You can't do overlapping dialogue in writing. That's just one of the reasons this appreciation of American filmmaker Robert Altman will be inadequate. The real way it should be done is a group of people -- some who knew him for Gosford Park some who knew him for M.A.S.H. some for California Split orThe Long Goodbye, some who never heard of the dude -- all these people running in and out of rooms gabbing and talking over one another. But to remember Altman just for his over-lapping dialogue would be like only remembering Hitchcock as the "master of suspense." (Interesting aside, it was Hitchcock who salvaged Altman's flagging career and gave him a break.Another interesting fact, one of Altman's first day-gigs was a pet tattooing system so renowned he even used it on President Harry Truman's dog.) In fact, Altman didn't invent overlapping dialogue, Hawks showed traces of it, especially in his breakneck comedies, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday. But that's only a shorthand way of talking about the unique, subversive vision of Altman -- the most individualistic of the great American directors since Welles, or maybe Preston Sturges.
And he's gone.
It seemed like he'd never go. 1970, M.A.S.H., like 1967's The Graduate , defined an era. And funny. And sad. But then, McCabe and Mrs. Miller -- a Western tragedy, post-Hollywood, but within the system. Then Nashville -- was there ever a more glowing review written than Pauline Kael's mash-note to this movie. Watch it again if you dare. There's simply no H.B.O. anything without this original vision. In the vaunted '70s, he already seemed somehow more mature. Like Ford said of Lubitsch, "We were all making pictures, only Lubitsch knew he was making something more." In Altman's unsuspecting, shaggy-dog style he made original "something else's." You don't love every minute of them, there are things that are ugly or wrong or upsetting. But it all cooks along, like music -- like a band, with players that are master's of their own horns. He saw things in Elliott Gould, Warren Beatty, Shelly Duvall -- others couldn't. He adapted Raymond Carver -- that seemed like a perfect fit. It just flowed out of him. On and on. An American seismograph wired through his wry sensibility.
This guy was the original outsider insider -- and that's saying something for a career-path that cultivates such types. Working right up to the end -- Prairie Home Companion -- a play in London, right up to the end. This hard-working Midwestern kid couldn't stop. And found a way to get his voice heard. And he's gone. Goodbye Robert. And thanks. - Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.