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.