Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Goodbye Mr. Altman

The classic American filmmaker Robert Altman died today at 81 in Los Angeles. Altman was one of the most prolific and most important American directors, responsible for such canonical U.S. films as M.A.S.H., Nashville, The Player, The Long Goodbye and my personal favorite, Fool For Love. After seeing the lovely A Prairie Home Companion over the summer, I stated on this site that the film, through its style and content, certainly positioned itself as his swan song. It’s thick atmosphere of nostalgia, as a beautiful angel of death weaves unseen through the backstage of Garrison Keillor's radio show on its last night, observing the players as they relive memories from their glory days and say goodbye to an older way of life, embodied the vision of a man sweetly and unblinkingly looking mortality in the face. However, after the film’s release (amidst all the rumors of his poor health and this being his last project), it was reported that he was in better health and, I believe, working on a new project. Despite how truly sad his passing is, and that fact that his next project was never completed, it is beautifully fitting that his last film was such a self-conscious and beautiful goodbye. Many artists follow such an opus with a much more minor work, losing what should be their right to go out on a high note. Luckily, this can not be said for Mr. Altman.

Altman was one of the last living members of the Hollywood old school, although his rebellious productions, classical narrative-bending scripts, and auterism (before the concept had even been introduced academically, let alone legitimized by the box office) paved the way for the rambunctious Movie Brats and “New Hollywood” of the 1960s and 70s (of which he was an older, but still integral figure). He was an artist who straddled the gap between a radically evolving Hollywood. He road the loosely structured American New Wave effortlessly and brought to this New Hollywood an older knowledge and professionalism that his younger contemporaries lacked. His death truly marks a great passing in the world of film, and the loss of a stable cinematic nucleus and guiding light with which to understand the trajectory of narrative filmmaking. He will truly be missed. Luckily, he was extremely prolific and left us a huge body of work which can be meaningfully enjoyed again and again. Go out and rent one of his many great films if you can.

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