I’m an American. That is to say, I’ve spent my entire life in the United States of America. Everything I know about the world–if not reality itself–is filtered through my experiences and understanding from the sliver of time I’ve been alive from the late 20th to early 21st century in this country. When I declare “America is the best country on Earth,” I say that with passion and conviction for two reasons: 1) I’ve never lived in any other country, or in fact have never even traveled off this continent, and 2) I firmly believe this statement. How much the former has to do with the latter, or the fact that the entirety of my existence has occurred only in the USA–where it’s been repeatedly stated with just as much passion and conviction throughout my entire life as I believe it now that this is the greatest country on Earth, if not in history–may have something to do with it.
But is this the truth? From what I can ascertain, yes and no. Having neither been alive for the entirety of history, and having only experienced my own life in the USA through the lens that this country refracts everything through, I can only empirically (and singularly) come to this conclusion. I’m only human, after all: if you are from Brazil or Ireland or China, you may feel the same way about your own country. But as you believe that, as do I about my own.
Based on all of the knowledge that I’ve gobbled up during my thirty-something years alive on this planet, I am able to come to some relatively solid conclusions about history, this world, and my country’s place in it. One of these conclusions is that there has never been a country like the USA before–one that allowed and invited open mass immigration from other countries, that strove for equality and inclusion throughout its history for these huddled masses yearning to be free, and one that continued to refine its beliefs and laws to ensure freedom for all of its citizens, both old school and new. Although not perfect, above all it’s a country that hopes its people can be comfortable with who they are and how they choose to live their lives–maybe not successfully all of the time, but at least everyone gets a shot to be an individual.
Even though the harsh realities of, well, reality intrude–poverty, racial inequalities, and the number of social, political, and physical issues that hinder people’s upward mobility in the US being some highlights of this conga line of degradation–on the whole, America has worked hard and continues to work for a great number of its citizens to experience a true freedom of being the idiotic, sloppy mess that being a free human being in the world entails. Drive a cab and snort crank all night? That’s your business, bub. A single mother of three from three different dads? Tough luck, but that’s your prerogative to deal with. Angry and taking it out on the world around you? Easy, Travis Bickle: but you can act that way online as much as you want as long as it never has real-world ramifications.
We are a nation of weirdos, sluts, and degenerates, but that’s what they call character elsewhere. As Bill Murray once poignantly said about the American animal, “our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts.” And sure, we’re a nation of mutts and nutcases and weirdos who continue on the grand tradition of being the greatest assholes on earth, and that’s a proud tradition handed down to us from our adopted forefathers who invited the rejects of the world to partake in the Grand Experiment that is the USA.
Do I like our political system? Sure, why not? Do I like our economic system? It’s been working pretty good so far, from what I can tell. Do I like our society? For the most part. Do I like our culture? Well, that’s a big fat yes up and down. And maybe that’s really what I love about America the best: our culture.
Our messy, mixed-up culture that’s in a permanent state of radical flux like it always has been and (lord willing) always will be. It’s the true melting pot that our country boasts of: while we may have a divided society, our cultural output almost refutes the very notion of separation. I suspect it’s because our culture works like water: it turns into the shape of any container it’s poured into, fitting any and all agendas, perspectives, and desires that its potential audience may enjoy.
It’s the kind of controlled chaos from which jazz and rap developed from; where an astounding, genre-bending output of literature over the past 150 years sprung; from which in the short span of 40 years an entire generation went from being squares to hippies to yuppies and back again, generating a gigantic output of commercial culture through the capitalist system that defined the latter half of a century; and where our cinematic output has perhaps become the most influential in the world since the invention of the motion picture camera.
And if there’s one director who captured the nearly maddening, polyphonic chaos of American culture in the late 20th century, it’s Robert Altman. His films spring from this fertile soil, and they portray the rough-and-tumble, rambling American spirit, functioning as a continual narration of the zeitgeist of the nation. You could stitch together Nashville and Short Cuts end to end and experience a bizarre reflection of the sprawling, often random character of America that spanned from the mid-70s to the early 90s, a meta commentary on the freewheeling citizens that comprise this bursting-at-the-seams, always-striving-upwards country.
