A Sense of Altman
a sublime mingling of the harsh and the gentle
With forty years of evidence to draw from in features alone, Robert Altman’s style should be easy to describe, but it’s not. What gets tossed around most often are a handful of superficial elements deemed to be his trademarks. Sprawling ensemble casts! Overlapping dialogue! Multiple storylines! The problem with boiling Altman’s style down to these elements is twofold: it’s not true of all (or even most) of his films, and, as definitions, these things are almost entirely meaningless. You might as well say that his style is best defined as “sound and pictures ... that move!”
The truth is, there is no single “style” to find in Altman’s work. A singular sensibility is more accurately descriptive, especially in view of how different the individual films are from one another in so many crucial ways. The Long Goodbye and California Split share a specific locale and era as well as one lead actor, but are nothing alike visually or tonally. Their depictions of Los Angeles are as distinct from one another as they are from the city featured twenty years later in The Player and Short Cuts (which, again, are nothing alike visually or tonally). The element that links these films, beyond the name under the director’s credit, is that each is conceived and shaped according to what interests Altman most about the story or genre at hand.
Of course, this seems obvious — it would seem to apply to any director of any film — but that’s really not the case. Most directors are more concerned with conceiving and shaping their work according to what they imagine will interest the audience, while Altman merely hopes you’ll stick around and watch closely enough to either see what he sees or — at the very least — wonder why he’s showing what he’s showing the way he’s showing it. Clearly, he aims for “engaged” over “receptive,” which almost certainly accounts for his tendency to reside on the margins of commercial cinema. A cursory glance at the IMDb’s ratings and vote totals provides a rather grim overview if you’re looking for numbers. Still, setting aside the dubious nature of those statistics as a precise measure of anything beyond accessibility to a fairly narrow demographic, they do paint a reasonably accurate picture of which Altman films are more widely seen or embraced than other Altman films, and the results are pretty interesting.
Aside from Gosford Park (too recent and high-profile for decent comparison), the only Altman films to garner more than 15,000 votes are M*A*S*H (1970) and The Player (1992). After that, the numbers drop precipitously, with the vast, vast majority well under 5,000 votes, indicating that there’s something significantly different about the other two. M*A*S*H (recipient of the most votes and the highest average rating) is the movie that launched his reputation and his career, and though it’s easy to see why it still works (anti-authoritarian stance, iconoclastic goofball hipster leads, anti-war sentiments, sex, humor, irony, and retrospective familiarity via the television series) it’s Altman’s one ’70s film that feels palpably dated to me, no doubt due to its neo-frat boy sexual politics (ironically, quite “modern” in its day) and its pointed swipes at religion (likewise “modern” at the time). If the clarity of its purpose and content makes it more accessible than most Altman films, surely it’s the Altman-ness of its execution that keeps it from being more widely embraced, and yet that’s what I still find interesting and engaging when I revisit it: the drab green/gray/brown visual design, occasionally offset by bursts of blood or the eccentricities of its characters’ leisure wear; the “score” that substitutes PA announcements about hilarious, hijinks-filled war movies for music; the relaxed chaos of its narrative structure. In its original historical context, the content felt much more immediate, radical and caustic (it was a very big hit), but it’s the form that made it seem so fresh and disorienting, and it’s the form that keeps it relevant. As a joke-delivery device that skewers (rather than softens) war’s absurdities, it’s reasonably good, but as a movie that also aims to embody the things that it’s about, it’s better.
Altman’s other “popular” movie, The Player, is likewise accessible. Michael Tolkin’s script is an unequivocal lambasting of big studio politics and commerce, so there’s no great mystery as to what the point may be. Such clarity is helpful in drawing and retaining an audience, for sure, but it hardly explains why this film is so much easier to like, particularly in view of how little interest audiences tend to have in behind-the-scenes-of-showbiz stories (historically, not much at all). What makes it work, and what makes it of particular interest to me, is that it’s the non-Altman Altman movie. While it’s long been common for people to conflate Tolkin’s depiction of Hollywood with Robert Altman’s personal P.O.V. and read the film as the director’s revenge for whatever slights he may have suffered in the course of his career, I think he’s up to something more interesting than that. Not that he wouldn’t sign on to some of what’s there in the text, of course, but what seems to interest Altman more than poking fun at executive hubris and ego is the opportunity to lambaste Hollywood by making his anti-Hollywood movie just as Hollywood as was humanly possible.
