Robert Altman

b. Robert Bernard Altman

b. 20 February 1925, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
d. 20 November 2006, Los Angeles, California, USA

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The Modernist Art Cinema of Robert Altman

Robert Altman is 80 years old in February 2005. He is the director of 33 feature films since his first major Hollywood film in 1967. He is a notorious renegade from the standard operating procedures and finished products of the motion picture industry, and he has been critically acclaimed as one of the most pre-eminent directors in American cinema during the last quarter of the twentieth century. His two most recent films reflect the independent director continuing to make independent films: The Company (2003) is at once a fictional meditation on ballet and a documentary on the work of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Tanner on Tanner (2004) reprises Tanner ’88‘s (1988) fictional cast, real presidential politics, and creative collaboration between Altman and Doonesbury‘s Gerry Trudeau to cast a caustic and mockumentary eye on the American presidential campaign of 2004. The unusual diversity of his work, as well as its prestige, is represented by William Bolcom’s opera adaptation of A Wedding (1978), currently performing at the Chicago Lyric Opera, under Altman’s direction.

In 2001, at age 76, Altman mounted his most recent big scale movie production. Gosford Park employs a huge cast, including practically the entire first echelon of contemporary British actors; location shooting at an elegant old English manor house; the lavish set designs and costumes of the heritage film; and an intricately crafted (Academy Award winning) screenplay. Gosford Park will stand as one of Altman’s best films. Moreover, it simultaneously represents the most salient features of his films and reasserts the parameters of the American art cinema.

Gosford Park reconstructs classical narrative form in many ways: It ironically interweaves numerous genres – the Agatha Christie murder mystery, the upstairs/downstairs social drama, and the country house comedy of manners. Forty-four speaking parts in the film provide glimpses into the tangled implications of over 25 separate plots and constitute one of the largest cast of characters of all his multifaceted narratives from MASH (1970) to Prêt-à-Porter (1994). In Gosford Park logical causality disappears under the pressure of traumatic engagements that are not only unspoken by the narrative but are repressed by the characters themselves. The classically requisite discovery of the culprit at the end is contravened by the geometric progression of alternative clues and Altman’s insistence that the murder is never resolved. The confusing multiplication of plot lines and the hybrid mixing of murder, manners, maids, and man servants critiques a singular and stereotypical view of crime, justice, and social class by subverting the classic detective story. The film breaks the ideological illusion of harmony between masters and servants valorised in cultural representations like the 1970s British television series Upstairs/Downstairs. It reveals hypocrisy and meanness in the class system where social crimes and misdemeanors multiply and expand beyond the ability or the interests of the mystery story to say ask “who dunnit?”.

Like other works of modernist discourse, the film also reflects upon itself as an act of aesthetic production. In the midst of all its narrative indirection Altman reflexively introduces two representatives of the entertainment industry. The Hollywood movie executive is a producer of Charlie Chan films who is in England to research a new movie, a murder mystery set in a country house full of guests for the weekend, “not unlike this one.” The role of the producer both critiques the pretentiousness of the English social order and represents the vulgarity of American popular culture. His Jewish ethnicity and his bourgeois American manners offend the other guests who assure him that he can tell them the end of his planned film because as one says at dinner, “none of us will see it!” The mutual interchangeability of the effete world of British high society and mass culture entertainment is marked more specifically, however, by the role of Ivor Novello. Novello in real life was a small time actor and a big time success as a popular songwriter and matinee idol in 1930s England. The performance of his sentimental and escapist songs about other worlds, other times, and other loves motivate two dramatically different effects. His fellow guests are mildly amused by this divertissement from the popular culture, but the servants – who have been abuzz about the presence of this star since his arrival – are entranced. At one point Altman’s cameras catch the enthralled servants behind doors, on the stairs, in the hallways in small groups mesmerised by his singing. Aristocracy and popular entertainment alike create worlds of magic and illusion and escape. Like its representation in Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), The Player (1992) and Prêt-à-Porter, the world of entertainment is both treasured and condemned for its fascinating and coercive images.

