Robert Altman Altman, Robert (Vol. 16) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Altman 1925–2006

American filmmaker.

With the release of M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, Altman won critical praise for his innovation and his artistry. However, the very techniques which brought him this acclaim, such as obscure themes and meandering plot lines, have also kept his films from wide audience appeal.

For ten years Altman directed, produced, and wrote for television, working on episodes for such popular series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza. In 1967 he directed a film called Countdown, starring a relatively unknown actor named James Caan. Even though he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film (and for this reason has subsequently disavowed it), it is generally considered far better than most of the other science fiction films of that era. After he directed That Cold Day in the Park, which also drew lukewarm notices from the critics, producer Otto Preminger asked him to direct M∗A∗S∗H. According to some reports, however, Altman was chosen after fifteen other directors declined the offer. The popularity of M∗A∗S∗H, an anti-war film brimming with satirical one-liners and dedicated but zany army doctors, was Altman's means to artistic and financial freedom. His later films have been praised for the qualities that are typically Altman: overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light humor, an iconoclastic view of traditions, and a camera which, moving constantly and recording from a distance, keeps the viewer somewhat emotionally remote from the characters.

Altman's popularity with actors is largely because of the artistic freedom he allows them. Much of the dialogue is improvised, either in rehearsals or during final shooting. In Nashville his actors and actresses wrote the songs they were to perform. It may be this personal attitude towards the actors, or his multitextured sound tracks, or his off-balance characters, or his iconoclastic attitude which has made Altman famous. For whatever reason, he has the admiration of film critics. As Andrew Sarris has written: "[Altman is] considered by many critics to be the quintessential director of the '70s." Yet although he speaks eloquently of the decade to the critics, the meagerness of his public following has always cast a shadow on that distinction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

David Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The James Dean Story] breaks new ground by its purely documentary approach; the way with show-business life-stories has always previously been to avoid using the least fragment of authentic material…. Apart from a few staged details (most of them unsuccessful) all the material in this film is documentary—stills of Dean at various stages of his life, shots of the places in which he lived, interviews with the people who knew him and worked with him, a tape recording he made of a conversation with his family, a screen-test for East of Eden. The weakness of the film arises from the attempt to spin out this material—enough for a good thirty-minute short—to feature-length. In its repetitive analysis of Dean's personality and problems, its overlong interviews and excessive use of stills, the film becomes from time to time tedious, and is forced into pretentious over-writing….

The film really convinces you that it is a serious attempt to probe the character of this extraordinary, talented and undoubtedly tormented young man, with his self-confessed longing for someone to love and for flamboyant success, his sense of isolation and of parental deprivation. If it rarely gets further than a lot of words, it is probably because Dean's real problems, socially and psychologically were at once too involved and too familiar for this sort of discussion.

David Robinson, "'The James Dean Story'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1957 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1957, p. 93.

Howard Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Say one thing for "Countdown."… It makes the moon seem just as dull as Mother Earth.

[It] is simply stultifying. The bulk of it is a slack, cliché-ridden prelude to the climactic space ride, as we see the conditioning of three astronauts at a simulated Cape Kennedy. The lads bound home to their worried wives. "Hey there, give us a smile," is a sample of the dialogue. Finally, one of the men buckles in and roars aloft, thanks to some documentary footage, as the music rumbles ominously and the rest of the cast hang around a winking control board.

By then slow death has already set in, since Robert Altman's direction is almost as listless as the acting of a dreary cast.

Howard Thompson, "'Countdown'," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1968, p. 57.

Michael Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Obscure dramas, laden with opaque relationships, carefully developed (yet still incomprehensible) motifs, latent themes, and inexplicable deeds, seem to be the newest cinematic fad…. The latest and by far the worst specimen is That Cold Day in the Park…. Altman's direction runs to fancy reflection shots, blurry transitions, and ponderous camera movement. He strains to be ornate but cannot relate his devices to his heroine's subjectivity. Whereas Losey gave us uneasy comedy, Clouzot compassionate dissection, and Chabrol cool elegance, Altman supplies logy murkraking…. [To] become a good director he must stop mistaking half-baked mannerisms for psychological profundity. It is one thing to stylize emotions or to seek metaphors, outlandish or otherwise, for their terrifying extremities; it is quite another to make freaks of your characters, as though loneliness were an exotic disease.

