“Retirement? You’re talking about death, right?” ~ Robert Altman
There’s been no time to write lately which is sad because I’ve wanted to note the loss of one of our greatest filmmakers. A couple of weeks ago I was on the set of Gilmore Girls reading someone’s newspaper. I saw an article about Robert Altman and got excited because I thought it was a survey of his great films. Turns out it was an obituary. I refused to believe it until one of the other actors confirmed it and then I cried.
It was only last year that Altman accepted an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. It’s a travesty of the industry that he, along with Martin Scorsese, never received the Best Director award. In his moving speech, Altman confessed that he’d had a heart transplant many years before and felt that every film he’d been able to make since then was a gift. He promised he’d stick around for a while. But his latest film, the beautiful, funny and moving A Prairie Home Companion, was to be his last. Altman was actually shooting another film when he died at the age of 81, but I’m unsure as to whether we’ll ever get to see what he shot.
Robert Altman was an anomaly in Hollywood because he found his own financing, just like an independent filmmaker, so that he could continue making the stories that interested him. He had a signature style- incredibly natural performances from his actors, overlapping and complicated dialogue and a way of observing the action (rather than dictating the action) with his camera. But each movie he made was completely different from the ones that preceded it. He was considered the consummate actor’s director and the biggest names in the industry worked for scale just to appear in his pictures. Not only did he love and respect actors, but he loved and respected women. His films always contained strong, complicated and multi-faceted women- another Hollywood anomaly.
My favorite Altman film is The Company, a documentary-esque look at the life of a ballet company based on the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. It’s the best film on dance I’ve ever seen and it was also the first time Altman ventured into digital filmmaking. When I saw what he accomplished with light and color, I was finally sold on digital too.
My other two favorites are Three Women and Gosford Park. Last year I was thrilled to see A Prairie Home Companion, since any Altman film is an event for me. But the best part was that it was great movie. I grew up listening to the NPR broadcast every weekend and Altman perfectly captured its life-affirming tone. He created a seamless blend of music, storytelling, humor and visualized the Spirit that enables all of those things to occur. It was a fitting end to a great filmmaker’s life and body of work.