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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bye Bye, Robert Altman.

Robert Altman with his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars

Legendary film director Robert Altman is not someone most casual Malaysian film fans would have heard of, his films, many lauded as classics, are unseen by most. Therefore, his death two days ago wasn't much of a news for most. On the other hand, many film blogs that I read everyday are writing their own eloquent tribute to him, they are the people whose lives were touched by Altman's films.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I have only seen three of Altman's films, with the exception of Gosford Park, neither of them are the much-lauded classics generally considered as his best, the other two are The Company and Popeye (which I watched when I was a kid). I have yet to see MASH, Nashville, The Player or Short Cuts (the first two selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry).

Why did I suddenly feel compelled to write about Robert Altman when I usually don't do anything after events like this? I'm not even an Altman fan, not being exposed enough to his films and all. Perhaps the more I am getting involved in filmmaking in the past year, the more I care. Besides, this really isn't the first time I've written about Robert Altman in this blog, I wrote about him on the 4th of March earlier this year (and two days before my birthday!), my entry, Swifty Stumbles Into The World of Robert Altman, was about my own desire to make an Altman-esque ensemble film that takes place in Malaysia, and also my thoughts about his second last film, The Company, which many would consider one of his lesser works (I agree with that). That entry I posted was for a Robert Altman blog-a-thon called by Matt Zoller Seitz to celebrate Altman's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oscars.

Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin presenting the honorary Oscar to Robert Altman (March 2006)

His acceptance speech was memorable to me, when he revealed that he had a heart transplant ten years earlier, and saying that the Academy had recognized his body of work prematurely as he still had many years ahead of him to make more films. Sadly, I had believed that it would be true, when he was on the stage giving that speech, I definitely didn't expect him to not live past this year.

Altman's influence on today's filmmakers became increasingly apparent to me this year. The coincidences were simply weird. Magnolia, which I saw only a few days ago, was an ensemble piece which drew comparisons with Altman's works (although, in my opinion, the actors in Magnolia seemed to have more blatantly obvious 'Oscar moments'), and because of that, PT Anderson, director of Magnolia, was Altman's 'back-up director' for the very last Altman film that was released this year, A Prairie Home Companion. When I first read the news, I was mildly amused that the film studios had to resort to something like this for insurance, probably because I've never heard of something like this before (I'm not very informed).

Matt Zoller Seitz sent me his film, Home, earlier this year, which Justin and I liked very much, was an ensemble piece about a party on a hot summer night, lots of stories and substories about the different characters packed in an apartment. Matt had mentioned that it was a homage of sorts to Altman, yeah, it was one hell of a film too.

Robert Altman was a maverick filmmaker, the type who made the kind of films he liked without conforming for the sake of commercial viability or awards-baiting (despite being nominated five times by the Academy Awards, he had never won a single Oscar until that honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement). It's the kind of path I would like to take, but then, will circumstances allow me to do so, I wonder?

R. I. P. Robert Altman.

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