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20 Essential Robert Altman Films You Need To Watch

26 September 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Michael Smith

best Robert Altman movies

He was the most prolific American iconoclast, cynical of what he saw in us and yet deeply in love with the unruly nature of the society’s most undervalued and idiosyncratic people. He turned the medium of film inside out and upside down, thumbing his nose and extending his middle finger at prescribed standards of genre expectations and formal structures, turning filmmaking into an act of insurrection and inquiry.

His work is, all at once, self-parody and affecting truth. His disarming yet addictive style took center stage with everything he touched, inviting rich collaboration with his actors and writers, yet magically keeping everything under an auteur’s unwavering control. He made acknowledged masterpieces and unquestionable flops with the same shrug-of-the-shoulders refusal to take anything too seriously about the enterprise, besides the absolute glee of getting elbow deep into the work itself.

His films are actually one long film, he once said before, and the world they witness reveals the chaos of reality seen from a distance just perfect enough to notice patterns, metaphors, coincidences, visual rhymes and a surreal, dreamlike quality that only a god could see, or one with a good buzz on from the periphery of a vast party. He consistently displayed groups and communities, hierarchies and power struggles, depicting life as a quite crowded hotel, guests unable to keep from bumping up against one another.

There was always a thrill of live performance, a death unnoticed or hanging on the margins, a self-reflexive wink at the audience (“Tonight’s movie has been: MASH”), a sense of life at its most transient, and the feeling that at any moment, hysteria could take over. His people are as secretive and unexplainable as anyone in real life, often on the edge of a precipice, headed for great change, and rarely has a filmmaker put so many characters through so many fundamental changes, and suggested such a charge in seeing how they will react when their world is yanked out from underneath them.

The astonishing amount of films he made in the 70’s, which create a veritable time capsule of who the Americans were at that time, is unparalleled, and any one of his best films from that time are exemplary of who he was and what he was doing with the medium. He showed America what it didn’t want to see, and mythologized Americans in ways the Americans never had the courage to see.

He was praised for reinventing genres and damned for making simple comedies. We never knew what to make of him when he was alive and kicking. Now that he is gone, and the long film is complete, the fluidity of his work is clearer than ever. Here is a truly incomplete list, and chronological, sure to incite disagreement, but most hopefully, to inspire visitation to his still abused and undervalued contributions to American film.

 

1. MASH (1970)

MASH

This was the beginning: the lubricated zooms, the haze of overlapping dialogue, the flattening distance of the telephoto lens capturing organized chaos, a swell of characters filling the nooks and crannies of a monochromatic world, army surgeons and their day-to-day antics in a war film like no other.

Martinis proliferate as pranks escalate and the only gunshot occurs on a football field. ‘Drunken hooliganism’ rules the day, when these men and women aren’t face down in enlisted men’s brains. Everything was new here – the sharp dichotomy of tragic wartime violence laid against the usual service comedy shenanigans, the frankness of the sexuality and the heedless tossing-out of morals, the galvanizing way in which simply watching the film made you feel complicit in a great act of mutiny against authority.

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould famously tried to overthrow their captain, suspecting the director to be out of his mind, until at least Gould came around (or ‘giggled and gave in’, as Altman would always say) and ended up working with Altman on many more films. This is a perfect introduction to Altman’s incorrigible anarchy but one shouldn’t overlook what a poignant statement it’s making about the mindset of war.

Hopefully one begins to notice the strenuous need of these characters to unleash their passions and bad behavior as a way to defiantly remind themselves that they’re still alive amongst all the senseless slaughter. The opening credits sequence, set to the classic theme ‘Suicide is Painless’ (penned by Altman’s son), is noticeably dissimilar to the tempo of the rest of the film – somber, reflective, poignant and exhibiting, with a documentary realism, the heroism of its subject.

 

2. Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud (1970)

The MGM lion appears and we lazily await the roar, but instead, as he opens his jaws, we hear a man: “I forgot the opening line.” A lecturer appears, looking ill at ease, giving us an introduction about ‘flight of birds, flight of man’. We move to a stadium where Margaret Hamilton viciously harangues a group of black musicians playing the national anthem and the film begins its opening credits sequence twice. The anarchy continued.

