On Monday, November 16th, 2009, Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography spoke at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. Readers of the old Filmsnobs site know the complicated relationship we had with Robert Altman: Yes, he made four or five of the greatest films American films, but he’s made some of the worst—including the worst movie ever made. Both are a function of his genius: The iconoclast who fights for his vision takes an extraordinary risk because he succeeds or fails on his own terms. That’s why when you think of Altman, you can’t only think of Nashville and The Player to truly understand the man’s craft, you also have to consider O.C. and Stiggs, Beyond Therapy, Ready to Wear, and, yes, Popeye.*
*I can’t believe how angry some of those reviews we wrote sound. I don’t think I mean some of what I wrote, but I will stand by the statement that Altman’s bad movies are some of the worst movies ever made by a “name” director.
I haven’t read the book yet, but the premise is awesome: Zuckoff assembled Altman’s own words (he interviewed Altman extensively before he died) and interviewed dozens of collaborators, actors, friends, and family, and then turned it into an Altman-esque narrative with roving characters and overlapping conversations. Zuckoff’s presentation took us through Altman’s life, focusing specifically on the Kansas City influence. Since about twenty members of Altman’s family was there, he, um, skipped some parts about heavy drug use, two wives, some kids, tantrums…stuff we already knew and didn’t need repeated. Still, Zuckoff’s presentation was steeped in hero-worship, which is probably understandable because of the setting.
The talk ended with Zuckoff fielding questions from the audience with native Kansas City screenwriter Frank Barnhydt (Short Cuts, Kansas City) and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman. I had been waiting for something like this for years. I mean, Quintet is the most pretentious, weirdest, and frankly worst movie I ever seen. I hate to say that about a hometown hero and a man who made some of the greatest movies ever. But I’ve spent much of my life working with gifted kids, and the hardest thing you have to teach them is that sometimes you have to fail. And that’s why Altman’s terrible movies fascinate me. You can see him working…and if you’re thinking along with Altman, you see his usual anti-establishment themes, the Altman technique. But there’s a bunch of dogs chewing on dead bodies when people are killed after lose at this backgammon like game after the apocalypse. I’ve just got to know: What the hell was he thinking then, and when Altman got his third act after The Player, how did he regard those truly awful films he made over the course of literally a decade?
As the session started winding down, so old guy in a flannel shirt gets up and says, “I don’t really like Altman” and goes off on Paul Thomas Anderson for about three minutes. I’m not going to follow that with my questions about Quintet for Altman’s widow. I have some class…I think. My KCFCC colleague Dan Lybarger finished the session by talking about his interview with Altman, where he talked about his evolving opinion of Gosford Park. Altman told him that he challenged his audience and that you really shouldn’t get his movies the first time. And I never asked Altman’s widow and his biographer what the hell is going on in Quintet. It’s probably for the best. As Altman often said, the art is what you make of it.