Gosford Park

Gosford Park sums up the characteristics of all the films Altman has made since 1967 when he began to make movies in Hollywood. Born in 1925 in Kansas City, he spent the post-war decades developing a thorough competency in cinematography by making business and industrial films. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he became one of the most prolific television directors among a large group of new directors that included Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah and Sidney Pollack. He worked regularly as director for numerous series, including most notably Bus Stop, The Millionaire, Whirlybirds, Combat, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Bonanza. He earned a reputation in those years as a cantankerous and rebellious filmmaker who liked to shoot stories “sideways”. One producer from the Kraft Suspense Theater in the early 1960s described what Altman “hated most in television, and that is the very commercial, highly plotted story, and he hated commercial storytelling with a vengeance.” (1) In 1967 he left television production for the feature-film world of Hollywood, making Countdown (1968), a science fiction film in the classical style, and That Cold Day in the Park (1969), a psychological thriller that first demonstrates the art-cinema style that would become his signature. His third film in 1970 was the highly acclaimed MASH, the most successful box-office film of his career, and his first of the five films across the reach of his career to earn Academy Award nominations for Best Director (along with Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts [1993] and Gosford Park).

Over the last 36 years Altman’s Hollywood career can be divided into three phases. Between 1968 and 1975 he was part of the “Hollywood Renaissance of directors like Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Francis Ford Coppola.” (2) MASH, Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974) and especially Nashville were major contributions to the reformulation of Hollywood formulas of story and style. By the end of the 1970s, however, with the successful advent of “post-classical” films like Jaws (1975), Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978) by young directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the high concept blockbuster film ended the days of experimental art-cinema films. After the box-office failures of Quintet (1979), A Perfect Couple (1979), Health (1979) and Popeye (1980), production money disappeared, and Altman could no longer sustain his independent Lions Gate studio. For most of the 1980s, then, from Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) to Vincent and Theo (1990) he became an artist-in-exile, shooting films in 16 mm, working as an artist in residence at the University of Michigan, making films for cable television, living in Paris. In 1992 The Player enjoyed large popular and critical success and was widely hailed as a comeback. Then, with Altman himself in his 70s, the 1990s witnessed – in Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter,Kansas City (1996), The Gingerbread Man (1998) and Cookie’s Fortune (1999) – the most sustained and aesthetically successful productivity of his career as an art-cinema director. Gosford Park reveals the cinematic maestro in serene control of his craft. It earned seven Academy nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture and won the BAFTA award for best picture and the Golden Globe award for best director. In his 79th year he made an independent art film about ballet, directed a four-hour television satire for HBO of American presidential politics; directed A Wedding at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and began working on two new films. Since 1967, he has directed a cinematic recreation of 1930s Kansas City jazz, an operetta in a compilation film, 33 movies, 10 major television films – and built one of the most remarkable careers in the history of Hollywood.

That career has consistently been marked by high critical acclaim and hostile popular reception. His refusal to tell straightforward stories, his apparent improvisation of script, his casting unusual actors and stars against type, his restless and obliquely motivated zoom shots, his multiply layered soundtracks – such qualities have regularly been seen as significant innovations in Hollywood story and style or as quirky irritations. Reactions to Gosford Park again are representative in their exuberant admiration and characteristic antagonism. The hyperbolic superlatives of the national film critics reflect the qualities of invention now generally ascribed to America’s reigning auteur director: the film is everywhere described as “remarkable”, “brilliant” and “magisterial”. Like his other films which famously feature a large ensemble of actors – MASH, Nashville, A Wedding, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, The Player, Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, Kansas City, Dr. T and the Women (2000) – Gosford Park‘s numerous story lines are perceived as “engrossing”, “entrancing” and “amazing”. The film reflects the director’s “astounding ability to orchestrate dozens of featured players into a coherent whole while allowing each actor individual shining moments.” (3) Andrew Sarris praises Altman’s “patented polyphonic virtuosity” (4).The director who has routinely described himself as a painter rather than a storyteller is compared to Rembrandt, the “greatest flow master in movie history.” Roger Ebert writes: “Here he is like Prospero, serenely the master of his art.” (5)

