The Explanation
(for those who require one)

And, of course, that is what all of this is -- all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs -- that song, endlesly reincarnated -- born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket '88', that Buick 6 -- same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness."
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather

Robert Altman Dead at 81

Robert Altman (seen here doing what few did as well as he), has passed away at the age of 81. As one of a small number of artists in mainstream American filmmaking whose methods could justly be called revolutionary, he left a mark on all Cinema that is at once indelible and enigmatic to the point of critical frustration. Fixing a definition on his unusually vast body of work, quantifying and reaching conclusions about it as one would a set of statistics, is an errand only a fool would attempt and only a knave think honorable (which, of course, will do nothing to stop obit jockeys and movie reviewers; as I write this, there are no doubt hundreds who are literally giving it the old college try). But, at the risk of committing this not-venial sin, I think one observation is in order.

If we can look upon his labors, good and bad (and his films could reach extremes of both conditions), there is at least one thread running through all of it: Altman's aesthetic was, at bottom, one of constant examination. The dreamlike slow zooms and pans so omnipresent in his filmmaking were merely the immediate visual manifestations of an endless process; one that sought to discover within a given project those elements which might, in the end, prove most transcendent. He was both drawn to and repelled by mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, and in the 1970s it resulted in one of the greatest flourishings any artist in Cinema has yet managed.

After all, you simply cannot question the fundamentals of genre cinema as vigorously as he did without an almost bottomless understanding of it. That he built his art on moving beyond the then-prevailing standards of expression should have been greeted as sign of a faith in the potental of American cinema more abiding than any of its cheerleaders could muster with a straight face; that he succeded with it as often as he did only makes today's loss all the more incalculable.


Vanwall said...

Damn. I'll miss him, he was unparalleled, prolific, quite possibly the last of the directors who could call his own shots - in this day of bean-counter studios, (lower-case, for reason) - and one shouldn't forget his television work, which was often the best thing on the tube at the time. Vaya con dios.


swac said...

This is the long goodbye...and it happens every day...

A very sad day (but one we've seen coming for a while now). I agree on the hit or miss factor, but how many filmmakers made such interesting failures?

Heck, I can see myself watching Pret a Porter or OC & Stiggs again some day...but first I think I'll pay another visit to Nashville.

Matt Blankman said...

One of the things I find inspiring about Altman was his willingness to fail. He was completely unafraid of failure - it was just a risk you ran if you wanted to make movies the way he did. So yeah, he made some true clunkers, and he owned up to them, and we're all the better for it. Altman's crap was always worth a look, and his gems shine as brightly as any director's.

For me, as much as I love California Split, The Long Goodbye, The Player, Nashville, Secret Honor and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (and others I'm forgetting), I think I'll always come back to M*A*S*H first and foremost.

Also, how wonderful was his truly thankful honorary acceptance? He did what he loved and loved doing it and got to do it for decades. Here's to him.

Matt Blankman said...

Oops - that should be honorary Oscar acceptance speech. Hey now!

SomeNYGuy said...

It don't worry me...
It don't worry me...
You may say that I ain't free,
But it don't worry me!

I can say without exaggeration that NASHVILLE changed my life and I make it a point to see it again at least once a year, usually introducing it to someone who's never seen it before. And in times of trial and trouble, I summon up the memory of Barbara Harris howling that Keith Carradine song as if her life (and maybe the fate of the world) depended on it. It doesn't make me feel better, just a little stronger and a little wiser.