Made In America
The director himself seemed emblematic of the American spirit: a self-made filmmaker who–after flying bombing missions in the Air Force during World War II–got a false start as a screenwriter in Hollywood before returning to his hometown of Kansas City, where he made industrial films before making the low-budget exploitation film The Delinquents, which helped him break back into Hollywood. From there, Altman worked in television and then tried his hand at feature films. After making a few “straight” features, his personal breakthrough came in 1970 with the counterculture smash hit MASH. From there, he was off to the races, making films that adhered to his own perspective, constantly looking to both depict and satirize the culture around him.
His career was one of defiance, dipping back and forth between big studio productions and intensely independent features. And Altman was never satisfied to rest on a formula. Every film he made, it seemed, was a new experience, for both himself and the audience, and he was excited at being on the frontier of something new always. Like America as a concept itself, Altman was dedicated to creating the novel out of the old: he played with tropes constantly, upending conventions in order to breathe new life into staid genres.
And like America, Altman’s films were places of busy intersections of various pockets of society smashing together, creating a unique cacophony where everyone talks over each other, hoping to be heard but rarely listening to what each other is saying. The garrulous denizens of Altman’s films are populated by egocentric self-promoters, shifty con men, shiftless villains, hopelessly naive idealists, smarter-than-they-look loners and losers, broken heroes, and just ordinary folks alike. Watching an Altman film sometimes reminds me of observing a busy street in the middle of the day and wondering what the woman working as a clerk in a shop is thinking about, or overhearing a conversation between two old men, or watching a gaggle of students whoop and joke and talk with each other as they gambol down the sidewalk.
Altman fills his frames with the business of life: everyone’s moving and trying and wheedling their way through life hoping to get to the next step. In fact, Altman’s subtle suggestion throughout his work may be that the activity of trying to attain success is far more enjoyable (or at least satisfying for the self) than actually reaching that goal. His wealthy characters are almost always despondent, distant, and depressed: the “stars” that populate Nashville are cynical and sick of their business (a Loretta Lynn stand-in is mentally disturbed by the trappings of fame and success); the wealthy Hemingway-esque writer in The Long Goodbye is a burned-out suicidal drunk; the protagonist of The Player is a successful studio executive whose paranoia and pent-up rage lead him to murder what turns out to be an innocent writer; nearly every single well-heeled aristocrat in Gosford Park are desperately unhappy and seemingly unable to enjoy the opulent life they’ve been handed.
In contrast, those that are striving to attain material and career success are too distracted by trying to grab that brass ring to notice that the ones who are currently holding it are miserable; even if they’re not seeking material success, his hard-working characters seek to succeed at a personal goal, such as the eponymous Brewster McCloud who seeks to create wings to fly, or the certifiably insane characters in H.E.A.L.T.H., who campaign and debate each other to win the presidency of a health organization. Even the foot servants of the dour aristocrats of Gosford Park idly daydream of somehow living the life of their masters while never quite making the connection between their wealth and their unhappiness; and those that have are similarly unhappy for having to serve people who can’t even enjoy their own good luck.
Tellingly, and subversively, it seems like the goof-offs and slackers in Altman’s work are the most content, having figured out that the rat race and playing the game of material success will never make them any happier than they already are: one of my personal favorites, the overlooked O.C. & Stiggs, pointedly make the Reaganite upper middle-class status seekers look like the biggest losers in the world while the wildcard teenage protagonists create chaos in their world for the sake of fun and very little else. Perhaps the entire point of California Split is built on this thesis: after two gamblers collude to win a poker tournament, succeed in doing so, and then find themselves on a hot streak as their winnings pile up, one of them suddenly feels apathetic towards the entire endeavor and suddenly quits. Perhaps like Altman, never satisfied in his pursuit of the next interesting project, once one reaches their dream, disillusionment quickly follows.
