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Robert Altman

1925 – 2006
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  November 27, 2006

McCABE & MRS. MILLER: McCabe’s ride into scrappy, burgeoning Presbyterian Church is as stoning as Mrs. Miller’s opium.

There’s a scene in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo where Sien (Jip Wijngaarden), the prostitute who lives with Van Gogh (Tim Roth) and poses for him, takes a break from an arduous modeling session. But when she squats to relieve herself in a chamber pot, he goes on sketching her, and she’s appalled and affronted. “You can draw me if I model, not if I’m myself,” she protests. But that distinction is meaningless to Van Gogh. And it was to Altman, too, who died on November 20 at age 81, after a career of half a century’s duration that by any standard would have to be called formidable. No director in the history of the medium did as much to break down the boundary between narrative film and reality.

Altman treated screenplays as blueprints, improvising with his actors, taking advantage of their inspirations and of found moments to keep the production vivid and quicksilver — most famously on the set of Nashville (1975), where the actors playing C&W performers wrote their own songs and Ronee Blakley, in the role of a fragile singing star, scripted her character’s breakdown scene. He employed a sophisticated multi-track system to record his trademark overlapping dialogue in an effort to replicate what the rhythms of real-life conversation sound like. He used so many cameras to shoot a scene — especially the bustling, large-cast sequences he was most celebrated for — that his actors never knew what the focus of any moment would end up being after editing. His insistence that they continue to behave in character, their arc unbroken by the usual artificial, fragmented filmmaking process, was one reason actors adored him, many opting to work with him again and again. Like Stanislavsky, he believed fervently in the ensemble ideal and the prevalence of truth over any kind of sham. His best movies — M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves like Us, California Split, and Nashville in the ’70s; Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Secret Honor in the ’80s, Vincent & Theo and Cookie’s Fortune in the ’90s, Gosford Park in 2001 — suggest a vision of life so honeycombed and varied in perspective (true even of Secret Honor, which films a one-man show about Richard Nixon) that they’re best thought of alongside the work not of most other filmmakers but of Virginia Woolf.

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