THE DREAM THEATRE. This obituary of Robert Altman, who has just passed, talks about the string of "flops" that preceded his "biggest box office success since M*A*S*H, Gosford Park." "He would go for years at a time directing obscure movies before roaring back with a hit," it also says. That's the way the world sees it, I guess: filmmaking as a hunt for boffo b.o., to only be counted a success when the big cat has been bagged.
But Altman made movies in a way, and at a pace, that proved he wasn't a big game hunter, but a poacher in the preserves of King Hollywood. Now, he was no duffer at the coup de cinema that moves a whole roomful of people to react simultaneously -- as in Nashville, when Haven passes the mike to a random bystander and commands her to sing, and, as she slowly turns, we realize everything now depends on that fragile, demented girl who was raving about the flyswatters, and who knows what she'll do...
But for the most part Altman made private movies that seemed to block off the periphery and live like dreams inside our heads. That kind of movie may get to be a hit by accident, or by accretion (even the much-maligned Popeye made its money back in foreign receipts and parents' rentals), but it is very far from a sure thing.
If you're going to work that way, you have to work hard, and Altman was tireless and prolific. When there was no money, he would do T.V. on film -- or, if the project were interesting enough, T.V. on T.V. (Altman also co-wrote this libretto!)
Not everything was great, but even the minor films have their charms. I am very fond, for example, of The Gingerbread Man -- where the cheap novel mystery is conveyed, not as usual by thudding soundtrack cues, shadows, and jittery editing, but by constant rain, regnant foliage, and the muzzy atmosphere of lives gone to seed. But I was a film nerd in the '70s, when Altman was one of the gods; any piece of his movies is to me like a few notes from the voice of an old friend. Now these images float through my dream-theatre: Elliot Gould trying to name all seven dwarves, then dancing drunk with George Segal ("Rufus Rastus Rawlston Brown..."). The community passing buckets to save its church while McCabe dies in a snowdrift. Legions of Depression rustics, armed with Coca-Colas, ascending a staircase in slow motion. Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt fighting the Malibu waves in darkness and long shot. The shock of the scars on Sally Kellerman's back. Copters descending like locusts on Los Angeles. Fade out, the voice of the auctioneer calling the astonishing numbers and the gasps of the crowd; fade in, Vincent van Gogh on a bed of straw...
The dream theatre is always open.
UPDATE. Altman's death gives the loathsome Roger L. Simon an opportunity to demonstrate an all-embracing lack of class. Althouse is kind of sweet about it, but her commenters confuse Altman's M*A*S*H with the TV show, which figures.
UPDATE II. Been scanning the blogs, and it reminds me of one of the many things I don't like about this 'sphere: just about every blogger whom I already know to be a jackass has, when mentioning Altman, been similarly ignorant and dismissive. In real life, jackasses are more well-rounded than this; they will have a few admirable qualities, which we will sometimes be forced to notice and thus be reacquainted with the wonderful mystery that is life. It is just not common for every asshole you know to share the same asshole opinion about the same subject. People aren't that dull. Maybe the problem is that the worst popular bloggers are very bad writers, and their comprehension and portrayal of themselves is as weak as their comprehension and portrayal of everything else.