Whenever you hear people talking about Robert Altman and his films,
you inevitably hear about ups and downs. The great triumphs like M*A*S*H
, McCabe and Mrs. Miller
, Short Cuts
, The Player
and Gosford Park
. You also hear about Popeye
, which is thought by critics to have been a disaster, although it did well at the box office and, as Altman says, can be quoted by five-year-olds all over the world. You also hear about Dr. T and the Women
, a movie that no one seems to have liked, including myself. I have to say that for each of these failures, there are at least five films that defined our time.
Altman started making industrial films, but soon moved to television. It's there where he learned to work fast and economically. Take a look at episodes of Combat!
today. They are as lean as a 47-minute story can be. Altman's efficiency and his adaptability served him well, in spite of his reputation as being uncompromising. Look at his list of credits. Once you get past the endless number of television shows, you see that he was always working on a project and that most of them were completed.
At the time of his death, Altman was promising to make the film that a lot of us were looking forward to - his look into the contemporary art world and the art market. Somehow I found a lot more reason to be encouraged by Altman taking on such a project than I was about films by artists like Julian Schnabel
or Matthew Barney
Another part of the conventional wisdom on Altman was that he was a political filmmaker, a conclusion that you could easily draw if you were thinking of M*A*S*H
or Secret Honor
, his compelling film of a one-man show with Philip Baker Hall
as Richard Nixon on the long, dark night before Nixon's resignation in the summer of 1974. (Unlike the growing number of movie directors who seem to know nothing but film, Altman went back and forth frequently between the screen and the stage. More should follow his example.) In Tanner 88
, Altman teamed up with Garry Trudeau
on a serial that looked a lot like what we now call reality television, supposedly set in the midst of campaign of a candidate in that year of Willie Horton
and George Bush Senior literally wrapping himself in the flag. Lest I forget, Altman's politics could be absolutely unambiguous, as in the shots of the floor of the birdcage in Brewster McCloud
, where Nixon's name and face on the newspaper lining the cage were splattered with bird droppings. Author's message?
Altman's politics were also cultural. In The Player
, which I hope people will find a reason to see again now with Altman's passing, we see a brilliant broad canvas of institutional behavior. Executives are cowards who won't get behind a project unless it looks or sounds like something the audience has already seen. Directors and writers for the most part bend over to make sure that their work fits these expectations. Altman should know. He'd seen it time and time again, and he made films at smaller budgets than he might otherwise have had if he had been willing to make those compromises.
Critics will remind you of his imperfections, but Altman will be remembered for his pageantry, his ensemble casts with loose scripts, and for the sound mixes in which the microphone often seems to be far away from the principal character who's talking - more atmosphere than dialogue. It could be confusing at times, but it often seemed to us as viewers that this is the way we experienced much of life, from a distance. Think of M*A*S*H
- Altman made the film for a fee of $75,000 and no profit participation. He was nothing more than a face in the crowd that watched as M*A*S*H
became an industry with a television show and spinoffs. As Altman says in the interview that follows, he couldn't stomach a complete episode of the show.
The other Altman-esque aspect of his work was his success at getting great performances out of all kinds of actors. Elliot Gould
wasn't just great in M*A*S*H
as a cynic that we saw on the sidelines of a war; he was also a marginal character on the margins of Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye
. Warren Beatty
, Julie Christie
, Sissy Spacek
, Shelley Duvall
, Robert Duvall
, Bob Balaban
, Henry Gibson
, Ronnie Blakely
, Robin Williams
, Tim Robbins
, Peter Gallagher
. Even a cast that included Meryl Streep
, Lily Tomlin
and Lindsay Lohan
in the charming A Prairie Home Companion
- the list goes on and on.
Altman had the foresight to recognize something that came to view more prominently than ever in the George W. Bush years, but was always present in America, which of course was the landscape in almost all his films. It wasn't so much that American idealism was grotesquely naïve or that American leaders were out-and-out hypocrites, which many were. Something darker was there that we saw most clearly in The Player
- ambition mixed with greed, to the point where the two couldn't been told apart, could cause people to do just about anything. Making bad movies is the least of their offenses.
I spoke to Robert Altman many times over the last 20 years. One of the most memorable times was at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, in April 2003, when Altman received a lifetime achievement award from the San Francisco International Film Festival. (Some of the questions that I am asking were asked by audience members and repeated by me.)
How do you choose your projects? Even though many, probably most, of your films deal with themes that seem to prominent in the zeitgeist, your visual style varies and so do your casts.
You'd sort of get bored doing the same thing twice. I can't tell you how many checkbook guys have been after me to make a sequel of M*A*S*H
, but I'm afraid I'd be late for work. I'm just the enthusiast. The actors are the main source of the art that goes into all my films. You don't really do any of the work, and that's an art in itself. I like what I do and I'm very proud of it, and if everybody liked every one of my films, I would be so rich that I would be late for work again.
You mentioned that "the guys with the checkbooks" were after you to make a M*A*S*H sequel. Is that still going on? Is that something that interested you, or might interest you today? Did you have any involvement with the television show, which seems to have made a fortune?
I had no involvement - now we're getting political. I felt that the end of M*A*S*H
was a statement. Even though it was substantially or superficially about Korea, it was really about the Vietnam atrocity that we were in at the time. That was the end of it. And when they came to do a sequel, saying, "We're going to have this served up every Sunday night in your living room. It's liberal, and we get to make these great statements against war, and we show a leg getting cut off here and there." But basically what they were bringing every Sunday night to your living rooms was an Asian war. No matter what they said, the enemy were the brown people with the narrow eyes. I thought it was a racist comment and opportunity, and I didn't like anything about it. I've never seen one of the episodes all the way through. I've probably seen more frames of it than of anything else, because you can't click around the goddamn television without seeing one of those guys in a dress.
When you see the film, you know that there are lyrics to the theme song that you only heard instrumentally on television: "Suicide is painless, it brings so many changes." Something like that wasn't going to get on television, at least not back then. The mainstream has a way of not letting you in, at least not completely. One example earlier this year might be the case of the Oscars, for which you got a Best Director nomination, but not the award?
I had mixed emotions about that. It's sort of like watching your grandmother drive your brand new car off a cliff. That's all I'll say.