Robert Altman

We pay tribute to one of the most distinctive and audacious American directors.

May-July 2021

‘If I made a film that everybody liked, it would be pretty terrible’
Robert Altman

Introduction

May-June

  • Robert Altman, Outsider and Innovator: An Illustrated Online Talk

    Robert Altman, Outsider and Innovator: An Illustrated Online Talk

    An illustrated online introduction to the technical innovations, stylistic trademarks and thematic preoccupations of a major American filmmaker.

  • Women in the Films of Robert Altman: An Online Panel Discussion

    Women in the Films of Robert Altman: An Online Panel Discussion

    An illustrated discussion examining the representation of women and female experience in Altman’s distinctive movies.

  • The James Dean Story

    The James Dean Story

    A decidedly poetic documentary about the star and cult hero made after his recent death.

  • That Cold Day in the Park

    That Cold Day in the Park

    A lonely woman invites home a mute young dropout she notices on a park bench, with unsettling consequences.

  • M*A*S*H

    M*A*S*H

    Altman’s first major hit is an anarchic black comedy set at a military hospital during the Korean War.

  • Brewster McCloud

    Brewster McCloud

    Altman’s imaginative blend of fantasy, allegory, satire and movie parody.

  • McCabe & Mrs Miller

    McCabe & Mrs Miller

    Altman’s wintry western about a gambler and a brothel madam in business together is the first of his masterpieces.

  • Images

    Images

    Susannah York excels in Altman’s unsettling study of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

  • The Long Goodbye

    The Long Goodbye

    Altman’s updating of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel to 70s LA makes for one of his greatest movies.

  • Thieves Like Us

    Thieves Like Us

    Altman’s tender, witty tale of rural bank-robbers in 1930s America is one of his warmest and most underrated films.

  • California Split

    California Split

    Altman’s bittersweet exploration of the highs and lows of gambling follows two friends on a casino spree in LA and Reno.

  • Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson

    Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson

    Altman’s corrosive comedy about Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West show highlights white America’s delusional myths about itself.

  • 3 Women

    3 Women

    Altman’s daringly dreamlike blend of comedy and drama concerns the encounter at a desert health-spa of three very different women.

  • A Wedding

    A Wedding

    There’s intrigue and scandal galore in Altman’s comedy about two dissimilar ‘society’ families coming together at a wedding party.

  • Quintet

    Quintet

    Altman’s visually striking sci-fi parable envisages an apocalyptic ice age where a group of strangers play a mysterious, possibly lethal game.

  • A Perfect Couple

    A Perfect Couple

    Altman’s underrated updating of romantic comedy conventions benefits from excellent lead performances.

  • HealtH

    HealtH

    The American (political) way is satirised in Altman’s ensemble piece about a Florida health-foods convention.

  • Popeye

    Popeye

    This magnificent live-action musical tribute to the classic comic strip features pitch-perfect performances, a sassy script and witty songs.

  • Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

    Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

    Altman’s utterly cinematic adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s play about women friends gathering for a James Dean fan club reunion.

  • Streamers

    Streamers

    A taut, claustrophobically intense tale about tensions between US army recruits waiting to be sent to Vietnam.

  • Secret Honor

    Secret Honor

    Philip Baker Hall excels in Altman’s adaptation of a one-man play about Richard Nixon pondering his Watergate pardon in the Oval Office.

  • OC & Stiggs

    OC & Stiggs

    A dark, cynical, cartoon-like satire about two delinquent Arizona teens tormenting their nasty neighbours.

  • Fool for Love

    Fool for Love

    This riveting film charts the fraught encounter between a rodeo drifter and his former lover at a Mojave Desert motel.

  • Beyond Therapy

    Beyond Therapy

    A bold, brash but touching comedy about the trials and tribulations of modern love, featuring a gallery of colourful New York archetypes.

July

  • Vincent and Theo

    Vincent and Theo

    Altman’s impressive account of Van Gogh’s final years compares and contrasts his life with that of his art-dealer brother.

  • The Player

    The Player

    Altman’s acerbically funny portrait of modern Hollywood, packed with gags, movie allusions and star turns.

  • Short Cuts

    Short Cuts

    Altman’s brilliant collage of Raymond Carver stories creates a dazzlingly imaginative tapestry of life in modern LA.

  • Prêt-à-porter

    Prêt-à-porter

    With a characteristically amazing cast, Altman’s multi-character satire set during Paris Fashion Week makes use of authentic locations and fashion folk.

  • Kansas City

    Kansas City

    Altman revisits the 1930s city of his childhood, vividly recreating its jazz clubs, speakeasies, political corruption and lively crime scene.

  • The Gingerbread Man

    The Gingerbread Man

    Altman’s John Grisham adaptation has Kenneth Branagh as a hotshot lawyer hitting tempestuous waters after he takes on a waitress’s case.

  • Cookie’s Fortune

    Cookie’s Fortune

    Altman’s touching black comedy of Deep Southern manners centres on the wrongful arrest for murder of an African American everyone believes is innocent.

  • Dr T & The Women

    Dr T & The Women

    Altman’s bright and breezy comedy sees a Dallas gynaecologist plunged into chaos as he tries to satisfy all the demands made of him by the many women in his life.

  • Gosford Park

    Gosford Park

    Altman’s foray into the world of the British aristocracy of the early 1930s combines social comment, satirical comedy and a murder mystery to dazzling effect.

  • The Company

    The Company

    Altman’s near-plotless, almost documentary-style account of the creation of a ballet production is one of the great dance movies.

  • A Prairie Home Companion

    A Prairie Home Companion

    Altman’s swansong is a funny, touching fable about the (fictional) closing-down of Garrison Keillor’s Minnesota radio variety show.

Introduction

Of the American filmmakers who found success in the 1970s, Robert Altman was the most distinctive and audacious.

With the remarkable string of films from M*A*S*H to Popeye, Altman proved himself an influential innovator – experimenting with multitrack sound, overlapping dialogue, complex compositions and camera movements, large casts and freewheeling narratives – and a canny critic of American society and the myths that country perpetrated through movies. Using irreverent humour and focusing sympathetically – but never sentimentally – on losers and loners, Altman overturned the heroic conventions of genre, revealing a culture obsessed with money, celebrity and power, and tainted by corruption, violence, injustice and self-delusion. Independent and iconoclastic, in the 1980s Altman adapted stage-plays to cinematically expressive effect and worked impressively for television (sadly, some material is unavailable for this two-month season). Throughout his career, he continued making fresh, intelligent, thought-provoking films, many of them genuinely great, all utterly his own.

In the second part of our retrospective (from July), we begin with Altman’s masterly portrait of Vincent Van Gogh – a European co-production resulting in a TV miniseries and a theatrical feature – then move on to his triumphant return to America with The Player and Short Cuts, movies which amply demonstrated that he’d lost none of his old ambition, creative independence or cinematic flair. Indeed, right until his very last film – the marvellous A Prairie Home Companion (which includes the line, ‘The death of an old man is not a tragedy’) – Altman continued to experiment, to look sympathetically at the lives of loners, losers and outsiders, and to ask questions about authority and power. He also, of course, continued to entertain – with wit, style, imaginative invention and genuinely humane compassion.

Geoff Andrew, season curator

Want more?
Check the BFI YouTube channel for an additional online discussion on Robert Altman’s work
See our screenings of Nashville and our Big screen classics at just £8.

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