1970’s, in an era acknowledged far and wide as the renaissance of American filmmaking, hardly any filmmaker enjoyed the degree of prominence that Robert Altman did. Altman was an iconoclast, and his art severely altered, if not undermined, moviemaking conventions. Altman revived, as well as parodied, musical, Western, and crime drama genres. He openly challenged the sterile pretense that was mainstream cinema by developing a world of cinema that was strikingly expansive and intentionally messy, bursting with characters, plot lines, images, and sounds. Famous for his innovative brand of improvisational and overlapping dialogue, and recognized as a master of contemporary camera technique, Robert Altman’s overly idealistic career has, at best, been bumpy. However, he is still a key personage of modern cinema, and a true individualist responsible for several defining motion films of his era (Robert Altman, n.d.). Robert Altman’s background, the start of his career, the similarity in his movies, his shots, directorial style, and the major awards received by him in his lifetime are described in this essay. Robert Altman, the director, was born to Helen and B.C. Altman (an insurance sales person), on the 20th of February, 1925, in Missouri’s Kansas City. He joined St. Peter’s Catholic School when he turned six. He attended a Catholic high school early on, before going on to study at Rockhurst High School. This was when he began delving into sound exploration through inexpensive tape recorders that could be found in that period. Altman attended Junior College at Lexington, Missouri’s Wentworth Military Academy. He joined the United States (U.S.) Air Force in 1945, where he copiloted a B-24.
After leaving the military, Altman became spellbound by movies; he and LaVonne Elmer, his first wife, moved to Hollywood. Here, Altman tried his hand at acting (an appearance in the 1947 movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), screen-writing (he was co-writer of the screenplay for a 1948 movie, Bodyguard, and although uncredited, penned the 1947 movie, Christmas Eve’s story ), songwriting (Altman wrote a musical “The Rumors are Flying,” meant for Broadway). In spite of all these efforts, however, Altman could not establish himself in ‘Tinsel town’. After working briefly as a publicity director for a firm in the dog-tattooing business, Altman quit and went back to Kansas City, his hometown, where he ultimately decided to seriously take up filmmaking.
An old pal of Altman’s offered a recommendation to the Calvin Co., a Kansas City production company. He was hired there in 1950, where he worked for some months scripting and editing movies, after which he started work as film director. At Calvin, Altman gained profound knowledge and experience in moviemaking, while making advertisements, documentaries, educational and industrial films, and employee training videos. Altman made a total of around 60-65 short movies while at Calvin, on diverse subjects ranging from car accidents to football; however, he was always on the lookout for challenging ventures. Altman is credited with penning the screenplay of 1956 feature film, Corn’s-A-Poppin’, produced in Kansas City. He also directed and produced numerous TV commercials, including an ad with the Eileen Ford Agency, and was co-creator and director of 1953 soap opera The Pulse of the City, which had a single-season run on the DuMont Television Network. Altman even began his foundation in theatre directing for the local community. Altman’s directorial debut on the big screen came with the 1957 movie, The Delinquents, while he was still working for Calvin. He resigned in 1956 to direct a TV show for Alfred Hitchcock. From here onwards, Altman began on the path of directing various TV shows, until MASH’s (1970) script was offered to him in 1969. This script had been turned down by over fifteen other movie-makers; that is to say, Altman was obviously not the first choice of the producer. Though this motion picture wasn’t Altman’s debut film, it was undoubtedly his very first success. Beginning from this success, Altman directed a medley of successful and unsuccessful films. His 1992 movie, The Player, and a more recent 2001 flick, Gosford Park, received particular acclaim (Robert Altman Biography, n.d.).
In 2006, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Robert Altman with a lifetime-achievement award. Altman passed away at the age of 81, from cancer complications, 8 months after this Oscar win, and less than 5 months after ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, his final film, was released (Robert Altman, n.d.). It would be inaccurate to claim that Altman emerged out of the blue with MASH, his hit war comedy. At the time of making MASH, Altman was already aged 45, and had shown his talents in Hollywood ever since the late 1950s, when he garnered some attention with a B-movie, made independently at Kansas City. Altman then shifted his attention to TV, where he became reputed as one among the most innovative small screen directors (as well as one among the most difficult to work alongside, as he openly disrespected his superiors). Altman claims that he got lucky when Twentieth Century Fox approached him for directing MASH, adapted from the picaresque novel by Richard Hooker set in the Korean War, as the studio executives were busy with their yet-to-be Best Picture, Patton. The first original Robert Altman film was MASH, made using drifting cameras and overlapping dialogue for creating a real-life-captured-in-passing impression. This movie demonstrated Altman’s talents, when they could be unleashed without any restraints. The motion picture also demonstrated that an audience was present for this type of borderline-anarchic, loose cinema. The impetus Altman gained from MASH drove him over the subsequent five years, wherein he released movies ranging from good to great, at a frenzied speed. These movies included personal films, dream narratives, grand sociopolitical accounts, and genre revisionism. Despite this vast collection of films, the success MASH found at the box office couldn’t be replicated for these movies. The reason for this is partly because Altman’s subsequent art was more arcane, and partly due to bad luck. Altman’s Western melancholy film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, was ruined by awful sound, as he overdid his method of everyone using the mic and finally figuring out in the mix; this led to a soundtrack wherein dialogues could barely be heard. Still, the movie was a masterpiece about two entrepreneurs (played by Julie Christie and Warren Beatty), who build a town upon the foundations of sex trade and gambling, while having different notions with regards to human decency and ‘class’. The movie speaks about the deterioration of Old Western values, the awkward, bitter agony wrought by unrequited love, and the distinction between actions and words (Murray, 2011).