MASH was a hit and so, in what would prove to be one of Altman’s trademarks, he went and did something completely different with his creative freedom. And not only is this one different, it’s one of the most patently hard to describe motion pictures ever made. Something is going on here, but what exactly, is hard to nail down.

It is an essay of sorts on the nature of the birdlike in man and vice versa, addressing issues of freedom and subordination, utilizing a tactic that would become very common in Altman’s work: looking at ways of life as metaphorical or symbolic of a greater theme. The bird motif is laid over a kooky comedy about cops investigating a series of murders in Houston and their eventual connection to a young man (the incomparable Bud Cort) constructing a set of wings in the Astrodome.

There is an extended car chase sequence that parodies films like Vanishing Point and Bullitt. There are numerous visual and thematic references to The Wizard of Oz. There’s an extensive obsession with the ubiquity of bird shit. Authority is once again undermined in the form of bumbling cops and rampant racism amongst the higher powers of the film’s hierarchies. Sally Kellerman may just be a fallen angel, with scars on her back indicating where her wings used to be, serving as Brewster’s guardian.

The film is quintessential Altman at his most experimental and playful. The themes pile up like fender benders and reflect on one another as if in a daydream. One comes away from Brewster McCloud, which ends with a Fellini-esque flourish of circus mayhem, with a feeling that something very definite is being communicated but that it’s totally subconscious and permanently elusive, concerning the nature of man, his relation to a sense of freedom and childhood dreams, and the harsh realities of adult life in all of its unfairness and inevitable transgression.

Here was Altman targeting the country’s loss of innocence under Nixon’s regime, the death of the idealism of the 60s, through his own unique filter. The demented silliness of the experience is riven with a palpable anger and dismay.

 

3. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe and Mrs Miller

Often imitated, still criminally under-seen, this is one of the great masterpieces not only of Altman’s filmography, but in the annals of American film. Rarely have images in American cinema been so poetically rendered, so melancholy and dreamlike yet portraying the unforgiving veracity of America’s frontier past, freed from the genre trappings of simplified heroic gun-toting and villainous sneering, with a distinctive sense of individuals striving against the rain and snow to build a community, to secure a home in spite of unwelcoming terrain.

Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s often amber-hued compositions were famously flashed, risking the negative, so that every frame looked ripped from a daguerreotype. Every genre mainstay is toyed with here by Altman’s perverse yet valiant desire to tear down the false myths American media continuously feeds us, in order to create new ones out of a more accurate sense of reality.

Of all the Altman stylistic embellishments, McCabe brings out the best in his ability to create a real community on film. The town of Presbyterian Church feels truly lived in, not actors filling a set, but occupied with real people you’d pass by every day. The unique choice to utilize Leonard Cohen’s wistful and enigmatic songs proved a masterstroke, as the images of the film, so new and yet representative of the past, revealed a timeless quality in the songs as well, enhancing Cohen’s lyrical elusiveness with impressionistic visual poetry.

As McCabe walks across a bridge during the opening credits and Cohen sings about smoke that is ‘curling above his shoulder’, he lights a cigar whose smoke does that very thing, one of many instances of perfect synchronicity in Altman’s world, which he made look so easy and ephemeral.

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, it has been said before and needs to be repeated, were never better than they were in this film, and were supported greatly by what were then becoming Altman’s usual recurring faces: Bert Remsen, René Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, John Shuck, Robert Fortier, and Keith Carradine, who figures in what has to be one of the saddest, most cold-blooded death scenes ever shot.

Everything boils down to business in this harsh world of gambling, whores and rising capitalism, romanticism being a thing of fiction with no place in the real world. The achingly sad final moments of this film underline Altman’s recurring theme of people forever isolated within communities, unaware of the ways they are connected and unwilling to see past their own agendas. For Altman to keep insisting in his narratives that this is the way we are, while still compulsively showing us every corner of society with its innumerable characters, in exceptionally moving.

