I discovered Robert Altman through the filmmaker who is undeniably indebted to him - Paul Thomas Anderson. Everything I read about Anderson compared him to Robert Altman, with whom I was only vaguely familiar. So I decided to rent MASH and it was then that I began to see what an important director Altman was. I was captivated by his huge casts and the free-form flow his films seemed to have. Before Elliott Gould was Monica and Chandler's father on Friends, he gave some of his best performances under Altman's direction, establishing himself as one of the great 70s actors. Not many directors could make me interested in a three hour film about country music, but Nashville goes beyond being merely interesting to compelling. Sure, Altman may have made some missteps in the 1980s, but his successes were ultimately bigger than his failures.
Last semester, I took a film studies class that analyzed the work of Altman and another even more iconoclastic, independent director. I did not see eye to eye with the professor of that class, except on one thing: he insisted that Robert Altman was the most influential filmmaker of the last 30 years. To say this about someone who didn't have the same box office draw as Lucas, Spielberg, or Coppola, this might sound odd, but just one viewing of Nashville will show you why.
If you've never seen any of Altman's films, you owe it to yourself to check out one of his 1970s masterpieces like MASH, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller or one of my personal favorites, The Long Goodbye. I promise you won't regret it.
Altman's New York Times Obituary:
Robert Altman, Iconoclastic Director, Dies at 81