If, like me, you're part of the generation that discovered cinema in the 70s, Robert Altman occupies a unique position in your personal history. We could look at Truffaut, Godard, Bergman and Fellini, but we couldn't discover them - they were already in the canon.
Altman was our genius, so we maintained a certain loyalty to him even through the troughs of A Wedding, Health and Prêt-A-Porter. We always knew he'd come back, and he always did - with The Player or Gosford Park or Secret Honor.
Of course, we had Altman in his prime: the great dark western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller; his acid-tinged deconstruction of Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye; and Nashville, the finest of his sprawling environmental films, in which he set characters loose somewhere just to see what would happen.
Altman plugged away for a decade and a half before he got his break. He made industrial and educational shorts and a ton of episodic television in the 60s. Then, after 15 other people turned it down, Fox offered him MASH and Altman's mature style leapt forth fully formed in the setting of a Korean War hospital base - the overlapping dialogue, the restlessly prowling camera, the Brechtian use of the soundtrack to comment on the action, the studied use of anachronisms. MASH also shows his weaknesses, notably the hipster arrogance that mars his worst films.
If you doubt Altman's influence, watch MASH and then George Lucas's American Graffiti, or follow Nashville with Hal Ashby's Shampoo, whose star, Warren Beatty, gave his greatest performance in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And speaking of McCabe, take a look at Deadwood after watching it.
Altman later said, "I don't direct; I watch," but that suggestive statement underplays his manipulation of the image and the camera, which seems untethered and almost unrelated to the action in both The Long Goodbye and Gosford Park.
After Nashville, Altman never again had the full attention of filmgoers, but even at his commercial low points he did interesting and daring work. Although he only won an honorary Oscar late in his life, he won an Emmy in 1989 for his HBO political mockumentary Tanner '88. His television adaptation of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial turned an aged stage play into a visual simulacrum of the Iran-Contra hearings.
Altman's great strength as a director was the trust he placed in his actors. Well-known actors do surprising work in Altman's films: Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, George Segal in California Split, Paul Newman in Buffalo Bill And The Indians, Tim Roth as Van Gogh in Vincent & Theo, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Short Cuts, Brad Davis in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.
And, of course, there's Elliott Gould, who gives two of the greatest performances of the 70s in California Split and as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, a performance regarded at the time as a blasphemous assault on the memory of Raymond Chandler. Hyperverbal, continuously startled, yet also maintaining an almost stoned indifference, Gould seems tuned into a radio station from another dimension, and Altman lets him run with it.
Altman was interested in the things happening at the edges of the action, which is why his best films reward repeated viewings. They change shape as you acquire new details. Gosford Park is an English country house murder mystery like no other, with what at times seems like every good actor in England jostling for space above and below stairs.
At a time when studio directors are expected to shoot for the blockbuster, Altman remained a defiantly independent spirit. Who else would have thought Garrison Keillor's digressive and studiedly aural program, radio's Prairie Home Companion, was a viable film project? Who else would have turned it into a gentle meditation on death?