I was sorry to hear of the passing of Robert Altman, whose rambling, improvisatory, and eccentric movies lit up American cinema, especially in the 1970s. As the BBC website put it:
His film credits alone serve as a roll-call of classic contemporary US cinema: MASH, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, The Player, McCabe and Mrs Miller and the resolutely British Gosford Park.
To which one could add Thieves Like Us, Short Cuts, and, one of my favourites, “A wedding”. This interesting review classifies it as a “forgotten gem of the 1970s”, which is about right:
The unfolding of the story is deftly handled -- for the first half hour we haven't a clue who anybody is, and working out the connections is part of the fun. The dialog is witty, and the deliberately paced (but always rising) dramatic tension builds to a satisfying crescendo before the resulting chaos at the film's end. Altman uses his trademark zooms, which allows him to film from a distance, thereby leaving the actors clueless as to whom he's focusing on -- a brilliant technique.
Still, for the complete Altman movie, I think you have to head to Nashville. A lengthy and perceptive review in Salon a few years ago described the circumstances of its release in 1975.
"Nashville" seemed to incarnate a film buff's hopes for American movies. Here was an artist putting the machinery of popular culture to work for the sake of art, yet entering into the spirit of popular culture and partaking of its energy too. That was the dream: the power of popular art combined with the complexity of fine art, high and low not at war, and not blurred indistinguishably into each other, but embracing.
"Nashville" was debated in the mainstream press in a way that seems inconceivable now: The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with opinions and interpretations for months after the film opened.
However, the same review points out that 1975 also saw the release of Jaws, and it was the latter film that was to set the tone for the next 30 years of American cinema. (I actually quite like Jaws, but when compared with Nashville … .). When we contrast Altman’s "pursuit of the imperfect moment" to the neat and vapid packages that Hollywood now requires of its directors it’s clear that Nashville, far from representing the beginning of a brave new era, in fact imarked the end of a brief period of hope in American movies.
There are so many classic lines in Altman’s films, but my favourite comes from the beautiful mouth of Geraldine Chaplin (a regular in his films) as she tries to blag her way into a party. “No press ma’am” – “But I’m not with the press” protests Geraldine in her most cut glass accent, “I’m with the BBC’.
Thanks for a lot of fun Bob.