The Player

Up until yesterday, I'm pretty sure that Robert Altman was the most important living American film director.

If you go over to Europe, it gets cloudy, what with all of those obscenely old, partially to wholly blind auteurs who are somehow still making movies (Antonioni, Godard, Bergman, Resnais).

But here in the States, we breed our own form of filmmaker with his/her own form of contributions. Altman was that rare distinctly American filmmaker who introduced a style. Sure, he learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game, but there were very few other films (from Renoir or otherwise) that preceded Altman's virtuosic use of ensemble. And though it can be said that His Girl Friday or this or that Welles film feature actors talking over one another, it was not until Altman that sound was so meaningfully manipulated. Now, not only did actors talk over one another, but conversations would flow into and out of each other on the soundtrack, usually very slowly and subtly, from the foreground and background of the image, creating the aural equivalent of what Bazin had discussed with relation to deep focus photography. Altman became the preeminent Aural Bazinian Realist.

Some will say that Scorsese or Spielberg are just as important, if not moreso, than Altman. For me, however, the strength of Scorsese and Spielberg - at least when they make good movies - is their prowess in expressing their personal belief systems. They are auteurs in the style of Antonioni and Bergman, whose personal worldviews were compelling enough and filmed beautifully enough to become universal.

But it is Godard, and Altman, who actually revolutionized film form. Most of the interesting films that are made by younger filmmakers point back to techniques from these two men's playbooks, whether it's direct address or ensemble-narrative-united-by-catastrophe.

Spielberg has changed the business of movies, which is no insignificant feat. (Altman, by the way, also changed the business by pioneering what we today like to call "independent film.") But Altman, to me, made the most American of contributions by changing the craft.

I am sad about Altman's death because even though there are still great films and great filmmakers, he may have been the last American filmmaker to really change the craft.

Cosmodrome Categories: