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Robert Altman

The Filmmaker Who Left a Permanent Soundtrack Legacy: Robert Altman


In his innovative films, the public participates by having to choose how they perceive and understand them.

Robert Altman (1925-2006) immortalized his home city, aged 70, in his film about jazz, Kansas City (1996). Curiously, the movie is set in 1930 and, beyond the plot, what caught critics’ attention were its musical numbers: the camera focuses on the jazz being played, switching between instruments, changing the focus, making opposite direction juxtaposed traveling shots, panning and tilting, always to the rhythm and in time. Simply jazz.

And here we enter one of the greatest legacies that Altman left to cinema. Although there is a direct influence of Howard Hawks and his multiple tracks, Altman immortalized the technique with which he captured sound. This consisted of placing various microphones on different characters to reinforce the central story with a complementary audio-narrative: the camera moves from one character to another in different spaces and although we no longer see a character we continue to hear them, or on some occasions we hear a character before we have seen them.

This technique lent the movie a greater depth of reality: it ceases to be a caricature of what we are used to when we only hear what we see. With Altman, the sounds overlap and come out of different speakers, making the spectator active and who must choose what to listen to and therefore what to understand.

That eight-track sound and the multiple plots came to their climax in Altman’s 1975 magnum opus Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975), which featured 25 characters. The film is a study of American society suffering the effects of Vietnam, represented by an encounter with country music in the genre’s capital. The plots unfold as if they were part of a documentary where the musical numbers are as important as the dialog that takes place simultaneously. And perhaps the most noteworthy element is that, among that apparent chaos, the narration is always understandable and the characters’ stories maintain their relevance.

Later, the ‘ensemble’ dramatic structure, constructed on multiple levels, would work for the adaptation of some of Raymond Carver’s short stories, from which Altman created Short Cuts (1993). With an eloquent cast of characters that ranges from a telephone sex worker to a cake decorator, the fact that the characters are significantly affected by chance reminds us that, in Altman’s films, they rarely control the situation.

But Altman also has another kind of intimate-style films that are profoundly enigmatic and magical. For example, 3 Women (1977) and Images (1972). With a dramatic model based on the oneiric, and with few characters that are rather metaphors for human psychological states close to lunar influence, these films, which in general have a strong feminine essence, are the counterpart to his epic works.

Altman never put his personal vision in jeopardy, and which was so distant from what Hollywood movies were used to. He knew how to innovate with each film. Thanks to that, today we enjoy his legacy that animates the artistic spirit of the medium.

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