This week, Chicago moviegoers can enjoy not one but two films by Robert Altman. The Long Goodbye, his chief masterwork, screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their ongoing series “Public Enemies: The Gangster/Crime Film,” while the Patio has a far lesser work,Thieves Like Us, a tepid update of Nick Ray’s They Live by Night that lacks The Long Goodbye‘s revisionist air. It’s a unique pairing in that the films respectively represent the highs and lows of Altman’s artistry, the former displaying his penchant for myth, genre alchemy, and dry humor, the former indicative of the occasional indifference he showed his subject. (Dave Kehr, in his capsule for They Live by Night, correctly points out that Altman “drained [the] dark poetry” from the source material when he made Thieves Like Us.)
He refused convention throughout his career, resulting in films that could be liberating—I’m particularly fond of the way his films never seem to end, but rather slip off screen and into the ether when the runtime hits zero—but also films that were irritating and pious. By and large, however, I find most of Altman’s work highly rewarding—alongside Clint Eastwood, John Cassavettes, and Francis Ford Coppola, he’s a consummate American filmmaker, meaning his films are about what it means to be an American. You can find my top five after the jump.
5. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) Slow-moving but never staid, this impressionistic western is Altman’s first great film, toeing the line between the modernist traits of New Hollywood and the poetry of the Golden Age. The lyrical editing techniques prove ideal accompaniment to Leonard Cohen’s soundtrack, which gives the film a modern touch while retaining the classic nature of its milieu.
4. Short Cuts (1993) By the far the best of his “ensemble films,” more evocative than A Wedding and more emotional than Nashville. The film’s myriad moods and interlocking stories form a vivid if somewhat aloof mosaic, seemingly unencumbered by traditional narrative and on its own ambiguous, spontaneous wavelength. Of course, it’s carefully crafted, as all of Altman’s films are—his ability to make the meticulous appear effortless is perhaps his most lasting quality.
3. Secret Honor (1984) Altman had a penchant for deconstructing, reevaluating, or just plain criticizing American myth and history. In this somewhat absurd, highly subjective tragicomedy, he essentially does all three, casting Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon and dedicating the entire film to his rambling, revealing monologue. Visually, it’s an exercise in diversity by way of restraint, with Altman constantly reframing and reshaping the same basic setting. More experimental than meets the eye.
2. 3 Women (1977) Altman often told journalists that he didn’t want to make intellectual films, he wanted to make impressionistic films—the kind that didn’t elicit discussion as much as emotion. This enigmatic mood piece is the closest he ever got to achieving such a thing, its much maligned aimlessness contributing to a subdued, haunting atmosphere. The barely-there narrative helps stitch together a tapestry of images and sounds, but otherwise plays a small role in the film’s dreamlike design.
1. The Long Goodbye (1973) Sharp, stylish, and effortlessly watchable, this deconstructionist noir rightly stands as Altman’s most beloved work. His roving camera and expert sound design are the rigorously formal counterpart to Eliot Gould’s unaffected performance and the droll, cloyed story. On one hand, it’s an act of parody, a playful twist on Raymond Chandler and film noir, but more than that, it’s an act of revisionism, a comment on the culture gap between the novel’s original release (1953) and the film’s release.