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On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School

2013

Glistening
A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux

Archive

Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
Cafeterias
Back-to-the-Land
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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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 Hollywood 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 Hollywood 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, Hollywood ’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 Hollywood .

L. Quart