Vincent and Theo (Altman, 1990)


Vincent and Theo structures itself around the turbulent personality of Vincent and the repressed vision of his art gallery owner sibling, Theo. This fluctuating love/hate relationship becomes the core virtue and structuring technique of Altman’s story, yet the film doesn’t contain the dense stylistic layering or meandering beauty of the director’s best work. Strange considering the haunting and violent lead character on display. Instead, this overlong jaunt with the Brothers Van Gogh comes across as beautifully muddled, an enigmatic snapshot of two brothers grappling with unseen personal crises concerning vision, impotence, and taste. Akira Kurosawa’s vision of the painter in Dreams feels even more visually impressive after watching Altman’s banal and studied treatment of an artist in conflict with the world.

Images (Altman, 1972)

Robert Altman dips his toes into the deep, psychological waters of Bergman and De Palma with this masterfully creepy tale of fractured identity and traumatizing guilt. Susannah York plays Altman’s upper class heroine who slowly folds under the pressures of overlapping memories, images, and nightmares, taking down her male suitors in the process. Images doesn’t feel like other films of this ilk mainly because it’s so personal and deranged from an aesthetic point of view. Vilmos Zsigmond’s haunting images meld with Stomu Yamashta’s schizophrenic sound sculptures and John Williams’ underlining score to devastating affect, creating an altogether horrifying visceral experience.

Thieves Like Us (Altman, 1974)

A visually toned down Altman film, his patented aesthetics refrained to fit the story instead of running amuck, as seen later in The Company; and the result here is beautiful in every way. Shelly Duvall, as the trumped upon country girl who gets involved with David Carradine’s escaped convict, perfectly embodies the tragic loyalty and blind devotion not often seen in Altman’s heroines, and it creates a durable narrative center in a film filled with rambling anti-heroes and stunning, endless landscape shots. Most of all, Thieves Like Us solidifies Altman as a master storyteller, worthwhile, character driven stories outside the realm of the cinematic style he came to be known for. To me, this film stands tall in the Altman canon, not only because it separates itself from other similar narratives (less brutal than Badlands and more humane than Bonnie and Clyde) in subtle and nuanced ways (like the fast, fragmented violence and the fleeting notion of the gang mentality), but because it shows a series of events that seem loosely connected, but end up being disturbingly dependent on each other in terms of story and character. The emotional journey sneaks up on you as a viewer, and by the last sequence of visually distanced violence, I ended up caring much more deeply than expected for these lost souls.

A Prairie Home Companion (Altman, 2006)

“The Death of an old man is not a tragedy.”

These galvanic words, spoken by Virginia Madsen’s white-clothed Dangerous Woman, beautifully signifies how A Prairie Home Companion marks a thoughtful and classy wave goodbye by one of the cinema’s greatest voices. Robert Altman exemplified fluidity, the ever changing movement of his zooms, overlapping dialogue, and layered mise-en-scene all flowing in the same cinematic universe, a raging river of words and images. A Prairie Home Companion celebrates all of these aesthetics, but separates itself from the rest of the Altman cannon through it’s kind and joyous representation of artistic collaboration, an ode to improvisational art and and the people that made and make radio a unique medium. The film is a shining example of Altman at his most playful, and if he was going to make a last film, I’m glad this was it.The performances of A Prairie Home Companion are all first rate, especially the tandem of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, with Lindsey Lohan even getting a moment or two to shine. Watching all of these talents, from John C. Reilly to Woody Harrelson to L.Q. Jones in a short but stunning turn, makes me miss Altman even more. His films are definitely hit or miss, the hits thankfully outweighing the miscalculations (I still think The Gingerbread Man is one of the worst). But even in his worst moments, Altman wants to address a distinct parallel between voice, sound, and image no other director dared to visually discuss. Altman’s examples, whether it be the hypnotic blizzards of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or the silences of Gosford Park, all desired to facilitate time and space as a tight movement toward a narrative epiphany, characters beginning to realize strengths and weaknesses without judgement. All the talk, the camera movements, and set design, mesh together to cue the characters themselves to shifts in identity and progress, one of the reasons Altman’s actors create such distinct people on the screen. The actors were undoubtedly learning more about themselves as they worked.Robert Altman, one of the greats, will be missed, and I don’t think we’ll ever really know how much. Thankfully, A Prairie Home Companion will always remind us why.