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Robert Altman
© Sian Kennedy/Retna Ltd.
Altman: A Tribute
How Hollywood finally embraced American cinema's greatest maverick

By Richard T. Jameson
Special to MSN Movies


Gallery: Altman and his films

When Robert Altman received an honorary Academy Award this year for his going-on-four-decades of creating inimitable, adventurous, groundbreaking cinema, it was his first Oscar trophy, despite a critically acclaimed body of work that helped define the art form.

The gentleman from Kansas City has said that he was "happy, very happy" to have been accorded the honor, and to be recognized, moreover, for the body of his work rather than any single film. He has a point. No other modern American director can claim more masterpieces, or so prolific and multifarious a resume. But part of the wondrousness of Altman's career stems from the fact that he headlong threw himself into conceiving, mounting and completing one film after another, turning out a dozen (or more) pictures in the time it took a Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick to clear his throat.

Altman, 81, died Monday at a Los Angeles hospital.

His films were sometimes excruciatingly wrongheaded, dead-ended, or seemingly not worth doing in the first place ("Quintet"? "H.E.A.L.T.H."? "O.C. and Stiggs"? "Buffalo Bill and the Indians"? "Prét-á-Porter"? "Fool for Love"?). But they have never been bereft of amazing apercus, behavioral grace notes or moments of virtually metaphysical resonance.

Starting in 1970 with "M*A*S*H" -- his fourth feature film, a project on which, famously, Altman's was the 14th name on a list of possible directors -- he established himself as a major American filmmaker with an all-but-unbroken stream of triumphs through 1975, the like of which one finds in few directorial filmographies (John Ford, say, in 1939-41 or 1945-50, or Hitchcock from 1954-60). Consider this run:

"M*A*S*H" -- which he "rewrote" so thoroughly with a quicksilver cast of improvisers that the man who collected an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Ring Lardner Jr.) could barely recognize his own work -- became one of Altman's few hits. It also played exhilarating havoc with polite film convention, overlapping its dialogue and fostering a style of closeup-avoiding visual coverage that framed layer upon layer of activity on screen without deigning to cut or zoom-in in a way that would cue audiences, "This is what you should look at it. Here is how you should feel about it." And in all but explicitly invoking the current war in Vietnam while ostensibly treating the Korean police action of two decades earlier, it addressed -- and helped radicalize -- the zeitgeist of the '70s.

The same year brought "Brewster McCloud," a bleak, whackadoodle comic fantasia of multiple murder and betrayal that cheerfully trashed pop-cultural icons as classic as "The Wizard of Oz" and as recent (two years) as "Bullitt." Few found, or find, the film satisfying, but its originality remains astonishing.

"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" came out the following summer, a Western more deeply revisionist than any of its contemporaries. It was also a film of such revolutionary splendor -- especially, but not only, in the rain-bleared textures and available-light ecstasies of Vilmos Zsigmond's camerawork -- that the drones of the film press and the blinkered cinematography branch of the Academy looked at Altman and Zsigmond's droplets of sun made molten gold and pronounced incandescence "dim." A scruffy vision of America reinventing itself from the mossy ground up and becoming a motley, vital community, "McCabe" is now generally regarded as the director's finest film. But Altman was only getting started.

Next: Altman owns the '70s

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