Michael Dempsey, "Short Notices: 'That Cold Day in the Park'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Fall, 1969, p. 56.

William Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mash (as I'll call [M∗A∗S∗H] for short) is a comedy at which you may very well do not just a double but a quadruple take…. (p. 38)

What makes Mash outstanding—and as something more than a wacky comedy—is the richness of its texture. The characters stroll, run, interweave among the tents of their unit; dust swirls around them; the camera pans and cuts to seemingly random details. Meanwhile, on the sound track, lines of dialogue overlap or are casually tossed away; the PA system continually breaks in with an odd announcement or the Japanese version of an American popular song. Many films these days impose quick cuts and overlapping dialogue on what are basically four-square, linear scripts, and thus produce an irritating effect of contrivance. Mash stands out because—with the exception of the fake suicide and Japanese sequences …—the incidents and dialogue in [Ring Lardner, Jr.'s] script are ideally suited to the dense, elliptical style with which Altman has put them on film. (p. 39)

The dialogue has an almost Proustian richness, with asides and fragmentary exchanges which may easily be missed at a first viewing. In a rapid throwaway line, the general refers to "the dark days before Pearl Harbor."…

With one or two exceptions, even the most broadly conceived characters are something more than stereotypes, and they create a sense of living their own lives...

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David Hutchison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] their efforts to give [That Cold Day in the Park] what they believe to be contemporary audience appeal the makers have injected a vast dose of ill-assorted spices into what could have been a small, well-observed and unsentimentalised modern Marty. Included are the apparently essential ingredients of: nudity and sex, with a detailed examination at a birth control clinic, hints of incest, and prostitution; contemporary stock characters such as a draft dodger and hippie type drop-outs; and of course a pot smoking sequence. All these ingredients are in this context unnecessary embellishments which add little to the story and seem to have been included solely with an eye to the box office—a gesture which hasn't paid off. (p. 85)

Despite the weaknesses of the script the American director Robert Altman … keeps one's attention from wandering; although he is unable to create the necessary sense of tension and claustrophobia to make the plot's wilder flights of fancy believable. A number of his stylistic touches, including the unnecessary use of the hand-held camera and self-conscious and laboured crosscutting in the scene of the doctor's proposal to Frances, are irritating; but he uses colour intelligently to create atmosphere…. (p. 88)

David Hutchison, "'That Cold Day in the Park'" (© copyright David Hutchison 1970; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 16, No. 9, June, 1970, pp. 85, 88.

Jan Dawson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If there's one moral that can safely be drawn from the succession of gags and incidents which provide M∗A∗S∗H's] sprawling narrative structure, it's that inflexible attitudes to war (chauvinistic, religious, bureaucratic or heroic) lead straight to the strait-jacket. (p. 161)

[Much of M∗A∗S∗H's] ironic tension derives from the contrast between the life-saving activity of the doctors and the destructive impulse of war. And this idea comes closer than most to being spelled out when two recalcitrant surgeons commandeer a Japanese military hospital to treat a local whore's baby: 'We stumbled on him. We didn't want him, but we couldn't back away from him.' But stronger though less explicit than the contrast between medicine and militarism is that between soldier and civilian…. And one suspects the real source of official displeasure with the film is the way its enlisted characters obdurately persist in behaving like civilians. (pp. 161-62)

It's not just the rhetoric of Church and Army that receives the considerable weight of the script's satire, but also that of traditional war films. Throughout the proceedings an incompetent Tannoy (the most fully developed machine-character since the 2001 computer) announces such movies as Halls of Montezuma, whose inflated publicity blurbs stand in sharp counterpoint to the matter-of-fact realism which even shifts from irony to caricature cannot obscure: the amazing throwaway performances from the trio of surgeons …; the muted photography with its preponderant colours of camouflage-green and faded crimson (many of the gaudier scenes are shot through dirty windows) and marked preference for medium shots; the bedlam of the soundtrack, with overlapping dialogue and everybody talking at once.

But beyond analytic observations, M∗A∗S∗H demands to be taken, on its own empirical terms, as probably one of the most irreducibly funny films ever made. (p. 162)

Jan Dawson, "'M∗A∗S∗H'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1970 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 39, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 161-62.

