I've been very interested in Robert Altman's work for many years now; I have an Altman icon and even have created a tag for entries in which I discuss his work. The renaissance of Altman films on DVD of recent years has given me quite a bit to discuss over the years, but now, at the end, I am at a loss.
Altman didn't so much make films in different genres as he did make his own films a genre unto themselves. He is one of the few directors that I can point at as being a true auteur without fear of an argument. The strangest thing about Altman's body of work is that while there are certainly themes that are revisited throughout and an extremely distinctive style, it is also has some of the widest scope of any filmmaker I can imagine.
Now, I'm not a blind worshipper of the man; he has had quite a few duds in his ouevre, such as Cookie's Fortune or Dr T and the Women (the latter of which I must admit I didn't bother to finish; maybe I'll revisit it someday). But he went through a period in the 70s when he was producing some amazing work, some of which is now considered the definitive cinematic work on the relevant subjects (the one-two punch of California Split and Nashville), and many remain not only interesting and probing, but entertaining as well.
The Pros from Dover
I make no apologies for the fact that my favorite Altman film is M*A*S*H. It was the first of his that I saw, and in many ways it encapsulates what I like about Altman. We've seen the Hollywood version of M*A*S*H; it ran for eleven seasons. Now, I liked the television show, but I found Altman's take on the material much more fascinating. It was darker, angrier, and it didn't wear its heart on its sleeve. The sense of humor was a lot pricklier, and in my opinion fit the subject matter.
The movie was shown on cable throughout my high school years, and it is one of those I can recite almost chapter and verse. Most of the Altman trademarks are already there, from the lazy but curious camera movements to the overlapping dialogue, and if the film isn't as deep as some of his later works, it is nevertheless endlessly entertaining. The cluttered nature of the mise en scène means that one can watch the film twenty times and each time see something new in it.
His twisted comedies, such as Brewster McCloud, A Wedding, A Perfect Couple offer a certain comfortable familiarity even when they fall flat, but it is his psychological films that I think may be among his most important contributions. Images and Three Women are the only two American films that I've ever seen that rival Ingmar Bergman's work in terms of how deeply they probe the question of identity.
But what Altman excelled at was capturing the feel of the American landscape. This is the basis for many of his best films, and all feature vivid depictions: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s), Nashville (the quintessential film about the topic), California Split (), The Long Goodbye (Los Angeles of the early 70s), Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (post-war Civil War American West) and Short Cuts (Los Angeles of the early 90s). While Altman from time to time pointed his camera in other directions (Quintet, Popeye, Gosford Park, Vincent and Théo), it is this aspect of his body of work that he will be most remembered for.
And now he's gone. Somewhat unexpectedly as well, as he released a Prairie Home Companion only just this year. Of all of the filmmakers whose work I look to for inspiration, he is one of the few that I would like to have met, not so much to pick his brain, but to just sit with, share a joint and bullshit. His death is disturbing because it means that a unique voice (one that was still producing interesting work) has been silenced. And modern American cinema is the poorer for it.
Interesting tidbit: Altman has directed Sally Kellerman, Julie Christie, Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith in Oscar-nominated performances.