From a formal angle, The Player is immensely useful to the task of defining Altman’s style, because it is everything a normal Altman movie isn’t. From the opening shot (which starts on a rather quaint depiction of behind-the-scenes moviemaking) onward, he’s directing with a capital D. After announcing the topic with that mural, he indulges in an eight-minute tracking shot that apes the opening shot from Touch of Evil. This should be clue enough on its own, because it’s a gimmicky shout-out to film buffs from a director who does not traffic in gimmicky shouts-out to film buffs. That he almost immediately features a character blabbing on about the famous opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil is clue number two, because it’s expository dialogue explaining a gimmicky shout-out from a director who does not traffic in expository dialogue explaining the purpose or relevance of his shot selection.
The movie is a cornucopia of directorial choices that Altman would never make with a straight face. Every scene exists to advance the plot, and within each scene the points are made overtly, then reiterated visually and further underlined by musical cues. The characters are wafer thin, their motives and personalities explored more via their art-directed environments than through behavior. And what are those environments? This dark underbelly of Hollywood is pristine, glossy, and stylish, with every extra a celebrity and every palm frond arranged just so. The scary world of egotistical powerbrokers is always presented with the aesthetics of allure, repeatedly undermining any serious response to the putative “message” by overwhelming us with subconscious bouts of envy. It’s Hollywood’s language; a mixed message that exists not for irony or counterpoint, but because you’ll enjoy the movie more if all the pictures are pretty. Late in the tale, Greta Scacchi’s naive artiste comments openly on the art direction upon arrival at a ludicrously romantic resort. “Do places like this really exist?” she asks, to which her suitor replies, “Only in the movies.” Indeed.
Tolkin’s script provides plenty of fodder for film snobs needing to validate their worst fears about Hollywood’s cutthroat machinations, but it’s clear that Altman relished the cheesiness in Tolkin’s möbius strip narrative and ran with it, making exactly the kind of movie he’d spent his entire career avoiding, which just happens to be exactly the kind of movie Tolkin’s script so relentlessly bemoans, only to pitch itself at the end as a surefire hit. Griffin Mill is a soulless development executive whose ego and paranoia drive him to murder a writer he believes to be harassing him at a time when his professional standing is also being threatened by the arrival of a new executive. Using movie logic to determine the identity of his harasser, he hunts him down at a screening of The Bicycle Thief and tries to make nice. The writer sees through this ploy and threatens to humiliate him publicly. They fight, and — in a fit of rage over the prospect of bad press — the executive kills the writer, stages the scene to look like a robbery, then flees. Complications ensue! He falls for the dame that used to live with his victim, loses ground to the studio’s newest wunderkind, realizes the cops are on to him, and is forced to figure out how to keep the girl, lose the cops, disarm his rival, and retain his power in Hollywood, all before the credits roll.
Unlike most Altman films, The Player exists in a hermetically sealed universe of cynical absolutes. All conclusions are foregone, and all characters do exactly what they need to do and say exactly what they need to say to help you follow along. It’s full of clichés to save you the trouble of figuring out what’s what or who’s who. When it reaches for the veneer of
“highbrow,” it panders to cineastes with cheap tricks like name-dropping and obvious cultural references. What Altman brings to the table is an extra layer of commentary, which he achieves by mocking mainstream conventions from within. His beef with Hollywood is as much about its overweening formal condescension as its lack of imagination or daring. The audience is never to be trusted with unresolved intrigue, nor to cull its conclusions from disparate threads that suggest rather than proclaim. It must be taken by the hand and walked through the narrative thicket, with frequent stops to point out and define every relevant detail of action or reaction, until the end comes and they can safely exit with nothing left undigested.
