Robert Altman's Long Goodbye

Altman, on the set of The Gingerbread Man.


I feel a little odd mourning the loss of director Robert Altman. I mean, the guy lived eight decades and a year, and was incredibly prolific during his life, churning out film after film -- many actual celluloid masterpieces (MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville), with quite a few boners sprinkled amongst them (The Gingerbread Man, Dr. T and the Women, Ready to Wear). He certainly got laid more often and puffed more cheeba than I ever will. (Hey, I know when to throw in the towel.) Finally, it's not like we ever played the ponies together. Though, when I was doing heavy freelancing in L.A. and would've been hard-pressed to find Phoenix on a blank map, I did get to interview and spy on him a handful of times.

(One product of this was a profile I did for Salon.com way back when, which you can read here if you want: Brilliant Careers: Robert Altman.)

I wasn't gay for the guy or anything, but I loved his movies, his persona, and his fuck-you 'tude toward the world. He was the sort of Mephistophelean character in a broad-brimmed hat, who, if he'd said, "Steve, why don't you come work for me a while," I would've dropped everything to follow him. He was a cynic's cynic, with a touch of poetry about him. In short, he was the kind of man I still want to be when I grow up. (Not that he ever really grew up himself.) His mischievousness and willingness to tweak, insult, and at last deliver the fabled perfumed ice pick to the kidneys, in film as in life, is what I admire. Most men are eventually beaten down by their circumstances, but Altman always returned to beat 'em back, and deliver a coup de grace while he was at it.

What was my favorite film of his? That's a toughie. Altman made films back when Elliott Gould was actually cool. (Yes, there was a time.) And I guess that's why my faves are of that era of the '70s when legends roamed our blue orb. I can always watch Nashville, MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Three Women, A Wedding, and That Cold Day in the Park (an early classic from 1969).

Never liked Brewster McCloud, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or California Split. But I sorta dug Quintet, because it was so weird, and Popeye, believe it or not, for the same reason. Also his play-movies were superb, especially Phillip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in the one-man Secret Honor and the plaintive, heart-rending ensemble effort Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. I saw Vincent and Theo after its theatrical release in London (it was first a four-hour made-for-European TV flick), and still the thought of it sets off a buzzing in my head born of hearing Gabriel Yared's make-your-skin-crawl score for the first time.

The Player and Short Cuts are entertaining, but more fare for the masses than anything. Prior to ever interviewing Altman, I shook his hand at a New York screening for Short Cuts , where, inexplicably, he'd come to say hello to the first paying audience in Manny-Hanny for the film. Of his later work, I always had a soft spot for Kansas City, particularly for Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as a peroxide-haired gun moll. But my all-time fave Altman flick? The Long Goodbye with Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled post-war noir updated to 1973, casting a devil-may-care Elliott Gould as detective Phillip Marlowe. Altman adds a major plot twist to the end, finally sobering Gould's smirking shamus, and revealing at last the shibboleth of male friendships, perhaps all friendships.

When I think back on Altman's films, they remind me that life is far more than the dross set before us, the crap we're told to make the best of, and so I'm gonna miss the old man and mourn him in my own way -- by going home ce soir, opening up a bottle of Maker's Mark, and watching MASH for the umpteenth-thousandth time.



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