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The Craftsman 

Robert Altman learned moviemaking before the auteur era; long after, he’s still telling stories

Wednesday, Jun 7 2006
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Every show’s my last show. That’s my philosophy.

Garrison Keillor,A Prairie Home Companion

“Do you mind if I lie down?” Robert Altman asks as I walk into the Manhattan offices of his Sandcastle 5 production company.

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“It’ll be just like the psychiatrist’s office,” I suggest.

“That’s what you want anyway, isn’t it?” he gruffly counters, sprawling himself out on a leather sofa barely long enough to contain his imposing 6-foot frame.

Well, yes and no. Maybe it’s his impeccable Midwestern decorum, or the fact that he worked his way up through the Hollywood ranks at a time (the late 1950s) when directors were craftsmen, not auteurs — but the iconoclastic director of MASH, Nashville and The Player is loath to talk about himself or his work in terms that smack of the lofty or intellectual. He claims, without a touch of irony, that some of his old Combat! TV episodes are as good as any movie he ever made, and he’s quick to apportion credit to others for making him look so good, especially when the talk turns to actors. Of Meryl Streep, who stars inhis latest film as one half of a family country-music duo (the other half of which is played by veteran Altman collaborator Lily Tomlin), he gushes: “I didn’t have to do anything with her — I went home after the first day of shooting and I was a little depressed. She couldn’t be nicer and more helpful to everybody. There’s no angst of any kind. But she’s just about 25 percent smarter than everybody else, and that’s why she’s had this career that she’s had. I just put her and Lily together, gave them a room with a piano and a guy in it, and they worked everything out.”

The movie is A Prairie Home Companion, based on Minnesotan Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio variety program and filmed almost entirely within the confines of St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, a patch of blue in the heart of red-state America. If that seems a surprising move for the filmmaker who famously threatened to trade his U.S. passport for a French one following the 2004 re-election of President George W. Bush, it’s worth remembering that Altman himself is a son of Kansas City. He’s spent the bulk of his six-decade career charting our changing cultural landscape through the lens of his roving, zooming camera and the disharmonies of his overlapping soundtracks, forming a body of work as varied and richly colored as the country itself — a bloody good Vietnam satire, a couple of frontier Westerns, a scabrous Hollywood takedown and even the odd (in every sense of the term) biopic. Yet somehow all of a piece — like chapters, Altman has suggested, in an ongoing serial.

But a serial about what?

“Oh, the things that I have seen, the things that have occurred to me,” he says in his gravelly Kansas City drawl. “I negate what I said in one place and I embellish it someplace else. I’m the wrong guy to ask these questions.”

In the latest installment of his magnum opus, which Altman says he was inspired to do out of simple admiration for Keillor’s work, a numbers-crunching corporate overlord (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to pave over the Fitzgerald’s paradisiacal environs with — what else? — a parking lot. But before the wrecking ball strikes, the show must go on, one last time. And on it goes, and on and on (complete with a couple of encores), until A Prairie Home Companion becomes perhaps the most ebullient funeral service ever put on film — a joyous tribute to the end of something past its time, but hardly past its prime.

Whether Altman’s modesty with respect to his career is false or genuine, his love for performers — and performing — is unassailable. Four other times (in Nashville, The Player, Kansas City and The Company), he has made films set in and around the world of the arts, and his résumé also includes one honest-to-goodness musical (Popeye). But even when Altman’s characters aren’t literally bursting into song or dance, his films are graced with a playful sense of make-believe and putting on a show, whether it be the literal operating theater of Hawkeye and Trapper John, the teenage girlfriends pantomiming the McGuire Sisters in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or the party guests turned amateur sleuths in the Oscar-winning Gosford Park. And like all of Altman’s best movies (and a few of his lesser ones), A Prairie Home Companion is another grand, messy, multi-character canvas in which actors invent and embellish freely, and the scenes seem to be unfolding organically, in the moment.

“I make them do the work they say they became actors to do in the first place,” Altman says of his famously collaborative and improvisational approach, while admitting that such unorthodox working methods aren’t for everyone. “They say, ‘I want to contribute. I want to do this and that.’ Good. I won’t have it any other way. Those people who want it all laid out on a storyboard for them and then they just come in and do the words — I can’t deal with those people very well, because I don’t get much out of working that way.”

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