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Critical Essay by John C. Tibbetts
SOURCE: "Robert Altman: After 35 Years, Still the 'Action Painter' of American Cinema," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1992, pp. 36-42.
In the following essay, Tibbetts discusses Altman's relationship to Kansas City, the course of his career, and his films through Vincent and Theo.
"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from Mayor Richard Berkeley. "They used to throw away the key. Now, they're giving me one!"
Altman lived in his native Kansas City, MO, for his first nineteen years. As a boy he raised quite a ruckus, as he puts it; and he made his first movies there (which is perhaps the same thing). Now, an acclaimed world-class filmmaker, he has returned to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Kansas City Film Commission in the ballroom of the downtown Crown Center Westin Hotel. There is a sense of euphoria in the air that has been growing during the three days of nonstop screenings of sixteen Altman films, press conferences, workshops with area filmmakers and reunions with family members. Altman and his hometown are both on a roll these days. He is fresh on the heels of his latest triumph, Vincent and Theo; and Kansas City itself is basking in the glow of the successful completion of two recent theatrical films that had been shot in the area—the prestigious Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and the forthcoming Article 99.
"This town and I will have to get together again," he told a press gathering earlier that day. "I haven't shot a film here since The Delinquents in 1955—which I'd rather not talk about! But the future of filmmaking is here in communities like this. We help each other. Companies have to figure things now down to the split penny. We go where it's cheapest and where the artist can get the most return for his time. When I leave here I'll have a whole box of scripts under my arm." He paused with an air of mock drama. He waited a few beats, then—"We'll have to see."
Altman is relaxed, accessible and talkative. His Buffalo Bill beard is neatly trimmed. A white shirt and tie peek out from his zippered navy-blue jacket. He hardly seems the same hard-charging, hard-drinking maverick that barnstormed his way through movie after movie in the early 1970s. With M∗A∗S∗H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, he was a prime architect—with other young filmmakers like Paul Mazursky, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese—of what Diane Jacobs has called the "Hollywood Renaissance." He was called a "prairie Buddha" by his associates. He referred to himself as the "action painter" of American films. Controversies, disputes, awards and brickbats trailed in his wake. College students appointed him their Vietnam-era voice. Critics debated his unorthodox, looping and elliptical style. While Stanley Kauffman called him a pretentious blunderer, Pauline Kael praised his idiosyncracies: "Altman has to introduce an element of risk on top of the risks that all directors take," she wrote in 1981. There was always something protean, even relentless about him. After the failure of Popeye in 1980, the big studios rejected him, but he kept going, staging operas at colleges, shooting modest projects like Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 16mm, and filming plays for cable television. Meanwhile—although Altman wasn't counting—the awards were piling up. There were numerous "Best Film" and "Best Director" awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review and the Venice Film Festival (a Grand Prix for Streamers).
"I haven't been back to K. C. in almost 15 years now, I guess; and I come back and don't see the same city." We are talking together in the Presidential Suite on the 17th floor of the Crown Center Westin Hotel. The rooftops, spires and glass ramparts are spread out below us in the late afternoon sun. We have an hour to spend before he greets a sold-out house for a filmmaking workshop. "But I smell it and I feel it," he continues. "This is where I got my 'chips,' my attitudes. I lived on West 68th Street and went to several schools—Rockhurst, Southwest High School, Wentworth Military Academy, and then did a hitch in the Air Force, where I was a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. Restless, I guess." He takes a drink from a tumbler filled with club soda and a slice of lime. That's all he's drinking today.
"Somewhere along in there I saw my first movies at the old Brookside Theater. Those movies just seemed to happen—nobody made them, you know? And I guess that's the way I still see movies—I want them to be occurrences, to just seem to be happening."
We reminisce for a moment about the fate of the Calvin Film Company, a Kansas City landmark. Established by Altman's grandfather at 15th and Troost, the company had been "home" for every film student and filmmaker in the area for more than 40 years. The building had been razed in 1990. "Actually, I came back to Calvin several times after the war," Altman muses, rubbing his bearded chin. "I'd go to California and try to write scripts, but then return, broke, to Calvin. Each time they'd drop me another notch in salary. Like some kind of punishment. The third time they said it was like the Davis Cup—they were going to keep me!"
