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PostPosted: Sun Nov 26, 2006 3:58 pm 
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A long fade-out? Not for Mr. Altman

Garrison Keillor remembers a man who was always in full flight.

By Garrison Keillor, GARRISON KEILLOR wrote the screenplay for the Altman film "A Prairie Home Companion." His latest book is "Good Poems for Hard Times."

November 23, 2006

Robert Altman was 79 when I met him, and he had just finished shooting "The Company" and was happy to sit down with me and talk about doing another movie, "A Prairie Home Companion." We did that, and when I saw him last, in New York 10 days ago, he was tickled pink that he'd gotten financing for a new picture and was in pre-production.

He loved working. He loved almost everything about it: the long brooding over casting options ("casting is 90% of my job"), the scouting of locations, and the hubbub of the movie set with the crew, the extras, the people with the headsets and clipboards, the stars and their hairdressers. He could get impatient — "What am I waiting for?" he'd holler over his god mike from the command post — but his set was pretty loose because he loved actors and wanted them to be happy.

"A Prairie Home Companion" had an all-star cast simply because everyone wanted to work for him. Meryl Streep signed up almost before there was a script, and that put us on the map. Kevin Kline wanted the detective part, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson wanted to be singing cowboys. We shot the picture in July 2005, and Mr. Altman seemed so frail when I met up with him, I said, "Are you sure you really want to do this?"

I had seen him walk gingerly across the floor, arms slightly out, as if he were on a tightrope, an assistant walking close behind him, and I felt sorry for an old man facing the long uphill march of a movie and wondered if maybe he'd just as soon sit in a sunny garden in Malibu and do the crossword. He didn't wonder about that at all. "I want to go out with my boots on," he said. "I don't want to sit around and wait for it. I want to be missing in action."

He seemed to thrive on work and got stronger through five weeks of shooting, winding up with an all-nighter at Mickey's Diner in St. Paul, shooting an interior scene and then a Hopperesque exterior with Kevin emerging, lighting a smoke, and crossing the rain-soaked street. When the movie wrapped, Mr. Altman retired to his editing room on West 56th Street in New York, and a month later he called everybody to come see the rough cut. He loved sitting in that little screening room in the West Village and watching the thing over and over with other people. When he was working, he was in heaven. He had figured out how to live without regrets. Each time he saw the movie, he saw it new and fresh.

He was a very young bomber pilot in World War II, and perhaps that's one reason he didn't fit into the Hollywood system. When you've flown through clouds of shrapnel and survived, you have less respect for the corporate point of view. And he was a smartass, and that didn't help. But what really made Mr. Altman an independent was the fact that he wasn't about long-term planning or risk management, he was about doing the work. He believed in taking big chances and doing it with a whole heart. He didn't mind being talked back to. He said, "If you and I agreed about everything, then one of us is unnecessary." But he was the captain of the ship. He didn't care for meetings in which people discuss the arc of the story and whether we need a conflict at this point or not.

I had first tried to interest him in making a movie about a man coming back to Minnesota to bury his father, a winter movie. "There haven't been many movies made in winter," I said. "You would quickly find out why there haven't," Mr. Altman said.

He declined. "In the end," he said, "the death of an old man is not a tragedy" — a line so good, I wound up using it in the movie we did make.

He died in full flight, doing what he loved, like his comrades in the Army Air Force who got shot out of the sky and vanished into blue air — and all of us who worked with him are left with the clear memory of seeing an old man doing what he was passionate about and doing it at the top of his game.

In my memory, Meryl and Lily Tomlin are on the set, sitting in front of a long mirror, and Lindsay Lohan is reclining on a couch, and Mr. Altman is sitting in his high canvas chair in the shadows, having just instructed Bobby the cameraman on the timing of the dolly shot, and he says, "Let's do one." A distant warning buzzer sounds, and the assistant director calls out, "Quiet on the set." Mr. Altman leans in and peers at the picture on his monitor, and here we go again. This may be good. This may be the best yet.


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 26, 2006 6:59 pm 
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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.

I often find myself saying that 3 Women is my favorite Altman film simply because I'm a sucker for films depicting dreamy, hallugenic landscapes (no wonder why Satantango leaves me crippled for days, now weeks) and films starring Shelley Duvall. 3 Women contains both! Quite a feast for me. I have to thank Altman for discovering Duvall in Texas because there is NO ONE like her in the world of cinema...and the world. [/quote]

Actually, if asked a week ago, I probably would have picked Three Women as my favourite Altman, and maybe it still is - we're a sucker for the same things. I think it was also probably my first Altman, though when I taped it off late night TV the tape ran out before the third act (so when I later read synopses of what 'happened' at the end I really cursed the technology).

