A Certain Detachment

the "new Altmans"

Pinning down Robert Altman’s influence on American filmmaking seems simple enough: whenever you see a huge cast in a freewheeling, elliptical narrative, shot with a drifting, zooming camera, the sound densely layered and a little hard to follow the first time through, you’re watching second hand Altman. His formal tics have been absorbed into the mainstream, via television as much as cinema: his style, simplified to go down easy, lends itself beautifully to the multiple plot lines and revolving casts of classy soap operas from Hill Street Blues to Deadwood.

There have been “new Altmans” since M*A*S*H — filmmakers who’ve studied the surfaces of his early work and responded with films that look just like his while feeling like anything but. His protégé Alan Rudolph’s mastery of his mentor’s style amounts to sleight of hand, busy flash to disguise relentless vacuity, and for all the squirrelly energy and improvised shtick of P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights, there’s also a square moralism that couldn’t be further from the spirit of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

So if the essence of his style has been thoroughly incorporated and co-opted, both by sincere admirers and network hacks, why do his best films still seem so eccentric?

What Altman’s more slavish imitators miss is the use to which he puts his style. The unmistakably personal tone of his work comes not from a hyperactive zoom lens and twenty-four tracks of mumbled non sequiturs, but from Altman’s essential detachment. He encourages his audiences not to identify with his characters so much as to observe them, and he subverts techniques usually devoted to intensifying audience involvement with the story to carry this out.

Consider his ubiquitous camera movement. In the classical narrative cinema, the moving camera is subordinated to storytelling. A tracking shot allows a single fluid shot to do the work of several separate shots, all while preserving the moment of performance, since the scene is played before the camera in real time and is presented as such, without resort to editing for emphasis. It serves as a substitute for editing, with the camera moving towards characters to underscore crucial emotional or narrative points, then reframing for exposition in wide shots. However exhilarating the tracking shots of a Welles or an Ophüls, they are almost always models of the deliberate orchestration of audience position within a scene: the camera movement serves to provide the audience with access to particular points of view within the narrative in the most economical and dramatically effective means possible. (Though this has broken down somewhat in recent years — camera movement is less clearly aligned to character positioning now than in the past — the basic narrative utility of the technique remains firmly in place in most films.)

In Altman’s work — definitively in The Long Goodbye — the constantly roving camera rarely insists upon point of view or audience identification. We only occasionally see as a character sees; instead, Altman presents the material panoramically. The story is generally observed from outside the action, the zooming and tracking providing a fluidly shifting overall perspective, most often in neutral medium shots that allow us to pick and choose within a sort of master vantage point which actions we wish to follow. It’s hard to imagine an audience “relating to” or “identifying with” Marlowe, Haven Hamilton, or even Mrs. Miller, experiencing their stories with (or “as”) them. Altman forces an arm’s length perspective, with the camera offering an “objective, ” ideal view of the unfolding events rather than isolating and emphasizing key moments. If most films — Hawks’ The Big Sleep is typical — shift seamlessly between a sort of omniscient third person perspective (particularly in the wider shots that open scenes) and first person (the point of view shots, shot/reverse editing and close-ups that most scenes build towards), Altman prefers to keep his distance, staying almost exclusively in the omniscient third. Indeed, some of the more awkward moments in his work are the sudden, intrusive leaps to point of view, often accomplished with quick zooms. There are, of course, characters offered as points of identification (George Segal’s Bill in California Split; any character played by Shelley Duvall) and scenes played out in shot/reverse shot throughout his work, but these are exceptions rather than, as in most Hollywood films, the rule.

The result is a sublimely modest formal style, built around seemingly uninflected observation. The nearest analogues are Rossellini and Renoir, self-effacing stylists who struggled to develop fluid camera styles that seem offhand, unaffected or even (in Rossellini’s neo-realist period) sloppy at first viewing, despite their staggering technical accomplishment. The virtuosity is concealed, the difficult made to look easy rather than trumpeted. The Player references Touch of Evil in its extended opening crane shot less as homage than nasty criticism: Altman’s delirious tour de force is witty precisely because its showy display is so out of keeping with his filmmaking.

Altman has used this carefully crafted detachment to investigate and undermine the full range of American genre film: he’s made service comedies, Westerns, films noir, backstage musicals, buddy films, live action cartoons, thrillers and political comedies. He’s worked in period and contemporary settings, toyed with the European art film and adapted a number of plays for the screen. Through all this work, he has pursued the relentless questioning implicit in his camera style: he makes films from the basic materials of genre, but replaces identification and clarity with distance and instability, expecting the audience to make judgments rather than coercing easy emotional responses.

The contemporary filmmaker who comes closest to approaching Altman’s enormous range and restless examination of his medium is Michael Winterbottom. Like Altman, Winterbottom began his career in television (his best known work was the BBC detective series Cracker) and has been dizzyingly prolific since entering feature production, with fourteen features completed in ten years. There are few surface similarities between the filmmakers: Winterbottom prefers relentless pacing, frenetic editing strategies and an emphatic visual style, and his performers range from the understated non-professionals of In This World to the showboating, manic logorrhea of Steve Coogan in A Cock and Bull Story and 24 Hour Party People. At his worst, Winterbottom is glib and overwrought, celebrating his own cleverness and not trusting his audience to respond without the aid of a booming score.

What links the two, and leads me to suggest Winterbottom as Altman’s truest heir, is their willingness to fail on the grand stage. Both work quickly and cheaply, opening up room for experimentation. No two Winterbottom films look quite like one another, and he has been driven to explore genre as rigorously as Altman: he’s made Westerns, Brechtian musicals, science fiction, political melodramas, kitchen sink realism, Thomas Hardy adaptations, even pornography. His work springs from two wildly variant British traditions: the secondhand neo-realism of Ken Loach, Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh, and the hysterical post-modern orgies of Ken Russell, Julien Temple and Nicolas Roeg. In his best film, 24 Hour Party People, he succeeds on both fronts, easily mixing documentary with Brecht, flashily self-indulgent shooting and flamboyant performance with the quiet intensity of the Joy Division sequence. Nine Songs, arguably his worst film, belly flops as it attempts to wed concert documentary, Cassavetes psychodrama and hardcore pornography. The two films take significant risks, eschewing, like Altman, point of view techniques in favor of an observational detachment even at their most frantic. His fragmented, willful experimentation reflects nothing so much as an engaged intelligence at play. (A politically engaged intelligence, at that: his outrage at American misadventure in the middle East produced the terrific agit prop of The Road to Guantanamo and In This World.)

Winterbottom shares, finally, Altman’s stubborn faith in the mass audience. Where filmmakers like Bela Tarr or Abbas Kiarostami — or, for that matter, Michael Haneke or Wong Kar Wai — aim their more audacious work at the cineastes who haunt festivals and art houses, Altman and Winterbottom aim wider, in the perhaps naïve belief that, given the chance, audiences will accept formally challenging, eccentric work, particularly if it is couched in familiar genres and features well known performers. It’s filmmaking for the great lost middle of cinema, and in an era where the audience has fragmented to the point that only films that aim very low have much chance for mass success, it’s hard to imagine a braver stance.