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By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Robert Altman: putting my gloves in a shoe box

1RA517Robert Altman.jpgROBERT ALTMAN DIED TUESDAY at the ornery age of 81. It was my good fortune to meet the veteran director more than a few times; Nashville is one of the key reasons I got interested in movies. I grew up on a couple-acre patch of green amid rolling farmland in the west of Kentucky—I spent 18 years there one week, the tired joke goes—and didn’t grow up with movies. I grew up among people. People who talked. And talked. Stories were everywhere. Histories were spoken aloud. Women and men in their eighties and nineties who had sat on the lap of Civil War veterans when they were small. Legacies were alive. Everyone knows and trusts implicitly the basic, indispensable relationships and alliances and mutual associations in a town of a thousand. You’re forced to, through fires, floods, illness, economic slumps. Cemeteries were filled with the names of people you knew who were the successors of the passed. A dozen identical headstones would answer to the same name.
One night, young, I saw Nashville on a big screen and The 400 Blows, uncut, Janus Films logo and all, on late night TV. And that was it. There was a path in the darkness ahead, like through the thicket across the way.
There are articulate tributes and long-morgue obits cascading across the internet; here are outtakes from a bromide-rich interview I had with Altman in 2000, when he got a lifetime achievement nod from the IFP/Gotham Awards.

COSTA-GAVRAS ONCE OBSERVED when asked what he might do with absolute freedom from budgetary constraints: “In such Draconian conditions,” he wrote, “it is, I am sure, impossible to be able to choose a subject or to direct a film.” There’s a second’s pause before Altman observes in his dry Midwestern accent, “We get those kinds of questions, we have to give those kinds of answers.”
So much for glib questions. So you’re paying the rent, keeping good people employed, getting stories told. Then the critics are cold and the audiences are tiny. Is there any consolation in knowing the films can be discovered on video even if the marketers, publicists, journalists and audiences don’t see the theatrical release? “Yeah. My 67_Robert Altman.jpg feeling is that most people catch up with the video. I’m starting to get a whole bunch of calls about Cookie’s Fortune, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about it. I’ve been wanting to see it since it came out. God, it was good!'” He laughs. “But that’s okay. they’re seeing it.” I suggest that actors do seem to recognize that he holds the philosophy that if you cast well, trust your actors, and most of the work will be done. “Well, [these phrases are] all bromides. No two things are alike, things are similar, but they’re never alike. Identical twins aren’t alike.”
Altman shifts the focus to how an answer is put to use by journalists. “I have to answer these questions or I become [portrayed as] crotchety, and I try to answer as truthfully as I can but everyone wants to put everything in a cubbyhole. Just because a film doesn’t succeed at the box office, a certain amount of the blame has to be put onto the marketing people, how they try to sell it and who they try to sell it to. That can be timing. Many things cause a film not to be commercially successful, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the perception of success in my mind.” While Altman been toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye with distributors in the past—he has the last laugh that he outlasted many of his distributors—including New World, Cinecom and most recently. Polygram Films. Of his 1998 “The Gingerbread Man,” Altman told me before Cookie’s Fortune was released, “Well, it’s criminal, their treatment of that film. There was a vindictive order from the guy who was running [Polygram Films], he was so pissed off with me, he literally told them, ‘I want that movie killed.’ We’re talking to lawyers, but it’s almost impossible to win a lawsuit. You can’t prove what a film could have done. They were just pissed off because it didn’t test the way they wanted it to with the teenagers, y’know, in those malls.”
An attempt to be original counts as some kind of success, doesn’t it? “Now, if you see RA_0111.jpg anything original, you won’t see it [out there for] very long. It’s time turtling on. These kids… they don’t understand anything else. There’s so much saturation. There’s not a policeman today who didn’t learn his behavior from watching films or television. We all imitate each other.” Does Altman ever think he’s imitating himself? “It now occurs to me they’re all chapters of the same book. My fingerprints are all over them. Whatever I do, I can’t not do it.”
I shift the conversation to a few elements of production, asking if he ever felt any kind of fear on the way to the set in the morning anymore? “Fear? No. Concern, to some degree. It’s difficult, there are so many elements. One element goes wrong, you have to constantly readjust. I have to say it’s anxiety, not fear.”


Have your budgets always been adequate? “I’ve never been short. On any of those films, if I had an extra week, I don’t know what I would have done with it. I set my own schedules. I don’t always have all the actors, I don’t have the access to the money to pay certain actors who won’t work at a certain special effect, things like that. But that just means I have to be a little more creative. I like that.”
Ringing off, I mention I like the similarities between Cookie’s Fortune and the work of the cinema’s great humanist, Jean Renoir (whose Rules of the Game was the acknowledged template for his later Gosford Park. “All these tags are beyond me,” he says. Well, I joke, I guess it’s your job to do the work, and the job of the journalists is to put your art in a shoe box, I joke to the man who said Hollywood made sneakers and he made gloves. I can almost hear a smirk down the phone line. “Yeah, to put my gloves in a shoe box.”

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