Responding to a fierce putdown of the late Robert Altman by Time‘s Richard Schickel in a review of Mitchell Zuckoff‘s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, director Alan Rudolph has written an equally stern rebuke.
“The power of a major artist is that he or she is a force, standard, guide,” Rudolph wrote. “What [Schickel] doesn’t grasp is that great artists always lead the way. The torch gets passed, the message out, the influence permanent. You don’t have to be aware of originators to be modified by them.
“Bob’s insistence on doing things his own way was essential. It’s the major struggle. And Altman won. Which is the ultimate defeat for the studio ruling class and establishment apologists. [Schickel] uses Jules Feiffer‘s troubles with Bob as an example of overindulgence, but glibly dismisses Feiffer’s description of Altman as a genius. In the critic’s mind, Bob wasn’t the right kind of genius.
“Altman never changed. To have ‘comebacks’ shows he never went away. Some of his films might have been less than others, but each had the stuff of brilliance, and was part of a larger collection. Bob knew that continuously working in the rough was the best way to find the jewel. His biting humor never spared reality nor himself. The painful absurdity of it all. There was nobody like him during his professional peak, and there isn’t now.”
For what it’s worth, Hollywood Elsewhere stands with Rudolph and Goldstein.
Schickel wrote that “none [of Altman's films] whatsoever will survive as anything more than historical curiosities. [They] do not transcend their times; even the best of them remain trapped within those times.” And that, for me, is glorious enough. Because those times — the ’70s, mainly, when Altman had his great creative run — delivered a rich and flavorful kind of filmmaking (and film-watching) that has inspired and nourished tens of thousands of film lovers, and will continue to do so. I didn’t say “millions” because the Altman movies never reached…okay, were never intended to reach the popcorn multitudes, even when they were firing on all eight cyclinders. But what a delicious feast they are, and always will be.
Schickel states that Zuckoff’s book “provides massive evidence that people had lots of fun making” Altman’s films, the implication being that relatively few these days have fun watching them. The above clip from Altman’s California Split (which I initially posted last February) disproves Schickel’s suggestion and then some. It isn’t just funny but exhilarating. It makes you smile at everything and everyone. I laugh every single time I see it, and if Altman had done nothing more in his career than create moments like this, he would still be in my pantheon with a gold star next to his name.
I only wish I could be in LA for the upcoming UCLA Film and Television Archive Robert Altman tribute, which begins on Sunday, 11.1. Included will be an 11.13 screening of Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which Goldstein calls “a personal favorite.” Me too, and for two reasons in particular.
The first is a scene in which Mark Rydell, playing a vicious and oily gangster, mentions to Elliott Gould‘s Phillip Marlowe that he was always afraid of getting undressed in the locker room at the end of gym class because he “never had any pubic hair until I was 15 years old,” and Gould deadpans “Oh, yeah? You musta looked like one of the Three Little Pigs.” The second is a third-act scene in which a small-town Mexican official refers to Marlowe’s friend, a sociopath named Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) who may have committed suicide, in heavily accented English as “the deceased,” and Gould — probably improvising — says, “The diseased…yeah, right.”