But when he'd gone, Three Women just didn't seem up to the task of summing up everything he was about. Nashville seemed at the time like the great 'summing up' film, even over a personal favourite like A Wedding (the first Altman film I saw all the way through!). Actually, that would have been an appropriate choice too, with it's extremely pungent "life going on in the face of death" theme.

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zedz, I find it interesting that you consider Nashville the contender for the Great American Film. What do you think of Short Cuts? That film gets to me every now and then. Some folks I know despite this film and I suspect it's because it reminds them of the painful cynicism of the world we're living in today. And how disconnected we can be with our loved ones without really seeing or being able to recognize it.

I find it impressive, but some way below his earlier triumphs in the same mode (specifically Nashville and A Wedding). It seems to me heavier, both in terms of its structure (having to fit in all of those actual stories, rather than just character arcs and situations) and in its striving for significance. Those earlier ones are so freewheeling and organic. Still, I haven't seen it since it came out, so it's well overdue a revisit.


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 26, 2006 9:44 pm 
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Lino wrote:
Sad news indeed. And we all can wait for Brewster McCloud, Thieves Like Us, Health and other unreleased Altman to make their DVD debut this coming year, how bittersweet that may sound.

I wonder if Warner, MGM, and whoever owns Health were able to record any interviews or commentary with Altman before he passed. Almost all of his films are available, and most have some type of comment from Altman. It would be a shame if these three were dumped out unceremoniously.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2006 2:18 am 
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jesus the mexican boi wrote:
That cunt Jonah Goldberg wrote this on the National Review blog:


My preferred honorific for him is "colostomy bag."

He specializes in this sort of curt, shallow, ignorant dismissal of anyone his tiny brain perceives as being opposed to his world view. He made a similarly braindead comment about Harold Pinter a few months ago.

Obviously a worthless dope, but one the Los Angeles Times has seen fit to gift with a regular spot on it's editorial pages, so he can't be as ignored as he deserves to be.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2006 4:13 am 
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No offence to anyone but can I please ask for the removal of the word "passed" and its replacement with "died". If ya gonna "pass" declare yer hand!

As a non-Yank and an atheist, I prefer the straight talk.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2006 11:46 am 
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The New Yorker has put up Pauline Kael's review of Nashville:

[quote]Coming: “Nashvilleâ€


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2006 2:25 pm 
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I'm an atheist also but you got it wrong about the Yanks! We prefer the straight talk too!


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2006 6:15 pm 
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From Salon


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2006 11:15 pm 
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[quote="Antoine Doinel"]The New Yorker has put up Pauline Kael's review of Nashville:

[quote]Coming: “Nashvilleâ€


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 12:40 am 
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A LOT of Altman's movies need re-issuing. Apart from the two Criterions, the wonderfully bizarre Fox five pack and the quite good New Line disc of the Player the rest of the transfers are ordinary to woeful. Even the Prairie DVD seems overly soft to me, although it at least carries Ed Lachmann's gorgeously lit color photography well.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 11:14 am 

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I long to take another look at some of Altman's films maudit, especially Quintet and O.C. & Stiggs


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 4:09 pm 
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Quintet is bundled into that Fox box. It's a total puzzle and frustrating as hell!

And we've all been waiting for Brewster McLeod (many threads ago.)

I re-viewed That Cold Day in the Park over the weekend and like it much more than I remembered. Sandy Dennis is particularly fine, as she is in Come Back to the 5 and Dime. Curious, I always loathed her when I saw her movies on first release but I've obviously grown less gormless. I'd also kill for a DVD of Images which I havent seen since first release in 1973 (isn't there an expensive Japanese disc?)


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 4:31 pm 
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davidhare wrote:
I'd also kill for a DVD of Images which I havent seen since first release in 1973 (isn't there an expensive Japanese disc?)


There's a R1 which I recieved the other day, don't know anything about the quality though. It's not too expensive at DVDPacific and you're at least free from any custom charges.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 4:44 pm 
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davidhare wrote:
I'd also kill for a DVD of Images which I havent seen since first release in 1973 (isn't there an expensive Japanese disc?)


Huh? MGM R1 disc. It's fine. Selected scene commentary by Altman.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 4:57 pm 

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I've got Brewster McCloud on laserdisc. Now if someone would issue a DVD of Otto Preminger's Skidoo I'd have the complete works of Doran William Canon.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 5:18 pm 
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Stop Smiling Magazine's complete interview with Altman.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 5:40 pm 
"Without obsession, life is nothing"
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The MGM disc for Images is excellent. It's actually one of my very favorite Altmans and one that rewards multiple viewings. In fact, I should note that all of MGM's editions for Altman's movies are extremely good A/V wise and all come with featurettes, selected scenes commentaries by the master himself and original theatrical trailers.

