We lost a giant this week when we lost Robert Altman, who was surely one of the greatest of all American film directors. In choosing seven representative works, I'm going to skip over M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975), given that everyone knows them. They're both fine films, but I've just never really been drawn to them. (I've also opted, painfully, to leave out the well-known classics The Player and Gosford Park.) Rather, I like his maverick works, the ones that people seemed to ignore or misunderstand. That's how I see Altman, anyhow -- always punching away at the envelope.
1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
This revisionist Western is unquestionably Altman's masterpiece. Warren Beatty plays an entrepreneur in the Old West who tries to organize and build a brothel, but finds he can't do it without the help of a whorehouse madam (Julie Christie). It sounds like a silly, modern-day romantic comedy about the clashing of two opposing personalities, but Altman does it correctly, getting to the root of these psychologically flawed characters and using the chilly, grungy atmosphere as part of the plan. The climactic shootout is the textbook definitions of "anti-climactic," with Beatty's character stumbling around in the snow.
2. 3 Women (1977)
Altman's eerie, funny, lovely film vaguely recalls Bergman's Persona in its exploration of unconfident women and their behavior around one another. Shy, childlike Pinky (Sissy Spacek) comes to work at an old folks' health spa, where chirpy, deluded Millie (Shelley Duvall) befriends her. The film apparently came to Altman in a dream, and its odd rhythms and mysterious repeating motifs make for fascinating viewing.
3. The Long Goodbye (1973)
Altman often got credit for "genre-bending," and this cockeyed detective film is a great example of why. Adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel, the film casts gangly Elliot Gould as an unlikely Philip Marlowe, stuck in the hippie-ridden 1970s (his mumbled refrain is "It's OK with me"). The disappearance of a friend, a murdered wife and a drunken writer are somehow connected, but Altman places less emphasis on the plot than on the film's sleepy, druggy mood. Composer John Williams provided a score that consisted of one song, "The Long Goodbye," repeated in several different formats (elevator music, jazz, etc.) Sterling Hayden turns in a memorable performance as the Hemingway-like author who kills himself by walking into the ocean, and the young governator Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a hood. The great Leigh Brackett is credited with the screenplay, though Altman reportedly threw most of it out.
4. Short Cuts (1993)
With help from scribe Frank Barhydt, Altman crafted a meticulous screenplay from a handful of Raymond Carver's masterly short stories (and one poem). Though it's similar to -- and often compared with -- Nashville, Short Cuts has less to do with an era and more to do with the shriveled souls of its characters. Among the cast ( which is awe-inspiring, and too numerous to mention in full) we get great performances from Jack Lemmon, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr. and Lily Tomlin, plus a much-discussed and heartbreakingly vulnerable nude scene from Julianne Moore. Altman received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, but not for Best Picture; that honor went to the Harrison Ford thriller The Fugitive. Altman generously told the press that Fugitive director Andrew Davis deserved the directing nod more than he did.
5. The Company (2003)
Altman was at the top of his game in recent years, and this dazzling, funny look at a ballet company was one of his most solidly constructed films and one of his most underappreciated. Neve Campbell wrote the original story and went back to her ballet studies so that she could perform believably with the members of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. Malcolm McDowell gives a great performance as the troupe's distracted, egomaniacal director, but the film belongs to Campbell in a truly amazing dance sequence: "outdoors," during a rainstorm with leaves blowing all about the stage. It's one of Altman's most sublime moments.
6. Secret Honor (1984)
Atman spent the 1980s as a man of the theater, directing plays and adapting them for the screen, concentrating mainly on small, personal stories. Secret Honor is the pinnacle of this period, an extraordinary one-man show with Philip Baker Hall playing the disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon. He tape records his defenses and excuses against the crimes of which he has been accused, ranting and drinking and cursing. The film uses surveillance as one of its motifs, but never neglects the humanity of the man himself. Altman was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan at the time, and some of his students helped out with the filming.
Although most biopics have begun to adopt a very similar formula, Altman's Vincent and Theo remains a model of freshness. It attempts to tell the story of who Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) actually was, rather than a chronological checklist of what he did; part of this is achieved by focusing half the attention on Vincent's brother Theo (Paul Rhys). Whether he succeeds or not is up for debate. But one thing is for sure: If film were as revered as painting, Altman would be considered a master of Van Gogh's caliber.