By William Wolf

CELEBRATING ROBERT ALTMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

It was fitting that when family, friends and fans of film director Robert Altman entered the Majestic Theater to celebrate his life, an orchestra of Kansas City musicians was in full swing playing jazz and thereby setting a happy tone for what was a sad occasion. Altman’s death has left a huge void in filmdom’s creativity. As the various speakers indicated, Altman’s work was unusual and with each project he insisted on doing something different from what he had done previously, a passion that resulted in such groundbreaking work as the classic “Nashville.”

I have a special memory of how Altman approached his work. I went to Boston for an early screening of “Nashville,” which stunned those present with its creativity. But one woman did not get the film, and rushed up the aisle to confront Altman, who was standing in the back.

“Are you making films for crazy people?” she shouted in outrage.

Without missing a beat, Altman responded, “Well, you’re here, aren’t you.” Afterward he observed, “What would be wrong with making films for crazy people?”

He was a director with a wide open mind that matched his enthusiasm, and his vision showed over and over again in the films that endure and make him one of the most important directors of our time.

It wasn’t easy. He had to battle for funds, as other filmmakers do, but in his case it was especially difficult because he would not settle for the conventional. It is a loss that he never got to direct “Ragtime,” which he was supposed to do. But his vision turned off the producer, and instead the film thoroughly missed the jazz beat that pulsates through E. L Doctorow’s novel.

“I received the best reviews ever for a film I never made,” Altman told me in an interview.

He wisely observed, “Any time you change a form, you are going to lose the majority of the audience because they are insecure about their own positions and are nervous because they want to know if they are behaving properly, and they are not free. As long as they can follow the form they are expecting, it is much simpler for them.”

As he also commented: “To my mind a perfect film—a perfect use of the medium—would be one that would leave you amused by it but not able to articulate what it was about when you leave the theater. The only thing you could say when walking out was ‘wow,’ but you could not say you didn’t like the part where so and so did such and such. It would be a picture that enabled you to deal with your feelings along with what you were seeing.”

He made these comments in the 1970s, and, of course, in the ensuing years many cottoned to Altman’s breaking form and making films that led audiences to new experiences and many wows. It was fitting that the entire tone of the memorial expressed this about the director and his characteristic individualism.

In addition to personal statements by his sons, there were remarks by a retinue of those who knew, admired him or worked with him, including Bob Balaban, Kevin Kline, Tim Robbins, Harry Belafonte, Alan Rudolph, Paul Thomas Anderson, E. L. Doctorow, Bud Cort, Julianne Moore, Garry Trudeau, Lily Tomlin and Annie Ross, who in an appearance that Altman would surely have treasured, sang “One Meatball.” The audience was filled with notables who came to pay their respects, including Sidney Lumet, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Bacall, Phyllis Newman—an endless list of the prominent, as well as many who just wanted to be there to express their appreciation for the man.

The photographs and film clips shown told a story of their own and reminded us of our impressions of Altman in life. There was much wit in the stories told, and there were many tributes to his wife Kathryn, who was present, so important in his life and in the lives of those who knew the couple well.

But in the end, when all the words have been duly recorded, the greatest tribute of all is the extraordinary work he has left us and future generations.


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