Robert Altman has died today at age 81, and it’s hit me hard. Having heard him speak just a few months ago at the Museum of the Moving Image after a special screening of Kansas City and to promote the imminent opening of his wonderful A Prairie Home Companion , I can say that Altman seemed vibrant: perhaps frailer or slower moving than in the past, but sharp, wonderfully targeted as ever to the day’s hypocrisies, wise about his career, the industry, his own legacy, and always, always, always the modest man and artist. Even if he wouldn’t have it, we would call him something of a genius: his genius lay in his ability to let his cast riff, sparkle, shine, and flutter, and in his own refreshing inability see how exacting his camera was in allowing them to accomplish this.
How fitting that his wonderful Prairie Home was his unintended swan song—as he said, gloriously, touchingly, back in May, about the film: “Everybody dies. But they sing. And they’re happy.” Even without Altman’s sudden death, that’s a statement I would never have been able to shake. Altman’s passing, which was hopefully as simple and resigned as his final film, does not simply signify the passing of an earlier generation of filmmaking: were it that easy. The fact is, irrefutably, A Prairie Home Companion is one of the very finest, freshest, most pragmatically emotional films of this year, a jewel in a particularly muddy sea, putting to shame the works of whatever trendy indie filmmakers or foreign film darlings put forth recently—we’re not just losing one of the all-time greats; we’re losing one of the best working contemporary artists.
“The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” says the lovely, ethereal angel of death Virginia Madsen in Prairie Home. That’s a tough idea to swallow today, but maybe we can all take comfort in the fact that it was one of Altman’s last statements. I feel it’s too soon to expound on his entire, worthy career, so I’ll just leave us with some images from my very favorite films of his.
And here’s a link to Reverse Shot’s final interview with Altman, back in June.