The world of cinema lost a true legend this week with the death of director Robert Altman. In the movie business, it is a rare talent that is cultivated into such a unique signature style that the director's name becomes an adjective. But for the knowledgeable, the descriptor "Altman-esque" means a great deal.
A World War II veteran born in Missouri in 1925, Altman first cut his teeth making industrial films in Kansas City before migrating to Hollywood, where he worked in television directing episodes of shows like Bonanza and Combat. In 1970 he directed the landmark film MASH, a dark, caustic comedy set in a military hospital during the Korean War (it was the first major studio film to use the word "fuck"). A thinly veiled indictment of the war in Vietnam, MASH was a deftly layered ensemble piece that established Altman early in the decade as one of the leading creative visionaries of Hollywood's last great era of film. Altman's contribution to 1970s cinema included McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975). His career in the 1980s was mired in the shadows of his past work, but by 1992 he had returned to form with The Player. Like MASH and Nashville, The Player was razor-toothed satire that went for the jugular, this time of the film industry, and featured an ensemble cast of actors in a brilliantly layered examination of the morally bankrupt world of Hollywood. At a time when other directors would have faded from memory, Altman was revitalized. The Player was followed by signature films like Short Cuts (1993), Gosford Park (2001) and his final work, A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
Strangely enough, the profound impact of Altman's style can be seen most clearly in the medium where he honed his craft—television. Series like Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The West Wing owe a great debt to the filmmaker who cultivated overlapping stories, multiple characters and a wandering camera that seemed to spy on people at just the right moment. Students and lovers of great cinema who have yet to discover Robert Altman would be well advised to explore his richly character-driven universes. For those already well-versed in the unique language of Altman's work, now is the time to celebrate the work of a visionary director who gave heart and soul to a medium that more often than not scavenges in the dirt for loose change. Altman will be missed, but more importantly, he will be appreciated.