The Artful Codger

Director Robert Altman

Because most people wouldn't 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 can't hold public office if he ever fucked a woman other than his wife. The last good president we had was Roosevelt.

You're 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 "What's the size of the wall you're gonna give me?" The bigger the wall, the more content somebody's gonna impose on me. You say, "Okay, you can have this 70-foot wall, but you'll have to have horses in it," and I say, "Okay, I can do that; I like horses." Then there's a film like Secret Honor, which is a miniature painting. They're 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 don't think the pages have to be numbered," and you've often expressed your disdain for conventional narrative structure. Still, audiences continue to demand it. Why? Is it a failure of imagination on the audience's part?

I wouldn't put it that way. The persistence of structured narrative has to do with habit and education, but it's also like the bullfighter's 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 don't immediately understand, they tend to respond with hostility, so the audience has to be made comfortable. They have to feel confident they're gonna get it, and conventional narrative structure is good for that, too. When you look deeply into a work of art, however, you don't get a definitive answer or statement. Rather, you get a view of this world that only one person could've created. There are no literate answers. There are only feelings. That's 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?

It's essentially benign in that we all want to get along and be loved, but it's also unpredictable. Think about that woman who drowned her five kids. How can you begin to draw conclusions about something like that? I believe it's in all of us to commit such acts when pushed to certain extremes because everything is true, all things are possible, and we're all in a moving river. We can gauge the distance and the speed at which we're 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—it's 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 can't experience art that deeply, then what are we doing here?

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