And so plays The Player, with each moment explained in ways every moviegoer can decipher. Shots with important information are held longer, then followed by the camera moving in closer, often to an object that’s got some sort of expository writing that we’re given time to read. Mill’s escalating paranoia is verbalized, then acted out, then emphasized by pans to movie posters whose titles reflect his emotional state or his legal predicament. The editing between scenes is frequently precious in its embrace of literalism or corny establishing shots. The studio chief’s assistant mentions Angelica Huston during a phone call, and we cut to Angelica Huston lunching at the restaurant where Mill’s next scene will take place. The writer’s funeral scene opens with a dead fish floating in a decorative pond. A weekend in Desert Hot Springs is commenced by panning from Mill’s Range Rover advancing over a barren landscape to a rattlesnake hissing atop a rock in the foreground. This is a romantic getaway, which we know because it’s introduced with an artfully-lit close-up of a rotisserie that pulls back to reveal candles being lit on a beautifully-set table, then further to reveal a bottle of champagne chilling on the side. And just in case you’re not sure where this is heading, there’s an exotically cheesy love song playing for your edification.
You’ve seen it all in countless movies, but would be hard-pressed to find this stuff in any of Altman’s other work. In The Player, he strains to pack every shot with as much exposition as it can contain, which leads to a lot of implausibly convenient shorthand, most of which either helps us sympathize with the loathsome Mill or helps to mask massive plot-holes by keeping things tense or in motion. We have no reason to like our protagonist, but having surrounded him with not one, nor two, nor three, but four magical characters who dog his every step, Mill’s paranoia almost feels earned. There’s the stalker who always seems to know when and where to send his threatening missives, the obnoxiously shallow rival who’s at every restaurant, party, or meeting he attends, the cop who lurks in the shadows or outside his window or in his driveway, and the studio’s security chief whose supportive inquiries reek of accusation. Their ubiquity practically bullies us into rooting for Mill to escape punishment, and the fact that the dead writer turned out to be a belligerent, untalented twerp doesn’t help matters.
In the meantime, the movie upends its original intent by manipulating us into coming down on the side of consumerism. As bad as the executives may be, the artists are even worse. The eulogy for Mill’s victim is given by a self-important dolt who “blames society” for their loss, and especially for its wanton disregard of artists. He then proceeds to read a snippet from the dead man’s last script, and it’s all we can do to stay awake through the entire paragraph. Likewise Richard Grant’s pompous pitch for Habeas Corpus, a social-issue melodrama that can only be made as repulsively earnest, because “that’s real life!” When Mill falls for the dead writer’s girlfriend, it’s partly because he idealizes her rejection of movies. As a painter (movie shorthand for Serious Artist), she’s disinclined to waste her time with lesser media, which initially makes her seem interesting or smart, but also packs an inherent insult to those of us on the other side of the screen. Fortunately, we’re redeemed in the long run, because she’s both dim and corruptible, and she’s also the kind of “serious” artist who feels nothing for her dead lover and prefers not to know the truth about her new one. But of course she doesn’t! If she did, there’d be no room for the inevitable happy ending.
The Player is often celebrated for its script’s articulated evisceration of Hollywood, but what makes it most memorable is that it cheats so outrageously and still gets away with it, just like Hollywood movies and Griffin Mill. It seamlessly becomes the thing that it’s about, all the while asserting its critique as if it means it. There’s no real depth to its text and precious little integrity to its plot, but Altman tricks us into seeing depth and coherence by giving us what he knows will satisfy our basic needs. We’re entertained and made to feel clever, and possibly even morally or intellectually superior to the people on the screen. Our appetite for cynical misanthropy (movie shorthand for “savvy”) is sated, and our desire for a happy ending (movie shorthand for “closure”) is met, but with a twist! An ironic twist! And yet executed so conventionally that it’s downright post-modern! Still, the most insightful thing The Player reveals about
Hollywood politics is that Altman could have maintained a career there just fine if he’d wanted to, because he’s more than sufficiently fluent in the mechanics of entertainment. It’s just that — outside the context of wanting to express something about the mechanics of entertainment — their employment doesn’t much interest him as an end unto themselves.
