With his complex and unconventional films, Robert Altman often draws an impassioned response from critics but bafflement and indifference from the general public. Some audiences have dismissed his movies as insignificant, unsatisfying, and unreadable. Ironically, Altman might agree: he makes films in order to challenge filmgoers' expectations of straightforward narratives and easily understood endings.
In Subliminal Reality, Robert T. Self sheds light on Altman's work and provides the most comprehensive analysis of his films to date. With close readings of classics like MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, and more recent films like The Player, Short Cuts, and Cookie's Fortune, Self asserts the value of Altman's work not only to film theory and the entertainment industry, but to American culture itself.
In his analysis, Self identifies Altman's films particularly as they address issues of form, identity, and industry. He explains how Altman critiques moviemaking forms by using an open, fragmented mode of storytelling and by turning conventional Hollywood genres inside out. He examines Altman's characterization of social and individual identity as fragile and fragmentary and his depiction of antiheroic characters debilitated by their socially constructed gender roles. Finally, Self shows how Altman challenges the entertainment industry itself, questioning its methods and motives and critiquing its role in our cultural alienation.
Self frames his analysis of Altman's work with a discussion of the director's efforts to create a "subliminal reality" in his narratives-to touch audiences on an unconscious level and to recognize the unspoken, and unspeakable, dimensions in human interactions. According to Self, this striving for "subliminal reality" makes Altman's films not only exemplary of the potential of art cinema narration, but instrumental in keeping such narrative alive.
Robert T. Self is professor of English at Northern Illinois University.