Get out the boxing gloves: Richard Schickel vs. Robert Altman
I usually try to avoid getting into dust-ups with critics writing in my own newspaper, but I can't avoid coming to the late Robert Altman's defense after reading Richard Schickel's nasty, dismissive review of "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography" by Mitchell Zuckoff, a new book about the man who brought us "MASH," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Gosford Park" and any number of other smart, funny and challenging films.
My primary problem with the review is that if Schickel has no respect for Altman as a filmmaker, how would he possibly be in a position to give a fair review to an exhaustive biography of the man? And it's certainly obvious that Schickel loathes Altman's work, since he starts out by ridiculing "MASH" as "a basically witless film," then moves on to trash the rest of Altman's oeuvre, saying that "misanthropy -- with a strong admixture of misogyny -- essentially substitutes for ideas in his movies and his characters are, in effect, characterless."
Schickel seems especially aggrieved that Altman was a boozer and a pothead who -- as Schickel puts it in the first sentence of his review -- "never passed an entirely sober day in his life." In fact, Schickel seems obsessed with Altman's licentiousness, admonishing Altman over and over for his freewheeling ways, as if he were the first filmmaker ever to use and abuse a variety of intoxicants. He comes off like a schoolmarm, rapping Altman on the knuckles for having a good time, calling him "permissive," "addled by his addictions" and claiming that even in "MASH," everyone in the movie "appeared to be perpetually, mumblingly stoned."
Largely because Zuckoff writes admiringly of Altman's work, as have so many other critics, Schickel throws the filmmaker's biographer under the bus, claiming that Zuckoff "basically knows nothing about filmmaking and film history." I could go on, but you get the point. It would be an understatement to say that Altman admirers were outraged by Schickel's dismissive attitude to one of the great filmmakers of the late 20th century. Speaking to this point, I received a letter from Alan Rudolph, who linked up with Altman as an assistant director on "The Long Goodbye" before carving out an important career as a filmmaker himself, making such movies as "Welcome to L.A.," "Choose Me" and "Afterglow."
Rudolph's entire letter is attached at the bottom of this post, but here is his artful description of Altman's special gifts as a filmmaker. As Rudolph writes:
"Altman was an innovator. His films might seem casual, but intentionally so. They were behavioral in appearance, but carefully crafted with ideas, and strong on consequence. Having served as a screenwriter for Bob, I can personally attest to his rigorous attention to writing. He just didn't want the result to seem written.... Bob knew that continuously working in the rough was the best way to find his jewel. His biting humor never spared reality nor himself. The painful absurdity of it all. There was nobody like him during his professional peak, and there isn't now."
Well said, Mr. Rudolph. As for me, all I would ask of anyone who might be on the fence about Altman is to seek out one of his many adventurous films and watch for yourself.
You'll never be bored and you'll almost always be amazed by what an original, unsentimental approach Altman had to the art of cinematic storytelling. The UCLA Film & Television Archive has a salute to Altman coming up soon, starting with a Nov. 13 screening of "The Long Goodbye," his 1973 comedy that is a personal favorite of mine.
I'll keep you posted on future events as they unfold. Now, here's Rudolph's letter in defense of Altman:
Obviously your reviewer waited safely in his lair until Robert Altman
moved on, then bravely said what's been eating at the traditionalist
core of his film soul for years.
He negates Altman because of his life style. Would he dismiss
Huston's drinking or Hitchcock's sexual repression as influences on
their film gifts? Basically, this review says Altman was something new
and different when he made his mark, but the reviewer never really
bought it. So now Altman must be overrated and unimportant. What
has been universally accepted -- that Altman was the one of the greatest
American directors of his generation, an honor automatically inserting
his name into every serious evaluation of cinema forever -- your
reviewer claims was wayward opinion. He simply knows better.
Altman was an innovator. His films might seem casual, but
intentionally so. They were behavioral in appearance, but carefully
crafted with ideas, and strong on consequence. Having served as a
screenwriter for Bob, I can personally attest to his rigorous attention
to writing. He just didn't want the result to seem written. This wasn't a
dismissal of screenplays or writers, but Altman creating. Your reviewer
belongs to the legion of unsuccessful detractors of important artists
when bold work never before encountered was first unveiled. Some just
can't break with the past.
Directors, writers and actors don't have to replicate Altman for him to
have impacted their sensibilities. The power of a major artist is that
he or she is a force, standard, guide. What your reviewer doesn't grasp is
that great artists always lead the way. The torch gets passed, the
message out, the influence permanent. You don't have to be aware of
originators to be modified by them. Bob's insistence on doing things
his own way was essential. It's the major struggle. And Altman won.
Which is the ultimate defeat for the studio ruling class and
establishment apologists. Your reviewer uses Jules Feiffer's troubles
with Bob as an example of overindulgence, but glibly dismisses
Feiffer's description of Altman as a genius. In the critic's mind, Bob
wasn't the right kind of genius.
Altman never changed. To have "comebacks" shows he never went
away. Some of his films might have been less than others, but each had
the stuff of brilliance, and was part of a larger collection. Bob knew
that continuously working in the rough was the best way to find the
jewel. His biting humor never spared reality nor himself. The painful
absurdity of it all. There was nobody like him during his professional
peak, and there isn't now.
Photo of Robert Altman by Mark Tillie / USA Films