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Robert Altman: The Oral Biography - Mitchell Zuckoff In my final year as an undergrad, a budding insane love of movies having driven me to every formal and informal experience around the study of film available, I conned or cajoled a Sociology prof who'd advised our campus Film Society (membership for which was him and me, and that's it) to let me do a senior thesis on film. What would you do, he asked? A couple of films had hit me upside the head recently (Blue Velvet, Betty Blue, Brazil) but even I couldn't say much about what I'd do except rant for fifty pages about how much I loved them. What about directors and the scope of a career, he said? I immediately latched onto Scorsese, and I was (and remain) an annoyingly vocal apostle of the merits of the then-recent After Hours, but almost as instantly I thought, ah, EVERYONE talks about Scorsese.

What about Altman, I asked? What indeed. This was in the filmmaker's drought years, following the burst of acclaim in the '70s then a series of high-profile ambitious misfires and then a seeming retreat into theatrical adaptations, small strange indie ventures. (The Player was a few years off in the future.) I really only knew M*A*S*H and McCabe, and this prof had shown the stunningly tedious Quintet in a class on dystopia. So this was a kind of shot in the dark. I thought there was something interesting about a guy whose successes were hard for film nuts (& pinky in the air cinephiles) to idolize, who seemed to make so many flawed--hell, so many failed--films.

So I spent about a week and watched as much as I could get a hold of. I think I found (no small task, in these pre-reputation, pre-dvd days) a number of things on vhs, but pickings were slim--still, maybe 6 or 7 films? And at the end I was absolutely sure that Altman was utterly brilliant and there was no way in hell I could make any kind of sense in a critical analysis, that the films were so stuffed with character and skewed style and so distant from those hallmarks of composition and visual razzmatazz I'd internalized as the mark of real film, and the whole knotty delight of sound design was beyond my ken, and...

And I went back to Scorsese.

And I kept my eye on things Altman, watching what I could, when I could, before and after what he called his third comeback. I remain convinced that, aside from Spike Lee, no American filmmaker is so attuned to the social and aesthetic vitality of film, so keenly attentive to the complex ways people live. (If I'd been able to get my hands, then, on what is now my favorite Altman--California Split, thank you New Beverly theatre!--I'm sure I would have stuck with him...)

This oral biography is a million miles from the reductive critical assessment I'd have tapped out, and in fact it's at least a few thousand away from any concern with critical assessment at all, except to point out now and again that critical assessments are a) fickle, b) conflicted, and c) not all that central to the work of making films. (Mind you, I greatly missed that critical attention. Sure, as Altman himself noted frequently, who wants to hear his opinion about what things mean? That's for us to play with... but, yeah, I'd like to read that thorough, messy, painstaking, contradictory set of volumes digging with great love into each of his great and not-great flicks.) But this is a record of the making of films--of personality/ies, of the communities formed for each brief carnival pitched in collaborative development of each work, of ego and systems and carnage and did I say ego? It's funny as hell, often illustrative, always--like an Altman film--attentive to voices in contrapuntal as well as choral arrangement, to dissonance and dissatisfaction as well as affection and the melodies shaping Altman's life and career.

It may not mean much to people not already in love with Altman. And even as a record of an era of filmmaking... well, it's a very long trip around the edges of the system. (Go check out Mark Harris' brilliant Pictures at a Revolution.) But for Altman fans--well, all we get are these films which, however glorious (or inglorious), are "only the top"--for Altman it was about filmmaking as much as films, about the work (as in labor) and not the work (as in object or commodity).

Great stuff.