Re: RARA-AVIS: Chandler vs. Altman

From: Mark R. Harris (
Date: 12 Nov 2007

Robert Altman is my favorite film director. But because of that inherent bias, and since I haven't seen The Long Goodbye in a long while and am not interested in getting into a debate on its particular merits, I've held my fire up till now.

However, the comment on Altman's presumed failures Popeye, OC and Stiggs, and Pret-a-Porter prompted me to dig back in my email files and find a post I made to another group last year. It's a piece on the DVD release of Images, in which I discuss that film in relation to the work of a number of other directors. I won't reproduce all of it. But the concluding paragraphs capture my credo with respect to Altman, or any other artist whose work I respect, and I stand by this argument:

"In an interview on the Images DVD, Altman reiterates his frequently- made point that all his films are installments in an ongoing vision and that assessments of the installments as being higher or lower in quality don't matter much to him: if you're interested in the vision, you're interested in the vision, right? I think we should take Altman seriously on this: it is a challenge to us to reframe our way of experiencing films. This is not to say that there are no differences of quality between films or that those assessments don't matter in some ways; it is to say that, once a director has shown their artistic distinction and their ability to control their projects without major compromise, everything they do is interesting and of value because it expresses their vision.

Consider the directors mentioned that I have mentioned in reference to Altman: Losey, Polanski, Bergman, Fassbinder, Coen, Fellini, Roeg, Huston, Welles, Weir
-- all of them have tremendous artistic distinction, all control their projects to a very large extent (certain exceptions of studio interference easily noted), and I would therefore advance the thesis that none of them ever made a "bad" film. We need everything they did.

This business of charting an artist's work strictly in terms of peaks and valleys is pop journalism, not serious criticism. Pauline Kael set the tone for discussion of Altman in her early reviews, which went up and down like a ping-pong ball; loved MASH, hated Brewster McCloud, loved McCabe and Mrs. Miller, hated Images (and at that point she said that since she had discerned a definite alternating hit/miss pattern, she couldn't wait for his next film). She continued on in that opinioneering way throughout his career. Kael wrote much that was interesting on Altman, but I would submit that as his biggest champion, she nonetheless misunderstood the actual pattern of his work pretty completely. Pauline Kael didn't care about Robert Altman's vision; she cared whether she liked the particular movie. That's a serious flaw in a critic."

Best regards, Mark Harris

On 11/12/07, Channing <> wrote:
> With Kansas City Altman proved he could do period. And with The
> Player he proved he could do noir. But with Long Goodbye he did
> neither.
> I admire Altman's creativity and willingness to experiment, but on
> Long Goodbye I feel he missed the point. I also feel Gould was
> mis-cast and I disliked various changes to the plot of the book. And
> I hated how Gould was such a chump that he loses every argument, even
> one with a cat.
> I am aware that the critical consensus is that The Long Goodbye is a
> great film, I disagree and I'm in the minority. But even if it's a
> "classic" film it's a bad interpretation of Raymond Chandler.
> And I suggest that with films like Popeye, OC and Stiggs, and Pret a
> Porter that Altman missed his target by a long shot and that it's not
> beyond the realm of possibility that he could've missed on Long
> Goodbye as well.
> --Chan

Mark R. Harris
2122 W. Russet Court #8
Appleton WI 54914
(920) 470-9855

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