Dismantling the System from within

The early films of Robert Altman and the politics of anti-establishment

Authored by: Jacqui Miller

The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics

Print publication date:  June  2016
Online publication date:  July  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415717397
eBook ISBN: 9781315678863
Adobe ISBN: 9781317392460


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Robert Altman and his work seem to embody challenges to cinematic convention captured in David Thomson’s description of Altman as “[t]hat rarity in American cinema: a problem director, a true object of controversy, and a man whose films alter or shift at different viewings like shot silk” (Thomson 2002: 13). If Altman was a ‘problem’ director, this was because his altering and shifting cinema encompassed political challenge in so many ways that his work was thoroughly anti-establishment. His ‘major’ filmmaking career began in the ‘first phase’ of the New Hollywood, that uniquely innovative time in American filmmaking, running roughly from 1967 to 1980, with M*A*S*H* (1970), perhaps the most multi-pronged attack upon American norms in the history of Hollywood cinema. This chapter will mainly explore the political nuances of Altman’s early films, The Delinquents (1957), The James Dean Story (1957), Countdown (1968) and That Cold Day in the Park (1969), arguing that their cumulative gradations present him as an anti-establishment figure, even, or perhaps particularly, because he mainly worked within mainstream Hollywood, and lay clear foundations for what will follow in the New Hollywood and beyond.

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