 

4. The Long Goodbye (1973)

robert-altman-the-long-goodbye-elliott-gould

Altman tackled Philip Marlowe next. It was a tackle that pinned down yet another genre and wouldn’t let it back up until every one of its tried and true qualities had been surrendered. Raymond Chandler’s detective story is turned into a bemused and more than somewhat baffled tour of early 70s Los Angeles through the half-opened eyes of what Altman deemed a Rip-Van-Marlowe, a gumshoe stumbling around in a time he doesn’t seem to recognize or even belong to.

Cinematographer Zsigmond was back and flashing once again, creating an indelible L.A. of high contrast, sunlight bleached exteriors and glassy interiors, everything refracting and reflecting in a haze while Altman’s endlessly roaming eye refuses to settle. Elliot Gould returned to become Altman’s perfect main man, mumbling, almost incoherent, unassertively sly and witty, compulsively smoking and utilizing every available surface upon which to strike his match, his refrain (“It’s O.K. with me…”) repeating like the main theme, which in itself repeats ad-nauseum, even ending up in the chimes of a doorbell.

The film is like a Mad Magazine parody played with as straight a face as possible, and it’s very telling that Jack Davis did some incredible poster work for the film. Sterling Hayden appears as a boozy, irate writer who stands as a model of the director himself, howling and bristling with defiance and desperate to break free.

“I cannot stand confinement!” he screams at his diminutive doctor/jailor (Altman regular Henry Gibson) and it rings true of Altman’s endless crusade, to stumble upon his next endeavor only to fight, tooth and nail, to break free from expectations – studio, audience or otherwise, in order to express exactly what he wanted, if not needed.

 

5. California Split (1974)

California Split (1974)

There are many Altman films, if not all of them, which are ostensibly about one thing and are more truly about another, usually something more universal and inscrutable. Brewster McCloud seems to be about birds and their relation to people but is actually about a country whose mascot, a bird, is extinct and how that country, even though it celebrates individuality and freedom, seems more than ready to marginalize and cage certain populaces.

California Split is a film about gambling, and it uses the trope of a buddy picture to settle in and get comfortable in its formal approach. In fact, the film begins with extreme formalism, as did Brewster with its lecturer giving narrative cues about birds, as a voice explains the history of gambling and the intricacies of poker during the opening credits. But even though a strenuous energy is spent on depicting a world of casinos and compulsive risk taking, the film is taking on a larger theme of addiction and the slippery slope of giving-in while trying to pin down that elusive brass ring.

Elliot Gould and George Segal (unforgettable in their double act), fuelled by Altman’s penchant for improvisational atmosphere and go-for-broke character development, leave one feeling the exhaustion and the final, eventual burn-out of anyone going down the wrong road to fulfillment.

There’s also a return to the hilarious, yet brutal, hijinks of MASH, as these two men find in each other a release of pent-up behavior, a lashing out at the boredom of the world’s routines in favor of their shared crusade for a fix. It’s a severely underrated piece of work, and another example of Altman’s uncanny ability to put not only relatable people on screen, but to illustrate them with enough oddity and attention to peculiar detail that makes them all seem truly novel.

 

6. Nashville (1975)

Nashville (1975)

It was all pointing to this, everything he’d made up to this point. One could say this was reworking another genre, the musical, but that’s far too reductive. This film was doing nothing less than taking a Chaucerian look at the Americans, their theme park country, their narrow obsessions, their pettiness and their deep, underlying virtuosity, usually glimpsed when nobody else is looking. Humanity bursts in this film like flashes of lightning in an otherwise very dark sky.

If all the other Altmans had main narratives, as low-key and dismissive as they may have been, this was a film that seemed made up of the many other narratives Altman always had hiding in the corners and sidelines. The floodgate had broken and life was pouring out full force, stories upon stories, humanity clamoring for attention.

