Edelstein on Altman

Robert Altman earlier this year. Photo: Getty Images

Robert Altman — the greatest living American filmmaker until about this time yesterday, when he died suddenly at the age of 81 — told people he'd direct movies until his last breath, and that note of orneriness was his leitmotif: No one was going to tell him he couldn't work. Sometimes he joked that he didn't do much of anything anyway — which was a lie with a half-kernel of truth. Altman certainly didn't direct the way others did. He assembled ecosystems (platoons of gifted actors with vast histrionic reserves), set them in motion, and then pointed a camera (often two cameras) and a microphone (always many microphones) at them. He would sift through his hours of vocal tracks for the words he wanted you to register — Bob Balaban, his collaborator on Gosford Park, marveled that Altman made choices in seconds that would have taken someone else months. He was a Zen director. His camera stood coolly back from the exhibitionists — sometimes contemptuously (if the characters were right-wingers or snobs), more often with wonder.

Altman started in TV directing episodes of Combat and Bonanza, but the style we know him by — the huge ensemble casts and overlapping, lickety-split dialogue — dates from M*A*S*H, that Vietnam-era military comedy that brought a hip new counterculture sensibility to cinema. Altman was outspoken on the subject of turning M*A*S*H into a TV sitcom: He thought the idea was obscene, that it made us too comfy with the fact of war. What drew him to the subject was the notion of rogue (and roguish) individualists creating their own moral universe — one that transcended brainless military protocol and sham piety. It was also one that attracted free spirits — many of them.

The great critic and painter Manny Farber once wrote of the "dispersed frame" of movies of the early seventies: Directors like Altman, he said, were striving for a "non-solidity," a "flux-like" space that seeks to capture "the freshness and energy of a real world within the movie's frame." That frame — uninsistent, the actors seeming to have been caught on the fly — makes so many of Altman's movies a sheer delight: If you get on his wavelength, all those comings and goings — the hubba-hubba hubbub — can have you laughing out loud. But it isn't chaos: Altman has the tightest loose frame in the business. He even made a great ballet film, The Company, which proved he understood space and the way that bodies move through it.

My favorite Altman movie is McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which about three people saw in 1971 — one of them Pauline Kael, who joked about his fertile seventies output that every other film was a masterpiece and that she wished she could skip the ones in between. McCabe has gone on to be recognized as one of the great revisionist Westerns: a frontier story of missed romantic connections with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and a soundtrack of songs by Leonard Cohen that gives it a dreamy and lonely and slightly disembodied quality. It's also the best acting Beatty ever did, although Altman said at a BAM screening seven years ago that Beatty hates it. He added, "Well, Warren's an asshole."

Altman was a bit of an S.O.B. himself sometimes — and he was particularly hostile if you dared to pose some pointy-headed question about the Meaning of his Work. I made the mistake of asking him, in front of an audience, whether the end of McCabe — the death of the hero, but the salvation of the town through a communal effort — represented his last spasm of hope for the dying counterculture. He looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. (He did warm up later, when we were one on one, after he'd slipped out and smoked a joint.) But I stick by that observation. After that, the works grew bleaker. The semi-satirical Philip Marlowe mystery The Long Goodbye was profoundly brutal and cynical (the hero nailed the bad guy, but his code of honor had a nihilistic component), and the finale of his epic Nashville — a portrait America as seen through the prism of the reactionary country-Western music world — was a tragic metaphor: Following the assassination of a young singer, the crowd is induced to join hands for an upbeat anthem of denial: "It Don't Worry Me."

After Nashville, Altman's work turned a little sour, and he hit a dry spell in the eighties. But even in this period there are riches, among them his film of the one-man Nixon play Secret Honor with the splendid Philip Baker Hall. He bombed as a Broadway theater director with Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, but the movie that came of it is among the most fluid collusions of theater and cinema on film. In 1988, Altman and Garry Trudeau collaborated on an episodic, semi-improvised, shot-on-video campaign epic, Tanner '88, which followed a fake candidate (Michael Murphy) through a season of politicking: Altman and Trudeau took the conventions of campaign movies, undermined their melodrama, and explored them in what felt like real time. Although HBO pulled the plug on the series early, Tanner's polyphonic structure, on-the-fly camerawork, and attention to politics as a spectator sport were hugely influential.

The nasty Hollywood comedy The Player was Altman's commercial comeback — what an irony! Using Michael Tolkin's novel as a springboard, he thumbed his nose at the industry that had spurned him — but with so much wit and elegance that the industry nominated him for an Oscar. He was up for awards for another hate letter to California — his Raymond Carver adaptation Short Cuts. Then he really hit his stride. In Cookie's Fortune, Altman presented a social order — a beautifully balanced design for living — that was thrown out of whack by the machinations of a frightened snob (Glenn Close). In the giddy Dr. T and the Women — a widely maligned film that I happen to adore — he made the ultimate universe-in-flux sex comedy: The story of an OB-GYN (Richard Gere) who discovers he isn't in control of women just because he treats them chivalrously and knows their organs inside out. Dr. T has faith in his own omniscience, but there's always a bit of bustle — some particle of energy at the edge of the screen — that he misses entirely.

Gosford Park, set between the World Wars, was Altman's supreme late achievement: Who knew he could bring off a drawing-room whodunit with a cast of tony Brits, keeping his chattering upper and lower classes in motion and teasing us with indirection? Is there anyone else who could have delivered such an effervescent mix of satire, affection, and devastating rebuke? And attracted such an ensemble? And let the actors work at this high level? And kept the action in perfect focus? And made it all so damned entertaining?

In the last year, he finally got his (honorary) Oscar (and a standing, roaring ovation) and a buoyant reception for A Prairie Home Companion, a comedy that is redolent of death — although death as embodied by the radiant Virginia Madsen. He was supposed to have lunch this week with Garrison Keillor at Michael's and to accept yet another award. He had cancer, but no one expected him to go so fast. In the Internet discussions that followed the terrible announcement, I read that Robert Altman had changed American cinema, but I've always been saddened by how little influence his work seemed to have in this age of wall-to-wall storyboarding and computer-generated imagery and "master" directors like Martin Scorsese who are honored more for their empty pyrotechnics. The consolation was that I could always anticipate the next Altman film.

Don't leave us, you marvelous bastard.

David Edelstein

Earlier: Director Robert Altman Dies at 81