoyant performance that the film succeeds. Altman clearly has some issues to work through, as you can also spot trans panic subplots in HealtH (1980), California Split 1974), O.C. and Stiggs (1987) and others – never outwardly hostile, but always ambivalent to the point of unpleasantness. But Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which utilises the should-be-corny device of having its characters look through a mirror on the back wall into the past, where flashbacks take place through a glassy haze.
But while that stage adaptation was an expected hit, Altman’s National Lampoon adaptation O.C. and Stiggs was the welcome surprise of the season. Perhaps the all time great stoner movie, this anarchic, destructive universe presents an antidote to the Reaganite cinema of John Hughes. Not that this pair are any more laudable than Ferris Bueller, but the film doesn’t mythologise them. Instead, this cartoon caper barely strings itself together, and constantly burns the whole thing down. Even the end of the film inserts an obligatory conflict and tension that’s resolved in less than two minutes. Daniel H. Jenkins as O.C. and Neill Barry as Stiggs are both fairly forgettable, their bland performances characterising a pair of goofballs who are well on their way to becoming the same nouveau-riche assholes they spend the movie pranking. So Altman orchestrates them into a bizarre string of cacophonous sequences including a wedding disrupted by an Uzi, shenanigans at the mall, a jaunt to Mexico, and a final mansion siege that would make Scarface blush. Somehow, all of the inhabitants of their high-school-adjacent community are present at each of these set pieces, which makes the film a series of wild running gags. With an expansive ensemble of cartoon cutout characters including alcoholic Jane Curtin, vagrant Melvin Van Peebles, and helicopter-piloting pot dealer Dennis Hopper, Altman uses the National Lampoon characters to push his Popeye aesthetic into something even stranger. His most mean-spirited film, and maybe his most truthful.
There is barely room here to get into the other films I saw in June and July: The Company (2003), Kansas City 1996), Brewster McCloud (1970), even the Nashville retread HealtH played as utterly successful. Maybe the last year has ruined my taste, but I’m losing interest in refined work. That’s what made Popeye into the most significant screening of the season. I won’t go into the details – though I’m sure you’d gladly pay me Tuesday for a plot synopsis today – as the film has been successfully reclaimed so as to no longer be an overlooked Altman work. Needless to say, Shelley Duvall gives one of the great comic performances as Olive Oyl, Robin Williams’ Popeye is Brando-esque, and the film’s entire metier is pristine in 2021. The Sunday morning screening in July, of Altman’s personal print of the film, was easily the best crowd I have experienced since cinemas reopened. As Popeye beats up that octopus, the theme tune played and the audience burst back out into the light of day; with football fans crawling over Southbank on the day of England Men’s first World Cup match, our crowd already had something to celebrate.