Am I saying that The Player is a bad movie? Yes, in many ways, but that’s what makes it such a good movie, because Altman did his job. He served the material in the best possible way, which just happened to require that he illustrate the thematic premise without slipping into wink-wink parody or transparent camp. The performances are terrific, and the movie maintains its balance between black comedy and thriller quite effectively. It’s a fine example of his artistic sensibility (serving the material), but an aberration in almost every other respect, because his tendency to adopt an oblique approach to narrative is the polar opposite of what he brought to The Player. Its relentless cynicism is restrictive, and its lines are drawn too sharply to allow for the breathing room and ambiguity that Altman usually favors. His movies are curious rather than declarative, more interested in suggesting questions than providing answers. And though he’s more than willing to show the ugly or pathetic side of human nature, misanthropy is not his point. His films may be decidedly lacking in sentimental uplift, but they seem to come from a place of deep affection and empathy.
What is a representative Altman film, then, and what is the thread that binds it to the others as a distinct body of work? The easiest example for illustration is McCabe & Mrs. Miller, because it embodies so many of the qualities that spring to mind when I think about why I’m glad he didn’t settle for that lucrative Hollywood career.
On the surface, it’s a standard western and the plotline is fairly simple. John McCabe is a loner with an agenda who arrives at a ramshackle mining camp in the Pacific Northwest. It’s got a name (Presbyterian Church) and a population that exceeds 100, but it’s not yet a town. McCabe stays, builds, takes on a partner (Mrs. Miller), and thrives, as does the town. A nearby corporation notices and wants to buy everyone out. Most relent and sell, but McCabe — by now entrenched and fatally distracted by his frustrated love for Mrs. Miller — resists, and the brute force of big commerce is brought to bear on his inadequacies in a way that he neglected to prepare for. Things do not end well for John McCabe, but the town is there to stay. Fade out.
There’s a multitude of ways to depict this chain of events on film, because story and plot are not necessarily synonymous. What Altman finds interesting is the opportunity to engage with two of his favorite subjects: community and image/identity. They’re intertwined, of course, because both are manifestations of human nature, and as such, they fuel one another in a chicken-and-egg sort of way. With McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the focus on community is front and center, because its development is both manifested visually and a key element of the plot. As for image, McCabe’s obsession with his is the driving force behind both his rise and his fall, as is the case (to varying degrees and results) with pretty much everybody else on screen.
Altman opts not to tell the tale in bold strokes that stake out moral turf or elevate his protagonist to tragic heroism in the traditional sense. Instead, his approach is diffuse and quiet. McCabe drifts into camp and, likewise, we drift into and through his encounter with this place and time. Though there’s no doubt who the central character is, an air of randomness hangs over the movie, as if Altman could have dropped into any burgeoning community in any era and found the same basic tale. In essence, he opts for the marginal over the epic as if what’s truly epic can best be found there. If Altman has any assertion to make, it’s that the grand march of human history takes place in the realm of the personal. He sees the world in tiny moments rather than sweeping movements, where an impulsive word or action has the power to change everything.
Consider how he builds McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The narrative structure is linear, but otherwise highly unconventional. Altman spends a lot of time showing McCabe’s entrance (his first real exchange with the residents is more than seven minutes into the film), subsequently spending an equally long time on his introductory evening at the saloon. Fifteen minutes into the movie, nothing much has happened. So ... he’s pokey and slow, this storyteller. But wait! In the next 35 minutes, more than a year will pass while McCabe’s entire rise plays itself out and an entire town is built and inhabited and developed to the point that makes it ripe for the picking. Dead center in the movie is the second lengthy one-night sequence (about 17 minutes), which commences with the arrival of the corporate negotiators and ends with their departure a few hours later. Then we get another 30-minute succession of scenes charting McCabe’s flailing descent into hopelessness over the course of several days. And finally, the movie concludes with a nearly wordless sequence that lasts 22 minutes and takes place in what amounts to real time on McCabe’s final morning. What the hell? Who structures a movie like that? How could it possibly shift gears and temporal pace so radically and still hold together? By being consistent in tone and in its focus on moments for storytelling.
Plot-wise, the first seven minutes are practically empty. On paper, it could be summed up as: McCabe arrives. Still, there’s plenty going on, because the stage is being set both tonally and thematically. The first thing we hear is wind, which drifts up over the WB logo before the movie’s even begun. The first thing we see is unpopulated wilderness. As the camera pans over an expanse of trees in the distance, we catch a glimpse of a lone man riding through an environment that dwarfs him. He comes closer, but we see only the suggestion of a human figure, as he’s shrouded inside a massive coat. It’s raining. The trail is muddy and the wind incessant. As traveling goes, this looks to be pretty miserable. He stops briefly to regard the first sign of civilization: a church. Moving past it, he stops to survey the rest of this outpost, which amounts to a muddy clearing and a smattering of shacks and tents.
