It is tempting to call the Robert Altman retrospective at the UCLA Film & Television Archive exhaustive, except that would somehow imply Altman's work had an end. Yes, there are a finite number of films, but they can never be exhausted, never running out of mystery, humor, pathos and insight as they reveal themselves in new ways with each subsequent viewing or passing year.
Stretching from Altman's early career in television through his glory years as a self-defined Hollywood maverick and beyond, including a fine trove of rarities and discoveries, the UCLA series has — along with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Orson Welles festival — made this a real season to treasure for Los Angeles moviegoers.
As a chronicler of the American soul and psyche, Altman, who passed away in 2006 at age 81, has few equals. Many who dislike Altman find his films cynical or misanthropic, but they are more acutely read as affectionate but disappointed, finely tuned to a wide span of individuals and institutions. Altman was after all about anything but perfection, as his work so often celebrated the tender, fragile fallibility of humanity.
The truth is that Altman loved people and their behaviors, and his films could often be at their warmest when the characters on-screen were at their worst. Altman was well aware of how people will never let you down in their abilities to let you down, and yet he always held out for something better. His films remain timeless rather than just time capsules of their/his eras — the freewheeling '70s, alienated '80s, resurgent '90s or elegiac '00s — though they are that too and often unexpectedly personal.
The UCLA series, which runs through the end of June, is already well underway, which seemed like an ideal time to check in partly because Altman's films often feel like walking into a party already in full swing and also because some of the acknowledged masterpieces such as "MASH" and "Nashville" have already screened. This clears an easier path to see the further reaches of this ambitious, sharply presented series.
For example, Altman's "The Long Goodbye," seen as heretical in its day for its depiction of the hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe amid the soft-boiled hedonism of laid-back 1970s L.A. Yet it was so on-point in presenting the city that in hindsight it is among the first movies to present the Los Angeles we're still living in today, a crazy, confusing mix-up of class and cultures.
The loose style of Altman's films, with their sprawling casts, anarchic overlapping dialogue and subversive sensibility, give them all a quicksilver unpredictability — not surprisingly, his films often walked an edge between masterpiece and disaster. It was as if Altman always believed in giving his characters, his performers and himself enough rope and seeing what happened next.
Though Pauline Kael's early review of "Nashville" is often credited with firmly lionizing the director, no one followed Altman down his varied paths with better understanding than the Los Angeles Times' longtime critic Charles Champlin. Writing of "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," Champlin said it perfectly captured the yin and yang of the director: "When Altman's movies are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are infuriating because there is something so arrogantly self-destructive about them."
Among the choice rarities uncovered for the UCLA series is an episode of "Dinah!" to promote 1978's "A Wedding." The film is in many ways Altman at his worst, trying to top himself with an outsized cast and fussily undercutting the elaborate ceremonies of a traditional event. The episode of Dinah Shore's show is in contrast a small wonder, full of awkward body language, tacky-wonderful interior design and clothes.
After Altman seems to have put away a couple of glasses of white wine he chastises Shore for not returning his phone calls a year or so earlier and then lays a bombshell on both the host and his movie's star, Carol Burnett. Whether what he said is true is kind of beside the point for what it does to the usual smooth running of a talk show.
When Altman's career in Hollywood spun out in the early 1980s, with commercial failures such as "Popeye" and "O.C. & Stiggs," he found an opportunity to rediscover himself, humbled perhaps but still feisty. "Stiggs" may genuinely be his worst film, in no small part because he so obviously had genuine contempt for the teen film the project was intended to be and which he was attempting to satirize from within. In an interview for the film's DVD Altman dryly noted, "You can laugh at it as well as with it."
After his resurgence with "The Player" and "Short Cuts," he made a strong final run of work. In his 1996 film "Kansas City," Altman returned to his hometown for a story set in the era of his youth that was anything but nostalgic, a tale of crime, jazz, class and misdirected ambitions. And in what would be his last film, "A Prairie Home Companion," he crafted an Americana tall tale of gentle sincerity and amused, plain-spoken truth, haunted by the specter of death and accepting of the unstoppable passage of time.
While receiving an honorary Oscar in 2006 not long before his death, Altman revealed with typical panache that he had been the recipient of a heart transplant. Embellishing an identity for the donor when he really didn't know, his sense of timing and drama was unerring, his taste for playful surprise intact to the end.
Altman looked at the world with clear eyes and a big, fresh heart, hoping for the best from people, accepting them at their worst and existing in the elastic reality between the two.