Jan Dawson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Disconcertingly, after the tuneless rendering of the Star Spangled Banner that introduced Brewster McCloud, or the 'Tokyo Rose' transmissions that lent an insane kind of musical continuity to M∗A∗S∗H, it is Leonard Cohen's gentle ballad 'The Stranger' that both introduces and accompanies Robert Altman's latest film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller…. Disconcertingly but appropriately, to the point where one suspects Altman of extrapolating his scenario from the song rather than from the Edmund Naughton novel on which he and Brian McKay based their script. The film stubbornly defies analogies or easy pigeon-holing; but its mood is closer to that of Cohen's writing, with its transitions from obscenity...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Roberta Rubenstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What] is Altman's Brewster McCloud really about? The most obvious idea of the film is, of course, the fantasy of flying. As the Lecturer intones at the film's opening, "… the desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind of Man…. Was the dream to attain the ability to fly, or was the dream the freedom that true flight seemed to offer Man?" This question is the "score," or major leitmotif, of the film—the main theme upon which subsequent variations are orchestrated. From the opening sequence, throughout nearly every scene of the film to its finale, the ideas of flight, freedom, and constraint are developed, each with its own further variations. (p. 46)

Even granted [the]...

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Jackson Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The "spoof" … is only one form of American movies' film-consciousness. Somewhere this side of burlesque, connected to it, lies a distinctively American kind of film which also works with conventional film-styles but instead of deflating or inflating them tries to domesticate them. A stock plot and stock characters, even stock editing, are set forth with a wealth of gritty, sometimes squalid detail. At their best, these films set up a resonance between the ideal values of the convention and the homely ordinariness of their settings, properties, and dialogue…. The film convention thus enclosed is not shown up, debunked, burlesqued, or otherwise patronized: it is, if a word must be found,...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Gary Engle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller tells two interrelated but recognizably distinct stories, each bearing some relationship to … [a Western theme]. One is the story of the founding and growth of a frontier town. The second is that of McCabe's personal struggle for survival. These two parts of the film can be separated and discussed individually to show how Altman creates a work which uses the forms and themes of the conventional Western to systematically undercut the meanings traditionally associated with them. (pp. 269-70)

Until the mid-point of McCabe and Mrs. Miller Altman seems unconcerned with characterizing the end toward which the town is moving. Upon reflection it can be seen that the...

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Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Images] is a modern variant of the old The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ploy—the world as seen through a mad person's eyes. A classy schizo (Susannah York) duplicates herself, confuses the living with the dead, and can't tell her husband … from her lovers…. Miss York's madness has no roots, no nourishment; it is a matter of tinkling wind chimes, slivers of glass, windows, lenses, mirrors—"images." To be effective, the movie needs to draw us in to identify with Susannah York's hallucinations, but the cold shine of the surfaces doesn't do it…. This is a psychological thriller with no psychological content, so there's no suspense and the climax has no power. We know from the heroine's dashingly casual...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Richard Schickel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] good guys of M∗A∗S∗H are not just a bunch of merry pranksters on a spree. They are best understood, I think, as Robin Hoods of rationalism, robbing from the rich stockpiles of madness controlled by the people who make (and manage) wars and doling it out in inoculating life-saving doses to the little guys caught up in the mess. They may be vicious in their persecution of the pompous, the petty and the paranoid, but they have a wonderful tenderness with outcasts and underlings and innocents. (pp. 284-85)

I have nothing but awed admiration for the way Altman has managed what is obviously a precarious project, one which could have gone all black on him. Or, more likely, have been...

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Richard Combs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Conceivably, schizophrenia is a malady to which all Robert Altman's major characters have been prone. Their behaviour is of little interest analysed on the level of clues or symptoms, but compelling where it gives evidence of large and dangerous attempts to comprehend an irrational world through personal experience, of minds which escape from the trap of an insane situation by going promptly, appropriately, healthily insane. Broad Laingian concepts of madness as socially conditioned, as a valid experience of a given situation, are as closely worked out in Altman's tragicomedies as in the explicit psychiatric challenge of Family Life. And perhaps just as such a theory opposes the psychiatric treatment of...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Charles A. Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] is in Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as well as in That Cold Day in the Park and M∗A∗S∗H, an underlying view of life and the world which, bypassing differences in subject matter, links these four films together as the work of a consistently serious and perceptive critic of certain conditions of contemporary society…. In the four films which are the subject of this study, Altman reserves his strongest disapproval and censure for those characters who, rather than maintaining their freedom of choice and action and a flexibility which permits them to alter their conduct according to the contingencies of a given situation, fall back on a structure, an established...