Altman dwells on this arrival because doing so emphasizes context and subtext. The world our protagonist rides through alone is not just pretty scenery. It’s rough and cold and full of unknowns. His isolation is palpable, and further emphasized by the sound of Leonard Cohen’s voice. The images are beautiful, but they’re all about discomfort. The arrival covers a short distance, but it takes a long time. The pace and detail of the arrival evokes the whole of the journey, as if to make us wonder what kind of person would bother, and to what end? From the comfort of a movie seat, it looks mighty uninviting, and that’s the point. Whatever sweeping historical trends account for western migration and development, the process happened one person at a time, and each of those people volunteered for misery, discomfort, and some measure of danger. The particulars of their individual aims may be interesting enough to hang a plot on, but Altman never lets you forget how hard this life must have been for everyone who chose it. By emphasizing that context, the human animal remains enigmatic to the end, because choosing this life seems equal parts courageous and insane.
Most of what we need to know about McCabe is also contained in his arrival. In close-ups, he’s wary and anxious and focused on last-minute rehearsals. He takes time to arrange himself, removing the burly coat and pulling a bowler out of a hatbox to complete his city-slicker outfit. Clearly, he intends to make a memorable entrance, and he succeeds. The residents are grimy and disheveled, and obviously taken aback by the degree to which he does not fit in. What they see from a distance is a fancy dude mysteriously invading their space, but what Altman shows us in close-up is a nervous guy whose outfit seems ludicrous set against the drizzling chill. Inside the saloon, the locals are abuzz with excitement and trepidation. Altman’s “patented overlapping dialogue” reveals the essence of what needs to be revealed about their reaction to this stranger. His image has done the trick. The rabble is in awe and full of curiosity. The owners act threatened and competitive. McCabe’s aim is to intimidate everyone by the suggestion of class and the hint of a dangerous reputation, then charm them into wanting him to stick around long enough to win their money at the poker table.
That McCabe (presumably) parlays those winnings into enough cash to build his own place and eventually dominate the town is an irony relegated to the margins. Ponder it or ignore it at will — nobody’s going to make a speech about it in this movie. Instead, it’s there in the detailed background, as the once-curious locals wield hammers and saws at his bidding, and the original owners slide farther down the social ladder under the weight of his influence. Everybody seems to like him, but he’s still the boss, and he treats them with just enough contempt and condescension to maintain an appreciable distance between their status and his. Meanwhile, we catch glimpses of his other side in scenes that are the effective equivalent of close-ups. Alone, he’s an insecure doofus who wrestles with his vulnerability and rehearses for every confrontation. With Mrs. Miller, he’s a schoolboy desperate to hide his affection. These qualities might be endearing to the audience, but they’re masked by pompous bravado whenever he’s in the public eye.
In the end, when he’s under threat and everybody knows it, the seeds of the town’s disinterest in rallying to his defense can be traced back to dozens of small moments that have come before. His lucrative deployment of social intimidation ultimately has a price. By the time he allows himself to show weakness, it’s too little, too late, and entirely too pathetic to generate courageous sympathy among those he’d sought to exploit. When the assassins congregate at Sheehan’s saloon, McCabe’s sits empty, because the locals have fled to safer ground where there’s no danger attached to association. They gravitate to the power they fear more, and thus we have McCabe’s last desperate attempt at negotiation happen at the location of his initial triumph, except that this time, it’s an assassin named Butler holding court over Sheehan’s customers, and McCabe is now the one being humiliated by a new arrival whose image is carefully calculated to intimidate.
