Auteur Robert Altman will certainly go down in the independent movement as a director who was innovative and unconventional by introducing naturalism into his earliest films. It is the naturalism that Altman is remembered for. The way Altman arranged the narratives, characters, and point of view in his films made realism his ultimate goal. Altman explained the basis of his films when he said, “… I saw my first movies at the old Brookside Theater. Those movies just seemed to happen–nobody made them, you know? And I guess that’s the way I still see movies–I want them to be occurrences, to just seem to be happening.” With this as his basis, Altman further evolved the independent movement by emotionally drawing the audience into his films. His techniques range from camera work to the characters and everything in between. Altman’s legacy and contribution to the independent movement is manifested in some of his last films. To better understand Altman’s distinctive style and how it impacted the independent movement, I will analyze his latest films Gosford Park (2001), The Company (2003), and A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
In order to appreciate Altman’s unconventional films, it is important to first understand where he came from, in regards to his early career in film. Through the 1950s Altman was a struggling film-maker who made less memorable films such as The Delinquents (1957), The Perfect Crime (1955), The Last Mile (1953) and several more. During the 1960s, Altman directed multiple episodes for popular television series like Bonanza (1960-61), The Roaring 20’s (1960-61), and Combat! (1962-63) to name a few. It was not until 1970, when Altman had his break through with MASH. Directing MASH showed Altman’s alternative way of directing a film. MASH catapulted Altman’s career to direct future films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like us (1974), and Nashville (1975). It is Nashvillethat is considered Altman’s “masterpiece”; this movie set the stage for Altman’s future works and shares the same themes of Gosford Park, The Company, and A Prairie Home Companion. These themes explore multiple storylines, open ended narratives, large casts, and overlapping sound. Also, something independent directors are not afraid to explore, especially Altman, is the true nature of a subject, in all his films he takes the viewer beneath the surface to see the reality.
Something interesting to note is that Altman’s distinctive style did not gain attention until the release of Easy Rider (1969). Both Hopper and Altman were introducing new themes and styles to the industry that would change independent film in decades to come. Altman’s style was and remained prevalent throughout the next decades. His desire to film the truth would lead him to direct future films that would continue to provoke discussion about his style and role in the independent film movement.
Gosford Park serves as one representative example of Altman’s notorious style. This film offers a fresh perspective of what life for British aristocrats and their servants was like during the early 1900s. This film takes the viewer beneath the surface of the beautiful upstairs parlors and dining rooms and into a story that had not previously been told. Much of the film is spent on the servants in their environment, downstairs. Although, their lives and activities are in stark contrast to one another, this does not stop the stories of the servants and aristocrats to become intertwined with one another. In reality this is not surprising; however, Altman is the first director to actually show the interactions and stories from both ends. In Gosford Park the servants are just as much the focus of the film as the aristocrats are, if not more so. Early in the film, after the guests arrive at Gosford Park, the servants are scurrying around trying to get the guests luggage to the proper places, and this is where the audience can begin to learn who is who among the servants. Mrs. Wilson was a staple character that is prominent throughout the whole film as being the head servant. She along with Jennings, the Butler, keeps the estate in working order. It was a thankless job that required the dedication of their lives to the aristocrats. Mrs. Wilson gave Mary insight into being a servant, “What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I am the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.” This was exemplified by all the servants in the film. We all know what servants do, however, Altman showed us the tiniest aspect of it, he showed us how dependent these wealthy, assumingly competent adults were on all the servants. In one of the first scenes we see the driver of Lady Trentham’s car pull over in the pouring rain, just so Mary can get out of the car, go around to the back door and open the lid of Lady Trentham’s container. It is the little things like this that Altman puts in all his films that hit you emotionally. Altman also shows us the intricacies of the aristocrats. It was a huge deal for Mabel Nesbitt not to have a personal servant; they thought she had lost all “self-respect.” For her husband, Freddy, it was a tremendous embarrassment. By comparing these two examples, we see what is important to the servants (striving to be the best servant to their guests) and what is important to the aristocrats (how they appear to their peers along with their own well-being). Although these two groups live in different areas, this does not stop the stories from becoming intertwined. Elsie had an affair with Sir William that she accidentally exposes at dinner; Sir William is also the father of Robert Parks, whose mother is Mrs. Wilson, who is the sister of Ms. Croft, who also had a child by Sir William, but that child died. The murder of Sir William is yet another story. The focus is not so much who killed Sir William though, but the judgment is left up to the audience based on the story of each character. There are many “sub stories” and characters that are involved, but all work together to make the film. Showing the dynamics and layers of this film is distinctive enough, but Altman sought to make the film even more natural.
