asWhile Robert Altman was filming his new film, A Prairie Home Companion, he had to have an understudy director on hand in case – well, in case he died. Altman’s old. If this was the mid 90s I would say he was mad old. (Fittingly, the understudy was Paul Thomas Anderson, whose films make him seem to be auditioning for the role of Altman)

Sensing that the filmmaker, who will be 81 this year, may not have many more opportunities to take the gold (he’s been nominated five times) and thankfully not being willing to give the old dude a statue for a subpar movie just because he’s old, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be giving Altman an honorary Oscar this year.

I have a real love/hate relationship with Altman. The movies of his that I like I tend to adore, and the rest of them I tend to despise. Of course those are the ones I’ve seen – the director has been fairly prolific over his long career, and many of his films are damned hard to find now. TiVo subscribers know about a wonderful feature that allows you to name certain filmmakers and the TiVo will record anything they have done that comes on TV – I have Altman listed and he pops up all too rarely, and usually with the same films.

He does deserve the Oscar, at any rate. For M*A*S*H alone, a film that I think really informed the aesthetic of 70s filmmaking. Altman’s use of long shots and overlapping audio tracks was revolutionary as American film moved into the more realistic and naturalistic golden age. Over the next thirty years he would make some of the greatest films of all time: Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player, California Split. He would also make some of the worst films ever conceived: HealtH, Quintet (easily the very worst ever Paul Newman post-Apocalyptic Ice Age board game movie of all time), Dr. T and the Women. Somewhere in the middle is Popeye, a film I love.