ROBERT ALTMAN: IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN

In July 2010, I pitched a book idea: a critical examination of film director Robert Altman’s work to Reaktion Books of London. Why Reaktion? Why Altman? Reaktion publishes a Critical Lives series, which deals with cultural figures. I was interested in writing about film, so I drew up a short list of directors whose work I admire. Ultimately, I lit upon Altman as my subject because, well, he’s Altman.

I can’t recall the first film by him that I saw, but I can say that my first experience watching 3 Women (1977) was an epiphany. Here was a film director operating on a different plane than his American contemporaries, a man for whom plot could be both convoluted and sublimated to characterization.

3 Women taught me to look past a film’s surface and appreciate Altman’s artistry—as well as that of other directors—on a more sophisticated level. It taught me to notice symbols and to value what many of us take for granted when watching a film, such as camera movement or background music. Over the years, I’ve spoken with others who’ve had similar reactions to 3 Women, and who freely offered me their perspectives on it with no prompting.

During the book-proposal stage, I chose to buck the usual method and submit the introduction as my sample chapter, knowing that I would rewrite it extensively. I suppose the people at Reaktion understood that as well. As it turned out, the editors accepted my proposal and decided to publish Robert Altman: In the American Grain outside of the series.

That was all good, but I was naively unprepared for what writing about Altman’s work would entail, particularly on the research end. For instance, how many times I would have to watch each feature film or TV episode that he directed. He spent nearly a decade in episodic and anthology television, beginning with two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and moving through such classics as Bonanza and Combat. I had to replay numerous scenes to double and triple check for dialogue and visual nuances.

It sounds tedious, but believe me I was never bored. Instead, I uncovered various stylistic elements that Altman retained on and off throughout his career, including silent characters who served as a counterpoint to his much-discussed overlapping dialogue; trios of women characters in films (before and after 3 Women); ethereal women cloaked in white clothing; and, most startling to me, his use of Christian (particularly Roman Catholic) imagery. Further research revealed that Altman was iconoclastic—even vis-à-vis his fans—and an auteur who encouraged major input from actors and crew.

Frank Caso, the author of Censorship, Freshwater Supply, and A Brief History of Iraq (with Hala Fattah), is currently writing a novel. He lives in Hartford, CT, with his wife and son.

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