Gosford Park is so natural because there really is no structure. The camera work is simple. Altman did not use close-ups, medium shots, long shots; I always felt I was just another person in the room. I saw what the characters saw. A trademark I notice in all of Altman’s films is that he will look at one scene through several different angles, from each person’s own perspective. This gets the viewer highly involved because every detail of the room can be seen. On the Gosford Park DVD interview with Altman, he states that he never reads the script, he expects the actors to improvise, so they are essentially directing themselves, he just makes sure the appropriate content is in the scene. I would think this is proven to be effective in all his films, because this allows the actors to exercise their creativity and not work within confined areas. Although they are acting, it does not seem rehearsed at all; it comes off as being the true nature of that character. While the characters are speaking there is always something else going on in the background or off to the side. For instance, when Ivor is singing Land of Might Have Been you can hear liquids pouring, a clock chiming, foot steps, and side conversations. This is the style of the majority of the film. The natural themes that Altman used in Gosford Park are his trademarks, and are just as affective in his following films.
The themes and style that Altman uses in Gosford Park followed through in The Company. Like Gosford Park, The Company shows the audience the perspective of what goes on behind the scenes, in this case, what goes on behind the scenes of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company. By exposing both these perspectives, Altman’s film took on many qualities of a documentary film. Altman was brilliant in showing the lives of the dancers. As an audience, we see injuries, conflicts, dancer’s get replaced, etc. For example, we see Suzanne tear her Achilles tendon in practice, and is immediately replaced, that’s all we see, Altman kept the focus on the dance rehearsal, not her injury. Also, a young, teenage boy dancer is replaced in one of the performances. In a film not focused on the company, his minor role would not have been missed, but by his being one of many stories in the film, it adds to the truthfulness of what it is like to be a dancer in a ballet company, which is what Altman was wanting to portray. One beautiful scene that hit me emotionally was the dance routine between Ry and Domingo. The routine is certainly longer than it would have been in other movies, but it really gave the viewer a chance to connect with the film. During their routine it is obvious that a storm is approaching. It begins thundering and wind is whistling in the background, leaves are swirling around, but the audience is captivated with their performance. What makes this and other performances more effective are that Altman shows the audience the rehearsals, the efforts the dancers make in order to make the performance spectacular. On the side, we see the life of Ry and the relationship she has with her parents, and the one she develops with Josh. I found it interesting that she did not introduce Josh to her parents and step parents at the party, and they are left wondering if that’s her new boyfriend. To me, Ry seemed withdrawn and melancholic in the film, but we don’t know why. Maybe she is just insecure, maybe it’s her parents, and we never know the reason. This is just an example of how Altman leaves questions unanswered and issues unaddressed in not just The Company, but all his films.
Staying true to his style, Altman makes the organization the star, not characters. In Gosford Park, it was exposing lives of servants and aristocrats, and in The Company, it is shining light on the gears that make a ballet company turn. This is why Ry or any one else’s personal story is not central in the film, we know just enough about them so that we know what is going on. However, more than just the subject, we see Altman also use his trademark camera work and dialogue. As in Gosford Park we get a glimpse of the same conversation from multiple angles, using so many different perspectives gives us more detail as to the true nature of what is going on. Altman’s camera work is simple though. He doesn’t use so many different shots like close-ups, long or medium shots, it is very standard throughout the entire film. For The Company he used real dancers, so the dialogue was natural because this was commonplace for these performers. Altman continues to use overlapping dialogue to add to the films truth. For example after one of the performances we see Mr. Antonelli conversing at a table, a dancer comes up and he and Mr. Antonelli begin a conversation, but it is easy to lose what is being said because everyone in the scene is involved in their own conversations, plus there is music in the background, glasses being poured, laughing, etc. These “distractions” are what many films try to eliminate, in order to focus the entire attention on a specific person. However, this is an effective style that made Altman known for the legendary film maker he is today.
Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion employs his previous film making techniques. This is a simple film about death and the end of Garrison Keillor’s radio show that had been on the radio for 32 years. One story in the film has Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) Johnson who had been regulars on the show with other family members. Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) is a seemingly troubled, young woman who writes poems and songs centered on death and suicide. I believe that their story adds to the films quality in that they represent musicians that appeared on the show. They had a bond with Keillor and the other musicians and show us a real sense of how people related off stage. We go from the sisters talking off stage to them walking on stage to sing with Keillor. Other characters that are focused on are Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly). To me, their roles were simply for comic relief. They too were regular performers on the show. Typical of an Altman film, some of these characters might not be essential to the film, much like the young boy who was replaced in the dance routine in The Company. However, in a way they are very important to the film because they add to the truthfulness of the film. The role of Asphodel, the mysterious blonde in the white trench coat, added a surreal element to the film. I viewed her as the angel of death and was not entirely sure of her purpose in the film. She’s very somber and haunting and lurked off and on stage. Maybe she was just there to represent the end or death of something, such as the show, and we saw the reality of death by the passing of Chuck Akers. We also saw how she was indirectly responsible for the death of the axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), just as GK was indirectly responsible for her death. Altman probably did not intend for anyone to know the real purpose of her presence, but just his way of showing the reality of death.
We are shown everything in this film. We see the hustle and bustle back stage and the stage mangers trying to get everyone ready to go on stage, we see the romance between Chuck Akers and Evelyn the lunch lady, we see the Yolanda and Rhonda in the make up room talking about their mom, and how the arrest of their sister Wanda led to their dad dying of what they described as disappointment. Altman shows these intimate moments and dynamics of what goes on and off stage, and we see what happens off stage brought to the performance stage. This 360 degree view is used in all of Altman’s films and really adds to the films emotional impact because we have an understanding of what is going on.
As in the other two films I viewed directed by Altman, the acting and dialogue in A Prairie Home Companion was superb. Typical of Altman there were drawn out scenes, and dialogue that seemed to just come naturally. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin played their role as sisters splendidly. In one of the scenes they are talking about their mom and then begin to sing to each other and it ends with them in an emotional embrace. Scenes like this were very affective because we are seeing everything, it isn’t just cut off, similar to the dance routine between Ry and Domingo in The Company. Altman’s last film ironically dealt with death, but still had so many hilarious and revealing moments supported by a great cast. This film is a great way to top off Altman’s career.
American Independent films give people the opportunity to experience what Hollywood would be skeptical to put on screen. However, Robert Altman has produced many films that did make it to the mainstream. Take for example, Gosford Park. Not only was Altman nominated Best Director at the Oscars in 2002, but Gosford Park was nominated for Best Picture. Altman and his film did receive Best Director and Best Picture at other awards shows also. This shows how widespread the influence of Altman’s directing was. He was more than just an independent film director. He raised the bar for the rest of independent film-makers. He wanted the audience to be moved emotionally by his techniques that he used to create naturalism in all his films. Altman wanted the scenes to appear to be “just happening”, and he knew how to capture those moments on film. He makes the audience feel like an observer, nothing hidden or manipulated. It was how he made the actors improvise the scenes that made it feel natural. The overlapping sounds and dialogue makes you appreciate all the elements instead of just one particular thing. By using large casts, we see the situation from every level and every perspective. This is key because it is not so much about the characters as the truth he is using the actors to convey. And as in any Altman film, you will ask yourself questions, most of which are never directly answered, because that is not how it is in real life, so why should it be in the films.
Altman’s entire goal was to portray real life in his films. I believe that it is this goal that makes him stand out in the independent movement. Not only did he try something new, he succeeded. In 2006, just a few months before his death, he was given an Honorary Academy Award by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Altman’s subtle and unconventional way of directing a film is hard to ignore. He should be commended for keeping the audience in mind and striving to shine light on areas that other films neglected. His importance to the film industry in general will be long-lasting. Hopefully there will be more independent film makers to successfully film “occurrences” in the future.
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” Robert Altman to Receive
Honorary Academy Award. 11 January 2006. Press Area. 5 May 2008. http://www.oscars.org/press/pressreleases/2006/06.01.11.html.
“The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.” Robert Altman. 2008. High Beam Encyclopedia. 4 May 2008. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-AltmanR.html >.
The Company. Dir. Robert Altman. DVD Special Features. Sony Picture Classics, 2003.
Gosford Park. Dir. Robert Altman. DVD Special Features. USA Films, 2001.