Altman, director of films such as "MASH," "Nashville," "The Player" and "A Prairie Home Companion," passed away last week due to complications arising from cancer, and Hollywood, as well as the rest of us, have lost a genius and a visionary.
Altman managed throughout his career to remain a Hollywood anomaly. He had a vision of what he wanted his films to be, and he never let anybody get in the way of that vision. The most unfortunate thing about his career was how late it got started. He was 45 years old when he finally began to get the recognition he deserved, for the classic war movie "MASH."
Equal parts zany screwball comedy and scathing indictment of the absurdities of war, "MASH" follows the story of a handful of doctors and nurses in a hospital unit. Though we are told the film takes place during the Korean War, it is clearly a thinly veiled Vietnam. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt and Altman favorite Elliot Gould star as three hot-shot surgeons who pass their time when not operating on fallen soldiers drinking martinis and playing jokes on the more tightly wound members of the unit.
"MASH" marked the emergence of Altman's signature style and quickly won him just as many enemies as devotees. Throughout the film, as in almost all of his later work, Altman makes use of intricate long tracking shots, moving intermittently between different sections of one elaborate scene. Thus different characters speak over each other, giving us a feeling of being privy less to a staged dialogue than to a genuine conversation. Altman also layers obnoxious rescue helicopters flying incessantly overhead and a constantly stuttering loudspeaker announcing information of varying importance atop the spoken dialogue, furthering the realism of the characters' situation.
"MASH" also displayed the trademark cynicism that almost eternally permeated Altman's work. This is most notable in another Altman masterpiece, 1993's "The Player," a Hollywood satire starring Tim Robbins as a studio executive so soulless he is capable of murder. The movie's ruthless satire is clearly directed at a system that had left Altman for dead, turning its back on him to focus on younger and newer talent. It is easily his most funny and most biting film, and certainly one of his most accessible works.
Altman was notorious for his ability to jump from genre to genre without any sort of looking back. He brought a completely different sensibility to every established category at which he tried his hand. His revisionist take on the western, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," clearly paved the way for the gritty westerns we see today on the large screen and small, completely devoid of classic romanticism. He also tackled and reinvented the war movie and the detective movie, two genres that have effectively never been the same.
"A Prairie Home Companion," the film that became Altman's last, works as a fitting swan song for such a storied career. A film especially dear to the hearts of we Minnesotans, it follows our hometown hero Garrison Keillor and a smattering of other characters on the eve of the radio program's final broadcast.
It is a meandering, plodding, dreamy movie, filled with musings on memories and times long past, stories that may or may not be true. In a climactic scene, Lindsay Lohan, playing Meryl Streep's sulky teenage daughter, triumphantly takes the stage presenting a reworked version of one of her mother's classic folk songs. The scene marks the transition from generation to generation, showing that like it or not, we leave a mark on those the come behind us.
The theme is especially fitting for Altman's career and this film in particular. When receiving an honorary Academy Award last year, he revealed that he had undergone a heart transplant 10 years earlier but had kept it a secret for fear of being stopped from working. On the set of "A Prairie Home Companion," Paul Thomas Anderson sat next to Altman throughout the shoot as a backup director in case Altman became too ill to continue the project.
Thankfully, Altman finished the film on his own, but the mark he has left on those who will follow is already indelible, and we are better for it.
Staff Writer John Douglass is a senior from Northfield, Minn. He majors in English and in education.