Bob Altman had a good long run. He was a hard drinker and a hard charger who squeezed every drop of experience he could from a life he believed to be (in the oft quoted words), “Nasty, brutish and short.” But 81 years isn’t that short. He made more classic films than anyone else from his generation. Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas may have had more success, but Altman worked harder and amassed an overall more impressive resume. The proof in the pudding is that no film genre is referred to as “Coppolian” or “Lucasian.”
“Spielbergian” gets used occasionally, but the term “Altmanesque” is seen regularly. Only “Hitchcockian” is a more common directorial adjective.
Specifically, Altman created an entirely new way to tell a story when he made “M*A*S*H.” And he refined the technique further with the amazing “Nashville.” Almost like America’s “Canterbury Tales,” the Altman storyline became a cipher for our whole culture. The multiple-plotline epic told through the voices of two dozen or more characters has now become a reliable and incisive motif, most recently honored when “Crash” won an Oscar and Altman was given a lifetime achievement award on the same night. It is not much of an exaggeration to call him the most important filmmaker of the post-war years.
Taken over the course of four-plus decades, he had a batting average of nearly .600. Not even Spielberg or Scorsese can match that. Right up until the end he continued to make great films (“Gosford Park,” “A Prairie Home Companion”), even as the insurance assholes who backed the films’ financiers insisted on “back-up” directors being present in case Bob couldn’t make it through a shoot. His absence from the film community will bring an unfathomable loss, but his presence will be felt forever in the work of more young filmmakers than it is possible to mention. Just think of all the best ones.