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Robert Altman, 1925-2006, consummate contrarian

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Robert Altman
  • Robert Altman

Robert Altman, director of dozens of films including M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion, died Monday, Nov. 20, at the age of 81.

When Robert Altman died on Nov. 20, the American cinema lost not only its greatest living director but also the most truly independent great director America has had since D.W. Griffith. Fiercely skeptical of the Hollywood system and its complicity with the American power structure, Altman constructed a prolific outsider's career on a stance that might be summed up by the great '60s injunction "Question authority."

I vividly recall being a UNC freshman and seeing his 1970 breakthrough, M*A*S*H, at the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street. With the Vietnam War raging, Altman's acerbic comedy had the force of revelation not just for its dazzlingly innovative style and determined antiwar stance, but for something that embraced both: the presumption that its audience was smart enough to see through the U.S. government's murderous lies about Vietnam, smart enough to understand new variations on film language as carrying political as well as aesthetic meaning.

That attitude, that presumption of an intelligent, young, dissident audience, marked the onset of a half-decade that still looks like the American cinema's modern high-water mark, and Altman remained its most fecund exponent. Though as a World War II vet he was a generation older than "film generation" tyros like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, Altman always seemed the most youthfully brash and adventurous of the lot, and the most resistant to Hollywood's lures.

With a trademark style (sinuously orchestrated zooms and tracking shots, overlapping dialogue, naturalistic ensemble acting) that originated in his work directing '60s TV shows like Bonanza and Combat!, Altman was the great interrogator of facile American pop-culture mythologies. M*A*S*H, after all, skewered not just war but traditional war movies. Altman later did the same for countless other forms, from country music to fashion.

His work was political in the best—which is to say the broadest—sense, being rooted not in anyone's polemical formulas but in a humanism that demanded a constant, vigilant skepticism regarding all forms of power and manipulation. And lest that make him seem too serious, he was also, let us not forget, our wittiest, most entertaining satirist since Mark Twain.

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