Heroes & Villains
It’s often been remarked that there are no true villains in Altman’s work, or if there are villains, they are only villains because of how they relate to our “protagonists.” Often, Altman’s villains are largely absent catalysts for the events that unfold: in Short Cuts, the woman who ruins a family’s life by unknowingly mortally wounding a young boy with her car is shown throughout not to be a bad person, and by the end of the film she’s gleefully enjoying a drink with her lover, unaware of the tragedy that she’s caused just across town. In The Long Goodbye, our villain–a supposed friend of our shabby shamus protagonist Philip Marlowe–left the film near the beginning, causing Marlowe a world of trouble and destroying a handful of lives due to his callous actions, and we last see him relaxing by a pool in Mexico, oblivious (or otherwise not caring about) the havoc he’d created in his wake. Perhaps Bluto from Popeye is the only concrete villain in an Altman film, but that’s the nature of the paper-thin characterization that came from adapting a cartoon. And even then, he’s last seen cowardly swimming away, not clasped in iron or killed for his villainy.
If there are no true villains in Altman’s work, of course, that means there can be no heroes. And really, there aren’t: aside from some good-natured types whose truth-telling exonerate the wrongfully accused (such as in Cookie’s Fortune), or hero-types whose own foibles and natural inclinations towards sin quickly knock them off of any sort of pedestal the audience could feasibly construct for them to stand upon (like the characters in MASH), there aren’t any clear-cut “heroes” in his work. Protagonist is a better word: there are lead characters whose story we follow and are the catalyst for the action. Marlowe tries to be a hero in The Long Goodbye but is unable to truly affect any sort of positive change; even his most heroic moment at the end, where he shoots dead his longtime friend, is sour and unpleasant, and it’s hinted that the character becomes even more cynical from the experience.
Perhaps the biggest denouncement of heroism Altman ever put to film is in the anti-Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. After working towards his own self-interests throughout the film, working more like a businessman than a cowboy, John McCabe decides to act the hero and confront the “bad guys” head-on, only to be shot and killed for his efforts. Life goes on without him, and besides a bleary-eyed long gaze from the high-on-opium Mrs. Miller in the final shot, there is no suggestion that he had any impact on anybody else in this world.
The concept of heroes and villains–and even a clear-cut morality–is mostly off the table in Altman’s work. As in life, the lines between “good” and “bad” are blurry, and the consequences of acting either way–even if the lines of demarcation are clear–are largely ignored, either positive or otherwise. In The Player, Altman takes this to the extreme, with the obviously corrupt and potential sociopath Griffin Mill having gotten away with (a completely unjust) murder, has saved his job at the studio, and is left celebrating his good fortune with a beautiful woman in his arms. In Altman’s universe, justice is scarce and rarely served to the right people.
Life As We Know It
“He loved the chaotic nature of real life, with conflicting perspectives, surprising twists, unexplained actions, and ambiguous endings. He especially loved many voices, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing, ideally overlapping, a cocktail party or a street scene captured as he experienced it.” – Mitchell Zuckoff, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
An Altman film is distinguished by long, lingering shots of a crowd of people as they all move and talk and jostle for attention from each other: Nashville, one of Altman’s bona fide masterpieces, is distinguished by this arresting mise-en-scène, with scenes overflowing with characters who come and go throughout the plot wheeling and dealing their way through the busy, competitive atmosphere of professional music. Some may find this cacophonous approach to filmmaking headache-inducing, but I find it fascinating. It’s like sitting on the couch at a party and taking in the action, trying to capture bits and pieces of the repartee–some of it witty, some self-conscious or -serving, most of it thinly veiled bullshit–and following the active scene as it unfolds among itself. It’s an extreme vision of the nature of watching a film, where Altman takes the perspective of a documentarian, allowing the action to naturally unfold.
It’s no surprise to find out that Altman was a fan of improvisation, letting his actors find their characters’ words and actions through natural reasoning. While some actors found this frustrating, used to following a script by the letter, many actors–who not coincidentally became staple players in his films–loved this approach, preferring to let their own interpretation of their character inform their performance. On-screen, the effect is similarly striking: letting scenes unfold like a controlled sort of chaos, Altman captures the feel of life as we know it, itself a heavily improvised game being performed within settings of controlled chaos.
Instead of treating a film like a play, where all the actors, actions, and camera movements are carefully planned and plotted down to the period, Altman encouraged his actors and cameramen to let the scenes spill out over the edges of the frame, giving his films a feeling of spontaneity and open-endedness, much like reality. In Altman’s films, you can begin to feel as if although a character has left the screen, they are continuing on their life elsewhere–we just aren’t witnessing it right now.