(The entire section is 1489 words.)

Robert B. Meyers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In his "'McCabe and Mrs. Miller': Robert Altman's Anti-Western" (see excerpt above), Gary Engle's] purpose is to praise [Altman] for having succeeded in producing the best Anti-western of a current outpouring which includes films such as Doc and Little Big Man. Engle does not elaborate on the worth of the Anti-western as a genre. He seems, rather, to assume that the reader will recognize the sense and value of having produced an anti-something. (p. 301)

[Engle is also] so preoccupied with making all the parts he mentions subordinate to the theme of social progress that he gives short shrift to the film's sensual immediacy and the impact it makes. For one thing, he neglects the...

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Charles Gregory

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Marlowe's back and the Seventies got him. Raymond Chandler's private eye, who survived threats from gangsters, gamblers, karate experts, cops, treacherous women, sadistic killers, has finally been defeated—by his own code and an age that doesn't need it. At least, so says Robert Altman in the latest Marlowe movie, The Long Goodbye….

Altman's ambition … was more sweeping than most of his audience realised, for Marlowe and his fellow shamuses, gumshoes and dicks are not the only target for the director's satire and anger. An entire genre of tightlipped, cynical but grimly romantic films is being criticised and parodied in The Long Goodbye. The plot and characters come, albeit...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

M∗A∗S∗H is a marvellously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It's a sick joke, but it's also generous and romantic—an erratic, episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected. I think it's the closest an American movie has come to the kind of constantly surprising mixture in Shoot the Piano Player, though M∗A∗S∗H moves so fast that it's over before you have time to think of comparisons. (p. 92)

What holds the disparate elements of M∗A∗S∗H together in the precarious balance that is the movie's chief charm is a free-for-all, throwaway attitude. The picture...

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Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In other Altman films, there is always something that people can complain about; they ask, "What's that there for?" In Thieves Like Us, there's nothing to stumble over. It's a serenely simple film—contained and complete. You feel elated by the chasteness of the technique, and the film engages your senses and stays with you, like a single vision. It's beautiful right from the first, pearly-green long shot. Robert Altman finds a sureness of tone and never loses it; Thieves Like Us has the pensive, delicate romanticism of McCabe, but it isn't hesitant or precarious. It isn't a heady, whirling sideshow of a movie, like The Long Goodbye; it has perfect clarity. I wouldn't say that I respond to...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The close-up of the body at the end of Thieves Like Us] and the choice of the puddle are typical of the heaviness, the fundamentally mawkish fatalism with which Robert Altman has loaded this film. (p. 263)

[The book by Edward Anderson, on which the film is based,] does exactly what Altman's film does not do: it fixes its hero and heroine, Bowie and his girl Keechie, as creatures of circumstance, helpless and overpowered, grasping frantically for some truth—a paradox of the possibility of spirit in a drastically degraded moral landscape. We accept Bowie's values, given his conditioning, and accept the fate of Bowie and his girl as Zola-Dreiser specks of human grit bursting into flower for a...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Joseph Kanon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Altman is a director who works on the periphery: he can take a tired motif and move around it with such precision and freshness that the very form seems altered, expanded. He looks at his subjects sideways. His talent is an original one, but it's probably the most erratic now at work in American movies. The technique can jell to extraordinary effect (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or get lost in muddle (The Long Goodbye) and occasionally even fall apart completely (Brewster McCloud), Thieves Like Us is one of Altman's more successful movies, coherent and rich in detail, and it plays without a hitch. It has the rhythm of a hazy Mississippi heat cut with flashes of rain and it's so firmly set in its...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Penelope Gilliatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like gambling itself, the impulses of Altman's characters [in "California Split"] seem a matter of luck or catastrophe, resting on choices ungoverned by rehearsal. The film gives us the sense that it is being improvised. We catch at events and personalities by the ends of threads. Everything seems to be going on in some tight corner of life that is off the direct route, inhabited by something musky, dangerous, and surprisingly poetic. The characters suffer the fierce aloneness that Altman identifies in American living. His film is an implacable and minatory one. It is sometimes very funny, in a mood of not caring whether you find it so or not…. Using the overlapping talk that has always been so potent in his movies,...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Robert Phillip Kolker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Thieves Like Us] Altman re-creates the depression Thirties …, but despite the clothing, cars, buildings, the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottles, and the 1930s radio programmes that Altman uses almost as a music track, he has not made just another 'evocation' film. Rather, by using the basic plot of the novel, he has made an alternative to [Nicholas Ray's film noir, They Live By Night, based on Edward Anderson's novel Thieves Like Us] in which the entrapment and destruction of innocents takes place in the open country, in the light instead of the dark, in a world that appears to be free and pure. Altman's distancing effect is therefore quite different from Ray's. They Live By Night is...