Gosford Park

Yet even as they heap dramatic praise on Gosford Park, critical reviews, again characteristic of popular and journalistic reaction to his work, also point to ways the film disorients, unsettles, and irritates. It displays again the characteristics of Altman’s art cinema that have so alienated audiences for 36 years. Its narrative style is chaotic and ungoverned; its multiple plot lines confusing and disorienting; its attempts at plot clarity intrusive, its whodunit indifferent. The film’s ensemble cast is molded together superficially only to puzzle. Altman’s swirling array of characters, bits of dialogue, social commentary, and moving cameras neither cohere nor conclude. Like Mozart accused of composing music with too many notes, Altman directs too many characters. The organisation of the film makes it clear that Altman “became quite lost when trying to sort and order this batch of footage. Gosford Park’s structure is evasive, at best, and it is devoid of rhythm.” (6) The schizophrenic gulf here is amazing and typical. Despite the overwhelming acclaim for this and other films and their director, practically every positive perception of Altman’s craft throughout his career has been countered elsewhere by a negative reaction.

These reviews summarise the 36 year critical reaction to Altman’s idiosyncratic, pessimistic, ironic, exuberant and experimental films. Significantly shaping this reaction is the films’ participation in the modernist discourse of the international art cinema. They substitute structure for story and form for representation; they depict debilitated individuals living in constrained circumstances of powerlessness and subservience. They display a cynical view of the commercially motivated idealism of contemporary culture. They reflexively indict the entertainment industry as complicit in the malaise of contemporary American culture. These patterns of discourse in Altman’s films have constantly offended the audience for post-classical Hollywood’s high concept form of entertainment. And they simultaneously define the emergent form and style of the “Americanized art cinema” (7). Altman’s art-cinema narration systematically displays an open and poetic mode of storytelling; a continuing perception of social identity as fragile, fractured, and fragmentary; and a critical self-consciousness about the nature of narrative communication itself.

Modernist Narration

Classical narrative cinema assumes the possibility of social discourse and asserts a unified social identity grounded in the secular humanism that optimistically posits “man” as the position of intelligibility, meaningful action, and ethicality. Modernist cinema presupposes on the other hand the world as splintered and centreless, meaning as imprecise and indeterminate, morality as divisive and illusory. It asserts that the human being is neither an autonomous individual nor a meaningful unity, but a process of divergent and contradictory forces, both internal and external. It suspects the power of communication in the face of human greed, alienation, estrangement, and self-destruction. Rather than encouraging viewer identification with a coherent character psychology, it delineates a variety of contradictory subject positions that critique privileged intelligibility.

A central strategy of modernist cinema is its effort to represent a true rather than an idealised reality. Its human figures are ordinary “people”, not literary “characters.” The behaviour of these people frequently seems motivated by unseen events and unknown causes and necessitates active audience participation in the closing of narrative gaps for the construction of meaning. Actions may prompt reactions but not in any logical or sequential way. Narrative order disappears. Narrative lines multiply. People assume major roles in some stories and minor in others.

Modernist narratives consequently develop fictions where story and plot time are fractured, where story reflects on its telling, where cause and effect are implicit, and where social identity is unstable and fragmented. At the same time these narratives are motivated by a sense of order that appears not in the causal logic of transparent beginnings, middles, and ends, but in poetic metaphors, in symbolic registers, in formal designs. Its commitment is thus both to a greater verisimilitude and to an expressive aesthetic that conceives the work as, like W.B. Yeats, some “artifice of eternity” or like Wallace Stevens, a “supreme fiction” that has within it an expressive truth about the human condition. Thus modernist cinema urges a reading of character and identity, action and plot both realistically and formally, as textual devices communicating values implicit in the discourses and ideologies which intersect to produce them.

Robert Altman calls the art cinema’s blend of subjective and objective realism “subliminal reality” (8). It recognises the unspoken and unspeakable dimensions in human interactions. It employs lyrical and metaphoric style to suggest connections in inexplicable human associations. It arises from anxiety and doubt about ultimate meanings and value. It posits behaviour as a gamble with random consequences and defines relationship in curious patterns of repetition. It glimpses the efforts of marginal men and women caught in irresistible systems that shape desire and action. It engages active audience awareness as necessary and complicit in the construction of consequence. It recognises the authority of craft, like T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”, indirectly to convey aesthetic insight, like Emily Dickinson’s poetic dictum to “Tell all the truth/ but tell it slant/the truth in circuit lies.” Subliminal reality paints numerous, divergent surfaces of the human enterprise to suggest subterranean roots of narrative potential.