In the early 1950s Altman participated in every aspect of filmmaking. "I don't remember actually learning anything," he says; "it was more by a kind of osmosis." For $250 a week he made promotional films for Gulf Oil and safety films for Caterpillar Tractor and International Harvester. "They were training films for me—stuff like "How to Run a Filling Station." They weren't a goal for me, just a process to learn how to do entertainment and dramatic films. It was a school, that's what it was." During these years he met several other young filmmakers who were to form the core of his filmmaking team—writer Fred Barheit and editor Louis Lombardo.
After returning to Hollywood and clicking in the late 1950s and early 1960s on television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gallant Men, Bonanza and Combat! (for which he directed fully one-half of the episodes), he was ready to tackle feature films.
"There's always been a sort of division between the feature film business and the television business," he continues. "It's hard to step from one to the other. And that still is the case. But it was a great training ground. I was lucky; it kept me in California. I developed a nice reputation there and learned to stay in budget. But when I did my first movie, Countdown (a science fiction thriller) in 1967 for Warner Bros. everything went wrong. Jack Warner fired me. I got a call Sunday night from the studio warning me not to come in because the guard would stop me. I'd been locked out. Warner had looked at the dailies and he said, 'That fool has everybody talking at the same time!' So I went to the studio gate and got my stuff in a box from the guard. Somebody else edited it. 'Since that and another picture, That Cold Day in the Park, you've never seen a film of mine that I didn't keep total control over. And that's why I don't work a lot." He laughs outright.
The criticism about Altman's unique use of densely textured sound and dialogue has always aroused controversy. "But, you know, last Saturday night the Audio-Engineers Society—they are the Hollywood sound people—awarded me their own Lifetime Achievement Award." Altman smiles. It's a Cheshire cat smile. If he were to vanish, that knowing grin would still hover there in the air. "This was the first time it's ever gone to a filmmaker instead of some inventor or process, like Dolby. And that very day I had read a review of Vincent and Theo complaining of the same thing—that the soundtrack was so muddled you couldn't understand anything. Like all the characters were played by 'Mumbles' in Dick Tracy. Look, what I'm trying to do is—" he pauses, groping for the right words. "I don't want you to understand everything—not the sound, not the images. What I'm trying to do—and this is what the engineers understood (which pleased me)—I'm trying to present something to an audience where they have to work a little bit. They have to invest something. You don't hear everything somebody says in real life, do you? Maybe you're not really listening or distracted or something. That's the illusion I want. It's a way to get the audience involved and participating in the thing." He spreads his hands philosophically. "But some people don't like it." Another pause. "Anyway, I really worked this out the first time in California Split. I used 8-track sound. I said, 'They do this in music recording, put a microphone on every different instrument and try to isolate them as much as possible then mix it afterwards. Why don't we do that with the voices on the soundtrack?' So, we developed 8-track tape machines and individual microphones. Which means recording everything and then mixing it later. I can take a person's sound down or push it up. That way, I don't have to go back for post-synching, looping of lines—you know, bringing the actors back in to match their lip movements. When you do that, the acting is gone."
Clearly, Altman still relishes the role of iconoclast. That memorable spurt of movies in the early 1970s took the cherished genres of war story (M∗A∗S∗H), western (McCabe), detective thriller (The Long Goodbye) and the caper film (California Split) and turned them inside out. "When I look at a subject and see how it's done, I think, it doesn't necessarily have to be done that way. Like McCabe. What a collection of stereotypes! There was the gambler down on his luck, the whore with the heart of gold, the three heavies (the giant, the half-breed and the kid). Everything there you've seen all your life in westerns. The audience can supply most of the story already! That left me free to work on the backgrounds and the atmosphere and the details. The same thing with The Long Goodbye. That was a Raymond Chandler story. To this day I've never finished it. I could never figure out what was happening! And I didn't much care. I thought, Raymond Chandler used his plots the way I do—just as an excuse to hang a series of thumbnail sketches on. I had fun dropping the 1940s character of 'Philip Marlowe' into the attitudes of 1973, into a time of marijuana and brownies and health food. He was out of place and that was a great chance for some thumbnail essays of our own of what the culture and society at the time looked like."
