Justin Wyatt on the Legacy of Film Director Robert Altman

Our faculty engage in cutting-edge research and innovative creative work, bringing new ideas to our students and communities locally and globally. We’re pleased to continue this monthly spotlight series featuring our faculty’s work through a question-and-answer style article published every month during the academic year.

Featured book: ReFocus: The Later Films and Legacy of Robert Altman (Edinburgh University Press, January 2022), by Associate Professor Justin Wyatt, Departments of Communication Studies, Journalism, and Film/Media

Q: Can you give us a synopsis of ReFocus: The Later Films and Legacy of Robert Altman?

A. Film director Robert Altman was one of the leading creative forces of the last great period of Hollywood filmmaking, from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, known as the New Hollywood or Hollywood Renaissance. Much critical analysis has addressed this early period of his career, especially his filmmaking between M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975). From 1980 through to his death in 2006, Altman continued to work, albeit under much different circumstances than in his initial ‘70s period.

This anthology, co-edited with Lisa Dombrowski, considers post-1970s Altman as a way to rethink and reconceive his authorship. The book has two components: interviews with Altman’s collaborators from the period and critical essays analyzing aspects of Altman as a film artist. The project offers texture and depth to previous ways of thinking about Altman’s creativity and contribution to American cinema. These essays expand our understanding of the development of Altman’s personal aesthetic; his adaptation of existing source material; the representation of sexuality, gender, and identity in his films; his relation to the changing landscape of American independent cinema; his work with collaborators; and his unfinished projects. The goal of the book is to think about how the under-analyzed post-1979 films can be explored alone, together, and in relation to earlier work to craft a more compelling portrait of Altman’s evolution as an artist.

How does this book fit in with your broader research interests?

I am always interested in how media reflects and helps shape society. Much of my academic writing looks at the intersection of economics and aesthetics through the lens of media. In this case, I also wanted to consider social issues and the ways that a film artist changes in their aesthetic as they are in their final years.

Robert Altman’s films shine a light in many issues addressing American society; he is a satirist and commentator on the experiment known as the USA. I wanted to understand the last quarter century of Altman’s work in a richer way. My sense was that Altman’s later period had received less critical and public attention. The project became a way to remedy this through a book devoted to critical essays and in-depth interviews with Altman’s collaborators of the period.

What surprised you when researching and writing this book?

For background on my chapter, I researched at Altman’s archive, opened at the University of Michigan in 2013. With nearly 700 boxes, the collection has a remarkably comprehensive array of materials on the production, marketing, distribution, and reception of Altman’s last quarter century. My own chapter investigates Altman’s depiction of LGBTQ+ issues in the later films, looking at the ways Altman engaged with sexuality and identity and suggesting that many depictions are complicated but somewhat regressive in nature. In the archive, I discovered correspondence and documents on Altman’s adaptation of Christopher Durang’s play Beyond Therapy and on the possibility of Altman making a film of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays. This material illustrated to me how Altman was never fully comfortable with representing those placed on the sexual margins of society. This is especially interesting since his films offer a pro-social stance on so many other issues.

On a personal note, I was surprised (and happy) to discover that Altman had saved an article I wrote on the 25th anniversary of his film Nashville for Detour magazine in 2000. It’s part of his official archive.

For those reading the book, what do you hope is the main takeaway?

I hope that readers will appreciate how Robert Altman created films and other media that reflect American society, with all the pluses and minuses intact. His best films in this later period offer social and cultural critique that is sharp and insightful. I would love readers to pay as much attention to the collaborator interviews as to the academic essays. It would be great if readers could take away how film and media are truly collaborative and how this collaboration takes place in the context of mainstream and independent media.

Of course, I would love for the book to inspire curiosity among those not familiar with Altman’s films. Among Altman’s later films, I would suggest checking out The Player (1992), his tale of Hollywood homicide, Short Cuts (1993), a bittersweet look at life in Los Angeles, and Gosford Park (2000), a murder mystery set in an English country home. All three will give you a good sense of Altman’s aesthetics and his concerns as a film artist.

Read a guest blog Professor Wyatt did for Edinburgh University press on this new book here.