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Remembrances of Robert Altman (1925-2006)
By Marie Asner

Robert Altman said when he was a young man living in Kansas City, he and friends used to go to jazz clubs, but he didn’t remember what musicians were at the clubs, he went looking for girls. Altman joked that he is still looking for girls. What do you do when you meet director Robert Altman? Take a deep breath, smile, extend your right hand and start talking. This was supposed to have been an interview with genial Harry Belafonte, one of the stars of Altman’s 1995 film, “Kansas City.” However, minutes after Belafonte came into the room, Robert Altman strolled in and it was a double session.

Robert Altman was actually coming home, as Altman is a Kansas City native who attended both Southwest and Rockhurst High Schools. His love of jazz came from this time when he would attend jazz clubs and hear the greats including Charlie Parker. The film, Kansas City, was years in the making and a tribute to Altman’s town. He said the audience should be prepared for the film. “Kansas City is an experiment in jazz…when Miranda (Richardson) and Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are doing their dialogue, it’s like a song…when Harry Belafonte is on, he is like a trumpet solo and Dermot (Mulroney) is another instrument…everyone had their day on this theme…I’ve stressed the importance of jazz and the whole film is constructed so. There is a 50-minute film of just the jazz musicians, no actors, like a documentary of that time. PBS will have this program on ‘Great Performances.’ The album is already out (Verve Records) and the band will tour in Europe.” Altman then added that none of the music in Kansas City was scored. It was played live and round the clock so the camera would get the musicians lively and then tired. (Note: jazz clubs in the 1930’s when Kansas City was set, sometimes had live musicians play 20 hours a day.) Altman wore a light-colored shirt, trademark straw hat and had a goatee. He took his time answering questions and you got the feeling that he was orchestrating the meeting as though he were directing a movie set. I didn’t mind.

Robert Altman died recently at age 81. He had survived at least one major illness in his lifetime and produced an enormous amount of work. Though nominated five times for an Academy Award, Altman never won, but did receive a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2006. His directing projects ranged from television to theater, opera and films. Here are titles of just a few of his directing accomplishments: M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, television’s  Tanner 88 and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,  Vincent & Theo, The Player,  Short Cuts, Kansas City, Gosford Park, and in 2006, A Prairie Home Companion. My personal favorites have been Short Cuts, The Player, Gosford Park, and A Prairie Home Companion.

It is quite possible Altman could get an Oscar nomination for A Prairie Home Companion. The film shows his deft touch in directing an ensemble cast where everyone gets along both on and off the screen, and dialogue overlaps as though the audience were on the screen with the cast. It continues what Altman said, that directing a movie is like directing music, and at this, he was a master. I remember Short Cuts in which there were more than six stories going on at the same time, yet the audience could differentiate and go with the flow until the conclusion. Gosford Park was a prime example of numerous actors, interesting script, colorful set design and everything meshed to make a whole. A Prairie Home Companion was Altman’s final use of this directing form. There is one part in which the program is live radio and Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin toss lines back and forth to confound the sound effects man. It is a quartet of words and sounds with a beat. 

When Robert Altman was a young man, and after service in the military, worked with industrial films in Kansas City at the old Calvin Company, which was one of the top companies of its day. In 1957, Altman directed his first feature film, The Delinquents and then moved to Los Angeles to work on television series such as “Combat” and “Bonanza.” Altman’s first big film was M*A*S*H and then went on to make The Long Good-bye. Altman had an ability to emphasize with actors and exceptional camera work. Actors who have gone on to major film roles after working with him are Lily Tomlin, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jeff Goldblum. McCabe and Mrs. Miller used dialogues that ran into each other, unusual camera work and Leonard Cohen songs. The Long Good-bye cast Elliot Gould as detective Philip Marlowe, while the classic Nashville had over twenty characters working in that particular city and the audience did not need a road map to follow them. 

Robert Altman’s directing legacy will live on. He had the ability to choose unique material for a film (romance and drama in a war triage unit) or a different actor as a detective (Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe), a house of ill repute in winter (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) or a mid-20th century British hunting party (Gosford Park.)  Films I review today with over-lapping dialogue and multiple story lines will have gotten many of their ideas from Robert Altman’s methods. Get a good story, treat your actors well, be aware of the music, position the cameras right and let ‘em roll. It certainly is a deft touch.

Copyright 2006 Marie Asner
Submitted 11/24/06


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