One genre that he tried to avoid—and couldn't—was the biopic, or film biography. "Vincent and Theo was offered to me and I didn't even want to read it," admits Altman. "I didn't want to make that kind of picture. I don't like those biographical things. I just don't believe them, for one thing. But they kept pressing me to make it and I said, at last, "OK, you let me have artistic control on this and do whatever I want to do and I'll make it.'"
The results have been spectacular. As Variety reported April 27, 1990, "Seldom has an artist been so convincingly or movingly portrayed on screen." Although it got no Oscar nominations (a grievous sin of omission) it has found the largest, most enthusiastic audience for an Altman film since Nashville. For Altman, the movie was a process of avoiding traps. (He frequently describes filmmaking as avoiding hazards and traps.) "For example, at first I didn't want to use any of the Van Gogh paintings at all," he explains. "I wasn't going to show them. And I wasn't going to show him actually painting, either. Finally, I realized I had to show them, but I decided to show them as a kind of 'evidence.' We'll treat them roughly (like he did). We'll have them lying around, people stepping on them. Vincent himself destroys some of them. I wanted the audience to say—'Oh, that's worth $82 million dollars!'—and then somebody steps through the canvas! That's great!"
Our laughter attracts the attention of a young man who has just wandered in from the hallway. He has chiseled features and curly dark hair. He is Altman's son, Stephen, who was the production designer on Vincent and Theo. Stephen was born in Kansas City in 1956 and, although he was reared by his mother, Altman's second wife, he began working with his father (he calls him "Bob") on sets and props at age eleven. Stephen claims he can look back upon his father's films and discover his own "fingerprints," evidence of his own presence—like the pay telephone he managed to insinuate into every picture (and which now adorns a wall in his Paris apartment). He describes himself as part scavenger, part prop master and part set dresser. ("Anything an actor touches is a prop," he explains. "If he drives a tank, it's a prop. If he eats cornflakes, it's a prop. If it's something just sitting on the set, then it's set dressing or background") It was he who arranged for all the reproductions of Van Gogh paintings and sketches seen in the movie.
"They were all done by students at the Beaux-Arts in Paris or in Holland," explains Stephen, whose research into the ateliers and galleries of Van Gogh's time has made him into something of an art historian himself. I ask him where the paintings are now. "Oh," he looks sidelong at his father. "The producer has a lot of them. I know somebody else who keeps some of them in his office." He pauses meaningfully, still grinning at his father. "But I don't have one."
Altman pushes his way into the pause. "Those darned paintings—I'd find the sets would look just like them—the sort of thing you see in the Vincente Minnelli picture, Lust for Life. I didn't want that kind of competition. So, I'd come on the set and I'd say, 'I've seen this before'—and then I'd move the chair and shoot the room differently. I didn't want exact copies, just the—just the smell of things." Stephen nods. "On all the Dutch scenes, we wanted a kind of lighting with an 'Old Masters' look—with the light from above, northern light. When we went to Paris, we wanted a gray, impressionistic feel. And when we went to Arles, we had to have a bright shining light."
Altman's eyes twinkle as he leans forward. "Although, if we'd have had to shoot a rainstorm in the sunflower fields, we'd have done that, too. I'd read a lot of stories about David Lean waiting weeks for snow in Dr. Zhivago; but in my experience, you're lucky to get the crew together at all. So if you're out there and it's raining, you just change the script from 'sunshine' to 'rain.'"
Robert Altman's laugh fades after a moment. He continues, more seriously. "I wasn't so much interested in showing Van Gogh's creativity as in showing the pain that this guy went through. You have to remember that nobody ever smiled at Vincent Van Gogh. But there was some compulsion to just keep doing what he did, until he finally couldn't stand it anymore and just shot himself. Only in combination with his brother, Theo, was Vincent a complete person. They were connected in some way. That's the story I was trying to tell. You know, people expect movies like this to blow trumpets when a painting is made. But Vincent did not have a great deal of talent. He was not a great draughtsman. It took him a long time to learn how to draw and paint. He taught himself and he worked hard. He copied other people and didn't start any schools. He couldn't paint from his own imagination, just from what was in front of him. He had a lot going against him. If anybody was going to make book and ask which of these painters at the time would sell paintings for millions, like I show at the London auction at the beginning of the movie, nobody would have voted Vincent." He pauses again. His next words come slowly. "I'm sure my film is not factual," he says, "but I hope it's truthful."
