1993 – 2006
Short Cuts (1993)
Starring Andie McDowell, Bruce Davidson, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr, Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry
Combining one of my favorite directors (Altman) and one of my favorite writers (Raymond Carver) has got to result in a film I love, right? Right! Short Cuts is the sort of fragmented, mish mash and series of sour notes I love Altman for. Influenced by the jazz music of his hometown Kansas City, the director takes a cleaver to Carver’s best short stories and tells them in interwoven pieces. Moments are found where a minor character in one story can be the major character in another. Altman is at home with Carver’s ambiguity and sudden endings as well. There is a little resolution here and it reminds me of some of Altman’s best naturalist films in the 1970s. Life simply just is in the end, without rhyme or reason. Our paths cross with others, some times that causes an event to occur and some times it doesn’t matter one bit that we met them. Certain moments could be played for cheap sentimentality, but the snark of Altman refuses to let that happen.
Gosford Park (2001)
Starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Richard E. Grant
Robert Altman never met a genre he couldn’t twist into knots. Here he takes on the British murder mystery and turns it into an upstairs/downstairs look at social class, which becomes less and less about the murder and more about the divides between us. Even the two detectives who respond the country manor when a body shows up are mirroring the social gap. Thompson (Fry) is quite at home with the gentlemen of the house, while Dexter is down to the task at hand of finding clues and uncovering the murderer. One of the most impressive facts about Gosford Park is that Altman was 76 when it was filmed, and not showing the sense that his was flagging in his commitment to his craft at all.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Starring Woody Harrelson, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin
This was to be the final entry into Altman’s career. Garrison Keillor and the director collaborated in developing a film based on Keillor’s popular NPR variety show. The film features the real life performers on the weekly radio series alongside actors portraying fictional members of the troupe. On the night of the performance when the film takes place, a woman arrives claiming to be the Angel of Death. Her presence is muted for most of the film but Altman makes sure we know she is there until she plays her role at the end of the picture. This is assuredly not his best picture, but it is still a decent film from a master filmmaker. During filming, Altman would request help from P.T. Anderson as the elder man was suffering from some health problems. It is more than a little appropriate that Anderson would take part; his films Boogie Nights and Magnolia are the spiritual children of Altman’s huge ensemble pictures.
He never made a film he didn’t want to make. There were times when studios propositioned him with a concept or a script, but if he agreed it was going to be on his terms and no one else’s. Just like fellow auteur Stanley Kubrick, Altman never received an Academy Award for directing. Though he did receive a lifetime achievement award months before he passed away. He was intensely close to his family, especially his children. His son Mike was involved in writing music for MASH at the age of 14 and worked alongside his dad for decades. There is a little chance we will see another director as singularly bullheaded as Robert Altman AND able to get his pictures made on the studio’s money. And we will be the poorer for it.
Four Altman Films You Have To See!
1) 3 Women
2) The Long Goodbye
3) Secret Honor
4) Short Cuts