The Artful Codger

Director Robert Altman

"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 was here for Christmas. Altman is nothing if not a pro, and neither success nor failure—and he's had both in spades—affects his stride. He just keeps charging into the wind, moving toward his next project. He's presently preparing what he amorphously describes as "a small film I'll 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.

A few 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 haven't seen called Secret Honor. It stars one actor, Philip Baker Hall, who's 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. It's like getting a star on your report card. There's plenty of ego involved in making a film, and there's a big part of me that wants to say, "Look! I made this! Do you like it? Isn't it good?" OC Weekly: Gosford Park looks at the British class system as it was in 1932. One could make the case that movie people are America's reigning upper class.

Celebrities maybe, but people aren't aware of much beyond who is or is not a movie star, and they don't spend much time thinking about actors. There's a big difference between being an actor and being a movie star, and once the movie-star thing hits, you're no longer allowed to be an actor. There are a few who've coped with it reasonably well—Paul Newman's probably handled it better than anybody else—but it's very tough. Still, I don't know many actors who'd 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.

You've 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?

It's 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 that's left for me to do is to create a framework that allows audiences to see the actors work.

WithM*A*S*H andNashville, you established yourself as a prescient observer of the American Zeitgeist. What's the most significant change you've observed in this country over the course of your life?

It certainly hasn't become less racist, and a meanness has developed in American business that's unnecessary for what the goals are. People get pushed out of business, nobody's kind to anybody anymore, and we applaud this behavior and regard it as smart. America isn't any worse than any other culture—I think there's little difference from one to the next—but we are nonetheless a solipsistic people. Why didn't we know that for the past six years, women in Afghanistan have had to wear sacks over their heads? People are selfish when life allows them to be, and we didn't know because we didn't need to know. I didn't know and I'm embarrassed about that, and now that I do know, that knowledge affects my thinking about everything.

The events of Sept. 11 were terrible, but basically it's 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 haven't 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 it's going to the Supreme Court." It did go to the Supreme Court, and we know what happened there. I felt like such a fool. I'm 76 years old, and I still believed in America up to that minute, and at my age, I should've known better. Now I don't feel any emotional patriotic ties to this country at all.

Why are the idiots always in charge?

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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