Who is he?
Influential American film director, producer and screenwriter whose career spanned six decades starting from the 1950s. Altman started his career as a director of TV shows and documentaries before becoming a part of the New Hollywood movement. He is one of the three directors to have won the top prize at all three major film festivals — Cannes, Berlin and Venice — though, amusingly enough, he never won an Oscar for direction. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 81.
Why is he of interest?
Like his New Hollywood contemporaries, Altman’s cinema has influenced many important, current-day directors in America, most famously Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films, it could be said, almost have a one to one correspondence to his mentor’s films. Altman is also among the most politically committed of American filmmakers — mainstream, underground, independent or otherwise — which comes across as all the more radical today, when even the most ambitious films settle for vague stabs.
Where to discover him?
Made to concur with the celebrations of 200 years of American independence, Buffalo Bill and the Indians: Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976) is a veritable axe that delves right into the American establishment’s self-mythologising and skewed historiography. A vehemently revisionist Western, the film continuously questions the truth value of all popular representation, including its own, and, though considered a minor work, is a cogent articulation of Altman’s thematic and political preoccupations.
What are his films about?
Altman’s early and most celebrated features function as genre critiques. These subversive films question, mock or revise the conventions of the genre that they work within, in effect, splitting open the ideological conflicts at their heart. They serve as critiques of representation and narration and constantly call to attention their own construction. Altman’s works also heavily deal with the themes of rise of industrial capitalism and American exceptionalism.
Some of the stylistic characteristics of Robert Altman’s cinema are the use of multiple visual planes of action, a complex and interleaved soundscape that often has a disjunction with respect to the image, overlapping dialogue, fast zoom shots, medium-long shots, architecture and décor for framing characters, locale shooting and a mostly naturalist acting style. The movies generally have an ensemble cast and the narratives consist of multiple threads that criss-cross at various points.