The Artful Codger
This thing works, Robert Altman cheerfully declares of his 32nd feature, Gosford Park. A period murder mystery set in a British country estate that Altman describes as a combination of Ten Little Indians and Rules of the Game, Gosford Park got a green light in February, started shooting in March, and here it is for Christmas. Altman is nothing if not a pro, and neither success nor failure -- and hes had both in spades -- affects his stride. He just keeps charging into the wind, moving toward his next project. Hes presently preparing what he amorphously describes as a small film Ill shoot in America next spring, and is in the midst of transforming his 1978 film A Wedding into an opera to be staged by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2004.
Two weeks ago, prior to a screening of Gosford Park at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the nonprofit organization Women in Film presented Altman with its 2001 Mentor Award. Following laudatory introductory speeches by Emily Watson and Sally Kellerman, and videotaped testimonials from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Lily Tomlin, among others, Altman stepped onstage and said, It was nice seeing all those gals. I made a film most of you people probably havent seen called Secret Honor. It stars one actor, Philip Baker Hall, whos a man. So I like them, too. With that, he returned to his seat. Ever the contrarian, Altman refuses to be cuddled. During a recent interview, he expressed surprise at my comment about his amusingly dry acceptance speech.
ROBERT ALTMAN: But I thought it was terrific they gave me that award! Did I seem disrespectful? I was just trying to avoid the obligatory soppy speech. Awards are largely about commerce, but they have a deeper meaning, too. Its like getting a star on your report card. Theres plenty of ego involved in making a film, and theres a big part of me that wants to say, Look! I made this! Do you like it? Isnt it good?
L.A. WEEKLY: Gosford Park looks at the British class system as it was in 1932. One could make the case that movie people are Americas reigning upper class.
Celebrities maybe, but people arent aware of much beyond who is or is not a movie star, and they dont spend much time thinking about actors. Theres a big difference between being an actor and being a movie star, and once the movie-star thing hits, youre no longer allowed to be an actor. There are a few whove coped with it reasonably well -- Paul Newmans probably handled it better than anybody else -- but its very tough. Still, I dont know many actors whod turn down the chance to be a movie star, because we get such mixed messages about what the goal is. Do you want to be a journeyman actor or a rich Hollywood celebrity? Everybody seems to think the latter is preferable.
Youve commented that Acting is like any art. When you get too good at it, you become facile and the art disappears. Precisely what is the art?
Its when an actor focuses his entire persona on the struggle to express something. Film is an actors medium, and once a film is cast, all thats left for me to do is to create a framework that allows audiences to see the actors work.
With MASH and Nashville you established yourself as a prescient observer of the American Zeitgeist. Whats the most significant change youve observed in this country over the course of your life?
It certainly hasnt become less racist, and a meanness has developed in American business thats unnecessary for what the goals are. People get pushed out of business, nobodys kind to anybody anymore, and we applaud this behavior and regard it as smart. America isnt any worse than any other culture -- I think theres little difference from one to the next -- but we are nonetheless a solipsistic people. Why didnt we know that for the last six years women in Afghanistan have had to wear sacks over their heads? People are selfish when life allows them to be, and we didnt know because we didnt need to know. I didnt know and Im embarrassed about that, and now that I do know, that knowledge affects my thinking about everything.
The events of September 11 were terrible, but basically its the same money game in this country. They had to scrap a few Arnold Schwarzenegger films, so some pollution was kept out of the river, but I havent seen much change over the past three months. My feelings about America have changed, however. I was in England last year when the presidential election was taking place, and I said to my mates, This will be okay because its going to the Supreme Court. It did go to the Supreme Court, and we know what happened there. I felt like such a fool. Im 76 years old, and I still believed in America up to that minute, and at my age I shouldve known better. Now I dont feel any emotional patriotic ties to this country at all.
Why are the idiots always in charge?
Because most people wouldnt take those jobs, and those jobs turn people into panderers. We used to have better leaders, and the entire enterprise was more dignified, but now a guy cant hold public office if he ever fucked a woman other than his wife. The last good president we had was Roosevelt.
Youre known for tackling movies of really sprawling scale. Are there stories that are too big to tell?
No. I equate what I do with painting rather than literature, and the first thing I want to know is Whats the size of the wall youre gonna give me? The bigger the wall, the more content somebodys gonna impose on me. You say, Okay, you can have this 70-foot wall, but youll have to have horses in it, and I say, Okay, I can do that, I like horses. Then theres a film like Secret Honor, which is a miniature painting. Theyre all different, but there are no limits in terms of scale.
You once commented, I get a stack of material that will become a film, and I dont think the pages have to be numbered, and youve often expressed your disdain for conventional narrative structure. Still, audiences continue to demand it. Why? Is it a failure of imagination on the audiences part?
I wouldnt put it that way. The persistence of structured narrative has to do with habit and education, but its also like the bullfighters cape. You need something to get their attention and get them hooked, and the story is an effective way to do that. When people encounter art they dont immediately understand, they tend to respond with hostility, so the audience has to be made comfortable. They have to feel confident theyre gonna get it, and conventional narrative structure is good for that, too. When you look deeply into a work of art, however, you dont get a definitive answer or statement. Rather, you get a view of this world that only one person couldve created. There are no literate answers. There are only feelings. Thats what art is.
Your filmmaking style pivots on closely observed episodes of human behavior. After decades of study, what conclusions have you drawn about human nature?
Its essentially benign in that we all want to get along and be loved, but its also unpredictable. Think about that woman who drowned her five kids. How can you begin to draw conclusions about something like that? I believe its in all of us to commit such acts when pushed to certain extremes, because everything is true, all things are possible, and were all in a moving river. We can gauge the distance and the speed at which were traveling, but we forget that everything around us is moving. As for this illusion called time that we live by, or where the river is going -- its simply moving in its direction, and we have no say in the matter.
When was the last time a work of art -- a painting, a piece of music, literature, a film -- moved you to tears?
That happens all the time. You have to give up something of yourself in order to be vulnerable enough to experience that kind of pain and joy, but if we cant experience art that deeply, then what are we doing here?
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