I was driving this afternoon by Ward Circle, having listened to Terry Gross' great interview with Parker Posey and on my way in to pick up my stack of papers to grade. It promises to be a cinematic weekend indeed, what with fifty mini-tomes on González Iñárritu's Babel. But then Terry Gross announced, "Coming up next, we take a look back at the life of Robert Altman, who died last night at the age of 81" and I cried out, almost stopping the car in the middle of the circle.
One thing is to appreciate a director and his work and, as a film scholar, I dutifully venerate Altman as the auteur he is. If nothing else, I use his films every semester to teach how sound can be used to focus attention on the screen instead of the camera, a technique he basically pioneered.
Perhaps more than any other contemporary director, however, Altman's work has connected with me on a personal level for quite a long time. One of my best students during my current tenure at AU wrote a fantastic piece in my course on the musical extolling the virtues of Nashville, brilliant enough that I was convinced to include it the next time I taught the course. My own interest in genre (and indeed of higher film study in general) started largely because of a paper I wrote in graduate school on the fascinating anti-Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a movie that still takes my breath away. I remember wrapping up an evening of chatting about pedagogy with my very first mentor, Julie Kalish (who laid the foundation for everything I know about teaching), by our going to see Short Cuts, still one of my favorite films. (The closing credits started to roll and, after three hours, Julie and I were mystified that there wasn't more movie to watch.) M*A*S*H; Three Women; Gosford Park; The Long Goodbye; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean: the list goes on and even when Altman failed (such as in the steaming pile that is Pret-a-Porter), he failed impressively.
It is even arguable that I would not be where I am today without Altman. As a senior in college, I wrote a paper bringing together reactions of Willa Cather's A Lost Lady and Altman's just-released ransom note to Hollywood, The Player. I was intrigued that both texts garnered the same responses from my peers: thrill for most of it, only to be met with disappointment at the end when the anti-hero triumphed instead of receiving a come-uppance. In clearing my paper topic, Professor Jahner (who I later realized I wanted to emulate when I would become a professor) laughed and said, "I don't know what you're talking about, but you seem more than fascinated by this movie. Go for it and see what happens." I was so proud of this paper that I submitted it as my writing sample to get into graduate school -- and sure enough, it got me into Michigan.
But my relation to Altman goes even further than that.
You see, my first memory of having a cinematic experience involves an Altman film.
Surely, I had been to the movies before 1980; I have a vague recollection of having seen Star Wars like everyone else on its release in 1977, and Grease and Xanadu came out before then as well, fueling my obsession with Olivia Newton-John. But the first visceral joy of going to the movies? That belongs to 1980's Popeye.
I didn't get to go to the movies too often as I was growing up. We really didn't have the money to spend on anything in those days, so I spent most of my time in the backyard. (This is fine for a kid, by the way. My own son is growing up like this.) Going to the movies, like going out to eat, was therefore a big deal. I distinctly remember one day my parents were fighting about something and Mom got really angry. She grabbed my hand, marched me to the car and started driving. "Come on," she said, "we're going to the movies." "We are?!" I said, incredulous and thrilled. I don't even think I knew what we were seeing, but I was 8 and any movie would be fine by me. And, truth be told, I loved this movie. I watched the Popeye cartoons all the time before school, and the funny guy with the puffy forearms (some guy named Robin Williams) was just great. There was a certain joy in seeing the lunacy of the cartoon come to life, not to mention that Shelley Duvall looked exactly like Olive Oyl. (Eerie.) I remember watching the movie at the Baldwin Twin Cinema on Grand Avenue with a bag of popcorn, aware of my mother steaming in the seat next to me, but calming down and eventually laughing through her tears. By the end of the movie, everything was OK, we went home -- and, in my 8-year-old way, I learned that the movies have a curious and magical power.
Popeye is today considered one of Altman's worst films: a commercial flop and the last straw that sent him careening away from Hollywood forever. Years later, when I discovered who "Altman!" was, a name to be venerated in hushed tones amongst fellow film snobs, I was tickled to find that he had directed this. I haven't seen it since back then (except the ending, which I caught once as the movie was finishing on cable) and I wonder if, like Xanadu, the film will age so badly that I will now find it laughable. I doubt it. Even so, the memory of that first truly cinematic experience will remain -- and for that alone, Robert Altman, I thank you more than I can possibly express.
Shelley Duvall, needing Robert.
If you're looking for more tributes, check out this rather comprehensive list at GreenCine.