Mr. Altman's unflinching eye

Special to The Times

ROBERT ALTMAN, who receives an honorary Academy Award tonight, is perhaps the most American of directors. But his Americanness is of a special sort and doesn't really connect up to any tradition except his own.

Many movie directors, of course, have been comprehended as quintessentially homegrown artists. John Ford gave the Western landscape an elegiac purity; John Huston's best movies, like Hemingway's best prose, had a virile grace; Frank Capra manufactured populist fables; Sam Peckinpah's sweat-soaked world was riven by elemental forces of loyalty and betrayal. Howard Hawks' America overflowed with toughs who loved to talk; Preston Sturges, who adored jabber every bit as much as Hawks, served up a gaggle of archetypal eccentrics.

But Altman, who has ranged as widely as any of these directors across the American panorama, is a more mysterious and allusive artist. He is renowned for the buzzing expansiveness of his stories, the crisscrossed plots and people, but what strikes home most of all in this sprawl is a terrible sense of aloneness. In film after film, in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "The Long Goodbye," in "Nashville" and "Short Cuts," the human tumult masks a solitude. If being an American means being rooted to the land, to a tradition, a community, then it also means being forever in fear of dispossession. Altman understands this better than any other filmmaker. It's what gives even his rowdiest comic escapades their bite of woe.

In "Nashville," for example, the free-flowing madcap pageant is studded with moments when we are brought shudderingly close to the privacies of the soul, as in the scene showing Ronee Blakley's breakdown on the stage of the Opry Belle, or Gwen Welles' forlorn striptease in a smoke-filled hall of hecklers, or Keenan Wynn receiving the news of his wife's death in the hospital just at the moment when a chatty, unknowing soldier sidles over to him. In the bar lounge sequence where Lily Tomlin is mesmerized by Keith Carradine singing "I'm Easy," she looks stricken by her own unbidden desire.

Altman once said, "Human behavior, filled with all its mystery and inspiration, has always fascinated me." To capture what he can of this mystery, he developed an extraordinarily supple technique capable of registering the subtlest flinches of emotion. His elliptical style allows us the pleasure (or at least the illusion) of discovering a movie for ourselves, without all the packaging and predictability that most directors go in for. (Sometimes, however, as in most of "3 Women" and all of "Quintet," the ellipses swamp the movie.) His aural tracks pick up the halting, run-on gabble of people as they really sound. His cameras, seemingly on the fly, seize the small moments that are, in fact, the big moments -- to take one example out of a thousand, the glance that Julie Christie's madam in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" gets from Shelley Duvall's mail-order bride right after her husband dies and she knows the next stop is the whorehouse. Nothing is inconsequential, Altman seems to be saying in his movies, because everything has human weight if you know what to look for.

One reason his films can seem so cavalier to audiences is because his humanism is unsentimental. For him, sentimentality is just another false piety. Altman is not simply being a curmudgeon -- he's intuiting his way to something more genuine. It makes sense that he has made a career out of subverting traditional genres: the war movie ("MASH"); the western ("McCabe & Mrs. Miller"); the private-eye film ("The Long Goodbye"); the musical ("Nashville"); the biopic ("Vincent & Theo"); the documentary ("Tanner '88"); the classic whodunit ("Gosford Park"); and so on. Genres can be a form of false piety too.

"Vincent & Theo," starring Tim Roth, is probably the most uncompromising movie ever made about an artist (and one of Altman's few films set outside America). One might expect this fanatically independent director, who has fought his way in and out of Hollywood for most of his working life, to covet the great painter's miseries. But no homilies are proffered here. Art may be Van Gogh's religion, but clearly Altman sees it as too high a price to pay. The Van Gogh of this movie is an artist not because of his madness but in spite of it. There is a livid, discordant quality to the film. When Van Gogh ventures alone into the fields to paint, the clacking of birds and insects is a beckoning malevolence. For Van Gogh, life is bedlam and Altman, who surely must see this as a cautionary tale, recoils from the horror even as he appears to press into it.

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Carving out a career

ALTMAN has had one of the most improbable careers in movie history: Starting out as a director for a dozen years of episodic TV shows such as "Sugarfoot" and "Whirlybirds," he broke through in his mid-40s with "MASH" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and never looked back. It was as if all those years of hackwork had jolted him into innovation.