By 1955, after directing around 65 documentaries and industrial films, Altman managed to secure more than 60,000 dollars as financial backing from local banks for directing his very own feature. United Artists purchased the feature, The Delinquents, completed after 2 years, for $150,000. The next movie directed by Altman came in 1969, and was titled That Cold Day in the Park. In his next venture, Altman agreed to adapt of unheard-of Korean War novel that parodied army life; more than a dozen other directors had rejected the project already. MASH was, however, an instant success upon its release in 1970, and went on to win the prestigious Palm d’Or at Cannes, and grabbed six Oscar nominations. However, Altman stunned audiences by reverting to form with his revisionist Western movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) (Murray, 2011).
After finishing up with his army-man story, Altman worked and directed a detective movie, The Long Goodbye (1973), adapted from Raymond Chandler’s book. Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter for the film, converted this tale into a funny, dark deliberation on masculinity’s condition in early-70s California. Philip Marlowe, the flick’s iconic detective, is played by Elliot Gould- he is portrayed as an easy-going, mumbling man in rumpled clothing, who investigates, simultaneously, an alcoholic writer’s disappearance and his friend’s wife’s murder. Marlowe, through the course of the film, encounters mobsters, naked hippies, stressed socialites and self-help gurus, and must muster the resolve to mete some sort of fairness in an era wherein the hero’s recurrent mantra is that ‘it’s fine with him’ (Murray, 2011).
With Nashville (1975), Altman’s work reached epic heights. Joan Tewkesbury, the screenwriter, was sent on an assignment by Altman to explore and examine Music City, and he returned with narratives on Southern culture, country-music icon system, and backroom politics. Using this information, Altman attempted to recreate the findings on screen. In this process, he sought considerable input from cast members, who also composed many songs on their own. The era’s bicentennial spirit and the dawn of political candidates in the post-Watergate period also showed up in the Nashville movie, and influenced the movie to such an extent that, almost with no conscious volition, Altman ended up writing making an almost 3-hour State Of The Union speech. This speech touches upon community, celebrity, and the ever-changing principles to which Americans pledge allegiance. Though Tewkesbury and Altman included characters-based clearly on Charley Pride, Roy Acuff, and Loretta Lynn, among others, they didn’t intend to pay a tribute to or satirize the genre. The songs, which are sweet at times and funny at others, express the characters’ feelings; they don’t necessarily suggest the filmmakers’ viewpoint on the music. The flick is not a documentary; it represents an amplification of America somewhere around 1975, which sheds light on our common astuteness and gullibility, as well as our morality and contemptibility (Murray, 2011).
Furthermore, The Player, a novel by Michael Tolkin, is a cunning murder mystery, which doubles as a condemnation of executives in the Hollywood film industry, who are of the view that they are much more skillful compared to any writer, star, or director employed by them. Altman’s adaptation of this tale (from the screenplay by Tolkin), tones down the law-breaking and penalty angle and takes to merely romping through early-90s Los Angeles, with numerous big-name celebrities playing “themselves” while interacting with a slippery, morally-broke executive (Tim Robbins). This flick is packed with inside-jokes on Hollywood, which, just like MASH, make one laugh as they are more bracingly straightforward than common backstage comedy. This movie by Altman portrays Hollywood, not as a place with fast-talking VIPs and lively studio back-lots, but as one with executives defrauding one other in grand suburban offices (Murray, 2011).
Robert Altman is a director who made a tremendous impact upon the American movie scene, through his famous, and through his less popular films. Using his characteristic and innovate film-making style, he parodied and altered the cinematic portrayals of many individuals, always presenting a new perspective. He was not afraid to take on tough challenges, and through his innovative individuality, transformed the film industry.
Murray, N. (2011, June 23). Robert Altman. Retrieved July 8, 2015 from http://www.avclub.com/article/robert-altman-57945
Robert Altman. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2015 from http://www.nytimes.com/movies/person/79456/Robert-Altman/biography
Johnson, C. (n.d.). Robert Altman Biography. Retrieved July 8, 2015 from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000265/bio
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