The films of Robert Altman everywhere reflect these modernist qualities. Their fractured and fragmentary narratives are not logically and causally inflected conflicts and resolutions but formal, lyrical designs that conceive social identity as multiple and unstable and frequently shaped by the debasement of contemporary values in popular entertainment. Altman’s films may be best understood in terms of three particular aspects of art-cinema narration: its interrogation of classical Hollywood storytelling and popular genres, its representation of debilitated and ineffectual social individuality, and its reflexive analysis of the entertainment industry as complicit in cultural alienation.

Story and Discourse


One of the most salient characteristics in Altman films is the narrative with a large cast of characters. From MASH to Gosford Park his films repeatedly set numerous stories in motion – with so many actors that it’s hard to count them: 40 in Nashville, 48 in A Wedding, another 40 in Short Cuts, over 60 in both Prêt-à-Porter and The Player, with many “playing themselves”. In these films he paints large canvases with motion that results more from the edited interconnections among scenes in different stories than from the logic of any overall story development. Altman has consistently expressed his hostility to narrative causality and closure, and his films dramatically display an antipathy to straightforward, clearly delineated, and causally logical narratives. An analysis, for instance, of the scenes cut from Gosford Park reveals that shots and scenes potentially explaining character behaviour and motive were systematically removed from the final cut of the film. Throughout his career Altman has relegated motivation to the “subliminal reality” of conflicting, indeterminate, vague, inexpressible characterological desire. We look for explanation of human action, he says, “But there doesn’t have to be one” (9). These films ultimately asked to be read not as realistic fictions but as expressive portraits and murals of modern life.

On one hand, these multiply plotted films become more like reality, where lives intersect in random, chance and discontinuous ways without apparent reasons. Narrative coherence gives way to fragmentary puzzles. On the other hand, Altman has also regularly stated his craft to be that of a painter or a musician. Individual characters, then, bits and pieces of action, interact within the spaces and across the times of his films like tonal signatures or pigments of paint. Character motive, personal relationships, causal behaviour become ambiguous, diffuse, implicit.

A central characteristic of the art cinema is its liberation of the visual and spatial systems of film from the logical system of narrative. Altman’s large casts and diffuse stories actively assist in this process where he says that story itself asks to be read in 3 Women (1977) like a dream, in Kansas City like jazz, in The Company like a pas de deux, in Gosford Park like a tapestry. The editing rhythm of McCabe & Mrs. Miller follows from the musical rhythm of the Leonard Cohen’s music subsequently used on the sound track. Vincent and Theo seems to be motivated by a desire to follow the trail of these two bothers in order that the director can paint with his camera the same people and places of Van Gogh’s paintings. Consequently, part of the difficulty in following the complex play of stories in Altman’s films is their modernist presumption that meaning emerges from the simultaneous perception of connections among images and phrases in space that have no consecutive relationship to each other in time. Each of the 24 roles in Nashville is a colour whose meaning resides in its proximity to adjacent colours and its various intensities within the figure the film makes. Similarly the multiple fragments in Short Cuts coalesce ultimately not just as the threads of disrupted stories but as the musical accompaniment to the classical, new age, and jazz compositions that shape the whole film.

Altman’s films strikingly illustrate that the art cinema is a poetic as well as a narrative art. The sombre palette of gold and green in Images (1972); the restless, sensuous and ambiguous zoom and pan shots in Nashville and 3 Women; the pointillistic final sequence in the blizzard in McCabe and Mrs. Miller; the exhilarating colour and music of fashion in Prêt-à-Porter, the compulsive repetition of red and black throughout The Gingerbread Man), the stunning contrast of primary colours during the ballet performances with the honey-brown spaces of rehearsal and life in The Company – these qualities reflect the eye of a painter. Altman has consistently asserted that the goal of his films is an emotional rather than an intellectual effect:

I look at film as closer to a painting or a piece of music; it’s an impression…  an impression of character and total atmosphere… The attempt is to enlist an audience emotionally, not intellectually (10).

