Altman Season at the BFI ★★★★★

By Inayah Inam

Reviewing the BFI Showcase of Robert Altman’s filmography during the July – August period of 2021

When I first heard the name Robert Altman, I admit I had never heard of him. My introduction to the sprawling filmography of Mr Altman was through a friend who alerted me to the BFI’s summer showcase of “American Outsider”. When I first scrolled through the movies and their descriptions, my interest was piqued when I saw the late great Sam Shephard posted as one of the lead actors in Robert Altman’s Fool for Love (1985). Featuring Kim Basinger and the criminally underrated Harry Dean Stanton, I bought my ticket, confident and assured that anything with Sam Shepard in was well worth watching (and certainly worth £3). What then proceeded was an unexpected but cogent introduction to the distinctiveness of a Robert Altman production. Audacious, absurd yet unvarnished in its depiction of passion and anger, I left the screening feeling bewitched.

The BFI trailer for the Robert Altman season uses a lexicon of savvy film marketing buzzwords. “DISTINCTIVE”, “SUBVERSIVE”, “INNOVATIVE”’, “VISIONARY”, “PIONEER”, “AUTEUR” and of course “OUTSIDER”. One would be hard-pressed to underestimate the BFI’s own love affair with the late director. Film ushers would often express pride as they signed you in assuring you that ‘this one was a good one to watch’. As I went more frequently, I realised that despite a universal admiration for Altman’s craft, there were recurring favourites that came up in small talk. Altman’s immense musical epic Nashville (1975), the satirical dark war comedy M*A*S*H (1970), and the Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye (1973) were overwhelmingly praised by millennial male ushers – one of whom was transfixed in awe of Altman’s masterful long cam shot of a young Elliot Gould attempting to feed his cat at the start of the admittedly underrated The Long Goodbye. One can see the parallels between cinematic shots of Gould shopping for cat food at night and Jeff Lebowski’s adventures in the food mart

image via @ambivert_dreamer_212 on Instagram 

The praise isn’t misplaced. One can’t help but watch a Robert Altman film and feel like you’ve played the role of an uninvited guest who has stumbled across something far more ethnographic. Altman’s digressive and often sprawling film verse of characters, settings and themes means that his films say a lot but rather very little. They’re muddling and complicated. Perhaps overly complicated. But isn’t life?

A memorable Altman highpoint was Beyond Therapy (1987), a punch-and-Judy queer satirical romantic comedy. Altman does not spare his audience here as as a young Jeff Goldblum lunges and licks Julie Hagerty’s toes – the ultimate seal of compatibility in this 80s odd-bod comedy. Although critics at the time lambasted the film for its shallow approach to dysfunctional baby boomers and their equally dysfunctional therapists, the film is quintessential Altman. There is no hand-holding in a Robert Altman film. As an audience you find yourself thrust into the most comically absurd series of events (A Wedding is an entire exercise in this) but are happily belted in for the ride. Some rides end leaving a period of slight philosophical brooding where you ask yourself ‘what did it all mean?’.

California Split (1974) featuring the late George Segal (of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf fame) and Altman regular Elliot Gould is a film I often relate this question to. The 108-minute movie explores two degenerate gamblers and their perennial bad luck as they try to surf their way out of their self-induced misfortune. Idiosyncratic and hilarious (due to the great pairing of Segal and Gould), it ends with the two friends going their separate ways knowing they cannot sustain what they’ve started. Altman doesn’t attempt to burden the film with a moral axis but recognises the ambiguous core of human morality. The film, unlike much of its crazy whip-like retorts, ends on a silent note as Bill (Segal) walks away from Charlie (Gould). His magnum opus Nashville, too, isn’t grounded in any salient assurances about America’s political malaise at the time. In his tendency to complexify and layer sound, dialogue, and character, Altman was unique in his ability to create a tapestry that poignantly captures the zeitgeist of the 70s. Its confusion, its hysteria, and its cynicism are articulated by the myriad of tragic-comic incidences in the politically-charged musical. Nashville’s soundtrack and the timeless intimacy of Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy” is as amorously charged as Barbara Harris’s closing performance of “It don’t worry me” – an elegiac ode to a country spiritually in crisis.

Altman once remarked that the only thematic continuity he could find in his films was a preoccupation with the flexible boundary between sanity and insanity. In Secret Honour (1984), a 90-minute maddening monologue is delivered by a fictional Richard Nixon attempting to defend his legacy. More viscerally in Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977), Altman explores the female psyche and themes of isolation, abandoning naturalism for dreamlike doubt and anxiety which explodes in both film’s final acts. I was lucky enough to sit next to Edgar Wright during the screening of 3 Women who seemed noticeably charmed by Altman’s acerbic dialogue and Shelly Duvall’s yellow-sundress-wearing Millie Lammoreaux, whose daft obliviousness to her own pariah status is pitying and wickedly amusing.

image via @myflashon you on Instagram 

Crowd pleasers like The Player (1993), Dr T and the Women (2000), and Gosford Park (2001) were certainly more commercial than his earlier works such as McCabe and Miller (1971). However, Altman was still a risk-taker with The Company in 2003. His take on the rigorous performativity and behind-the-scenes minutiae of a ballet company featuring a post sitcom fresh-faced James Franco and Neve Campbell was never a huge commercial blockbuster. But so weren’t many of his films.  

Altman was the true archetypal outsider in Hollywood. Both a stereotype and a rebel, his widely underrated filmography endures as a gripping kaleidoscope of an America at odds with itself. Commercially overlooked and critically underappreciated, much can be learnt from Robert Altman’s America.


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