OT but I'm also tired of waiting for a Skidoo DVD...


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 6:23 pm 

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Carol Channing, Austin Pendleton, John Philip Law and Frankie Avalon are still alive. They could do the commentary.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 7:05 pm 

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I hope I'm not repeating what's already been discussed, but how is the quality of the MGM dvd of The Long Goodbye and the Warner release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller? I was able to catch the latter one at an Altman retrospective in Silver Spring, MD earlier this year and have been wanting to purchase it since. Sadly, I still haven't seen The Long Goodbye despite all the raves I've read about it for years and was considering blind buying it if the DVD has a good transfer.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 7:11 pm 
"Without obsession, life is nothing"
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The Long Goodbye reviews.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller
reviews.

Summary: they're fine! Buy them now!


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 7:20 pm 
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Roger_Thornhill wrote:
I hope I'm not repeating what's already been discussed, but how is the quality of the MGM dvd of The Long Goodbye and the Warner release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller? I was able to catch the latter one at an Altman retrospective in Silver Spring, MD earlier this year and have been wanting to purchase it since. Sadly, I still haven't seen The Long Goodbye despite all the raves I've read about it for years and was considering blind buying it if the DVD has a good transfer.


Both are adequate, if not amazing, transfers, although McCabe is intentionally a kind of sloppy print. As for The Long Goodbye - killer transfer or not, be kind and treat yourself to this one. Truly one of the finest films of the 70s, it perfectly captures the mood of sleazy 1973 LA, and bears repeated (perhaps endless) rewatching.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 8:04 pm 

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gubbelsj wrote:
Both are adequate, if not amazing, transfers, although McCabe is intentionally a kind of sloppy print. As for The Long Goodbye - killer transfer or not, be kind and treat yourself to this one. Truly one of the finest films of the 70s, it perfectly captures the mood of sleazy 1973 LA, and bears repeated (perhaps endless) rewatching.


I was bored by The Long Goodbye (would the fact that I've never been to LA effect that response?), and everything else I've seen from Altman I couldn't get into, such as Dr T and the Women and Gosford park. I haven't seen The Player, Short Cuts, Nashville, prairie home companion, mccabe and mrs miller, or any of his other work as far as I know. based on the 3 I disliked, are there any of his films I should see that might give me a different perspective on why he was so praised?


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 8:14 pm 
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SncDthMnky wrote:
I was bored by The Long Goodbye (would the fact that I've never been to LA effect that response?), and everything else I've seen from Altman I couldn't get into, such as Dr T and the Women and Gosford park. I haven't seen The Player, Short Cuts, Nashville, prairie home companion, mccabe and mrs miller, or any of his other work as far as I know. based on the 3 I disliked, are there any of his films I should see that might give me a different perspective on why he was so praised?


Without being snide in any way, if you haven't seen The Player, Short Cuts, Nashville or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, then you really haven't seen Altman, at least not at his best. If it makes you feel any better, I hated Dr. T, too. Give some of the other films a try - he takes a while to get under the skin. Maybe start with The Player? It's a lot of fun, wickedly dark, and a good primer on what made Altman special. Then dive into Short Cuts. If you're intrigued by those, you can then start all over again. Here's hoping you give it a try.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 8:27 pm 
SncDthMnky wrote:
I was bored by The Long Goodbye (would the fact that I've never been to LA effect that response?), and everything else I've seen from Altman I couldn't get into, such as Dr T and the Women and Gosford park. I haven't seen The Player, Short Cuts, Nashville, prairie home companion, mccabe and mrs miller, or any of his other work as far as I know. based on the 3 I disliked, are there any of his films I should see that might give me a different perspective on why he was so praised?


If I were you, I wouldn't bother seeing any other Altman films, especially if you didn't like The Long Goodbye. I don't think you will be impressed with his other films. Altman tends to be an acquired taste. You either have it or you don't. Personally, I think Altman is a great director and a genius but I have friends who are totally bored by his films. If I were you, I would stick with Michelangelo Antonioni and Tony Richardson.


Last edited by marty on Tue Nov 28, 2006 10:25 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 28, 2006 8:34 pm 
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Yes, it is an OUTRAGE that someone has the AUDACITY to not like Altman.

But, more seriously, there should be at least one or two Altman films to suit any taste, given the number of genres he worked in.

P.S. I certainly would not recommend Short Cuts to an Altman doubter.


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