The film director Robert Altman thrived on chaos. In an interview not long after his death, in 2006, Elliot Gould recalled something the director had told him once: He “learned how to put it together in chaos and therefore created chaos in which to put it together.” Altman might have imagined his role as a film director to be somewhat akin to an expressive painter, only the canvas wasn’t fixed, and the colors were mutable. His chaos was well-controlled and -intentioned: Altman aspired to create environments that empowered his actors and encouraged improvisation, which would break past the artifice of intentionality. The idea being: from chaos emerges epiphanic truth. He called it “good disintegration,” and from it sprang an oeuvre of films that are anarchic, rambling, largely improvised, and frequently brilliant, and a style that is “as recognizable and familiar as Renoir’s brushstrokes or Debussy’s orchestrations,” in the words of Martin Scorsese.
There’s a new book about Altman, called Altman, that is billed as the “the first authorized visual biography on the iconoclastic director.” Co-authored by Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, and film critic Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, Altman amalgamates photographs and other ephemera from the director’s life alongside an expansive critical overview of his career (Scorsese wrote the foreword). And last night, the two authors were on hand at Nitehawk to sign the book, meet fans, and introduce a screening of what might be Altman’s weirdest masterpiece, 1977’s 3 Women. Altman was published by Abrams Books, a boutique publisher of illustrated books on art, film, graphic design, photography, etc. (they also published Matt Zoller Seitz’s book about Wes Anderson). True to form, Altman is a beautiful tome, a glossy, full-color showpiece deserving of prime real estate on your bookshelf or coffee table. It’s a treasure trove of Altman miscellany: photos culled from private family albums, behind-the-scenes photos, archival materials, personal recollections of the director, and film set tchotchkes, like the costume continuity sheet for Nashville, a collage of individual Short Cuts cast member portraits, and the handwritten recipes made by Shelley Duvall’s character in 3 Women, penned by the actress herself.
All of this was sorted and supplied by Kathryn Altman, and lovingly arranged. In the book’s introduction, Vallan, the critic, rightly describes the project as a “scrapbook.” And though Abrams approached Vallan and Mrs. Altman simultaneously, Vallan told me that the book “really begins with Kathryn’s albums.”
But it certainly doesn’t end there. Vallan has collected contemporary reviews and essays of Altman’s work from the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, and interspersed them amongst personal remembrances and historical considerations. Befitting a master of the ensemble, the cast of contributors is large and varied, including Frank Barhydt, E. L. Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Julian Fellowes, James Franco, Tess Gallagher, Garrison Keillor, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin, Garry Trudeau, Alan Rudolph, Michael Tolkin, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Before last night’s screening, Mrs. Altman and Vallan signed books in the upstairs lobby at Nitehawk for an hour-and-a-half, amiably chatting up fans who’d come for the sold-out event. Later, they introduced 3 Women, a dreamlike masterpiece, set in a California desert town, about Pinky Rose, a naive Southern nurse (played by Sissy Spacek), and her idolization of her co-worker and roommate, the aspiring sophisticate Millie Lammoreaux (played by Shelley Duvall). Pinky’s hero worship turns out to be far more sinister than it first appears. 3 Women moves from humor to psychological horror to surreality, following its own REM logic.
In Mrs. Altman’s telling, the film actually did originate in a dream. She was in the hospital, and Altman was alone in their house. “He dreamt that he woke up in the middle of the night and wrote it down, but he didn’t,” Mrs. Altman told the crowd last night. “When he actually did wake up, he drove to the hospital and told me about this dream he’d had. That’s what you’re gonna see tonight.”
The next film in Nitehawk’s Booze & Books series will be Dune, screening sometime in May. Stay tuned for more information on that and other offerings in the series here.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.