Robert Altman's innovative style -- Graded reviews of films from the prolific director

Robert Altman’s innovative style

He was among the most prolific film-makers of the 1970s, churning out movies stuffed with innovative style and genre-busting content. So what ever happened to Robert Altman? It’s a simple story: While he got less and less conventional in the ’80s, Hollywood got more and more conservative. Denied the money to do his thing, Altman did other things: stage plays, made-for-cable dramas, even a couple of operas. But he never stopped making movies, and he has just released his latest, Vincent & Theo. A portrait of the Van Gogh brothers, it’s his strongest work in years. That makes it another milestone in a career full of them. Here are some of the best.

M*A*S*H (CBS/Fox, 1970)
After years of reruns of the TV spin-off, it’s refreshing to experience again the harsh humor of the movie that started it all. An antiwar comedy of the darkest kind, M*A*S*H was a breakthrough for Altman — and for Hollywood. In addition to setting new standards for four-letter wit, it also established Altman’s trademark style: the overlapping dialogue, the overflowing frame, the cheerful overthrowing of traditional Hollywood values. Coming at the height of the Vietnam debate, the message couldn’t have been clearer — even though the film is set during the Korean War. A

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Warner, 1971)
Altman’s version of how the West was won deflated most of the myths that made the Western genre great. But few Westerns, classic or otherwise, have been so hypnotic or haunting. Warren Beatty’s McCabe is an entrepreneurial gambler with more ambition than brains. Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller is a displaced English madam. They team up to turn a mountain mining camp into a boomtown. Along the way a near romance develops. Then some mining-company bad men attempt a hostile takeover. Altman creates a mood piece that eschews conventional plot and pace, but underneath it all there is a classic story line taking shape. And when the pieces finally drift into place, they’re all the more effective — because they have the randomness of life, instead of the neatness of art. A

Nashville (Paramount, 1975)
Released in time for the American Bicentennial, Nashville was Altman’s State of the Union address — as well as a social tragicomedy of astonishing depth and complexity. As performers, politicians, hustlers, and innocent bystanders all converge to change one another’s fates, the director fashions a sweeping statement about stardom, fandom, politics, money, sex, and love. One of the greatest American films of the ’70s, Nashville remains Altman’s crowning achievement. A+

Popeye (Paramount, 1980)
Before Dick Tracy, before the movie version of Annie, there was Altman’s Popeye — a musical comic-strip adaptation whose innovation was years ahead of its time. The only problem is that Altman’s rambling style sometimes works against the comic-book simplicity. But Robin Williams makes a vividly convincing Popeye; Shelley Duvall, all skin and bones, is a picture-perfect Olive Oyl. Equally impressive is the world they live in — the lopsided, ramshackle harbor town of Sweethaven, an ingenious piece of production design. Comic strips don’t come any more alive than this. B

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Embassy/Nelson, 1982)
Altman spent most of the ’80s adapting stage plays for the screen — partly because he could do them cheaply, partly because he was trying to create a new hybrid of theater and film. Some of his efforts were successes (Streamers, Fool for Love), and some were not (Beyond Therapy). But none was more memorable than this story of small-town Texas women gathered for a 20-year reunion. The ensemble — including Cher, Sandy Dennis, and Karen Black — is uniformly fine. But this is always Altman’s show. Preserving the one-set intimacy of Ed Graczyk’s drama, the director makes no attempt to open things up cinematically. Instead, he probes even deeper into these characters. The result is an improbably transcendent adaptation of an essentially second-rate play. B+