I ask about the final sequences in the movie. Rarely has a person's self-destructive impulses been more harrowingly portrayed on film. "I think that when Vincent mutilated his ear, it was a cry for help, for attention," says Altman. "When he went to the asylum for a year, he met the daughter of the man who ran it. But when he rejected her advances, he realized he didn't belong, that he couldn't make it in life, and by that time he abdicated and wanted out."
"There was a dramatic, unexpected moment on the set during the ear mutilation scene," volunteers Stephen. "You know it's a moment that audiences have been waiting for. But when Tim Roth (the actor portraying Van Gogh) cut the ear, suddenly he did something none of us expected. He held on to the razor and suddenly brought it close to his tongue. We just shot it once and Tim surprised everybody with that. I guess he didn't know what to do at that moment, but he felt he needed something else. He didn't tell anybody in advance. It was scary."
"Maybe not so unexpected, though," growls Altman. "I get a lot of credit for having the actors improvise all the time. When we go into rehearsal, I encourage as much improvisation as I can get. And we find out what works and what doesn't work. But by the time we actually shoot the scene, it's very well rehearsed. The secret lies in letting the actor give the good performance. That's what Tim did. I can't teach anybody to act. My job is like a cheerleader's, really—trying to set up an atmosphere and a focus of energies so the actor becomes the most important part of the collaboration. Get them to trust you and take some chances. Get them to know that you won't make them look bad. If they can't say a line in the script, we'll change it."
Our conversation is interrupted by a ringing telephone. It's time for Altman and his son to repair downstairs to the hotel lobby for a workshop with area filmmakers and students. For the next two hours Altman's high spirits continue unabated. As he mounts the platform to the applause of the crowd, he jokes, "I think I forgot my lines!" Peering out at the crowd, he mutters, "You know, the actor's nightmare is to find himself in a play and not know his lines. Hell, I don't know this play!" But he fields the questions beautifully. It is obvious that he loves audiences and respects them.
At times the give-and-take is rapid-fire. Examples:
Question: "Are you really a control freak in your movies, like they say?" (The questioner is too young to have seen Altman's first pictures during their first run.)
Altman: "Let's put it this way. Making a movie for me is getting people to work for you who are shooting the same film you are shooting. In Fool for Love we started with a wonderful cinematographer named Robby Müller. After six days of shooting I fired him. I said, 'I can't do this. I'm sure you're shooting a beautiful movie, but it's not the movie I'm making.' So we started over again. Next question!"
Question: "Have you ever tried to make a movie somebody else's way?"
Altman: "I can't do anything but what I do. If I tried to, I'd fail. Next."
Question: "Do you have a particular style?"
Altman: "I don't know what my style is. I'm the last one to say what it is, I think. What I secretly think about myself might be wrong. I didn't know what anybody was talking about when they said my first seven films had 'the Altman signature.' I was just trying to do things totally different from one film to another. Now I look back at them and see my fingerprints all over them. You can't keep your hands clean."
Question: "What do you think of critics?"
Altman: "A lot of people see my films and say, 'I don't get it.' But I've created at least a cult following. That's not quite enough people to make a minority!"
Question: "What is your favorite among your films?"
Altman: "I won't fall into that trap. They are all your children. You can't choose."
Later, while he's surrounded by the crowd for some last questions and pictures, I steal away to the coffee shop with Stephen. I tell him I'm amazed at his father's easy amiability. This is not the same Altman, I tell him, that stormed through critics, press and audiences alike twenty years ago.
