Robert Altman is best known as a director of multi-character storytelling, evident in Nashville, A Wedding, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, but he has also made numerous films more obviously indicative of the intimate and singular. Images, The Long Goodbye, 3 Woman and Fool for Love seem to be films zeroing in on a problem rather than expanding outwards. It would be a shame if Altman was remembered only for the breadth of his sweep, for his very style has usually given form to intimacy, even in the multi-character films.
Altman was clearly a key director of the seventies, but he was also older than most of the other filmmakers of his 'generation'. Born in 1925 in Kansas, that Altman was trying to do something new at a time when he was himself in his mid-forties must have carried an added sense of anxiety and humiliation. On his break-through film in 1969, M*A*S*H, Altman notes that Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould tried to have him fired. This wasn't anything Altman knew about until a year later, but it is the sort of anecdotal detail that sums up the hovering insecurity his work so astutely captures. The reason Gould and Sutherland wanted him removed was that Altman seemed to be paying more attention to the extras than the leading players. Altman reckoned the leads could take care of themselves. They had a script to work from; the extras were more pliable in Altman's hands. What Robert Phillip Kolker in A Cinema of Loneliness would later call Altman's "delight in opening up narratives to the play of their peripheries", was already evident, but to the detriment of his stars, who were much younger than Altman but already no less established figures.
However, the notion of establishing oneself is something Altman would appear suspicious of, saying in interviews that Hollywood "is all about greed, really, the biggest malady of our civilization." (Altman on Altman) Ambitious characters in M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and A Wedding are people who interest Altman less than the fragile and the fractured, the casual and the offbeat. Ambition is too centred a response to the world for Altman, and many of his characters are empathic vessels over driven figures. Altman's interest in multi-character studies seems vitally linked to this; that what interest him, whether concentrating on an individual or a group, is that any sense of identity must be provisional and attentive rather than assertive and oblivious. In The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe seems to want not much more from life than decent cat food for his pet, a comfortable vintage car and a flat people don't casually break into. It is the ambitions of his friend Terry Lennox that results in his cat going missing and his privacy invaded, and so as he kills Lennox at the end of the film after having been played by him and his lover, he mentions his missing cat as the motivation behind shooting him. Marlowe is a soulful figure in a soulless situation, surrounded by characters like Lennox, and the gangster looking for Terry, who both live for greed, while Philip lives if not especially to enjoy life, then to at least feel it passing through him. It is as though Altman is saying ambitious people do not pass through life, life passes through them as they direct themselves towards the dead centre of their own existence and not the peripheral pleasures. If Altman became a major director of multi-character narration, it wasn't to play up the interconnectedness of things (as we see in so many films influenced by him) from John Sayles' City of God and Lone Star, from Magnolia to Babel, but the incidental element of life. Early on in The Long Goodbye Altman shows us Marlowe's daily, and nightly existence, long before he introduces us properly to the story. As we notice the match marks on the bedroom wall, while we watch Marlowe trying to feed his cat pet food it rejects, and as we observe him going to the all-night market, so Altman generates not the incident but the incidental, not the story but the episode. Herein often lies the intimate.
In Images, Altman doesn't really allow a plot to develop at all. Pauline Kael in Reelingreckoned this was part of the film's problem. "This is a psychological thriller with no psychological content, so there's no suspense and the climax has no power." However at one moment in the film the leading character asks what is a soul, and it proves a question impossible to answer. There are good reasons why it would be a question of interest to Altman, and whilst not an easy one to resolve, a question to which his style constantly alludes. Indeed to use the word soul in the context of Altman's work seems too cumbersomely metaphysical; a word that is apt for analysing Bresson, Dreyer and Bergman, but not quite appropriate for Altman, no matter if he openly acknowledged the influence of Bergman and especially Persona on a couple of his films: "I'm sure", he says, that film was largely responsible for Images and 3 Women." (Altman on Altman) More useful might be the term, homo tantum - mere man and nothing more. In their book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri discuss Melville's Bartleby and Coetzee's Michael K. One is passive; the other active and constantly on the move, but they are both figures where resistance to social existence is so strong that it approximates "ever more closely naked humanity, naked life, naked being".
