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My obituary on Altman was for the man. Now I want to talk about his films. Usually my technique on this sort of columns is to write up some of a director’s great films, and some of his bad ones. With Altman, such distinctions are meaningless. Altman films aren’t good or bad. Enjoyable and unenjoyable maybe, but when has enjoyment ever been a moniker of quality? This isn’t going to be a comprehensive evaluation of Altman’s movies, I don’t think a simple list could ever do justice to the quality and genius of Altman’s work. I expect this list will piss some people off, I’m not going to discuss all the classics, and I am going to discuss some films that are flat out disdained. To me these are the films that make Altman Altman, and that makes every one of them special.

Brewster McCloud - Brewster McCloud stars a pre Harold and Maude Bud Cort as an innocent serial murderer who wants to be a bird and lives in the Astrodome, and Shelly Duval as the woman who loves him. To call the film surreal is putting it lightly, and it’s filled with a brand of humor, which to call it deadpan is putting it lightly. The entire thing is perversely idiosyncratic. This might be a strange one to start this list off with. Altman was always known for his realism and Brewster McCloud is certainly not that. But at the same time it’s every thing that makes Altman Altman. A unique film that is completely and defiantly itself; something that you will never see anywhere else, something that no one else could have possibly made.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller – From one extreme to the other. This was the follow up to Brewster McCloud and the fact that he could switch gears so violently and suddenly is a testament to Robert’s versatility and style. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is an achingly tender film, it plays simultaneously as a poetic, sad piece of music and one of the grittiest. most realistic Westerns ever made. It’s the story of a small time conman named McCabe who rides into the town of Presbyterian Church to open a whorehouse. A Madame Mrs. Miller insinuates herself as his partner, and the film just watches as a mournful Leonard Cohen score plays, and everything falls apart. McCabe is simply perfect and incredibly beautiful.

The Long Goodbye - This is one of the director’s strangest films. The Long Goodbye follows private eye Phillip Marlowe as he stumbles through a labyrinthine plot of deception, murder, and betrayal. Elliot Gould’s version of the character is miles away from the Marlowe’s that Bogart and Mitchum played. Instead of bruised nobility and noir shadows, Gould is in a constant case of befuddlement and bemusement as he stumbles through the sun soaked, smog hazed, pot infused 70s LA. The plot starts when Marlowe inadvertently helps a sports star escape to Mexico, finding out later that the man may have murdered his wife. In an attempt to clear his name, he tries to get to the truth, only to stumble farther and farther in over his head. The whodunit, hardly matters, it’s just fun to watch Marlowe stumble into stranger and stranger situations. These include Sterling Hayden as a drunken suicidal writer, Arnold Schwarzenegger as a mob enforcer who likes to get naked, a five thousand dollar bill, and a cat who just won’t eat what it’s given. The film plays like a proto Big Lebowski, and is a must see.

Nashville – This one’s almost impossible to write about. It follows dozens of people over the course of three days, culminating in a disastrous political rally. The amazing thing is you get to know all of these people, no one seems to be in the background. You know their hopes, fears, weaknesses, and watch them come together and fall apart. It’s not a movie, it’s a spiritual experience full of life, music, and a weary, beaten compassion.

Quintet – The future is an ice age, most everyone is dead, and everyone else speaks in hushed tones as though practicing for the Bergman film they would much rather be in. There isn’t a hell of a lot to do except play Quintet, a game that manages to simultaneously look about as complicated as Tiddlywinks For Dummies, and be so complex it’s completely incomprehensible. The game is never explained, simply gazed upon with impressive intensity until someone is murdered (apparently for losing). This goes on more or less uninterrupted for two hours. The rest of the plot is rather vague. A giant floating face factors in.

Paul Newman stars, and he’s sad and dour. Dour, dour, dour. Sad, sad, sad. They could have spared the expense of Paul Newman and instead painted a yellow unhappy face. He’s sad because it’s cold. He’s dour because most everyone is dead. He’s sad because no one will get him cocoa and most of all he’s sad because everyone keeps making him play this stupid game. Then some more people die and dogs eat their corpses, just to mix it up.

Quintel has the first musical score composed while in the grips of a terrifying acid induced hallucination. The composer bashes bells, blow flutes, and use synthesizers with a chaotic style and intensity, that suggests that he believes that these and only these can drive away the monkeys made from blue fire that are eating his face.

When Altman won the lifetime achievement award Quintet was unsurprisingly omitted from the celebratory montage. Altman’s normal tricks of the trade are of no use, as it’s somewhat difficult to overlap dialogue when there seems to be only two people alive. Still this is another film that belongs to Altman, no one else would have wanted to make this mess, or could have.

Secret Honor – This one was made during Altman’s Hollywood exile in the eighties (during which he never actually stopped making films). During this period he made some of his strangest pictures, experimenting with the form. Secret Honor is one actor, one room, long takes, and one long semi-coherent raving monologue. It follows Nixon after his impeachment, contemplating suicide, and ranting about the powers that be. It’s an, intense unforgettable, experimental experience.

Short Cuts – This was the last of three movies that put Altman firmly back in the mainstream, following Vincent and Theo and The Player. While The Player is the one that usually gets the praise, Short Cuts is the best film of the three. In a coincidence that seems eerie now, I had just revisited it yesterday and was newly impressed by what a gem it was. It follows a couple dozen people Nashville-style through a few hectic days. Based on the short stories of the great Raymond Carver, the film travels through the middle class of LA hardly ever shown in Hollywood, the ugly bland likes of the Valley, away from both the glamour of the rich and the destitution of the poor. The film follows sad and desperate people as they stumble through tragedy small and large, come to moments of realization, or stumble on painfully in the dark. Short Cuts is about the lack of conclusion in life, how it doesn’t fit into a neat three act structure. Unlike Nashville it doesn’t end in revelation it just follows them through a few ordinary days of pain, triumph, humor, and horror. It’s filled with career best performances by Tom Waits, Lily Tomlin, Francis McDormand, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, and many many others. It’s simply a fantastic achievement.

A Prairie Home Companion - When I heard Altman died I went out and bought this movie and I’ve been playing it as I written up this list. It’s simply lovely. That sums up just about everything that Altman had to say, and does so with a tender sense of conclusion. It is possibly the best, simplest, and loveliest last word that a filmmaker has ever had. Even the last shot is a strange and perfect coincidence; an angel of death comes through the camera almost like she’s coming for the director. It’s not stale though, it’s not indulgent self-love, it’s just wonderful, and it’s just Altman. I will miss him terribly, and despite the fact that he made movies for over 50 years, I still feel cheated, I want more. Like most Altman fans I’d give anything for a new film, though we all know now we’ll never get it. I can only be grateful, grateful for all the wonderful films that Altman left (of which this list is just a small fraction), grateful for the vision Altman brought to film, and grateful that he was allowed this wonderful piece of work to sum it all up.
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