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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Altman, ou le parcours d’un homme

by Jean Roy

Robert Altman, or The Film-Career of a Free Man

Translated Friday 29 December 2006, by Patrick Bolland

Cinema: The great US film-director Robert Altman died on Monday 20 November. In half a century of film-making, this anti-conformist had known it all, both glory and failure, leaving us with a substantial body of work, very much worth revisiting.

American English has invented a marvelous word, maverick, referring to an animal that nothing nor anybody can force to stay within the flock. "Rebelle" would be a perfect translation into French to describe Robert Altman, a free mind who had never had a servile conception of the cinema. He died in the evening of Monday, 20 November in a Los Angeles hospital of unspecified causes. He was 81 years old.

He was nominated five times for the Oscar as best director, but never received the award – a record equaled by other great directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor) but never beaten. He was awarded an Oscar for "career achievement" last March and had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1970 for MASH.

Robert Altman was born on 20 February 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri, the oldest son of an insurance salesman. His schooling was with the Jesuits, graduating as a mathematical engineer, and became a bomber pilot in World War II.

Altman was one of those Americans who had lived through it all, when, at the age of 20, he took up writing in earnest. At first, scenarios, newspaper articles and radio plays. Then he directed some 20 industrial films. By 1957, he was ready for Hollywood and made The Delinquent, followed by a documentary, The James Dean Story. But these films were largely neglected, and failure sent him back to directing for television and to subjects lacking cinematic appeal.

It was with MASH, a anti-military, black comedy that Altman triumphed. With the prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival and a huge success in cinemas, he suddenly found all the doors were open. He took advantage of this by making some fifteen films in the next 10 years which rode the waves in the new spirit of freedom of the newly emerging generation of film-makers, including Coppola and Scorsese. Brewster McCloud, John McCabe, California Split, Images, The Private, We are all thieves, Buffalo Bill and the Indians – a whole series of impertinent films which covered a wide range of film genres: comedy, westerns, horror-films, detective stories, dramas … to show their roots in a new light and transplant them into fresh soil. And we should not forget Nashville, the first of his great fresco films, with numerous initially-disconnected people, showing a society in free-fall. The general public stayed away films and US critics could were confused, making Altman, like Jerry Lewis earlier or Woody Allen later, one of the film-makers venerated in Europe but without a strong base in their own country.

Altman films are a mix of rejection of conformity, an exploration of dense and picturesque decors, reinforced by the frequent use of wide shots, attention to the even the secondary roles, requiring the film-goer’s vigilance, sound-tracks in which the orchestration is as important as the words, the breath of a marathon-runner, a desire to constantly renew himself, such that knowing his previous works did not really help judge his latest. He would make an epic fresco and then return to an intimate mezzo voce film with just a few characters: Three Women, A Marriage, Quintet, A Perfect Couple – titles that speak for themselves. Can we ever adjust to the chamber music that suddenly springs out of Popeye?

Back to big-budget films, less popular with film-goers in the USA

But lets face it: if the status of "film-author" (auteur) so revered in France serves to cover up the reality of daily work in the film industry, back in the United States, Altman was out of bounds. The glacial wind of conformism was blowing and producers wanted nothing but box office hits. Altman turned to directing operas and to the theatre, came back to television, dreamed of settling in Paris where he was so respected – and did this for a short time. From being intimate, his films became confidential, adaptations that masterpieces of directing, but little more. After Come back Jimmy Dean and Streamers, the ultimate was Secret Honor, with just a single actor (playing Richard Nixon) in a single décor.

Yet the Phoenix rose again from its cinders. In 1992, he made The Player - opening with uninterrupted travel shot lasting several minutes - that was among the virtuoso opening scenes in cinema history. A year later he came out with Short Cuts, returning to the multiple-character genre. Both were commercial successes. Suddenly, Altman’s phone started ringing again, leading to a new and final decade of fascinating films, ending with Gosford Park, one of his biggest successes at the cash-register, and The Last Show, which is currently opening in Paris … (See the review: Robert Altman’s Last Show)

We could add that just before his death, Robert Altman just had time to see the Republicans lose their majority in both houses of the US Congress. This must have caused him no regrets.

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