"He's mellowing out a little bit," Stephen admits, stirring his coffee. "He used to be a hard drinker. He never drank on the set, but he'd drink a lot and rip into people. Usually they deserved it. But I think it's better now. He's looser. He's not trying so hard. He's had a lot of experience. Hey, he's done more films consecutively now than anybody else working today. I think he's the best director I've ever worked with. He's very tough and very difficult and at the same time can be the easiest and nicest. Anybody can disagree with him on the set, but he'll tell you, 'Anybody can make a suggestion, but only give it once.' He won't easily admit it if he's wrong. He has some funny quirks. People might sit around and talk and it won't seem like he's listening; and then the next day he'll come up and say, 'I had this great idea. We'll do this and that.' And everybody will sit around and say, 'Good idea, Bob!'"
After the ceremonies that night, Altman rejoins me for a wrap-up of our interview. He has to leave early the next morning, he explains, to return to his editing studio in Malibu, CA. He describes the studio as a kind of support environment. "I have lots of people there to help. Primarily, I can get into an environment where I have everything I need. Like being in a submarine. We have a cook who comes in. That way I can keep everybody there. We'll work six days a week, 12-13 hours a day. I like the intensity. I just can't do it leisurely. It's the process that's the real reward."
There are many projects in the works. He will begin immediately editing footage, for Japanese television, he has shot backstage during a performance of the Broadway musical, Black and Blue. "Like I first wanted to do with Vincent and Theo, I decided to ignore the show itself and get the fatigue on the faces of the dancers as they come back offstage. All those smiles and energy would collapse as soon as they hit the black. I'm dealing here with errors and frailties."
Another project is the long-cherished L. A. Shortcuts, a script he and Frank Barheit adapted from stories by Raymond Carver. There have been problems lately in getting the financing, but Altman hopes at last the project is in the gate. It sounds like a kind of West Coast version of Nashville: "There's a big cast, 27 main actors, who all lead different lives. They don't necessarily affect one another, but their lives all criss-cross. You know, Frank Lloyd Wright said that Los Angeles was made when the continent tipped and all the people without roots slipped into the southwest corner!"
Even more tantalizing are hints at other movies. His highly praised television film, Tanner '88, made in collaboration with comic strip guru Gary Trudeau, may have a sequel just in time for the next presidential election. "Let's run Tanner again in 1992," cracks Altman. "Somebody's got to run against those guys!" And he confirms something his son Stephen had told me—that he plans to make a movie called The Player. "Oh, yes," he grins, "that's another thing about an artist at work. It's about a studio executive who murders a writer. And gets away with it. We'll get in some shots and make the producers hate us! That's all I'll tell you."
He pauses a moment. The ballroom has almost cleared and some members of the Altman clan still living in Kansas City—a whole contingent of cousins, uncles and nephews—are waiting for him. Doesn't this man ever get tired??? "But with all these projects there are still those that fail, that don't get made," he continues philosophically, apparently in no hurry to leave. "Like Rossini, Rossini." I start in amazement. Robert Altman making a movie about the great Italian opera composer …? "Sure," he says, as if reading my thoughts. "This was to be our 'big' film, not Vincent and Theo. Vincent was going to be just a warm-up for it. Stephen and I worked on it for over six months, travelling through Italy, scouting locations, dressing sets, hashing out the script. Then, things got very strange. We'd be called back to Rome several times; and finally we were told the movie had shut down. Then I got fired. Somebody else finished it."
Clearly, the aborted project meant a great deal to him. It's the sort of disappointment and pain that tempts me to compare Altman's career with his most recent subject, Vincent Van Gogh. But no. Altman rejects—almost peremptorily—the association. "I can't summon up the fortitude of somebody like Vincent. I've had a good deal of personal adulation in my life and a great deal of success. But I think if I ever made a film and people got up and walked out of a theater before it was over, I'd never make another one. I couldn't change my films to anything else. I don't make mainstream, 'shopping mall' kinds of films, like Pretty Woman. I'm not an 'in demand' commodity. If I stepped down off this stage we're on and went straight downhill to the end, I'd have to look back and say, 'I had a great roll.' Some people liked my work—I can at least find a couple. But the minute I don't find anybody, then I'm stepping off."
No compromises. No prisoners. After more than 35 years of making films, he still can thumb his nose at the naysayers. He can still say brashly, "There's them and there's us." There's no question that "them" still means the Hollywood establishment, the grownups, the crowd; and that "us" means those who grew up loving his movies—those who felt young and special just watching them.
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