Two more Robert Altman shorts: brief notes on duration in Altman, Wenders and Bela Tarr films, plus an interview from the time of Cookie’s Fortune. “I’VE BEEN MAKING ONE LONG MOVIE” is one of the nice lines Robert Altman had in his quiver to keep from telling journalistic outsiders about just what it was that he did as a filmmaker.Altman worked variations on the form of the musical, sometimes hiding it, sometimes celebrating it. He claimed to hate genre, which is why he employed it and also why he would worm his way through the cliches of a given genre in movies like The Long Goodbye (the always-moral figure of the P.I. turns amoral; a blowzy 1940s-style theme is repeated ad infinitum down to supermarket Muzak and doorbells), or McCabe & Mrs. Miller (the maverick Western entrepreneur is demonstrated as a mumbling mess-up, scored to dour, fateful songs by Leonard Cohen like “Susannah”).” [More at the first link; click on the photo for its source information.]
In a loving personal reminiscence at the new Emerging Pictures blog, Ira Deutchman, who worked at Fine Line at the time of The Player and had other dealings with Robert Altmanrecalls the smoke-able stone in Altman’s shoe as well as this important, cogent point: “His body of work speaks for itself. But as great as Bob’s directing was, his truly great gift was producing. In all those years, when his films would be greeted with anything from accolades to distain, and even in the years in which he had no box office success, he never stopped working. There was no one more resourceful in getting his vision on the screen. And he extended that gift to help his loyal friends to get their films made as well…the most notable being Alan Rudolph, who he continually supported.” [This is the 1,500th entry at this version of Movie City Indie.]
ROBERT 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 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 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.”
Concurrent with the 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival is a tribute at the Cinema Museum to Kryzstof Kieslowski: directly behind the image of the late filmmaker, a bold, crooked tree seems to rise from his head.
From Mike Judge‘s futuristic farce, Idiocracy, dumped earlier this year by Fox; Judith Regan‘s also-dumped, Murdoch-financed interview with O. J. Simpson would fit in nicely as a DVD extra. Written by Judge and Etan Cohen. [Sixth in a series.]
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Reviews of four new releases, two of which are swell, and two of which are pretty awful. Read on: Fast Food Nation; Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus; For Your Consideration and Shut Up and Sing! (Plus: read my interview with Daniel Craigabout becoming Casino Royale’s new Bond.)
While Roger Ebert recuperates, the Chicago Sun-Times is employing staff writers (and occasional freelancer) to fill the gap, much to the disadvantage of most releases. Take, for instance, staff reporter Teresa Budasi‘s sophomoric take on Fast Food Nation, which hits sour (and inadequately copy-edited) notes from sentence one: “Anyone who’s ever worked at a fast-food chain knows what goes into making its signature products: Frozen meat on a perfectly calibrated hot grill, with pre-measured condiments squirted from a stainless steel gizmo onto heated buns, all wrapped up in greasy paper or a cardboard box.” Anyone? “Perfectly calibrated”? “Greasy paper”? While I once called a certain actress “as welcome as a fart in church,” it is surprising to read words like these in a major metro daily (aside from the wishy-washy language masking disdain for the movie’s view of the life of work): “There are a lot of recognizable actors in this film, and most of them do a fine job with the material, but for every two who manage to rise above the weak script, there’s one who sticks out like a turd in a punch bowl — or, in this case, feces in a cheeseburger.” Ethan Hawke? “When was the last time he played a character who bathed?” The Colorado setting is described as “Middle America.” “Hey, it’s Patricia Arquette of TV’s “Medium”! Oops, sorry about that. Too many star-sightings in this movie. Focusing solely on the Mexican story line might have made a better film. Instead we have a whole lot of disjointedness that is supposed to all tie together… Ultimately the movie disappoints just like a trip to the food court for a No 2 with cheese. You think it’s what you want, but it ultimately leaves you feeling a little bloated and full of empty calories.” Roger… come back… you are missed.
In the Guardian, Guillermo del Toro introduces a selection from his sketchbooks: “Pan’s Labyrinth started with a visual image. As a child, I was convinced that a goat man lived in the bedroom closet and was going to come out and grab me. This goat man later became the basis for Pan, the central character of the film. I also wanted to create two opposing worlds. I used the angular, cold world of fascist-era Spain to represent reality, and a very rounded and uterine world to represent the fantasy that the child escapes into. I guess you could say that I am obsessed with images of stillborn things, and seduced by the idea that the womb is the most comfortable place to be. I also have a fear of reason and dogma; it gives me the shivers. But maybe my upbringing keeps getting in the way…”
Which is easier, writing or directing a film? Those are two totally different things. Writing is slightly easier because you can do it in bed.
~ Ben Wheatley To The BBC
You can neither make beautiful, great movies without risk as you can make babies without sex. Risk is part of the artistic process. That’s why I like performance, because performance is walking a high wire.
~ Francis Coppola