The Museum of Modern Art presents a comprehensive career retrospective of the maverick film and television director Robert Altman (1925–2006), comprising 50 programs, including theatrical features, television films, cable series, and rarely seen music videos, industrial shorts, and documentary pieces. Altman’s work over four decades, beginning in the 1970s, came to define the spirit of American independent film. His essential films include the groundbreaking anti-war satire M*A*S*H (1970); the unorthodox Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971); the disaffected portrait of Bicentennial America Nashville (1975); the film noir satire The Long Goodbye (1973); the avant-garde woman’s picture 3 Women (1977); the waggish Hollywood exposé The Player (1992); the adaptation of stories by Raymond Carver Short Cuts (1993); and his final work, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), a collaboration with radio personality Garrison Keiller. Distancing himself from mainstream Hollywood formulas, Altman produced films in what has been described as “anti-genres,” including revisionist takes on romantic comedy (A Perfect Couple, 1979), teen films (O.C. & Stiggs, 1984), psychological thrillers (Images, 1972), and historical dramas (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, 1976). His penchant for improvisation and the innovative use of natural, overlapping dialogue became directorial signatures, most elegantly realized in his later film Gosford Park (2001), which served as a model for writer Julian Fellowes’s successful ITV/PBS series Downton Abbey (2010–).
Altman’s passion for theater and the craft of acting is evident in the ensemble performance style that characterizes work like A Wedding (1978), the rarely screened Health (1980), and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), which he originated on stage. Other notable Altman films were adapted from such stage plays as David Rabe’s Streamers (1983), Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love (1985), Marsha Norman’s The Laundromat (1985), Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy (1987), and Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1987). His films provided career highlights for performers such as Cher, Paul Newman, Carol Burnett, Tim Robbins, Shelley Duval, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Keith Carradine, Lindsay Lohan, Lilly Tomlin, Michael Murphy, Geraldine Chaplin, Sissy Spacek, James Caan, Susannah York, Karen Black, Robert Duval, Glenda Jackson, Rene Auberjonois, Helen Mirren, Cynthia Nixon.
Popular music, in particular jazz, folk, and country, also figure prominently in the director’s work. Among the musicians with whom he worked are Leonard Cohen, John Williams, Stomu Yamashta, Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks, Joshua Redman, Johnny Mandel, Patrick Doyle, and Mark Isham. The director’s major works for television, the pioneering cable mockumentary series Tanner ’88 (1988), created by Garry Trudeau for HBO, and its sequel Tanner on Tanner (2004), are genre-bending twists on cinéma vérité. Including cameo appearances by real-life politicians and media figures like Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Tom Brokaw, Linda Ellerbee, Martin Scorsese, and Charlie Rose, they set new standards for broadcast humor with their riffs on U.S. presidential elections and the tropes of reality TV.
In addition to Altman’s theatrical and television films, the retrospective will be distinguished by the addition of little-known early work to a number of the programs along with the features. These include industrial films he made in Kansas City in the 1950s, and musical shorts produced for the pioneering film jukebox system ColorSonic in 1966. The series concludes with a screening of the authorized feature-length EPIX documentary on Altman by director Ron Mann and Sphinx Productions. Finally, a number of Altman collaborators are being approached to appear at select screening events.
Organized by Ron Magliozzi, Associate Curator, with Sophie Cavoulacos, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Film.