This Thanksgiving turned bittersweet for Allan Nicholls. The Burlington resident had often spent the holiday talking turkey with his friend and mentor Robert Altman, the legendary filmmaker who died last Tuesday at age 81. Their collaboration, which began with Nashville in 1975, spanned three decades and encompassed 17 motion pictures.
"There's no one to replace him," suggests Nicholls, who has put his big-screen career on the back burner to work as senior broadcast producer at the Queen City's Jager Di Paola Kemp Design. "Not another soul can fill the void. He was a great storyteller who always insisted on telling stories his own way."
Nicholls, now 61, joined the ensemble cast that was shooting Altman's breathless overview of post-1960s America. "Keith Carradine recommended me when they needed a third person for the trio in Nashville," he says of the role that tapped into his real-life musical skills. "I had performed with him in Hair on Broadway, and he'd done a few of Bob's previous movies."
During the next 30 years, Nicholls handled an array of responsibilities on various Altman projects, including actor, producer, assistant director and composer. They co-wrote A Perfect Couple, an offbeat 1979 romantic comedy.
The personal relationship was equally important. On their Thanksgivings together, the unconventional auteur enjoyed remarkably conventional pursuits. "We'd play Pictionary or Backgammon and watch football," Nicholls recalls.
Unlike his peers from what's generally considered the maverick moment of domestic cinema - think early Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg and Brian DePalma - Altman could never be identified with a single genre. In fact, despite his films' distinct style, they defied categorization. M*A*S*H (1970) is like no other war movie. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) turns the Wild West on its ear. The Long Goodbye (1973) gives brooding film noir an ironic twist.
"I think he probably had a couple, three more in him," Nicholls speculates. "Bob's sign-off to friends and coworkers was always, 'See you in the next reel.'"
As it turns out, the recent A Prairie Home Companion will remain Altman's last waltz.
While commiserating with Nicholls the other day about their mutual loss, director Alan Rudolph, a fellow Altman protégé, offered this observation: "'Bob doesn't really leave, he just goes somewhere.'"
"There were no red states or blue states then," Ken Burns says in a phone interview. "It was one country. And everyone was asked to sacrifice."
The celebrated New Hampshire documentarian is describing the home front during World War II, the subject of his seven-part saga airing on PBS in September 2007. The War is a 14-and-a-half-hour epic; a 120-minute sneak preview of the program's first episode screens December 1 at Dartmouth College. Burns will be on hand to answer questions.
"In this consumer society, we're told that when things get bad we should just go shopping," he continues, referring to George W. Bush's post-9/11 advice to the nation.
Does that mean The War serves as a commentary on the U.S. stupor concerning Iraq?
"In no way is this film political," Burns cautions. "We explore emotional archeology. The focus is on living veterans, and some who didn't survive to the present time, personified by voices reading their letters or newspaper articles. We also talk to ordinary people who did not go overseas. The war touched every family on every street."
Burns visits four places - Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Luverne, Minnesota; and Sacramento, California - to "honorably bear witness, at a very grassroots level, to the greatest cataclysm in human history."
An estimated 60 million people were killed, he points out, "in combat, in terms of civilian casualties and in the Holocaust."
The 53-year-old Burns decided to approach this complex topic after learning about a 1990s survey that revealed 40 percent of graduating high school students "thought the Germans were our allies in the Second World War."
His hope is that the documentary will help that period become vivid again. "We tend to think of memory as distant," he contends. "But memory is utterly present."
Burns' own memories of the conflict, which took his father to Europe in 1945 as part of the occupying forces, were actually forged some years later. To fight make-believe Nazis, he says, "My brother and I would dig foxholes in the backyard."
The War unspools at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 1, in Hanover's Spaulding Auditorium. For tickets, go to www.hop.dartmouth.edu or call the box office, 603-646-2422. For more info, call 603-646-2576.
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