Friday, February 24, 2006

Blogathon No. 3: Robert Altman—An Appreciation

In light of Robert Altman's receiving an honorary Oscar this coming March 5th, Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door is hosting a spur-of-the-moment Altman blogathon. These online events call for quick thinking or for much-needed reworking of old notes.

http://mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/2006/02/altman-weekend.html

At the 46th San Francisco International Film Festival in April 2003, I attended the Robert Altman tribute at the Castro Theater, consisting of an onstage interview and screening of Nashville.

Almost the entire center section of the orchestra was blocked off for "Altman's party" except for about five rows in the front and the same in the back. Since I was one of the first into the theater, I got one of the few good available seats but felt sorry for those forced into the balcony who paid $20 for their ticket. That just didn't strike me right at all and I felt it was excessive and offensive for the San Francisco Film Society to have allowed such blatant favoritism.

The interview was interesting enough, though the event began to border on the hagiographic. Further, I had no idea they were going to talk for two hours before even beginning Nashville (which is almost three hours long as it is). Still, I thought I'd stick it out. Which I did. At least until the film burned up right before our eyes at about 11:00!! There was a collective gasp and then the audience buzz of genuine concern. Altman had just bemoaned earlier how some of his first films have literally fallen into dust because of the film stock they were using at the time and how difficult and expensive it has been to reconstruct some of that early work. In such situations I assume the projectionist would have to splice and continue; but, from past experience I've learned to leave; the magic having been marred. Besides, it was late. Regretfully, I walked out.

My favorite response of Altman's was when someone mentioned how it appeared at the Academy Awards broadcast that he wanted to win the Oscar for Gosford Park and that he looked incredibly disappointed when he didn't win. Altman grimaced and then said, "I had mixed reactions. Like watching your mother-in-law drive your new car off a cliff."

Also liked when someone asked how he was able to convince Julianne Moore to be naked from the waist down for five minutes. He praised the actress, said the role was originally for Madeline Stowe who chickened out by saying she would be happy to be naked for him in some other movie, but not that one. He'd seen Moore on Broadway in "Uncle Vanya" and was impressed. Phoned her to say he was going to offer her a film role but that first she needed to know right off that she would have to appear naked from the waist down for at least five minutes. Moore paused and then said, "I can do that." Altman was delighted, said he'd send over the script right away, and then Moore added, "Oh Robert, there's an extra treat." "Yes?" Altman inquired. "I'm a real redhead," Moore cooed. Moore's agent has asked Altman not to repeat that story so he asked all 2,000 of us in the audience to keep it to ourselves.

I ask the same of all of you.

When asked how he had been able to keep on doing the projects he wanted to do, without unnecessarily compromising his vision, Altman stated it was due to failure. The failure of several of his projects to earn the return the studios wanted convinced those studios to drop him, leaving him free to go elsewhere, to work with who he wanted. And when all is said and done, he couldn't complain about his life, not a year has gone by that he hasn't been working on a film that he has wanted to work on.

It intrigued me that Altman's start as a writer began as a WWII bomber pilot writing letters home. One of his relatives found Altman's correspondence amusing and suggested he become a screenwriter. So Altman began thinking of himself that way. He did some industrial films. Did some t.v., including half hour episodes for Hitchcock, then "Whirlybirds", then "Combat." Recently, he had the opportunity to look at some of those old "Combat" episodes and felt that his work was as good then as it is now and suggested that you don't get better at what you do, you simply become more facile, which in itself can be dangerous because you can then lose the art of what you do.

He was reluctant to offer advice to audience members requesting same. Said he could only say what he says to his children: never accept advice. Keep alive. Look both ways before you cross the street.

With regard to his political views, it was refreshing (if not sad) to hear Altman say that he believes some of his earlier projects, like the one on Nixon, would stand up well today precisely because nothing has changed in our country, not really. Lots of progress, he smiled, no change.

