Memorials and Oscars
In February, at a packed large Broadway theater, I attended a memorial service for one of America’s great contemporary filmmakers, Robert Altman. Altman had directed a number of the best American films of the last four decades, including Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, The Player, Gosford Park, and his final work, the smaller-scale but idiosyncratically charming and poignant, Prairie Home Companion.
Altman was a director who never compromised his art, who avoided turning his exhilaratingly unique films into slickly packaged
commodities that provide pleasure but disturb no one. He had disdain for the corporate “suits,” and remained to the end his own man—totally committed to his own improvisatory conception of filmmaking. In actor/producer Bob Balaban’s words, he “never met a status quo he likeed.” Other speakers at the service included—actors Tim Robbins, and Julianne Moore, novelist E.L. Doctorow, director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), four of Altman’s six children, and his good friend, singer/activist Harry Belafonte—repeatedly echoed that sentiment.
Altman was an original—a pot smoking, heavy drinking, extremely gregarious, charismatic, and dominating figure who, in the words of one of his sons “made his art his life.” Consequently, the speakers’ eulogies said much more about Altman the artist than about Altman the private man. They told us that for Altman the script was merely the starting point of his films— he encouraging his actors to use their imaginations to take off on their own (and they loved him for it). Also, that his films, built on the principle of organized chaos that was reinforced by the use of overlapping dialogue, paralleled his unrestrained social life, and his aim was for his work to penetrate to the truth behind the masks that individuals and institutions used as camouflage. However, in one speaker’s words, Altman’s definition of truth remained “fluid and subject to change — that if it got nailed down, it wasn't truth anymore.”
What the speakers all captured, some more articulately than others, was what an original artist Altman was. At his best, in a revisionist western like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he constructed a melancholy visual poem, filled with rich warm colors and exquisite light, siding with the losers and dreamers (there are no heroes) against the power of a murderous mining company and the empty oratory of a calculating populist politician.
I wanted to know more about Altman the husband, father, and friend, and about the nature of his private demons. But that wasn’t the Altman the service evoked. I did learn from somebody who knew him that though his children often received short shrift emotionally, he was very generous to them. He “understood his responsibility and shortcomings,” and though openhanded to anybody who could amiably work with him, so that they became his "family," his blood family always came first. And like everybody else who spoke, Altman’s sons were clearly enamored of this larger-than-life difficult man.
Memorial service talks, however, don’t usually hone in on the flaws of the person who died, so it was Altman the seductive, driven, maverick artist whose image dominated the day. Among the close to 50 films Altman directed, some were slack or unrealized; but he was one American artist who almost never made a film that was formulaic or pandered to the public. He remained to the end the luminous antithesis to the skilled hacks that continue to dominate the movie industry.
In stark contrast to the memorial service for Altman were this year’s Oscar ceremonies, which usually celebrate films that exist in an altogether different realm from his body of work. It was presided over by Ellen DeGeneres who got off an apt political joke or two, and demonstrated a light understated touch tweaking the industry. But she never tried to draw blood.
The evening was a very controlled one; no Oscar winner attacked the President or the war, or behaved egregiously once they reached the podium. No winner, even articulate ones like Helen Mirren, said anything memorable about the nature of acting or film. It was a night where the industry congratulated itself, and did so in a seamless, somewhat tedious fashion.
Obviously, this is a much more liberal
than in the days when Oscar ceremonies were in the hands of a joke machine like Bob Hope. In 2007 African-Americans are no longer token saints like Sidney Poitier; but play a significant role in front of the cameras; Mexican directors had a major part at the Oscars, Al Gore received a standing ovation for his documentary on global warming; and Melissa Etheridge after winning an Oscar kissed her “wife” in front of millions. Of course,
’s prime commitment is to profit, not art. Consequently, the great Martin Scorsese finally was awarded his long deserved Oscar, not for masterpieces like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but for a star-filled, brilliantly executed, gratuitously violent genre film. Proving there is logic to Scorsese eschewing more personal films for big budget mainstream work in recent years.
The Academy Award nominated films are usually much better than the dross that permeates the industry. But, I don’t expect the day will ever come when directors who make personal films, like Robert Altman, become the rule rather than the exception in