Plenty of great artists have died in my time, but this news really took me unawares. It was hardly unexpected, but still, it was like a rush of air out of the room.
Now is hardly the time to be ranking the great living (or recently ex-) directors, but Altman's legacy has a richness and depth few could match - and surely no American director from the same period. Unlike the legacies of some of the canonical names being tossed around (which have already been generally settled), I think it's one that will remain alive and volatile for a long time to come, with waves of reassessment and reinterpretation. Just as the critical establishment is barely coming to terms with the totality of Fassbinder's output a quarter of a century after his death, so will Altman's gloriously unruly filmography be teasing us for some time. There's a wonderful lack of consensus about his body of work, and, as noted, even his strangest misfires have elements to recommend them. Maybe, in the fullness of time, they'll turn out not to have been misfires at all.
I still have little idea what my favourite Altman film is or will be, but the one I had to watch last night was Nashville. I was sort of shocked at how definitive that urge was.
This is certainly a contender for The Great American Movie, and it's a perfect demonstration of how innovative, precise and accomplished Altman could be, despite the carefully contrived illusion of chaos. Sorry Barmy, but there's a level of artistry on display here fully the equal of the less 'fun' directors you idolize. The film has one of the greatest soundtracks ever recorded (in more than one sense) - listen to how the sound segues from scene to scene, listen to how complex the organisation of sound is within scenes, and note how brilliantly naturalistic and non-naturalistic the sound can be at any given moment (not all sound sources are on-screen, and a particular sound source - Walker's truck is the most obvious example - can continue to dominate a scene long after it's passed through it). And while you're at it, apply the same attention to the visual side of things: the arrangement of multiple elements within a fluid frame; the orchestration of movement within the frame; the rhyming of movement and composition between consecutive shots belonging to different scenes.
And none of this is empty showmanship - all of these techniques tie in with a rich, complex, non-judgemental understanding of the world and characters he's depicting. The film is briliantly funny, and rollicks along in predominantly comic mode for an hour and a half or so, but in that final hour you get a stunning, intoxicating mixture of registers and emotions that opens up all sorts of ideas and questions about life, relationships, community, America.
A lot has been said about Prairie Home Companion being an ideal last film, but I'd also like to propose The Company as the perfect penultimate film for Altman: a beautiful, airy film that celebrates youth and creativity and sums up the perpetual youthfulness and curiosity of the director. Thanks Robert, it's been a blast.