A flinty, cantankerous man whose movies thumbed their nose at Hollywood notions of heroism and uplift, Robert Altman, who died Monday at 81, never courted an audience's affections. A cool, iconoclastic customer, he scorned sentimentality, upended the rules of genre, spurned happy endings. Why, then, did his best movies produce in me a happiness unlike any others? Watching that magical string of movies he made in the early '70s—"McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Long Goodbye," "California Split," "Nashville"—was pure exhilaration. I'd walk out of the theater with a contact high, twice as alive as when I walked in. There was a paradox here that gets at the mysterious alchemy of art: though these movies end with wintry desolation, existential futility, happy-go-lucky fatalism, they give back aesthetic bliss.
The Altman style was unmistakable: the long, wandering takes; the overlapping dialogue that invites us to eavesdrop on the actors; the teeming, spontaneous panoramas that offer multiple choices to the eye. His method was the opposite of a Hitchcock, who storyboarded every sequence in advance and arranged every object inside the frame. Altman's movies spilled out beyond the edges of the frame, alive to the messiness of life. Notoriously laid back, in love with improvisation and multiple cameras, Altman was the director as party host, throwing a bash and letting the camera capture the results. He was once asked why he gave so few explicit instructions to his actors. "I'm looking for something I've never seen," he said, "so how can I tell them what to do?" Altman was both ringmaster and spectator at once, and it was the joy he took in simultaneously creating and discovering those moments of cinematic truth that was so contagious. Actors leapt at the chance to work or him and gave him their best. Though he'd never use such a fancy term to describe himself, he was an instinctive existentialist. You can't separate the making of his movies from their meaning.
It may be hard for someone who wasn't around in 1970 to understand how revolutionary the impudent, off-the-cuff "M*A*S*H" looked at the time, with its dark, disenchanted antiwar gallows humor. Altman hit his stride with that hugely successful comedy, after serving a long apprenticeship in industrial films and television. He was no wunderkind: the movies have traditionally been a young man's game, and Altman was 45 when he made his name. He proceeded to sabotage all the traditional genres, from film noir ("The Long Goodbye" turned Raymond Chandler inside out) to the biopic ("Vincent and Theo" de-mystified Van Gogh), stubbornly refusing to create larger-than-life heroes or trumpet affirmations. Like his fellow Midwesterner John Huston (Altman came from Kansas City), he had the look of a riverboat gambler and a cynic's contempt for the lies Hollywood movies lived by.
His career had wild ups and downs ("Quintet" and "The Company" are best forgotten), but he always found a way to keep working, even after the perceived big-budget failure of "Popeye"—which actually made a profit—sent him into exile in Paris. Shunned by Hollywood, he turned to more modest projects during the '80s, adapting stage plays for the screen ("Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Streamers," "Secret Honor") and scoring an Emmy-winning triumph with his political satire "Tanner '88." He had no political skills himself, freely expressing his disdain for mainstream Hollywood films and the executives who greenlit them. So it was doubly ironic that his comeback came with his scathing Hollywood satire, "The Player" (1992). He was suddenly back in business, and the resurrection continued with "Short Cuts" (1993), based on Raymond Carver's short stories, and then, in 2001, the popular hit "Gosford Park," for which he received his fifth Oscar nomination. He never won, until this year when the Academy presented him with a long overdue honorary Oscar.
His final film, "A Prairie Home Companion," returned him to his roots in both the Midwest and show business. It had the feeling of a farewell. He told people it was a film about death. The Angel of Death appears, alluringly, in the form of a beautiful woman (Virginia Madsen) in a white trench coat. Yet it was one of his mellowest reveries, pulled off with a low-key, no-sweat grace that only an old master could achieve. Even at 81, and in failing health, he was still looking for something he'd never seen.