It’s difficult to think of the death of Robert Altman and not think of the moment in his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, when an elderly character dies and the Angel of Death (Virginia Madsen) remarks, “The death of an old man is not a tragedy” — and it’s difficult not to wonder if Altman himself knew time was running out when he made that film. Of course, nearly everything about Prairie Home deals with death (even the most casual conversations touch on it) and the passing of an era, making it feel like the work of a man facing his own mortality. I’m not prepared to agree with the idea that the passing of Altman isn’t a tragedy — for American filmmaking, it’s hard to imagine a greater one — but few filmmakers have ever gone out on such a high note as Prairie Home, and I can think of none who left us with such an elegant, accepting and even humorous statement on his or her death.
Altman was a true original — one who had the good luck to come into the world of feature films (after years of directing TV) at just the right moment. Altman came to the movies in 1968, that chaotic time when the introduction of the ratings system allowed filmmakers new freedoms regarding what was allowed on the screen, and when the breakdown of the old studio system freed them (at least for a time) from many of the constraints of front office interference. It was the ideal atmosphere for a filmmaker whose name would forever be coupled with the word “maverick.” After he made M•A•S•H in 1970, he was able to call the shots — something he managed to do for the next 36 years. He created a remarkable — and remarkably personal — body of work in the process.
Reading through Altman’s filmography is like looking over a list of modern American film’s greatest accomplishments — and some of its most notorious flops (many of which look better with the passing years). Even when Altman’s judgment failed him (at least in a box office sense), it failed him in grand style with movies like Brewster McCloud (1970), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), Quintet (1979), HealtH (1980), etc. And they were always indisputably his movies done in his style. Few filmmakers ever had to compromise as little as Altman — and the world of film is all the better and richer for it.
Much is made of his ensemble approach to storytelling and his specially designed sound system that allowed for the recording of his beloved overlapping dialogue — and much should be made of it. But when I think of Altman I think of the incredible sense of life that marks each of his movies — the great ones, the good ones and even the bad ones. That, I think, is truly the greatness of Altman. And I think the best way to remember him is to dip back into his filmography and experience the life in those films.
Don’t just stick to the standard playlist; M•A•S•H, Nashville (1975), The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) are certainly worthy, but there’s so much more. Try some of his less celebrated works (Altman expressed particular love for his films that didn’t quite work): Brewster McCloud, Buffalo Bill, A Wedding (1979), Popeye (1980). Get a feel for the enormity of his vision, and as the Angel of Death counsels in Prairie Home, “Forgive him his shortcomings and thank him for all his loving care.”