Posted at 12:40 PM on November 21, 2006
by Euan Kerr
The news of Robert Altman's death is sad but not unexpected. He revealed at the last Academy Awards that he received a heart transplant more than a decade ago. As it was from a 30 year old woman he quipped he had another 30 or 40 years left in him.
While not morbid about it, his thoughts were about a much shorter time frame during his time in St Paul for the shooting of the "A Prairie Home Companion" movie. He joked about every day might be his last. He was also very clear that the film, while a comedy, was about death.
Altman was good company. He was interested in what was going on around him, and clearly enjoyed the creative chaos engendered by merging his coterie of actors and crew with the Prairie Home cast. He talked at length about how much he loved Rich Dworsky and the Guys All-Star Shoe Band.
I was lucky enough to sit behind him as he directed scenes at the Fitzgerald Theater. He was very laid back and seemed content to let the actors have free rein in their interpretation of the script. He had them do several takes, carefully watching for something which he felt was usable. The crew used up to three digital cameras running simultaneously to capture the action so he would have lots of choice when he began editing.
There is one abiding image I have from that day. It came after the crew broke for lunch (which in true movie style was at 5.30pm.)
The crew gave me remarkably free access to the set, but there was one strict rule: no photographs. I was hanging around at the back of the stalls waiting to head over to where the crew was eating.
The crew transformed many parts of the Fitzgerald for the film. A small soundbooth at the back of the theater became a small bar complete with mood enhancing track lighting. If you have seen the film it's where the Axeman, played by Tommy Lee Jones, stands to watch the show.
In addition to the bar there was a comfortable black couch set up high on a stand to make it easier to see through the window. Earlier in the day we had used it to do interviews for the feature I was writing on the film.
Anyway, I turned and saw Altman stretched out on flat on his back on the couch. Someone had tucked a dark blanket around him, all the way up to his chin. With the track lighting shining down and his goatee sticking towards the ceiling he looked like he was dead. In fact, he looked as though he was lying in state.
It was a very creepy sight.
For a few moments I was really torn, and felt my fingers reaching for my camera. But I stopped and left to go to eat. I'm glad I did.
I will miss Altman.
You paint a vivid picture of Altman resting. I hope at the end the Grim Reaper did appear to him as a beautiful, understanding woman like Virginia Madsen in A Prairie Home Companion.
Yet it is a YOUNGER Altman's view of death that sticks with me.
There was M*A*S*H*--not just the absurdity of who lives and dies, but the mock funeral scene tied to sexuality.
*SPOILER ALERT--MCACABE & MRS. MILLER*
And above all, the McCABE AND MRS. MILLER death scenes still resonate with me.
The brutal death of optimist McCabe (Warren Beatty) was cinematically perfect. It captured the winter brutality that was missing from Westerns before Altman.
Altman also captured that this optimistic pioneer was killed by comfortable, established forces in the East. McCabe dies unnoticed as Mrs. Miller slips into oblivion, her intelligence wasted. The railroads have even less need of a woman who does not go to church than they have of a true pioneer like McCabe.
Those are the Altman death scenes that are still with me.