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BOOK REVIEW

'Robert Altman: The Oral Biography' by Mitchell Zuckoff

October 22, 2009|Richard Schickel

It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (when illness slowed him), Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life. When he was not drinking heavily, he was smoking dope -- often doing both simultaneously. When he screened dailies on location, he insisted the cast and crew gather to view them in a party atmosphere, with the merriment rolling on into the night.

His ability to ingest industrial-strength quantities of stuff that was bad for him fills one with shock, awe and questions. Yet Mitchell Zuckoff, who interviewed 145 people for the long, insanely admiring "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography," never comes to grips with the effect this had on his films.

Zuckoff basically knows nothing about filmmaking and film history, so he has to take his witnesses at their word: It was so much fun, so different from their other moviemaking experiences, therefore the product had to be better.

Even a casually objective observer has to see that something else was going on here. Altman loathed the studios and executives that financed his work. He represented them to his casts and crews as party poopers, mindlessly insisting that he shoot something at least vaguely resembling the script he had sold them.

This was another sore point with Altman, who didn't like writers, either. He was always telling his actors to say whatever came into their heads. Anyone attempting to hold him to account, whether for budget or story, was his enemy.

He said he was uninterested in the essentials of moviemaking: narrative or character development. What he cared for was behavior, especially of the spur of the moment variety. Since most actors -- especially the bad ones -- prefer to be left to their own devices, this made him wildly popular with them.

To make sure the audience never quite understood what was going on, he overlapped dialogue -- no wait, that's not quite right -- he layered multiple conversations into his dialogue tracks and then turned the volume down, so that much of the time you couldn't hear what anyone was saying.

At first, that seemed a wonderfully radical technique -- especially in Altman's breakthrough movie, "MASH." It was 1970, and the Korean War was distant enough to stand in for the anguish of Vietnam. There was plenty of blood in the movie's operating rooms, plenty of absurdity in the way the doctors and nurses avoided thinking about it in their downtime.

Setting aside, this was a movie in which everyone appeared to be perpetually, mumblingly stoned, and it played shamelessly to the stoner culture that was then ascendant. Oh, how they laughed to see such sport made of institutional squareness. Oh, how we fail to laugh when we return now to this basically witless film.

For a few years, Altman was indulged by many critics and some studios and, admittedly, there are artful passages in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (a critique of nascent capitalism that is probably his best work), "Nashville," "California Split" and . . . very little else.

Misanthropy -- with a strong admixture of misogyny -- essentially substitutes for ideas in his movies and his characters are, in effect, characterless. They wander about fecklessly, striking solipsistic, but rarely authentically rebellious, poses and almost never getting into dramatically gripping conflicts.

Thus this question: How did a man with no interest in the fundamentals of film get taken seriously for as long as he did? I'm not arguing that the well-made Hollywood movie is the only possible filmmaking mode. The likes of Renoir, Bergman, Bunuel decisively disprove that notion.

But the greats all share intentionality, the need to direct our attention to something that was on their minds. They did not leave their people flopping around until something printable happened.

The portrait of Altman that emerges in this book is of a permissive man -- especially with himself. Addled by his addictions, a habitual gambler, disastrously careless with money and with intimate relations, he left us feeling we were trapped in someone else's not-very-interesting drug haze.

Within a decade of "MASH," he was pushed back to the margins from which he had sprung. Thereafter, he made his (partial) comebacks -- "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Gosford Park" -- but almost always vitiated these modest successes with virtually unwatchable movies: "Dr. T & the Women" anyone?

To me, the most poignant of Zuckoff's witnesses is Jules Feiffer, writer of "Popeye," one of Altman's few big studio productions, gamely hanging out on location (it was on Malta, difficult for the suits to reach), fighting to preserve his words as Altman and Robin Williams reduced them to shtick. After many fights (and reconciliations), Feiffer eventually left the picture, thinking correctly that there was more rage simmering beneath Altman's apparent good nature than anyone had noticed.

This anger was of the passive-aggressive kind, always the most difficult to placate. But even the hard-used Feiffer could never quite abandon Altman. He uses the word "genius" to describe him, although it is, in this context, a conventionalized descriptive.

If a Hollywood director strikes rebel poses, we like to believe that it is in aid of thwarted masterpieces. This ignores the smooth operators like Hawks, Hitchcock and Lubitsch, who made their great films without ruffling any feathers, just as it ignores the fact that Altman has no such works to his credit.

His films do not transcend their times; even the best of them remain trapped within those times.

This book provides massive evidence that people had lots of fun making them, but none whatsoever that they will survive as anything more than historical curiosities.

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Schickel's new book, co-written with George Perry, is "Bette Davis: Larger Than Life."

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