Altman is frequently interested in characters that don't want to belong to anything ambitious, any project where man becomes the opposite of homo tantum, where greed and glory eat into being a man and nothing more, or in taking an aloof position on characters that are ambitious. Whether it is Marlowe's insistence on staying at one remove from the venal ambition that surrounds him as a gangster, a writer's wife, the writer's doctor and Marlowe's friend all seek to exploit others, or, in McCabe and Mrs Miller, McCabe's ineptitude as he becomes a blow-hard who thinks he wants in on the development of a frontier town, but, as Mrs Miller observes, where he doesn't really have the fight or the gumption, Altman is interested in characters who whether killing, as in The Long Goodbye, or ending up dead, as in McCabe and Mrs Miller, don't have the wherewithal or final inclination to succeed in the world. The issue of homo tantum is also relevant to Images and 3 Women. Altman is interested in the first instance in the dissolution of identity and in the second in what he calls 'personality theft'. Images plays with the notion of the shifting sands of personality even in the very naming of characters. The five leading figures all go by the name of another actor in the film, so Susannah York plays Cathryn, Cathryn Harrison plays Susannah. The three male characters are less characters than subjective visions of masculinity as Cathryn feels a mixture of desire, disgust and guilt. In 3 Women, Altman describes one of the women, Pinkie, as "like an alien who had arrived on the planet", and says, in Altman on Altman, "How do I hide myself in this world? I'll become that person." Concerning another character, Millie, Altman says the actress Shelley Duvall, showed the 'pink stuff'. This is normally what you don't show people as it can make you look foolish, but Altman reckons "real actors" show it.
Thus what Atman is calling the 'pink stuff' isn't too far removed from homo tantum, with Altman searching out less purposeful actions than the basics of behaviour and the absurdity of existence. Whether it is McCabe wandering around talking to himself, or a character in Images stabbed while taking his jumper off so that he is left dying with a jumper half over his head, Altman doesn't so much rob people of their dignity, as some critics claim, so much as assume dignity is a trait too close to pomposity. When Robin Wood believes in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, that Altman "has a tendency to look down on his characters," adding that Altman is "perhaps closer to them than he realizes", the director would no doubt concur with the second statement and alter slightly the first. It is not that he looks down at them, more that he is in a horizontal relationship with his figures. This is evident in Altman's camera style that could be called a sort of horizontal baroque. It is true, as Wood and others have noted, that Altman is interested in using mirrors and glass to create "spatial relationships that are often confused or ambiguous", but this doesn't lead to the canted baroque of an Orson Welles, with high angles, low angles and sharp diagonals. Altman's widescreen, panavision, compositions in M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, give us a great senseof width, and he inverts the principle behind its original inception. Altman isn't interested in wide screen as an epic format, evident in films like The Robe, Ben Hur and Spartacus, but for its capacity to show the breadth of life. Altman talks of screen ratio by saying, "it's like painting a picture. If your canvas is eight-by-four-feet, it's different than if you're painting a canvas that's two-feet-by-one-foot." (Film Forum) Altman though is painting not in epic form but producing the absurd and the intimate out of the composition. In M*A*S*H he jokily echoes The Last Supper and Bruegel is evident in the messy shootout in the snow in McCabe and Mrs Miller. In Images, there is a moment where we see Susannah York nude on the bed in a framing that resembles Rubens. Indeed Altman talks of York being unsure about a nude scene because she was at the time pregnant and Altman replied "that's the fun of it, to see that Rubens body."
Altman seems more iconoclastic than condescending as he searches out the everyday gesture, body and action, over the heroic and the goal-oriented; and thus we might say a 'thinker' closer to Nietzsche than to Aristotle. While Aristotle says in the Poetics that in tragedy "first and foremost the characters should be good", Nietzsche writes very interestingly about the idea of shame in The Gay Science. "Whom do you call bad? Him who always wants to make ashamed. What is to you the most humane thing? To spare anyone shame. What is seal of freedom attained? No longer to be ashamed of oneself." If Hardt and Negri invoke the naked being through a certain resistance; Altman explores it through the feeling of shame, 'the pink stuff'.
A good example of this comes near the end of Nashville, where Gwen Welles' character sings and her performance is met with such indifference and hostility that she starts to strip. Altman didn't want someone who could sing badly; he basically wanted a non-singer to try and sing well. "...I had Gwen taking singing lessons from Richard Baskin, saying 'You've got to be the best you can.' And she really worked at it." (Altman on Altman) Just as we proposed that the way Altman uses the wide-screen is an inversion of the epic; so the type of performance Altman seeks is often the flipside of Hollywood achievement. Oscars and Oscar nominations are often given for an actor hiding themselves in the ugly or deformed body of another: Charlize Theron in Monster; Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot. This wouldn't be the pink stuff but the gold stuff: the acting evidence not of the actor's own shame, but their ability to disappear inside the part so that it is not the shame of the actor that matters, but their escape from themselves into someone else altogether. In the examples Altman gives of Duvall in 3 Women, York in Images, and Welles in Nashville, he wants not transformation but revelation. This is basically the naked being, whether literally so, as York appears nude and Welles strips, or figuratively so in Duvall's performance: homo tantum meets the pink stuff.
