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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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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."

Long_Goodbye-poster1 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:

Dear Editor,

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.

Alan Rudolph

Photo of Robert Altman by Mark Tillie / USA Films

Comments () | Archives (23)

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Wow. Robert Altman made some great films (MASH, Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville, Come Back To The Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Tanner 88, Vincent & Theo, The Player, Short Cuts, Kansas City, Gosford Park)
He also made some atrocious duds. (OC & Stiggs, etc).
But he endured and kept working when others burned out or quit.
Yes his films were loose, but that was by design, and when it worked it was fantastic. He'd done his stint in TV and knew how to craft a straight forward, linear story and it bored him to tears. What he loved and rightly surmised that audiences responded to was stories full of those odd moments that feel "real". He embraced risk instead of banning it from the set.
Obviously Richard Schickel's review of the book is not of Altmans art but of his lifestyle.
Perhaps Schickel is secretly jealous that a drunken pothead (his vision of Altman) was able to produce and direct so many films (good or bad) while all he managed to during the same time was view and critique other peoples work (good or bad). I'm sure Altman is floating around somewhere having a good laugh at this, because he knows:
Richard Schickel will one day die and his writing will be all but forgotten.
Robert Altman is dead and his body of work will never be forgotten.
An that my friends, is the reward for embracing risk instead of banning it from your life.

Richard Schickel gave a harsh review, but it was not totally off-base. In my opinion, a man who spends his life drunk is not just "freewheeling," he's medicating.

Schickel should have used the opportunity to look a little deeper, and use a little less childish irony. But Hollywood is all too often filled with sycophantic yes-men, just like the above comments.

After subscribing to the LA Times for over thirty years, I decided last summer that I'd had enough of its shoddy critical journalism towards the arts and cancelled. Every so often, however, I look it up online when a review of someone whose work I admire is pending. Tonight I happened upon Richard Schickel's diatribe on Robert Altman which was meant, I suppose, to pass as his review of Mitchell Zuckoff's "Oral Biography" of the director. What paper with any pretense of integrity or objectivism would countenance such an assignment, and then publish the results? Mr. Schickel made no attempt to review the book, but rather used the opportunity to deliver a number of longheld resentments against Altman's work habits and character. Any freshman journalism student knows not to judge or confuse the artistic merit of an artist's works with his/her lifestyle and belief system. Does the fact that Richard Wagner and Jerome Robbins were monsters have anything to do with the ineffable greatness of many of their creations? Of course not. Had Mr. Schickel's bile not poisoned his intellect, he may not have allowed this article to see the light of the printed page. His words have only reinforced to me the rightness of my cancellation last summer, though I fear they may also have provided yet more grist for those who have taken such seeming delight in predicting the end of newspapers as we have come to know and need them.

In the early days of my fascination with film, Richard Schickel was a prominent and helpful light, one of the first names I recall who seemed to have respect in the circles of film history and study that I aspired to join. I honor his efforts in making movies better understood and promoting interest in their history. But those days have passed. I've been an actor and film historian of sorts myself for decades now. I spend time every day of my life in discussion of movies past and present with people who are extremely knowledgeable, highly critical, and in many cases erudite in the extreme. I am not talking about water cooler discussions with people from all walks of life who have passing opinions about "Casablanca" or "The Matrix." I refer to people who spend similar amounts of time engaged in learning about, talking about, and evaluating films and filmmakers, people who can tell a Kurosawa from an Ichikawa by the lighting, who can go on at length about *why* Ford was better than Hawks or vice versa, and *why* the same piece of Alfred Newman music from "Young Mr. Lincoln" was reused in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And in *these* circles I would have to say that Richard Schickel has become a laughingstock, what "Little Big Man" described as a "reverse barometer," someone whose opinions are reliable only in leading one away from where one wants to be. However, the fact that no one I know who takes film seriously has much respect left for Schickel's opinions does not lessen the intensity with which we feel bewildered and often angered with how he has become some sort of éminence grise in the public eye, the wise and irrefutable voice of "film history" as represented in TV specials and DVD commentaries. Publications such as the Times and organizations such as the AFI and many other public dispensers of information or perceived wisdom about film history often turn to "experts" such as Schickel who have managed the leap from reviewing movies to a hallowed place where they are the authority of first resort whenever a book on film needs reviewing or a talking head is needed on CNN after a film legend has died. I know hundreds of people who know more, understand more, and are able to discourse more usefully on film than Richard Schickel ever could, yet I daresay he is asked to review more books on film than any other reviewer in America. This latest diatribe is perhaps the most flagrant example of his unsuitability for the unelected post he has been raised to. I hope at some point the brand known as "Richard Schickel" stops being pasted onto every article relating to film and that actual, as opposed to presumed, experts be given a chance. I bear Mr. Schickel no malice and am grateful for his early contributions to my knowledge of film. But enough is enough. His slander of Robert Altman ices a cake that is far too stale.

Re JB ... "The Long Goodbye" is a comedy?

The ending isn't funny, true, but having the movie's damn theme song playing everywhere Gould goes -- even as Muzak in a grocery store -- is pretty funny.

