Why I Love Robert Altman (and Why I Think You Should Too)

Think of the directors of the New Hollywood era and write down the first few names that come to mind. The names you most likely wrote down are Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, etc. AKA the big directors we still talk about and worship today. However, I’ll bet you that one name that you didn’t write down was Robert Altman. Why? Well, were you to ask me two years ago during what period Robert Altman directed, I probably would have asked if you meant Robert Aldrich, because who is Robert Altman? My poor eighteen years-old self.

Why is it that one of America’s greatest directors is forgotten and hardly discussed in that crucial turning point in film? Is it because of his being labeled as a misogynist (which I do not agree with and believe is an overused and misused label), or because he didn’t have a consistent string of popular, money making films like so many of the other New Hollywood directors? It really boils down to a one word question: why?

I can’t answer that question, and I don’t think I ever will be able to answer it for it’s beyond me. All I can do is enlighten others to the unique world that is solely Robert Altman’s in hope that some day he will be given the recognition he deserves. With that, I wanted to tell you why I love Robert Altman and, thus, why I think you should love him (or at least give him a chance) too.

Perhaps it is best to start with, quite simply, the Altman style: long takes, long lens with zooms, overlapping dialogue, in essence, everything I’d aspired to do if I wanted to be a director. There is nothing in the Altman style that suggests mindless movie-watching. In fact, if you’re not active enough, you may find yourself becoming “bored” with what is on the screen. Instead, Altman respects the audience’s intelligence and patience. Why “cut, cut, cut” when you can shoot with long takes and let things play out as they do in real life? In a world today where everything is about immediate gratification and getting to the point, Altman is a relief for this poor, stressed college girl. Why? Because Altman trusts me with his films.

For most of this post I will be focusing on Nashville, as it is the Altman film I have seen the most. I have yet to watch Nashville (a movie I have seen at least 20 times, I kid you not) and not have seen or heard something new. Every single time I sit down and watch it, I discover some new layer to the plot or another dimension to one of the characters. Every rewatch has been worth it and not a waste of time. Perhaps that is what drew me back the second time; I had only grasped the surface of the film, maybe because I was tired or I didn’t realize just how much Altman needed from me, and I knew I needed to go back for more for a clearer understanding. Yet here I am, a good 20 rewatches later, and I feel there is so much more to be discovered.

As if his directing wasn’t enough, Altman’s personality and attitude is everything that I aspire to be. I had never heard of someone say one bad thing about John Ford (whom I am not a fan of) but right there in an interview, Altman said he never liked any of Ford’s films. In that same interview, Altman dismisses the notion of being an auteur for, truly, he is not. While he is the director and one of the editors, he encourages everyone on the crew to contribute, most notably for the actors and actresses to improvise. The contribution of everyone is essentially the number one no-no of the auteur theory; while it is the Altman style, this does not mean he is the sole creator because he did not tell his actors and actresses what to do. As you may guess, the auteur theory isn’t exactly my favorite theory nor do I believe it should be the ultimate mode of production. What I admire about Altman is his ability to reign in all of what everyone has contributed into one complex and rich theme. Now how impressive is that?

When you watch an Altman film, there is always much more than just the surface. It is impossible, especially in his large ensemble casts, to just have a surface level. Overlapping dialogue and long shots tracing over multiple actions on the screen beg you to look deeper and make connections. To me, Altman is pure cinema as he can only exist as cinema. As screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury says, Nashville “literally moves through time and space,” and that’s it. You cannot write a book or paint a painting of the plot of Nashville; it’s impossible.

There are so many other films of Altman’s that I’ve yet to see. Like any director, not all of them are fantastic or a masterpiece, but they are still important to watch. I’m going to take my time with Altman because there is so much to learn from him. Altman is my favorite director and I refuse to let the ride end too soon.

So I leave you with this post and encourage you to seek out some Altman films. You will not be disappointed, I promise. While I have not seen all of Altman’s films, these are some that I have seen and highly recommend: Nashville, The Player, The Long Goodbye, and 3 Women. {Other films (I have not seen) include: McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Godsford Park}

(If you loved this post on Robert Altman, stay tuned for this spring I will be beginning my undergraduate thesis on women in Robert Altman’s films!)

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