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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Altman's Oscar: Maybe Too Little, Surely Too Late
I first encountered Robert Altman when I was about 15 or 16 years old. A self-professed film nut, I rented The Player with that typical teenage art-film arrogance, something I could lord over my heathen friends watching high-budget comic book sequels. My friends of course, had the last laugh when about 20 minutes into the film, I admitted defeat and angrily switched the video off. I couldn't make head or tail of plot or character, couldn't tell whether the movie was supposed to be this sloppy and disorganized or whether I was just too stupid to pick up on it. (No one, by the way, likes to be made to feel stupid.) In any case, it took me another 15 years to finish watching The Player and appreciate Altman for the film master he was (and is).

Altman is an acquired taste, and I don't think I'm the only one who spent a few years acquiring it. Clearly anyone who wasn't raised by Martin Scorsese and spent their childhood watching Italian neo-realism and Swedish art cinema is going to find Altman a little strong at first. He doesn't "lay it out there" for the viewer like most American filmmakers. Instead, you get to know his characters and situations through spending time with them, listening to their conversations (which often have that off-handedness that is easily confused with sloppy writing) and finally gleaning their motivations by getting to know them. That's true of all Altman's work (at least, all the work I've seen).

In this sense, the Altman style is unique for both America and Europe (although he clearly owes a debt to Fellini). If being unique, intriguing and creative (as well as having a successful 40-year career) isn't enough to be considered a "master" of the art, I don't know what is.

Altman's blending of the documentary and narrative form is his trademark and for the record, it's not at all sloppy or disorganized. (If you want to see sloppy and disorganized, try Michael Cimino.) On the contrary: Altman has a firm grip on his films, it's just well-hidden. Though they may take an hour to get going, by the end, the viewer is glad they spent that hour, and realizes why they had to. It isn't even that his films are profoundly naturalistic (although they do tend to tilt that way), just that he wants his worlds to have depth and breadth instead of existing for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. Altman's characters live in a real (but not the real) world, one that is bigger than them and their problems. Sort of like real life.

That's probably the key to understanding why we are slow to "get" Altman. We're not ready for Altman until we're ready for the real world. Maybe that explains why it's taken the Academy this long to recognize him, too. Too little? I hope not. Too late? Absolutely.

By the way - this blog post is part of the Robert Altman Blog-a-Thon.
:: posted by Ian Dawe, 3/04/2006 Comments (4)
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At 12:16 AM, Anonymous said...

So true. Robert Altman is one the great master filmmakers who has made some of the greatest films ever made (Nashville; 3 Women; and Short Cuts). I'm glad he's getting that oscar. He deserves it.


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