Altman’s visual narrative is littered with subtle repetitions. The atmosphere and human dynamics established at the start will cycle around repeatedly, each refrain a variation on that introductory sequence, with new arrivals projecting images meant to ingratiate or intimidate and the desire to exploit what’s come before. Like a tide moving inward, each new wave pushes McCabe up and moves the town forward. Everything advances. The clothes and people get cleaner, the buildings bigger and more handsome, the technologies more sophisticated. Because it’s McCabe’s story, we follow his trajectory, but never without the implicit reminder that he came in the same way and with the same objectives and a similarly transformative effect. The repetitions don’t diminish his individuality or undermine the specificity of his story, but they do ground him, placing him firmly in the realm of general human impulse instead of elevating him to the status of iconic maverick.
Throughout the film, Altman conveys the stories beyond the plot through layers of detailed visuals full of indirect references that add meaning or shading to the main text. The church is the first thing we see of this town, jutting dramatically out of the wilderness as McCabe makes his entrance. Not only is the town named for it, it’s the only bit of elegant construction to be found until McCabe’s saloon gets built. The first time we see McCabe’s face, the church looms in the background. Barely noticeable is the figure of a man working on its spire. Later on that first night, the preacher’s emphatic reserve inside the saloon is in stark contrast to the excitement everyone else exhibits around McCabe. The uneasy coexistence of vice and virtue comes to a pointedly tragic end for both in the climax, but their conflict — while persistent — hovers mostly on the periphery in visual asides. They never have direct confrontations, but the antipathy lurks in countless shots, often without emphasis. Instead, the church is there in the background or foreground of many shots, most often those that are overtly focused on McCabe’s construction and his overwhelming influence over the shaping of the town. Sure, the church makes for nice scenery, but Altman’s scenery is almost never just scenery.
When the big showdown comes at the end, it’s shocking to enter the church and see that it’s so completely unfinished inside. The effect is fantastic, because it sparks an immediate and complicated response at a time when we’re intensely engaged in the question of McCabe’s fate, a response that’s shared by our protagonist in a way that knocks him out of survival mode for several seconds. It’s disconcerting because we’ve made subconscious assumptions from the outset, and the cognitive dissonance from discovering this undeveloped space raises a whole host of issues that resonate deeply at the exact moment when we’re least prepared to digest them. It casts everything in a different light, and just as we’re about to tour the town in detail throughout McCabe’s furtive defense. When fire breaks out inside the church and the town pulls together to save it, the irony gives their action tremendous weight, allowing one visualized plot point to convey a seismic shift within the group. Crisis reveals that they’ve evolved beyond individuals with residential proximity into citizens of a community, because it’s a crisis not one of them had a stake in. At the same time, it’s more than a little disturbing, because they’re rallying to save a symbolic entity while a real man fights alone for his life. Sure, their communal effort makes for nice heroic drama, but Altman’s heroic drama is almost never just heroic drama.
These narrative or thematic refrains are mirrored by the use of music, which exists not to guide the audience’s emotions in the way a traditional score would, but instead cycles and recycles snippets from a few Leonard Cohen songs. Sometimes the lyrics seem to vaguely reference events on screen, but the main effect of their use comes from the sound of Cohen’s voice, which is lonesome and wary and regretful, though also restless and searching and ever-so-slightly amused. These qualities directly establish and enhance the overall tone of the film, but also attach themselves to our perception of John McCabe as a man whose conflicted isolation defines him.
The rest of the score (with one minor exception) consists of music played within the scenes, either by characters with instruments hanging out in the background or by musical devices employed within the action. This, again, is typical Altman, often favoring tonal or thematic refrains (the various renditions of “My Funny Valentine” throughout The Company), music generated within the narrative (Nashville, A Prairie Home Companion), or non-musical “scoring” with indirect commentary doing double-duty as an evocation of time and place (the P.A. feed in M*A*S*H, the radio broadcasts in Thieves Like Us). It’s not that he never uses orchestral scores, but he does tend to look for ways to use music or audio as supplemental narrative beyond its traditional role as emotional decoration defining the scene at hand. It’s as key a piece of the storytelling as anything you might find in the script.