The film is a sly marriage of show business and political machinations, blurred in the Altman miasma to make both of them indistinguishable and to therefore clarify how lost we all are in our obsessions, willing to jettison our sense of self and integrity in pursuit of our goals. One minute the son of a famous country singer is baring his soul to an interviewer, who has coaxed a song out of him he probably has written in secret and never sung to anybody else.

It’s an almost painfully shy opening-up we witness, rendered intolerable when the interviewer spies Elliot Gould and runs off in a display of almost violent detachment. The next minute we see him introduced by his father, one of the most celebrated country stars, in front of a huge audience at the Grand Old Opry and for a few seconds the audience applauds him as he stands behind his father.

There is still the wide smile he’s been giving since we met him, and, if you’re experiencing this film in the right way, you can see how this man’s PR smile, as he basks in the adoration of fandom he will only know from this limited vantage point, is tinged with sorrow and wasted dreams. Altman doesn’t push in on him to underline the moment, and it has the precarious ability to vanish unnoticed if you’re not watching the film with that sense of alarm, to sit up and look deeper at something that might be happening at any moment.

Altman wants you to zoom in sometimes and the film is rife with those evanescent moments: Lily Tomlin’s instant in front of a hotel room mirror, preparing herself for a return to her family after a tryst with a sleazy singer, as she assesses the damage and remains a stoic pillar of self, as Ronee Blakely rambles her way through a breakdown in front of an audience that rebukes her, hardly realizing they’re the only people she has to talk to, as be-goggled and sequined Jeff Goldblum performs magic tricks for free and gives rides to all and sundry through a city of high hopes and broken dreams – we are urged to look at who we are and what we can be. There has never been a more powerful, poignant, knowing, fed-up, hopeful and heartbreaking call to national consciousness.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    After having seen Health and Popeye more than once, I really can’t place them alongside such great films as Mash and Nashville, or even good films like Short Cuts and the Player.

    • Michael H. Smith

      In being tasked to list 20 essential Altman films, I felt compelled to assemble a list that represented his greatest works alongside his notorious flops, since even his ‘worst’ (subjective, indeed) films are highly exemplary of his approach and style. To truly be an Altman fan, you tend to have to see some truly out-there stuff that may or may not work for you at all, and I think that’s the fun of it. He really was all over the map. If I was making a list of his “best” films only, this would look like a very different list.

      • Ted Wolf

        Excellent point. You are right, the less than stellar Altman films make me appreciate the good ones all that much more. With that, I’d like to throw in my LEAST favorite Altman as O.C. and Stiggs.

  • Where’s Tanner ’88, Vincent & Theo, and Secret Honor?

    • Michael H. Smith

      I didn’t feel right adding Vincent & Theo because it was technically made for the BBC and ran four hours. I have never seen the full version and therefore can’t quite count it as an essential feature film, as brilliant as it is. Tanner ’88 fell somewhat into the same category since its technically a television series. Secret Honor was a very close call, but in the struggle to compile a list of only 20 films, I made a lot of decisions towards films that weren’t always Altman’s BEST films, but ones that were exemplary of the arc of his career and which displayed his style most effectively. In review, many of the 80s play adaptations paled in comparison to other works. The greatest cut I had to make was Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, since I haven’t been able to get my hands on a decent copy before or since I wrote the article and would want to give it a decent viewing before adding it.

  • Alfonso Reyes

    is weird, but i prefer robert altman films than directors like quentin tarantino, of course, probably it’s a crazy thing, but in special brewster mccloud, MASH, 3 women and the long goodbye are so good like some films today, too bad the american cinematography don’t appreciate this life in films, so metaphorical, satirical and symbolic themes, you forgot “thieves like us” but it’s a great post, robert altman in this days are one of the most underrated film makers of all time in cinema history.

  • “Popeye”, ” Dr. T”, “Pret-a-Porter”? But not the far superior “Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”??

  • “Godsford Park” is the best movie ever made that resembles a board game brought to life. It reminds me so much of ‘Cluedo’. “Pret-a-Porter” to me is just horrible. Plenty of A-list actors in that movie yet they were all wasted.