This would also link up to Altman's interest in doing relatively few takes. When he says on McCabe and Mrs Miller in Altman on Altman, "Warren wouldn't act. He was cautiously putting himself through it," this was partly because Beatty was used to doing many takes, but also consistent with scriptwriter Robert Towne's remark that Beatty was a man "deeply embarrassed by acting". (Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes) Perhaps we might add embarrassed by the revelation central to acting; no matter if many of the rewards are for transformation over revelation. Beatty seems an actor wary of the camera; Altman is a director looking for actors who are oblivious to it: who don't mind whether Altman's often long lens is focused on them or another actor in the scene. While Robin Wood sees this revelation as an issue of condescension, surely what matters is Altman's continued interest in creating a cinema not only of horizontal framing, but also a sort of emotional directness. If films so often create states that make characters better or worse than we are, in creating such notions as heroes and villains, Altman looks less for binary identification and distance, than to engage with the problem of empathy as a problematic. Whether it is Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, Cathryn in Images, Keechie in Thieves Like Us, even the humiliated cowboy in McCabe and Mrs Miller, killing doesn't empower; it usually stems from a fragility within the self, and Altman is interested in the investigation of this fragility. Even the murder of the writer in the original novel was changed to a suicide in The Long Goodbye, as if to create a different type of question around the death.
Now there is another interesting passage in Nietzsche that can help us here. In a mini-chapter called 'Feeling With Others' in A Nietzsche Reader, he talks of how often we do not ask why someone is troubled, but instead "produce the feelings in ourselves after the effects it exerts and displays on the other person by imitating with our own body the expression of his eyes, his voice, his walk, his bearing..." Instead of the why, we have the effect, and feel not on the basis of deep understanding, but superficial reflexes. While many a filmmaker takes the filmic self as solid and the audience as timid in Nietzsche's sense when he says there is in man "that quick understanding of the feeling of another", Altman often searches out the why, so that if we were to respond too quickly to an action by an Altman character we would be offering an inappropriate response. Whether it is the scene where McCabe is humiliated when someone asks whether he killed his best friend's best friend in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the scene at the end of The Long Goodbye where Marlowe kills Lennox, or the moment when Cathryn kills Marcel as he takes off his jumper in Images, Altman often creates troubled feelings in the viewer that can only be feelings with others by thinking through the why of the situation.
The fragility of the character and the nature of the question come together in Altman's work, and can best be exemplified by his comment "when I look at a film and I see somebody behaving in a certain way, that's what interests me. And I think the audience wants to see something that they haven't seen before, something that they can believe is true but they don't know why." Altman is a behaviourist in the best sense of the term; someone who wants not what we could call, taking into account Nietzsche's comments above, a timid kineticism, a sort of surface response that makes us laugh and cry, gasp and gurgle - but a penetrative gaze, a look that asks us to muse over the behaviour of the characters. This is a behaviour that for Altman is closely linked to the actors, as though he wants not so much a documentative cinema, la neo-realism with its non-professional actors and socially revealing situations, more the aesthetically experimental. After all Altman always works with professional actors, and frequently well-established ones, or ones that he helped establish. In the seventies he worked with Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Julie Christie, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson. Frequently he would use the same actors on several occasions, like Elliott Gould, Rene Auberjonois, Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine. This returns us to Altman's comment about the 'pink stuff', and of course resembles a sort of repertorial exploration adopted also by Bergman and Fassbinder, but with a still more peripheral perspective. Numerous filmmakers adopt an actor as alter-ego or as actor fetiche - Ford with Wayne, Scorsese with De Niro, Antonioni with Vitti - while Bergman worked with the same actors again and again in various characterisational permutations, and Fassbinder often captured a sarcastic exhibitionist flair, as each character would seem to demand their fifteen minutes of acerbic gloom. Altman wants something else. His approach feels like a combination of a lab situation meeting a social event as he sets up the story to reveal less the narrative through-line than aspects of behaviour along the way. Talking of The Player in Projections 2 he says, "I use one part of the film as the clothes-line to keep your attention. Hanging on that is the way the murder story is done." He may be specifically commenting on The Player, but the idea of the clothes-line seems relevant to numerous Altman films, whether The Long Goodbye or Gosford Park, with murderous plots, or so many of his other films where there may have been murders, but very little plotting towards them: The Player, Nashvilleand Images.
A murder is so often the dead centre of plot, but of course, as we've proposed, Altman is a great director of the periphery and would even occasionally talk about the peripheral in his own existence as well as the work. Back in the fifties and sixties when he was working on TV he believed "I was very content with my failure." Of his approach to directing films he has said "I don't do a lot of takes usually. My approach to shooting, even today, is that you set up an event, you determine the perimeter of your arena, and then just shoot it." Neither especially ambitious nor perfectionist, Altman offered at the same time one of the most important projects of the seventies - a mosaic approach to feeling that meant narrative could never quite get a foothold when the slipperiness of the emotions were the thing.
© Tony McKibbin