Deep Cuts: Altman at MoMA

12/03/2014 4:00 AM |
Photo courtesy of Criterion


Robert Altman

December 3-January 17 at MoMA

Cinematic retrospectives are the original mode of binge-watching. Fassbinder famously “discovered” Sirk in this manner during a 1970 Viennese series, serving as the catalyst for some of the German enfant terrible’s best work. Before Netflix series-drops at midnight or torrents, art consumption in bulk required significantly more dedication and interest. And while cases can clearly be made for the 21st century brand of insta-everything, there’s still something to relish about a survey course as grand and exhaustive as MoMA’s Robert Altman series, presenting all of the irascible maverick’s work from his early days as a hired hand on Alfred Hitchcock Presents to the cinematic groundbreaking of masterworks as diverse as Nashville, 3 Women and Gosford Park. Perhaps more than most directors, Altman’s kalaidescopic tapestries of American modernity are best shown on the big screen, where his signature long shots and voyeuristic, observational style can creep into the viewer’s psyche the way it was meant to, subtly and without incidence.

One obvious intention of a series as sprawling and comprehensive as this is to unearth thematic motifs, aesthetic signatures, and any other defining characteristic that is best noticed when serialized rather than standalone. Altman’s contributions to cinema, of course, are canon, from his massive ensemble casts and innovative sound design to his flagrant eschewing of narrative and genre tradition. His half century-long career was not without its conspicuous misfires; the chasm between Altman’s most and least successful work is sizeable, perhaps more so than other directors of his stature. However, even his notorious failures like Paul Newman-led sci-fi Quintet (December 19 and 22) and most of his dramaturgical 80s work, is illustrative, particularly when contextualized by the declarative works that bookend them. It’s worth revisiting Altman’s notable contributions, iconic and otherwise, to glean a full portrait of a complex artist.

Along with fellow hard-nosed American auteur Sidney Lumet, Altman is one of the first directors to sharpen his claws in a then booming and nascent television industry. Early-50s work on Combat (December 4) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (December 7) paid the bills and established Altman as a competent director for hire, but the lack of thematic diversity or artistic agency soon led him to leave television for early, non-descript but intriguing features like 1964’s Nightmare in Chicago (December 4), a post-Psycho serial-killer TV mystery, and 1968’s Countdown (December 6), a man-on-the-moon drama starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. These films are fine, but it’s not until disturbing character study That Cold Day in the Park (December 7 and 10), starring an unerringly brilliant Sandy Dennis as a woman who picks up and obsesses over a sexy drifter, that Altman’s signature flourishes are traceable. Here you see in full swing his staples: distant, leering POV that occasionally zooms in and out for emphasis; rambling, at times incoherent dialogue that prizes naturalism over clarity; attention to elliptical moments rather than flagship ones. These elements remain throughout Altman’s career, stubbornly so at times, but in so doing introduced an innovative narrativized formalism that continues to influence younger generations (PT Anderson is an obvious example).

It’s easily taken for granted now, but Altman’s dedication to ensemble pieces were a relatively innovative narrative design at the time (with Renoir’s Rules of the Game a clear predecessor). These are his most iconic works, the ones that canvass the human experience from all perspectives, like M*A*S*H (December 8), Nashville (December 19) and Gosford Park (December 12), all of which cast a wide net to showcase the director’s interest in real people and common stories. In contrast to these, however, are Altman’s more intense and experimental chamber pieces, mostly solemn Bergmanesque character dramas focusing on just one or two people in moral or psychological crisis. The quality of these works is less consistent, to be sure, mostly arising from the director’s inability to adapt style for story. For all his many strengths, Altman was not a protean: his uniform approach to craft comprised similar cinematographic or aural design regardless if it was most appropriate as a storytelling device. It works on stunning films like Images (December 11 and 13), focusing on Susannah York’s psychological self-embattlement, masterwork 3 Women (December 17 and 20), Altman’s dreamlike rumination on female companionship starring muse Shelley Duval and Sissy Spacek, or claustrophobic Secret Honor (December 27 and 30), featuring a scene-chewing Philip Baker Hall as a defensive yet defeated Richard Nixon. These fascinating character studies utilized Altman’s roving technique for chilling effect by depicting unmoored people in a surreal environment.

Of all the things he’s been credited for over the years, Altman’s steadfast determination to tell untold stories was never as maverick as during his trio of films featuring queer protagonists. After the colossal and public failure of Popeye (December 22 and 26), Altman spent most of the 80s adapting theatrical works, incensed by a studio system that began to champion revenue over artistry. He started this period with HealtH (December 21 and 27), the unfairly dismissed Lauren Bacall/Carol Burnett ensemble satire that signaled commercial nadir for Altman, released in the same year as Popeye. His next two works, career highlight Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (December 4 and 28), featuring the never-better lineup of Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black and Kathy Bates, and Streamers (December 26 and 29), starring David Alan Grier and a pre-Full Metal Jacket Matthew Modine, tackled controversial issues about transgender characters and conformity in a small town and gay panic in the military, respectively. Altman wasn’t afraid to say what he thought, ever, and these stories inspired him when few were brave enough to tell them, let alone pull in A-list talent to enact them. These films didn’t just depict heretofore unseen queer figures, they confronted the bigoted norms that contributed to that ubiquitous relegation, with Altman in all his confrontational glory at the helm.

After a series of career lowpoints in this era, such as the turgid Sam Shepard adaptation Fool for Love (December 29), Altman rebounded with The Player (December 6 and 23), a searing Hollywood yarn that only a rejected talent like Altman could tell at this particular career juncture. Rejuvenated, the long-gestating Raymond Carver collection Short Cuts (screening in January), one of his most defined works, followed.

MoMA’s series shows Altman at all periods of his career, from zeitgeist-capturing in the Vietnam/Nixon era when contrarianism was heralded, to the consumer culture of the 80s when it wasn’t. It’s instructive to see these works on the big screen because Altman’s films, at once irreverent and personal, are an immersive experience. Highlights of the series include all his well-known work that defies genre, like revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (December 10), and films that have and should continue to be reconsidered, like murderous lovers-on-the-run Thieves Like Us (December 13 and 26) and Altman’s carte-blanche underestimated post-M*A*S*H farce Brewster McCloud (December 9 and 11). The series continues in January with such works as Short Cuts, Tanner ’88 and Tanner on Tanner, his groundbreaking TV mockumentaries, and The Company, an underrated late-period look at the world of ballet.