Also, the cat sequence is probably darkly funny to cat owners. (Charles? Care to weigh in?)

-- John Rabe

Richard Schickel's main "film critic" relevance was in the 1960s. Even then, I either agreed or disagreed with him without ever grieving when I didn't. More than 40 years removed from that relevance, I'm amazed anyone even reads him any longer.

It's one thing to systematically identify a book's failings - as the author of seven cinema books, I've often found negative criticism far more useful to my writing than unabashed praise - but another to be blatantly, consistently as unprofessional as Mr. Schickel has been for many years.

This latest embarrassment should come as no surprise to readers aghast when Mr. Schickel argued David Kiehn's biography of silent cinema pioneer "Broncho Billy" Anderson was wasting readers' time because, well, all those movies are lost and who cares about 'em anyway.

Or this writer, whose Kurosawa-Mifune biography, 'The Emperor and the Wolf' was raked over the coals in a review several years ago. Trouble was, based on his own error-ridden summary of their lives that was part of the review, it was plainly obvious Mr. Schickel hadn't bothered to read the very book he was lambasting.

Of all places, the Times should give cinema history and biographies the careful consideration they deserve, instead of allowing Mr. Schickel a venue to petulantly work through his personal demons.

Stuart Galbraith IV

boxing gloves?? what for?...even dead, altman wins HANDS DOOOOWN!!

WOW! I reckon Mr. Schickel should have kept his dislike for Altman's work to himself. I'd be the first to defend Mcabe & Mrs. Miller to the death but not because I see a great director's hand at work. I, (though I shake with fear for speaking such a thing), find Altman's work rather unmemorable. To me, his films dealing with women reminded me of a guy desperately trying to make films women could relate to and failing miserably (Dr. T anyone?). Capra didn't seem to try and yet did.

Mcabe's beauty in my opinion was due largely to the poetry of Coen's score and Julie Christie's luminous presence, I think of the phony and distracting snow falling as being as much of Altman as the beauty inherent in that film. As admirable as I found Mr. Rudolph's defense of his mentor, let's face it, 1 good film "Trouble in Mind", 1 overrated mess "Choose Me" and one film saved by Julie Christie (again) does not a serious opinion make.

As to Mr. Schickel, it seems that in spite of all his hot air, high mindedness and no hope of a literary future, he did provide a commentary for "Once Upon a Time in America" that recognized Sergio Leone for the Master he had always been and who is now finally getting the respect he has always been due. Ironic given the fact that during his lifetime he was dismissed by many of those who were holding Altman up as the next ?

As for me, I'll take The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West over The Player or Gosford Park any day. I don't think I'm alone. I don't know about John Ford (seems most of the posters won't admit to the cheese factor in his films), but Schickel got it right between Leone, Peckinpah and Altman.

Thank you for posting the entirety of Alan Rudolph's response. "Equinox", "Mrs. Parker & The Vicious Circle", "Afterglow", "Choose Me", and Rudolph's entire oeuvre convey the influence of spiritual father (Robert Altman) on spiritual son (Rudolph). Among their infinite pleasures and insights, Rudolph's work reminds me so directly of the phenomenon he attests to in this letter: "The torch gets passed, the message out, the influence permanent." (Rudolph here explains the meaning of his "Made In Heaven" -- the movie which provided my own personal road to mourning Altman).

The instances in life and at the movies that I've exclaimed (or heard friends lament): "I miss Altman!" are innumerable since the time of Altman's passing. Yet, as Rudolph also explains, "You don't have to be aware of originators to be modified by them." Many of the best movies during this time seem brushed by the wings of Altman. The audience and the culture may FEEL it, but it is the job of the critic to identify and articulate the connection.

If you can't draw the line from "Fool for Love" (and ALL of Rudolph!) to Wong Kar-Wai's America-set "My Blueberry Nights", then you fail to inform your readers of film history.

If you can't appreciate Mike Leigh's embrace of 'Scope with "Happy-Go-Lucky" in the light of Altman's widescreen visions, then you are blind.

If you don't recognize -- and rejoice -- in Jonathan Demme's innovative life-on-the-fly/music-performance narration in both "Heart of Gold" and "Rachel Getting Married" as the meeting place of Demme's aesthetic impulse and Altman's aesthetic influence, then you also miss that the underwater shot of the lantern in "Rachel" is a p.o.v. shot -- and have no faith in the redemption it offers.

The list goes on . . . Note the debt owed to Altman in the psychological/spiritual/political nexus diagrammed in films as varied as the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading", Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs", Cedric Klapisch's "Paris", and Jared Hess' "Gentlemen Broncos".

. . . and on . . . Recent films by masters Andre Techine ("The Witnesses") and Alain Resnais ("Private Fears In Public Places") are closer to Altman AND Kushner than Mike Nichols' TV "Angels In America".

So, the title of this article is really a joke: Schickel's insignificance is no match for Altman's infinite significance. Yet, if this bout yields a defense as rousing and educational as Rudolph's, then the joke is on Schickel. Thank God, Altman taught us to laugh at such pseuds. It's how we defend the humanity validated in the art of Altman and his children.

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