The messy genius of Robert Altman

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The best Robert Altman movies are packed with contradictory emotions and unusually large collections of wildly diverse characters bouncing off each other.

Altman classics like “Nashville” (1975) – above – and “The Long Goodbye” (1973) are not about linear storytelling or easily resolved conflicts, so Mitchell Zuckoff’s rambling “oral biography” — “Robert Altman” (Knopf) — seems like the perfect format to tell the story of the life and work of one of the most iconoclastic filmmakers in the history of Hollywood.

Zuckoff — a professor of journalism at Boston University — was working with Altman on a more conventional biography when the director died eight years ago.

“Our work was unfinished. But, a new idea emerged,” the biographer writes in his introduction. “Our talks, Robert Altman’s final sustained interviews, would form the backbone of a book about his work and his life, rough edges and all…Bob told me that he and his cowriters created forty-eight characters in ‘A Wedding’ only because that was double the number in ‘Nashville.’ It was a conceit, a caprice; he wanted to see how many individual voices he could establish in a celluloid choir without drowning the audience in cacophony. It took nearly four times as many characters to survey his life.”altman

The cast of characters who talked to Zuckoff include huge stars such as Warren Beatty, Julie Christie (below) and Meryl Streep, along with the lesser known character actors who were closest to Altman’s heart, including Henry Gibson, John Considine and Bud Cort.

The book reminds us that Altman was a slow starter in Hollywood terms — his breakthrough project, “MASH” (1970), came along when the director was already 45 years old. That was considered an ancient age in the counterculture ere when filmmakers 10 or 20 years younger than Altman (the Steven Spielberg-Martin Scorsese generation) were becoming star directors.

Altman’s career was an example of what folks in the horse-racing world call “late foot.”

The book paints a rather unflattering portrait of Altman as a husband and father after “MASH” made him famous and powerful, but the man was clearly trying to make up for all of that lost time spent working on B-movies and mediocre TV series in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, Altman rushed to create as many films as he could while the studios were willing to finance them — in the course of that single decade, the director made 12 feature films!

Altman made movies so quickly that even his masterpieces are marred by sloppy details. Every time I watch “Nashville” — which is one of my favorite movies — I’m brought up short by the patent falseness of the early scene in which a group of country stars are shown gabbing away in front of an audience as the National Anthem is being performed (behavior that would have been seen as scandalously un-American in Nashville 34 years ago). How could a man who loved to create a rich texture of realistic behavior on screen allow that sequence to play out as it does?

Altman was clearly an artist whose work was meant to be loved in spite of its messy flaws. Judging by some of the angry personal comments made by Altman’s old friends in the book, the same thing was true of the man, too.julie2

Joe Meyers

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