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Robin Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Apart from their intrinsic quality (often very high indeed) Altman's films are interesting by virtue of their centrality to the development of the American cinema, their synthesis of contemporary tendencies. First, Altman is very conscious of his legacy; a number of his films are overtly retrospective, establishing their significance through their relation (half-homage, half-sardonic critique) to the Hollywood past….

Second, that awareness of the European cinema that marks one of the decisive differences between the American cinema of today and the Hollywood of the studio/star/genre system—the increase in artistic consciousness or self-consciousness and the rise of the director as the...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An assorted array of cranks] populate McCabe and The Long Goodbye, each riding on an autonomous wavelength that runs at an oblique angle to everyone else's. Consider, for instance, Harvey in California Split, an old friend whom Bill looks up in a paint store:

Harvey: Wait a minute! Don't tell anybody you came, I'm getting a flash. You see, I have a good amount of ESP. I'm blessed with it—my wife kids me about it—but you should catch it when I get these flashes. Let me see how close I can get to what's goin' on here. I get—I get that you're probably back with your old lady … an-n-n that you probably want to paint your garage door—perhaps even the...

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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have often hoped that the arts could be wonderfully useful in times of trouble. I have seen few examples of that. Nashville, however, fulfills my dream. It is a spiritual inventory of America, splendidly frank and honest.

The movie shows us a system of yearnings and rewards and punishments and physical objects which we have tacked together over the years….

Mr. Altman implies that our understanding of our curious civilization must come from ourselves. He has an actress portray a British documentary filmmaker on a visit to Nashville, fresh from Israel and darkest Africa. She confidently misinterprets all she sees. She has European brilliance and sophistication which, when...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paramount Pictures has, I suspect, done Robert Altman a grave disservice in not releasing his Nashville in some longer version…. From an eight-hour version to a six-hour one to be released in two parts, from a three-and-a-half- to its present two-and-a-half-hour version, the film kept shrinking with nothing reaching us except rumors of its decrease…. What has finally been vouchsafed us strikes me as highly interesting but ultimately insufficient….

In a sense, the film resembles Joyce's Ulysses: more or less interconnected, self-important but essentially humdrum lives strutting in a brief time span against the more important backdrop of an exceptionally raucous but second-rate...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Joel E. Siegel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Nashville is] a bloated, slapdash, simplistic effort, full of hollow attitudinizing about the Emptiness of American Life, an enterprise concocted of equal parts arrogance, condescension, and gall….

Some say you have to be stoned to see Altman's films properly, and I suspect they're right. The director's best movies (M∗A∗S∗H, California Split) and his worst (Thieves Like Us, Brewster McCloud) are marked by faintly narcotic stylistic similarities—muzzy, soft-edged camerawork, mumbly, overlapping dialogue tracks, limp, somnambulant pacing. Altman has drawn an analogy between how he makes a movie and the way jazzmen improvise. Journalists have bought this one, but the...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

F. Anthony Macklin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Robert Altman film is an experiment in audacity. Nashville is about American success—its costs, humiliations, and incredible spirit. Despite some failures in its storytelling, its ambience is tremendous. Altman has used the Mecca of country music to place his episodic film, and he shows what Americans have assumed as their values. In doing so he has created a movie that is provocative, comic, and gaudily melodramatic….

What is so exciting about Altman's movie-making is its many levels. Altman is one of the very few directors whose work deserves more than one experiencing. Mere viewing is not sufficient; in an Altman film, sound is supremely important. He has frustrated audiences...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Kermit Moyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is impossible to evaluate Altman's artistic decisions … without some sense of the vision which those decisions attempt to clarify. California Split is perhaps the most literal, explicit treatment to date of Altman's perennial concern: the relation between risk and belief.

