ROBERT ALTMAN, who receives an honorary Academy Award tonight, is perhaps the most American of directors. But his Americanness is of a special sort and doesn't really connect up to any tradition except his own.
Many movie directors, of course, have been comprehended as quintessentially homegrown artists. John Ford gave the Western landscape an elegiac purity; John Huston's best movies, like Hemingway's best prose, had a virile grace; Frank Capra manufactured populist fables; Sam Peckinpah's sweat-soaked world was riven by elemental forces of loyalty and betrayal. Howard Hawks' America overflowed with toughs who loved to talk; Preston Sturges, who adored jabber every bit as much as Hawks, served up a gaggle of archetypal eccentrics.
But Altman, who has ranged as widely as any of these directors across the American panorama, is a more mysterious and allusive artist. He is renowned for the buzzing expansiveness of his stories, the crisscrossed plots and people, but what strikes home most of all in this sprawl is a terrible sense of aloneness. In film after film, in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "The Long Goodbye," in "Nashville" and "Short Cuts," the human tumult masks a solitude. If being an American means being rooted to the land, to a tradition, a community, then it also means being forever in fear of dispossession. Altman understands this better than any other filmmaker. It's what gives even his rowdiest comic escapades their bite of woe.
In "Nashville," for example, the free-flowing madcap pageant is studded with moments when we are brought shudderingly close to the privacies of the soul, as in the scene showing Ronee Blakley's breakdown on the stage of the Opry Belle, or Gwen Welles' forlorn striptease in a smoke-filled hall of hecklers, or Keenan Wynn receiving the news of his wife's death in the hospital just at the moment when a chatty, unknowing soldier sidles over to him. In the bar lounge sequence where Lily Tomlin is mesmerized by Keith Carradine singing "I'm Easy," she looks stricken by her own unbidden desire.
Altman once said, "Human behavior, filled with all its mystery and inspiration, has always fascinated me." To capture what he can of this mystery, he developed an extraordinarily supple technique capable of registering the subtlest flinches of emotion. His elliptical style allows us the pleasure (or at least the illusion) of discovering a movie for ourselves, without all the packaging and predictability that most directors go in for. (Sometimes, however, as in most of "3 Women" and all of "Quintet," the ellipses swamp the movie.) His aural tracks pick up the halting, run-on gabble of people as they really sound. His cameras, seemingly on the fly, seize the small moments that are, in fact, the big moments -- to take one example out of a thousand, the glance that Julie Christie's madam in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" gets from Shelley Duvall's mail-order bride right after her husband dies and she knows the next stop is the whorehouse. Nothing is inconsequential, Altman seems to be saying in his movies, because everything has human weight if you know what to look for.
One reason his films can seem so cavalier to audiences is because his humanism is unsentimental. For him, sentimentality is just another false piety. Altman is not simply being a curmudgeon -- he's intuiting his way to something more genuine. It makes sense that he has made a career out of subverting traditional genres: the war movie ("MASH"); the western ("McCabe & Mrs. Miller"); the private-eye film ("The Long Goodbye"); the musical ("Nashville"); the biopic ("Vincent & Theo"); the documentary ("Tanner '88"); the classic whodunit ("Gosford Park"); and so on. Genres can be a form of false piety too.
"Vincent & Theo," starring Tim Roth, is probably the most uncompromising movie ever made about an artist (and one of Altman's few films set outside America). One might expect this fanatically independent director, who has fought his way in and out of Hollywood for most of his working life, to covet the great painter's miseries. But no homilies are proffered here. Art may be Van Gogh's religion, but clearly Altman sees it as too high a price to pay. The Van Gogh of this movie is an artist not because of his madness but in spite of it. There is a livid, discordant quality to the film. When Van Gogh ventures alone into the fields to paint, the clacking of birds and insects is a beckoning malevolence. For Van Gogh, life is bedlam and Altman, who surely must see this as a cautionary tale, recoils from the horror even as he appears to press into it.
Carving out a career
ALTMAN has had one of the most improbable careers in movie history: Starting out as a director for a dozen years of episodic TV shows such as "Sugarfoot" and "Whirlybirds," he broke through in his mid-40s with "MASH" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and never looked back. It was as if all those years of hackwork had jolted him into innovation.