Robert Altman’s highs could be stratospheric.
The best thing about a curated retrospective of Robert Altman's filmography is that it leaves out the dross. And Company Man, a travelling series of the late director's best work that arrives at the Lightbox this week and stays through the end of the month, is all killer, no filler.
You won't be bothered with any of the director's more problematic pictures from the 80s, 90s or 00s - no Quintet, Popeye, Beyond Therapy, Cookie's Fortune, Kansas City or Gingerbread Man.
This is a series that comes to praise Altman, not to bury him; the only one of his "difficult" pictures included is Brewster McCloud, which remains awfully divisive but is unquestionably the work of someone who cared deeply about it.
Altman was a filmmaker of highs and lows, but those highs could be stratospheric. In 1970, the chaotic, shambolic assemblage of M*A*S*H - with its barely veiled criticism of America's involvement in the still escalating Vietnam war - must have landed the same way A Hard Day's Night had just six years earlier. Both movies radically reinvent cinema without giving much of a shit if the audience gets it or not.
Karen Black joins massive cast in Nashville.
Altman knew they'd come around. He reconfigured genre after genre to his own design. McCabe & Mrs. Miller became a languid consideration of masculinity and melancholy in the Old West (with the magnificent pairing of Warren Beatty and Julie Christie to lure in an audience), The Long Goodbye a drowsy subversion of film noir tropes, with Elliott Gould as a Philip Marlowe who seems barely interested in the mystery he's supposed to be unravelling.
Thieves Like Us similarly punctures the nobility of the Depression-era drama, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as low-rent knockoffs of Bonnie and Clyde. California Split is a gambling movie that barely cares who's holding the high cards as long as George Segal and Elliott Gould can kibitz in the frame.
And then there's Nashville, Altman's first great epic, clarifying his "many people, many stories" aesthetic in a three-hour study of country music, regional politics and the American South's absolute terror of a progressive future.
That's just the first few years of the 70s. Altman would make many more great movies, and all of them are here - 3 Women; Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Vincent & Theo; The Player; Short Cuts; and his final triumph, A Prairie Home Companion.
Most are presented in archival prints. All are essential, except maybe Gosford Park.
Friday's (August 8) screening of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is introduced by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. You won't want to miss that.
Read our interview with Altman documentarian Ron Mann here.