If the central thesis of Altman’s directorial bent has always been an investigation of what America means, then Nashville (1975) is his ultimate statement on the matter. This sprawling opus of the country musical capital of the country brings together all the disparate, intersecting elements of our culture into an overlapping menagerie of cultural curios and distinct personalities, clashing and interacting with one another as political tensions broil in the background. Altman produced this film on the eve of American’s bicentennial anniversary, and he must have been obsessively aware of the nation’s foul spirit of patriotism clogging up the air, because he followed Nashville with another incisive examination of American culture. In Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), Altman turns to the past to discover the roots of America’s performative history. The origin of the Wild West show, and its myth-making, is put on blast here, exposing the charlatan Wild Bill as the revisionist and exploitation artist he is, reliving the subjugation and erasure of the Native Americans from their land now through popular entertainment. It’s a worthy satire for Altman, but one that may be already apparent from the film’s lengthy title alone.
The origin of 3 Women (1977), Altman always said, came to him in a dream, but he pitched the story to producer Alan Ladd Jr. claiming it was a story he read and wanted to adapt. As ever a master he was at gaming the system as he was at making some of the greatest films of all time, it never ceases to amaze how Altman managed to convince these big studios time and time again to take risks on these odd and esoteric art films, all of which inevitably lost money. 3 Women may be the best of the bunch, with strong themes of identity and thick, surrealist atmosphere to match the dreamlike nature of its conception, Altman delivers an incredible, interior work of art that leaves you with just as many questions as the most enigmatic of dreams often do. While doing publicity for 3 Women Altman was asked what his next movie would be. Glibly, he responded, “a wedding,” as amateur recordings of events was a recognized craze. But the more he thought about the off hand remark the more he realized how good an idea it actually was. A grand, centralizing setting with a large cast of characters; a perfect opportunity to create a cacophony of overlapping dialogue and stories; a coming together of two socially distinct sects of society under the umbrella of a religious tradition core to the practices of the American people — what’s more Altman than that?
A Wedding (1978) is all of those things, and more, but for once the outsized nature of Altman’s ambitions seems too large for even him to wrangle in. The cast is twice the size of that in Nashville, an intentional challenge on behalf of the film’s writer to outdo the grandeur and spectacle captured in masterpiece. But when you’re writing characters to hit an arbitrary quota instead of following what the demands of the story call for, it’s inevitable that many will fall by the wayside or feel underdeveloped. A Wedding retains all the hallmarks of an Altman epic, losing none of the deftness of his directorial talent in the process, but a certain ineffable elements remains missing all the same. Such is the case as well in Quintet (1979), a bizarre, unknowable effort from Altman in which he is clearly as present as ever behind the camera, but the audience is left out in the cold. As his only true work of fantastical science-fiction, Quintet is at least notable in its total departure from convention for Altman, fixating itself on the quasi-near future in which a new ice age has overtaken the planet and the small clique of surviving humans occupy themselves with the titular game of life and death. It’s so erratic and offbeat that it’s difficult to even describe, as the setting and nature of the game are never made particularly clear by the film itself. But, Altman seems to understand it all in spite of how he attempts to communicates with us, only failing in the sense that it made no money and both audiences and critics rejected it out of hand. Even today, Quintet is far from a beloved cult classic of Altman’s oeuvre — but who knows, maybe Altman buried some sincerely true revelations within the bedrock of this singularly outlandish art film, and all of us are simply incapable of seeing through the frosted glass of his camera lens to perceive it as the masterpiece it is… but probably not.
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