Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman, the "Glove-maker"


The blogosphere is abuzz today with news of the death of Robert Altman. The legendary director of such films as M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player and Gosford Park died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 81.

My first exposure to Robert Altman came at a very young age. Although I didn't know who he was, I grew up watching one of his lesser-regarded (and I think under-appreciated) films: Popeye with Robin Williams (in his film debut) as the one-eyed sailor and Shelley Duvall as his rail-thin girlfriend (a role that to this day I think she was born to play). Though it was more or less considered a commercial and artistic failure when it came out, I loved the movie. I still love the movie and when I watch it I can clearly see Altman's hand in it. It does not surprise me that the film was not well-received upon its release because it is not like most movies that come out of the Hollywood machine.

When asked once about his relationship with mainstream Hollywood Robert Altman replied, "We're not against each other. They sell shoes and I make gloves." Indeed this was true. Altman made a different "kind" of movie from the typical Hollywood product. Altman's films were rarely about story. They were more about the characters, the environment, the dialogue (much of it improvised and a lot of it overlapping) and the "feeling" they provided. Altman gave audiences a sort of voyeuristic "slice of life" look into a slightly "skewed" world and its often quirky and eccentric inhabitants (usually played by an enormous cast of famous actors; Altman's films were truly ensemble pieces). Like most great artists, Altman was interested in exploring the potential of the cinematic medium and he produced some of the most most unique and influential American films ever made.

It was Altman's originality that made it difficult for him to be properly appreciated by the Hollywood community. Cinephiles have long lamented the fact that Altman could very well join the company of Alfred Hitchcock (and perhaps even Marty Scorsese) as a director who would never receive an Academy Award. Just this last year the Academy attempted to rectify their error by presenting him with an honorary Oscar. In his acceptance speech he said that because of his heart transplant (something about which nobody knew) he suspected he had a few more decades left in him. We all hoped it was true.

Whenever the subject of "greatest living filmmakers" would come up, I would always mention his name. I shall have to content myself now to simply call him "one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived." The world has lost a tremendous artist and America, a national treasure. Rest in peace, Robert.

ROBERT ALTMAN: 1925-2006

2 comments:

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