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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Robert Altman (originally published 10/00)

It's tough being a maverick in any profession, to be sure, but the rarest of the rare are the Hollywood mavericks. Orson Welles was the prototype. These days Woody Allen seems to qualify. It's possible to name others, but you can pretty well tick off an exhaustive list on the fingers of one hand.

It's not so hard to understand why the list is short. Getting a movie made is close enough to being impossible if you play the game and appease all the right people. Try it while simultaneously thumbing your nose at the filmmaking establishment and you just might walk with a limp for the rest of your life.

It is for that very reason that I regard the works of the Hollywood mavericks as especially to be treasured, and every new release by one of them as an occasion for celebration. That's why I was so pleased to hear about the recent release of "Dr. T and the Women." It was directed by one of my favorite maverick filmmakers, Robert Altman.

In the tradition of Orson Welles, Altman has built a career around breaking the rules in pursuit of a unique artistic vision. When he directed episodes of "Bonanza" for television, for example, he used to get into trouble for having the actors deliberately overlap their dialogue. Altman reasoned that this would add realism, since that's how people really do talk. Besides, the dialogue in question wasn't exactly Shakespearian. Little Joe and Hoss arguing about who gets to take the buckboard into town hardly requires the same reverence as a soliloquy from "Hamlet." Still, Altman had violated a convention, a capital crime in network television.

Of course, being scornful of convention is not in itself a virtue. Only those who drink from a wellspring of inspiration all their own can regularly get away with it. As he moved out of television and into feature films, Altman proved again and again that he merits the right to be different. If you enjoyed "Dr. T and the Women," here are a few earlier Altman titles to look for on home video.

"M*A*S*H" (1970). After a blue million reruns of the successful TV series, few people still remember that the original movie was much darker and more sharply satirical. Although set in Korea, it reflected with a vengeance the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the early Seventies. Unlike most of Altman's films, this one actually became a box office hit.

"McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971). This moody little picture is probably my favorite Altman film. I suppose it could be described as a kind of anti-Western. Altman methodically dismantles our traditional images of the old West. The image of the gunfight, for instance, traditionally portrayed as an affair of honor, is shown here for what it actually is - a murder. Meanwhile, Warren Beatty as John McCabe and Julie Christie as Mrs. Miller develop two fascinating character studies. If characterization interests you more than action, I can't recommend this movie highly enough.

"Nashville" (1975). It was here that Altman's signature ensemble style of juggling many characters and many layers of subplots first came into full flower. Hints of it can be seen in earlier films, including "M*A*S*H," but this is his first ensemble masterpiece. Instead of being structured like a traditional story, with a main character and a linear sequence of events built around that character, the structure is more like that of a piece of music. It's almost a fugue, juggling characters the way Bach juggled melodies.

"Brewster McCloud" (1970). I've saved this one for last because I mention it only with a certain amount of trepidation. Don't make this your first exposure to early Altman, but if you've seen a couple of his films and find that his style really clicks with you, this quirky gem is not to be missed. No summary can suffice, but briefly it's a story about a modern Icarus who dreams of flying under his own power and the people he may or may not have murdered along the way. If you're in the right frame of mind, it's great fun.

Orson Welles once remarked that if he hadn't been such a maverick his films "might have been better - but they wouldn't have been mine." Here's to the mavericks who buck the Hollywood system to continue to bring us personal visions in this most collaborative of all art forms.

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