One of the highlights of the Festival each year are the Festival’s director retrospectives, rare opportunities to see works by some of cinema’s best directors as they were intended – on the big screen. This year is no disappointment with the program Altman on Altman, celebrating the legendary career of maverick Robert Altman, arguably the most important director of the American auteurs that turned Hollywood filmmaking on its head throughout the 70s and beyond. Presented by son Michael, a selection of 8 of his key films show not just his immense talent, but the sheer innovation, variety and experimentation that would define his iconoclastic brand of filmmaking.
Three of his most famous films that should be mandatory viewing for either the Altman uninitiated or long time devotee on offer are Nashville, M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs Miller. Nashville is simply one of the great American films and the fact that our own Margaret Pomeranz has widely called it her favourite film should be impetus enough to see it. Set across some two dozen characters over several days at a country music festival, it’s one of the most ambitious mainstream movies ever attempted, and it also set the standard for ‘Altmanesque’ – that brand of film with multiple characters and narratives intersecting, overlapping dialogue and long takes resulting in an ambitious project, out of which a vague fabric of an image of America in the 70s emerges. Funny, touching, melancholy and subversive in turn, it’s one of the great masterpieces to emerge from America in the tumultuous decade of the 1970s. The screening is accompanied by Altman Live, a special presentation by son Michael Altman who worked in varying capacities on many of his father’s films.
M*A*S*H needs little in the way of introduction, a satirical and irreverent war comedy that was the basis for one of the most beloved television series of all time. Starring 70s stalwarts Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, it was both a massive hit for the studio and artistic triumph for Altman, with many of the trademarks and sensibilities that would go on to define his work. As trivia, Festival guest Michael Altman wrote the lyrics to the films catchy and inane theme song “Suicide is Painless” at just 14 years old, which went on to enjoy almost as much success as the film itself.
One of the essential picks of the program is McCabe and Mrs Miller – Altman’s elegiacal anti-Western that remains one of the auteur’s finest achievements. In the mould of later works like Deadwood, McCabe seeks to explore the old frontier legend and visit the construction of a town as metaphor and microcosm for the American society at large in its formative years. Stripping back legend and tropes that the Western has enveloped over the year, McCabe’s protagonists – Warren Beatty and Julie Christie – are flawed but enterprising individuals running a whorehouse in the face of industrialists trying to buy them out. It’s a demanding film – deliberately slow and meandering but rich in character and tone, and the film’s gorgeous snow-capped iconography in Vilmos Zsigmond’s distincitive cinematography mean that to see it on the big screen is a rare, crucial opportunity for Sydney cinephiles.
Among the other films are three others in the Altmanesque mould – Short Cuts, A Wedding and A Prairie Home Companion – all tapestries of overlapping stories and characters that have influenced films ever since, particularly the early films of PT Anderson in similarly structured Boogie Nights and Magnolia (and it’s no coincidence Anderson was hired as replacement director should Altman have been unable to complete A Prairie Home Companion, the master’s final film and in many ways a call back to his magnum opus Nashville).
Short Cuts is a remarkable work of adaptation – of 9 Raymond Carver short stories interspliced into one epic work of life in suburban Los Angeles in the 90s with a reputable cast as varied and talented as Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Lemmon and Tom Waits, and one of his most satisfying films, while A Wedding is one of the crucial films in Altman’s impressive decade-long run of dominance in the 70s. Fitting less neatly into categories is a film like That Cold Day in The Park – an early, strange psychological thriller reminiscent of early Polanski or Hitchcock with brilliant and expressionistic cinematography that can be a freshly appreciated thanks to a brand new restored 35mm print, which is one of the can’t miss events of the Festival in this writers eyes.
And last but not least – in fact, the one film I can’t recommend enough and hope is the take home message from this piece – is Altman’s bizarre, wonderful film 3 Women, one of the strangest American films of the decade, of a haunting mystery that I can’t wait to revisit. Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall (who although is best known now for being the woman Kubrick harassed on the set of The Shining produced some brilliant work with Altman prior to that) star as ordinary women whose relationship becomes slowly obsessively co-dependent, surreal and psychologically confused while sharing an apartment and workplace in an isolated desert town. Perhaps the missing link between Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, this slow-burn descent into a weird fever dream as reality and illusion begin to intersect is an unforgettable experience. So choose wisely, but safely in the knowledge you can’t go too far wrong; it’s an incredible program from one of 4:3’s favourite filmmakers. Closer to the festival we’ll have a more extensive feature on Altman, touching on many other crucial or lesser known films in his oeuvre, but for now, tickets can be bought already to individual films (or at a discount for all eight) from sff.org.au.
Our write-up of which films to see from the SFF’s teaser list can be found here.
Disclosure – Brad Mariano has interned for Sydney Film Festival.