Narrative hardly disappears in Altman’s film, despite his self-description as a painter. In another aspect of the art cinema, Altman’s film aggressively interrogate popular narrative genres, almost as though he has been involved in a research and development project systematically to revise Hollywood’s major product lines. Images is a psychological thriller. MASH is a combat film. The Long Goodbye is a hard-boiled detective film. Nashville is a musical. McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill are westerns. Quintet is science fiction. A Perfect Couple and Popeye are musical comedy romances. The Gingerbread Man is film noir. These well-known narrative forms provide the director platforms from which to display other concerns about the nature of human behaviour and its cinematic observation. Their stories seldom provide the context for significant, heroic action; rather they reveal spaces that enclose and forces that act upon a multiplicity of selves. Graphic and rhythmic dimensions of editing and cinematography frequently come unstuck from generic logic. Story moves psychologically from apparent external to obscure internal motivation. Plot becomes a project open-ended, ironic and ambiguous. Unfamiliar and unusual actors play against the star system, and stars play against their box-office personas. The innovative expressivity of the auteur director produces a metaphoric, often moody and contradictory, generally oblique discourse rather than the effaced zero-degree of style in the classical narrative cinema.

Social Subjects

The multiple strands and fragments of fiction in Altman’s films generally depict contradictory, powerless, isolated and fragmented identity. When they construe social subjectivity as situated within a larger community – in MASH, in Health, in Secret Honor (1984), in The Player – the individual appears as a dependency of group need or is subsumed by the coercion of others. In particular these representations of the self appear as functions of socially constructed gender roles. Most of Altman’s films challenge the dominance of masculinity in American culture, whether in the unusual manipulation of iconic star personas like Paul Newman, Warren Beatty or Richard Gere or in the reconstruction of generic formulations to assert the inefficacy of male action. Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) is mastered by elite treachery in Secret Honor. Jack Lemmon lives as an emotional cripple because of his infidelity in Short Cuts. Marcello Mastroianni sleeps in sexual impotence in Prêt-à-Porter. Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) dies from racist incompetence in Kansas City. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) rises to the top in Hollywood through murder and greed in The Player. Sully Travis (Richard Gere) is sucked out of a successful gynecology practice by a tornado and the whirlwind of deconstructing gender roles in Dr. T and the Women. Films like Brewster McCloud, Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Short Cuts display a pathological fear of inadequacy in a society which is emasculating and where masculinity is psychologically and socially dehumanising. In Secret Honor, the president of the United States contemplates suicide in the face of self-perceived powerlessness and humiliation. In The Gingerbread Man, the father is simultaneously the figure of the law and the guilty figure of masculine threat and ineffectuality. In Popeye, Olive Oyl’s charges against Popeye’s father echo the arraignment of masculinity in these films: “He’s a crook, a thief, a kidnapper, and a bad father and more!” Altman’s films depict a masculine subjectivity of guilt, insecurity and defensiveness, in retreat from both the authority and the stress of the phallocentric culture.

3 Women

Conversely, his films about women, which are the most systematically ambiguous and psychologically subjective of Altman’s films, represent women as marginalised, co-dependent and disabled by the coercive power of patriarchal influence. That Cold Day in the Park, Images, 3 Women, Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Fool for Love (1985), Kansas City, and Cookie’s Fortune graphically convey crises in verbal, sexual and economic production and exchange that constitute female identity in all of Altman’s films. In the diegetic world of Cookie’s Fortune, for instance, Camille (Glenn Close) desperately attempts to control appearance, decorum and power in face of a community represented significantly as the local male police force. The internal fantasy of her rewriting and production of Salomé as an Easter pageant delineates the drive of Oscar Wilde’s heroine to procure the silence of male prophecy as the cost of the king’s illicit desire. This fictional, metaphorical and actual destruction of the male and the related construction of divergent, pathological, interdependent femininity comes to its most forceful expression in Jimmy Dean. Joe’s (Mark Patton) male-renouncing castration gives birth to his feminine identity, Joanne (Karen Black). When Mona (Sandy Dennis) displaces his fatherhood of the bastard, mentally deficient son Jimmy Dean onto an imaginary relationship with the movie star James Dean, Joe renounces the power of fatherhood as well as male sexuality. Altman’s films about women in particular reveal the construction of the self as an action of retreat from phallic authority.

