Robert Altman (1925-2006)

The bohemian craftsman.

Robert Altman. Click image to expand.
Robert Altman

I don’t feel like writing a measured, journalistic eulogy for Robert Altman, one that outlines the stages of his career or debates the relative merits of 3 Women and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. As Garrison Keillor said earlier this year in A Prairie Home Companion, a fictional imagining of that radio show’s farewell broadcast that turned out to be Altman’s own farewell: “I don’t do eulogies.” I just want to be sad for a moment, in print, that the man is gone. He was a singular figure in film history, a bohemian craftsman who was also a satirist of American manners on the order of Mark Twain.

I interviewed Robert Altman in the fall of 2004. I had just started the “Surfergirl” TV column on Slate a few months before, and his new four-part television series Tanner on Tanner, a follow-up to the classic political miniseries Tanner ‘88, was about to air on the Sundance Channel. I was paralyzed with fear when Altman picked up the phone—after all, this was one of my artistic heroes, and I had virtually no experience with journalistic interviews. In the end, Altman was too nice a guy to make much of an interview subject—to put me at my ease, he asked me so many questions about myself that the phone call turned from Q&A to casual conversation. Nearly 80, he was absurdly avuncular but also sharp as a tack, acerbic and funny, munching a bagel as he fielded my nervous, overwritten questions.

We spoke for about an hour on the phone, about movies, baseball (Altman was a Red Sox fan, and it was October 2004), and, most warmly, politics. The presidential election was a month off, and Altman had recently shot an episode of the new Tanner series guerilla-style at the Democratic National Convention. He set his fictional candidate, played by Michael Murphy, loose on the convention floor and had him glad-handing delegates and journalists and chatting up figures like Barack Obama, Howard Dean, and John Kerry.

Altman was happy to answer my questions about how the convention scenes had been staged, but he was more interested in talking about the real-life election coming up, about which he was extremely well-informed and even more opinionated. He was convinced that Bush would lose and would spend his lame-duck interregnum shedding his advisers like flies. “You know Powell is gone. You know Rumsfeld will be gone. Cheney will be gone. Cheney should be in jail. I just think they’re a band of weasels, and I think they’ll all be gone.” Two years later, Bush is still in office, Cheney remains at large, and Altman is only two-thirds right about Bush’s team. But a comment he made about the war rings horribly true: “Every day this continues, two, three American soldiers, two more are dead, six more are dead … and eventually that’s going to add up to a figure that resembles the mileage between here and Mars.”

That Altman had so many movies over the years that didn’t work—some of them, like Prêt à Porter, were real dogs—was, to my mind, just one more measure of his integrity as an artist. He was always moving forward, throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what would stick. In our interview, he spoke affectionately of his flops: “I get a passion for these ideas in the things that I do, and you know, they’re all like your children, and you tend to love your least successful children the most.”

He never won a Best Director Oscar, though he was nominated five times (along with two nominations for producing). At last year’s ceremony, he accepted a lifetime award with a gracious and quiet speech that contained one of the loveliest metaphors for filmmaking—indeed, for any form of artistic endeavor—that I’ve ever heard. I wrote about it at the time, but I’d like to quote it again here:

I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. You invite your friends and you get them down there, and you say, “You build this beautiful structure, several of you.” Then you sit back and watch the tide come in. Have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away.

Even without knowing that Altman was already sick with cancer when he said it (earlier in the speech, he thanked “the doctor who’s taking care of me”), this metaphor is enough to make you cry. It’s also as good a description as I can imagine of Altman’s creative process. There’s the idea of a movie as joint creation, built with friends for the sheer joy of making something together. The shrugging acceptance of art, not to mention life, as something ephemeral. And perhaps most of all the indelible image—as indelible as Lily Tomlin’s face in the bar scene in Nashville—of the group of friends toasting each other afterward as the tide carries their work away. Here’s to everything Robert Altman and friends left with us on the shore.