Critics and moviegoers alike are recoiling in amazement at Richard Schickel's mean-spirited kicking-to-the-curb of a biography of Robert Altman:
[Altman's] films do not transcend their times; even the best of them remain trapped within those times. This book provides massive evidence that people had lots of fun making them, but none whatsoever that they will survive as anything more than historical curiosities.
Jim Emerson gets it right in his dismantling of Schickel's viewpoint and motives:
Schickel prefers to criticize Altman for being Altman — which is his prerogative, although it doesn't reveal much about the filmmaker or the films. Altman's way of working is indeed essential to the texture of his films, and it was a non-factory method that by its very nature yielded variable results from picture to picture, depending even more than most movies (and parties) on the particular serendipity of the mix. As for Schickel's verdict, critics far more astute than he have explored Altman's films in great detail.
You don't need to read very deeply to see that Schickel has an anti-anti-Establishment axe to grind, and that he would rather use the space provided to him to rip Altman a new one (Altman as a proxy for all those other Easy Riders and Raging Bulls) than talk about the book itself. He seems more determined to prove that the book's agenda cannot be fulfilled than whether or not it manages to achieve anything in the first place.
Schickel tips his moralistic hand so many times in that "review" it's a little scary. Is anyone really shocked by the possibility that drug use ("smoking dope") is prevalent in Hollywood or creative types generally? Probably not, and so Schickel's invocation of it is a demarcation: he's on that side of the line, and we are over here, the Good Clean Folks ... like Elia Kazan.
Mavericks and iconoclasts come in more varieties than you can iterate; that's why they're, well, mavericks. Nobody mistakes David Lynch for Robert Altman (and nobody mistakes either of them for Pier Paolo Pasolini). But even though I dislike von Trier's motives as a filmmaker, even though I enjoy Altman's work and am iffy about Lynch, I'm still bound to give any one product by them its due, on its own terms. Lynch again: I go back and forth about Blue Velvet (I'd like to think its worst excesses are something the director has grown past), but Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive are keepers. I could care less about any of them personally unless it impacts me in some way, and somehow having a party atmosphere on the set hardly seems like A-grade miscreancy.
If Schickel had just come out and said I don't like Altman's movies, but for those who do ... he would have at least faced his own motives a little more squarely. Instead we get his foot-stamping that there's no lasting value to be found in them, period.
Now that I think about it, maybe the real blame isn't to be laid at Schickel's feet. What editor decided sending him that book would be a good idea? Talk about someone being on drugs...
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