These films present the fear, isolation, and anxieties of personality. They depict contingent personal identity, troubled economic relationship and splintered communication. They dramatise the powerlessness, the traumas, and the effects of social alienation and class estrangement, and they critique the institutional forces, including the cinema itself, which contribute to those traumas.

Systems of Entertainment

Rather than a self-consciousness that reflects the movieness of the film itself, Altman’s films have, since MASH, developed a reflexivity that critiques the world of mass media and the effects of “the show business”. Nine Altman films in particular take as their subject a reflexive stance toward the entertainment business generally or the film industry in particular. It’s the country music system of need and debilitation in Nashville. It’s racist nationalism in the wild west show of Buffalo Bill and the Indians. It’s the gendered and psychotic addiction of fans in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Vincent and Theo chronicles the tensions among artistic integrity, financial necessity, and public taste. Kansas City sets the power of black Kansas City jazz against the white authority of 1930s machine politics. Cookie’s Fortune comically produces Salomé as the Easter pageant in a Mississippi Presbyterian church. The Company contrasts behind-the-scene stress and the performance glory of ballet.

The Player - opening credits

Entertainment is the fashion industry in Prêt-àPorter, which displays a complex mix of glamour, seduction and politics and its influence on the social nature of gender roles. The film contrasts the authoritative, free and sexually confident female body with a sociopolitical body positioned by the web of power relations that dominate and objectify women economically, sexually and physically. The Player is Altman’s most overt satire and cynical critique of the film business. The film not only chronicles the greed of the entertainment industry; it more profoundly and self-consciously locates the roots of classical Hollywood discourse in the anxiety of a phallocentric culture which seeks solace and release in the objectification and control of the desirable female. Its reflexive awareness of these issues reiterates the representations of masculine insecurities, the depictions of feminine dependency and insecurity, and the refusals of narrative authority that course throughout Altman’s films, that constitute the expressive ambiguities, that motivate the unspoken realities, the faint clues and indirections of Altman’s art cinema.

Similar to the depiction of country music, the wild west show, and fashion in Nashville, Buffalo Bill and Prêt-à-Porter, these films are big, high-energy productions. With the exception of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, they contain significant performance sequences. In these moments, they revel in the alluring spectacle of the show business, even as they reflexively and obliquely construct art-cinema narratives that examine the unspoken desires, anxieties, and estrangements that motivate the values of the contemporary entertainment world. But they also present self-conscious indictments against show business as an accessory in the violence and alienation of modern life. Their fictions comment on the entertainment-making business, the system of mass-media storytelling, their constructions of reality, and the negative effects of those constructions on social subjectivity.

Like most of Altman’s other films, Gosford Park tells meandering and unclosed stories; it depicts insecure and vulnerable social identity, and it critiques the assured simplicities of the entertainment business that makes human need the basis for commodities sold by stars, glamour and false illusions. Its success at the box office, with the critics, and at the awards ceremonies was surprising. A central problem in the popular appreciation of Altman’s movies has been their perceived bleakness of vision. They not only fail to close down the societal eruptions of plot conflict or resolve the conflicts of personal abilities and commitments; they also appear cynical and pessimistic about the values of mass culture and its dominant forms of entertainment. These subversive qualities have always impressed the critics more than audiences, but so many moviegoers bought tickets to Gosford Park that it garnered the third best box office of Altman’s career. Perhaps here, as at the beginning of his Hollywood career in MASH, Altman’s iconoclastic vision and innovative storytelling struck some sympathetic cord with his audience. Perhaps the world of the English aristocracy is sufficiently distant and enchanting to matter; perhaps the lives of the servant class are represented with a sufficiently gentle and caring manner to be attractive. Whatever the reason, for a moment Altman’s ensemble appreciation for actors, his disdain for rationally linear narratives, his genre revisionism, his lyrically moving camera, his oblique and obscure sound recording became widely the ground for praise instead of criticism. For another moment after 33 films in as many years, the man who makes gloves in an industry that sells shoes, the maverick director is also the master.

