This past weekend I watched Mash for the fifth time in my life and it reminded me that Robert Altman is dead. I guess I just got so used to him pumping out another movie, like so many movies Altman has been able to create in his lifetime. With 2006’s Prairie Home Companion, Altman has directed 43 films and a whole mess of TV, that is a formidable numbers of movies to helm in one life. Over the past 50 years Robert Altman has transformed the Director/Actor relationship and brought new and exciting filmmaking techniques to ensemble cast productions.
I love Altman so much and there have already been way too many biographies and filmographies about every single project that he has ever been associated with, so I won’t bore you by being overtly specific about every minute detail. I am just going to talk about a few of my personal favorite Altman films and we can reminisce about days long gone and never to return.
The first on my list, which is in no specific order, is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This has to be one of the great westerns ever to have been made. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie are outstanding and the ending is so sad and melancholy it says so much about the absurdity and delicacy of the human condition. Another amazing feature is the production design, every aspect of life has been painstakingly created and infused from the time period. Academy Award winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was in charge of the visuals and he does not disappoint. I just love when a movie really feels authentic; it makes it so much easier to get lost in the story. McCabe certainly is authentic and a triumphant piece of American filmmaking.
My next choice is the 1975 American epic Nashville. This is probably my favorite Altman movie of all-time and one of the best films ever made. At a whopping 159 minutes in length when I say it’s an epic I mean it. Nashville tells the story of the community and people who live and migrate to the great country western town in search of fame and glory, singing at the Grand Old Opera. The music is the backbone of the film; it has everything from bluegrass to gospel to country rock & roll. Nashville is a massive technical achievement as well, with something like 20 or 25 principal cast members and who knows how many extras; there are a multitude of fluid masters and intricate close-ups, making the scope and feel of the project seem enormous. A rich and timeless film that continues to blow away film school kids as each incoming freshmen crop takes their first film history class.
The third one on my list is 1980’s Popeye. Some people hate this movie and I love it. Again the production design is so over-the-top unbelievable that you can hardly imagine it. There would be no Prates of the Caribbean if there had never been Robert Altman’s Popeye. Robin Williams has the privilege of playing the spinach eating lead role while Shelley Duvall takes on the part of Olive Oyl. You can say what you want about Popeye being a kids cartoon or comic, but I feel the movie is for all-ages. I guess it’s more nostalgia than film prowess that has helped Popeye to win my heart over the years, but that is okay because I love spinach and when I was a little child Popeye used to help me beat up bully’s at my school, so there.
1993’s Short Cuts is another epic and another outstanding accomplishment. With 22 principle characters, the story interweaves the plots so decisively and with such precision you could say it’s surgical. Another little tidbit is that it takes place in Los Angeles in the heart of the nineties, and if you can remember living in LA all the way back then, I’m sure you remember the helicopters and airplanes spraying for insects above our homes every other night of the week, that is in the film. As a special treat just for me part of Short Cuts takes place in Downey, my old stomping grounds, and though it doesn’t actually do her justice, at least we get a shout out. Unlike Michael Mann’s Heat which was filmed in Downey but doesn’t give us any props.
Short Cuts is absolutely amazing and has some of the great character actors of all-time in the cast. God bless Jack Lemmon and Robert Downey Jr. as well Tim Robbins and Lily Tomlin. Why don’t we just throw an alcoholic Tom Waits and a naked Julianne Moore into the mix and we’re on the brink of acting meltdown with so much talent walking around.
The last film on my list is a relatively unknown by Altman or at least not many people took the time to check this one out. It’s 1996’s Kansas City, staring Harry Belafonte and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Belafonte plays a jazz club owning gangster in the 30’s who is trying to collect a debt. He’s a badass son of a bitch and in the end he knifes a dude most ruthlessly and for Belafonte it is one hell of an acting moment. The visual look and style of the film is masterfully achieved and the music is oh so amazing.
Made famous by having modern day jazz stars portray their similar 30’s counterparts, a stroke of casting genius that goes hand in hand with the overall brilliance of the movie. It’s such a shame that Kansas City was not seen and appreciated by more people because it really is marvelous. It received good reviews by critics but I guess period pieces about jazz are not interesting to some people, but they are to me. This movie is pretty dark and I guess it most assuredly does not have a happy ending so maybe that has to be taken into account.
If you don’t know who Robert Altman is and you love movies then you’re in for such a delightful treat. I wish I were in your shoes because to be able to discover such an abundance of quality films that I’d had never seen would be outstanding.
You really should try and watch one of these 5 films at some point in your life. With summer right around the corner take an evening and settle into the sounds and sights of Altman, you will not regret it. You will regret going to your grave without having at least seen one movie by such a brilliant filmmaker. See Ya
All Images Copyrighted by Robert Altman & Wikipedia Courtesy of Wikipedia