Robert Altman, experimental innovator

Looking back on the career of film director Robert Altman (1925-2006), it’s clear that he had many characteristics that are typical of experimental innovators.

Among them, as this appreciation in The New York Times makes clear:

  • He was middle-aged when he achieved some of his greatest successes. In 1970, at about age 45, he directed the critically acclaimed “MASH,” his first Hollywood film after a career in industrial movies and television.
  • Other successes came near the end of his film career, including “Gosford Park” at about age 76.
  • Unlike conceptual innovators, he didn’t think through his films in detail in advance, but created them experimentally in cooperation with improvising actors during the filming process.
  • His comments about a film could contain a partial echo of experimental painters like Cezanne who cared little for their finished work. ” ‘MASH’ was a pretty good movie,” he said, “It became popular because of the timing (during the Vietnam War). Consequently, it’s considered important, but it’s no better or more important than any of the other films I’ve made.”

Some of his characteristics fit the mold of a conceptual innovator,

  • He continually changed his subject, from the antiwar “MASH” (1970) to the Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) to psychological drama in “Images” (1972), to the detective story of “The Long Goodbye” (1973), the gambling film “California Split” (1974) and the gangster movie “Thieves Like Us” (1974).
  • His most critically acclaimed films, including “Nashville” in 1975, came near the beginning of his Hollywood career.

Altman was not included in Galenson’s 2005 study of experimental and conceptual film directors, “Filming Images or Filming Reality: The Life Cycles of Movie Directors from D.W. Griffith to Federico Fellini.”

This abbreviated chart of eight Altman movies demonstrates the patterns of his middle-aged and late-career successes: RottenTomatoes RottenTomatoes
Film Year Age ratings: critics’ ratings viewers’ ratings
MASH 1970 45 7.5/10 93% 89%
McCabe & Mrs. Miller 1971 46 7.5/10 89% 90%
Nashville 1975 50 7.6/10 94% 100%
Three Women 1977 52 7.7/10 95% 80%
Popeye 1980 55 4.7/10 72% 77%
Kansas City 1996 71 5.7/10 59% 75%
Gosford Park 2001 76 7.2/10 87% 69%
Prairie Home Companion 2006 81 7.3/10 80% 84%

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