Robert Altman



Countdown (1968)
That Cold Day in the Park (1969)
MASH (1970)
Brewster McCloud (1970)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Images (1972)
The Long Goodbye, The (1973)
Thieves Like Us (1974)
California Split (1974)
Nashville (1975)
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
3 Women (1977)
A Wedding (1978)
Quintet (1979)
A Perfect Couple (1979)
Health (1979)
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Streamers (1983)
Secret Honor (1984)
O.C. & Stiggs (1985)
Fool for Love (1985)
Aria (1987)
Beyond Therapy (1987)
Vincent and Theo (1990)
The Player (1992)
Short Cuts (1993)
Prêt-à-Porter (1994)
Kansas City (1996)
Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing (1996)
The Gingerbread Man (1998)
Cookie’s Fortune (1999)
Dr. T and the Women (2000)
Gosford Park (2001)
The Company (2003)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Television Productions

Two by South (Rattlesnake in a Cooler/Precious Blood)(1982)
The Laundromat (1983)
The Dumb Waiter (1985)
The Room (1985)
The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1988)
Tanner ’88 (1988)
McTeague (1992)
Black and Blue (1993)
Gun (1997)
Tanner on Tanner (2004)

Films About Robert Altman

Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman In Carver Country (John Dorr and Mike E. Kaplan, 1993)

Robert Altman (Robert J. Emery, 1999) part of American Film Institute documentary series “The Directors”


“Giggle and Give In: An Interview.” Vincent and Theo, 1990. Videodisc: Helmdale Home Video, 1991.

Director’s Scene Commentary. The Player, 1992. Videodisc: Voyager, 1992.

Director’s Scene Commentary. Short Cuts, 1993. Videodisc: Voyager, 1994.

Director’s Scene Commentary. Thieves Like Us, 1974. Videodisc: MGM Home Entertainment, 1997.

Director’s Scene Commentary. The Gingerbread Man, 1998. Videodisc: PolyGram, 1998.

Director’s Scene Commentary, Behind-the-Scene Documentary, Background Documentary. MASH, 1970. DVD: Twentieth Century Fox, 1997.

Director’s Scene Commentary, Documentary. The Player, 1992. DVD: New Line Home Video, 1997.

Director’s Scene Commentary, Cookie’s Fortune, 1999. DVD: USA Home Entertainment, 1999.

Interview, Director’s Scene Commentary. Nashville, 1975. DVD: Paramount Home Video. 2000.

Interview, Director’s Scene Commentary, Documentary. Dr. T & the Women, 2000. DVD: Artisan Home Entertainment, 2001.

Director’s Scene Commentary, Behind-the-Scene Documentary, Background Documentary. Gosford Park, 2001. DVD: Universal Studios Home Video, 2002.

“Rip Van Marlowe” Featurette. The Long Goodbye, 1973. DVD: MGM Home Entertainment, 2002.

Director’s Scene Commentary, Behind-the-Scenes Documentary. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971. DVD: Warner Home Video, 2002.

Interview, Director’s Scene Commentary. Images, 1972. DVD: MGM Home Entertainment, 2003.

Director’s Scene Commentary. 3 Women, 1977. DVD: Criterion, 2004.

Director’s Scene Commentary. California Split, 1974. DVD: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004.

Director’s Scene Commentary, Behind-the-Scene Documentary. The Company, 2003. DVD: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004.

“Robert Altman: Art and Soul” Documentary. Fool for Love, 1985. DVD: MGM Home Entertainment, 2004.

Director’s Scene Commentary. Secret Honor, 1984. Criterion, 2004.

Interviews, “Reflections on Short Cuts” Featurette, Luck, Trust, and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country Documentary. Short Cuts, 1993. DVD: Home Vision, 2004.

Director’s Conversations, Episode Introductions. Tanner ’88, 1988. DVD: Criterion, 2004.

Interviews, Director’s Scene Commentary. Tanner on Tanner, 2004. DVD: Sundance Channel Home Entertainment, 2004.

Select Bibliography

Robert Altman, “Introduction”, Short Cuts: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver, Vintage, New York, 1993, pp. 7–10.

Jean-Loup Bourget, Robert Altman, Éditions Ramsay, Paris, 1981.

Neil Feineman, Persistence of Vision: The Films of Robert Altman, Arno Press, New York, 1976.