My favorite bit of subtext nestled within the plot points fixates on the paradox inherent in the status afforded to women. Regarded as chattel, they’re powerless in theory, but it’s the women who most profoundly affect change in the direction of civilization. Mrs. Miller is the true visionary in this tale, but she’s only independent because she’s a whore. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is unusually blunt about the narrow options its women had to choose from, but its depiction of their degradation is also one of muted triumph. Once they’re allowed to live and work in a place that’s built for real people, it becomes a home. Unlike the grey-blues of the harsh outdoors or the amber-browns inside the functional structures where the men gather for drink or poker, the whorehouse is lit to exude warmth and comfort. It’s one part meat market and nine parts refuge, where relaxed and joyful human contact thrives, even if for a price. This set of visual cues is not about extolling the virtues of prostitution as an empowering profession, but rather about the humanizing qualities that emerge when these women are allowed some measure of dignity and control. At the end, when a wounded McCabe stumbles and crawls toward “home” to die, it’s not his own place he goes to, but the whorehouse; Mrs. Miller’s house. The audience is not required to notice this, but those who recognize the exterior wall he dies next to have another piece of story to go home with, and that’s Robert Altman in a nutshell.
If a guy named McCabe had existed and lived this life, his history would have been written — if at all — from a very different angle. He’d likely be the brave visionary who created a town and — in an effort to defend it against usurpers — fell victim to corporate ruthlessness. As Altman tells it, McCabe is a restless gambler who takes chances that are sometimes clever and sometimes foolish; some of which make him rich, and some of which get him killed. He’s a pimp who has no clue that whores are people until he buys a few and has to live with them. He’s a tenderhearted man whose fear of looking weak outstrips his fear of genuine danger. He’s a man whose pride isolates him from love, but whose love is reserved for the one woman who’s at least his equal and can also see right through him. He stands up to bullies for all the wrong reasons and in the worst possible ways, and fights the good fight only because he’s run out of options. His strengths turn out to be his weaknesses. His success turns out to be his downfall. Scene after scene shows McCabe as a mess of human failings and embarrassing traits, but the film does not aim to be an evisceration of his character or an exercise in ridicule.
Instead, the elegiac tone conveys a degree of empathy and respect that may seem to contradict the facts about McCabe, but it’s this apparent contradiction that epitomizes Altman’s perspective as a storyteller. Often mischaracterized as cynical, Altman’s movies tend to look at people in ways that most movies avoid in order to maintain narrative clarity. His people are ambiguous, but rarely in a way that’s writ large. Their motivations are primal, often petty, and frequently juvenile. They’re varying degrees of good or bad (usually both), but their goodness or badness is of little interest to Altman, because he’s not in the business of polemics. If he has a position at all, it seems to be that everything people create in the world — be it beautiful, horrible, mysterious, or predictable — comes from the same place, and that he finds that place endlessly worthy of exploration. The human condition is rife with natural tensions, many of which make us act in ways that are certifiably awful or patently stupid. Such observations often reek of condemnation in a medium that flatters our fantasies and prejudices so relentlessly, but Altman’s eye is empathic. His stories are not about “them,” but about “us.” He’s fascinated by who and what we are in this world, that “we” quite obviously including himself. His aim may not always be precise in a way that’s immediately satisfying, but that’s a function of leaving room for us to respond in more individual and complicated ways than any he could have conjured on his own and manipulated us into having.
Altman’s work is not some rarefied exercise in intellectualism made for the smarty-pants set. It’s just plain old art; one man’s observations and peculiarities expressed in a medium used by millions. Like any other creative artist, he’s valuable because he demonstrates that the language of cinema is flexible and full of possibilities. Even those who reject his movies en masse benefit from his influence on other filmmakers, though it’s not essential that they know it. He knows it, his fans know it, and the actors who’ve jumped at the chance to keep his career alive know it. At its best, Altman’s work is a sublime mingling of the harsh and the gentle. It’s rarely easy to have a simple and immediate reaction because he’s loath to dictate exactly how you ought to think or feel about whatever’s on display. That’s your job, should you choose to engage with him. If not, no harm intended and no insult taken. In a mass entertainment medium, most people are looking for Santa Claus ... the guy who knows what you want and gives it to you exactly as listed. Altman is more like an eccentric tour guide taking you to a place he wants to explore. You’re not sure where you’re going or why he’s taking you on this particular route, but the two of you are in it together. There’s no heavy lifting required, but those who pack a little patience and a lot of curiosity will have a much better ride than those who don’t. Bless him for not caring how many or how few that may turn out to be.