Altman didn’t break the rules of filmmaking but bent them as far as they could go. Besides his often open interpretation to characters, plot, and the general shape of his films, Altman could be best described as a genre satirist: all of his films are satires of established genres whose tropes he inverted (and subverted) at every possible turn. Gosford Park satirized the mystery genre; The Long Goodbye the detective genre; OC & Stiggs the teen comedy; The Player satirizes Hollywood in general; Nashville satirizes country music; and Short Cuts is a broad satire of American culture itself.
It’s also not coincidental that all of his films (save for two–Gosford Park and Prêt-à-Porter [Popeye, being a cartoon adaptation, is set in the fictional, nation-less town of Sweethaven]) take place in America and focus squarely on the archetypes, characters, and characteristics that Altman had observed in his home country’s culture. As detailed before, “The American” (at least the Late 20th-Century American) is an eager mutt of ideas, influences, desires, and drives: everyone’s trying to represent themselves to upsell themselves to other people.
Whether active in their intent or not, everyone’s personal identity is fiercely defended by themselves, as well. Many conflicts in Altman’s films come from people fiercely defending their identity–from either the defamation or influence of someone or else are attempting to re-establish their own identity. Short Cuts is largely a film focused almost exclusively on this attempt to retain self-identity, even if it’s to disastrous results.
Perhaps that’s what’s so enviable about Altman’s position as a maverick director in the late 20th century: he was in a prime position to pinpoint the (increasingly) contradictory terms of being an American citizen at that time: that you were expected to succeed, or at least have the common dignity to fake your desire to find success; that you would be intensely public with one’s self while also fighting to maintain both your individuality and your autonomy; and that all of these goals were held on a string always dangling in front of you by the person you hope best to hand its control back.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller features a publicly bold man who is privately beholden to a woman who will never love him the way he wants, and whose rejection spurs him into foolish action that eventually costs him his life; MASH features a group of doctors struggling to keep sane in a hostile, unpleasant reality through casual sex, drinking, and hijinks, but deeply understand the futility of these distractions in the face of the grim reality they’re stuck in; California Split, Dr. T & The Women, and The Long Goodbye (and, to an extent, 3 Women) all feature protagonists whose identity is tied to particular concepts, only for the very foundations that they build said identities upon to erode underneath them, leaving them trying to salvage what remains; The Player is about a man who only has his exterior, public persona to cling to when his private self rots and crumbles away; Cookie’s Fortune is a study of the desperate attempts of relatives and neighbors to somehow make sense of a loved one’s identity after she passes, sending them into various crises of their own identity in its wake; Secret Honor is literally a monologue featuring President Nixon revealing his private thoughts and dirty dealings while trying to contend with his place in history; and Gosford Park is about the secrets and lies that culminate when private lives are kept hidden while everyone attempts to keep up a facade with their public faces.
Only a director who couldn’t give a damn either way whether the audience engaged with such complex, nuanced themes could create these movies, so sure he was of his own vision, and that kind of director could have only existed in a time and place where there was so much loose money available in the free market enterprise of filmmaking that all of these esoteric, expensive experiments in cinema could be funded. Altman was never a moneymaker at the box office: every decade or so he would have a hit that would buoy his chances at getting his next three projects funded.
But the work he produced during his lifetime is not only memorable, it’s a chronicle of the American 20th century. Of attitudes, characters, situations, and scenarios that could have only existed at that particular, spectacular moment in time in that exact historical-cultural locus that he details in each of his films. And it’s incredible that he did exist to make these films, now part of the Western canon–and possibly Western history–forever.
Robert Altman – A Perfect Director
Robert Altman never made an immaculate picture because he knew that he wasn’t portraying an immaculate world: it was a sloppy, messy, often inconclusive place filled with excess and ego and competing voices hoping to be heard however briefly above the din. It’s not that his films were riveting, but because they were expansive and loose and seemingly made up as they went along, comprised of long drifting shots that caught all the action, whether mundane or dramatic. Much like our own drifting, panoramic view of our own lives, this strategy made Altman’s films fascinating works of art.
He captured the big, beautiful mess that was American culture in the late 20th century perhaps better than any other director. And above all, he was an American director who understood the character of the country and reflected the ball of contradictions that its society, culture, and people became towards the end of the 20th century. Robert Altman wasn’t just a great director, but a perfect director for his time and place.