Norman Kagan, American Skeptic: Robert Altman’s Genre-Commentary Films, Pierian Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1982.

Alan Karp, The Films of Robert Altman, Scarecrow, Metuchen, NJ, 1981.

Judith M. Kass, Robert Altman: American Innovator, Popular Library, New York, 1978.

Helene Keyssar, Robert Altman’s America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.

Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, third edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.

Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, a Biography of the Great American Director, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1989.

Daniel O’Brien, Robert Altman, Hollywood Survivor, Batsford, London, 1995.

Gerald Plecki, Robert Altman, Twayne, Boston, 1985.

Robert T. Self, “Author, Text, and Self in Buffalo Bill and the Indians”in Hans Braendlin (ed.), Ambiguity in Literature and Film, University Presses of Florida, Gainsville, 1998, pp. 104–116.

Robert T. Self, “Resisting Reality: Acting by Design in Robert Altman’s Nashville” in Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, Frank Tomasulo(eds), More than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2004, pp. 126–150.

Robert T. Self, “Robert Altman and the Theory of Authorship”, Cinema Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, fall 1985, pp. 3–11.

Robert T. Self, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001.

David Sterritt (ed.), Robert Altman Interviews, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, MS, 2000.

Jan Stuart, The “Nashville” Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece, Simon and Shuster, New York, 2000.

Virginia Wexman and Gretchen Bisplinghoff, Robert Altman: A Guide to References and Resources, C. K. Hall, Boston, 1984.

Justin Wyatt, “Economic Constraints/Economic Opportunities: Robert Altman as Auteur”, The Velvet Light Trap 38, fall 1996, pp. 52–67.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

California Split by Peter Tonguette

I Don’t Think We’re in Dallas Anymore or The 5000 Fingers of Dr T by Adrian Danks

Just Some Jesus Looking for a Manger: McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Adrian Danks

Kansas City by Rick Thompson

Web Resources

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to online articles about Altman can be found here.

Altman’s Annex
Created by Christopher Anthony Ward, this site contains up-to-date news, annotated filmography and links to interviews.

Reviews – Robert Altman: interviews
Review of this book in Screening the Past.

Robert Altman
Review of Robert T. Self’s book, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality.

“An Interview with Robert T. Self: ‘Altman is the cinematic maestro at the top of his form’”
A Review by Lucas Stensland

Robert Altman – Box Office Data Movie Director
Box office grosses for seventeen Altman films.

Salon Directory
Articles on Altman can be found here.

Click here to search for Robert Altman DVDs, videos and books at


  1. Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, a Biography of the Great American Director, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1989, p. 218.
  2. Glenn Man, Radical Visions: American Film Renaissance, 1967–1976, Greenwood Press, Westport, CN, 1994, p. 1.
  3. Bob Strauss, “Altman brings sly wit to country-house mystery”, Los Angeles Daily News.com, December 26, 2001.
  4. Andrew Sarris, “A Patented Directorial Dexterity Shapes Altman’s New Whodunit”, New York Observer, December 24, 2001, p. 22.
  5. Roger Ebert, Gosford Park, Chicago Sun–Times, January 1, 2002.
  6. Susan Stark, “In ‘Gosford Park’, it’s movie, not murder, that’s most foul”, Detroit News, January 11, 2002.
  7. Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1994, p. 710.
  8. Robert Altman, Interview, Short Cuts, Videodisc, Voyager, 1994.
  9. Robert Altman, quoted in Connie Bryne and William Lopez. “Nashville (an Interview ‘Documentary’)”, Film Quarterly 29, Winter 1975–76, p. 25.
  10. Robert Altman, quoted in Judith M. Kass, Robert Altman: American Innovator, Popular Library, New York, 1978, p. 21.

About The Author

Robert Self is professor of English at Northern Illinois University (DeKalb). He has published articles in Cinema Journal, Wide Angle, Literature/Film Quarterly, Film Criticism, New England Quarterly and Journal of Film and Video. He has recently published “Resisting Reality: Acting by Design in Robert Altman's Nashville” in More Than a Method (Wayne State, 2004). He is the author also of Robert Altman's Subliminal Reality, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2001.

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