In one way or another, all of Altman's movies are about the necessary risk involved in any attempt to enact an imaginative vision and, thereby, to extend the limits of the "real." The sliding fluidity of reality, its status as a reflector of consciousness, is probably most apparent in his "gothic thriller," Images. Altman's premise is that reality is a function of consciousness: if we feel imprisoned, an act of...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Leonard Quart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One feels, and before Nashville it seemed a very grave limit, that Altman is in love with surfaces, that style is the essence of his work. And that if his dominant vision is that human life is absurd and fragmented, it is merely a shallow intuition, not deeply felt or thought through. Altman is hip and cynical, but his detachment is of that comfortable variety which often passes for iconoclasm and radicalism in American film. Altman's world is one where dreamers are destroyed (Brewster McCloud), friends betray and murder (The Long Goodbye), and every relationship is tainted by money (McCabe and Mrs Miller). But for all this sense of human corruption, his films gave off little genuine pain....

(The entire section is 683 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The two hours' duration [of Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson] achieves nothing that could not have been done just as well in 90 minutes, and what sustains us much of the time is not so much lack of boredom as the assumption that so much artful quaintness must have something up its tasseled sleeve. In vain; this film makes me think that the center of Altman is made not of ideas, insights, visions, but of attitudes. And attitudes are not quite good enough. (p. 70)

There are two sides to almost everything: William F. Cody was also a Pony Express rider, Indian scout, hunter, and entrepreneur of remarkable skill, however little you and I may value these talents…....

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Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[My] biggest problem with Altman has arisen with his anti-genre derision in "The Long Good-bye" and "Buffalo Bill." I am not saying that Altman or any modern filmmaker should revere genre or even narrative. One may bypass it, but it is futile and unseemly to ridicule it. At times Altman evokes late Bergman's skepticism toward all forms of dramatic discourse, but in "Buffalo Bill," particularly, Altman has not devised an adequate substitute for the dramatic discourse. The result is that the grin of the Cheshire cat has frozen into a fashionable grimace of perpetual disenchantment….

What I find lacking in "Buffalo Bill" is any genuine affection for its subject….


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Robert J. Cardullo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Altman attempts in] his Nashville to evoke on screen what he perceives to be the dominant quality of American life today. It is one man's tragicomically exaggerated vision of contemporary American society, and by implication western civilization as a whole, that is the real subject of this film, the timeless universal to be conveyed through the particular vehicle of spatially defined Nashville. Altman's method in building and equipping such a vehicle is to be compared with that of character or the writer of comedy. Unlike the dramatic novelist or the tragedian, he is never at one with any of his characters, never at pains to pursue each's fate as he or she comes into being. Their dialogue is anything...

(The entire section is 1853 words.)

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Altman's 3 Women is such a stimulating achievement in cinematic art that it makes one rethink the whole aesthetic of motion pictures…. There is something so utterly unusual about 3 Women that its like may never materialize again, even from Altman. It seems to be located at a fleeting intersection of two awarenesses—the artist's and society's. It is both a dream and a document, a set of facts and a cluster of myths. But the mixture of ingredients produces a very strange concoction, one difficult to describe in terms of the rhetoric of contemporary criticism….

In all of Altman's films, but most decisively in Brewster McCloud, Images, and now 3 Women, his...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doubling the number of featured players in Nashville from twenty-four to forty-eight while shrinking the time scale from three days to one, A Wedding offers an extension rather than an expansion of Robert Altman's behavioral repertory. Variations on the same dirty little secrets, social embarrassments, and isolating self-absorptions that illustrate his last ten movies are trotted out once again—articulated as gags or tragicomic mash notes, molded into actors' bits, arranged in complementary or contrasting clusters, orchestrated and choreographed into simultaneous or successive rhythmic patterns, and strategically timed and placed to coincide with unexpected plot or character reversals.


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Judith M. Kass

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Altman likes show-business motifs, which appear regularly in his films, or bits of activity related to shows, and this derives, at least partly, from being comfortable with his performers. Donald Sutherland's and Elliott Gould's behavior in M∗A∗S∗H is a show in itself—theatrical, mannered, and even artificial in its heightened, cool relaxation. And there's the spoof of John Schuck's "suicide," a play in itself, complete with music and a grand finale. Brewster McCloud takes place at the Houston Astrodome, an arena devoted not only to sports but to shows as well. (p. 19)

Altman's "show" relates to another branch of the arts, painting, which he constantly refers to when talking...

