Rarely seen short films by Robert Altman and Michael Altman’s “American Songwriter” screen Sunday in Venice
By Michael Aushenker
He was one of cinema’s most eclectic filmmakers, turning Raymond Chandler’s Anglo gumshoe Philip Marlowe into a Semitic private eye, adapting Popeye the Sailor as a live-action feature and, with “Nashville,” all but inventing the ensemble, multiple sub-plot rambler later emulated by younger filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson.
His Hollywood career seemingly thrived and died a thousand deaths — launched with the 1970 smash “M.A.S.H.” and revived in 1992 with “The Player” — even as he hovered near death in his final decade, harboring a dark medical secret.
Through it all, Robert Altman remained fiercely independent, uncompromising and eternally true to his vision.
“He didn’t suffer fools and liars, which is why he didn’t get along with anyone in the movie business,” said Michael Altman of his father and inspiration, who died at 81 in 2006.
On Sunday, 7 Dudley Cinema at Venice’s Beyond Baroque presents a program of rarely seen Robert Altman shorts and son Michael Altman’s documentary “American Songwriter.”
Across 49 films, Robert Altman enjoyed immense peaks and valleys, making a huge comeback in the 1990s with “The Player” and “Short Cuts” and enjoying late-career acclaim with 2001’s “Gosford Park.” He created several films considered masterpieces by critics, including “Nashville,” “The Long Goodbye” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”
“He always struggled to get his projects together. You would think with his legend he would be able to get something funded but it was always a challenge,” Michael Altman said of his dad.
Only six months old when his parents divorced, Michael Altman shuffled between his mother’s home and his father’s home in Malibu. He and brothers Steven and Bobby not only visited his father’s film sets, they worked jobs on them.
“That was the only way to spend time with him,” Altman said, laughing. “We had to perform; we were held to a high standard.”
Michael Altman was only 14 when he wrote the lyrics to the “M*A*S*H” theme song, “Suicide is Painless.”
“He hated Christmas,” Michael Altman said of his workaholic father. “He’d say, ‘Where’d everybody go?’”
Conversely, “Thanksgiving was always 40 people. Not just family, but whoever was around.”
With a screenplay by cartoonist Jules Feiffer and original songs by Harry Nilsson, the Robin Williams-starring “Popeye” was perhaps the greatest anomaly in Robert Altman’s filmography.
“The studios didn’t get what they were expecting, that’s for damn sure,” Michael said. With “Popeye,” Robert Altman purposely “shot that in Malta and was completely off the radar” so as to escape the watchful eyes of Paramount and producer Robert Evans.
To get a Robert Altman film made, “you need someone very passionate or very stupid to finance it,” Altman said, laughing. “Studios would change heads and they’d give him another chance and were then left wondering why they let him make the film.”
Altman knows that his father, who began directing television, worshipped Akira Kurosawa and learned tons from “his initial encounter with Alfred Hitchcock [who was] kind of a rebel as well.”
But Robert Altman spent no time ruminating about past cinematic heroes: “It’s hard for people to understand the focus that he had [on filmmaking]. He was completely embroiled and engrossed,” his son said.
Beyond Baroque’s program opens with the nine-minute “Pot au Feu,” which Robert Altman (“an advocate of pot smoking back in the 1960s and ‘70s,” his son said) shot in his backyard in 1965.
“When I see this film, it’s like looking at a family album: parents, grandparents, all of our neighbors and friends,” the younger Altman said.
Robert Altman made “Jazz ’34” — a 72-minute, Harry Belafonte-narrated documentary featuring a roster of musicians, including Ron Cater, Jesse Davis and David “Fathead” Newman and a “battle of the saxes” between Craig Handy and Joshua Redman — while shooting his 1997 film “Kansas City,” set in the Missouri jazz mecca, where he was born and raised in the 1930s.
Michael Altman’s “American Songwriter” is the program’s closer.
It was on the “Kansas City” set that musician Danny Darst “gave me a play that he wrote. I told him, ‘If you ever want to do this, let me know,’” he recalled.
A decade later, Darst returned. Altman left his job at Universal working sound post-production on Steven Spielberg films (including “Amistad,” “Jurassic Park: The Lost World,” “Schindler’s List” and “Munich”) to helm Darst’s play.
After the play’s short run, Altman hired a film crew and filmed Darst on tour for nine months across 15 states.
“I’m really proud of the film,” the 60-year-old Santa Monica resident said. “It’s all music. The dialogue is interwoven between the lyrics.”
In 2012, Altman screened “American Songwriter” at film festivals in Malaysia, Europe and Australia, winning awards.
If Altman and his brothers learned anything from Dad, it’s perseverance and determination. It was only when receiving a life achievement Academy Award the same year he would die that Robert Altman announced to the world that he was a decade-long heart transplant recipient.
“He kept that secret,” Michael Altman said, as revealing his medical situation would jeopardize his ability to get his movies financed and bonded.
The filmmaker’s son said his father had no use for hospital beds or film criticism: “He didn’t give a shit what people said. He didn’t care either way. He was untouchable in that respect.”
Robert Altman finished “Prairie Home Companion” prior to his death but left several projects in development, including a long-gestating “Nashville” sequel.
“It almost got made so many times, it was ridiculous,” Altman said. “He always had one movie in pre-production, one in production, and one in post-production.”
As custodians to Robert’s unproduced screenplays, the Altman brothers want to realize that material.
“There are lessons to be learned about both what to do and what not to do,” Altman continued. “I have so much respect for his style of filmmaking, technically and in attitude. Everyone on the set was equal. It always was such a passionate environment. It was about making a good film. It was never about making money.”
7 Dudley Cinema hosts “Robert & Michael Altman Films” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit laughtears.com.