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Robert Altman (1925-2006): Moments

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The Dangerous Woman pays a final visit -- with a smile. From the ending of "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006).

I'm off this week, but I needed to personally acknowledge the death of Robert Altman, the first great director I ever met, and the filmmaker whose work (particularly "Nashville," "3 Women," "The Long Goodbye" "California Split" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" -- all of which were originally released, and encountered by me, when I was in my ultra-impressionable teens), most inspired my love of movies and my determination to devote my life to them. I first met Altman in person when I was 18 or 19, in the living-room-like lobby of the Harvard Exit Theatre in Seattle at the world premiere of "3 Women" (or, possibly, Alan Rudolph's "Welcome to L.A."). He was standing by the grand piano, by himself, and I, shaking and sweating, forced myself to go over and talk to him. He spoke back. I couldn't believe it: To me, it a "Sherlock, Jr." moment, as if I'd somehow passed through the screen and was interacting with someone on the other side. Over the next 20 years or so, I would interview him a number of times in a professional capacity, and I relished these sharp, thoughtful, intelligent, funny conversations. I don't remember much of anything about that first chat, though, except that my end of the exchange would not be described by any of the adjectives in the previous sentence. But it had a huge impact on me.

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Two anecdotes: 1) Shortly before the release of "The Player," when I was working in Los Angeles, I went to interview Altman -- I think it was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, or maybe the Chateau Marmont, I'm not sure. When I arrived, Altman was on the phone with Fine Line, cussing them out about the advertising budget. I was talking to the publicist about my trip to Europe, from which I'd just returned, and saying how I found it exhilarating and liberating to be in a strange city, and to be out in public, and not understand the conversations that are taking place all around you.

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The instant Altman got off the phone he practically leapt to the other side of the room: "I heard what you were saying about being in Europe and that's exactly the way I've felt! I lived in Paris for years and never learned French. You realize there's just so much extraneous bullshit you don't have to listen to if you don't know the language!"

This from the man who pioneered the multi-track Lions Gate Sound System, and whose movies are known for their almost contrapuntal background dialog (wrangled, in some of the '70s films, by assistant director Rudolph), finely tuned babble that picks up on little bits of character from the edges of the frame (or even beyond it) and makes a scene come to life as an immersive experience.

2) Years later, at a then-rare screening of "Nashville" I attended at the Walter Reade Theater in New York (yes, by the mid-to-late-1990s it was virtually impossible to find a showable 35mm print of "Nashville," one of the greatest films of all time), actor Scott Glenn (who played Pfc. Glenn Kelly) told a story about how the actors were individually miked and, in crowd scenes, often didn't even know if they were within the scope of Paul Lohman's wide-screen Panavision frame.

"How will I know if I'm on camera?" Glenn recalled someone asking.

"You won't," Altman said. "Just do something interesting and you might end up in the picture."

* * * *

Roger Ebert's Altman Home Companion: Reviews and Interviews with Robert Altman, 1969-2006

Richard T. Jameson's appreciation of Altman at MSN Movies

Dennis Cozzalio: Goodbye, Mr. Altman

David Hudson at GreenCine compiles Altman tributes

UPDATE: 11/22/06: A.O. Scott has the finest Altman obit I've seen in the MSM, using the ending of "California Split" as a way of discussing Altman's career:

Mr. Altman thrived on the shapelessness and confusion of experience, and he came closer than any other American filmmaker to replicating it without allowing his films to succumb to chaos. His movies buzz with the dangerous thrill of collaboration — the circling cameras, the improvising actors, the jumping, swirling sound design — even as they seem to arise from a great loneliness, a natural state that reasserts itself once the picture is over. A makeshift tribe gathers to produce a film, or to watch one, and then disperses when the shared experience has run its course. Everyone is gone, and the only antidote to this letdown is another film....

But if ["A Prairie Home Companion"] was a last gathering of the troupe, after which the lights dim forever, and the audience disperses, it was also just another movie in a career like no other, and when it was over — in the ending I like to imagine — American cinema’s greatest gambler shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

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