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Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Up to a point, at least, Robert Altman's celebration of the celebration of matrimony in A Wedding … is irresistibly and uncomplicatedly funny. Eavesdropping at precisely the right moment, his camera is invariably well placed to pull a plum out of the surrounding chaos of socially amplified intrigues, obsessions, eccentricities, gaffes, resentments and pretensions…. [The] wedding gradually becomes a looking-glass into which one peers, fascinated, at a minor key counterpart to the nine circles of Dante's inferno….

[One] realises, as the film progresses, that the 'naturalism' (comically heightened, of course) is gradually being abandoned for—in the phrase annexed by Jonathan Rosenbaum in...

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Gavin Millar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The burden of A Wedding, Altman's] very black and very funny new movie is to make us laugh at our romantic, sentimental, pretentious absurdity. We are, in the Altman canon, certainly the oddest creatures on the face of the earth, and he looks at us with astonishment, as if surprised to discover that an animal so ill-equipped for living has managed to get by for so long. One of our chief drawbacks is the yawning abyss between what we think of ourselves and what we are, and it is into this abyss, with ungentlemanly relish, that Altman jumps with all his troops….

Altman believes in pushing his observations on film as close to lifelike experiences as the medium will stand without boring us to...

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In all his recent films, including A Wedding, Robert Altman has made the kind of satire that delivers a big, round-house right to the whole society. Only a director capable of great economy as a story-teller—Orson Welles is another—can do satire on this epic scale. Just as Welles was able in Citizen Kane to describe the entire course of a marriage in a few snippets of conversation at the breakfast table, so Altman can neatly create the personalities of a half dozen characters at a time. Both directors are masters of the vignette. When Altman's wedding party returns from the ceremony to the reception at the house, for instance, Altman just sends everyone off to the bathroom. As people cue up to use...

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Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the past I have been up on Altman when everyone else was down, and down on Altman when everyone else was up. I have always found it strange that so somber and so pessimistic an artist has managed to be so productive in an industry dedicated mostly to the manufacture of cotton candy.

Part of the answer may be that he was regarded for a long time as a realist and an iconoclast…. No one seemed to notice the stylization and absurdism in [his] works. But when Altman went completely abstract in Brewster McCloud, Images, and Three Women, most reviewers found no outlet for their anti-establishment rhetoric and turned thumbs down on these violent ruptures from all realistic conventions. For...

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Marc Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Altman is like the little girl in the nursery rhyme who had a curl right in the middle of her forehead. When he is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad—well, did you happen to catch "Quintet"?…

In what may be the swiftest rebound in cinematic history, Hollywood's most prolific film-maker has vaulted out of the metaphysical pits to create a wry, engaging, wonderfully perceptive romantic comedy. It is called "A Perfect Couple," and it is far and away Altman's most bracing, most satisfying movie since "Nashville."…

Integral to the movie's structure is the use of counterpoint to call our attention to contrasting but parallel elements in the principals' styles of...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Perfect Couple] has the usual Altman assets: technical deftness, idiosyncrasy, unexpected subject. But the deftness rattles around in a vacuum, the idiosyncrasy—because unsupported in theme or dynamics—degenerates quickly into egotism, and the unexpected subject is so poorly developed that it quickly becomes sterile….

The story is too strained to support comment. The jokes include: trouble with a car's sun roof in a rainstorm; the woman's taking a swing with a poker at two struggling men and hitting the wrong one; and a silent Gorgeous Couple—a running gag intended as a comment on [Alex and Sheila]—who of course end up badly while the homely pair don't. Beauty is only skin-deep,...

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John Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Perfect Couple, which pursues the bitter-sweet progress of a love-affair based on the attraction of opposites, is [Altman's] most conventional entertainment to date, a mild comedy with lots of music and a happy ending….

Somehow, more sheer gusto, a Thirties breeziness, is needed to override our awareness of schematisation. [Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, who play Alex and Sheila,] play well but without that old black-and-white magic that could have us swallow a dozen unlikelihoods. When, after ups-and-downs, Alex becomes a male groupie ('The people in this bus are my kind of people'), we know it can't last and suspect it would never have happened. He goes home, to discover his beloved...

(The entire section is 278 words.)