Altman did mention, however, that the most difficult aspect of directing Gosford Park was getting all the actors onto the set for filming. That is one thing for which I must commend Altman: his alleged respect for his actors (Louise Fletcher aside). He insists that all that is great in his films derives from what the actors bring to it. His art, he insists, is in doing nothing, being a figurehead, that sort of thing.

Altman added that, though Ryan Phillipe's agents were the only ones who showed up on the Gosford Park set, they left promptly after someone spilled tea on them. He claimed his Gosford Park cast were flawless; "not a single hair in the butter."

9 comments:

Ju-osh said...

Splendid post. Thanks for writing this. It was fun to read and made my breakfast taste all the better.

Maya said...

Thanks for reading during breakfast!!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Michael-- Outstanding post. I had my night of wonderment with Altman answering questions after a screening of The Long Goodbye, but this sounds-- with the exception of that seating business and the incineration of the movie-- to be a much more ideal situation.

My favorite comment is yours too-- "I had mixed reactions. Like watching your mother-in-law drive your new car off a cliff." Even though he's getting his honorary Oscar for sure this year, why do I have the suspicion that he's going to be equally ambivalent? He has said in the past few weeks that the honorary Oscar sitrs a more befitting honor for him, in that it'll seem to him like the award could be spread out among all his films, the good, the bad, the underappreciated and the overappreciated. And that may just be the best way for a director like him (who claims his favorite films are the ones left orphaned by audiences and critics, works like Brewster McCloud and Quintet).

But wouldn't it be interesting if, in accepting his award, Altman took his moment at the podium to thank the Academy for their recognition and then, as Roger Ebert openly hoped on tonight's Ebert and Hopalong Show, used the rest of his time to talk about some of his real feelings about an industry that continually shut him out based on his box-office record and his indifference to fashionable trends in filmmaking. Ebert was obviously hoping for some Altmanesque vitriol, but I like to think that if it comes out at all, it's gonna be more like what you heard at the Castro:

"When asked how he had been able to keep on doing the projects he wanted to do, without unnecessarily compromising his vision, Altman stated it was due to failure. The failure of several of his projects to earn the return the studios wanted convinced those studios to drop him, leaving him free to go elsewhere, to work with who he wanted. And when all is said and done, he couldn't complain about his life, not a year has gone by that he hasn't been working on a film that he has wanted to work on."

That's the most Altmanesque reply to an industry that's never known what to do with its most idiosyncratic director. It don't worry him, and I'm glad for that.

Maya said...

Thanks, Dennis, for stopping by to comment so fully on these audience notes. It would be rich if he would use the opportunity to lambast Hollywood's hypocrisy. But that would only serve to please me and I'm not sure he'd have much to gain by it. You can be sure I'll have your thoughts in mind, however, come March 5th!

Brian said...

I was there that evening too, and I'm very thankful you kept better notes than I did and decided to write them up. I do remember that evening the gentleman who tried to get Altman to account for his "inconsistency", singling out Popeye as a head-scratcher, and true to form Altman retorted that Popeye was his favorite film!

Can't wait to see what he says on Sunday.

Maya said...

That's great you were also there for that tribute, Brian. Did you stay after the film burned up? What time did you finally get out? His unflinching defense of "Popeye" was neat, huh? Reminds me to comment on film more than critique it.

Brian said...

Actually, I'd had a long festival day (including watching Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that afternoon) and was exhausted and didn't even stay past the intermission. Plus I'd just seen Nashville in the same venue little over a year earlier (with no mishap), and I hadn't paid to get in so I didn't feel invested in watching the film too. I don't think I was aware of the mishap until reading this!

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

A wonderful post! I join Dennis and others in praying that Altman offers up a little of that startling ambiguity that marks his best films. I love the quote about the Academy Award. If somebody wanted to put together a great Oscar video, instead of those lame trailers showing now in theaters, it would be of the close-ups on the faces of those who've lost — I will never forget Burt Reynolds' look of devastation when he lost, or Martin Scorsese's, either.

Maya said...

It would be a little mean, but it could be awfully funny!!