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‘O.C. and Stiggs’ And The Utterly Unreleasable, Mind-Roasting Summer Of Robert Altman by Keith Phipps

By Yasmina Tawil

[This month, Musings pays homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to film we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutter’s Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Over the next four weeks, Musings will offer its own selection of tarnished gems, in the hope they’ll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. —Scott Tobias, editor.]

Robert Altman was happiest working in the shadows. That’s true of his relationship with Hollywood—where he never fit in, except as the town’s designated maverick—but also true of his relationship with other movies. Altman always had a lot to say about his craft, even if he tended to treat interviews as opportunities to reiterate points he made many times. One talking point he returned to, including when I spoke to him in 2000, is the notion that influence could work backwards. “The directors who’ve probably had the most influence on me,” he said, “were probably names I don’t even know, because I looked at a film that was really bad and I would say, ‘Hmm, I’m never going to do that.’ That’s probably the most direct positive influence on the work I do. I don’t even know who those directors are.”

When talking about Altman, it’s always worth talking about what he was trying not to do as much as what he hoped to accomplish. M*A*S*H can be seen as a war film determined to show viewers what other films would not, from the bloody mess left after battles end to the long stretches of wartime boredom to the sometimes ugly sides of the lifesaving heroes. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a Western without heroes. The Long Goodbye lets a noir play out in the sunny, counterculture-filled ‘70s Los Angeles.

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