Tuesday, November 21, 2006

RIP Robert Altman

I have to admit it is with a lot of sadness that I have to tell you that maverick 70s director Robert Altman has died at the age of 81.

His sweeping stories filled with multitudes of characters whose lines often overlapped each other first came to prominence in the mid-70s with the films M*A*S*H and Nashville. His career went into a bit of a tailspin but had a renessaince in the latter part of his career with The Player and Gosford Park.

My introduction to Altman was with the film M*A*S*H. I grew up watching the TV show and was interested in seeing the movie. At first, I couldn't appreciate the movie, the surgery scenes were too gross, their were too many characters (none of them played by Alan Alda) and I couldn't understand what everyone was saying as they were talking too fast and over top of each other. Looking at the film now, those are exactly the reasons why I love the film.

It can be argued that his Altman's 1975 film Nashville is even better. It is about a cross section of people living in Nashville and struggling to make it in the country music field. In Roger Ebert's Great Films Archive he discusses what makes Nashville a true masterpiece of American filmmaking.

Top 5 Robert Altman films
1. M*A*S*H
2. Nashville
3. The Caine Mutiny Court Martial
4. California Split
5. The Gingerbread Man

My third movie on the list is probably one of Altman's least known films. It is as close to a remake as Altman ever got. It was not a true shot-for-shot remake of the Humphrey Bogart/Fred MacMurray classic The Caine Mutiny from 1954. It was a remake of the broadway play that was based on the original Caine Mutiny novel. However, showing sheer director's bravado, Altman kept in all the great moments from the original movie.

If you know that original film, you know it is about a mutiny on board a US Naval ship led by the executive officer Lt. Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) and the conniving, budding author Lt. Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray). They believe that the ship's commander Lt. Comm. Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) is too unstable to lead and they start a mutiny. The original film deals with both action on the ship itself and the court martial afterwards. It features a brilliant scene where the defense counsel Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) puts Queeg on the stand and literally tears him the shreds and thereby, gets his clients off.

What is interestesting is that he really believes Queeg is not unfit to command and blames the whole thing on Keefer. The final scene in both the original film and Atlman's film has a drunken Greenwald approaching his clients at the party after the acquittal and throwing a drink in the face of Keefer. Telling all that HE is the one who is the true author of the mutiny and telling them who he lied on the stand to make it look like he had nothing to do with convincing Maryk to start the mutiny. Both films have that great final line that Greenwald says to the group, "If you wanna do anything about it, I'll be outside. I'm a lot drunker than you are - so it'll be a fair fight."

Altman, who was given a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award earlier this year, was one of the most prolific directors in history. Here is a clip from that show with Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are presenting the award to Altman. It is not as funny as THEY seem to think it is, but it was a nice moment.

For more Robert Altman information, Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim Emerson details all of famed critic Roger Ebert's encounters with Altman and his films over the years.



Blogger JMacK said...

Not sure how you can leave out Altman's "A Wedding" it is a fascinating and sometimes awkward view of a bizarre wedding between a old money family and a newly wealthy white trash southern family. Ebert's review of the movie is really interesting

2:56 PM  
Blogger your faithful narrator said...

I could have also included The Player, Short Cuts, The Long Goodbye and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Sorry, The Wedding does not even get a sniff on my Top 5 list.

3:04 PM  

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