There is an almost ineffable sense of liberation to his films from the '70s. "The Long Goodbye," which casts Elliott Gould as a new-style Philip Marlowe in a groggy, funkytown L.A that Altman captured better than anyone else, is a deliriously lyrical tragicomedy about being valiant in an unvaliant world. Altman seems to be trying out in it everything he knows about life and about moviemaking. In formal terms, it comes closer to pure jazz than any mainstream movie ever has. Certainly Gould, with his mumbled riffs and lanky lope, was never better. (Actors love Altman, perhaps because he has the good sense to be stupefied by what they are able to do.) Later in the decade, after a six-year run of amazements that also included "California Split" and his masterpiece set in the Depression, "Thieves Like Us," Altman lost his way for a time. Because of the bad box office on "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," he was dropped by Dino De Laurentiis from "Ragtime," instantly making that proposed version of E.L. Doctorow's novel a prime candidate for The Greatest Movie Never Made. The congregations in "A Wedding" and "A Perfect Couple" and the barely released "HEALTH" were unfizzy -- Altman Lite. The zoomy camerawork never seemed to zoom in on anything interesting, and one longed for the babble to subside.

But then, after the debacle of "Popeye," this improvisatory maverick who favored screenplays as mere blueprints confounded everybody by decamping from Hollywood and directing a series of letter-perfect stage adaptations of plays by David Rabe, Sam Shepard and Christopher Durang. The results were doubly confounding since in at least two instances -- Donald Freed and Arnold Stone's "Secret Honor," with Philip Baker Hall delivering a psychotic rant as a walled-in, post-Watergate Richard Nixon, and Ed Graczyk's mood-memory play "Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" -- Altman was at his most cinematically inventive. The faces of the actresses in that film, including Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black and Marta Heflin, have a silent-movie-star luminosity, a frailty. The pathos of death is in their fine-drawn features.

Altman confounded everybody again when, at age 67, he pranced back into Hollywood with "The Player," a poison dart dipped in the nectar of sweet revenge. The film, adapted from Michael Tolkin's novel, plays extremely well as a black comedy about the film business, but it's also about something deeper: It's Altman's death knell for his profession. The murder of the screenwriter by Tim Robbins' studio executive, which he gets away with scot-free, stands in for the murder of movie art in modern Hollywood. The paradox, of course, is that Altman's movie is itself a work of art.

The Hollywood of "The Player" is as emblematically American as the Nashville of "Nashville." Both are fiefdoms ruled by fear and glamour and populated by people who have a tense, wall-eyed watchfulness. They never seem to sleep. Altman has always had an almost anthropological avidity for rooting around inside a culture, which is another way of saying that, despite his penchant at times for drawing attention to the fact that the movie we are watching is indeed a movie, he has an impulse for the truth. His antennae are set to catch the vibrations in the zeitgeist. "Nashville," coming off of the assassinations and Watergate and Vietnam, is one of the funniest movies ever made and also one of the scariest; it makes you feel in your marrow the derangement of American life. You sense that something bad is going to happen in that movie long before it actually does.

I have emphasized this darker aspect of Altman's career because the great hectic humor in his movies is so self-evident and because he has so often been written about as some kind of professional party giver -- an exalted maker of festive confabs. This kind of treatment may be a backhanded tribute to the sheer enjoyableness of his best films, but it doesn't begin to get at why he is so important.

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On-the-nose narrative

IF we sometimes feel in this country that we are caught up in an Altman movie in which we are onstage all the time and everyone is pointing a camera at everyone else, it is because he has given us a way of seeing that is eerily in tune with the times. He recognizes better than any other filmmaker how our lives have become commodified and corrupted by a society in which everything is for sale. The overheated jamboree of "Nashville" and the banal apocalypse of the Raymond Carver-derived "Short Cuts" are all of a piece with the paranoid ferocity of "Secret Honor" and the vampirish "The Player." They all jam together as one vast vision of an America stewing in its own juices.

These movies carry a furious sense of loss. It is in his two finest films set in the American past -- "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," with Warren Beatty's brash frontier dreamer, and "Thieves Like Us," with Carradine and Duvall as doomed Depression lovebirds -- that Altman's full sorrow shines forth. Both films are elegies for innocence. Watching them is like gazing at a family photo album of loved ones long ago passed away.

Altman has never won an Oscar for directing a movie, though he's been nominated five times. He has said of Hollywood, "They make shoes, I make gloves." Back in the '70s he was quoted as saying, "Sometimes I feel like little Eva running across the ice with the dogs yapping at my ass. Maybe the reason I'm doing all this is so I can get a lot done before they catch up with me." Tonight, at 81, with a new movie based on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" coming this year, the director gets to call off the dogs in front of half a billion people. It's a twist that could happen only in an Altman movie.

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Rainer is the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and

DVD critic for Bloomberg News.

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